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Justice

Widow fights extradition to US to face charges she hired contract killer

Vázquez Ríjos was facing death penalty, but US assures Spain she won’t even be put away for life

Victm's father stresses he wants closure in this case by seeing justice finally served

Murder-for-hire suspect Áurea Vázquez Ríjos testifes before Spain's High Court in December. Her extradition to Puerto Rico was approved. Ampliar foto
Murder-for-hire suspect Áurea Vázquez Ríjos testifes before Spain's High Court in December. Her extradition to Puerto Rico was approved. EFE

After five years on the run in Europe, Áurea Vázquez Ríjos is just steps away to being put on a plane that will take her to her native Puerto Rico where she will have to stand trial before a US federal judge on charges that she hired a hitman to kill her young wealthy Canadian husband who had planned on divorcing her.

But as she sits in a Madrid jail, this 33-year-old former nightclub owner isn’t giving up without a fight. Her lawyer has vowed to take her extradition appeal to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). In the meantime, US prosecutors scrambled last month to meet a deadline set by Spain’s High Court to file additional paperwork so that she could be turned over quickly.

Vázquez Ríjos was captured at Barajas International Airport on June 30, 2013 following a joint operation by Spanish police and the FBI after she had been lured to Spain to take on a job as a tour guide. She had fled to Italy when US law enforcement began investigating her in connection with the murder of her millionaire Canadian-born husband Adam Joel Anhang.

The 32-year-old businessman was brutally beaten and stabbed to death the evening of September 22, 2005 on a street in the historical quarter of the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, after the two left a restaurant. Prosecutors claim that she allegedly promised a hit man $3 million if he did the job in the hope that she would inherit Anhang’s sizeable estate. The separated couple, who were married for only six months, had met to discuss the terms of their pending divorce.

The shocking murder, which rocked the island, set off a chain of spectacular events that included the wrongful arrest and conviction of a young man and an international hunt for a fugitive who, until last summer, had been living the high life in Europe with her 64-year-old Italian banker boyfriend who — according to some sources — is now reportedly bankrolling her defense.

The case has made international headlines, especially in the United States, Canada and Italy, where a number of people have been affected or ensnared by this nine-year case. Vázquez Ríjos was dubbed the “black widow” by the Italian daily Corriere della Sera which exposed her past in a series of articles. In 2008, NBC’s popular news magazine Dateline broadcast a special report called “The Pink Skirt Murder,” in reference to the name of the nightspot she owned in San Juan, while Canada’s Global News is preparing to air a report next month focusing on her life in Italy.

Adam Joel Anhang.
Adam Joel Anhang.

Spain’s High Court last month gave the green light for the extradition to proceed but before Vázquez Ríjos is to be handed over to US marshals, a three-judge panel said it wanted “explicit guarantees” from the United States within 40 days that she won’t be put to death or spend the rest of her life in prison. The United States has already given those assurances.

But her Spanish lawyer, Isaac Abad Gómez, said that he would file an appeal with the ECHR in Strasbourg to stop his client from being handed over. “There are still some steps we are going to take,” he said, declining to reveal his defense strategy. But time is running out. The Cabinet, which has the last say in any extradition, has signed the release papers, which could mean that Vázquez Ríjos will be in federal custody back in Puerto Rico very soon unless, of course, there is a stay from the ECHR.

Even though she were to argue about the legality of a life term in prison, that defense is no better than moot. In 2012, the Strasbourg court ruled in an extradition appeal (Harkin and Edwards versus United Kingdom) that the risk of life in prison in the United States without the possibility of early release is not a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Vázquez Ríjos case is one of several high-profile pending extradition requests by the United States that are currently being played out in Spain. Last month, US fugitive Arthur Budovsky, who is facing cyber-crime charges in New York related to allegedly laundering some $6 billion through his defunct internet payment processor and money transfer system, Liberty Reserve, appeared before the High Court to fight his extradition. Budovsky was arrested with an associate last summer, also as he stepped off a plane at Madrid’s Barajas International Airport.

Former JP Morgan trader Javier Martín-Artajo, a Spaniard, is also fighting attempts by the United States to bring him to New York to face a federal trial on charges that he allegedly helped alter bank records to hide some $6.2 billion in trading losses in the so-called “London Whale” scandal when he worked for the financial institution in Britain.

During her own High Court hearing on December 18, Vázquez Ríjos told the judges’ panel that the US government was trying to impose the death penalty on her “through mafiosos and corrupt people,” according to the official transcript. She said she had been living and working as a tour guide for private excursion groups, and had come to Spain on numerous occasions by plane, train and bus and had never been detained, except for this last time when she arrived in Madrid last June.

It was “a trap” because the excursion that she was hired for “didn’t exist,” said Vázquez Ríjos, who has been in Spanish custody since her capture.

US prosecutors have declined to comment, citing a gag order issued by federal judge.

But sources with knowledge of the investigation have told EL PAÍS that the FBI had been closely following her movements since she arrived in Europe, and lured her to Madrid where Spanish police agreed to bust her after US law enforcement had failed to win full cooperation from Italian authorities.

Vázquez Ríjos was dubbed the “black widow” by  an Italian daily

She also knew she was being tailed in Italy by US and private investigators. Even her mother, Carmen Iris, complained to a family lawyer last year that when she went to visit her daughter, “it became obvious that they were being followed.”

In her testimony before the High Court, Vázquez Ríjos accused her late husband of being part of a mafia ring. “She feared for her life because they [the mafia] had been threatening her for many years,” she told the High Court, which summed up her statements in a writ signed on December 23 and made public on January 10. But attorney Manuel San Juan of Puerto Rico, who represented the Anhang family during a civil court dispute with Vázquez Ríjos over Adam’s vast estate, was taken aback by her allegations. “This is surprising because she never mentioned any mafiosi or threats in the sworn videotaped deposition she gave in my presence in 2007,” he told EL PAÍS.

Another discrepancy centers on the suspect’s arrival date in Italy. She told the High Court that she left the United States in 2006. But Adam Anhang’s father, Abe, said that Vázquez Ríjos was in court in San Juan the day that Jonathan Román Rivera — then a 22-year-old dishwasher at Vázquez Rijos’ restaurant The Pink Skirt in San Juan — was wrongly convicted of the murder on October 10, 2007. He was later sentenced to 105 years in prison.

Vázquez Ríjos, now the mother of two twin girls and who has been living in Florence and Venice, explained to the Spanish judges that US authorities never told her she was facing murder charges, and that she was able to renew her passport without any problem at a US consulate in Italy. But the court found that her passport had in fact expired on May 13, 2012.

Despite her concerns, judges Teresa Palacios Criado, Ángela Murillo Bordallo and Juan Francisco Martel Rivero of the High Court’s Fourth Criminal Section ruled that none of the reasons the US citizen had given weighed in her favor “to deny the extradition petition.”

“The applicant [...] made a series of statements that have no relevance when it comes to issuing a decision whether to approve the [extradition] petition by United States authorities for the crimes outlined in the filed complaint,” the judges said in their 22-page writ.

She used a friend to take a home pregnancy test for her so she could show the results to Adam.”

By some accounts, this isn’t the first time Vázquez Ríjos has given contradictory stories about her past and present. She told people after she arrived in Italy that her husband had been killed in an automobile accident, winning the sympathy of many in Florentine society until her background was exposed in Corriere della Sera, said Abe Anhang, who has anxiously been waiting nine years for closure in his son’s case. “She had friends in high places in Italy who she felt could protect her, even in places outside Italy,” he told this newspaper in one of several phone interviews from his home in Winnipeg, Canada.

Vázquez Ríjos, who is being held in Madrid’s Soto del Real prison, did not respond to a request made through her lawyer by this newspaper for an interview.

Five years ago, Vázquez Ríjos gave birth to her twins she reportedly had with one of her Italian boyfriends, who was planning on marrying her until he read about her case in the newspaper. The Italian man has since won custody of the twin girls.

According to Anhang, Vázquez Ríjos had cornered his son Adam into marrying her after telling him she was pregnant with his own child. “She used a friend to take a home pregnancy test for her so she could show the results to Adam. My son felt that was the honorable thing to do and married her because that was the way he was, but then he found out she wasn't pregnant. This was the reason for the divorce.”

How did Vázquez Ríjos live openly in Italy with an international arrest warrant hanging over her head? US investigators believed that Italian authorities may have been reluctant to detain her because of a long-standing constitutional rule that prohibits the extradition of anyone to a death-penalty jurisdiction.

Similar to Spain’s own bilateral agreement, Italy’s 1983 extradition treaty with the United States does include a clause that prevents fugitives facing capital punishment in foreign jurisdictions from being sent abroad unless there is a specific guarantee by officials from the requesting country that the defendant won’t face the death penalty. But Italian authorities had traditionally fallen back on their country’s constitutional guideline, which is seen as a stricter interpretation of Italy’s extradition policy.

Just late last year, the Italian Court of Appeals in Bologna ruled that the extradition treaty trumps the constitutional rule in deciding on a case involving a Pennsylvania murder suspect who had fled to Italy after he was charged with killing his wife.

In Puerto Rico, the death penalty is prohibited under the 1952 Constitution. But because the island is a US territory, federal laws do apply, including the Title 18 criminal code which provides for capital punishment for some crimes that fall under national jurisdiction.

In 2008, a federal grand jury indicted Vázquez Ríjos on two murder-for-hire related counts

Soon after Vázquez Ríjos’ arrest in Madrid, US prosecutors turned over a sworn affidavit to Spanish authorities affirming that they won’t seek a death penalty approval from the Justice Department. The 1971 US-Spanish extradition treaty prohibits the extradition of any person “unless the requesting party provides such assurances as the requested party considers sufficient that the death penalty shall not be imposed, or if imposed, shall not be executed.”

But in its latest ruling, the High Court went further: it wanted a US pledge that not only will the suspect not face capital punishment, but would not be sentenced to life if convicted. Under the current Spanish penal code, sentences for murder range between 15 and 20 years.

In 2008, a federal grand jury indicted Vázquez Ríjos on two murder-for-hire related counts, hinging on the use of “an interstate commerce facility” — a telephone — for allegedly plotting her husband’s death. She is alleged to have used her cellphone to negotiate with Alex “El Loco” Pabón-Colón to kill Adam.

The murder inquiry began as a Puerto Rico police case, but the FBI stepped in when the victim’s father went to federal authorities after Román Rivera was convicted by a local jury.

“I wasn’t convinced because it didn’t look right,” Abe Anhang said.

The father, who was the executor of his son’s estate, recalled that he noticed numerous phone calls made on the days prior to the murder registered on his daughter-in-law’s cellphone, which he was in charge of paying. Anhang said he gave the phone registry to the Puerto Rican police who didn’t seem to follow through. “I told the FBI agent and they had the phone bills in a few days.” The phone number purportedly was registered to Pabón-Colón.

“I don’t blame the Puerto Rico police because they probably don’t have all the facilities to investigate all the crimes on the island.”

With a population of 3.4 million, Puerto Rico has a homicide rate that is six times the national average. As of last Sunday, 101 murders had already taken place since the beginning of the year. In 2011, there were 1,336 homicides, according to the most recent US Justice Department statistics. However at the time, Anhang’s murder was the first to occur in the streets of the capital’s attractive historic area in 18 years.

The investigation took a positive turn when a 19-year-old woman came forward after many months. She had been standing on her balcony and witnessed the murder. “She recognized Pabón because he was from the neighborhood, but she was afraid of him because he had threatened her in the past,” one investigator in San Juan told EL PAÍS.

The witness was taken before a federal grand jury where she explained how she saw Pabón allegedly hit Anhang with a street cobble stone and knife him several times. He then later he spoke with Vázquez Ríjos briefly before slightly hitting her with the brick. Was the plan to make it look like a street robbery gone bad?

A 19-year-old woman had been standing on her balcony and witnessed the murder

“Pabón-Colón did so because in prior conversations, Áurea had instructed Pabón-Colón to assault her as well, in order to make the incident look real,” FBI agent Devin Kowalski said in a sworn affidavit dated June 30, 2013. “According to the eyewitness, Áurea watched the struggle from a short distance and did not yell, flee or attempt to physically stop Pabón-Colón.”

In April 2008, Pabón-Colón was arrested and admitted to the plot. Vázquez Ríjos had agreed to pay him $3 million and money to buy a gun when they discussed Anhang’s killing at her Pink Skirt restaurant, the business Adam had bought for her. The payoff was to come from the widow’s share of an estimated fortune worth $24 million. He is cooperating with authorities and will be sentenced following his testimony at Vázquez Ríjos’ trial.

Following Adam Anhang’s death, a memorial fund was set up at the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba. The Winnipeg native, who was a graduate of the prestigious Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, made his fortune through the online gambling industry and eventually went into real estate development with a partner in Puerto Rico, where he met Vázquez Ríjos at a local nightspot. According to his friends, he wanted to focus his life on helping young entrepreneurs and often came back to Wharton to deliver lectures.

The day of Áurea’s arrest in Madrid, FBI agents in San Juan picked up her sister Marcia and boyfriend José Ferrer Sosa when US prosecutors announced the opening of a secret grand jury indictment also charging them with taking part in the murder plot. In custody also awaiting trial before US District Court in Puerto Rico, they both face the death penalty, federal prosecutors said at a news conference at the time of their arrests.

A brother of Vázquez Ríjos, Chalbert, was indicted for committing perjury before the grand jury after he denied ever knowing Pabón-Colón. He faces five years in prison if convicted.

After serving nearly a year in jail, the restaurant dishwasher Román was subsequently acquitted of all the charges and in 2009 sued the police for wrongful arrest. The lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Abe Anhang said that he never wanted Áurea to face the death penalty (capital punishment doesn’t exist anywhere in Canada). If prosecutors were to renege on their deal with Spanish authorities or file a superseding indictment with trumped charges that could mean capital punishment, Anhang said he “would be the first one to speak up.”

“They have a saying in Puerto Rico that the first murder is the free one [the first committed by a career criminal that usually goes unsolved and unpunished]. I am only hopeful that will change with this case. If we have done that, it will be the legacy to my son.”