The Assassin Next Door

Chile's infamous undercover operative Armando Fernandez Larios has lived a quiet life in Miami. But his past is about to catch up with him.

After more than a decade of suburban, middle-class existence in a Kendall condominium, Armando Fernandez Larios has lately felt obliged to resume his secret-agent ways. The former undercover operative for Chile's National Intelligence Directorate in the bloody postcoup years of the mid-Seventies does not live where he says he lives, and the corporation he set up to provide himself an occupation does nothing at all. His home telephone number does not ring at his house but relays calls to a cell phone. Answering that phone, a man with a Chilean accent responds to the salutation, "Señor Fernandez?" by asking who is calling, then invariably saying that Señor Fernandez is out of town.

His Miami lawyer says Fernandez works at an auto-body repair shop, though he won't name the establishment. If it's true he is in the business of repairing damaged automobiles, and if you believe life finds winding ways to exhibit an odd sort of congruence, such a thing would credit your hypothesis. For 23 years ago Armando Fernandez Larios helped blow up a car, a sky-blue Chevrolet Chevelle, as it drove through traffic a few blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C., in the only assassination of a foreign diplomat ever to take place on U.S. soil.

The explosion took the lives of two people and left the Chevy in smoking shambles. Years later, finding refuge in the very nation where he committed his crime, Fernandez made what he believed were amends in his life, a life he thought he had repaired. But if he seems wary today, it is likely he feels on the nape of his neck the warm panting of his past catching up with him.

September 21, 1976: Two more dead in Pinochet's bloody fight for power
September 21, 1976: Two more dead in Pinochet's bloody fight for power
Marked for death: Orlando Letelier was considered a danger to the Pinochet regime
AP/Wide World Photo
Marked for death: Orlando Letelier was considered a danger to the Pinochet regime


Read Part 2

Ronni Moffitt was humming, maybe a classical air she had played the night before on her flute, as the car traversed Washington on the morning of September 21, 1976. Driving the Chevelle was a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies where Ronni, a 25-year-old researcher and newlywed, also worked. His name was Orlando Letelier, a former foreign minister for the government of Chile who had been forced to leave his country to avoid torture or death. A man named Virgilio Paz, a communist-hating Cuban exile from Miami, was following Letelier and Moffitt in another car. Near Sheridan Circle he gathered up his nerve and pressed a button on a device plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Ronni Moffitt's husband of four months, Michael, who also worked for the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank, was in the back seat of the Chevy. He heard a hissing sound, like a hot iron being thrust into a basin of water, he later recounted.

The hissing noise emanated from a mundane beeper of the type used by doctors and drug dealers circa 1976, modified to activate a detonator embedded in C-4 plastique packed with TNT. These were molded into a baking pan purchased at Sears, along with the electrical tape that affixed the contraption to the underside of the chassis.

A white flash. A noise some witnesses likened to the sound of an artillery shell exploding. The vehicle aflame and hanging in the air, carried forward until it fell and crashed into a parked Volkswagen.

Both Letelier's long legs (he was a tall man) were blown off and to pieces (his left foot, socked and shod, remained fifteen yards from the charred wreck even after the site had been cordoned off). The upper part of his body turned around in the remnant of the driver's seat so that when a dazed Michael Moffitt tried to pull him from the vehicle, the former diplomat was facing the back seat and wearing an expression of astonishment at the fact that his car was on fire and his legs were gone and blood was falling in gouts from his ragged thighs. Minutes later, before the ambulance arrived, he died.

Ronni Moffitt, her hair singed and her face blackened, stumbled to the curbside grass, clutching her throat. Her carotid artery and her windpipe had been severed. Though blood was gurgling thickly from her mouth, more flowed down her trachea into her lungs. She drowned in her blood.

Armando Fernandez Larios is a former Chilean army officer who for several years was an agent of that country's notorious security apparatus, known by the fear-inspiring acronym DINA. By his own admission, he helped kill Orlando Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, though he claims he did so unwittingly.

Two months ago Fernandez turned 50. His legal address is the Kingston Square condominiums on SW 77th Avenue, a few blocks from Dadeland Mall. The unit he purchased in October 1988 is on the west side of the complex of two dozen cream-color buildings, eight units apiece, arrayed around a pool and tennis courts.

The complex is gated, and requires a remote-control device to enter and leave. Even so, it's not hard to slip in. Six visits there in recent weeks -- morning, evening, midday -- found the condominium unit always empty. "He's never here," said the woman who lives in the condo below Fernandez.

Does he sleep there?

"Not in recent months," she replied.

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