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Was Pablo Neruda poisoned? Who was the 'doctor' at the scene?

June 03, 2013|By Hector Tobar
  • Pablo Neruda after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971.
Pablo Neruda after winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971. (Laurent Rebours / Associated…)

For 40 years, the killer of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was not a “who” but a “what.” Prostate cancer was said to have killed the Nobel laureate, at age 69, just weeks after a military coup brought a bloody dictatorship to power in his South American country.

But now Neruda’s death in 1973 is becoming a true murder mystery, with a tall, blue-eyed American (who is in hiding) named as the chief suspect — although he might have a good alibi.

An investigation into Neruda’s death was launched earlier this year when Neruda’s driver, Manuel Araya, alleged the poet had been poisoned via injection while receiving treatment at Santiago’s Santa Maria hospital.

Neruda’s body was exhumed and an autopsy performed, though the results are not yet complete. But now the Chilean authorities have launched a search for a suspect after the doctor who treated Neruda revealed, for the first time, that a mysterious second “doctor,” known only as Price, was present at Neruda’s bedside in his final days.

“He’s like a ghost doctor,” Rodolfo Reyes, a Neruda family lawyer, told the Santiago newspaper La Tercera. The revelation came from Sergio Draper, who treated Neruda at the Santa Maria hospital.

“All we know is that Dr. Draper turned over this shift to a Dr. Price, who was a young man of about 27, with blue eyes and very well mannered, but beyond that we don’t know anything because there’s no Price in the registry of doctors who worked in that hospital.”

Draper’s description is said to match that of the notorious spy Michael Townley, who served five years in U.S. prisons after confessing to planting the car bomb that killed Orlando Letelier, an exiled opponent of dictator Augusto Pinochet, in 1976 in Washington, D.C. Townley is currently in a U.S. witness protection program after cooperating with U.S. authorities in the Letelier investigation.

But on Monday, researchers and human rights activists said Townley probably has a strong alibi in the Neruda case. At that time, records show he was in Florida, where he’d fled after killing a worker  at a television studio during the rule of Salvador Allende, the president Pinochet overthrew in a military coup.

According to the Santiago newspaper El Mercurio, the final report on the autopsy of Neruda’s body is awaiting the toxicology report from a North Carolina laboratory.

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

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