Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Nashvillians in Nicaragua

Hardly a new story, yet one looking back I'm perplexed I didn't jump on as it was unfolding an hour's bus ride away. At the time I had no idea the story contained a local connection.

One of my daily pleasures in Nicaragua was a leisurely second breakfast while reading the daily Sandinista rag, El Neuvo Diario, at a cafe overlooking the church where William Walker once made his headquarters. Political slants aside, the Diario was heads and shoulders above the standards of the Guatemalan and Honduran newspapers I had become used to which were essentially tabloids, so my vocabulary was challenged and I found it tough to get all the details in a piece. If subtleties were lost on me, I could pick up the gist of what I read.

One story in the paper almost every day was about a young American named Eric Volz on trial for the grisly murder of his ex-girlfriend Doris Ivanez Jimenez. Jimenez was a beautiful young Nica from the seaside townof San Juan del Sur where Eric was a player in a booming real estate market. Later also started a magazine based in Managua. At the time he was arrested, the police had drawn on reports that Eric acted the jealous lover after their breakup and had been seen on several occassions using abusive language with Doris after their relationship ended. Or so says the Diario. He was accused of showing up at the small shop Doris ran near the ocean, raping and strangling her with the aid of a thug he had paid to be his accomplice. Doris’ mother made sobbing statements to the press that she feared Eric would use his greenbacks to buy his way out of the trial. She claims he offered her one million dollars to support his innocence in the case.

The papers had daily photographs of Eric emerging from court wearing a flak jacket and led by officers brandishing kalashnikovs. The armor and firepower appeared necessary to protect him from the hysterical mob jamming the streets outside the courthouse. My first reaction was disgust for this ugly American, the photos caught his ugliest expressions, Volz looked plenty capable of murder. But perhaps some of my judgment was made in self-interest. The maelstrom surrounding his case would make it uncomfortable for any American in Nicaragua for the foreseeable future.

I tried to get more facts about the case, but by the time I had tuned in the trial seemed a foregone conclusion, and coverage focused on the minutia of the proceedings. I made the assumption he was guilty, along with most everyone else in the country. I would have forgotten about him save an article the day before the verdict was released. This story revealed that while the DNA evidence showed another person other than Volz or his ex at the murder scene, Eric’s DNA was not found. So I was a bit surprised when the guilty verdict came in the following day. Regardless of the last day of testimony, the Diario seemed satisfied with the veracity of the verdict and the 30 year sentence Volz received.

I didn't think about the case again until I got back home and mentioned it in passing to a friend in Nashville. To my surprise he knew immediately who I was talking about. He had heard much more of the story than I had gleaned from the Nicaraguan press. Volz was also from Nashville, and he had a large support network here that swore to his innocence. They fought successfully to get Eric's story out and now they are working to keep it, and him, alive.

It turns out there are call records from Eric's phone that place him in Managua, a long, bumpy two hour drive from San Juan del Sur, at the time of the murder. Also, a distinguished local journalist claims to have had lunch with Eric that day. The major point of evidence against him, used by judge during her reading of the conviction, is the scratch marks on his right shoulder. The judge believes the marks prove he was engaged in a struggle around the time of the murder. However, video shows Eric as a pallbearer in the Jimenez funeral. He carried her coffin on the same shoulder, and the straight-line marks do seem more consistent with the indentation from a wooden box than from fingernail scratches.

The Volz family was stunned by the conviction. Now Eric lives a nightmare. He has a whole country incensed that he brutally murdered a cherished daughter. The Judicial system was likely under pressure to find him guilty and is now similarly pressured to delay his appeal and keep him in prison. I’d rather not contemplate the daily horrors he faces in his Nicaraguan cell.

Anderson Cooper did a supportive piece on Eric this past summer and a follow up where he attempted to interview him from prison. Even though the CNN crew had obtained a court order to speak with Eric the Warden personally turned them away from the gates.
There's nothing you can do to help Eric but to remember that he is still in a Nicaraguan jail cell and hope that in a different political climate he might get another trial. The political climate at the moment could not be worse for Eric. Though Daniel Ortega claimed to be a new man upon election, even his sympathizers have noted that he quickly returned to the populist ways that kept his previous regime in power, a regime that was the sworn enemy of the United States. The pro-Sandinista press claims that Eric’s family is somehow manipulating the world press to cast unfavorable light on the Nicaraguan judicial system, and make a farce of their country. Until the Sandinistas have run their course a second time, Eric is screwed.

Given the evidence not considered at the first trial, the phone records and the eyewitness alibis, I do think Eric deserves another hearing. I believe the claim that he never set foot in San Juan del Sur on the day of the murder. It is not clear, however, that he is innocent. Little attention has been given by the free Eric crowd to the accusation that he paid a thug to kill his ex and then he made those phone calls and lunched with a prominent Managuan to cover his tracks. What else would have been the motive of the hit man, Julio Martin Chamorro Lopez, pinned to the murder and convicted alongside Eric, if not blood money? Lopez confessed to the murder, and though his story that Eric was there beside him does not make sense, it seems equally implausible that he killed a shop girl without the $5,000 cash motive he alleges Eric gave him. Eric’s defenders only argument is that no record was ever found of him withdrawing that sum from a bank. Impossible to prove a negative, sure, but this is less than convincing rebuttal. Also, there remains the bizarre testimony of Hertz rental employees who claim that one of Volz' employees tried to coerce them into signing an affidavit which stated Volz picked up a rental car around the time of the murder. He did in fact rent a car that day, but it was picked up by one of his employees. This alleged cover up was used by the Judge as evidence against Eric. The defense only countered that the employee had been acting on her own volition.

Even if you are swayed by Eric's defenders, a couple of ready lessons can be taken from this story: 1) stay away from business ventures in parts of the world where the United States has a recent history of bloody antagonism against the ruling government, 2) especially if it is a dirt poor country where you could draw the envy of the populace for being too successful. 3) If you must speculate, do so through local partners that share a vested interest in your success, and do make your life there.

From Eric Volz to William Walker, Nashvillians have not had much luck in Nicaragua.

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