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Case Has Become an Obsession : Mystery Plagues 1984 Disappearance of U.S. Professor in Chile

August 24, 1986|BRADLEY GRAHAM | The Washington Post

SANTIAGO, Chile — Boris Weisfeiler, a Soviet Jewish emigre who became a U.S. math professor, traveled to Chile in December, 1984, telling friends he was taking another of his distant solitary hiking trips.

He disappeared 10 days later, vanishing in the remote and rugged back lands of southern Chile, near a colony founded by German immigrants and alleged by Amnesty International and others to have housed a torture center.

The police insist that Weisfeiler drowned while apparently trying to cross the turbulent confluence of the Nuble and Los Sauces rivers.

U.S. officials here do not believe that story. Nor does the former Chilean judge who had charge of investigating the case. Nor does the president of the Chilean Mathematics Society, who wants the judicial inquest reopened.

Whereabouts Unknown

They and others suspect one of two things: Either Weisfeiler, who was 43 when he disappeared, is still alive and being held captive somewhere, possibly in the German colony; or he was killed by unknown assailants, perhaps the police themselves, who may have mistaken him for a leftist guerrilla or spy.

The case has become an obsession with some American officials, who remember the movie "Missing," based on the true story of an American journalist abducted and killed in Chile at the time of the 1973 military coup. The film, hinting at American complicity in the murder, portrayed the U.S. Embassy in Santiago as doing little to help the journalist's family find out what happened.

"When I came, I was determined not to become the subject of a sequel," said Jayne Kobliska, who took over as consul here several months before Weisfeiler disappeared.

Implausible governmental explanations, inconsistent police testimony and circumstantial evidence have all cast doubt on the death-by-drowning explanation. Among the most curious facts: Weisfeiler's body was never found, although police units, army patrols, firemen and Navy frogmen combed the area. If Weisfeiler did drown, putrefaction should have driven his corpse to the surface.

Contradictions Made

Until now, U.S. officials were reluctant to discuss the case, hoping that Chilean authorities could be persuaded through unpublicized contacts to re-examine their version and allay suspicions. But U.S. queries--including a recent one made through an intermediary to Rodolfo Stange, head of the national police force and a member of the ruling four-man junta--have produced what American officials describe as unsatisfactory and, at times, contradictory responses.

"The more we were put off, the more determined we became," Kobliska said.

Because the embassy and Chilean courts lack the manpower to do their own extensive investigating, U.S. officials are still hoping to elicit the cooperation of senior police officials. But the case is close to mushrooming into a serious irritant in already strained U.S.-Chilean relations.

Weisfeiler taught math at the Pennsylvania State University campus in State College, Pa., where he settled in 1976. He has published numerous articles on his mathematical speciality of group theory.

'Loved to Wander'

Airline records show that the teacher departed New York City on Dec. 24, 1984, taking LAN Chile flight 141, which landed in Santiago the next day. He spent Christmas Day traveling south by train and stayed the night in the small town of Los Angeles, according to staff at the Alcazar Hotel there.

On the 26th, Weisfeiler went by bus to Antuco, then headed north on foot across a hilly, rocky, desolate zone where tourists, even adventurous naturalists, rarely venture.

Weisfeiler's closest friends in the United States say it was in character for the reserved bachelor to head for such a wilderness. "He was the kind of person who loved to wander around by himself in deserted areas," said Boris Katz, who teaches math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and studied with Weisfeiler in Moscow.

On earlier trips, Weisfeiler had gone trekking in Alaska, Nepal, China and Peru. "He wouldn't usually have a precise plan," said David Kazdan, another friend from Moscow and now a professor of mathematics at Harvard University. "He would arrive, look at his map, then decide where to go."

Befriended by Shepherd

Peasants in the region in which Weisfeiler was hiking often are suspicious of visitors and are under strict police instructions to report all strangers.

Nevertheless, a shepherd befriended Weisfeiler on the afternoon of Jan. 3 and offered the American, who spoke little Spanish, a place to bunk for the night. As a token of appreciation, Weisfeiler gave the shepherd, Jose Lopez Benavides, some chocolate and a piece of fishing equipment.

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