Argentine president blocks the extradition of Kurt Sonnenfeld

Thanks for this post.

I am curious how CBS is going to portray this.
"48 Hours" correspondent Erin Moriarty investigates Saturday, Nov. 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CBS. "The Strange Case of Kurt Sonnenfeld"

Sonnenfeld's book "El Perseguido"

Since Sonnenfeld's book has not been translated into English, I offer the following revew:

“El Perseguido,” by Kurt Sonnenfeld. Grupo Planeta, 2009, 392 pages.

I have never read a book so consistently painful that I couldn’t keep reading, and so consistently gripping that I couldn’t put it down.

Nor, I might add, have I ever felt so intimidated in the simple process of trying to buy a book. When the book was published in April 2009, it wasn’t available through Amazon; and to buy it from the publisher required a passport number, or similar ID. More recently, it has become available, from secondary sources, through Amazon, and I had no trouble getting a copy from one of these sources.

The title I also found a little off-puttingly self-important, though it soon enough became clear that the author was entitled to it, even if not uniquely so.

Sonnenfeld writes in an understated style, narrating events without so much reflection on their meaning. Particularly in the first part of the book when he is in the U.S., there are strangely few specifics about places, dates, or people (a striking exception is Denver District Attorney Ken Gurule); I don’t know whether the author was protecting himself or others, or whether it was simply a narrative device; either way, it effectively recreates an atmosphere of disorientation and unease.

Sonnenfeld was the official photographer for FEMA. As such, he had clearance to go anywhere and photograph anything. He appears to have enjoyed his job, despite some awareness of the propagandistic uses to which his work was put (always conveying the impression that America was strong and everything was under control, as it were). He was awakened at home in Denver early on 9/11/01, as soon as the Twin Towers were struck, and flown immediately to the site, where he had complete access; no other photographers were permitted.

At that time, his marriage was also undergoing severe strain (his constant travel on the job obviously didn’t help), and his wife shot herself the following New Year’s Eve. He called 911 immediately, and was extremely upset when the police wouldn’t let him go upstairs to the bedroom where his wife was lying. Instead, they beat him, handcuffed him, and hauled him off to prison. On arrival, he was beaten and tortured, under the supervision of Gurule (whose identity he didn’t know at the time). He had a red watery liquid forced up his nostrils, which he described as acid; later he concluded it may have been chili peppers; in any event the resulting burns got infected. It was not clear that they were trying to extract any particular information or confession; it appeared to be torture for the sheer sport of it. He was placed in “the Hole,” in solitary confinement. It was January, in Colorado; his cell had a broken window, and his request for a blanket and warmer clothes was met with derision.

After 2 months, he got a hearing. Virtually all of the evidence was exculpatory (gunpowder on his wife’s hands, but not on his; her fingerprints on the gun, but not his, etc.), and the charges were dropped—an unusual outcome in a homicide case. But, to his considerable surprise, he wasn’t released from prison. Weeks dragged into months, as he waited for “the paperwork to be completed.” Meanwhile he got word from his next-door neighbor that a locksmith had changed the locks on his house; when she asked on what authority he was doing that, he just said, “The government.” Then she observed men carrying things out of his house. Sonnenfeld naively tried publicizing his case through the media, with whom he had some professional contacts, and through human rights organizations. That activity got him thrown into the “Thunderdome,” notoriously the worst ward of the prison.

When he was finally released, after 6 months, there were few pieces of his life to pick up. He knew his career had been ruined by the felony charge. His in-laws, born-again Christians, were unable to accept that their daughter had committed suicide; they shunned him and supported the view of the government, including the claim that Sonnenfeld was a heroin addict. He was still grief-stricken, and uncomfortable in the house for that reason alone. But he also realized very quickly that he was under constant surveillance, and in fact that men were coming into the house whenever he left. He eventually figured out that his photographs and tapes, no longer so securely under government control, must be the reason for his house being invaded, and probably also for the long delay in his release. He sold the house and moved in with his parents.

A friend offered her uncle’s vacant apartment in San Bernardo, Argentina, and persuaded him to take a few weeks off. He arrived in Buenos Aires not knowing any Spanish; one of the few laughs in the book is his account of asking for the men’s room in a restaurant—he used the word “Caballeros,” which is what he had seen in Mexican restaurants in the U.S. Miraculously, he met in the first week an English-speaking woman with whom he fell in love; they married a few months later. One of the first things he wanted to do was to take his wife Paula to meet his parents, but her application for a visa was incomprehensibly delayed for so many months that they gave up. Ironically, hardly had they given up on that idea when the U.S. started trying to extradite him, as a fugitive from justice, and had him arrested.

An interesting incidental point here is the comparison of U.S. and Argentinean prisons. Sonnenfeld was quite surprised that inmates cooked for themselves; they had knives for peeling the half-rotten vegetables. Prisoners were also allowed regular visitors; they were allowed tents for privacy, and were not subjected to the degrading rituals of American prisons.

Paula threw herself energetically into mobilizing help from lawyers and human rights organizations. Argentina is not famous for excellence in human rights, but the very fact of having recently experienced a brutal dictatorship has evidently made its people more vigilant and courageous. All of those who worked on Sonnenfeld’s behalf, not least the judges who had him released and blocked extradition, must have faced considerable risk, and perhaps still do. On his eventual release from prison, Kurt, along with Paula, found himself again under constant surveillance and threats. On one occasion when Paula went out to walk the dogs, two men got out of the car from which they had been watching the house and pushed her—obviously pregnant—up against a wall. She assumed they were going to try to get her into the car; she was able to escape when one of the dogs attacked one of the men.

The local media have been a significant help in publicizing the case, giving both Kurt and Paula some protection in being widely recognized. It seems unlikely that the U.S. authorities will quietly give up.

Sonnenfeld says he is not in a position to assess the implications of the material he has, though the Ground Zero site did hold several surprises for the FEMA team. One was the absence of bodies. At one point, late in their exploration of the site, they were creeped out to find a roomful of bodies, in an underground mall—only to discover, on closer approach, that they were clothing store mannequins. The largest body part they found anywhere was a foot.

The book contains a number of photos; perhaps the most striking are those showing particularly clear examples of steel beams cut cleanly across or at an angle, before clean-up crews had a chance to reach them. Sonnenfeld was also struck by, and photographed, the enormous quantity of paper that somehow survived the inferno. The World Trade Center contained major offices of many federal agencies—the FBI, the CIA, the IRS, the Secret Service, among others—and Sonnenfeld was surprised at how little concern they expressed over lost records or compromised intelligence. In fact, he noted that some documents turned up intact in the new offices, along with items like plaques from the WTC offices. His most significant finding, however, was empty rooms. The subterranean levels of the WTC contained vaults with huge stores of gold and other valuables. It would have taken several trucks to haul it all away; there was no way the vaults could have been emptied after the collapse, and before Sonnenfeld got there—he and other workers on the site were able to access them only with difficulty and at some physical risk—but that is the way they found them.

Readers will have to judge for themselves the credibility of Sonnenfeld’s narrative. Judging from commentary on the Internet, the claim, by the U.S. government, and by his in-laws, that Sonnenfeld killed his first wife seems to be pretty widely accepted, along with their claims that he is a heroin addict. To my ears, on the other hand, there isn’t a false note in the book. If Sonnenfeld is lying, he is a brilliant sociopath, and it is not clear what his motive would have been for writing this book, instead of quietly reveling in his escape. And his point strikes me as reasonable that it would be difficult to maintain a heroin habit in a job that required flying on little notice to unpredictable places. Though it is plausible that FEMA, and the federal government more generally, would be nervous about their ability to control Sonnenfeld once he was facing a felony charge, it was a bit of a mystery, to me, why he should have been so brutalized on his arrest. The most likely explanation, I suspect, was just his desperate struggle to get back to his wife after the police arrived. Whatever the case, I expect that at least one interesting chapter remains to be written in this disturbing story.