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She found her 15 minutes inside a suitcase scandal

An Argentine airport police officer opened a bag last year and discovered $800,000 -- and now, celebrity.

February 17, 2008|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — She went from night-shift airport cop to pinup girl. From chilly anonymity to red-hot notoriety. Next up: The "suitcase girl" is in line for a TV ice-skating gig.

"I never imagined anything like this would happen," Maria del Lujan Telpuk told the Argentine edition of Playboy in an interview that accompanies her appearance on the cover this month. "And all for a suitcase that somehow put me into the middle of a rivalry of nations."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, February 21, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
Argentina's 'Suitcase-gate': In an article in Sunday's Section A about the Argentine woman whose discovery of a bag full of cash set off a major political scandal, the name of Argentina's former president and husband of the current president was given as Ferdinand de Kirchner. His name is Nestor Kirchner.

Dubbed "Suitcase-gate," one of Latin America's most celebrated political scandals is the best thing that has happened to Telpuk. Her police vigilance was the catalyst for the explosive episode, which has chilled U.S.-Argentine relations and embarrassed Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Andy Warhol would surely have relished how Telpuk, 27, soared to stardom. Like Monica S. Lewinsky, Kato Kaelin and others thrust unexpectedly into the public eye, Telpuk is getting her 15 minutes of fame -- and savoring every second.

Fate intervened in her humdrum life as the federal policewoman was working the graveyard shift at Aeroparque airport here. It was 3:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 4.

A Cessna Citation jet leased by an Argentine state energy firm touched down from Caracas, Venezuela's capital. Out stepped a cluster of VIPs, mostly Argentine government functionaries and high rollers from Venezuela's state oil company.

In various interviews here, Telpuk recalled asking a burly passenger named Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson what he had in his suitcase.

"Books and some papers," he replied, Telpuk told the newspaper Perfil.

When asked to open the bag, Telpuk said, the previously composed Antonini Wilson began to stammer and act strangely.

When she saw what was inside the luggage, "I almost died," she told Playboy. "The bundles of bills were there, in plain sight, nothing hiding them. I'd never seen so much money in one place."

The undeclared cash -- totaling $790,550 -- was seized, Antonini Wilson was allowed to go, and the case generated some early headlines. A senior Argentine government official was fired.

The story soon faded, the money's provenance and destination apparently one of those never-to-be-resolved imponderables. Antonini Wilson, a businessman and dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, returned to his spacious home in South Florida and his passion for Lamborghinis and Porsches.

It wasn't until December, when U.S. authorities in Miami charged four suspects with acting illegally as Venezuelan agents on U.S. soil, that the case morphed into a full-fledged scandal with implications for U.S.-Latin American relations.

The suspects allegedly used threats and promised bribes to pressure Antonini Wilson into concealing the true source of the suitcase money. One suspect was taped saying the money was a contribution for the election campaign of President Ferdinand de Kirchner's wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who succeeded him as president in October.

Some speculated that Antonini Wilson served as a Venezuelan bagman, a courier delivering cash to Chavez's political allies.

Others saw a Cold War-style U.S. conspiracy: a set-up job designed to smear the U.S.-bashing Venezuelan leader and his allies, including the Argentine government, which has sold billions of dollars in state bonds to Venezuela.

An incensed Fernandez de Kirchner dismissed the case as a U.S.-orchestrated "garbage" operation. U.S.-Argentine relations plunged to a nadir. The U.S. ambassador here was put on ice, his access curtailed.

In the middle of it all was the petite Telpuk. She was a small-town girl who told Playboy she had led an unhappy, solitary youth. She recalled preparing lunch at home and delivering it to the pasta factory where her widowed mother worked.

"But my mother always told me that I would be on la tele [television]," said Telpuk, a nursery school teacher before joining the airport police. "What I feel now is that God remembered me."

It might be difficult for anyone to forget her after thumbing through the current Argentine Playboy.

She stares out from the cover with a strategically placed red suitcase emblazoned with Argentine and Venezuelan flag decals. Her only attire: a scarf, black leather gloves and black-and-white boots. In the centerfold, she assumes provocative poses with the ubiquitous suitcase, sundry dollar bills and other props, including the propeller blades of a single-engine airplane.

The case continues to reverberate here and elsewhere in Latin America. The source and intended destination of the money remain opaque.

Telpuk, though, is moving on.

She has left the force, taken a job with a charter airline firm, begun studying English and is hitting the ice for a hoped-for appearance on "Skating for a Dream," Argentina's top-rated variety show. The program features guests skating with celebrities.

Some have vilified her as a mercenary fortune-seeker and CIA stooge. For a while, she had police protection.

But Telpuk says she did it her way, choosing the honest path in a nation where police corruption is assumed. Some are surprised, Telpuk says, that she didn't just pocket the loot.

"I arrived where I am just by being myself," she told Playboy. "I have to be proud of that."

--

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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