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Former Fugitive Pleads Guilty in Chilean Diplomat’s Case

September 11, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A Cuban exile who had been a fugitive for 12 years until his arrest last spring pleaded guilty Monday to conspiring to kill a former Chilean diplomat who died in a 1976 car bombing on Washington’s Embassy Row.

Jose Dionisio Suarez Esquivel, who had been a fugitive until his arrest last spring, admitted participating in the conspiracy to murder Orlando Letelier, who died with associate Ronni Moffitt when a bomb exploded beneath their car on Sept. 21, 1976.

Two top-ranking officials of the Chilean military junta in power at the time of the killing are also charged with participating in the conspiracy. But the Chilean government has refused to extradite the former officials.

Two other men have pleaded guilty in the case.

Suarez, 51, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to murder an internationally protected person.

The offense carries a possible life sentence but in a deal accepted by U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr., Suarez will not receive more than a 12- year prison term. No date was set for sentencing.

Under the plea agreement, prosecutors agreed to dismiss four other charges against Suarez. The government also promised not to prosecute Suarez’s wife, Elizabeth Gongora Suarez, for concealing a fugitive.

Mrs. Suarez sobbed softly as her husband entered the guilty plea in federal court.

Suarez was arrested April 11 in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he had been living with his wife and son, who is now 20 months old.

Letelier was an outspoken critic of the military regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, which deposed Allende in a bloody coup in 1973. He had served Allende’s government as foreign minister and as ambassador to the United States.

Pinochet’s government surrendered power to an elected civilian government earlier this year. But so far, the civilian government has refused to extradite retired Gen. Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda and Lt. Col. Pedro Espinoza Bravo, former chief of the Chilean security agency DINA.

Michael Vernon Townley, an American-born DINA agent, pleaded guilty in 1978 to planting the bomb beneath Letelier’s car and served a 40-month prison term.

In 1987, a Chilean army major, Armando Fernandez Larios, fled his country and pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of the killing.

Fernandez told investigators that he believed that Pinochet had ordered the killing, but offered no direct evidence.

Both Townley and Fernandez had been expected to testify against Suarez, who was scheduled to go on trial next week.

Suarez, a member of the Cuban Nationalist Movement, admitted that in Sept. 1976 he met in New Jersey with Townley and others to discuss the murder of Letelier, according to a statement of facts filed by prosecutors.

Suarez traveled to Washington three days before the bombing and gave Townley a blasting cap he knew would be used to make the bomb, the statement said. Suarez, Townley and others went to Letelier’s home the next day and planted the bomb on the former diplomat’s automobile.

The bomb was detonated two days later as Letelier’s car was rounding Sheridan Circle, killing both him and Ms. Moffitt.

Ms. Moffitt was a colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think-tank where Letelier worked. Moffitt’s husband, Michael, who was in the back seat, was injured by the blast.

Investigators believe that Suarez may have detonated the bomb with an electronic device from an automobile that he and Virgilio Paz Romero, who is still a fugitive, used to follow Letelier’s car, said a source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Defense attorney Paul Goldberger said Suarez’s main concern in pleading guilty was to enable his wife to avoid prosecution.

Update hourly