Christic Died for Our Sins

Attempts to Derail the La Penca Investigation

by Father Bill Davis

Months before the La Penca bombing occurred, State Department officials laid an elaborate trail of disinformation to suggest that Basque terrorists with Sandinista connections were responsible for the bombing attack at La Penca. 

Soon after they launched their investigation of the bombing, reporters Martha Honey and Tony Avirgan began receiving anonymous phone calls and letters threatening their sources, their family and themselves. Their home was placed under surveillance and the people who worked with them were followed. Eventually Honey and Avirgan were forced to send their children out of Costa Rica to protect them. 

Two of the sources that Honey and Avirgan used in their investigation – a contra fighter called David and a Costa Rican carpenter named Carlos – were kidnapped at gunpoint and taken to a farm in northern Costa Rica. The farm was later identified as the property of La Penca defendant John Hull. The two escaped, but David disappeared, and Avirgan and Honey later learned that he had been recaptured and taken back to the same property, where he was murdered. Carlos was threatened several times, and he and his family were forced to leave Costa Rica because they feared for their lives. They still are unable to return. 

Several contra mercenaries who provided information to Honey and Avirgan were threatened. One, Steven Carr, was threatened by John Hull, then disappeared mysteriously shortly before he was scheduled to testify on behalf of the journalists in a Costa Rican court. Several months later he was found dead in Florida. 

La Penca defendant Richard Secord feared that the La Penca lawsuit would expose the contra support operation, and spent over $84,000 from Swiss Iran contra bank accounts in an attempt to derail the suit. In March 1986, Secord hired a former CIA “technical services” expert, Glenn Robinette, to spy on Avirgan and Honey. Robinette paid thousands of dollars he got from Secord to bribe people in Costa Rica to get “derogatory” information on the two reporters. 

Two key witnesses in the La Penca suit, Jack Terrell and Joe Adams, were threatened with Federal indictments if they testified on behalf of the Christic Institute. 

In June 1988, Judge James Lawrence King summarily dismissed the La Penca suit just four days before the trial was scheduled to begin in Miami. The pivotal issue, King ruled, was that the Institute had not produced enough evidence proving the identity of Amac Galil, the alleged bomber, his relationship to the other defendants, or even that he was at La Penca when the bomb exploded. King did not allow the Institute to present evidence showing that Galil planted the bomb, including the eyewitness testimony of reporters who were present at the bombing and videotape footage shot by a Costa Rican news cameraman – who died in the explosion. The videotape footage shows Galil slipping out of the press conference seconds before the bomb was exploded. King also ruled as inadmissible testimony from Costa Rica’s attorney general who described Galil’s links to the Hull operation. 

In February 1989, Judge King ordered Christic Institute to pay over $1,000,000 in fines and court costs. 

In June 1991, the Supreme Court refused to review lower court findings, leaving Christic no further legal recourse. 

Murder in the Eleventh Circuit

by Lanny Sinkin

There is an untold chapter in the saga of the Christic Institute’s effort to bring the illegal covert operators to justice. When Judge Lawrence King dismissed the Avirgan v. Hull case and entered sanctions against Daniel Sheehan, the Institute and plaintiffs Tony Avirgan and Martha Honey, the Institute took the dismissal and the sanctions on appeal to the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta, Georgia.

On December 16, 1989, while the appeal was in process, a pipe bomb in the mail killed Judge Robert S. Vance of the Eleventh Circuit. Personnel in the Eleventh Circuit Clerk’s office found another bomb, which was defused. A third bomb killed a civil rights attorney. While the case was still on appeal, I flew to Portland, Oregon, to help Marlene Smith move to Washington, D.C., to go to work for the Institute. As we drove out of Portland, National Public Radio broadcast a story that there had been an attempted assassination of Judge J.L. Edmundson, also of the Eleventh Circuit. The story said that a shot had been fired at the limousine carrying Judge Edmundson and that the judge had not been hit. At the time, the judge was traveling under the guard of United States Marshals because the death of Judge Vance had not been solved.

When we heard the story, I contacted the office of Congressman Henry B. Gonzalez and asked what information they had on the attempted assassination. An aide to the congressman pulled up their wire service and told me that there was a massive manhunt underway and that helicopters were circling an apartment building where they believed the assassin was trapped.

As we drove across country that day, we continued to listen for more information. There was nothing further. The next morning, National Public Radio broadcasted a story saying that the police had concluded that a defect in the glass or a rapid change in temperature had caused the window to shatter and that there had been no assassination attempt.

Marlene and I just laughed at the speed of the cover up.

When I returned to Washington, I looked up thc profiles of the two judges. Judge Robert S. Vance was one of the great liberals in modern United States history. He led the Mississippi Freedom Democratic delegation to the 1968 Democratic Convention That delegation was the first integrated delegation to be sent from Mississippi. The convention unseated the official segregationist delegation and seated the delegation headed by Judge Vance.

A man of such courage in challenging the status quo might well have been willing to go against the national security tide and reverse Judge King’s orders.

Judge J. L. Edmundson is a true conservative. If the government is on one side of a case against an individual, his assumption is that the government has all the resources and, therefore, a heavy burden to do everything exactly right. To the right of Judge Edmundson are ideological conservatives, who would not be the least sympathetic to the Institute’s appeal.

When I reached Washington, I called the Eleventh Circuit to check on the status of the appeal. The clerk asked what case. When I said “Avirgan v. Hull,” she said “Oh, Lord!” I asked “Oh, Lord?” She said “Avirgan v. Hull means duck and run for cover.” Clearly in the minds of court personnel the death of Judge Vance and the attempt on Judge Edmundson were associated with the Christic appeal. On our appeal, we had friend-of-the-court briefs supporting our position from the United Church of Christ and nine other major religious denominations, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, Public Citizen Litigation Group, and others. The American Bar Association decided not to expend their resources filing a brief because they believed there was no chance the rulings by Judge King would be upheld on appeal.

However, the Eleventh Circuit panel unanimously upheld the decisions of Judge King and ruled our entire appeal frivolous. I have always believed that the court ruled under duress.

After the Eleventh Circuit denied our appeal, the FBI solved the killing of Judge Vance by arresting and convicting the man they had suspected from the very first day. With no particular proof, I believe that the FBI had orders to go very slow in solving Judge Vance’s murder because leaving that murder unresolved left the intimidating effect on the court of the murder possibly being associated with our appeal.

As to whether the attempt on Judge Edmundson was a deliberate miss or a failed assassination attempt, I don’t know. I do not believe the defect in the window story to be anything other than a cover up. The attempt had been made and would have its effects. The effect was to psychologically sandwich the justices that might lean toward reversing Judge King and make them afraid to do so.

The Supreme Court refused to even hear an appeal, so that ended the case. Ten years later, the San Jose Mercury News is bringing to light some of the cocaine-contra-CIA connection which formed a major theme in the Avirgan case. Whether this new exposure of government crimes will lead to a substantive investigation and revelation of the truth, remains to be seen.