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U.S. family seeks Pinochet charges Relatives of woman killed with Letelier ask for murder indictment

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Relatives of Ronni Karpen Moffitt, the New Jersey newlywed killed 22 years ago in a Washington car bombing linked to the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, have appealed to the Clinton administration to indict the former Chilean dictator for her murder.

The bomb that killed Ronni Moffitt was meant for Orlando Letelier, Chile's ambassador to the United States when Pinochet led a military coup in 1973 that toppled President Salvador Allende.

Her father, Murray Karpen, and Michael Moffitt, who was her husband, said they did not believe that the United States would ever be able to try Pinochet. But Moffitt said that, at the least, an indictment here would make the former dictator a prisoner in Chile.

"We want an indictment here to make sure he can never leave Chile again," said Moffitt, 47, a money manager for a New York firm. "If he does, he'll know there's a U.S. warrant for him that can be enforced by Interpol."

Moffitt's request came this week as the 83-year-old Pinochet was being held in England on a Spanish warrant and the Labor government considers a request to extradite him to Spain. The slain American's relatives also have asked U.S. officials to assist Spanish authorities who want to prosecute the former Chilean dictator for killings he allegedly ordered against Spaniards.

Moffitt's high-profile attorneys, American University professor Michael Tigar and Washington lawyer Sam Buffone, are lobbying U.S. officials for a tougher stand on Pinochet.

'Like any other murderer'

"I think he should go to Spain in handcuffs," said Karpen, 70, a retired real estate salesman and deli owner in West Orange, N.J. "I believe he should be brought to justice like any other murderer."

Moffitt, who has remarried and lives near Princeton, said he had written Attorney General Janet Reno on Oct. 19, requesting a meeting. His request was rebuffed.

Reno was asked about the family's concerns during a news briefing yesterday. She did not address the question of indictment, but said she had asked for a review of the matter, in particular U.S. cooperation with Spanish prosecutors.

In a Nov. 23 letter to Moffitt and his lawyer, Assistant Attorney General James K. Robinson asked the family for "any additional evidence" it had on the murder. Moffitt called the request insulting, saying he believes the government has ample evidence linking Pinochet to the killing. "I believe the government can do better than this," Moffitt said.

Before Pinochet's arrest in London, Ronni Moffitt's family said they had all but given up hope that he would be brought to justice. Karpen said he was angered by the cautious reaction of the United States, which has maintained that the Pinochet issue is a matter best settled by Britain and Spain.

But family members said they were heartened by Tuesday's announcement that the government will declassify some secret U.S. documents on Pinochet's regime. The CIA worked closely with Chile's secret police during the early and mid-1970s, when thousands of that country's citizens were killed by their government.

After the Pinochet coup against Allende, Letelier quit his job as Chile's ambassador to Washington, sought asylum in the United States and became a leading critic of the new regime at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Ronni Moffitt, then a 24-year-old graduate of the University of Maryland, College Park went to work for the same institute, her father said. On Sept. 21, 1976, her car broke down, and she and her husband, Michael, who were married that May, hitched a ride with Letelier.

His car was in Sheridan Circle near Washington's Embassy Row when someone used a remote control to set off a bomb under the car. Letelier and Ronni Moffitt, riding in the front seat, were killed. Michael Moffitt, who was sitting in back, had a piece of the exploded car removed from his chest, and survived.

A conspiracy unravels

Over the past 20 years, the conspiracy behind the bombing has slowly unraveled. Pinochet granted amnesty to those charged with human rights crimes during the 1970s, but excluded Letelier's killers.

In 1977, a Chilean army officer defected and told U.S. officials that the Chilean secret police agency DINA had carried out the assassination. A year later, Michael Vernon Townley, an American citizen who worked for Chile's secret police, pleaded guilty to conspiracy in the murder and served five years in prison.

In 1992, a five-member international panel of arbitrators ordered Chile to pay a more than $2.6 million to Letelier's and Moffitt's families. The Chilean government paid the money, but admitted no wrongdoing.

In recent years, however, Gen. Juan Manuel Contreras Sepulveda, the former head of the secret police, was convicted of conspiracy to murder by a Chilean court. In an affidavit from prison, he said that Pinochet gave "explicit orders" for all operations, including the Letelier assassination.

Lawrence Barcella, the United States prosecutor who investigated the assassination, has said publicly that he believes Pinochet was involved. Ronni Moffitt's family agrees.

"I don't think something like this could happen without Pinochet's approval," Karpen said.

Pinochet took power in Chile after a 1973 coup and ruled for 17 years. He resigned as commander of the armed forces last year. But in a pre-arranged deal with the present government, he immediately became a senator for life, with full immunity in Chile. This fall he sought medical treatment at a London hospital. British authorities arrested him there on a Spanish extradition warrant.

Immunity denied

Spain wants to put Pinochet on trial for the murders of Spanish citizens during his rule, but the Chilean government maintains that Pinochet has diplomatic immunity. Last week, however, the Law Lords, England's highest court, denied him that immunity. The decision on whether to extradite now rests with the Home Secretary of Britain's Labor government.

While members of the Moffitt family say they want Pinochet brought to justice, there is some difference of opinion about the Spanish court's tactics. Ronni Moffitt's brother, Clifton, N.J., lawyer Harry Karpen, said he worried whether the case could set a precedent that would be used against U.S. officials accused of crimes in foreign countries.

'Dangerous precedent'

"There's no one in this universe I hate more than Pinochet," he said. But he added: "This is a very dangerous precedent for our country."

Murray Karpen, Ronni's father, acknowledged that the "State Department and our entire government are in a tough position." But he believes a precedent would be useful in dissuading other rulers from violating human rights.

Shortly after Pinochet's arrest, Karpen went to Washington and spoke at a ceremony at the spot in Sheridan Circle where his daughter was killed. He also met with British diplomats and with officials at the Institute for Policy Studies, where Letelier worked. He said institute officials were also pressing the State Department to pursue the case.

A few years back, the Karpens sold the family's house in Passaic, N.J., and moved to West Orange, but they continue to fill their house with mementos of their daughter. As he spoke yesterday, Karpen said he was looking at two paintings a young Ronni made for him, as well as a picture of her wedding, held under a tent in his back yard with 200 guests.

"The past 22 years has made me more cynical," Karpen said. "This is some justice, but it's only a start."

Pub Date: 12/04/98

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