WASHINGTON -- Michael Moffitt, who survived a car bomb that killed his wife and former Chilean Ambassador Orlando Letelier in 1976, testified today a 'deafening kind of explosion' rocked the car as they drove through Washington traffic.
Moffitt testified at the retrial of two anti-Castro Cubans, Guillermo Novo Sampol and Alvin Ross Diaz, whose earlier convictions on conspiracy and murder charges were overturned by an appeals court.
During cross-examination, Moffitt said the night before Letelier's death he and Letelier discussed extra security for the exile 'simply because the Chileans have never hesitated to kill anyone who opposed the regime and he had been the de facto leader of the exile movement.'
When Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt were killed Sept. 21, 1976, Moffitt was an aide to Letelier. He and his wife worked for the Institute of Policy Studies which employed also employed Letelier.
Describing the explosion, Moffitt said he was riding in the back seat and his wife in front as Letelier drove his car into a traffic circle.
'There was a noise -- a kind of a hiss. After that, there was a flash of light that came from the front of the car, and that was followed by a deafening kind of explosion,' he said. 'The car actually seemed to be picked up off the ground.'
He said he freed himself from the wreckage, saw his wife and thought she was not seriously hurt and then went to Letelier.
'There was a huge hole in the floor of the car with the part from the seat to the gas pedal missing. He (Letelier) was turned around facing the back of the car,' Moffitt said. 'His eyes were a little open, but not for very long. He was trying to mumble, trying to say something.'
After pausing to compose himself, Moffitt added, 'I was basically able to see the bottom of his body was blown off.'
Moffitt said he then discovered his wife was bleeding profusely from the mouth and did not see her alive again after she was taken away by an ambulance.
In addition to discussing additional security for Letelier the previous night, Moffitt also said Letelier thought DINA, Chile's secret police, was responsible for other exile murders and believed DINA agents were spying on him.
During open arguments Tuesday, defense lawyer Paul Goldberger said a key government witness -- American Michael V. Townley who worked for DINA -- and not the two suspects, murdered Letelier. He called Townley a 'fanatical assassin.'
The two Cubans were convicted of the charges in 1979, but a federal appeals court last year overturned the verdicts, saying the government could not use testimony from two government informants who shared jail cells with them.
Letelier, who was living in exile in Washington, had been ambassador to the United States and a top official in the Marxist government of Salvadore Allende, who was overthrown in a 1973 coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power.
Townley, the government's key witness in the Novo-Diaz case, was sentenced to 10 years in jail for his guilty plea to conspiring to murder a foreign officer.
Goldberger charged Townley was the 'murderer,' who had no regrets at 'having blown Orlando Letelier off the face of the earth.'
'Bill Novo and Alvin Ross were not in Washington, D.C., and even the government does not allege they were in Washington' when the murders occurred, Goldberger said.
But prosecutor Carey M. Feldman said the government would show 'Alvin Ross and Guillermo Novo were involved in a conspiracy to murder Letelier and Ronni Moffitt and they were responsible' for their murders.
The government contends the two men, both members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement, provided the explosives used in the bombing.
Feldman told the jury DINA wanted to 'silence' Letelier, an outspoken critic of Chile's military junta. DINA enlisted Townley to travel from Chile to the United States and told him to make sure the act was not traced to Chile.
'The conspiracy itself, the plan to murder Letelier, originated in Chile,' Feldman said.
Feldman said Townley was instructed to get in touch with members of the Cuban Nationalist Movement and enlist their assistance.
'He was told to try to do it so DINA and the military government of Chile wouldn't be linked,' Feldman said.