By Chuck Strouse
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By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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The link between Patricia Poleo and the murder of Danilo Anderson was based on the testimony of a single witness, a Colombian named Geovanny Vásquez, who spun a story of international intrigue worthy of an appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger in fatigues.
According to El Nacional reporter Laura Weffer, who compiled Vásquez's story from Venezuelan media accounts in a book called El Testigo y Sus Verdades (The Witness and His Truths), Vásquez was a shadowy figure with little credibility a weak peg on which to hang a murder allegation.
His story began in 2003 in the tiny town of Fundación, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela, where he claimed to have served as a psychiatrist and a commander of a local group of right-wing paramilitaries. He described a mission to organize a highly secret meeting deep in the remotest jungles where Panama borders Colombia. It was here, Vásquez later told the state-run television channel, VTV, that the conspirators of Anderson's murder first met to hatch their plans. Poleo was there, he said, in a leadership capacity. Also supposedly in attendance were the CIA, the FBI, and a member of Cuban exile group Comandos F-4. At a subsequent meeting, Vásquez charged, Poleo suggested Anderson's assassination.
The Venezuelan media began investigating Geovanny Vásquez's background. They found that not only was he not a psychiatrist his diploma from John Hopkins University was a fake but also he had been in jail in Colombia at the time of the first meeting for pretending to be one. Among other roles in a varied career as a con artist, Vásquez had also claimed to be a black belt in karate and tae kwon do, a certified English teacher, and an ex-FBI agent. His alleged coconspirators declared they had no connection to the man.
Even four of Anderson's six siblings held a press conference together to declare they thought the government was lying to them. "This is just another lie from the attorney general," said Anderson's sister Marisela. His brother Juan José Menéndez Anderson openly expressed his cynicism. "Look, nobody can get it out of my head that the government knows who paid for Danilo's death," he told TV news show El Observador. "That they don't want to say it, and for what reason, I can't tell you, but the government knows who killed Danilo." Attorney General Rodríguez claimed the siblings were being paid by the opposition.
In January 2006 the government reacted to the media's revelations about their star witness by declaring, through a federal judge, that the media would not be allowed to discuss any aspects of Vásquez's private life. The directive was largely ignored, and only stoked further international claims of media censorship. On August 13, 2006, Rodríguez admitted to Weffer that Vásquez had lied to them. "He told us a story," said Rodríguez. "He wooed us, we believed him, we followed him with both feet."
After she was charged with plotting Danilo Anderson's murder, Patricia Poleo spent nearly a month hiding in a location she says she cannot reveal. To her the charges were absurd. "I don't know any of the other three accused," she says. "This meeting never happened; I've never been to Panama in my life. They didn't even bother to look up our movements through immigration. They didn't check with the other countries to see if we had entered them or not. They even claimed I had used a body double, because I'm on television and in the media all the time in Venezuela."
For a month she tried to determine her legal options. She says her lawyers presented documents in her defense that prosecutors refused to accept. The other three people charged with planning the crime turned themselves in and spent three weeks in prison, but Poleo refused. "I knew my case was different," she says, "and I knew they wouldn't have let me go. If I had been there, none of us would have gotten out. I was the one that interested them." She accepted exile as on option. On December 9, 2005, Poleo boarded a boat to Curacao and then flew to Miami. Her daughter joined her two days later.
A year later, more than two years after Anderson's murder, Attorney General Isaías Rodríguez declared the "conclusive action" to the case: The three intellectual authors who had remained in Venezuela were exonerated for lack of evidence. Poleo, however, remains a "fugitive of justice" and is still charged. If she were to return to Venezuela, she says she would surely be thrown in jail: "The attorney general said there was no proof against me but that he was not going to close the case. It is a political thing."
Rodríguez says charges will be reopened against all four suspects if and when the justice department receives new evidence. He recently named a new witness, a Colombian paramilitary named Rafael García. Not only is García currently in a Colombian jail, but also, in an April 2006 interview with El Nuevo Herald, he denied knowledge of any plan to assassinate Anderson.