American John Pate Murdered in Venezuela as Violence Spikes

American John Pate Murdered in Venezuela as Violence Spikes
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

On a mild evening in early August, John Pate and Sally Elizabeth Evans' Volkswagen Passat climbs the hills outside the lush Valle Arriba golf club in Caracas. The 70-year-old Pate, a tall, fair-skinned lawyer with red hair, glasses, and a soft face, had just finished his usual Sunday dinner at the club with his 67-year-old girlfriend, a blond with an infectious smile.

The sun had already set behind the mountains that surround Venezuela's capital, leaving behind a black sky. In one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it was time to get inside to safety.

From the club in the eastern part of town, Pate and Evans head into the hills, through the verdant, sloped streets to the Vista Real, their gated apartment building in the upscale Lomas de San Román neighborhood. Surrounded by palm trees, cedars, and acacias, and outfitted with 25 security cameras, the condo is a peaceful refuge even as violent crime rages in the city below.

Though they're both expatriates, Pate and Evans had lived in Venezuela long enough to watch firsthand as security deteriorated. Evans, originally from England, had arrived in the late '60s. Pate, an American, had been in Venezuela since the mid-'70s. In recent years, with near-daily shootings and kidnappings, they'd seen businesses cut back hours and streets empty earlier.

It's 8 p.m. when they unlock the door to their apartment, C-22, on the second floor. During the day, the windows look out toward the emerald valley of Caracas. Now, a dense array of urban lights dots the horizon. In the bedroom, they begin to undress for the night.

Suddenly the door flies open. Two men, each armed with a kitchen knife, rush at Pate. Before he can react, they stab him six times — four times in his back and twice in front.

Evans runs to the bathroom. The men follow, demanding the code to the apartment's safe while tying her hands together at knifepoint. Evans cowers as the intruders fill two suitcases with valuables. Before they leave, one man utters a single word: "Mátala." Kill her.

Evans is stabbed six times in the back. In the next room, Pate bleeds to death as the killers flee.

Even in a country with a soaring homicide rate, the violent robbery, which happened August 9, would soon send shock waves from Caracas to Miami. For the past four decades, Pate had braved legal threats and security risks to become a pillar of a once-thriving expat community in Caracas, refusing to leave as many colleagues fled.

"He always thought life was much more exciting in Venezuela," says Pate's son Thomas, an attorney at the downtown Miami law firm White & Case. "There was always an element of the unknown there, of wildness, and there was something kind of interesting about that."

For many attorneys — especially hundreds of Venezuelan barristers who have moved to Miami in recent years — Pate embodied an enduring belief in law and order in a country where many fear it no longer exists. His death comes at a time when foreign professionals in that country are largely seen by the government as enemies of the state and when the international businesses he worked for are blamed for widespread inequality. With a heated election looming in December, some fear Pate's murder is further proof that change won't come to Caracas anytime soon.

"John was a source of inspiration, like a legend," says Manuel Gómez, a Venezuelan who's an associate professor of law at Florida International University. "Like you're learning to play guitar, and there's Mick Jagger. Here was this gringo who had the resources and connections to relocate anywhere in the world, but he stayed there."

In 1971, John Pate packed his car outside his apartment in Boston, filled the gas tank, and headed south. A few days later, the 26-year-old student with a bushy red beard crossed the Texas-Mexico border and continued to Mexico City. There, Bill Richardson — a good friend who was visiting family in the Mexican capital for the summer — was waiting to play host during Pate's first visit to a culture he'd already spent years studying. For a week they toured the city, speaking Spanish with Richardson's family and eating homemade food.

"He'd say, 'This is our legacy, this is our continent, and we neglect it,' " says Richardson, who would go on to become the governor of New Mexico and secretary of energy in the Clinton administration. " 'We worry about Asia and Africa, but our own continent we ignore.' "

For a young man from Virginia, that summer road trip to Mexico City sowed the seeds for a passionate and lifelong love affair with Latin America — one that would soon take him to Venezuela.

Pate was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in October 1944, to two medical doctors. When he was young, his family moved to Arlington, Virginia, where he grew up. He attended Brown University as a football player, but he left the sport behind after just one semester and dove into his studies. International relations interested him most, so after law school at Boston University, he enrolled in a law and diplomacy program at the Fletcher School at Tufts University, where he met Richardson.

Even as a graduate student, Pate was a natural lawyer. He wore three-piece suits to class and carried a lawyer's briefcase, Richardson remembers. It was a period of upheaval in much of the Americas, with military authoritarian regimes in power in countries from Argentina to Peru. And in his impeccably soft and polite way, Pate would argue with professors about the importance of Latin American democracy and human rights.

"John was a committed Latin Americanist and activist way before it was fashionable," Richardson says. "He wanted to influence policy, and he felt he could do that through the law."

If Pate's trip to Mexico City ignited his adoration of Latin America, a stint in Lima cemented it as the backdrop for his life's work.

The year after returning from Mexico City, he was awarded a grant to go to Peru for six months to research the Cartagena Agreement, a 1969 accord creating the Andean Pact trade bloc of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. In Lima, he met Gertie, a Peruvian-English artist with wavy blond hair and blue eyes who taught English. The couple shared a passion for travel and a hunger for adventure, and while on a trip to Haiti, they decided to marry.

For their honeymoon, they traveled to Rio de Janeiro, where Pate attended a job fair. There, he was offered a job running a new business school in Venezuela and teaching international relations.

At the time, everyone seemed to be flocking to Caracas. In the '70s, staggering oil prices made the country a magnet for ambitious businessmen and investors. From petroleum to gold and diamonds, it was all happening in "Saudi Venezuela," where the per capita income was the highest on the continent. John Pate wanted to be there too.

In 1974, as John turned 30, the couple moved to Caracas, where he taught at the Instituto de Estudios Superiores de Administración. In a thriving expat community, he and Gertie quickly became an institution.

The Pates fell in love with Venezuela's people, food, culture, and old-school formality. Gertie, an impressionist artist, found perfect subjects in the landscapes and fauna that surrounded their small house in the green hills of Caracas. She painted murals around the city and worked with orphans. Much of her art she sold for funds to benefit children.

John, ever the scholar, was entrenched in debates inside the international business community. In 1976, fellow American Steve Menke arrived in town as a Westinghouse general manager and attended a presentation John gave at the historic Tamanaco Hotel. Menke was impressed by the young, soft-spoken Pate, who delivered his words with passion and expertise.

"He really felt he was in a fascinating place," Menke says, "and he was making a name for himself in the community."

Menke and his wife Beverly became close friends with the Pates. They shared Fourth of July barbecues, and Gertie's paintings lined the walls of the Menkes' home.

"John Pate was a true gentleman, of a different era," Beverly says. "He liked how in Caracas everyone said buenos días, and he liked to say it back. He enjoyed joy. The correctness of the culture, the amiability, the way people addressed each other — all of this was like a song to him."

Pate worked as a professor and consultant until 1981, when Venezuelan attorney Arturo De Sola approached him with an idea. De Sola, whose father was a well-known lawyer and would soon become head of the Supreme Court of Venezuela, had recently returned from interning at New York firms. And he came back with a dream that Pate shared: an international law firm in Caracas.

At the time, Venezuela was among the United States' top allies and business partners in the region. "There was no judgment about opening up to anyone," De Sola says. "It was a place where any foreigner could arrive and have the same rights as any Venezuelan."

Because Pate wasn't licensed to practice law in Venezuela, he handled international work. Fueled by pro-business President Carlos Andrés Pérez, foreign investment poured into Venezuela. Clients from all over the world sought the firm's help in navigating the investor climate, and De Sola Pate & Brown grew into one of the country's leading law firms.

"Without having obtained a law degree in our country, he was a great scholar of Venezuelan law, scrutinizing its rules diligently with wisdom and dedication," De Sola says.

In 1982, Gertie and John had a son, a precocious blond-haired boy they named Thomas John. They built a large home with a beautiful garden and decided — finally — they were not leaving Venezuela.

"They had always thought about coming back to the U.S. even though they felt it wasn't exciting and they liked the adventure in Latin America," Thomas says. "They'd say, 'Next year we'll go back.' And then at some point when I was a kid, they decided, 'We're not going; we're staying.' "

But by the late '80s, boom times had faded hard and the political winds were changing. Venezuelans — frustrated at how little wealth had filtered to the middle and lower classes — had nationalized the oil industry in 1976. Two years later, Pérez lost power. In the next decade, Venezuela's economy spiraled amid falling oil prices, high spending on social programs, and rampant corruption. In a climate of economic desperation, Pérez regained the presidency in 1988, but he couldn't bring back the magic '70s. In fact, he became the catalyst for the biggest change in Venezuelan politics — one that would make Pate a marked man.

In 1992, Hugo Chávez, a brash young army major and ardent anti-imperialist, launched a military coup, blanketing the Miraflores government palace with bullets. The coup failed and Chávez was sent to a military prison, but Chavismo — the pro-Cuban, leftist, nationalist philosophy he espoused — was just getting started.

A week later, when the violence had settled, Pérez invited a group of key businessmen to Miraflores, to the Salón de Espejos, or the Hall of Mirrors — including Menke and Pate.

"When we walked in, the walls were full of bullet holes and there was still glass on the floor, and it was clear that machine guns had just sprayed the whole hall," Menke remembers. "It was a tremendous sight. And even though everything felt chaotic, Carlos Andrés made a plea to us, just simply to maintain our strong faith in the government. And that's what John did."

American John Pate Murdered in Venezuela as Violence Spikes
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

To Pate, Coral Gables felt like a drab prison. After two decades in Venezuela, South Florida seemed so staid and orderly it was stifling. But in 1998, Pate had no choice but to make it his home — he'd been slapped with an arrest warrant in Venezuela and couldn't return to the city he loved.

The trouble traced back four years, when a crippling financial crisis sent Venezuela into economic free-fall, sinking hundreds of businesses, including the state-owned airline Aeropostal. In 1997, Pate was hired by clients seeking a share of the failed company's assets. But the shareholders soon sparked a legal fight, and Pate was accused of embezzlement and practicing law in Venezuela without a license. It was bogus, the lawyer believed, but faced with a choice between exile in Miami and life in a Venezuelan prison, Pate hopped a plane to MIA.

As Chávez — now free from jail himself and riding a wave of populist support — campaigned for Venezuelan president, Pate spent a year alone in Coral Gables, in a big house overlooking the water, while Gertie and 16-year-old Thomas remained in Caracas.

"He said he felt trapped [in Miami], like he was in a gilded cage," says Gómez, the FIU professor. "In Spanish, with his heavy English accent, he'd talk about how horrible it was not being able to go back to his country."

The exile wouldn't last long — and ironically, it was Chávez whom Pate had to thank for his return.

The onetime military usurper took office in February 1999 and quickly "cleansed" the judiciary of corrupt judges and politically linked charges. For many lawyers, it felt like a honeymoon period, and Pate, with his own indictment erased, took advantage to return.

But the honeymoon wouldn't last, and soon Pate would be a bulwark in Caracas as hundreds of other attorneys fled to Miami.

At the time of Chávez's election, Venezuela had the widest gap between rich and poor in the region. With his nationalist rhetoric, the charismatic leader won vast support from the working class, and by rewriting the constitution and concentrating on wealth redistribution, he nationalized swaths of industry and subsidized groceries, health care, and literacy. To many who had long felt ignored, Chávez became a hero.

But for the international business community, he was a disaster. Measures to restore political order scared off investors and lenders, and many foreigners, along with hundreds of thousands from Venezuela's own middle class, left the country. In 2000, Venezuela received roughly $4 billion in foreign investment. But within two years, that amount had dropped to almost zero.

In 2005, Pate told the Christian Science Monitor that his firm had lost half of its international clients since Chávez came to power. "No one is really investing to manufacture anything new," he said.

Violence also rose swiftly. Police were often criticized for turning a blind eye to crime in poor neighborhoods. By 2006, Venezuela had become one of the most violent nations in the world; crime was up almost 70 percent from 1999. A multiyear UNESCO study of 57 countries that year reported Venezuela was number one in gun-related deaths.

Life wasn't easy for lawyers either. Though Chávez promised to clean up the judiciary, critics say he began packing the Supreme Court — by then called the Supreme Tribunal of Justice — with loyalists and then using courts to arrest political opponents and even judges who disobeyed.

"The outcome of high-profile cases are usually announced by the President in his weekly televised appearances even before they occur," Gómez wrote in an article about Venezuela's legal system in 2011. "Judges who preside over controversial cases are also directed to decide in a certain way, under the threat of being labeled as traitors."

But Pate kept the faith. Richardson, by then a Clinton cabinet member, considered Pate his informal adviser on Latin America. John began sending out a newsletter update to friends and colleagues, many of them foreigners who had already left Venezuela, such as the Menkes, who had returned to the United States after Chávez's first coup attempt.

"He was quite earnest about the difficulties and the extent of the corruption, and he would express how absurd the democratic system had become," says Robert Lutz, the former chair of the American Bar Association's Section of International Law, who met Pate in the mid-'90s. "You'd ask him: 'How do you function?' And he'd say, 'Well, we manage.' "

Pate had a rich social life, for one thing, and was an active golfer. He loved the temperate weather and his charming hillside home with its colorful garden. He had amassed a huge library, with thousands of books, and traveled the world to conferences and bar association events. He mentored young lawyers, correcting and editing their documents kindly and always "with a red pen," De Sola says.

And though Thomas studied law in the United States, at Harvard and then the University of Miami, he and his father remained close friends and confidants. In 2007, when Gertie died suddenly of an asthma attack, Pate found solace in his Caracas community.

"There was this sense of optimism that kept him there," Beverly Menke says, "always that sense of 'It can't get worse; we'll see it come back.' But it always got worse."

In 2013, Chávez died after 14 years in power and a long battle with cancer, leaving behind a deeply polarized country and many hopeful for change. But his vice president, Nicolás Maduro, was soon elected by a slim margin, inheriting rampant crime and a faltering economy.

In recent years, Pate told friends abroad of a more rapid and severe decline. Foreign investment is almost nonexistent now, except from Russia and China. The rhetoric against outside investors, especially those from the United States, has reached a boiling point. The government has silenced opposition and the press and has not published comprehensive crime statistics in more than a decade. Murders are thought to have climbed fourfold in the past 16 years, according to the nonprofit Venezuelan Violence Observatory. The murder rate in Caracas is around 150 per month. Someone dies violently every 20 minutes in Venezuela. Many people travel in armored vehicles, and high-profile professionals such as criminal attorneys have bodyguards.

Hundreds of Pate's colleagues have migrated to South Florida in recent years, many to the Venezuelan communities of Doral and Weston. The Venezuelan American National Bar Association was even formed to help recent arrivals — though many find practicing law in the States impossible.

"It's going to be an expensive and long journey," says the association's director, Adriana Moreno Kostencki. "You see many who don't [practice law], who open restaurants or finance or consulting businesses."

Anna Pierluissi, a 32-year-old attorney, left in 2013. The violence simply became too much. After attempting to open an ice-cream shop with her husband in Doral, she's now a first-year law student at the University of Miami. "In Venezuela, I can survive with a hard economic situation, and I can get by with a low salary," she says. "But the violence... waking up in the morning and praying you're going to arrive where you have to go? That's not a way to live."

Pate felt those same pressures. He knew security was deteriorating and even bought an armored car. "He always worried about the security," De Sola says. "We changed the hours at the office so that it closes at 5 p.m., so everyone can get home before it gets dark."

But Pate also found another reason to stay: He'd found love again, with Sally Elizabeth Evans Oquendo, who had moved to Venezuela from London in the '60s and founded a popular cookie brand with her Venezuelan husband. Like John, she was widowed but chose to remain.

"It's hard for some people to understand, but John was happy here," says Richard Brown, Pate's partner at De Sola Pate & Brown, a 76-year-old Columbia University grad who has also stayed in Caracas. "My children want me to leave immediately, but if I go live in Florida, I'm just another retired guy. I know two or three people in Florida, and that's it. You can't just go home again."

But this year, hyperinflation and skyrocketing unemployment have made life even more difficult. In the past six months, food has become scarce, and people are growing desperate, lining up for hours each day to get basic necessities. It's often impossible to find even cooking oil or a roll of toilet paper in Caracas. But a tank of gas, Thomas points out, "still costs less than a U.S. penny."

Over the years, Pate filled the email inboxes of his friends and contacts with updates on Venezuela — a habit that lasted until his death. Two days before his murder, he sent his final update, about the Supreme Tribunal of Justice's refusal to enforce the publication of statistics including the inflation rate.

"Sin sorpresa, pero no por ello menos indignante," he wrote. "No surprise, but no less outrageous."

"John deeply loved this country and, despite the current reality, never thought of abandoning it," De Sola says. "He was a true revolutionary. He would always say, 'We must build.' "

Just before midnight Sunday, August 9, Sally's son Richard Oquendo dialed Arturo De Sola to tell him that John Pate, his friend and business partner of more than 35 years, was dead.

"It can't be. It can't be," De Sola uttered repeatedly. When he finally told his wife, who sat by his side, she burst into tears. De Sola then called Richard back several times because he simply could not believe the news.

Monday morning, news of John Pate's death traveled across the world, spurring an outpouring of grief. Considering Venezuela's overloaded, underfunded, and corrupt policing system, where 90 percent of murders go unpunished, many feared justice would never be served. But it took just ten days for officials to make arrests in Pate's murder.

In the minutes after the robbers had fled the couple's apartment, Sally managed to untie herself. Dripping with blood, she ran to a neighbor's apartment. She was rushed to the hospital in critical condition but miraculously survived.

Thomas soon traveled to Venezuela with his wife Grecia, a Caracas native who works as an attorney at HBO Latin America in Miami. Between calls and visits to arrange his father's funeral, they met with colleagues, friends, and the prosecutor handling the case — a young woman saddled with more than 1,600 cases.

But Pate's murder wasn't an average case of street violence, and police soon made a breakthrough. They reviewed video footage from security cameras and interviewed everyone who worked in the condo building. While recovering from a punctured lung, Sally gave testimony of the terrifying details she witnessed.

When police showed her photos of the faces of the alleged attackers, she was shocked. Though she hadn't seen his face during the robbery, one of the intruders was a young man she knew well: Juan Carlos Pimentel Pacheco, a groundskeeper who worked in the building. John and Sally had actually lent him tools to help with the gardening.

On August 18, Venezuela's attorney general announced during her weekly radio show that Pimentel, who is 24, and Antoni José Rodríguez Moreno, 26, had been arrested in Pate's murder. The robbery was Pimentel's idea, police said. He brought in Rodríguez Moreno plus a third, "professional" thief, Rhony Antonio García Martínez, nicknamed "Onion," to provide the know-how. Just after the couple arrived home from dinner, the men had entered the apartment with the intent to rob them, sneaking through a kitchen window that was unlit because of nearby repairs.

The men claim they didn't expect anyone to be home and panicked when they realized John and Sally were in the bedroom. "I think once they saw my dad and realized he knew who they were, they felt they had to kill him," Thomas says. "And so then they had to kill Sally too."

John's family was grateful to have some closure with the arrests. But the case follows a regular trend. In Venezuela, many complain that crimes are solved only in high-profile incidents, such as the murder of former Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear in January 2014.

"In our case, the Venezuelan authorities have been extremely helpful, and the police and government put a lot of resources into it," Thomas says. "But I think in a lot of cases, they lack resources. They're simply not equipped to deal with the numbers of crimes."

In Cementerio del Este, a hundred people gathered August 13 to say goodbye to John, and Arturo De Sola read a moving tribute to his friend on behalf of all the lawyers in the firm. He called him a true "gentleman" — an example, a tutor, and a teacher.

"Many people may not be able to understand how two people who look so different could share the same space," De Sola said. "Besides a passion for the law that bound us, among John's many virtues was his ability to listen and understand."

When police captured the assailants and recovered John and Sally's possessions, the CICPC — Venezuela's equivalent to the FBI — published a photo of the pickings that had cost John his life and left Sally severely wounded.

The robbers had made off with a few thousand dollars in cash, three used BlackBerry phones, four old watches, and three pairs of scuffed sneakers.

American John Pate Murdered in Venezuela as Violence Spikes
Illustration by Pat Kinsella

Thomas Pate sits in his firm's downtown Miami office building, inside a quiet and pristine meeting room on the 49th floor of the Southeast Financial Center, looking out to Biscayne Bay and the cruise ships at PortMiami. The sun shines brightly outside as he sips Perrier from a paper cup. He's back to his busy work schedule, which involves constant travel to Latin America.

But a month after the incident, he's still wracked by thoughts of his father's murder. The tall, blond 33-year-old resembles his father, and he rubs his eyes and stares solemnly as he speaks. His dad, he says, was always his role model.

"I'm focused on Latin America, taking after my dad," he says. "So many people I know, I know through him. So much of what I do is inspired by him."

While John's family wrestles with their personal tragedy and the ongoing police investigation, his colleagues and neighbors in Caracas are readying for an election in December that could wrest power from the socialist party in the national assembly for the first time since Chávez was elected.

In a sign of the charged and deeply polarized political climate in Venezuela, the day after John Pate's murder, a government website was already denouncing him for his role in the '90s Aeropostal case and for his ties to business elites.

"Pate was an accomplice in the crime of aggravated misappropriation... in the privatization of a state-owned airline... and was also alleged to have practiced law illegally," the government-linked website Aporrea wrote. It also connected Pate "to wealthy families of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie."

But friends and family say Pate's cachet never had anything to do with wealth. Despite his professional prestige, he lived simply. His most prized possessions were his books.

"He was never a flashy person and always lived a low-key lifestyle," Thomas says. "His attitude was 'Well, I don't have a lot of expensive things, I'm a simple guy, so I should be fine.' "

John's family has tried to concentrate on the case against his murderers. Sally is still recovering from her wounds at a hidden apartment while police search for Onion Martínez, the professional thief who remains at large. She talks to Thomas regularly. (She declined to speak with New Times for this story.)

But they're also watching the bigger story unfold in the nation Pate loved and hoping the violence that took his life might be curtailed. "Just being back there was so shocking — it's gotten so bad," Thomas says. "The personal-security issue has gotten very difficult to deal with. A lot of people I know have been kidnapped or their family members have been kidnapped. People are having a hard time with a lot of shortages, and it's driving people to borderline desperation."

Last month, the high-profile case of one of Venezuela's top anti-government leaders again underscored the challenges facing the rule of law in Venezuela. After Leopoldo López was found guilty of inciting violence in 2014 protests and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison, international human rights groups decried the lack of judicial independence in the trial. Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the country's legal handling of the case was abominable. During the closed-door trial, the court rejected nearly all of the defense witnesses while allowing the prosecution more than 100 testimonies.

"The baseless conviction... exposes the extreme deterioration of the rule of law in Venezuela," HRW said in a statement. "The trials involved egregious due process violations and failed to provide evidence linking the accused to a crime."

The opposition hopes López's conviction will fuel greater outrage at the polls in December's legislative elections, which are timed to commemorate Chávez's election December 6, 1998. Polls show Maduro's ruling party badly trailing as sinking oil prices have spiked issues such as crime, shortages, inflation, and governance.

"I have hope that the country is going to change," De Sola says. "It has to change. People are tired, and this is our opportunity."

Venezuelan migration to South Florida, meanwhile, continues at a torrid pace. The most recent U.S. Census data in 2010 reported 46,000 Venezuelans in Miami-Dade County, but that number is likely much higher now. Broward's Weston had the highest number and highest percentage of Venezuelans in the country, at 9.4 percent of the city's residents.

Thomas still understands why his father loved Venezuela and why he never felt the need to leave. "I get it — you have a lot of nice things there, and a lot of bad things as well," he says. "I suppose you take the good with the bad, like anywhere. That was always my dad's view. The problem is when something like this happens to you, you really change your view on how dangerous it is."

For Thomas, working long days has been a necessary distraction these past few weeks. But it's in the quiet moments, alone or before bed, when he can't escape thoughts of his father and of the violence perpetrated against him. That, he says, leaves him depressed.

"We spoke everyday," he says. "He was my best friend. And you know, he really hoped to be there to see the country turn around."

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