For relatives of terror victims, Cuba detente revives painful memories

Joe Connor was just a few days past his ninth birthday when the news hit on January 24, 1975: His father, Frank, a financial executive, had been killed that afternoon by a bomb blast at a lower Manhattan restaurant.

He had taken some out-of-town clients to lunch at Fraunces Tavern – the Revolutionary War-era watering hole where George Washington bade farewell to his troops – when someone who has never been identified placed a knapsack with a bomb in it just behind Frank’s chair. He died instantly in the blast, as did one of his out-of-town clients.

That day, the militant Puerto Rican nationalist group FALN issued a communique to the news wire services claiming responsibility for the attack, which killed four and injured five dozen others. The group said it chose the tavern – which was popular with Wall Street types – in order to target “reactionary corporate executives,” and had committed the attack in exchange for a deadly bombing a few days earlier in the Puerto Rican town of Mayaguez, which locals blamed on the Central Intelligence Agency.

“It’s something I struggle with all the time,” says Connor today, four decades after the afternoon that changed his life, and the lives of his family members, forever. A financial adviser in his own right, with children of his own, Connor has spent much of his free time over the past two decades writing to officials, testifying before Congress, appearing on TV programs – including some on Fox News – campaigning for Cuba to extradite the one man whom Connor has reason to suspect played a direct role in his father’s killing.

That would be Guillermo Morales, once the chief bomb-maker for FALN.

Five years after the Fraunces Tavern attack, Morales blew off both his hands when one of his incendiary creations detonated prematurely in Queens. Despite that handicap, he managed to escape from Bellevue Hospital in New York and fled to Mexico. A deadly confrontation there led to his spending five years in a notoriously harsh Mexican prison. But in 1988, without explanation, the Mexican authorities allowed Morales safe passage to Cuba, where he lives fairly openly to this day.

Morales is, in fact, one of an estimated 70 fugitives from American justice believed to be living in Cuba today. The crimes of which these fugitives are accused range from Medicaid fraud to terrorism and even murder. Even more infamous than Morales is the case of JoAnne Chesimard, a Black Power radical convicted in the killing of a New Jersey state trooper during a bloody shootout along the New Jersey Turnpike in May 1973. Chesimard was captured in the gunfight, but – like Morales – escaped from incarceration. In Chesimard’s case, freedom came with the aid of three armed accomplices who broke her out of a state prison in 1979, two years after her conviction.

Reports differ as to how soon Chesimard – who calls herself Assata Shakur – arrived in Castro’s Cuba; the State Department says it was 1979, the same year she escaped from prison, but her literary agent once placed the date of arrival in 1984. Either way, she, too, has lived fairly openly, at certain points even listing herself in the Havana phone book.

State Department officials dating back at least to the Clinton administration have pressed, in vain, for her extradition; in 2005, the FBI made Chesimard the first woman to appear on the bureau’s most wanted terrorists list.

The Obama administration’s decision, in December, to reestablish full diplomatic ties with Cuba has angered some victims of the fugitives’ crimes and their families, particularly because the State Department is not pressing for the fugitives’ return as a condition for the reopening of an American Embassy in Havana.

“It's amazing,” Connor told Fox News in an interview last week. “In the last few days, you had Raul Castro making demands of the U.S. for normalization of relations, including closing Guantanamo Bay, when we're the most powerful nation on earth. We shouldn't be taking demands from Cuba to basically infuse life-saving capital into their country; it should be going quite the opposite.”

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. official spearheading the normalization talks with Cuba, told lawmakers last week that she presses the Chesimard case, and those of the other fugitives, every time she interacts with her counterparts in the Castro regime. The Englewood, New Jersey native met with those counterparts in late January, when she led the highest-level U.S. delegation to Havana since 1980.

Jacobson calls herself “a child of New Jersey,” and said she grew up with the Chesimard case. But when asked what the Cuban diplomats actually say as to why their regime has so long blocked extradition of the convicted cop killer and terrorist, Jacobson demurs. “I can’t give you much more in the way of a rationale because they have not given much more,” she told reporters in December.

Critics in Congress have assailed the Obama administration for not formally linking the case of Chesimard to the normalization process. “Why was her return not part of the deal?” asked Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J.

Jacobson told a Senate hearing last week that reopening the U.S. Embassy in Havana “would enable us to do more, pursue additional things – for example, in our law enforcement, in getting fugitives returned.”

For the moment, Connor remains skeptical. But he sees some light creeping in from the end of the tunnel. He believes Chesimard, the aging revolutionary, remains popular in the Castros’ inner circle, but that Morales, the bomb-maker with no hands, has, as Connor puts it, “worn out his welcome in Cuba.”

“He's no longer viewed as an asset to the Castro regime,” Connor told Fox News. “So I think at this point they're probably not going to put up much of a fight to keep him.”

Extradition of Morales would bring some measure of closure to the Connor family, and help Joe Connor better navigate the demands of work, family – and justice. “When I'm sitting on the couch watching TV with the family, sometimes I'm thinking maybe I should be writing something [ to advance the case],” he said. “This stuff is draining….Writing about it continuously, over and over, is physically and mentally draining.”

But it’s the precious photographs and home movies of Frank Connor that keep his son going.

“My dad deserved my best,” he said.