Secrets and Crimes

Four years after hed been convicted of murder in Belgium, Jean-FranCois Buslik was a pilot and a family man living quietly in North Palm Beach. Then justice came calling.

Today, after four years of allowing Buslik to remain free, the Belgian and American governments are engaged in artificial hand-wringing, declaring Buslik's capture a victory of international law-enforcement cooperation. Why, then, did it take so long to arrest him? A source at the American Embassy in Brussels claims that officially the embassy does not know why the Belgian government is seeking Buslik's extradition at this time. The official, however, speculated that the action might have been prompted by the publication of Buslik's U.S. address in a Belgian magazine and subsequent inquiries by a New Times reporter, who discovered that Buslik is suspected of having been involved in more than just one murder in his native country.

Under the extradition treaty between the U.S. and Belgium, Buslik has long been extraditable. Many blame Belgian judicial bungling for his years of freedom. The country's courts and law-enforcement agencies are notoriously disorganized, as was so publicly exposed three years ago when a pedophile murder scandal shook the country and threatened to topple its government. Belgium is home to 589 local police departments, two national police organizations (the judicial police and the Gendarmerie), and an internal security agency (the Surete). None of these groups communicates well with another. (The child-killer, Marc Dutroux, who had two young girls chained up in his basement and four others buried in his yard, slipped through police hands on more than one occasion because of lack of communication.) Add to that widespread corruption and a country intensely divided along French and Flemish language lines, and you have a real recipe for bureaucratic disaster. In the case of Jean-Francois Buslik, even the country's own Ministry of Justice is unable to explain his years of freedom.

"It's very strange, but the attorney general of Brussels never issued an arrest warrant," said Eric Verbert of the extradition division of the Belgian Ministry of Justice weeks before a provisional request for extradition reached that office. Contacted a few days after Buslik's arrest, Attorney General Pierre Morlet, the man who prosecuted Buslik's case four years ago, said the extradition delay was the result of an "administrative error." "We presumed he was in Florida, but we never had precise information about his whereabouts," he said. "We took action after police discovered his address on the Internet." That action, which led to his arrest on April 15, means that a man who nearly got away with a murder going back 17 years will finally return home to face his accusers.

The crime for which Buslik was sentenced to death was set in motion on the afternoon of October 25, 1982, when an invoice arrived by telex from Zurich to the security office of Sabena, the Belgian national airline. The printout listed the contents of a shipment scheduled to arrive at Brussels International Airport the following evening. Included on the list were 950 Krugerrands, 50 Italian gold coins, 50 pounds of gold bullion, 4.5 pounds of industrial diamonds, a large stack of cash, and a dozen Cartier watches. The total value: more than $4.5 million. Upon arrival the precious Swiss cargo was to be transported to a high-security safe at the edge of the airport. It would never reach its destination.

A 25-year-old security guard and recent first-time father named Frances Zwarts was assigned to accompany the shipment as part of his regular rounds. On the evening of October 26, he dashed to a flight from Moscow to grab a diplomatic pouch from the Belgian Embassy in the Soviet Union, then greeted the plane from Zurich as scheduled. He loaded the valuables from the cargo hold into a blue Sabena Volkswagen and set off across the tarmac toward the secure warehouse at Brucargo.

The route he followed passes under an overpass where two Sabena employees later described seeing a roadblock and three uniformed men with machine guns. The pair of witnesses told investigators they assumed the men, who waved them on, were police officers. So, presumably, did Zwarts. His Volkswagen was found abandoned the following day. It was empty except for his 9 mm handgun and the broken wax seal from the diplomatic pouch. That same day street cleaners found by the side of the road a banged-up black suitcase containing a pistol, a machine gun, and a number of wigs. Zwarts was never seen again. Although his body has never been found, he is presumed to be dead.

Six years later, on December 15, 1988, a trio of Belgian investigators flew into Miami International Airport. Contacted through his lawyer in Belgium, Jean-Francois Buslik had agreed to meet with the men to answer questions about the airport heist. He drove to the hotel where they were staying, the Sheraton Brickell in Miami. "We didn't know where he lived, and he didn't want us to know," recalls Jean-Pierre Doraene, then an investigator with the judicial police. Over the next four days, Doraene and two others grilled Buslik about the jumble of evidence linking him and two associates to the robbery and the murder of Zwarts. They showed him a photo they had recovered during a search of his home in suburban Brussels. It pictured an old girlfriend done up for New Year's Eve festivities. Clearly visible on her wrist was a Cartier watch later identified by an expert as being one of only half a dozen like it in the world. Buslik claimed the watch was a fake he had bought for his girlfriend. "He denied everything," says Doraene. "He said he had nothing to do with the robbery, that he left the country because he was sick of being harassed by the police.... His answers weren't very convincing."

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