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Postscript : 'Equivocation, Theatrics': A Murder Case : A quest to uncover the truth behind the '89 slayings of six Jesuit priests is roiled in controversy. It pits El Salvador's Catholics against the U.S. Embassy.

September 10, 1991|KENNETH FREED | TIMES STAFF WRITER

At that time and during two later interviews with the FBI, Buckland said he knew nothing else that might be related to the killings. But after making his second statement to the FBI, he appended a handwritten note to his statement saying that Aviles had indicated to him before the killings occurred that El Salvador's top military man, Chief of Staff Rene Emilio Ponce, knew Benavides planned to attack the priests.

Moreover, Buckland said in a sworn statement and again in a lengthy follow-up interview with the FBI that he had accompanied Aviles in late October when Aviles, on orders from Ponce, tried to talk Benavides out of such an operation. The American said he did not take part in the conversation.

Diplomatic and military sources who saw a videotape of the interview say Buckland was confused, erratic and nearly hysterical, sometimes breaking into tears. A reading of his sworn statements and the transcript of the interview, all obtained by The Times, indicates Buckland was very upset, contradictory and sometimes nearly incoherent.

He also was given a lie detector test which he failed, according to an FBI transcript of the examination obtained by The Times.

Six days after the lie detector test, Buckland signed another statement in which he retracted his earlier testimony that Aviles had told him ahead of time that Benavides was planning the murders and that Aviles had been sent by Ponce to try and head off the attack.

Buckland, however, stood by his statement that Aviles had told him Dec. 20 that Benavides was responsible for the killings, an assertion that was found credible by the lie detector test.

Throughout these events, which began Jan. 2 and concluded Jan. 18 with Buckland's retraction, the American Embassy said nothing to the Salvadoran judge investigating the crimes, although a partial tape of Buckland's interview with the FBI was shown privately to Cristiani.

It wasn't until the alleged Aviles role was leaked to reporters and word about Buckland's various statements began to emerge that the embassy acknowledged in private briefings for reporters that the documents existed.

Not until October, 1990, at the urging of members of Congress, were partial transcripts of Buckland's statements released, and a full transcript of the FBI interviews were not entered in the court record here until May, 1991.

American officials argue that decisions dealing with the disposition of the material were made in Washington on the basis of the clear unreliability of Buckland and that what seemed to be U.S. delays were actually the result of an inefficient Salvadoran court system.

The Jesuits argue that regardless of the confusion of Buckland's statements and the results of the lie detector test and Buckland's retraction, all statements and tape should have been turned over immediately to the court.

Some American officials, while denying any cover-up, say hindsight shows it was a mistake to have held back the Buckland material. And as evidence of good faith, they note that Buckland has not been shielded and that he has twice given sworn statements to the Salvadoran court.

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