Judy and Alan Gross's family is at heart of standoff between Washington and Cuba

By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2010

It was 6 o'clock on a Friday evening, and Judy Gross knew the drill. She checked the computer and saw that her husband's plane had just landed at Dulles. Alan would be home in Potomac in 45 minutes, bursting in the door with stories from his latest trip to Cuba, she figured. She bustled around her gleaming kitchen, preparing Shabbat dinner.

But the clock hit 7, and there was no Alan. Eight, and still no Alan. She called the airline and discovered that her 60-year-old husband had not made the flight.

"So then I knew something wasn't right," Judy recalled.

She didn't panic. Like other international aid workers in Washington, Alan had had his share of mishaps on far-flung assignments -- car accidents and nasty stomach bugs. His wife asked U.S. diplomats to check the Havana hospitals.

But when the phone rang a half-hour later, Judy learned Alan wasn't sick. He was in Villa Marista, the Cuban state security prison. "I was scared," Judy stuttered, in her first in-depth media interview. "I was very scared for his safety."

That December evening marked the start of a harrowing five-month family drama and a new standoff between Washington and its Cold War nemesis. Cuban officials have publicly accused Gross of working for American intelligence agencies. The United States government denies that.

But, as details have trickled out, it appears Gross was involved in something stranger: a secretive program to foster democracy in Cuba.

The program has been around for years, using travelers posing as tourists to slip typewriter ribbons, shortwave radios and, more recently, laptop computers into Cuba. But under the George W. Bush administration, officials flush with cash sought new ways to reach out to civil society.

And that's how a klezmer-playing Maryland dad wound up providing Wikipedia to Cuban Jews.

Judy said her husband, a "gadget geek," had seemed unaware that he was courting danger when a Bethesda contractor signed him up to provide Internet access to civil-society groups on the island. "When he heard about this, he just said 'Yes!' " she recalled.

Alan P. Gross had always had an itch for adventure. Growing up in Baltimore, he'd helped out in his dad's window-cleaning business. But after marrying Judy in 1970, he earned a master's in social work and began working with Jewish groups. One of his jobs was taking local Jews on trips to Israel.

"They all loved him, of course," his wife said. People warmed to Alan's buoyancy, his sense of humor, his desire to help. "He really could solve people's problems," Judy said, sitting in her kitchen, wearing jeans and a baggy black turtleneck, a curtain of salt-and-pepper hair framing her face. The smell of blueberry muffins wafted from the oven.

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