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The Hit Man Nobody Knows

The government says he killed more people than Tim McVeigh. He lives in a cell a hundred miles from Denver. So how come you've never heard of La Quica?

In December 1993, it was Escobar's turn. After months of near-misses, the military had pinpointed his location in Medellín by eavesdropping on his phone calls. The former seventh-richest billionaire was shot and killed while attempting to flee across a rooftop.

Despite Escobar's death, the security at Muñoz Mosquera's trial was hypervigilant. A jailhouse informant claimed La Quica had plotted a prison escape and talked about arranging to have prosecutor Cheryl Pollak's throat slit. Muñoz Mosquera denied it all. Pollak was assigned 24-hour protection, and extra teams of federal marshals guarded the Brooklyn courtroom. A SWAT team waited in the courthouse basement, in case of an attempted escape or terrorist attack.

But the greatest threats to a successful prosecution of La Quica came from three unexpected sources: the Colombian government, the FBI's own crime lab, and the jury.

The first monkey wrench was hurled by Colombian attorney general Gustavo de Greiff. Right before the trial, de Greiff wrote to Judge Sterling Johnson to inform him that Colombia already had a suspect in custody who was considered to be the man responsible for the destruction of Flight 203 and the DAS bombing. An Escobar associate named Carlos Maria Alzate had confessed to both crimes, implicating various co-conspirators who were already dead.

"I felt necessary to inform you...with the intention to avoid the miscarriage of justice in the case you have in your hands," de Greiff wrote. "We have no evidence linking Mr. Muñoz Mosquera to that attack."

Both the DEA and the defense had interviewed Alzate in a Colombian prison. The prosecution team was convinced that his confession had been offered in return for a more lenient sentence on other pending charges; his information didn't match up with what was already known about the bombings. Even if he was involved, they reasoned, that didn't preclude the possibility that Muñoz Mosquera was involved, too. The defense was not as eager to dismiss Alzate, but Judge Johnson refused to postpone the trial, and the confession was never presented as evidence in Muñoz Mosquera's defense.

(For bringing the confession to the judge's attention, Gustavo de Greiff got his own special thanks from the prosecution. At the second trial, two government witnesses accused de Greiff, Colombia's top drug warrior, of being bribed or blackmailed by cartel leaders; Judge Johnson suggested that de Greiff could be an "unindicted co-conspirator." De Greiff denied the accusations. Years later, the Clinton administration would revoke de Greiff's U.S. visa -- he was then Colombia's ambassador to Mexico -- claiming alleged ties to drug traffickers. De Greiff and his supporters maintain that he is the victim of a smear campaign because of his outspoken criticism of America's drug-war policies.)

Still, the fact that Alzate's claims were being taken seriously in Colombia meant that La Quica's prosecutors had to be prepared to discredit them. And that led to the second monkey wrench, courtesy of FBI agent Whitehurst.

Whitehurst had supervised the FBI lab analysis of explosives residues gathered at the crash site. His initial report had identified the presence of high explosives known as RDX and PETN. Alzate claimed that the explosive used had been dynamite. Richard Hahn, the field agent investigating the bombing, asked Whitehurst if his residue analysis could establish that no dynamite had been used, thus discrediting Alzate's story.

Whitehurst replied that he couldn't rule out the possibility of dynamite. Furthermore, he couldn't rule out the possibility that his initial conclusions were erroneous because of contamination problems in the lab. Much to the prosecution's chagrin, he committed this information to writing, and his memorandum would have to be disclosed to the defense.

The tiff was part of an ongoing disagreement between Whitehurst and various field agents over mishandled evidence and distorted testimony in several major FBI cases, including the Oklahoma City and World Trade Center bombings. Procedures in the FBI lab lacked proper oversight, Whitehurst says, and he was under tremendous pressure from less scientifically trained case agents to make his findings fit their theory of the crime.

"All I was doing, as a scientist, was telling them what the data could mean," Whitehurst adds. "I couldn't discount the possibility that somebody used dynamite. But they want the answer they want, and they just want to attach your credentials to it. That's what was going on with the Muñoz Mosquera case."

Yet Whitehurst's doubts about what the physical evidence showed were never presented to the jury at either trial. Muñoz Mosquera says he never understood why his attorney, Richard Jasper, didn't try to use the Alzate confession or Whitehurst's memo, particularly after the first prosecution ended in a mistrial. Jasper couldn't be reached for comment.

In its investigation of the problems in the FBI lab, the Inspector General's Office concluded that Agent Hahn had testified to matters that were "beyond his expertise" at the Avianca trials and that his notions of what constituted expert knowledge of explosives were "incorrect and dangerous." His testimony at the second trial was also incomplete because it failed to acknowledge Whitehurst's dissenting memo, the report added. At the same time, the report blasted that memo as "scientifically flawed" and characterized Whitehurst's conduct in the affair as unprofessional.

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