40 years later: The murder of Orlando Letelier

The mural is inspired by the assassination of Letelier's father, Orlando Peltier in 1976 at Sheridan Circle. Photo / The Washington Post
The mural is inspired by the assassination of Letelier's father, Orlando Peltier in 1976 at Sheridan Circle. Photo / The Washington Post

On a muggy autumn morning four decades ago, a car exploded in Washington. It had motored along Massachusetts Avenue N.W., rounding the bend at Sheridan Circle, when a remote-controlled bomb taped beneath the vehicle was triggered.

A driver in a car nearby would later describe the fiery impact of the blast: "I saw an automobile actually coming down out of the air."

The smoldering wreck lurched to a halt in front of the Romanian Embassy, its windows blown open and entire floor panel gone. A police officer who arrived on the scene remembered welling up with nausea. There was blood and debris everywhere and a human foot in the roadway. A fatally wounded man lay on the pavement; his legs were missing from above the knees.

This was Orlando Letelier, a 44-year-old former Chilean diplomat who had been driving to work at a D.C. think tank along with his colleague, Ronni Moffitt, 25, and her husband, Michael.

Letelier died within minutes. Shrapnel had pierced Ronni Moffitt's throat, and she drowned in her own blood a half-hour later. Michael, who had been sitting in the back seat, tumbled out largely unscathed. He was beside himself in grief and shock.

"Assassins, fascists!" he exclaimed amid the carnage.

They were victims of a brazen, perhaps unprecedented plot, the target of a foreign regime that had sent agents into the United States to kill Letelier. Here was a case of state-sponsored terrorism in the heart of the American capital. Only in this instance, the state was a close Washington ally in the Cold War.

Letelier was a prominent opponent of the military rule of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who rose to power in a 1973 army coup that ousted and led to the death of democratically elected president, Salvador Allende. Letelier had served as Chile's ambassador to the United States in Allende's socialist government, which the CIA spent millions of dollars undermining through covert operations.

On the day of the coup, Letelier was arrested and sent, with other ministers of Allende's government, to a string of concentration camps. For months, he was kept at Dawson Island in the extreme south of Chile near the South Pole. He was released only after concerted international diplomatic pressure.

A trained economist, Letelier eventually won residency in Washington and a post at the left-wing Institute of Policy Studies. He became the most prominent Chilean exile living in the United States - and a magnet for dissent and criticism of both Pinochet's abuses and the missteps of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America.

For that reason, Letelier became caught in the crosshairs of Operation Condor, the covert reign of terror hatched by various right-wing dictatorships in Latin America that targeted suspected communists, leftist intellectuals and supposed subversive elements.

These regimes were complicit in the murder and disappearance of tens of thousands of people. In the case of Letelier, the Pinochet government had used an American expatriate and a shadowy network of anti-Communist Cuban exiles to carry out the strike. These men would eventually be arrested in the United States and Chile, and some were jailed. Manuel Contreras, the head of the secret police known as DINA, was indicted by a U.S. grand jury, but Chile refused to extradite him. Pinochet, who stepped down from power in 1990, died in 2006 without facing trial.

The Letelier episode now seems to be a forgotten chapter of a distant history - so distant that the U.S. government had few qualms in more recent times about handing over to Chilean authorities tranches of declassified documents that showed clearly how U.S. officials considered the assassination to have been directed by Pinochet's regime.

The story of one diplomat's assassination - as told below by Letelier's associates, family and government investigators - becomes a window into a strange chapter of the Cold War, with secret police, hired assassins and left- and right-wing activists all converging on Washington. And the tale continues to unfold. To mark the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Chilean President Michele Bachelet will receive still more documents from the U.S. government on Letelier's death.

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JUAN GABRIEL VALDES, Chile's ambassador to the United States. Valdes was Letelier's assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies and was nearly in the car that was bombed.

We had seen strange cars stopping in front of our office, at Dupont Circle, and Orlando had received threats, under his door. But Orlando always dismissed our concerns, saying: "They would never dare to attack me in Washington. If they want to attack me, they will wait for me to be in Europe, particularly in [the Netherlands]," where he traveled a lot. Therefore, he dismissed the issue. He was never concerned about it.

The night before, he called me at around 10 o'clock telling me that he wanted to pick me up the next morning either at my home, or on the way coming down Massachusetts Avenue from Wisconsin Avenue, because he wanted me to give him a draft of paper I had been writing with another assistant. The Chilean dictatorship had stripped him of his nationality, and Orlando had decided that he wanted to answer the military in the New York Times, and we prepared a draft.

Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile's ambassador to the United States. Valdes was Letelier's assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies and was nearly in the car that was bombed. Photo / The Washington Post
Juan Gabriel Valdes, Chile's ambassador to the United States. Valdes was Letelier's assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies and was nearly in the car that was bombed. Photo / The Washington Post

I said to him, "Look, Orlando, why don't we wait until 9:30, because my wife is going to the supermarket in the morning." I had to stay with my two small children at the time. Orlando didn't like the idea. He said to me: "Why don't you tell Antonia to go another day to the supermarket? I mean, I need that paper." We have to remember that at the time, there were no faxes and no emails. I said to him: "Why don't you wait until 9:30? I mean, it's just half an hour and I will be with the paper at your office." He said okay. We said goodbye. And that was the main reason why he didn't pick me up in the morning.

He was with Michael and Ronnie Moffitt in the car. Michael had his car in the garage, so he needed a car and borrowed Orlando's. Life is curious. If Michael had been driving the car, it would have been Michael who would have died with the bomb. But Orlando decided to drive himself.

Ronni Moffitt, who was a development associate at the Institute for Policy at the time of her death in the 1976 car bombing. EDITORS: For use with this story only. Photo / Family photo
Ronni Moffitt, who was a development associate at the Institute for Policy at the time of her death in the 1976 car bombing. EDITORS: For use with this story only. Photo / Family photo

FRANCISCO LETELIER, 57, an artist based in Venice, Calif., is one of Orlando Letelier's four sons:

I was in 11th grade at Walt Whitman High School when this happened.

We lived in a split-level house in Bethesda. The driveway was very close, at a lower level. My window was right there. After the assassination, I would dream about seeing and hearing something outside the window.

I think I was in geometry class, and I got called down to the office. My aunt Cecilia, my mother's sister, was waiting for us. And she told us there had been an accident and really couldn't tell us anything. We were curious but not too concerned, except that we drove past Sheridan Circle, and I saw the rescue squad emergency vehicles at the circle. That was a little bit of a foreshadowing of what we learned upon arrival at the hospital: that my father had been killed.

VALDES: I was at home. I was finishing the draft. And then I received a call from Orlando's assistant, telling me that "Orlando had a terrible accident." I believed it was a car accident, and then I received a call telling me, "You have to go to the hospital and then to the house, because the FBI is going to call and somebody has to talk to them." I said, "What, the FBI?" I mean, this was an accident. And the response was: "This was not an accident. This was a bomb. Orlando has been murdered."

It was one of the greatest shocks in my life. Probably the most important one.

LETELIER: We immediately knew that he had been killed by the junta, Pinochet or agents of Pinochet. He had received death threats before. A short time before the assassination, we had actually had a family meeting. He had told us that he had received threatening letters and threatening phone calls. All of us essentially said, "You have to continue this struggle."

VALDES: Of course, my first reaction was, Pinochet murdered Letelier. Each September, Pinochet tried to kill somebody. Therefore, our first reaction was to tell the FBI and to tell everybody, this was the DINA, this was the secret police of Pinochet.

The investigation

TAYLOR BRANCH, co-author of a book on the investigation called Labyrinth with EUGENE PROPPER, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case: Michael Moffitt said right outside the car that the Chilean fascists did it. But that doesn't do you any good.

Pointing the finger doesn't put handcuffs on anyone. You have no evidence. At the time, there was actually another theory that quickly came out that it was somebody on the left trying to make Pinochet look bad.

Taylor Branch, co-author of a book on the investigation called Labyrinth with Eugene Propper, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case. Photo / The Washington Post
Taylor Branch, co-author of a book on the investigation called Labyrinth with Eugene Propper, the assistant U.S. attorney assigned to the case. Photo / The Washington Post

VALDES: People began accusing us of being spies. Orlando was accused of being a Soviet spy. I was accused of being a Cuban spy. For weeks after the murder, instead of feeling ourselves threatened only by the DINA and Pinochet, we felt ourselves threatened by many of the people who were investigating. I was questioned, for instance, whether it was possible that the leader of my political party in Chile had been responsible for the murder.

It offended us enormously.

PROPPER: There was a lot of suspicion that Chile did it, but there were other possible motives we had to look at. Frankly, they weren't given much credence, but you know you have to rule out certain things.

The FBI had no clue about how to investigate terrorism before this case. They hadn't really done it. It wasn't going to go forward unless someone was sort of looking over the FBI, and in this case, it happened to be me.

CARTER CORNICK, the FBI agent assigned to the case: This was the first case of international terrorism, state-sponsored terrorism in Washington. I was involved in a specialty that did not exist in the mid-'70s. Terrorism was a Category 3 priority in the FBI. You cannot compare then and now.

The real issue to me was the potential for creating a precedent of assassinating foreign diplomats in the U.S., let alone in the heart of Washington. Every government has an obligation to protect its visiting diplomats. It was the first time we were dealing with a foreign government as a suspect.

Carter Cornick, the FBI agent assigned to the Orlando Letelier assassination case. Photo / Carter Cornick.
Carter Cornick, the FBI agent assigned to the Orlando Letelier assassination case. Photo / Carter Cornick.

PROPPER: At first we had no information. I mean, we had pieces of the bomb, but that doesn't tell you anything. When you look at how a case is solved, it's solved by eyewitnesses. We had a lot of witnesses who saw the car blown up, but nobody saw who did it. It's solved by fingerprints. There was no fingerprints. There were no photographs. There were no confessions.

VALDES: I learned that the Cubans, the Miami Cubans, or Cubans in the nationalist Cuban movement, had participated in the murder the day of Orlando's burial, in Washington's [National] Cathedral. When we were leaving the cathedral, Ricardo Alarcon, who was the ambassador of Cuba to the United Nations, approached me and said, "I have to tell you something. These were Cuban assassins. Because of the type of bomb, because of the way in which the bomb was placed."

BRANCH: They had a number of clues that pointed to a blond Chilean who had a number of contacts with Cubans, and had been in and out of the United States. You're in an underworld of informants and braggarts, and you can't tell when people are bragging about being involved. I had spent time reporting on the Cuban exiles in Miami for Harper's magazine, and I went to Propper, and said, "I don't think you're going to solve this. There's too much politics, there's too much underworld."

But they were grasping and other leads had not worked out, and others had spectacularly fizzled.

PROPPER: An informant pointed the FBI to this well-off Frenchwoman named Martine Darragon as somebody who knew about the Letelier case. The FBI trails this woman, through the snow in New York, and ultimately she went into a hotel. Carter Cornick knocks on the door of the hotel room, and who answers but Ted Turner. She was having an affair with Ted Turner.

CORNICK: She was drop-dead gorgeous, and all of the agents were laughing and joking and saying, "Oh my God, we usually get to surveil baldheaded old men. This is great." But it was spurious information.

BRANCH: It was basically two years before they get the first break connecting the crime to Michael Townley.

They eventually have a photo of Townley, but that's it. In desperation, they leak it. That was a huge risk, because they didn't have that much evidence. Plus, once you leak the photograph as your evidence, what's to keep the Chilean government from just killing him?

That kind of lit the fuse on the case. Tips came in. His dad ran the Ford Motor franchise in Chile and wouldn't let him marry his [Chilean] girlfriend, so he ran away from home. He was a college dropout, somewhat needy and pathetic, uneducated, but he was a popular mechanics science whiz. He was constantly trying to impress his girlfriend, who was 10 years older.

PROPPER: After we sit down with Townley and his lawyer, Seymour Glanzer, I took out the autopsy photographs of Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, and Seymour Glanzer turns white. I doubt he'd ever seen one before. And we sat down and we started saying, "You've gotta tell us what happened." We also had some Cubans suspected of being connected, and they were never were going to talk to us. But Townley didn't know that. We said, "Townley, you know you're going to get life if one of these guys beats you to the punch." He finally confessed.

BRANCH: Townley testified who his superiors were, who he got his orders from.

CORNICK: He was a soldier. He believed he was doing the Chileans' work and that he was at war. He was the most dangerous man I have ever met.

BRANCH: The Watergate analogy is apt in the sense that you start with the lowest-level people, the Cubans and the operatives, and it works its way up the pant leg, to the higher officers, Contreras and arguably Pinochet, as these new documents show. The aftermath is like Watergate spread out over decades.

PROPPER: We tried to get extradition, and we had a very detailed and strong extradition package for DINA chief Manuel Contreras and his deputy Pedro Espinoza. The Chilean Supreme Court turned us down.

Eugene M. Propper, a former Assistant United States Attorney, was the chief prosecutor in the Orlando Letelier assassination case. Photo / The Washington Post
Eugene M. Propper, a former Assistant United States Attorney, was the chief prosecutor in the Orlando Letelier assassination case. Photo / The Washington Post

VALDES: There was this kind of attitude that Letelier's murder was part of business as usual when you have to support a government that, probably, you don't like too much, but you have to support it because they are our friends in the Cold War. With this logic, of course, it was very difficult to pursue a serious investigation. The Justice Department of the U.S. and the FBI not only had to surpass the difficulties of a country they didn't know, a situation they were not familiar with, they had to surpass also an enormous amount of hurdles that were here, in Washington, in the government at the time.

I have enormous admiration for the way the FBI followed this investigation.

PROPPER: I viewed the fact that we solved it as extraordinarily fortunate and to some degree lucky, even though we went to extraordinary means to do some things, but it took a while to do.

VALDES: We are very grateful to President [Bill] Clinton, because President Clinton was the first to open the archives on this issue, and we received the first documents at that time. We are also grateful to President Obama, because he has opened archives that the U.S. government wanted to use against Pinochet before his death.

VALDES: There has been nothing in the papers that we didn't imagine or we didn't know. The only thing that impresses us is that the U.S. government knew, as the result of a report written by the CIA in 1978, that Pinochet had been not only aware of the murder but had ordered the murder. And nothing was said or done in this respect during all these years, particularly when Pinochet was alive. Of course, if the U.S. government had reacted, accusing him, the situation in Chile would have changed. We would have probably recuperated democracy sooner than we did.

PETER KORNBLUH, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project: We're talking about an act of state-sponsored terrorism in the capital city in the United States of America.

This was a team of assassins sent by one of our allies, General Pinochet and his secret police team. It behooves everybody, particularly in a day and age when we're still fighting so hard against terrorism, to understand completely what happened in this particular episode of history.

Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project. Photo / The Washington Post
Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive's Chile Documentation Project and of the Cuba Documentation Project. Photo / The Washington Post

VALDES: It took an extraordinary amount of maturity by the people of Chile and by the United States, and by the government that established democracy in Chile, and the government of the United States, to have gone through this tragedy and have the excellent relationship we have now.

This is an event that changes a life, in one sense. But it didn't change one thing, which is the sense of gratitude and a sense of friendship and of love that I have developed to many Americans who were so committed to our own cause and were so close to Orlando that they have continued their whole lives to remember him at Sheridan Circle.

They have been a source of hope to us that we will end up learning all the details of what really happened during all those terrible days.

- Washington Post

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