On Sheridan Circle along Embassy Row one is surrounded by elaborate Gilded Age mansions that have been converted into embassies. They’re the site of elegant parties and diplomatic intrigue.
But this is also the site of the only act of state-sponsored terrorism to take place in the United States.
On September 21, 1976, Orlando Letelier is driving down Embassy Row from his home in Bethesda to work in Dupont Circle. In his car are two American citizens, his co-worker Ronnie Moffett and her husband of four months, Michael.
Letelier is a Chilian exile. For many years he held posts in the government of Chilean president Salvador Allende, including that of foreign minister and defense minister. He was also the ambassador to the United States. In 1973 the democratically elected Allende government was overthrown by a coup organized by the CIA. General Augusto Pinochet takes power, and his regime is immediately recognized by the Nixon administration.
Pinochet is a brutal dictator. He immediately suspends all political activity and one of the first persons he arrests Letelier. Letelier is imprisoned and tortured for twelve months before international pressure forces his release. He moves to the United States where he believes he will be safe from Pinochet’s secret police.
In the US Letelier is a harsh critic of Pinochet. He writes several articles critical of economists trained by University of Chicago professor Milton Friedman who set up an economic system under Pinochet that allows Chile’s resources to be plundered. And he’s instrumental in preventing several loans from being made to Chile by European countries.
As Letelier’s car enters Sheridan Circle, it passes the Chilian ambassador’s residence where he had lived for three years. It travels another 100 feet and reaches the Romanian embassy when a bomb molded out of plastic explosive blows a two-foot hole under the driver’s seat.
Letelier is dead at the scene. Michael Moffett escapes. Ronnie Moffett dies shortly later at GW Hospital.
Diligent work by the FBI and State Department determines that President Pinochet himself orders the assassination. Michael Townley a US expat and member of the Chilian secret police organizes the operation using five anti-Castro Cuban exiles to plant and detonate the bomb.
Townley is extradited from Chile, serves half a ten-year sentence then goes into the FBI witness protection program in exchange for his testimony. Three of the Cubans are found guilty but are acquitted at a second trial. The other two are later apprehended, plead guilty, a get short sentences. In Chile, after Pinochet losespower, two generals of the secret police are eventually convicted. Pinochet is never tried for these or the thousands of other murders for which he is responsible.
Democracy has returned to Chile. And this memorial marks the site of the death of one who lived for just that.