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A Most Unlikely Target : Good Samaritan Aiding the Peruvian Poor Became a Casualty in the Nation's Political Struggle

July 07, 1988|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

"As for politics in this place . . . the surgeon general has determined that actively participating in Peruvian politics can be hazardous to your health," Constantine (Gus) Gregory, a Torrance native who went to Peru to help the impoverished campesinos raise better sheep and alpaca, wrote to a friend in February.

Just four months later, Gregory, 25, was dead. He had been shot in the back of the head.

His body and that of a fellow worker, a young Peruvian veterinarian, were found June 13 on an isolated road near the Andean village of San Antonio de Quicha, about 125 miles east of Lima. Their jeep had been ambushed, its engine blown up.

In Gregory's notebook, found at the scene by police, was a scrawled note, saying the killings were a warning to all who would serve the government, presumably the Peruvian government.

U.S. officials theorized that Gregory, thus, had become the first American working in rural Peru to be assassinated by the Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path), a Maoist group, one more casualty in the guerrillas' bloody, eight-year push to bring about a coup.

That Gregory died a political death, however, has only heaped more bewilderment on his friends and family.

A Senseless Death

They do not ask, and, for the most part, do not want to know who killed him.

But they do say his death in a distant land could not have been more senseless, because, they say, Gus Gregory was a most implausible target for leftists professing to care about the poor.

"Gus wasn't out there representing the United States of America," said Hector Tobar, a former college roommate and now a journalist. "Gus was out there representing justice for people who are less well-off than we are."

Paul Silva, another college friend and journalist, wrote in a tribute to Gregory in the (Manhattan) Beach Reporter, that "Gus was about as imperialistic as a pair of old sandals (which I remember him wearing in high school.)"

Though his own views leaned toward socialism, Gregory, family and friends say, had chosen to adopt the largely apolitical role of Good Samaritan while working on research in Peru. The project was not a direct effort of the American or Peruvian governments. It did seek to help the peasants--the poor whose very interests the revolutionary guerrillas claim to represent--become more self-sufficient.

Gregory, who joined the project nine months ago, was married just five weeks before his death to Dolores (Dolo) Fernandez, 22, a gentle woman he had met in 1987 in a salsa club in San Francisco and had lived with since. She is expecting their child in November.

Their contract called for them to stay in Peru until October but Gregory and his wife had planned to return to California on Aug. 4, just weeks after he was killed, because, his widow said, "we didn't want to take the risk of something like this happening."

Even in their grief, his friends and family laugh readily when recalling tales of Gus Gregory, the youngest of four sons of Alyce Gregory, who came from Maine, and Orson Gregory, who immigrated from Greece and settled here in 1956, opening a service station.

Gus grew up as a typical Southern California surfer type, though "kind of an intellectual surfer," said his brother Phillip, 27.

His brother Paul, 28, recalled the quintessential Gus as being a house guest, up at 8 a.m., doing dishes to the accompaniment of Latin music on the radio and announcing, "It's salsa time!" Gus loved to dance.

Talking About Gus the Clown

"We don't want to give you the impression he was an angel," his father said. His mother said Gus definitely was a "clown," known to have eaten a house plant to get a laugh.

His humor also had a thoughtful side. Gus liked to poke fun at pretense and pomposity. Phillip recalled that when Gus worked for Esprit, he had his little protest against the button-down crew at the chic clothes company: He wore shirts with stapled-down collars.

Though he grew up in Manhattan Beach, a place where "it's so easy to ignore all the bad things in the world," Gus chose not to, said Lisa McPherson, a classmate from seventh-grade through college. Even while at Mira Costa High School, Gus "seemed to have wider horizons than a lot of 16- or 17-year-olds," she said. "He wanted to share his experiences . . . and we all drank it in."

Those who knew him said Gus Gregory's life changed dramatically after he turned 16 and spent a year living with a well-to-do host family while an American Field Service exchange student in Honduras. There, "he really saw what poverty is," his mother said, adding that he was deeply moved by the deep schism between Latin America's haves and have-nots. Elka Worner, another high school friend, said Gregory grew deeply committed to ideals that "certainly weren't mainstream, (though) he wasn't a person who tried to proselytize or preach or anything."

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