The Victor Gerena who appeared at Annhurst College was nothing like the young man who had shown such promise only months before, at Bulkeley High School in the gritty South End of Hartford.
Annhurst was in Woodstock, Conn., a town of dairy cows and cornfields in the state's picturesque northeast corner. Gerena had been persuaded to enroll by a friend, an older, strong-willed woman who supervised his work as an intern at the state Capitol and had talked him out of larger, ethnically diverse schools like the University of Connecticut. Annhurst had changed considerably since Marion Delaney graduated in 1951. It was smaller and poorer.
In the fall of 1976, when Gerena arrived at the tiny former women's college run by an obscure group of French Canadian nuns, the nearest Puerto Ricans were in Willimantic, 25 miles to the southwest along a winding, rural highway. The nearest place calling itself a city was Putnam, which didn't even have a bar where college kids could get in trouble.
The school was in such financial difficulty that, for the first time in its history, Sister Muriel Lusignan, the dean of students, had been forced to admit men in an effort to achieve a sustainable student body. Gerena was one of two dozen male students and 200 female students.
"Sister Muriel was known as the Iron Maiden of the school,'' said Donald Caron, who was the men's dormitory counselor. "And to be perfectly honest with you, she and a couple of the other nuns were not happy about their being men on campus. No, not at all. To them, I believe it was a desecration.''
Gerena's grades fell. He didn't commit himself to his studies. He did not avail himself of tutoring or other offers of academic help. He had no interest in political discussions. Fellow students remember him as glum. They say he had a chip on his shoulder, that life had treated him unfairly because he was Puerto Rican.
His interest in the girls, however, was unflagging. One student remembers Gerena sneaking a woman into his dorm room. That was an egregious offense at Annhurst, which so rigidly enforced the separation of the sexes that fathers were prohibited from even looking over the dorm rooms where their daughters would spend four years of their lives.
The few chums Gerena had were among the male students, a quirky lot, by and large. In another desperate attempt to boost enrollment and increase revenue, the nuns had decided to admit foreign students who wanted to learn English. Typically, these students came from fabulously wealthy families, took a light course load and, as a result, had a lot of spare time in a place where there was nothing to do.
Victor palled around with some boys from Venezuela. Sister Muriel didn't think highly of them.
"They had money to burn,'' she said. "That didn't do much good for some of the others who didn't have that kind of money. They would try to buy you.''
Students and faculty recalled South American girls who had never washed clothes and boys who got anything with a telephone call home.
"One kid wanted an automobile,'' Caron said. "So his father booked him a flight from Connecticut to Detroit, literally, so he could pick out the car he wanted. That's what they thought. To get the best car, you go to Detroit and you pick it out. He came back with this black TransAm. It was just incredible.''
Although Sister Muriel claims not to remember, Caron and three of Gerena's fellow students at Annhurst said he eventually got in trouble.
The school discovered someone was sneaking into the administrative offices and making long distance calls on school telephones. Caron and the students said that after examining the bills, the school confronted Gerena. He denied it.
Gerena left Annhurst in the winter of 1977 before completing his first year.
In the Caribbean that same year, Filiberto Ojeda Rios was making an explosive mark from within the violent wing of the independence movement.
With other members of the movement, he helped open a mainland front in the war against U.S. imperialism. They created the FALN, the Spanish acronym for the Armed Forces of National Liberation. Perhaps the FALN's most memorable moment was the bloody bombing of Fraunces Tavern in New York.
In 1976, according to a Cuban source, he reconfigured a group called the Armed Commandos of Liberation and gave it a new name, Los Macheteros -- Spanish for "The Machete Wielders.''
Ojeda believed that a campaign of terror bombings and the attendant publicity would draw support to the independence movement and, hopefully, trigger a popular revolution.
By the mid-1970s, the violent independence movement was supporting striking labor unions with bombs and industrial sabotage. It was responsible for $150 million in damage to the Puerto Rican electric power grid. It disrupted water distribution when the aqueduct and sewer workers struck. It planted bombs during a strike of the Puerto Rico Cement Co. One operation was conducted jointly with the Weather Underground, a spinoff of the radical mainland campus movement of the 1960s.
Gerena, meanwhile, landed back in his old neighborhood and began drifting from one low-paying, dead-end job to another.
It can be argued that Gerena's dismal college experience and ignominious return to the scene of his high school glories were the result of events beyond his control. He learned that it was possible to excel in the Hartford school system and fail in college.
But even Gerena's friends believe he was responsible to some extent for failing to shape his future. And they say a disturbing and previously unnoticed aspect of his personality was emerging.
The same traits that made Gerena stand out in high school -- his style, his charisma -- did not seem so attractive after his failure at Annhurst. Gerena still wanted the best from life. But when challenged, he wasn't responding. It was as if he wanted to win the lottery without buying a ticket.
"Victor did complain to me that Bulkeley High School let him down by not preparing him for college,'' Caron, his dormitory counselor at Annhurst said. "I know that he did have struggles academically. I also know that he wasn't doing very much about it. I think he basically had given up. My impression of Victor would be that he was looking for the easy life, the good life.''
Said William Guzman, who counseled Gerena in high school: "I think he just got frustrated with having to wait for his time and pay his dues.''
Gerena moved in with Maggie Ruiz, a woman he knew before going away to college. She had his first child.
While bombs exploded in Puerto Rico, Gerena worked as a roofer, briefly. He took a series of meaningless, publicly funded jobs, which might charitably be described as a full employment program for city kids. He worked for something called the Community Resources for Justice.
He left Ruiz and his first daughter and reconnected with Pamela Anderson, an old friend from high school. When she joined the Army, Gerena followed. They married in Georgia and had a daughter of their own. Then Gerena left the army; his service file shows a history of criticism for unauthorized absences.
In short order, Gerena had dropped out of college and collected two daughters, an ex-wife and an estranged girlfriend, all of whom wanted money he never had.
He got a job with the Hartford school system's Special Education Learning Center. He was still telling anyone who would listen that his problem was the Hartford school system, that it had sent him into the world academically unarmed.
But the system of which Gerena bitterly complained had no problem paying him to educate others. He was hired, at $6,000 a year, to counsel elementary school special education students. No sooner did he have the job than he stopped going to work.
That did not prevent the school system from recognizing what it considered to be his promise. His supervisors arranged for Gerena to have the time to enroll at Central Connecticut State University, where he would study to become a teacher. In return, Gerena was to make up the time with home visits to his student charges.
Gerena was thousands of dollars behind in his child support payments but found the money to buy two guns, which he boasted about to colleagues.
"He had a big sense of paranoia,'' said Paul Perzanoski, who supervised Gerena in the special education program. "Either he was having a problem with somebody or somebody was after him.
"Everything had to be the best for Victor. He was always dressed to kill. If Vic wanted to buy clothes, he got the most expensive. If he went out for a beer, he didn't buy Piels, but a Heineken. There was no doubt about his ability, but I feel Bulkeley High School told him he could have the world and in reality he was not prepared.''
After a school vacation in 1982, Gerena never returned to his special education job. He took a job as a part-time guard at the Wells Fargo depot in West Hartford.
Even Hector Mercado, Gerena's young protege on the Bulkeley High School wrestling team, noticed a big change in the upperclassman he once revered.
"When he went up there to that college, he didn't do as good as he wanted to,'' Mercado said.
"That was the downturn for him. I saw him after that working as a security guard somewhere. His demeanor had changed. He looked sad.''
While Gerena drifted, Ojeda was making sure that his newly named Macheteros were etched into the public consciousness in Puerto Rico. The group assassinated a Puerto Rican state police officer in Ojeda's hometown of Naguabo.
By the early 1980s, Ojeda is believed to have continued his association with Cuba's intelligence service, the DGI. Some intelligence sources credit him with unifying five violent Puerto Rican pro-independence groups under the umbrella of the Cuban-directed National Revolutionary Command. It was Cuban practice to unify insurgent groups; the DGI did the same thing in Central America.
Operating under the authority of the umbrella group, Los Macheteros claimed partial credit for the simultaneous detonation of eight bombs in Puerto Rico, New York and Chicago.
A day after a Cuban-sponsored international conference for the solidarity of Puerto Rican independence, Los Macheteros ambushed a U.S. Navy bus carrying 17 men and women in Sabana Seca, Puerto Rico. They opened fire with Soviet-made machine guns, killing two passengers and wounding nine.
In January 1981, a year before Gerena went to work for Wells Fargo, Los Macheteros claimed credit for one of its most notorious attacks: the destruction of 11 jet aircraft belonging to the Puerto Rican National Guard at an airbase in Carolina, Puerto Rico. Los Macheteros called the operation La Gaviota, Spanish for "The Seagull.''
But while bombs were exploding in San Juan, New York and Chicago with disturbing regularity, the violent wing of the independence movement was beset by a stubborn problem. Los Macheteros, like Gerena, was flat broke.
The group had been able, from time to time, to knock off the odd armored car or bank in Puerto Rico. But the take just wasn't enough to keep the organization going. As good communists, Los Macheteros had a lot of bills. Members paid themselves salaries. They lent money to deserving cadres. They had a health plan for part-time comrades.
The world knows this because, like good communists, Los Macheteros kept detailed, if turgid, records of finances, as well as anything else that could conceivably be raised for discussion by a group of terrorists devoted to battling U.S. imperialism. Over the years, many of these records have fallen into the hands of the FBI.
By the end of 1981, Los Macheteros' financial situation was dire. At a meeting in December, an executive committee of the group was informed that there was enough money left to cover expenses for two, possibly three months. They had $28,000 to meet a payroll of $6,000 and monthly expenses of $11,000.
Nine months later, the committee groaned that "the organization is paralyzed due to lack of money. The structure of our organization is expensive.''
Then something changed.
Memo: This eight-part series continues through Sunday. Tomorrow: "Junior'' finds spies, cash and Cubans in Mexico City.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun