Suspected Wells Fargo Robber Imprisoned, Denied Bail
By EDMUND H. MAHONY
Courant Staff Writer
Over the more than two decades that he was the subject of an FBI manhunt, suspected Wells Fargo robber and militant nationalist Avelino Gonzalez Claudio moved easily in — and out — of Puerto Rico.
Using an assumed name, he acquired a U.S. passport and traveled on it twice to Mexico. He obtained a driver's license and registered an automobile.
The doctrinaire Marxist, a leader of the clandestine Puerto Rican pro-independence group Los Macheteros, carried an American Express card. He shopped with store charge cards at Costco and Sam's Club. He had a Puerto Rico voter identification card.
His FBI wanted poster was filed in a Puerto Rican court as part of a dispute over the settlement of a family estate. He petitioned the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in an effort to make his ex-wife, a Dominican, a permanent resident alien of the United States.
Remarkably, he ventured repeatedly into the seat of federal power in Puerto Rico — the U.S. District Court. For about 15 years of his two decades as a fugitive, Gonzalez was employed as an instructor at a computer training institute. His duties required him to teach computer skills to federal court judges.
Gonzalez's luck ran out on Feb. 6, when the FBI learned that he was living in the Puerto Rican north coast town of Manati under the alias Jose Ortega Morales.
He had been missing since 1985, after he was indicted — but before he could be arrested — for what at the time was the largest cash robbery in U.S. history, the armed robbery by Los Macheteros of more than $7 million from a Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford in 1983.
Los Macheteros pulled off the robbery, the most sensational of a series of "expropriations" and armed attacks on federal installations during the 1970s and '80s, with Cuban support.
Evidence produced previously in court suggests that the organization's leadership, of which Gonzalez was a member, planned to use the money to finance an armed struggle for Puerto Rican independence.
On Tuesday, federal prosecutors turned Gonzalez's elusiveness against him. At the conclusion of a contentious, two-day detention hearing in federal court in Hartford, U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas P. Smith adopted prosecution arguments that Gonzalez is a flight risk and ordered that he be denied bail and imprisoned while awaiting trial on 15 charges related to the robbery.
"For me, this isn't a case about Los Macheteros," Smith said. "It is not about the alleged antipathy between the FBI and Los Macheteros. It's not about Puerto Rican independence. To me, it's a case about a man who was indicted for bank robbery about 25 years ago, and in the intervening time has lived under a false name. That he did it supports the argument that he could do it again."
Gonzalez's arrival and imprisonment in Connecticut promise to revive one of the most complicated and protracted legal dramas ever in the state. About a dozen of his co-defendants in the Wells Fargo robbery were tried and all but one was convicted after two trials in the late 1980s and early '90s.
During four years of legal maneuvering leading to the first trial, 1,500 motions were argued and 17 appeals were taken to the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals.
It took the U.S. Supreme Court to ultimately decide that prosecutors could introduce as evidence 50 disputed reels of secret FBI recordings, just a fraction of what the FBI recorded.
Although the Wells Fargo case was about a bank robbery, there was peripheral evidence of armed conflict that, at the time, paralleled insurgencies elsewhere in Latin America.
Members of Los Macheteros were tied to the destruction in Puerto Rico of nine National Guard jets, the ambush slayings of two U.S. Navy sailors and rocket attacks on federal buildings with U.S. weapons abandoned in Vietnam and acquired by Cuba. One of those rocket attacks targeted FBI offices in San Juan.
Gonzalez then, at least as portrayed on his FBI wanted posters, was a robust man approaching middle age. Now, at 65, his hair has receded, he wears spectacles and looks far thinner in an oversize, bright orange prison jumpsuit.
During the past 20 years, the secret membership of Los Macheteros has not been tied to any violence. Mostly, the group has limited itself to radical political commentary delivered to Puerto Rican news organizations.
However, Assistant U.S. Attorney Henry K. Kopel argued during the detention hearing Tuesday that Gonzalez's past association with the group's violent acts should be enough to deny him bond.
He said Gonzalez was tied by his fingerprints to two rocket attacks and that FBI agents found weapons and military tactical manuals in his home after his arrest in Feburary. That is evidence, Kopel said, that Gonzalez has not disavowed violence.
Defense lawyer James W. Bergenn argued that the FBI would have arrested Gonzalez if it could link him to armed attacks.
What's more, he said, weapons manuals — the possession of which is not a crime — were a small part of Gonzalez's home library, which included "Faust," books on conflict resolution, Latin American geopolitics and a work called "No to Violence."
If Gonzalez is to be judged by his literature, perhaps it should be on his copy of the Bible, Bergenn said.
"Before you is St. Avelino," Bergenn argued. "He has read the Bible. He believes it. And he acts in accordance with it."
Smith said he did not consider detaining Gonzalez because he is a threat to public safety. Rather, he said Gonzalez's clandestine life, his "skill" and "craft" at hiding, made it impossble to guarantee his presence at a trial.
A trial that re-creates Connecticut's best-known robbery now seems likely.
Contact Edmund H. Mahony at email@example.com.
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