In 1979, three armed gunmen ambushed a busload of sailors headed to a communications station in Puerto Rico. The bus was riddled with bullets, shown here with rods. (NCIS)
Chief Cryptologic Technician Warren Smith drove the bus out of the ambush after the bus driver was killed, saving many of his sailors' lives. (FC via The Associated Press)
Justice had eluded 18 unarmed sailors gunned down in a terrorist ambush in Puerto Rico for 34 years.
Sailors and survivors gathered May 8 in a federal courthouse in Brooklyn where Juan Galloza Acevedo, a former member of the violent separatist group Los Macheteros, was sentenced to five years in prison for his part in the 1979 attack.
And the Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents who cracked this cold case aren’t finished yet. Though they could not go into detail, the agents told Navy Times that investigations continue today.
Eighteen sailors on Dec. 3, 1979, boarded a yellow bus at Sabana Seca and headed to a communications transmitter on Puerto Rico’s east end. This routine was well known to Los Macheteros, a militant group devoted to obtaining independence for Puerto Rico through violence. Their acts included murder, robbery and using Cuban-supplied rockets to blow up eight National Guard jets and attack two federal courthouses.
The militants, having studied the route for weeks, executed a classic ambush that fateful morning, investigators said. Acevedo was in the passenger seat of an ambush van parked along the base’s perimeter. Two spotters alerted the terrorists as the bus drew near.
About half a mile from the base, a pickup truck pulled in front of the bus and blocked both lanes of traffic once the bus was adjacent to the ambush van. The sailors were unknowingly trapped in a kill zone.
The van door flew open to reveal three armed gunmen. One held a Thompson submachine gun, one had an AK-47 and the third had an M16. The latter was responsible for killing the bus driver, which he did in swift fashion. The shooters were told the sailors would hit the deck, and they were instructed to fire along the black stripe on the bus’s side, painted at floor level, to kill as many as possible.
Radioman 3rd Class Emil White and Cryptologic Technician 1st Class John Ball were killed in the attack. Ten more were wounded, some gravely. Among them was Chief Cryptologic Technician Warren Smith, who ordered the sailors to take cover as he braved the machine-gun fire. He jumped into the bloody driver’s seat and rammed the bus through the obstacles to get back to the base.
Smith was later awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for his actions and a Purple Heart for his wounds.
A congressional report on terrorism described Juan Segarra Palmer, a Los Macheteros leader who helped organize the attack, as angered because the “results should have been more severe” — an outcome only disrupted by Smith’s actions.
That report came in response to the 1999 pardon of Palmer by President Clinton. Palmer had not been charged in relation to the shooting, but he was serving time for his role in a 1983 Wells Fargo depot robbery in Connecticut, one that saw robbers make off with a then-record $7 million, and would trigger an investigation that uncovered the first leads into the bus attack.
Not long after the Wells Fargo robbery, a rocket was fired from a vehicle at the federal courthouse in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Investigators soon learned that the two events were connected, and both were linked to the bus ambush.
The robbery involved 19 people and was led by Víctor Manuel Gerena, who has spent more time than anyone on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. Gerena is believed to be in Cuba.
While the Justice Department was able to track down the robbery conspirators, the ambush case soon went cold, and remained in limbo until the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks birthed a renewed focus on prosecuting terrorist activity. Lou Eliopulos, director of the NCIS Office of Forensic Support, NCIS Special Agent Tim Quick and FBI Agent Doug Jones were among a team that tackled what Eliopulos called a “very difficult and very challenging cold case.”
Their first trip to Puerto Rico took place in 2002. Investigators in the years that followed determined 13 people were directly involved in the attack, including those who ordered it, financed it, organized it and carried it out.
Some participants have died. The person who drove the pickup truck was murdered in 2002, and one of the shooters was killed in a drug-related homicide, Eliopulos said.
The team also connected Filiberto Ojeda Ríos, a fugitive from justice, to the bus attack. Having shared its findings with the feds, agents from the FBI’s San Juan field office on Sept. 23, 2005, surrounded Ojeda Ríos’ home in the outskirts of Hormigueros, Puerto Rico. He was killed, and two agents were wounded in the shootout that followed.
Acevedo was first interviewed in 2006. NCIS agents had a warrant to obtain a DNA sample to compare with evidence obtained from the ambush van.
“I don’t think he was really surprised, to be honest,” Quick said. “There was a little remorse. He was remorseful when it happened because he left the group shortly after the ambush. He denounced the violence of the group. I don’t know why he was in the van if ... they were going fishing that day. They had automatic weapons. He should’ve known what he was getting into.”
While they knew they had one of their men, it would take repeated interrogations and investigation before agents had enough evidence to bring the case to prosecutors.
Acevedo, now 78, will serve five years for racketeering conspiracy with predicate acts of murder conspiracy and robbery conspiracy relating to his role in planning and carrying out the ambush.
Quick said it was “the highlight of [his] career” to be in the courtroom with John Ball’s widow, Ball’s daughter and injured sailors Allen Bush and Warren Smith when the sentence was read.
“There are sailors who were wounded in this attack who underwent significant surgeries,” Eliopulos said. “Those individuals, every time they look in the mirror, they remember Dec. 3, 1979. Being able to answer their questions about who did this to them and why they did it was incredibly important.”
In honoring their fallen shipmates, the command described Ball as “a practicing Christian, a runner, a man who gave and loved, a man dedicated to health and to life. His personal relationships were full and rich; his marriage, close and strong, was strengthened the more through the marriage encounter group to which John and Patti belonged.”
Emil White was described as “a giver, a friend, a person whose willingness to help and whose interest in base morale and welfare enriched us all. The tragedy occurred; the lives are lost. But our community can never lose the friendships, the help, the love they gave to us.”
The command named its enlisted club after White and its gym complex after Ball, according to base literature.
“Thirty-four years ago, terrorists carried out a coordinated and cold-blooded attack on a U.S. Navy bus carrying 17 enlisted sailors in Puerto Rico,” NCIS Director Andrew Traver said in a prepared statement. “The court’s sentencing of one of those responsible provides some measure of justice for slain Navy Petty Officers John Ball and Emil White, the 10 other Navy personnel wounded in the attack, and their families.
“I am deeply grateful to our NCIS personnel and partners from the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office who have remained committed to this case and have persevered for decades in pursuing those responsible for this crime.”