Ex-Chilean Ambassador Killed by Bomb Blast

22 September 1976
Article

Orlando Letelier, a high official of the late Chile President Salvador Allende, was killed in Washington yesterday when a bomb exploded beneath his car.

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Orlando Letelier, who was a high official in the Marxist regime of the late Chile President Salvador Allende, was killed here yesterday when a bomb exploded beneath his car as he drove around Sheridan Circle on Massachusets Avenue's Embassy Row. Letelier, 44, was driving two colleagues to work at the Institute for Policy Studies when the fiery bomb blast wrecked his car and dismembered his body at 9:35 a.m. He died of blood loss resulting from the severing of both his legs in the explosion.

In Allende's days of power, Letelier served as Chile's ambassador to the United States and, later, as Allende's foreign minister and minister of defense. He also has been an outspoken critic of the junta that overthrew Allende. At the Institute for Policy Studies, he ran a foreign affairs program. Ronni Karpen Moffitt, 25, a staff member at the Institute, who was riding in the front seat of Letelier's car, also died after being helped from the car by her husband, Michael, a research associate at the Institute who was riding in the back seat of Letelier's car. Ronni Moffitt's death was caused by inhaling massive amounts of blood when her larynx and an artery were severed, according to the DC medical examiner's officer. Michael Moffitt also tried unsuccessfully to pull Letelier from the driver's seat, according to witnesses. Moffitt was treated for shock at the George Washington University Medical Center and released. An employee of the Greek Embassy, Vassilios Vassiakostas, 33, was cut on the cheek by a blast fragment as he was walking to work. He was treated at Sibley Hospital and released.

Last night, sources close to the investigation said that the explosion appeared to have been caused by an expertly designed, plastic bomb, shaped to concentrate the main force of its blast upward into the driver's seat. The bomb was apparently attached by wires or magnets to the car's undercarriage, the sources said. It blew a circular hole, 2 to 2½ feet in diameter, in the area of the driver's seat. They added that the blast caused no damage to the street below and it did not seriously injure Moffitt, who was seated in the rear of the car. These sources also said that one possibility under investigation is that the bomb was set off by a remote-controlled device through radio transmission. They discounted, though did not flatly rule out, another possibility - use of a timing device to activate the bomb. The sources said they believed the bomb was intended to kill a victim, apparently Letelier.

The Moffitts were passengers in Letelier's car by sheer coincidence, Michael Moffitt said last night in a tearful interview at his Potomac home, where he was provided a police guard. Because their own car had broken down, Moffitt said, he and his wife rode with Letelier to his Bethesda home. Then they drove to their own Potomac home in Letelier's car. Yesterday morning, the Moffitts returned to pick up Letelier, waiting inside his house for about 15 minutes while he talked on the telephone. Then all three left for work in the same car. Nick Stames, who heads the FBI's Washington field office, said it is possible that a bomb was attached beneath Letelier's car during the brief interval when the Moffitts were waiting for him in his home. But Stames added that enough is not yet known about the device that caused the blast to determine how or when it was planted.

Justice Department and FBI officials said they had not pinpointed a motive for the explosion. Stames said, however, that Letelier was probably the intended victim, not the Moffitts. 'It's reasonable to assume that this was not directed against the Moffitts', he said. 'I don't think that it was meant for either of the Moffitts'. Michael Moffitt also said, 'My guess is they were looking for the car, not for me'. Moffitt said he knew of no specific threats against Letelier's life. 'But he' [Letelier] 'wasn't stupid. He knows what kind of people were running the' [Chilean] 'government. He knew that one more life wouldn't matter to them. He' [Letelier] 'never showed that he thought there was any danger', Moffitt said. He added that Letelier did not in any way appear nervous yesterday morning. 'I'll work', Moffitt said, crying, 'I'll work to get people on Capitol Hill who have been friendly to try to cut off aid to these dictators' [in Chile]. 'The United States helped to overthrow the government of Allende and to put these dictators in power. And they're responsible for killing my wife'.

The Chilean Embassy here strongly denied all such allegations of Chilean government involvement in Letelier's killing and condemned the act itself. Letelier had served as Allende's ambassador to the US from 1970 until the last turbulent months in Chile before the Marxist president was overthrown Sept. 11, 1973, by a military junta, now headed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Chilean president and commander of the army. Letelier returned briefly to Chile to assume the cabinet ministries. He was imprisoned for a year in Chile by the ruling military junta. Earlier this month, the Chilean government lifted his Chilean citizenship, accusing him of 'interfering' in the country's financial affairs. In the US, he worked as director of the Transnational Institute of the Institute for Policy Studies, a foreign affairs affiliate of the Institute for Policy Studies. The institute is a private research 'think tank' with a leftist political outlook. Letelier, who had worked for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington for a decade before becoming Allende's ambassador, had recently written and spoken widely in opposition to the present Chilean government, which is denounced by its critics for alleged torture, political repression and imprisonment of its opponents. Letelier is survived by his wife, Isabel, a sculptor who is also an outspoken critic of the present Chilean regime, and four teen-age sons.

A number of other violent attacks have occurred in recent years against allies of the late Allende and other opponents of the present Chilean regime. Carlos Prats Gonzalez, who had been commanding general of the Chilean army under Allende, was killed by a bomb blast Sept. 30, 1974, in Buenos Aires. Prat's wife was also killed in the explosion. Last October, Bernardo Leighton, a former Christian Democrat Party leader in Chile and a critic of the junta that succeeded Allende's regime, was shot with a machine gun in Rome. Leighton and his wife were both wounded in the attack.

Letelier himself was Chile's ambassador here at the time of a suspicious break-in at the Chilean Embassy in May, 1972. Political files, including those in the ambassador's office, were searched during the burglary, but valuable office equipment and cash were left untouched. No arrest was ever made. The Institute for Policy Studies has itself been controversial. Recently it has been sharply denounced by the US Labor Party, a leftwing political party here. Art Leaderman, a US Labor official, described Letelier's death yesterday as stemming from 'an activation of rightwing Nazi elements' and added that 'we condemn it'. There was widespread - though largely vague - discussion yesterday of possible threats against Letelier's life, some of it prompted by a statement on the Senate floor by Sen. James Abourezk (D-S D). Referring to Chile's recent lifting of Letelier's citizenship, Abourezk said, 'there were threats at that time emanating from the government of Chile, which indicated they would be after his life, and they succeeded today'. Officials at the Institute for Policy Studies also said Letelier was likely to have been threatened, but added they were not certain. No specific threat against his life was disclosed. But a close associate said that Letelier had received at least one threat in the form of a letter slipped under his door last April. More recently, the associate had complained to Letelier that frequently when they left the office in his auto, another car parked nearby would follow. In one suspicious development, a colleague of Letelier, who asked not to be identified, reported that Letelier's car keys had disappeared from his office last Thursday. The keys were never found, the associate said.

At a news conference yesterday afternoon, Richard Barnet and Marcus Raskin, codirectors of the Institute for Policy Studies, blamed Letelier's death on the Chilean government's secret police agency. 'I believe there is sufficient evidence, based on what has happened in Rome, in Buenos Aires, and now here in Washington DC of a pattern of conduct by Chilean intelligence agencies', Barnet said. The Chilean Embassy here issued a statement by its ambassador, Manuel Trucco, saying that Chile 'roundly repudiates the outrageous act of terrorism which cost the lives of a former ambassador of Chile to the United States and of one of his coworkers'. The ambassador's residence is near Sheridan Circle and Ambassador Trucco was among those who heard the blast. 'I heard the explosion and went outside with my wife and dog to see what happened', Trucco remarked in an interview later. 'I didn't know at the time who was involved'. He expressed dismay at the incident, saying 'I knew Letelier. I'm sorry for his family, whom I knew also, and his children'. About 75 protesters, including some from the Institute for Policy Studies, marched and chanted yesterday outside the Chilean Embassy at 1732 Massachusetts Ave. NW.

The bomb exploded apparently as Letelier's powder blue, Chevrolet Chevelle moved along the center lane on the southern part of Sheridan Circle. After the blast, the car traveled about 50 feet farther and struck an orange Volkswagen, illegally parked on the circle outside the Irish Embassy. The impact of the explosion caused the car's roof and hood to buckle and blew off the paneling of the driver's door. The panel landed about 40 feet away. The car's windows also were shattered. Police closed off access roads to the circle, as investigators from city and federal agencies combed the bombing site for evidence. When a light rain started to fall, police covered the wrecked auto with sheets of plastic to help safeguard possible evidence. The explosion was witnessed by a Korean diplomat, a splicer for the Potomac Electric Power Company, and many others who work in the elegant Sheridan Circle neighborhood or were traveling through it. Zalda Gipson, a Smithsonian Institution official whose office overlooks Sheridan Circle, heard the explosion and looked out her second-floor window, from which she saw what she called a 'shower of particles'. She observed two passengers, apparently the Moffitts, struggling to climb out through their windows. Then she saw Mrs. Moffitt walk from the car with her husband's aid and lie down on a lawn in front of the nearby Romanian Embassy. Afterward, she said, Moffitt tried in vain to get Letelier out of the driver's seat. Moffitt was screaming for help, she added. Other witnesses gave similar accounts, describing Moffitt's attempts to rescue the two victims. 'The car came around the circle and there was this terrific explosion. It was a shock explosion. It was more than a gas tank - big sheet of flames in the rear', recalled Harry Stouffer, 79, a part-time proof reader for the American Society of International Law, whose office is located on Sheridan Circle. Edward Fox, a Pepco splicer was repairing street lights in the circle at the time., He saw Moffitt run to the driver's door. 'He was attempting to help whoever was pinned in there'.

Copyright 1976 The Washington Post
Also contributing to this article were Washington Post staff writers Alfred E. Lewis, Joseph E. Bouchard, Eugene L. Meyer and Paul Valentine.