'Piecing together PA man's life'

Documents suggest missing professor fell victim to Chilean forces

By: KEN GUGGENHEIM, Associated Press Writer
Source: Philadelphia Inquirer
Date: August 28, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The rugged, isolated mountains of southeastern Chile beckoned Boris Weisfeiler almost 16 years ago. A slight, 43-year-old Penn State math professor, his passion was lacing up his boots, strapping on his backpack, and trekking alone through the wilderness.

Weisfeiler's sister Olga warned against traveling by himself. Too many wild animals, she said. He shrugged that off.

"Animals aren't dangerous," he said. "People are."

Weisfeiler disappeared in those mountains. Chilean authorities said he probably drowned accidentally, but his sister was skeptical. Why was it that Chilean officials found his backpack, but not his passport? Or his camera? Or his ticket home? Maybe it was man, not nature, that claimed her brother.

Newly declassified U.S. documents suggest she was right to be suspicious. They show that U.S. officials had evidence _ though nothing they considered conclusive _ that Weisfeiler had been arrested and possibly killed by dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet's security forces.

According to the documents, on the day Weisfeiler disappeared, police and soldiers had been searching for him after a local resident reported seeing a strange-looking foreigner in the area. That resident later died in mysterious circumstances.

Two years after Weisfeiler disappeared, an informant claimed that he had been captured, mistaken for a spy, and was still alive. But the embassy's inquiry stalled, partly because it lacked the budget to pursue the case fully.

"They had time to save his life. And nothing was done," said his sister, Olga Weisfeiler of Newton, Mass.

A former top embassy official, George Jones, said every effort was made to find the truth. "We just came up with zilch," he said in an interview.

State Department officials met with Olga Weisfeiler recently and are exploring how they can help the family now.

Of the 1,100 people who disappeared during the Pinochet years, Weisfeiler is believed to be the only U.S. citizen. Two Americans, Charles Horman and Frank Teruggi, were killed soon after the 1973 coup that began Pinochet's 17-years rule.

Weisfeiler, who was born in Russia, lived in State College, Pa. At Christmas vacation in 1984 he headed to Chile, where summer was beginning.

His backpack was found Jan. 15, 1985, near the Nuble River. Chilean police said he probably drowned while crossing or bathing. A search failed to recover his body and two months later a Chilean court declared him dead.

Olga Weisfeiler couldn't believe he had drowned. Her brother was an experienced, careful hiker. That key items were missing, while valuables remained in his backpack, added to her suspicions.

Moreover, he disappeared about 15 miles from Colonia Dignidad, an enclave of German immigrants believed to have ties to the Pinochet government. Human rights groups claim political prisoners were tortured, killed and buried there. Investigations have been inconclusive.

Rumors circulated in Chilean media tying Weisfeiler's disappearance to Colonia Dignidad, but Olga Weisfeiler said she received little official information over the years.

New details emerged June 30 when about 500 U.S. documents related to Chile were declassified. President Clinton ordered the release of documents about Chilean political violence after the arrest of Pinochet in England in 1998. The former dictator has been returned to Chile, where he may stand trial on human rights charges.

To Peter Kornbluh, a Chile specialist at the National Security Archive, the declassified documents "reveal without a shadow of a doubt that Boris Weisfeiler was not a victim of an accidental drowning." The archive, an independent foreign policy research center, campaigned to have the Chilean documents declassified.

The documents show that 11 days before Weisfeiler's backpack was found, a peasant named Luis Alberto Lopez told police he had seen a scraggly foreigner wearing military-style olive trousers and a green backpack. He later identified the foreigner as Weisfeiler.

Concerned that a "political extremist" had illegally crossed the nearby Argentine border, police and soldiers searched for the foreigner, but claimed they never found him.

Embassy officials weren't allowed to talk to the soldiers. In 1986, they learned that Lopez _ the last known person to see Weisfeiler _ had been found hanging from a bridge near where Weisfeiler disappeared. Chilean authorities said he committed suicide; the embassy called the death "mysterious."

An April 15, 1986, memo from consul general Jayne Kobliska said the embassy believed there could be a "sinister" explanation for Weisfeiler's disappearance and mentioned the possibility that he was in Colonia Dignidad.

One year later, she was frustrated with Chile's responses to U.S. queries.

"The `Mickey Mouseing' around we've done on this case with this government is disgraceful," she wrote.

The case took a dramatic turn June 20, 1987, when an unidentified informant told embassy officials he had been part of a military patrol that arrested a foreigner two years earlier and that the foreigner was still alive. He was clearly talking about Weisfeiler.

The informant said the foreigner was in a prohibited area and was initially suspected of being a Russian spy. He was taken to Colonia Dignidad for interrogation. There, the informant said, he was accused of being a "Jewish spy."

The embassy sent a cable July 23 to Washington saying the informant's "story is so detailed and fits so well with what we know from many other sources of Weisfeiler's whereabouts, physical description, and what he was carrying, that it seems to us likely that source did in fact participate in Weisfeiler's arrest and delivery to the Colonia."

But it says "the story becomes much more iffy" with the informant's claim that Weisfeiler was still alive and notes a dilemma in trying to verify that.

If Weisfeiler were alive, the memo says, any investigation "runs the risk of his being killed to cover up the affair. On the other hand, to take no action could be equivalent to abandoning an American citizen trapped in the hands of persons for whom paranoid is one of the kinder adjectives."

In response, a State Department cable dated July 31 suggested the embassy not wait long to approach senior Chilean officials, noting that this was the "second indication that Weisfeiler may be alive and being held in Colonia Dignidad." It's not clear what the first indication was.

After that, the embassy did talk to Chilean officials and, in January 1988, was allowed to interview three policemen who had searched for Weisfeiler. The police identified the soldiers who had patrolled the area. With names in hand, the embassy again asked Chile for permission to interview the soldiers. Embassy officials were told they first had to petition a court to reopen the case.

The embassy asked the State Department in March 1989 for permission to hire a lawyer to handle the petition. After eight months, State agreed, but said the cost had to come out of the embassy budget. An internal embassy memo dated Feb. 6, 1990, said no money was available.

Jones had left the embassy by then, but he said recently "it is typical that an embassy would not have money for a legal case."

The informant's story wasn't the only theory in the Weisfeiler case. A November 1987 memo said that a CIA source "was completely convinced, but could not conclusively prove, that Weisfeiler was detained by either a (police) or army patrol and interrogated, fatally beaten, then thrown into the river."

The unidentified author of the CIA memo said that account seemed more plausible than the informant's, whose credibility had been questioned.

Officials couldn't tell Weisfeiler's family much about the inquiry largely because of fears of compromising the informants, a former consular officer, Larry Huffman, said in an interview.

At the family's request, a Chilean court in January reopened its Weisfeiler investigation. Hernan Fernandez, the family's lawyer, said in a telephone interview that the likelihood of resolving the case depends largely on how much public attention it receives. "Silence and ignorance lead to impunity," he said.

Chilean ambassador Andres Bianchi recently discussed the case with Olga Weisfeiler. He said that because of Chile's strict separation of powers, the government can do little while the judge considers the case. Chile has had democratically elected governments for a decade and Bianchi said the lifting of Pinochet's immunity made it clear that courts "are quite willing to perform the function they are supposed to perform."

Olga Weisfeiler still hopes not only to find out what happened to her brother, but that, miraculously, he's still alive.

"I cannot say `Yes, he is alive,'" she said. "I am hoping he is alive. It is just my hope. And belief."

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