Published May 26, 2010
HARTFORD, Conn. – HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A Puerto Rican nationalist who lived a double life as a fugitive after participating in a $7 million armored truck robbery in Connecticut in 1983 was sentenced Wednesday to seven years in federal prison.
Avelino Gonzalez-Claudio, 67, a one-time member of the clandestine Los Macheteros independence movement, lived for more than two decades under an assumed name in Puerto Rico until he was apprehended in 2008.
While FBI agents searched for him and others involved in the heist, Gonzalez-Claudio remarried and raised two stepdaughters, taught computer classes as a career, learned to grow exotic plants and made a wide circle of friends who had no idea he was a wanted man.
Several of those friends flew from Puerto Rico for Wednesday's sentencing in U.S. District Court in Hartford, where Gonzalez-Claudio also was ordered to repay the $7 million stolen from the Wells Fargo truck in the West Hartford heist.
Prosecutors say Gonzalez-Claudio conspired with several others to steal the money, then funnel it to Los Macheteros. He had pleaded guilty earlier this year to foreign transportation of stolen money and conspiracy to rob federally insured bank funds.
In a letter read aloud in court Wednesday by attorney Moira Buckley, Gonzalez-Claudio said he takes responsibility for his actions and that today's struggle for Puerto Rican independence has a different tenor than when he was involved.
"I hope this path will be a less painful path and one of peace and understanding," he said in his letter.
Gonzalez-Claudio could have faced up to 15 years in prison, but reached a plea agreement with prosecutors that cut his sentence almost in half.
"We've submitted to the seven years because this honorable, dignified man felt he should accept responsibility for what he did," said his attorney, James Bergenn. "He was not a Bonnie and Clyde fugitive. He was someone who, for the entire 22 years, took from no one, giving to those he encountered."
The Macheteros, whose name translates as "Machete Wielders" or "Cane Cutters," are suspected of using the stolen money to finance bombings and attacks as a way to push for independence for the U.S. territory.
Their alleged leader, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, was killed in a 2005 shootout with the FBI at a remote farmhouse in Puerto Rico.
The 1983 robbery allegedly was carried out by Victor Manuel Gerena, a Wells Fargo driver recruited by the independence group. Authorities say Gerena took two co-workers hostage at gunpoint, handcuffed them and injected them with an unknown substance to temporarily disable them.
Gonzalez-Claudio is accused of helping to get Gerena and the half-ton of cash out of the United States. Gerena and one of Gonzalez-Claudio's brothers remain on the lam.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Paul McConnell said prosecutors settled on the seven-year recommended prison sentence for Gonzalez-Claudio because it was similar to those served by others who had comparable roles in the heist.
He added, however, that although 27 years have passed and the events were being recounted in a sterile courtroom, the judge needed to remember the "utter fear and terror" of the two Wells Fargo workers victimized by the heist.
Though Gonzalez-Claudio was ordered to repay the $7 million, Bergenn said his client is penniless and will not be able to work after his release from prison because of tremors from a neurological disorder.
Bergenn said he thinks U.S. District Court Judge Alfred Covello imposed the restitution order because he "likes things tidy," considering none of the other 17 people accused or convicted in the heist have repaid any of the stolen money.
Gonzalez-Claudio could be released in about 2 1/2 years, since he gets credit for time served since his arrest and was sentenced under guidelines in place in 1983 that let certain defendants complete two-thirds of their sentences.
Covello's order also asks the Federal Bureau of Prisons to consider housing Gonzalez-Claudio at its prison in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, so he is close to family — or, if that is not possible, at a facility in Florida or New England, for the same reason.