Murdered in Havana
Two years ago a 47-year-old United States citizen named George Zirwas was murdered in his apartment in Havana. The death -- in a nation still legally off-limits to most Americans -- made for tantalizing news, and Zirwas's past as a Roman Catholic priest only complicated the mystery. Cuba-obsessed South Floridians were especially curious after it turned out Zirwas had lived for a time in Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.
Beyond the initial reports, though, almost no accurate information about the man or the circumstances of his demise (even the cause of death) emerged publicly. In Cuba, where murders are rare and almost never mentioned in the state-run media, only those with access to street gossip had heard about the potentially politically sensitive incident.
But Zirwas never became a public-relations problem for either Cuba or the U.S. In fact everyone from the State Department in Washington to his devastated family in Pennsylvania seemed to want the whole ghastly matter, and all questions about Zirwas and his life in Cuba, out of the way -- quickly and quietly.
Three months after the murder a Havana man was tried, convicted, and sentenced to die by firing squad. News of the trial and later appeals never made it to the U.S. Thus few people are aware of the unusual way George Zirwas died, or of the two similar murders his killer confessed to, or that the killer's death sentence was later commuted in virtual secrecy.
It's as though Zirwas vanished into the crumbling corridors of old Havana, leaving behind only enigmatic traces. His friends relate half-truths about him, making it all the more difficult to know him or to make sense of his untimely and undeserved passing. Yet Zirwas, who prized irony and absurdity, would probably prefer to rest in eternal ambiguity. Even if his family and closest colleagues in the church had been willing to talk about him for this article (they weren't), they couldn't explain him, for Zirwas never fully revealed himself either to his family or his church, the two institutions that formed him and which he loved faithfully, even while deceiving them.
Zirwas probably loved his Cuban boyfriend, Ulises, too. He left him a substantial amount of money in his will, a small fortune by Cuban standards. Ulises describes a fun, affectionate life with Zirwas, but he carefully omits facts that would blur the idyllic picture, thus reinforcing the perception that little in this strange story is as it first appears.
Ulises Sierra Tabares, a nurse on the psychiatric ward at Manuel Fajardo Hospital in Havana, finished his overnight shift at seven o'clock on the dewy, cloudy morning of May 27, 2001. As usual Ulises headed home to the apartment in Centro Habana he shared with George Zirwas. It was Sunday, and later in the day, in what over the previous three years had become a weekly ritual, the pair would enjoy an afternoon feast -- roast pork, yuca, congri, fried plantains -- in the tiny apartment where Ulises's family lived in the nearby Vedado neighborhood. Zirwas raved about the platos tipicos Ulises's mother loved to cook for him.
A coal miner's son from Washington County, Pennsylvania, Zirwas had appeared on Havana's robust gay scene in late 1997, still proud of his conservative American roots. But he rarely disclosed exactly how far from Pennsylvania he had come. For fifteen years, until 1996, he was a Roman Catholic priest. Then, after being linked inconclusively to a sex scandal, he was stripped of his priestly duties.
In Havana this bespectacled former cleric created for himself a flamboyant life that little in his past could have foreshadowed. Like other foreigners living comfortably, even luxuriously, amid the poverty and civil constraints of Cuban society, Zirwas was freer to remake himself than he ever could have been in the United States. But he wasn't simply escaping a troubled past. Even before he met Ulises Sierra, Zirwas had fallen in love with Cuba and its proud, predatory, and relentlessly resourceful people.
Zirwas's fascination with Cuba also owed to the unknowable nature of the island, where appearances often deceive and extravagant beauty can blind. Wonderland was one of the several names Zirwas bestowed on the island. He was enchanted by the surrealities and contradictions with which Cubans live and play, and which they always turn to their advantage. Cuba is, after all, a place where people use the verb inventar (invent) to describe how they go about their daily lives.
For close to three years Zirwas and Ulises lived in a modestly furnished apartment on Calle Mazón near its intersection with Calle San Rafael, just east of the University of Havana. The neighborhood, straddling the boundary of Vedado and Centro Habana, is well-maintained and lively. In late afternoons Zirwas was in the habit of walking his pet Chihuahuas, Taco and Tico, a half-dozen blocks northwest to little Colina Park, next door to the lovely Colina Hotel. The brick-paved park is a natural rest stop close to hotels and restaurants, media offices, and university buildings. Zirwas would claim his favorite iron bench (facing south, nearest the sidewalk) and survey the striving, sweating Havana street scene.
At all hours a rich variety of people can be spotted at the park: women waiting on buses, students, a tourist or two, pretty boys on the make, unpretty men looking them over. Colina Park is not one of Havana's major gay pickup spots, but meetings and arrangements do take place. It was probably there, perhaps a month earlier, that Zirwas met young Abel Medina Valdes, posing unimaginatively as a "masseur" (common code for "pretty boy for rent"). Medina and his half-brother would later confess to killing Zirwas and leaving him in his bed for his lover to find that Sunday morning.
As Ulises arrived at the front door of the apartment, he was surprised to see their parakeet Tweety, his cage still hanging in the open front window, which was always closed at night. He unlocked the wooden door and found Taco and Tico out of place too, in the front room instead of in bed with their master.
"I called out twice: 'George? George?'"
Ulises is recounting the life and death of George Zirwas in Cuba, at least as much as he knows and is willing to discuss, more than a year and a half after the murder. Now 34 years old, Ulises is of medium height and build, with thinning light-brown hair. He is seated at an open-air fast-food café on 23rd Street in Vedado, wearing a lab coat over jeans since he'll start work in a few hours. He doesn't want anything to eat (admittedly the scrawny ham sandwiches and perros calientes for sale in U.S. dollars are less than appetizing). Nor does a can of beer or bottle of chilled water appeal to him, even with the burning, deep-gold afternoon sun falling harshly across his fine features, penetrating his ivory skin and hazel eyes. Ulises concentrates instead on recollecting. He has an exceptionally pleasing and expressive voice, which he doesn't waste on unseemly or ragged details. Occasionally his eyes well with tears.
He stepped through the kitchen on his way to their bedroom, half-dreading what he would find but never imagining the worst. "I looked in," Ulises goes on, "and he was lying face down on the bed, and his neck and the side of his face I could see -- the skin was dark, black. I ran out into the street in a panic. I was calling, 'George is dead! George is dead!' It was the only thing that came out of my mouth."
In a few minutes he recovered some composure and called the police. An American friend of Zirwas had been asleep in the back bedroom of the apartment. Ulises's commotion awakened her and she too rushed outside, where she sat on the curb weeping. Shocked and curious neighbors began to venture near the front door. Within minutes they saw as many as a dozen police cars race up Calle Mazón. The officers blocked off the street and began questioning Ulises, a process that would continue into the next morning at Havana's Villa Marista state security headquarters. The body was removed on a stretcher. Neighbors remember seeing large purplish feet sticking out from under the sheet that wasn't quite long enough to cover Zirwas's tall frame.
The rest of the day detectives dusted for fingerprints and confiscated most of Ulises's clothes and possessions. Missing from the apartment were Zirwas's cell phone, a VCR, stereo equipment and some CDs, and a Davidoff Cool Water tote bag. The killers didn't take the ten-dollar bill Zirwas had slipped between the pages of a book, ready to pay for the "massage." Nor did they come across the $5000 stashed in a dresser and a suitcase.
Around nightfall an investigator found an address book and dialed the number of George's ailing 83-year-old mother at the family home in McDonald, Pennsylvania. The Cuban detective, though, could barely speak English. According to friends who learned of the call, a frantic Agnes Zirwas couldn't be sure what had happened to her youngest son, heightening her distress. Within the next few days George's two brothers, Frank and Matthew, verified his death (by strangling, they were told, incorrectly) but they were stymied in efforts to have the remains brought home to Pennsylvania for burial. Frank was quoted in a wire-service story as saying his brother had "lived [in Cuba] on and off for the last three years, delivering toothbrushes, clothing, and other items to people there." He complained the Catholic Church had not given George final sacraments nor was it helping transport the body back to the U.S.
The family contacted their congressman, who enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of State and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. On June 11, two weeks after his death, Zirwas was buried in his vestments at his boyhood parish of St. Alphonsus. Twenty priests, two bishops, and more than a hundred mourners attended the full funeral mass. One of Zirwas's nephews sent a videotape of the funeral to Ulises.
Even before he was in the ground, though, Zirwas was the subject of scrutiny, speculation, and rumor, especially on the bustling Internet chat sites he had frequented with a passion. There was persistent talk he had been involved with pornography and/or prostitution rings. A week after the murder, during a routine briefing at the State Department in Washington, a reporter asked spokesman Richard Boucher about unspecified "trafficking" by Zirwas (Boucher said he'd try to find out, but the subject apparently didn't come up again). Zirwas's travel to Cuba no doubt violated the U.S. trade embargo; however, there's no evidence of anything more questionable than him sneaking through U.S. Customs a handful of cheap Cuban cigars whenever he re-entered the U.S. on periodic visits.
A Pittsburgh television station aired "special reports" theorizing Zirwas may have been killed because some of his prolific e-mails had been critical of unjust and oppressive aspects of Cuban society. That notion briefly took flight among South Florida's Cuban exiles, but it wasn't true. Even though hard facts about the man and his death were scarce, the story was too intriguing, too puzzling -- too exotic -- to ignore. As one of his Internet acquaintances wrote: "George's murder has it all, really -- Catholic priests, a previous semi-covered-up sex scandal, Cuban rent boys, illegal travel, the Internet.... And all set in wonderful crazy Havana!"
After some months the talk died down. As if to protect his memory, most of Zirwas's family, friends, and former colleagues stopped speaking about him to outsiders. Internet gossip disappeared, as did a commemorative Website featuring a photo of Zirwas superimposed on a Cuban flag.
George Zirwas, a seminary classmate recounts, used to mockingly tell acquaintances he was from "Hooterville" -- in reality the town of McDonald, population 2300, tucked into the rolling hills of southwestern Pennsylvania. This was coal-mining country until the Eighties, when most of the mines closed down. Generations of Zirwas men, including George's father and brothers, worked as coal miners. But George was drawn to service work, inspired by his religious mother, a retired nurse. In 1974 he began theological studies at St. Paul Seminary in Pittsburgh and completed training at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland. He was ordained in 1979. Over the next fifteen years the Pittsburgh diocese placed him in eight different parishes, all close to home.
Each of the ten other men in Zirwas's graduating class at Mount St. Mary's was contacted for this story, though only a few responded to inquiries. The sketchy picture of Zirwas that emerges from schoolmates' recollections is nevertheless consistent, reflecting an engaging, compassionate man who was at the same time an opinionated, conservative Catholic.
"I remember you always knew where George Zirwas stood," offers Father James Orr, priest at Holy Family Parish in New Brighton, Pennsylvania. "George and I weren't particularly close; we talked to one another occasionally but never had heart-to-heart discussions. That being said, in seminary he was a fairly conservative individual and was, I guess you would say, outspoken in his thoughts. It was a pretty conservative point of view. For example, he advocated maintaining the use of Latin in the liturgy."
As far as Holly Zirwas McIntyre is concerned, her Uncle George was a normal, fun-loving guy who had been "a priest since before I remember." McIntyre is now the mother of four children, the three eldest of whom Zirwas knew and doted on. "I was his favorite [niece]," McIntyre recently said by phone from her residence at the Fort Benning, Georgia, Army base, from which her husband was deployed to Kuwait several months ago. "He was great. He put everybody else's feelings before his own. When my dad, his brother, was in the Persian Gulf [War], he helped my grandmother take care of me. He would take me shopping and out to lunch or to dinner. He'd pick up me and my friends and take us to movies."
McIntyre declined to reminisce further. Efforts to contact other family members were unsuccessful. Zirwas's friends in Havana who have communicated with the family believe his mother and brothers (his father died in 1981) never knew or wanted to know about his sexual orientation. Yet homosexuality was the one inescapable determinant of his life and career, and finally his death.
The beginning of the end of Zirwas's career came in 1988, when three Pittsburgh-area priests were accused of sexually abusing two young brothers, former altar boys, over a period of years. Reverends Robert Wolk, Richard Zula, and Francis Pucci were Zirwas's friends, and he had been in the vicinity during at least one incident of abuse. When allegations first surfaced in 1987, the diocese removed the three priests from their parishes and sent two for psychiatric counseling, but initially kept the matter from law-enforcement authorities, as was common church practice before widespread sexual abuse by priests became an international scandal. In this early case the victims and their family went to state prosecutors, who took Wolk and Zula to trial. Pucci escaped criminal charges because the statute of limitations had expired.
Zirwas's association with the accused priests was first revealed during the trial of Zula. One of the victims testified that in 1984, when he was fifteen, Zula had rented a suite for a weekend at Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County, 80 miles southeast of Pittsburgh. Upon arriving, the victim related, he helped Zula unload snacks and whiskey from the car. Within a half-hour Zirwas arrived at the resort in the company of two other boys. The youths Zirwas brought along left the suite to swim and play racquetball while Zula and his guest began drinking shots of whiskey and beer. Then he and Zula went into a bedroom and performed oral sex on each other. Zirwas remained alone in another room. That was the extent of the information about him that surfaced publicly.
Eventually Wolk spent a decade in prison; Zula received a lighter sentence after a plea bargain in which 138 counts of molestation were dropped. In 1989, six months after the convictions, Zirwas was transferred, and less than two years later he was reassigned again. He remained at St. Scholastica, outside Pittsburgh, until May 1994, moved again, and shortly thereafter requested a six-month leave of absence for personal reasons.
In July 1995 he was assigned to St. Maurice in suburban Forest Hills, but three months later took another leave. In February 1996 the Pittsburgh diocese placed him on administrative leave, the most severe discipline short of laicization (denial of any clerical status) that can be taken against a priest. Zirwas could no longer identify himself as a priest, wear the clerical collar, or publicly celebrate the sacraments. His name was expunged from the diocesan directory and the Official Catholic Directory of the United States. He did, however, continue to receive a pension and health insurance.
"I think the diocese had the goods on him," asserts Ann Rodgers-Melnick, religion writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who was first to reveal Zirwas's disciplinary history after his death. "His friends were pedophiles. And at the very least he did nothing to intervene at Seven Springs in a circumstance that would look suspicious to anybody with any sense. I think somebody came forward and either the statute of limitations had expired and they weren't able to prosecute, or the person may not have wanted to press charges because of the publicity. Whatever the reason, there had to have been some kind of trigger. Administrative leave is a serious, permanent punishment for wrongdoing; it's not the kind of leave you take if you're sick or need a rest."
Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh diocese, would not reveal the reasons behind Zirwas's administrative leave, citing the confidentiality of personnel records. Lengwin did acknowledge that Zirwas had sought extensive medical care after being placed on leave. Some of his friends continue to insist the neurological malady Guillain-Barré syndrome (with which Zirwas was reportedly diagnosed at some point but which improved) was responsible for his relocation to South Florida and subsequent travels to Costa Rica and Cuba. But it's doubtful Zirwas migrated south solely for the weather. "Florida is known as a place for bad priests," observes Rodgers-Melnick. "Every bad priest I've known has gone to Florida."
Zirwas's motives for choosing Fort Lauderdale are unknown, and none of his friends has any idea why he then began traveling to Costa Rica, other than the several gay resorts there. He apparently first heard raves about Cuba as a travel destination from men he met in Costa Rica. In any case, Zirwas could have been planning a move to Florida for at least a year before his administrative leave was official. In January 1995 he bought a house in Fort Lauderdale, then sold it five months later. In December of that year he closed on a condominium on NE Fourteenth Avenue, which he rented out in the years before his death. Public records place Zirwas in an apartment on West Avenue in Miami Beach in 1997 and 1998.
Today it's hard to find evidence of his presence in South Florida. The Catholic dioceses of Fort Lauderdale and Miami never had contact with him. Leading gay organizations don't know him. The current owner of Zirwas's condo, a graphic designer from New York, says he never met the man but read about his murder on the Internet after buying the place in late 2001. What little information the graphic designer did find led him to theorize Zirwas might have been murdered because he'd criticized the Cuban government. A few other condo residents who had met Zirwas also figured his safety was tenuous in Cuba. "I always said he'd get himself killed," recalls a neighbor who had superficial conversations with the ex-priest at two or three condo-association meetings. "We're talking about a communist country."
But Zirwas had learned that Cuba is not so easily defined or quickly dismissed, least of all by its close neighbors in the United States, who have been subjected to decades of misinformation from both sides of the Florida Straits. He frequently criticized what he saw as Cuban exiles' political hypocrisy, and he tried to get his point across with letters to the editors of two U.S. newspapers, both during the Elian Gonzalez controversy of 1999-2000.
After the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Zirwas's hometown paper, published a series of Cuba-related stories, he wrote arguing for an end to the U.S. embargo. "It is a sad commentary on the members of our government," Zirwas concluded his December 6, 1999, letter, "that in order to secure contributions from the Cuban exiles in Miami ... the embargo continues. The tragedy, however, is that the victims of the embargo are not the Castro regime but the suffering Cuban people. This involves more than politics; it is about human justice."
On February 6, 2000, a letter from "Rev. George Zirwas, Fort Lauderdale" appeared in the Miami Herald. This was after Elian's grandmothers had flown from Cuba to meet with him in the home of Barry University president Sister Jeanne O'Laughlin, who afterward declared her opposition to reuniting Elian with his father. "As a priest, I was taught the supremacy of the family," Zirwas wrote. "Obviously, Sister Jeanne takes a dim view of family values. There are happy families and happy children in Cuba. I've seen them. A child should be united with a father who loves him, in whatever country that may be." It's a sign of Zirwas's passionate feelings on the subject that, in violation of the terms of his administrative leave, he identified himself as a priest.
Andree Kahl, the American friend who was sleeping in Zirwas's apartment when he was murdered, said his years in Cuba had softened him. "He felt like he had grown a lot," Kahl e-mailed New Times last year. "At one point in his life he was a conservative Republican, very repressed and judgmental. He wasn't bitter about the church, though. He still maintained that core belief."
On his tropical island, planted amid Havana's ornate gray ruins, Zirwas re-created something like a kitschy, pop-culture version of his former pastoral existence. He was a Calle Mazón fixture, ensconced with a laptop computer on the sofa just inside his front door, greeting passersby and eagerly sending long, literate, and catty messages into cyberspace. Under the name El Juez (the judge), he presided over the entertaining Green Screen, a much-visited chat site set up to assist travelers to Cuba. (Zirwas maintained an illegal Internet connection through the Cuban phone service, with the help of clever Cuban friends, until Internet cards -- similar to phone cards -- became available.)
Ulises met George on his first visit to the island, in late 1997, in a high-rise apartment overlooking the Malecón, Havana's storied seawall. Ulises says they both were considering renting the place, and for a while George did live there. After the landlord showed them around, George, who then spoke almost no Spanish, asked the landlord to invite Ulises to lunch with him. "I said, 'Me?'" Ulises recounts. "And that was how it started. It was love at first sight. George told me that up until then, he didn't think there was such a thing as a gay couple."
Several months later Zirwas found the apartment on Calle Mazón. The place was in good repair and clean, with a small private courtyard where he and Ulises hung plants and birdcages. In the front room, which Zirwas decorated with Byzantine-style iconography, sat a comfortable couch and easy chairs and a glass-topped coffee table.
Bemused neighbors looked on as the genial American gushed over Taco and Tico, pampered his handsome young boyfriend, and daily played his favorite Supremes hits and show tunes from Evita, Phantom of the Opera, and Cats. Once they got past the mariconería, the gay stuff, though, the residents of Calle Mazón grew impressed by Zirwas's openness and generosity. He supplied the sound system and CDs for the wedding of his landlady's son; he bought medicine and clothes for the old and infirm; on holidays he handed out ten- and twenty-dollar bills. Every morning the santera (Santería practitioner) who lived down the street would arrive with a bunch of flowers, her small gift in exchange for the American's five-dollar donation. He'd always ask the santera to pray for his mother, though he scorned that pagan-Catholic hybrid religion.
Members of Zirwas's social circle ranged from academics and artists to pingueros (young male prostitutes) and other interesados -- opportunists attracted by his dollars. Internet contacts from all over the globe visited him on Calle Mazón and wound up his fast friends. Some, like Andree Kahl, would actually stay at the apartment, renting the back bedroom.
"You could not not like him," Kahl commented by e-mail. "As he dominated the Green Screen he was also the central personality of this circle of people who gathered around him.... George had a bitchy side. But even then he would make people laugh. His favorite word was camp, which means something is ironic. It was a gay phrase he picked up in Ft. Lauderdale. He loved irony so much. George was interested in people. Whenever people had problems they would go to George and he was always keenly interested."
He was also constantly in a position to guide and assist visitors, gay and straight, with everything from lodging to sex; he dubbed his apartment the No-Tell Motel. It's not that he ran a casa of ill repute, as has been conjectured. Instead by all accounts Zirwas's familiarity with the island and his gregariousness made him a natural but discreet liaison.
As the months progressed, some in his group became uneasy with Zirwas's congeniality, believing he should be more circumspect with strangers. "I was his first friend in Cuba," explains Ricardo, an artist who wants only his first name used. Zirwas first telephoned Ricardo from Costa Rica, seeking advice before his initial visit to Havana. "He was a good person, and he really loved Cuba. He made a lot of friends. But he was what we call ingénuo -- naive in some ways. I used to tell him: 'George, you're too open. You trust people too much.' After a while I withdrew from that group. I just wasn't comfortable."
Ricardo doesn't want to specify what exactly made him uncomfortable, but he's emphatic it wasn't anything like porn or group debauchery. Zirwas's acquaintances insist he abhorred pornography and didn't even permit party guests to drink alcohol. About the raciest it got at Chez Zirwas, visitors report, were lip-synch performances by transvestites. "On holidays George would decorate the apartment with all these beautiful lights, and he asked permission first," affirms the daughter-in-law of his elderly landlady. The landlady herself became fond of Zirwas and was touched by his daily phone calls to his mother. "They always had lots of people around," continues the daughter-in-law. "They were always entertaining, but it wasn't like those wild parties with music blaring. They never bothered anyone."
Zirwas wasn't averse to breaking out a bottle of rum in more intimate settings, and he liked to do some slumming -- shopping at farmers' markets (with Cuban pesos) or riding the occasional guagua (maddeningly overcrowded buses). But he was not a habitué of Havana's gay gathering spots of the time, such as the Yara cinema or the Bim Bon ice cream parlor on the Malecón. Instead Zirwas's home was literally his castle. He even called himself the Grand Duchess (among other things), affixing titles such as Princess, Dame, and Her Highness to various confidants, figuring everyone into his royal scheme of things.
"George was a monarchist," posits an American friend by e-mail. "He could be extraordinarily bitchy and grandiose.... Doesn't that self-importance explain why he called himself The GRAND Duchess? It's obvious why a gay mama's boy of that generation went into the Roman Catholic priesthood. The Papacy is a kind of kingdom, after all."
Ulises, the royal consort, child of Cuba's godless Communist revolution, never absorbed enough English or Catholicism to appreciate all the nuances of Zirwas's elaborate realm, though he was happy to join in the pageantry. "George used to say we were kings in our past lives," he relates. "You know how people like to read magazines about movie stars and singers? George read magazines with pictures of the royal families. He loved royal weddings. He would say, 'Someday we're going to be in a royal wedding.' One time we saw a video of the Princess Di wedding and he was thrilled."
Another video brought to Havana by a friend of Zirwas -- a Pittsburgh-area priest and former schoolmate -- also impressed the Calle Mazón inner circle. This one showed Zirwas in his ecclesiastical robes, swinging the censer and chanting in Latin, presiding over a candlelit mass and other church activities back at one of his Pennsylvania parishes.
Most of the time, Zirwas was worlds away from the religious life depicted in the video. But he wasn't going to act as if the first 40 years of his life had no meaning. "On one of my birthdays," Ulises remembers, "George gave me two small paintings, one of Jesus and one of Mary, and a large gold cross. I didn't really believe in God, but I didn't want to argue and say He doesn't exist. Then, after what happened, I asked God over and over: 'Where are you?' And I never got an answer. I might have believed in some of George's religion when he was alive, but now that he's gone, there's nothing left in my heart."
Ever since the two men met, Zirwas had been trying -- or talking about trying -- to plant Ulises on U.S. soil, though the legal options were negligible. "George would always say, 'I've got to find a way to bring you to the United States with me,'" Ulises recounts. "He told me about his condo in Florida and how beautiful it is there. He'd always say, 'Ulises, if something happens to me, who will take care of you?'"
That caregiver might well be the same Cuban man with whom Ulises was romantically involved while living with Zirwas. The existence of this other man, alluded to by some friends of the couple, has not been confirmed by Ulises and could be mere gossip or fabrication. But given the open, uncomplicated promiscuity of Cuban society in general and gay Cuban society in particular, it would be surprising if both Ulises and Zirwas had not taken other lovers.
What romance they did share was necessarily tempered by the realities of modern-day Cuba, where tourism has become the nation's number-one source of revenue, and sex-tourism, both gay and straight, a major component. Relationships of convenience between young, beautiful Cubans and older foreigners serve many purposes for both parties, but true love isn't one of them.
"It is expected by all [Cubans] to be given some kind of compensation for their time, whether gay or straight, and the older a foreigner is, the more he pays," explains Emile Armand, an American who met Zirwas on the Internet. "It's reciprocal exploitation, ultimately blameless."
"As I always say, love was deported a long time ago," snips Osmany Perdomo, crossing his lanky legs and taking an insouciant draw on a Marlboro. Perdomo, still in his early twenties, gave Spanish lessons to Zirwas and was one of his closest friends. He's lolling about his family's third-floor walkup on a busy Centro Habana street, where the din of cars, buses, and vendors rises to the open windows along with exhaust fumes and faint whiffs of roasting peanuts and pork, and that sweetish smell of decay and ancient dirt that pervades Havana's aging structures.
"When it comes to Cubans and foreigners, love can't be seen," Perdomo elaborates in near-perfect English. His wiry black hair is brushed back from his long, doe-eyed face, and his attire is fashionable -- sporty clothes and new sneakers. "A young Cuban needs the dollars -- things are very bad here. He will never be attracted to some old man, but he'll go out with him because he can benefit from the relationship. Sure, plenty of foreigners fall in love with Cuban boys. Well, they think they're in love. But believe me, it's just business."
Perdomo is willing to acknowledge the long-lasting affection and empathy shared by Zirwas and Ulises, though he doesn't go so far as to call it love. "There may have been something between them," he allows. "After all, they were together for over three years." He raises his eyebrows, looking bored, uncrosses his legs and stubs out the cigarette. "There may be exceptions, but to me there's no such thing as a faithful man or a happy marriage. That's bullshit. I think everybody is unfaithful."
In fact Zirwas himself was open about his sexuality and promiscuity, at least while he was in Havana. "George was unabashedly slutty, but who am I to judge," remarks a good friend, a foreigner who travels regularly to Cuba. "I just don't think a man who leaves the priesthood because he really enjoys gay sex is bad." Despite his brush with pedophile scandal in the past, and claims by some Cubans, there's no proof Zirwas pursued underage boys. "He was more into Lothario hairdresser types," an American friend points out, "and twentysomething college gay boys." Perdomo adds dryly: "George told me many times he didn't like young boys. He told me: 'Those are jailbait, the kind of boys you put in a closet and feed under the door until they grow up.'"
Defenders and detractors alike do agree Zirwas's lauded munificence didn't extend to paid sex. "When I was in Cuba last summer," an American friend writes in an e-mail, "some of the men spoke of [Zirwas's murder] as if the man who was killed was not very 'generous monetarily' to his tricks. The word in the streets was that it took place because of this fact. That is a possible motive for some infuriated homicidal hustler. He gave [to his "rent boys"] T-shirts and stuff, but he had a bad rep anyway. It was just the cheapskate game he played."
A surprising development two months before he died might have made Zirwas a little less discriminating or perceptive, or a little more likely to invite homicidal hustlers into his home. "I received some news which has shattered my little world here," Zirwas e-mailed an Internet pen pal in late March 2001. "Ulises has gotten an invitation to Spain. He of course is not going to return to Cuba."
One of the few ways a Cuban citizen can obtain a visa to visit any other country (and possibly never return) is to have a foreigner write a "letter of invitation," the first step in the visa process. "So my search for a new spouse has begun!" Zirwas continued valiantly. "Do you know of any Websites where Cuban boys post (the few and lucky that may have Internet connection)? Or anywhere they leave messages or descriptions about themselves. Please send me any info on this subject ASAP.
"Love, The Grand Duchess of Havana (now the Widow)."
Ulises hasn't responded to questions about the invitation (which he didn't mention in person), but by now it's irrelevant. His visa application was denied and Zirwas never found a new spouse. The recipient of the e-mail, who wishes to remain anonymous, cautions: "George sometimes exaggerated for (melo-)dramatic effect."
The motive for the senseless killing of Zirwas remains uncertain even after the trial and convictions of Abel Medina and Armando Vicente Alfonso. Since neither U.S. nor Cuban authorities responded to inquiries about the arrest and trial of the half-brothers, all information in this article about the legal case against Medina and Alfonso comes from accounts of people who spoke with police and attended the trial, which lasted three days in August 2001. None of Zirwas's immediate family attended, nor did the mother of the defendants.
Medina and Alfonso were arrested about ten days after Zirwas was found dead. Two friends of the former priest testified they were at the Calle Mazón apartment when Medina stopped by on Sunday, May 26, around 5:00 p.m. The friends said Zirwas told them he was getting a massage and that they could stick around, but they decided to go home and come back later. They did return around 8:00, and again at midnight, but no one answered their knocks on the door.
Medina told police he left the apartment around 7:00, after injecting Zirwas with an animal tranquilizer administered at the back of his neck, just below the base of his skull. High doses of the relaxant, succinilcolina, can cause respiratory and cardiac paralysis, and apparently did so to Zirwas as he sat in a kitchen chair just outside the doorway to his bedroom. After the injection Medina dragged him, dying, onto the bed. At about 2:00 a.m. Medina, this time in the company of his half-brother Alfonso, returned by taxi to Calle Mazón, unlocked the door with Zirwas's keys, and picked up several items they fancied. The whole time they knew there was a woman (Andree Kahl) sleeping in the back room.
Medina later admitted he had persuaded a friend who worked at a hospital to slip him several vials of the relaxant. He and his half-brother also confessed they had used the same technique to attack three other men in the months before they got Zirwas: A Canadian tourist and a Cuban man both died, and an Italian cornered in an elevator managed to escape. All the victims were gay, and the brothers said they had a list of eight more men they intended to kill and rob. Either from incompetence or stupidity, however, their haul after three murders was minimal.
Word of Zirwas's death, presumably by strangulation, was immediately the hot topic on radio bemba (slang for word of mouth). "It was common knowledge in Havana that an American had been killed, and it was quite the source of gossip on the street," wrote one Green Screen correspondent.
The streetwise also knew about the earlier murders but didn't know they were connected. Even if the murders were related, one school of thought held, police weren't going to disrupt tourism and whatever lucrative side dealings might be going on -- things like the trade in false immigration documents, drugs, sex, cigars.
"Everyone knew two Italians had been killed," a Habana Vieja jinetero confided this past October, demonstrating the shifting truths available at street level. The jinetero (a sex- and companionship-provider for foreigners), who goes by the pseudonym Manuel, acknowledged he never had met Zirwas or his crowd. "I didn't know who did it, but other people said they knew who did and that the police were turning a blind eye. Why? Because once they started trying to break up all the illegal little businesses around the tourist trade, they'd have to arrest everybody -- [Communist] Party people and army people -- and they couldn't cause that kind of upheaval. But then an American got killed, so the police had to act."
Soon after the arrests a squad of police cars again converged on Calle Mazón. (Ulises and Andree Kahl had been told to find other residences.) Medina and Alfonso, in handcuffs, were unloaded and escorted inside Zirwas's apartment, where each, police later confirmed, re-created his actions the night of the murder.
Meanwhile a crowd again gathered outside, and there was yelling: "Asesinos!" "Keep our streets safe!" "Down with violence!" Just about everyone who lived nearby showed up, even the head of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution and older residents, such as the handyman across the street who didn't approve of homosexuality but who had come to like, even respect, the personable American.
Ulises, who'd endured almost 24 hours of questioning while he was still shocked and grieving, believes the police treated him with a blatant lack of respect because he and Zirwas were a gay couple. He is also angry that most of his clothes and possessions seized by the police still, as of this past January, hadn't been returned.
Eventually Medina and Alfonso were convicted of murder and sentenced in January 2002. There was some controversy in the courtroom about whether Abel Medina, the man who had given the fatal injections, should be sentenced to death. His half-brother, Armando Vicente Alfonso, hadn't actually done any killing, so nobody complained when he got 35 years. But even though Medina had confessed to three murders and had been planning more, there were factors in his favor: a reluctance to take two sons from their mother, and growing opposition within Cuba, as in other nations, to the death penalty itself. Ultimately Medina was condemned to die by firing squad.
As far as Zirwas's loved ones were concerned, the horrific ordeal was now over, but the family was shattered. Agnes Zirwas, whom George had so conscientiously shielded from his spiritual shortcomings, never recovered from the trauma of his sudden loss. She died almost one year to the day after her son, on May 21, 2002.
In Havana, Zirwas's group dissolved. None of the men who practically lived at his apartment has been seen again on Calle Mazón; most of them lost contact with each other after the trial. Ulises took Tweety to his mother's apartment, where the cage now hangs just above the television in the tiny front room. "But Tweety has never sung again," Ulises laments. The apartment couldn't accommodate Taco and Tico, so they were given to a family who lives several miles away; just a month later Taco died.
The first of Medina's two automatic appeals was heard in June 2002. This time there was no argument: The execution was called off and his sentence changed to 45 years. The ruling was upheld at a final hearing in August or September, but apparently only Medina and his family were aware of his reversal of fortune. It wasn't until this past October, when Ulises went to court to petition for the return of his possessions, that a clerk confirmed the commutation.
"It's final. The judge told me there was nothing I could do about it," he murmurs, recalling the same powerlessness he felt right after George died, when the police seemed to discount his sorrow because it was over another man. He wanted to scream at them, he admits, try to make them understand his and George's relationship was as real as anything between a man and woman. If the killer had died for his crimes, Ulises believes, it would be some kind of acknowledgement, maybe a validation, of their life together. But he has given up that hope.
Ulises does maintain another hope, though. Less than a year before he died, Zirwas created a will (filed in Pittsburgh) in which he bequeathed to Ulises the considerable sum of $15,000. But neither man apparently was aware that, because of the embargo, the money would never be released to Ulises as long as he lived in Cuba.
Someday, Ulises vows, he will find a way to get out of Cuba and recover the money. No way he'll let that stroke of luck slip past him. He'll make sure his mother is well taken care of, even if he isn't allowed back home for years to come. The money could change his life, and that may end up being the only lasting legacy of George Zirwas's short, happy time in Wonderland.
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