HARTFORD, Conn. – A graying Puerto Rican nationalist sought by U.S. authorities for more than a quarter century pleaded not guilty Friday to charges in connection with one of the nation's largest robberies.
A smiling Norberto Gonzalez Claudio, 65, entered his pleas through an interpreter before U.S. Magistrate Judge Donna Martinez. He faces 15 federal counts, including bank robbery, conspiracy and transportation of stolen money for his alleged role in the 1983 robbery of $7 million at a Wells Fargo armored car depot in West Hartford.
The most serious charges each carry a possible 25-year prison sentence. Gonzalez was originally charged in 1985, but wasn't found until earlier this month in Puerto Rico.
He was ordered held without bond as a flight risk. Gonzalez, sporting a gray beard and glasses, said little during the hearing, acknowledging his rights and saying "no culpable," Spanish for not guilty, each time he was asked for a plea.
Outside the courtroom, his 61-year-old wife, Elda Santiago Perez, said her husband is prepared to spend the rest of his life in prison.
"Since he has been very young, he has been involved in the fight for liberty for Puerto Rico and its independence," she told The Associated Press, as interpreted by her son, 27-year-old Carlos Gonzalez Santiago. "He is ready to do anything."
She and her son both declined to say what he has been doing for the past 27 years, saying they could not talk about that without a lawyer.
Gonzalez is suspected of helping smuggle cash from the robbery out of the U.S. mainland.
Gonzalez was living alone in a modest home under in Puerto Rico a false name when he was arrested on May 5. Authorities believe he still had an active role in Los Macheteros, a group that has claimed responsibility for a series of robberies, murders and bombings in the name of Puerto Rican independence.
An older brother, Avelino, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison after spending more than two decades as a fugitive for his role in the heist. A third brother, Orlando, was also convicted of taking part in the robbery and has since been released.
Prosecutors have said Los Macheteros, whose name is variously translated as "Machete Wielders" or "Cane Cutters," are suspected of using the stolen money to finance bombings and attacks in their push for independence for the U.S. territory.
The 1983 robbery allegedly was carried out by Victor Manuel Gerena, a Wells Fargo driver recruited by the group. Authorities say Gerena took two co-workers hostage at gunpoint, handcuffed them and injected them with an unknown substance to temporarily disable them. Members of Los Macheteros, including Gonzalez, were accused of helping to spirit the money out of the U.S.
Gerena, who is believed to be alive and living in Cuba, is one of the FBI's 10 most wanted fugitives. He is the lone suspect in the case who remains at large.
The alleged leader of the Macheteros, Filiberto Ojeda Rios, was killed in a 2005 shootout with the FBI at a remote farmhouse in Puerto Rico.
Several supporters of the movement were in court Friday, including Alberto Barreto, with the group Puerto Rica Diaspora Solidarity.
"We do not consider this a crime," said Barreto, who was wearing a T-shirt with Ojeda's image on it. "We consider (Gonzalez) to be a freedom fighter for the independence of Puerto Rico."
Jury selection for Gonzalez has been tentatively set for July 14.
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