After 32 Years, Zooming In on a Killer

By Monte Reel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, November 13, 2005

BUENOS AIRES -- On a chaotic June day in 1973, Leonardo Henrichsen, a TV cameraman from Argentina, was outside the presidential palace in Santiago, Chile, trying to film an attempted military coup against President Salvador Allende. His lens zoomed in on one soldier, who was aiming a pistol directly at him.

"Don't shoot," Henrichsen cried out, as his sound technician's audio recorder captured the words. "Don't you see that we're journalists?"

Moments later, Henrichsen lay sprawled on the pavement with a fatal bullet lodged in his chest, while his camera pointed up at a blank sky. A soldier grabbed the camera, yanked out a reel of film and destroyed it, unaware that there was a second chamber with six more minutes of shot film inside.

Now, 32 years later, the gun-pointing soldier caught on that film has been identified, or so Henrichsen's family believes. Two weeks ago they traveled to Chile from their home in Argentina to launch a legal case against him and his superiors. Arguing that the killing could be classified as a human rights violation, and is therefore exempt from a statute of limitations, the family hopes that they can obtain justice for a crime that had seemed destined to remain unpunished.

"For many years after his death, I was scared that something might happen to me or my children if I tried to pursue it," said Heather McFarlane, Henrichsen's widow, who lives in Buenos Aires. "I think I've seen the film only once or twice. I just wanted to put it behind me, to go on with living."

Henrichsen's death occurred during a failed military coup on June 29, 1973, less than three months before a successful revolt that toppled Allende and ushered in the 17-year dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

Freelancing for a Swedish television channel, Henrichsen, then 33, was walking with his camera equipment to an interview when tanks and trucks rumbled into Santiago's central square and the soldiers began their failed assault on the presidential palace and the nearby Ministry of Defense. Henrichsen and 21 others -- all but six of them civilians -- were killed.

In the following decades, the coup attempt was largely forgotten, eclipsed by the dramatic overthrow of Allende that September. Thanks in part to Henrichsen's film -- which was recovered by a Chilean journalist later that day and soon broadcast around the world -- Allende's government held military hearings and collected testimony from soldiers. But after Pinochet took power, the files from those hearings remained hidden for years.

"The justice system in Chile is just now beginning to discover the details of what happened during those times," said Andres Henrichsen, 35, who was just 2 years old when his father was killed. "This file was just sitting there for all those years and nothing happened."

Nothing, that is, until a Chilean investigative journalist named Ernesto Carmona wrote a book in 1997 profiling 24 journalists, including Henrichsen, who had been killed during the Pinochet years. A friend of Carmona's -- a Swedish journalist -- offered to help pay his expenses if he investigated the case.

Fabiola Letelier -- a lawyer, human rights activist and the sister of Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat assassinated by Pinochet's agents when they blew up his car in Washington in 1976 -- helped Carmona track down the witness file.

"I developed a complete obsession with the case," said Carmona during a telephone interview from Santiago. "There are 2,000 or 3,000 pages in the file, and all the information is there. In January, I discovered the man's name."

Carmona tracked down Henrichsen's family in Buenos Aires, and they began exploring the possibility of legal action against the man they believed was responsible for the killing. McFarlane said that the man was a corporal, born in 1943, now retired and living in Chile. Although it can't be proved that the identified man definitively shot Henrichsen, the testimony from the file indicates that he ordered the shooting in the plaza, Carmona said.

The family's lawsuit also targets the members of the Fatherland and Liberty Movement, which opposed Allende's Socialist government and admitted to supporting the June coup attempt.

The leader of that group, Pablo Rodriguez Grez, is now the principal lawyer defending Pinochet, who is the focus of several judicial probes investigating charges of murder, torture and bank fraud. In recent years, several high-ranking members of Pinochet's government have been prosecuted for human rights violations, including the former head of Chile's secret police force.

Henrichsen's case now awaits a preliminary ruling by a judge to determine whether it will go to trial.

"Just to have a name of someone who is responsible, after all these years, is incredible," said McFarlane. "Pinochet's government pushed aside the June coup [attempt] as if it never existed. I hope they're worrying a little bit now."

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