March 23

This Day in History

Crime

Mar 23, 1979:

Two men sentenced in murder of former Chilean diplomat

Federal Judge Barrington Parker presides over the sentencing of Guillermo Novo and Alvin Ross Diaz for the murder of Orlando Letelier. Novo and Ross Diaz were initally sentenced to consecutive terms of life imprisonment.

The murder to which Judge Parker referred had occurred on September 21, 1976, when a car bomb exploded while victims, Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador, and his friends Michael and Ronni Moffitt were driving on Washington D.C.'s Embassy Row. Letelier was the intended target because of his political work against Chile's dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Letelier was the ambassador to the United States for Chile's leftist government led by Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. However, after a CIA-supported coup by Pinochet in 1973, he was sent to a concentration camp on Dawson Island in the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America. He survived and was exiled to the United States where he spent his time lobbying against the new military dictatorship.

According to the prosecution, a man named Michael Townley was contacted by key figures in Pinochet's regime to assassinate Letelier and he used Cuban exiles, among them Novo and Ross Diaz, to help carry out the hit. The entire plot was unraveled when Townley was caught and turned into a prosecution witness. For his cooperation, Townley was given a new identity and only a 40-month prison sentence. He never expressed any remorse and is thought to have returned to Chile after his release.

General Pinochet was granted amnesty for his crimes when he stepped down from power in Chile. However, while traveling in England in 1998 he was arrested based on charges for human rights abuses by a Spanish prosecutor.

Novo and Ross Diaz's sentence was turned over on appeal and they were later acquitted. Evidence has since come to light suggesting that the CIA might have been aware of the impending assassination in advance and, perhaps because of the U.S.'s close relationship with Pinochet, done nothing to stop it.

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