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PG Columnists

Pinochet arrest long overdue

Saturday, October 24, 1998

By Dennis Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On a Sunday morning in West Orange, N.J., Murray Karpen, 70, opened his apartment door, bent to pick up his New York Times, and saw the headline:

Britain Arrests Pinochet to Face Charges in Spain.

"There is a God," he whispered.

For a moment, he could see his daughter, Ronni, forever 25. It is a terrible thing to bury a child. It is beyond understanding to watch for 22 years as the man responsible for her death is feted as a head of state, abetted in his climb by your own government.

Augusto Pinochet, a Chilean general, overthrew socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973 with the aid of the CIA.

In power, Pinochet oversaw the murders of enemies real and imagined. One of them was Ronni Karpen Moffitt. Her offense was to sit alongside an exiled Chilean diplomat, Orlando Letelier, as they rode to work at a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 1976.

The car exploded.

Letelier was torn in half. Michael Moffitt, Ronni's husband, was hurled out a rear door. Flying metal slashed open an artery in Ronni Moffitt's neck. She drowned in her own blood on the streets of the western hemisphere's oldest democracy, killed by the men who had overthrown its second-oldest.

"There was never doubt in my mind that if Pinochet had not allowed for it, that it would not have happened," Murray Karpen said. In all, 3,000 people died at the hands of Pinochet's agents.

After they buried Ronni at the cemetery in Clifton, N.J., Murray and Hilda Karpen sat Shiva, the traditional Jewish period of mourning, in the home where they raised Ronni, where she'd married Michael four months before.

Karpen's rabbi visited.

"It won't make you feel any better," he said, "but know that nothing worse can happen to you in your life." Murray and Hilda Karpen got on with a life in which nothing worse could happen, but nothing much happened to make things better.

On Sheridan Circle, someone put up a plaque in honor of Letelier and Ronni.

"In the beginning years, the rightists would come over and they would paint it red on the anniversary," Karpen said. "They got pleasure in that."

One by one, the small fry tied to the bombing were cornered, pleaded out, did gallingly brief stints in jail, then vanished into the murk of world diplomacy. Pinochet finally abdicated in 1990 after granting himself a pardon and graciously accepting the post of senator for life.

Michael Moffitt recovered from his wounds, remarried, but never forgot. For 21 years, his lawyer, Sam Buffone, a New Kensington native, pressed the government to pursue the case. For years, the United States had conferred upon itself the role of world moralist. Now Spain, one of the world's newest democracies, has taken up the mantle, charging Pinochet with crimes against humanity and common murder.

"We will have gotten every one of them if we get Pinochet," Michael Moffitt told me.

At first, the Clinton administration was helpful but, of late, Buffone said, a troubling formality suffused correspondences, the first hint of a stall. There are documents tucked away in the intelligence archives that could reveal what our own people might have known about Pinochet and his assassins.

Perhaps it is time to tell the truth about Pinochet and, just maybe, about ourselves. It won't bring back Ronni Moffitt. It might bring back something else that died on a September morning long ago, when Murray Karpen still felt young.

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