Federal investigators have uncovered evidence that some of them believe is sufficient to indict Gen. Augusto Pinochet for conspiracy to commit murder in the 1976 car bombing that killed a former Chilean diplomat and opposition politician, Orlando Letelier, on Washington's Embassy Row.
Among the evidence is testimony that an angry Pinochet intervened to strip Letelier of his Chilean citizenship days before the assassination on Sept. 21, 1976, which also killed a 25-year-old American colleague of Letelier's, Ronni Moffitt.
Justice Department officials said they do not minimize the difficulty of indicting Pinochet for acts that took place 24 years ago in a foreign country. And even if he is indicted, the officials said, a trial in the United States is highly unlikely because he recently was excused from trial in Britain on grounds of ill health and has returned to Chile.
Still, the officials said, Attorney General Janet Reno is committed to pursuing the investigation of the Letelier assassination, which the Justice Department considers a state-sponsored act of terrorism on U.S. soil. "She is extremely committed to seeing that justice is done in the case but has not reached a decision that the evidence supports an indictment," a senior Justice Department official said.
The U.S. government backed the 1973 coup in which Pinochet led a military junta that took power from Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende, and human rights groups have criticized the Justice Department for failing to go after Pinochet before he was arrested in Britain in 1998. But Reno and seven top aides briefed Letelier's widow, Isabel, on the status of the probe earlier this month and promised to pursue Pinochet and other possible suspects for as long as it takes to close the case, according to Samuel J. Buffone, an attorney for the Letelier family.
Buffone declined to comment on the briefing but said Isabel Letelier thanked Reno for reviving the probe. He quoted Reno as saying that she and her top deputies were "satisfied with the investigation" and were "proceeding with vigor."
At one point during the briefing, Buffone recalled, Reno gestured to a 1930s mural on her conference room wall depicting "Justice Denied" and told Isabel Letelier that she had been denied justice for too long. The attorney general then glanced over her shoulder at "Justice Granted" and said that is what she is trying to achieve in this case, according to Buffone.
"Does the United States government have the will to prosecute Pinochet? Yes, it does, and I do not hesitate in that at all," Buffone said.
While prosecutors still have no direct evidence that Pinochet ordered Letelier's assassination, they believe the former dictator's effort to strip Letelier of his citizenship goes a long way toward showing that Pinochet had a motive for the murder of the well-known leftist.
E. Lawrence Barcella Jr., a former federal prosecutor who two decades ago won convictions against low-level Chilean operatives in the assassination, said the government's evidence detailing Pinochet's obsession with Letelier immediately before the bombing--evidence prosecutors did not possess when the case first went to court--is extremely valuable.
"You build a case against the head of a criminal organization piece by piece, and circumstantial evidence is how you build the case," Barcella said. "What was important to me about the stripping of his citizenship was the timing of it--just 10 days before the assassination. It clearly showed that the efforts Letelier was making to bring pressure on Chile were working. He was getting under the junta's skin."
The government's new understanding of Pinochet's personal involvement, Barcella said, comes on top of solid evidence that Letelier's assassination was masterminded by Manuel Contreras, the former head of Chile's National Intelligence Directorate, or DINA.
Contreras, convicted of the crime by Chilean prosecutors in 1993, claimed in a recent clemency petition that he met daily with Pinochet around the time of the assassination and that Pinochet approved and supervised all major DINA operations, Barcella said.
A federal grand jury in Washington initially indicted Contreras and seven others in 1978 on charges of killing Letelier as part of a global operation to eliminate exiled critics of Pinochet's junta. Evidence at the time came close to implicating Pinochet, and former prosecutors say they remain convinced that Pinochet authorized Letelier's murder.
In trials between 1978 and 1990, two DINA operatives and two Cuban exiles were convicted and imprisoned in the United States for the bombing. Pedro Espinoza, the DINA's operations director, was convicted with Contreras in Chile, and both remain in prison there.
According to evidence in the various trials, DINA operatives destroyed Letelier's car with a remote-control bomb. Sitting next to him in the front seat was Moffitt, a colleague at Washington's Institute for Policy Studies, who was hit in the neck by a metal shard. Michael Moffitt, her husband, survived in the car's back seat, only to see his bride of four months die on the street.
The Justice Department reopened its long-dormant investigation, code-named CHILBOM, after Pinochet was arrested in Britain 19 months ago.
On March 3, Pinochet, 84, made an emotional return to Chile from Britain, where authorities had released him on grounds of poor health. But he now faces charges in Chile of involvement in thousands of murders and incidents of torture during his rule from 1973 to 1990.
U.S. prosecutors first found evidence of Pinochet's effort to strip Letelier of his citizenship when they began reviewing classified cables in the files of the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency this year. The cables from 1976 provided a wealth of information about whom Pinochet met and what he was reported to have said in the days before Letelier's assassination.
That information enabled a team of prosecutors and FBI agents--including a lawyer from the Justice Department and one from the U.S. attorney's office here, several investigators from the Joint Terrorism Task Force in the FBI's Washington Field Office and the FBI's legal attache in Santiago--to search for new witnesses during a month-long visit to Chile in March and April. They were allowed to submit questions through a Chilean attorney during court proceedings in which a Chilean judge questioned 42 people subpoenaed by Chile's Supreme Court at the request of the U.S. government.
Numerous witnesses interviewed inside and outside the court proceeding provided valuable information about the activities of Pinochet, his aides and other top Chilean officials around the time of the assassination, often without realizing the importance of what they were saying, officials said.
In a 1980 book on the Letelier case, "Assassination on Embassy Row," John Dinges and Saul Landau wrote that Letelier learned in early September 1976 that Chile's military government had stripped him of his citizenship for "carrying out in foreign lands a publicity campaign aimed at bringing about the political, economic and cultural isolation of Chile."
After a reporter called Letelier with the news shortly before a speaking engagement in New York, Dinges and Landau wrote, Letelier announced at Madison Square Garden's Felt Forum that he had just been stripped of his citizenship by Pinochet and members of his Cabinet.
"I was born a Chilean, I am a Chilean, and I will die a Chilean," Letelier said. "They, the fascists, were born traitors, live as traitors, and will be forever remembered as fascist traitors."
Less than two weeks later, the powerful bomb ripped through Letelier's Chevrolet Chevelle as he drove into Sheridan Circle here, killing him instantly.