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American Freed by Sandinistas : Scheme to Spring Denby: A Tale of Intrigue, Luck

February 02, 1988|GEORGE SKELTON | Times Sacramento Bureau Chief

The code words "Cousin," "Basketball" and "Bogey" never will go down in history with the likes of "Rawhide," "Plumbers" and "Overlord," but they did provide the secret heart of a bilingual vocabulary used to spring American rancher James Jordan Denby from a Nicaraguan prison.

"Rawhide" is the Secret Service name for President Reagan, "The Plumbers" was President Nixon's covert political unit during Watergate and "Overlord" was the code word for the Allies' D-Day invasion of France in World War II.

And in January, 1988, "Bill's Cousin" became the code word ordered by Nicaraguan Interior Minister Tomas Borge for Denby, whom Democratic U.S. Senate contender Bill Press of California was trying to free from a Sandinista jail.

Borge was afraid the CIA would overhear Denby's name during phone taps and the U.S. government would thwart his release, somehow, before Wednesday's House vote on President Reagan's $36.25-million aid request for the Contra rebels. Press had sold Borge on the idea of freeing Denby as part of a public relations offensive aimed at swaying members of Congress against the Contra funds.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 11, 1988 Home Edition Part 1 Page 2 Column 5 Metro Desk 1 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
A Feb. 2 article on the freeing of James Denby from a Nicaraguan prison misspelled the name of Blase Bonpane, a liberal activist from Los Angeles' Westside.

Then, because Press became worried that too many people around him might catch on to the code word "Cousin," Denby's name within the candidate's own tight circle became "Basketball." Borge was code named "Kingfish."

And when Denby's release was thought to be a sure thing, and it was considered safe to fly a $15-million private jet to Managua to carry him home, the code word agreed to was "Bogey"--the name of a pet dog owned by Press' tenacious "facilitator," Llewellyn C. Werner.

The story of how Press, a rank novice in international diplomacy, came to negotiate with a powerful Nicaraguan Marxist for the release of an accused Contra spy for his own political benefit is a bizarre tale of intrigue, pure luck, busted communications, Sandinista turf battles and beautiful women reminiscent of a spy novel.

"To say that this thing was properly organized in advance would be misleading," Werner conceded Monday. "It was a seat-of-the-pants operation, a combination of political will and raw tenacity."

The characters in this mission could fit into a James Bond movie, as well as a comic opera.

There was Borge, 57, one of the three original founders of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a short, bespectacled man who obviously appreciates attractive women and drives his own four-wheel drive Isuzu customized with pinstripes and chrome wheels. Borge's vehicle is always closely followed by two vans filled with heavily armed guards.

Then there was Lydia Brazon, 39, a Los Angeles advertising executive who speaks fluent Spanish and whose mother was born and raised in Nicaragua with important family connections to the late dictator Anastasio Somoza, overthrown by the Sandinistas in 1979. Brazon, who says she has been "anti-Somocista" for as long as she can remember, was the main liaison between Press and the Sandinistas, including Borge.

Act of Circumstance

Press met up with Brazon through simple happenstance: She was a good friend of the woman who made up Press' face when he was a Los Angeles television commentator, a makeup artist and the wife of TV anchorman Jerry Dunphy.

There also was Werner, 38, a political junkie who has been involved in enough strange ventures to fill volumes--ranging from setting up meetings between former Gov. Edmund G. Brown, Jr. (his former boss) and Mother Teresa, to chartering medical airlifts for Southeast Asian war refugees.

Werner's fiancee, Martha Sanchez, 31, a Mexican citizen with an American law degree, became the chief translator for the project and ultimately Denby's attorney when his real one took off for a Nicaraguan beach last weekend.

There also were a couple of veteran liberal activists from Westside Los Angeles who are Sandinista sympathizers and heavily involved in the campaign to cut off U.S. aid to the Contras. One was Aris Anagnos, director of the Humanitarian Law Project, which footed the $50,000 bill for the luxury jet charter.

The other activist was Blase Bontane, a former Catholic priest expelled from Guatemala 20 years ago who now heads the Santa Monica-based Office of Americas and has a longstanding good relationship with Borge.

Then, of course, there was Denby himself, a 58-year-old Illinois farmer and Costa Rica rancher who looks and talks like a character in an adventure comedy. "Hell, I was just another old gringo wandering around down there," he said Monday, denying that he had taken sides in the civil war, let alone been a CIA agent.

Shot Down in Nicaragua

Denby's old single-engine Cessna was shot down by Sandinista rifle fire along a Caribbean beach on Dec. 6 as he was trying to make his way in a heavy storm from Honduras to Costa Rica.

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