BY GERARDO REYES | El Nuevo Herald
Fifty-one years after a hijacked airliner plunged into the dark waters of a Cuban bay, killing 14 people onboard, the man who has been portrayed as the lead suspect now living in Miami will not be prosecuted under federal law, unless new evidence emerges.
Citing the passage of time and fading evidence, the U.S. attorney’s office in Miami said Thursday it will not be able to make a case against Edmundo Ponce de León in what was the first international hijacking from the United States.
``The allegations in this matter are more than 50 years old. Unfortunately, after a thorough review of the facts and the law as it existed at the time, this matter will remain dormant unless new evidence surfaces,’’ said Alicia Valle, special counsel to the U.S. attorney.
The prosecutor’s decision closes the chapter of the deadliest hijacking of the 1950s, when five men in green fatigues took over a Cubana Airlines turboprop shortly after it took off from Miami.
Although the case is closed, feelings remain raw.
``This is another way to help Fidel Castro who was the ultimate mastermind of this tragedy,’’ said Omara González, who survived the crash.
Another survivor was Cuban engineer Osiris Martínez, who lost his wife and three children in the crash.
Martínez, 82, said Thursday that he is again suffering from the depression he experienced at the time of his loss. He didn’t want to talk about the legal case.
``I overcame the resentment. I wouldn’t forgive [Ponce de León] and I won’t forget him. They planned it, but it all came direct from Fidel. Nobody did anything without his approval, least of all that,’’ said Martínez, who lives in Miami.
The plane, which left Miami on the afternoon of Nov. 1, 1958, with weapons secretly stored in the cargo compartment for Castro’s rebels, fell into the Bay of Nipe, in northeastern Cuba, after the pilot attempted an emergency landing on a short runway of the Preston sugar mill.
El Nuevo Herald established last year that Ponce de León lived in Miami. And the newspaper obtained State Department documents that identified him as one of the plane’s hijackers.
González, the survivor, and relatives of Ponce de León, including his sister, said that the Cuban American, a former U.S. Air Force cargo handler, was one of the five hijackers.
``He was proud of it,’’ said Solange Ponce de León, a cousin, who met with Edmundo a few weeks after the event. ``He told us he had hijacked the plane. I promised myself that someday after my father died, I would tell what I know.’‘
Christopher Bruno, a former federal prosecutor in Washington, faulted the Miami prosecutors for not interviewing the victims as well as other witnesses.
``Because [Solange’s] statement was an admission of [Ponce de Léon’s] criminal conduct . . . it was incumbent upon the government to question that person to find out what else she knew,’’ Bruno said. ``Where is a will, there is a way.’‘
Ponce de León, 73, denied the allegations last year and told reporters from El Nuevo Herald and The Miami Herald that he was just another passenger in the plane and was traveling to Varadero Beach for a weekend of relaxation.
Ponce de León managed to swim ashore with another suspect. A third man, identified in State Department documents as a hijacker, also survived.
Ponce de León could not be reached Thursday. His telephone has been disconnected.
Ponce de León arrived in the United States from Cuba in 1994. On the island, he had held various official posts since the revolution.
At the request of the State Department, the FBI initiated an investigation immediately after the hijacking, but State Department archives show that federal prosecutors in Miami suspended the investigation three months later, after declaring that Ponce de León and the others were in Cuba, outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Lawyers and prosecutors consulted last year split on the possibility that charges might be brought against Ponce de León and the other suspects.
Others felt that the absence of a law against aerial hijacking at the time could block the effort to bring about charges.
Richard Strafer, a Miami criminal lawyer who is an expert on appeals, said that the charges should have been made in 1994.
``That should have been done 15 years ago, when [Ponce de León] arrived in this country,’’ he said. ``If the government had the evidence, that type of evidence, then that’s the time when [the charges] should have been made.’‘
Miami Herald staff writer Michael Sallah contributed to this report.