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Unsolved Bombing in Latin Jungle Becomes an Obsession for U.S. Victim, Wife

August 17, 1987|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Times Staff Writer

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — Tony Avirgan, an American TV cameraman, remembers fire in his hair and a gong-like ringing in his ears when the bomb exploded at a clandestine press conference in the Nicaraguan jungle.

Martha Honey, his wife, cannot forget the sight of Avirgan's shrapnel-torn body arriving on a stretcher at the hospital, amid the carnage of maimed colleagues, that night of May 30, 1984.

The bomb meant for contra leader Eden Pastora added a tragic twist to the hazards of reporting Central American conflicts. Pastora escaped with minor injuries, but three journalists died and 17 others were seriously wounded.

Still Pursuing Story

Today, Avirgan's body remains scarred, his left hand partly crippled. But he and Honey, who live here as free-lance journalists, have stayed with the story, skirting new hazards to try to solve the crime that has consumed their careers.

After a yearlong investigation, they concluded that Pastora's rightist opponents in the Nicaraguan rebel movement here, aided by CIA agents and American mercenaries, hired a Libyan assassin named Amac Galil to pose as a journalist at the press conference, which took place at La Penca near the Costa Rican border, and plant the explosives.

Now, frustrated that their reporting has brought them anonymous death threats and harassment rather than criminal charges against their suspects, the couple is suing 29 men they blame in the bombing plot for $17 million in multiple damages.

Lawsuit Filed

The suit was filed in Miami last year, on the journalists' behalf, by the Christic Institute, a liberal, Washington-based organization. The defendants include several Americans who have been identified in the Iran-contra investigation as directors of a secret war from Costa Rica against Nicaragua's Sandinista government.

U.S. officials say the bomber, who disappeared, was most probably a Sandinista agent and that the two reporters are pro-Sandinista activists who have concocted a right-wing conspiracy theory to undermine American support for the contras. Several of those accused by the journalists have denied their allegations.

Avirgan and Honey, both 42, admit to being obsessed with a story other reporters have dropped. They concede it has pushed them beyond the limits of journalistic objectivity by making them partisans in an ideologically charged court battle.

But they insist that they are on the right track. "If we had found any convincing evidence against the Sandinistas, we would have gladly pursued it, even if that had made us heroes of the right," said Avirgan, who was an anti-war activist in the United States before taking up journalism 14 years ago.

The journalists were interviewed recently at their San Jose home, where it had been a busy week. A judge had subpoenaed them to answer charges by a right-wing Costa Rican group that they were Sandinista spies. Another judge had barred both from leaving the country while police investigated an apparent hoax in which someone mailed a package of cocaine to them, along with a chummy letter ostensibly signed by Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge.

75% of Their Time

Fending off such attacks and pursuing their investigation have taken up 75% of the couple's working time, Avirgan estimated. He works regularly for CBS, National Public Radio and the British Broadcasting Corp., while Honey reports for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., the Times of London and the Sunday Times of London.

The two free-lancers have also drawn the attention of Richard V. Secord, a retired general who had set up the secret contra supply network overseen by former White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.

Fearing the couple was close to exposing the network, Secord sent Glenn A. Robinette, an ex-CIA agent, to Costa Rica last year to develop "derogatory" information about them. Robinette testified at the Iran-contra hearings that he spent $7,000 investigating the two.

While they feel vindicated by the hearings, the two are disappointed that Congress did not look into the La Penca bombing.

Their central assertion is that the bomb plotters hoped to eliminate Pastora as an obstacle to contra unity, focus blame for the crime on the Sandinistas and mobilize Costa Rican support for the contras. Pastora himself has said he believes that North "signed my death warrant" because he had refused to join forces with Adolfo Calero's CIA-backed contra faction.

Among those accused in the suit are Secord, Calero, American rancher John Hull and Robert Owen, North's emissary to the contras. Hull, Owen, Calero and Secord have denied charges that they plotted to kill Pastora.

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