Wells Fargo Fugitive Captured
|Luis Fraticelli, Puerto Rico's top FBI official, stands next to
a wanted poster showing Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, at a
news conference after Claudio's arrest, at FBI headquarters
in San Juan, on Thursday. (BRENNAN LINSLEY/AP)
Suspect Allegedly Transported Cash From $7 Million Robbery To Mexico
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
Courant Staff Writer
The FBI Thursday captured a member of the militant Puerto Rico independence group Los Macheteros who disappeared 22 years ago after being charged in a $7 million West Hartford robbery that was then the largest cash heist in U.S. history.
Avelino Gonzalez Claudio, 65, was arrested without incident at about 9:30 a.m. in Puerto Rico as he drove through the northern coastal city of Manati, an FBI spokesman said. He had been a fugitive since fleeing in 1986 to avoid prosecution in the Sept. 12, 1983, armed robbery of a Wells Fargo armored car depot.
Luis Fraticelli, special agent in charge of the FBI San Juan office, said Gonzalez Claudio is believed to have been living in Puerto Rico for more than two decades. News organizations in San Juan were reporting late Thursday that, at least recently, he had been teaching at a private school on the island under the name Jose Ortega Morales.
Gonzalez Claudio allegedly was a key figure in Los Macheteros, which broke away from the mainstream Puerto Rico independence movement in the early 1970s to pursue independence by militant or violent means.
The group captured international attention when it claimed responsibility for the Wells Fargo robbery. Records seized from the organization by the FBI later showed that the doctrinaire Marxist organization intended to use the money to pursue its military objectives and support leftist insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America.
FBI investigation and arrests shut down Los Macheteros, whose name means machete wielders or cane cutters, before the group could carry out its post-Wells Fargo objectives; several Macheteros charged in the robbery were convicted following a trial at federal court in Hartford.
But prior to the robbery, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the group claimed responsibility for, among others things, eight bombings, the destruction of 11 U.S. military aircraft, the shooting deaths of two U.S. sailors and a rocket attack on a federal building in San Juan.
Law enforcement and other sources believe Gonzalez Claudio was a senior member of the group, which in the 1970s received financial, military and other support from the government of Cuban President Fidel Castro. Evidence developed by the FBI shows that the Cuban government received a substantial portion of the $7 million taken during the Wells Fargo robbery.
The sources said Gonzalez Claudio held seats on Los Macheteros' two governing boards — the directive and central committees — and was among the senior members who voted to approve the Wells Fargo robbery, the group's most highly publicized action.
It was one of Los Macheteros' militant activities, the rocket attack on San Juan's federal building, that produced the evidence the FBI used to link Los Macheteros to the Wells Fargo robbery.
Eyewitnesses tied the men responsible for the rocket attack to a car abandoned near the federal building. Agents found a fingerprint left by Gonzalez Claudio on the vehicle and followed him first to Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the group's founder, and later, to a Los Macheteros safe house filled with organization records. Wiretaps later captured members discussing the $7 million.
Gonzalez Claudio's apprehension appears connected to renewed law enforcement interest in Los Macheteros, which the FBI considers a potential domestic terror threat. In September 2005, FBI agents located Ojeda Rios, who also had been a fugitive since the late 1980s. Ojeda Rios died following a gunfight with agents who were trying to arrest him.
Since Ojeda Rios' death, FBI agents have served search warrants on suspected Los Macheteros members or sympathizers in Puerto Rico and New York.
Agents continue to seek the two remaining fugitives wanted in connection with the robbery: Gonzalez Claudio's brother, Norberto, and Victor Gerena, the Hartford resident who is accused of being Los Macheteros' inside man during the robbery. Gerena is believed to be in Cuba.
According to information from court filings and other sources, Ojeda Rios and former Machetero, Juan Segarra Palmer, recruited Gerena, who in 1983 was employed as a Wells Fargo driver. Gerena is accused of disabling and tying up his co-workers before packing hundreds of pounds of cash into a car provided by Ojeda Rios and Segarra Palmer.
They, in turn, later hid half the money and Gerena behind false walls built into a mobile home. They had the mobile home delivered to an upstate New York campground where Avelino Gonzalez Claudio and three others were waiting.
Gonzalez Claudio and the others then drove Gerena and the money into Mexico, where they were met by Cuban security forces. Gerena and the money were transported to Cuba, according to a former Cuban security officer involved in the operation.
Los Macheteros later repeated the trip to Mexico to move the remainder of the money.
FBI officials said Gonzalez Claudio probably will make an initial appearance in federal court in San Juan before being transferred to Connecticut, where he is expected to be prosecuted. The U.S. attorney's office in Connecticut would not discuss the case.
Gonzalez Claudio faces a variety of charges, including obstruction of commerce by robbery and conspiracy, bank robbery, aggravated robbery, theft from interstate shipment, foreign and interstate transportation of stolen money, and conspiracy to interfere with commerce by robbery.
Contact Edmund Mahony at email@example.com.
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