The Mysterious Mexican Gorilla Caper
Two U.S. Customs agents hidden in a trailer office at the Opa-locka Airport captured the scene on blurry black-and-white videotape. The old DC-3 transport plane, its belly underlit and a cargo hold open, waiting on a runway in the dimness of night while five men drift distantly in and out of camera range. The ground is shiny from rain; lightning flashes. Suddenly more figures, a dozen or so, swarm out of nowhere. They force three of the men to kneel at gunpoint and handcuff them. About then a dark, hulking figure climbs from the plane down a short ladder and walks away from the scene in the direction of the hidden camcorder. It's unmistakably a blond man's impassive face atop an ape's body. The ape's head is tucked under an arm. Still walking, businesslike, he lights a cigarette and veers out of the picture.
It was the sting that had everyone laughing back in January of last year. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent dresses up in a gorilla costume and crouches in a manure-laden cage to nab three Mexican citizens in the act of allegedly attempting to smuggle a real gorilla out of Miami. Jay Leno wanted but didn't get the agent on his show. A Mexican newspaper claimed the incident proved "the U.S. judicial system is one of the most corrupt in the world." Another published a special cartoon section entitled "El Changogate" (in Mexico chango means monkey) which, among its panoply of gorilla and law enforcement jokes, features one ape declaring, "This animal act by the agents of imperialism is an assault on NAFTA!" The normally responsible Washington Post ran an editorial with nearly every fact wrong, repeating an apocryphal story about the gorilla grunting, "You're under arrest," yanking off his mask, and chasing the screaming smugglers around the plane. "It is a moment we deeply wish we could have observed ourselves," the editorial added.
That moment never happened, just as a real gorilla was never available for smuggling, and just as most everything related to this case isn't exactly as it appears. The gorilla caper is only one subplot in a five-year saga starring the baron of wildlife dealers, Matthew Block of Miami. Set in the murky and duplicitous world of animal trading, where truth shifts and loyalties divide, the tale is shaped by unlikely alliances and unforeseen outcomes, until a fake gorilla fits right in with the rest of the illusion.
All told, five Mexican nationals were arrested on the night of January 25, 1993, and charged with conspiring to violate U.S. laws regulating trade in endangered species. Two of the accused went to trial May 2; the other three agreed at the last minute to plead guilty to a misdemeanor in exchange for dismissal of five other charges. After a two-week jury trial before U.S. District Judge Federico Moreno, the two were convicted of three felonies and two misdemeanors each. Victor Bernal, a 58-year-old former top official of the State of Mexico, and 33-year-old businessman Eduardo Berges face up to seventeen years in prison and almost one million dollars in fines apiece. Both remain in jail while awaiting sentencing on July 18.
The punishment in store for the Mexicans is far harsher than what Matthew Block is likely to suffer for a crime much more serious and detrimental to the world's endangered ape populations. Block played a central role in the gorilla sting and in an earlier arrest of a Jacksonville bird dealer; so central, in fact, that the arrests would almost certainly never have occurred had it not been for Block's legal difficulties in late 1992 and early 1993. He was facing prison time after pleading guilty in connection with an aborted plot to smuggle six valuable baby orangutans from their native Indonesia to Moscow in 1990 -- the notorious "Bangkok Six" case. Three of the orangutans died after being flown from Singapore to Bangkok in cramped crates, causing an international uproar. None of the participants in the smuggling conspiracy has been arrested except Block, who agreed to cooperate with prosecutors -- become an informant -- in exchange for reduced charges and, he expected, leniency at sentencing. Block didn't get what he was expecting, due to still other strange twists in the story. Currently he is free while appealing a thirteen-month sentence.
As for the government, which put some sixteen agents to work hundreds of hours over three weeks to spin a web around the Mexican gorilla-buyers, the resulting publicity was overwhelmingly positive. Some posttrial news reports lauded the breakup of an international smuggling ring, although the existence of a ring would be hard to conclude from evidence presented at trial. Neither defendant had any criminal history, and no endangered species were saved, since none had been for sale, although prosecutors contend the buyers would have sought a gorilla through other illegal channels had they not been arrested. "We're here because in 10, 20, 40, 100 years, my children, your children, our grandchildren, can go to the zoo and look at one of these animals," Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis said in his spirited closing argument to the jury on May 16.
Ironically, the guilty verdicts were not cause for rejoicing for many wildlife conservationists, especially those working for years to see Matthew Block in jail. Shirley McGreal, chairwoman of the International Primate Protection League (IPPL) in South Carolina, has begun a campaign to publicize what she calls "the worst travesty I've ever seen." Besides press releases to various media worldwide, McGreal has written to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican-American Legal Defense Fund, and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, calling for an investigation into the government's conduct. "The Mexicans really did nothing, compared to Block's vile crime.... Yet they are in jail, not him," McGreal wrote to prosecutor Lewis on May 19. "In my opinion, they should not get any jail time at all."
McGreal, a relentless crusader connected to an international network of activists, was instrumental in first linking Block to the Bangkok Six debacle and continues to monitor his legal and business affairs. "Despite its 21-year battle against wildlife crime, IPPL believes that entrapping people with no criminal backgrounds and engineering degrading, humiliating, and demeaning publicity for the 'sting' victims while aggrandizing themselves, meanwhile letting a real criminal jet the globe, is an outrage and total waste of taxpayers' money," reads an IPPL press release. Now, in one of those unusual quirks of this case, animal advocates around the world are expressing their sympathy and offering support to family members of the two Mexicans convicted of violating wildlife laws.
Jorge Enrique Pic centsn, senior resident agent in the Miami office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is a 22-year veteran of undercover operations in Latin America and the U.S., and he has caught some mean animal smugglers in his time. Most of the time the Colombia-born Pic centsn, his thinning black hair combed neatly back, occasionally donning reading glasses, looks almost professorial. But when he goes undercover, a rougher persona emerges. As "Jorge Blanco," the long-haired, bearded, foul-mouthed mafioso who had just the right gorilla for the unlucky Mexicans, the 46-year-old Pic centsn played his part with relish.
In late December 1992 or early January 1993, Matthew Block, who had been cooperating with the government for a few months, reported to Fish and Wildlife agents that some clients, Mexican businessmen, were eager to buy a gorilla to replace one that had recently died at a zoo in Toluca, just north of Mexico City. The mere nature of the inquiry -- the fact they had gone to Block instead of through the time-consuming but legal channels within established zoological organizations -- alerted Pic centsn that something was wrong. "Bells just rang all over my brain," he says. "I think [Block] is telling me something too good to be true; you just don't find people asking for gorillas at the drop of a hat. So I conferred with my superiors and Guy Lewis, and they said give it a try and see what happens."
Not that he or Block actually had a gorilla, or any intention of selling one to the Mexicans. Trade in the highly endangered apes (about 30,000 remain in the wild, experts estimate) is prohibited by U.S. endangered species laws and international treaties under most circumstances, and then only after securing several permits. Acquisition of a gorilla by any North American zoo must be approved by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Even transporting a gorilla is a delicate and risky business that requires the presence of a veterinarian and several handlers. However, to lay the proper trap for the prospective buyers, Pic centsn would have to find a gorilla. "I tried to obtain a real gorilla," Pic centsn recalls, "but people said I was crazy."
The sting as set up by Pic centsn and his agents, with help from the Fish and Wildlife regional office in Atlanta, never was reviewed by the service's Undercover Operations Review Committee in Washington, D.C., or approved in writing by service director Mollie Beattie, the procedure prescribed for undercover operations of that type in the service's Law Enforcement Division policy manual. Pic centsn says that's because it was an emergency.
Block and Pic centsn already had teamed up on a bust just a few weeks before the gorilla sting. In December 1992, acting on another tip from Block, Pic centsn had accompanied his new informant up to Elkton, west of St. Augustine, where he won the confidence of bird dealer Clement Solano by posing as a wealthy wildlife buyer. Pic centsn and five other gun-wielding Fish and Wildlife agents then suddenly arrested Solano, who had several species of illegally imported (but not endangered) Australian birds for sale.
Solano, however, had been a mere warmup for the Mexicans, who arrived in Miami a few weeks later. First came Jose Luis Alcerreca and Eduardo Berges, described by prosecutors as wildlife dealers, then Victor Bernal. Actually, Alcerreca and Berges handled several enterprises through two different companies, mostly brokering sales of marine equipment to Mexican governmental agencies. (When they were in Miami, according to Berges, they were also overseeing construction in Fort Lauderdale of four boats commissioned by the Mexican government.) But for some five years before their arrests, Alcerreca and Berges also had brokered the sale of hundreds of laboratory monkeys to the Mexican government for medical research. The animals came from Worldwide Primates, Matthew Block's company in Miami. The two had personally met with Block a couple of times and had developed a good business relationship. According to Berges, they also knew nothing of Block's legal problems, much less his agreement to become an informant for the government. So it was logical to think of him when they learned the Zacango Zoo in Toluca, the capital of the State of Mexico, needed a gorilla. The zoo's male specimen, King, had died of pneumonia in December, leaving bereft a female and the throngs of children who loved to visit.
How Alcerreca and Berges happened to become interested in acquiring a gorilla for the zoo isn't clear; they claim they received an inquiry from an employee of the Mexican state finance department, a woman who was a trusted assistant to Victor Bernal, head of the state's Natural Parks and Zoos Commission. Bernal, on the other hand, testified that Alcerreca contacted him from time to time since 1990, proferring several endangered or exotic animals, and that in early January 1993, Alcerreca told Bernal he could get a gorilla. Matthew Block says Alcerreca and Berges had sought to buy gorillas and orangutans from him as early as 1991, but after he informed them about the strict regulation of such purchases, the matter was dropped. This time, Block alleges, the two were not so picky about paperwork.
The government's first surreptitious audio recording in the case picks up a January 6 phone call from Berges and Alcerreca in Mexico City to Block in Miami. Berges says he usually did the talking for the 46-year-old Alcerreca when English was required, and spoke to Block on most occasions. In the January 6 call, Berges broaches the subject of a gorilla for the Toluca zoo, apparently not for the first time, and Block says he thinks he heard of one for sale; he'll check it out and call them back. When Berges asks for orangutans, Block tells him he does know of some available (Block's long-time business associate, Dr. Bern Levine, part-owner of Parrot Jungle, breeds orangutans). Seventy-nine subsequent telephone calls were taped, 72 of which either Pic centsn or Block initiated to Berges or Alcerreca.
By the time Alcerreca, Berges, and Bernal had checked into the Airport Hilton Hotel on January 12, Fish and Wildlife agent Jorge Pic centsn had prepared as elaborate a ruse as possible, given the short notice. After inquiring of zoos around the country about borrowing a gorilla and being told he was crazy, Pic centsn went to Metrozoo's general curator, Bill Zeigler. Pic centsn proposed bringing his "clients" to see Moja, the zoo's ten-year-old male gorilla. He would do this after the zoo had closed for the day. "That way I can tell them you work for me and I'm paying you under the table to keep [the gorilla] for me," Pic centsn recalls telling Zeigler. Another reason he wanted to visit late, he explains, is that people at the zoo know him and guess when they see him that he's on the trail of some illegal activity. Zeigler was amenable but said he first had to get approval from the zoo director and Metro-Dade officials. That done, Pic centsn planned his next move. Zeigler already had agreed to lend him a cage. "Once I convinced the folks it was my gorilla, what if they want it?" Pic centsn mused. "Now I have to produce a gorilla, and the only thing is to get me a gorilla costume." So he went shopping. There was a nice gorilla suit at a store in Coral Gables, but it didn't look authentic enough. He mentioned his quest to Bern Levine, who remembered one of his Parrot Jungle volunteers had worn a gorilla costume to a party. He'd see if he could get it. Pic centsn also arranged with Levine to bring the Mexicans by Parrot Jungle to look at some baby orangutans before they stopped at Metrozoo.
On January 13, at the Airport Hilton coffee shop, the cool, well-mannered Block introduced the abrasive Jorge Blanco to Alcerreca, Berges, and Bernal. They got into the back seat of Pic centsn's rented gray Continental for the drive south to Parrot Jungle, Block in the passenger seat. The entire time Pic centsn wore a microphone on his waist and a recorder strapped to his ankle, picking up very unclear conversations about Miami, the recent Hurricane Andrew, and the deal that Senor Blanco wanted to make with his new friends. (Pic centsn had planned to back up his own tapes of unreliable clarity with an expensive Customs recording system, but it never functioned, he says. Most of the government's recordings were left out of the evidence at trial as a time-saving agreement between the defense and prosecution.)
Some very valuable animals had been bestowed on him in payment of a debt, Blanco explained conspiratorily. He was keeping a male gorilla temporarily at Metrozoo and some baby orangutans at Parrot Jungle, and was bribing employees to care for them. But he wanted to get rid of them fast before someone figured out they didn't belong there. "I have a lot of business to the Caribbean basin, I do not want the...U.S. government to come down on my ass and arrest me because of a freaking gorilla or orang," Blanco tells his prospective clients in one exchange. "Because if they come down on me with that shit, then they might discover other stuff that I do, that, you know, is not for nobody to know about here."
Anyone who is even vaguely familiar with the complicated legal process by which endangered apes end up in zoos would probably have serious questions about such a bizarre and apparently corrupt arrangement. On the other hand, as defense lawyers attempted to point out at trial, bribery has different connotations in Mexico than in the U.S., and the scenario didn't necessarily seem suspicious. Besides, according to Berges, his and Alcerreca's only contact with the wildlife business had been through Block; they assumed the well-known primate dealer knew what he was doing and did it legally.
As the five men got out of the car at Parrot Jungle and walked toward the entrance, two U.S. Customs agents sitting at a picnic table, playing tourists, snapped photographs. Inside the park, to the exuberant screeches and calls of exotic parrots and macaws, four more enchanted-looking agents trailed the visitors with a video camera. Bernal eagerly produced his own compact camera and took snapshots of the orangutans and chimpanzees. (In one photo, Se*or Blanco cuddles a little red orang.) The party left Parrot Jungle in midafternoon, still too early to show up at Metrozoo, so Pic centsn and Block dropped off the Mexicans at their hotel and returned a few hours later.
Bill Zeigler met the five at the zoo's front gate, led them to an enclosure where Moja waited, and left. Pic, in his testimony at trial, recalled Bernal commenting that the gorilla watched them with a human, knowing expression. On the way back to the hotel, Berges and Bernal have said in testimony and interviews, the undercover agent informed them that the zoo's real gorilla had been moved elsewhere while damage from Hurricane Andrew was repaired but would soon come home, whereupon the interloper would have to leave. And if a place could not be found for him, he would have to be killed.
"I remember Jorge Pic said, 'Hey listen, guys, if you don't take this animal, I'm going to sacrifice it.' It was in the car going out of Metrozoo," insists Berges. "You don't forget something like that -- it surprised me. Victor said, 'No, tell him I'm going to pay the whole amount and come back in two or three months with the documents.' And they say, 'No, no, we can't do that.' I can swear it in front of anybody." Any recordings made in the car leaving Metrozoo were not introduced into evidence at trial, but Pic is equally certain he never threatened to kill the gorilla.
Later that evening Pic and Block met back at the Fish and Wildlife offices in the Doral area to listen to the tapes and discuss logistics. Block walked into his office, Pic recalls, carrying a box about the size of an attorney's briefcase: "He says, 'By the way, is this what you're looking for?'" The gorilla suit Block produced was exactly what Pic had in mind.
It looked as though he would have to use it; Bernal wanted the gorilla and one of the orangutans and was willing to take them immediately. The day after the field trips, Bernal, Berges, and Alcerreca flew back to Mexico City to arrange financing, to catch up on other work, and, prosecutors allege, to give Bernal a chance to set up a covert reception point at the Mexico City airport from which the gorilla was to be trucked to Toluca, bypassing Mexican customs. But before they left Miami, Jorge Blanco insisted on a cash payment of $2000 for chartering a plane and pilot. He and Block also showed the Mexicans legitimate U.S. export documents, which they said they had obtained with bribes, to be filled out before the animals left the country.
Alcerreca and Berges returned to Miami six days later; the following day, January 22, Bernal's assistant, Maria Eugenia Villada, arrived to help with financial details, along with an employee of the parks and zoos public relations department, Margarita Barrera. Bernal himself came a day later. Before Bernal returned to Miami, however, he ordered the gorilla's destination changed on the export documents -- from Mexico City to Tijuana, nearly 2000 miles to the northwest. The address was a racetrack and zoo owned by Bernal's friend Jorge Hank Rhon, whose business card was confiscated from Bernal when he was arrested. Bernal asserted at trial he changed the address to divert public attention from the expensive purchase. But the government contends Hank Rhon was Bernal's smuggling contact. The son of Mexican agriculture minister Carlos Hank Gonzalez, Rhon was fined by U.S. Customs in 1991 for attempting to smuggle a rare tiger across the border. His father is one of Mexico's most powerful and wealthy politicians and a mentor of former Mexico state governor Ignacio Pichardo.
Villada began making arrangements for $92,500 of the State of Mexico's money to be wired to Matthew Block's bank account. The total price for the gorilla and orangutan was $250,000, the balance to be paid by a check made out to Bernal from the State of Mexico. Villada received confirmation of the money transfer late in the afternoon of January 25, a stormy Friday. A few hours later Block and Pic met Bernal, Alcerreca, and Berges at their hotel. In two cars, the group headed to the Opa-locka airport. (Block had brought along a young orangutan and was putting her to sleep with a baby bottle.
The tape transcripts are loaded with hints and downright warnings by Pic centsn that the gorilla didn't have any papers, that no legal permits to export the animals existed, that the documents Pic and Block provided the Mexicans were not legally obtained. But Block and Pic also had told them early on, according to trial testimony, that the proper papers could be obtained.
Bernal doesn't speak English and says he left the dealing to Alcerreca and Berges, and that since in all such transactions the exporter is responsible for the paperwork, he wasn't aware until the night before the gorilla was supposed to be flown to Mexico that something was wrong with the permits. By then, Bernal testified, even though he began to have second thoughts, he was sure Pic centsn would not return their money, and he was confident in any case that once the ape was in Mexico he'd be able to secure proper documentation.
When the five men had gathered on the runway, Pic presented the completed export documents to Bernal, who became annoyed when a big raindrop splashed on one of the papers. After placing the documents in a folder, Bernal climbed inside the plane to take a look at the "gorilla." That's when Pic, on the ground with Alcerreca and Berges, whipped off his baseball cap and waved it over his head -- the signal for the bust. Bernal, stunned to see the gorilla opening the cage, backed toward the ladder. The pilot and copilot, also undercover agents, pulled him into the plane and a few seconds later brought him down to the tarmac, where they forced him to kneel alongside Alcerreca and Berges with his hands on his head. Moments later the two women, Maria Eugenia Villada and Margarita Barrera, were arrested at their hotel.
Berges didn't testify during the trial. His attorney, Frank Quintero III, reasoned his client couldn't add to the information already in evidence, and that it had been proved Berges wasn't present at a key meeting at which Pic showed false permits to Alcerreca and Bernal. After all, Quintero posited, Matthew Block had more to do with the case than Berges. However, Quintero did attack the Fish and Wildlife Service. Among other things, he cited records showing that of the sixteen shipments of primates entering the U.S. through Miami last year, not a single one was inspected by the service. Nine of those shipments went to Block's Worldwide Primates. "They've known as early as February 1992 [when Block was indicted in the Bangkok Six case] he was involved in criminal acts, yet no inspectors met his shipments," Quintero asserted. "He's still doing business. They should be doing their job and stopping people like Block instead of cutting deals with him. But it is a lot easier to create a crime than to stop one."
Victor Bernal's Miami attorney, Donald Bierman, opted for a different approach; he believed his client would do well on the witness stand. Bernal is a lawyer, married with three children, and proud of his long career as a state and federal employee. Tall and slender, with well-trimmed gray hair and mustache, Bernal sat calmly during his trial, his expression slightly unbelieving. As director of the State of Mexico's Natural Parks and Zoos Commission since 1989, Bernal oversaw fifteen parks, two zoos, and a reserve for migratory monarch butterflies. He held prominent positions in several wildlife conservation and zoological organizations. Before his trial began, he declared his confidence that the proceedings would clear his name and allow him to resume a normal life in Toluca. "Why would I have any need to do the things they have accused me of?" Bernal asked in consternation. "I'm an honorable person."
Other Mexican government officials seemed to agree. State governor Ignacio Pichardo, Bernal's immediate supervisor, wrote to the U.S. Attorney's Office here vouching for his friend. The state also paid at least part of Bernal's legal fees and hired a Mexico City lawyer to accompany him on his numerous court dates, along with Miami attorney Bierman. The Mexican attorney general's office attempted to intercede on his behalf with the U.S. Department of Justice. That effort, though, was unsuccessful.
From the witness stand, Bernal told the jury in detail about his good reputation and professional accomplishments. And the tactic may have worked to his favor with some of the jurors, a few of whom said afterward they felt positive about Bernal's character but had no sense of who Eduardo Berges was, only that he spoke English and thus had to have known more about the questionable goings-on than Bernal.
But neither man could credibly argue he hadn't committed the acts recorded on audio or videotape. Ultimately the defense of both had to be an attempt to discredit the government for inducing them to do something they wouldn't have done otherwise. But defense lawyers say it's becoming ever more difficult to successfully use an entrapment defense because several Supreme Court rulings in the past few decades have given the government wider leeway in staging crimes while requiring defendants to prove they were not predisposed to participate. The mere act of inventing a crime doesn't technically prove entrapment, even if jurors may have an aversion to that act. One juror explained: "If, for example, we knew nothing about the law and they presented this case to us, we would have said it was entrapment."
"Now it's almost impossible to win on the entrapment defense," says William Kunstler, one of the nation's most prominent defense attorneys, interviewed by telephone in his New York office. "In this day and age, with juries looking for more and more law enforcement, they're inclined to believe [entrapment] is the only way you can get these guys. We've become so panicked over crime, we think we can stop the drug trade, end crime in the streets by making more draconian sentences, more laws to make it easier to convict."
Adding to the dilemma, say Kunstler and other defense lawyers, is the rampant transformation into government informants of people convicted and serving draconian sentences. In their attempts to reduce those sentences, convicts often are willing to lie, inform on friends, or otherwise do whatever a prosecutor wants, lawyers say.
In the gorilla sting case, prosecutors and defense lawyers discussed plea bargains for all five defendants. Jose Luis Alcerreca, Maria Eugenia Villada, and Margarita Barrera were allowed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for that loaded vow of "full cooperation," but Assistant U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis says Bernal and Berges balked at cooperating. Without that, or without a plea to a more serious felony charge, Lewis was unwilling to consider a deal. Despite assurances that Alcerreca would testify for the government, Lewis never called him to the witness stand. Alcerreca returned to Mexico before the trial ended.
Matthew Block's possible appearance at the trial remained a question until the last day of testimony. Neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to call him; both sides had excoriated the case's foundation figure as a liar and criminal. Block's testimony normally would have been a valuable prosecution tool, but a year earlier at his sentencing in the Bangkok Six case, Lewis had accused Block of withholding information from him and altering evidence in the case. Because of this, an angry Lewis backed away from his plea-agreement promise to submit a recommendation to the judge -- called a 5K1 letter -- to depart from the rigid federal guidelines and impose a lighter sentence on Block because of his cooperation with the government. Without the letter, judges are bound by the guidelines. U.S. District Judge James Kehoe sentenced Block to thirteen months in prison and imposed a $30,000 fine -- still at the low end of the guidelines. Block has appealed that sentence to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh District in Atlanta.
About a week into the trial, Judge Moreno threatened to take the unusual but not unprecedented step of calling Block to the stand himself. He felt questioning of Block could provide important information that hadn't been raised or that hadn't been admissible. But Bierman saved Moreno the trouble. Block took the stand as the final witness late on Friday, May 13.
Bierman professed to have only one objective in calling Block: to prove his contention that Pic centsn's motivation in the sting was revenge for the 1985 murder in Mexico of Drug Enforcement Administration Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena. Block testified that Pic centsn, during a conversation with him, had vowed to christen the gorilla sting "Operation Kiki." Earlier Pic centsn had testified he never said anything of the kind. No one seemed to care, anyway.
About a half-hour into Block's testimony, and due to the late hour, Moreno dismissed the jury for the weekend. But then Block, an Orthodox Jew, told the judge he wouldn't be able to take the stand on Monday or Tuesday because of a Jewish holiday. Since the trial already had lasted two weeks and neither side planned to call more witnesses, no one wanted such a delay. So prosecution and defense agreed to waive their rights to continue questioning Block. The bearded and bespectacled 32-year-old entrepreneur, the secretive target of great rage and curiosity, stepped purposefully from the stand. Looking straight ahead, no doubt feeling the inquiring gazes fixed on him from all corners, Block made his way out of the courtroom. In doing so, he took with him most of the information he might have provided about the gorilla caper, and whatever glimpses he might have afforded into a shadowy world where wildlife is bought and sold, and not infrequently killed.
On Tuesday, May 17, the nine-woman, three-man jury rendered its guilty verdicts. Foreman Joel Margolies had no qualms: "I think we weighed the evidence and came up with the verdict as we saw it." Not so with some other jurors. Several said afterward they were deeply distressed by their decision because they didn't consider the defendants guilty of serious crimes, but that they believed they had no choice but to follow the letter of the law according to the instructions they were given.
Not surprisingly, the issue of entrapment provoked the most anxiety. Even though some jurors believed the government had inappropriately lured the defendants into committing a manufactured crime, Judge Moreno's instructions prohibited them from finding entrapment if the government proved the defendants had some previous intent to commit the crime and had taken some constructive action to corroborate that intent.
In a telephone interview after the verdict, however, juror Mirta S. Martinez said she didn't believe that Victor Bernal was guilty of conspiracy, the first of the three felony charges against him and Berges. Martinez has written to Moreno asking for leniency for Bernal, but she did not state any misgivings about the conspiracy charge or the the jury decision in general.
The alternate juror, Kathryn Cabrisas, has written her own letter to Moreno. "The things I saw really shook my faith in the way our government operates," she wrote. "It was obvious entrapment based on their character and the lack of evidence. Although I know I have no say in the sentence, I wanted to relieve my conscience."
Another juror, who didn't want his name used, said he went along with the guilty verdicts because of "the way the law was written," even though he didn't believe the defendants had done anything seriously wrong. "It's so hard to believe [the government] used this informant, who actually committed a crime himself, and they're gonna use this asshole to try to get these people," the juror said indignantly. "It's incredible.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.