The hijacking suspect next door
BY GERARDO REYES, MICHAEL SALLAH AND ALFONSO CHARDY
Before the plane slammed into the darkness of the ocean, Omara Gonzalez fixed on an image that has haunted her for 50 years: the hijacker's piercing eyes and white shoes.
''There are things you don't forget,'' she said tearfully of the deadly hijacking that left 14 dead and four wounded. ``I can still see him in those shoes, standing by the [cockpit] door.''
While the Coral Gables woman grapples with images of the crash that changed her life a half century ago, she now confronts a new twist in the disaster: The suspected hijacker is living just miles from her home.
Edmundo Ponce de Leon, who quietly moved to Miami from Cuba in 1994 -- with no barriers to his entry -- is one of the only surviving suspects from the famous hijacking of a Cubana Airlines plane on Nov. 1, 1958.
State Department records obtained by The Miami Herald say the 72-year-old and four others were identified as the armed men in dark fatigues who took over the plane during a flight from Miami to Cuba -- the first international hijacking from U.S. soil.
The plane -- secretly loaded with arms for Fidel Castro's rebels -- crashed off the coast of Cuba while running out of fuel in an event that rocked Miami and Havana. No one was ever charged in the crime.
Ponce de Leon says he was on the airliner that night, but insists he was not among the hijackers. ''I was going on a vacation trip,'' he said in an interview at his home. ``I was just going for a few days.''
But witnesses tracked down after the crash said he was one of the hijackers who later joined the revolutionary forces in Havana, according to State Department records.
His emergence in the case represents a new dilemma in one of the first hijacking investigations in U.S. history.
Though the case was investigated by the FBI and State Department for several weeks, it was never officially closed, records show.
Because Ponce de Leon and other suspected hijackers remained in Cuba after the crash, the U.S. attorney's office concluded they could not be prosecuted because they were outside the jurisdiction of the United States, State Department records indicate.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to say whether the case would be reopened. ''We simply do not comment on whether we plan to open or reopen any investigation,'' said Alicia Valle, special counsel.
The event nearly faded from history until early this year when a dispute erupted between Ponce de Leon and a sister over ownership of their mother's home.
An attorney for the sister pressed to interview survivors about the hijacking, but the case was settled.
Several former federal prosecutors say the case presents legal challenges for the justice system because of due-process protections, but one thing is for certain: There's no statute of limitations on murder.
''You still have real-life survivors,'' said Christopher Bruno, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, D.C. ``Just because the years have gone by doesn't mean you just close the books.''
In the days after the crash, the investigation of the hijacking was considered a priority by the FBI and State Department.
The suspects were identified right away, including Ponce de Leon, a U.S. Air Force veteran born in Cuba and raised in New York and Miami, where he attended Edison High School.
The British-built plane was one of many flights connecting Miami and Cuba at the time, when relations between Havana and Washington were normal.
But the situation in Cuba was deteriorating: Castro's rebels were advancing and President Fulgencio Batista seemed ready to relinquish power. On the eve of the flight, an election loomed to choose a presidential successor.
For days, U.S. embassy agents interviewed survivors and witnesses who helped pluck the bodies out of the sea off eastern Cuba.
One of those survivors, Osiris Martinez -- now living in Miami -- identified Ponce de Leon from a photo provided by investigators just five days after the crash, records state.
Martinez, now 81, whose wife and three young children, 2, 4, and 5, died when the plane plunged into the sea, said he was certain during interviews with investigators that Ponce de Leon was one of the armed men who commandeered the turboprob plane.
''There was no doubt,'' he said in an interview with The Herald last week. ``I recognized him right away.''
Martinez, who says he now has a more difficult time recognizing the aging man in the photos, said he and other passengers were in the plane with the hijackers for several hours.
''I saw them when we were on the plane, and I saw them again when they jumped from the plane'' after it broke apart on the water.
Gonzalez, then 16, said she recognized Ponce de Leon from photos shown to her last week by The Herald, including a black-and-white photo from the 1950s and another taken recently. ``I can see his eyes. I'll never forget them as long as I live.''
Gonzalez, whose grandfather died in the crash, said she spent several hours watching the hijackers move down the aisle.
''We were all so panicked,'' she recalled in an interview. ``We didn't know what they were going to do.''
The men, who boarded the Vickers Vicount airliner dressed in street clothes, jumped from their seats about 20 minutes after the plane departed and shouted they were taking over, according to Gonzalez and Martinez.
The hijackers yanked open a floor compartment, pulling out large green canvas bags stuffed with machine guns, handguns and ammunition, Martinez said.
With passengers watching, they stripped down to their underwear and put on olive fatigues and black and red armbands of the July 26th Movement -- Castro's rebel forces.
''They told us not to move,'' recalled Gonzalez, who was sitting near her 9-year-old cousin.
She said the man she recognized as Ponce de Leon was wearing white shoes, standing near the cockpit. ''Not tennis shoes,'' she said. ``White shoes.''
Instead of flying to Varadero -- a resort town on the northern coast -- the plane headed to eastern Cuba, where the rebels were to land at Sierra Cristal to deliver the weapons to Raúl Castro, said Gonzalez and Martinez.
But the hours passed, and darkness set in.
The pilot struggled to find a runway because of the lack of lighting on the mountainous terrain.
The airliner ''kept going up and down and up and down,'' recalled Gonzalez in an interview.
Martinez said all the passengers, including his children, were getting sick. ``They would rev up the motors and the plane would shoot up. The carts and the suitcases would fly to the back of the plane. Everyone was vomiting and screaming.''
At one point, Gonzalez said she overheard a hijacker say they would ``have to kill the pilot.''
''He apparently wasn't doing what they wanted,'' she said in an interview.
Martinez told investigators the pilot tried to land the plane 10 times, but each time, he would pull back in fear of missing the mark.
Shortly after 9 p.m. -- more than four hours after takeoff -- the hijackers ordered the passengers to strap in. ''They said to buckle our seat belts. There was no gas,'' said Martinez in a recent interview.
After slamming into the water, the plane broke into pieces, with some of the passengers still alive in their seats. 'I looked over at my grandfather, who was buckled in, and I heard him say, `Save yourself,' '' Gonzalez said.
She and her young cousin, Luis Sosa, were pulled from the water by a fisherman as they clung to a floating suitcase.
Martinez was pulled from the water by the same fisherman.
Two of the hijackers died in the crash, their bodies found floating while still clad in fatigues and armbands. Fourteen people died, although news reports initially said 17.
The day after the crash, U.S. Ambassador Earl Smith ordered an investigation by the embassy in Havana, while requesting help from the FBI in Miami.
Citing top Cuban authorities, Miami Herald correspondent George Southworth reported Ponce de Leon was one of the hijackers.
But at the time, no one was able to find him, said Wayne Smith, an embassy diplomat who interviewed survivors.
However, Smith managed to interview a man identified as Ponce de Leon's cousin, Carlos Arias Aguero, who told embassy officials Ponce de Leon ''had been engaged in revolutionary activities in Miami,'' records say.
''He had reason to believe that Edmundo Ponce de Leon might possibly have been one of the gunmen who commandeered the ill-fated Varadero flight,'' the report states.
By then, the three surviving suspects had traveled to the mountains, according to hospital workers interviewed by the embassy.
During an interview at his home last week, Ponce de Leon -- who is now blind in one eye and has a heart condition -- gave a vastly different version of the final hours leading to the crash and how he ended up staying in Cuba.
He said he boarded as a tourist, and in all his years, ``I have never owned a pair of white shoes.''
He said the hijacking took place ''over Cuba'' and not 20 minutes after departing.
He said during the flight to the island, he did not believe the captain was threatened, insisting that most passengers were sympathetic to the rebel cause.
''There was no violence or hostility aboard the plane,'' said Ponce de Leon.
But Gonzalez said she and the other passengers were terrified because the hijackers threatened them with guns and ordered them to sit with their heads between their legs and pillows over their heads.
''I still have nightmares,'' she said.
Martinez said the hijacking ``was an act of terrorism. They were carrying weapons.''
After the crash, Ponce de Leon said he swam with the hijackers to safety and was later ''taken prisoner'' by the rebel forces. One of the suspects: Manuel Fernandez Falcon, who became a top Cuban military commander.
By Jan. 29, 1959, a month after Castro took power, records state that Ponce de Leon was a lieutenant in the revolutionary forces and ``stationed at the Havana Tourist Police Station as second in command.''
Ponce de Leon says he was never an officer, but an interpreter who worked at the police station after the revolution.
He said he stayed in Cuba because he met a woman and decided to get married, and moved back to the United States in 1994 to join his family in Miami.
Though he came to this country as a naturalized U.S. citizen, experts question how he was able to enter without being interrogated about a major hijacking case -- even one from decades earlier.
''That is why you have border alerts,'' said Bruno, the former federal prosecutor. ``If this happened today, there's no way you could come back into the country.''
Federal prosecutors in Miami reviewed the case in early 1959, but declined to prosecute, ''at least for the present,'' because Ponce de Leon and the others were not in the United States, records state.
Ricardo Bascuas, a University of Miami law professor and former federal public defender who reviewed the government documents for The Herald, said the suspects could have been charged without being in the country.
''There were any number of crimes that could have been considered, including murder, assault and possibly even transporting arms,'' he said.
Bruno said one reason to drop a prosecution is because of a lack of evidence, but because sworn statements and supporting evidence existed in the case, a grand jury could have been summoned.
''I would have pursued it,'' said Atlee Wampler III, the U.S. attorney in Miami in the early 1980s. ``Anytime you have people hijacking airlines, you act on that. It's too dangerous.''
James Guilmartin, Miami's U.S. attorney during the investigation, died in 1984.
SHIFT IN CUBA
However, Bruno questioned whether influences beyond the justice system played a role in the outcome of the case. Cuba was in turmoil.
While the United States had diplomatic relations with the fledgling Castro government, ''you have to wonder whether this case was a political hot potato,'' Bruno said.
Many top officials in the State Department were trying to maintain relations with the new leadership. The lone person pushing the case, Earl Smith, the U.S. ambassador and an ardent Castro foe, resigned on Jan. 20, 1959. By the following month, the investigation was suspended, records show.
''You got to think of the time period -- it's right after the revolution,'' Bruno said.
Now, bringing the case to court would present challenges, say legal experts.
''The government knew where he was,'' said Richard Strafer, a Miami criminal attorney. ``The problem is a defendant can make the case there was a delay in due process.''
Gonzalez, who says she remains shattered by the experience, says Ponce de Leon should have been charged then -- and now. ''He has to pay for this,'' she says.
``They destroyed the lives of people. This is the United States of America. If this had been an accident it would be one thing, but this was a hijacking. Babies died.''
Martinez says he was never contacted by federal prosecutors after the crash. ''In all that time, no one came to me,'' he said.
He said he believes Ponce de Leon, with his nagging ailments, ``is paying the price right now. He's fat and old. He's sick. That's his punishment.''