U.S. investigators contradict Guatemala in bishop's slaying Dog and priest accused in activist's death do not fit government's scenario

October 09, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- A team of U.S. investigators produced evidence yesterday that contradicts the Guatemalan government's contention that a Roman Catholic priest bludgeoned a prominent bishop and human rights activist to death in April.

Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, 75, was killed two days after issuing a report detailing human rights violations by the Guatemalan military during 35 years of civil war. His death provoked a furor dTC and led to widespread suspicions that the military was involved.

Dissatisfied with the government probe, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala asked an investigative team of three Americans to look into the case.

The Americans, releasing their findings, ridiculed the Guatemalan government's handling of the case.

"The last thing the government wants to do is have a real investigation," said San Francisco lawyer and private detective Jack Palladino. "All they want is a fall guy. If he's a priest, so much the better."

In July, Guatemalan police arrested Father Mario Orantes, a priest who lived with Gerardi, and took his dog, an 11-year-old German shepherd named Baloo, into custody. Police alleged that Orantes ordered the dog to attack the bishop in the garage of their home in Guatemala City. After Gerardi fell, police alleged, Orantes smashed his head with a chunk of concrete.

Pressured by the archdiocese to reopen the case, Guatemalan authorities exhumed Gerardi's body for a second autopsy in mid-September. The U.S. team -- Dr. Robert C. Bux, deputy chief medical examiner of San Antonio; Dr. Norman D. Sperber, chief forensic dentist for San Diego and Imperial counties in California; and Palladino -- was allowed to observe the re-examination of the body.

The team concluded that the scenario described by Guatemalan police makes no sense because:

Gerardi's facial and neck wounds were not caused by dog bites, as claimed by the authorities. Sperber, in an affidavit, said "the post-mortem examination did not reveal anything that was even close to being consistent with a dog's bite."

Baloo was too old and crippled to leap at anyone.

Although a concrete slab found in the garage was used in the attack, the wounds showed evidence of a second weapon, perhaps an iron bar, a crowbar or a pipe. Palladino called it "a weapon never produced, never found."

Orantes would not have had the strength to knock down and drag Gerardi, who weighed 240 pounds, by himself.

Palladino and Bux did not cite any evidence that would link the death to the Guatemalan military. But Edgar Gutierrez, who directed the archdiocese team that produced the evidence in Gerardi's report on human rights, said a witness saw a car with military plates outside the bishop's home on the night of his death.

Pub Date: 10/09/98

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