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This article was published 1/10/2018 (1038 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — "I was always good at organizing," the widow told a packed courtroom as she testified about her management of a restaurant, the Pink Skirt, which had been purchased for her by her husband, real estate developer Adam Anhang, months before he was slain in San Juan in 2005.
Aurea Vazquez-Rijos also organized a pre-nuptial agreement with her husband that would pay her $8 million after his death. She organized a quiet wedding that excluded his family; and she organized a new life in Europe while under indictment for murder conspiracy in Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States.
While in Italy, the jury heard, the widow also organized a complex forgery scheme to secure the support of the Jewish community in Florence. Newspaper headlines there characterized her as "Vedova Nera" — the black widow.
This week, a San Juan jury will decide if her skill at organizing included Anhang’s slaying, after a trial that has been closely watched on this island. Vazquez-Rijos, a 38-year-old former beauty pageant contestant, is charged with plotting his killing, along with her sister, Marcia Vazquez-Rijos, and Marcia’s former boyfriend, Jose Ferrer-Sosa.
The jury is expected to begin deliberating today after testimony wrapped up Friday.
It’s been a tabloid-worthy story of hit men and drug dealing; of love letters and infidelity; of promises and betrayal. And most poignantly, the story of a 32-year-old Winnipeg-born man who was beaten and stabbed to death on a cobblestone street, after he shouted at his wife to, "Run, baby, run."
Ironically, the jury heard those words not from his widow, but rather from the lips of the killer himself, drug dealer Alex Pabon, nicknamed "El Loco." Pabon described how he had used a piece of cobblestone and a kitchen knife to kill the man he called "the Canadian." Pabon testified that the day before the killing, he met in a hamburger joint with the Vazquez-Rijos women and Ferrer-Sosa, and they promised him a $3-million payoff for the hit. He said their motivation was the fear that Anhang was about to divorce his wife, and she would lose access to his millions.
Two or three days before he was killed, Anhang left a note on his wife’s pillow, saying he was "blessed" to be with her, even though they were living apart. Their six-month marriage, the jury was told, had been difficult. On one occasion after a fight, Vazquez-Rijos announced that she was pregnant, and Anhang would never see the child if he followed through on his threat to divorce her. The pregnancy, she testified, turned out to be a "false positive."
Despite Anhang’s determination to leave her, Vazquez-Rijos testified that they had a strong sexual bond. She said they were "intimate" the night before he was killed.
What Anhang didn’t know was that on two occasions, with two men, his wife inquired about where she could find a "hit man." One was the lawyer who drew up her prenuptial document; the other was a neighbour and restaurant owner whom she had asked to invest in the Pink Skirt. The latter testified they had a brief affair while she was dating Anhang. Neither man went to the police with the information.
In the end, it was Pabon, a frequent visitor to the Pink Skirt, who said he made himself available for the killing. He said he used the restaurant as one location for a thriving trade in marijuana and cocaine. He never collected the $3-million contract-killing bounty, even though he sent threatening letters to the three accused. The letters included Catholic holy card stickers and florid multi-coloured script referring to the "favour" he had done for them.
He testified that the hit was not as "professional" as it was supposed to be. It was meant to look like a robbery, but he forgot to take Anhang’s wallet.
Efforts to solve the case took 13 years, and the jury heard a tale of epic bungling by Puerto Rico police. A few weeks after the killing, they arrested a 22-year-old dishwasher, Jonathan Roman, and charged him with murder, because he fit a vague description of the hit man. Vazquez-Rijos didn’t attend the trial, even though her testimony would have cleared him. A jury deliberated three hours before finding Roman guilty, and he was sentenced to 105 years in prison. Eight months later, Roman was released, and he reached a multimillion-dollar compensation deal with the government.
He was released because police arrested El Loco, who in turn implicated Vazquez-Rijos. Authorities drew up a murder-conspiracy indictment for her but she had already left Puerto Rico for what she claimed was a filmmaking course in Florence. She wanted to study movie directing. She said she wanted to "redo" her life after the trauma of Anhang’s killing.
Her self-imposed exile in Europe lasted nine years, during which time she had three children with two men. There were initial periods of severe poverty. The jury listened as an FBI witness read a 2006 email she had sent to her family pleading for money. She claimed she couldn’t afford deodorant or toothpaste. "My (arm)pits and mouth stink," she wrote. "I’m f---ed."
Eventually, she found various jobs, as a translator, a photographer and a travel agent. And with a string of forged documents attesting to her Jewish heritage, she won the confidence of an influential Florentine rabbi. He helped her find housing, and a school for her two young daughters — children she had with an Italian man. The rabbi also attested to her (faked) Jewish status — something she believed would come in handy if she decided to emigrate to Israel. She was curious about Israel’s extradition laws.
There was yet another lover, a middle-aged Italian banker, Paolo Galardi, who she said helped her with her scheme to forge documents showing she was Jewish. "He had a good printer," she said.
Her European adventure came to an abrupt end in 2013, when she fell for a sting that had been organized by the FBI and another rabbi. They convinced her to fly to Spain to meet a tour group, and she was arrested at the Madrid airport. She spent two years in a Spanish prison, where she married and gave birth to another daughter. In 2015, she was extradited to Puerto Rico, after U.S. authorities promised she would not get the death penalty.
Her youngest daughter, three-year-old Dana, made two unexpected appearances at her trial with her grandmother, once during jury selection where she cried "mama, mama" and once when her mother was preparing to testify. On that second occasion, Judge Daniel Dominguez had the marshal escort the grandmother and child from the courtroom.
Dominguez, who is 79 years old and close to retirement, is a no-nonsense jurist with little patience for delays. Early in the trial, when Vazquez-Rijos was 45 minutes late, the judge shouted across the courtroom to a U.S. marshal: "Where’s the defendant?" The marshal shouted back: "She’s not dressed yet!"
Minutes later, Vazquez-Rijos arrived, neatly dressed in a tailored jacket and pants and carefully made up. Unlike Pabon, she does not have to appear in handcuffs or a prison uniform because she has not been convicted.
Throughout the trial, she and her sister and Ferrer-Sosa haven’t spoken to each other and barely glanced at one another. The two sisters’ lawyers are being paid by the government because they are considered indigent.