Christmas in Prison

In which a onetime Cuban rafter and fix-it man takes on the dramatic role of mad bomber

The December 10 news release from the Broward Sheriff's Office and ensuing press coverage hinted at either a terrorist or a dangerous lunatic in our midst: 53-year-old Richardo Gonzalez, the agency reported, had been carrying a canvas bag stuffed with "destructive devices." One blew up in Gonzalez's hand. The county bomb squad had exploded two more.

The cops explained that Gonzalez had been living in a van outside a house at 733 W. Evanston Cir. in Melrose Park, an unincorporated area just west of Fort Lauderdale. He had been walking with the sack a few blocks from his van when one of the bombs inside detonated. A witness saw something explode in Gonzalez's hand, then saw Gonzalez run away. Gonzalez was arrested and charged with four felony counts. He faces up to 20 years in prison.

"A man who said he was carrying crude, homemade bombs in a bag... landed in jail Monday night after two of the four devices blew up inadvertently," reported the Sun-Sentinel.Television stations offered an even more breathless description of the event.

Papa Noel may have to visit Ricardo Gonzalez in Broward County's main jail
Papa Noel may have to visit Ricardo Gonzalez in Broward County's main jail

Who is this madman? First, let's correct a few BSO mistakes. His name isn't Richardo. It's Ricardo. And the beat-up van where he lived wasn't parked at 733 W. Evanston Cir. in Melrose Park. It was at 773. When I tried to visit Gonzalez in jail, or at least leave him a note, authorities rebuffed me. "No visitors allowed," the guard said. "There's no visiting time set in his case." They declined to describe the devices mentioned in the release or to hand over a note requesting that Gonzalez call New Times.

Around Melrose Park, a dusty neighborhood of well-kept homes filled with the sing-song of sundry Caribbean accents, people know Gonzalez as a friendly wisp of a man who kept to himself and fixed televisions for nada.

"He'd never carry a bomb," says Barbara Simmons, who owns the house where Gonzalez was parked.

"I just don't believe he had bombs," comments Jesus Morales, one of a clutch of Cuban men who hang around the coffee bar at the nearby Super Saver grocery store.

"He is one of the gentlest men I have ever met," adds Ulises Alvarez, who runs a store on Davie Boulevard where Gonzalez has fixed televisions and VCRs.

The story of how Gonzalez, who floated on an inner tube to South Florida from Cuba in 1992, ended up incarcerated is instructive. He never lost the fear of government and the ethos of living hand to mouth that's common on the island. He has never received welfare in either country. And -- as police and newspapers made clear -- he apparently chose to make the bombs in self-defense. A group of teenage toughs had pummeled him several weeks ago. Yet, in the terrorist-crazed atmosphere created by 9/11, he'll almost certainly spend Christmas -- and perhaps many years thereafter -- behind bars.

Gonzalez was raised in the Vedado neighborhood of Havana, a historic, tree-lined area of once-elegant homes near the city's center. He finished high school and was educated at an electronics-repair school but was never happy, recalls his cousin Roberto Aguilera, who now lives in Hollywood. Part of the problem traced to his religion, Seventh-day Adventism, which the Cuban government repressed. Also, because he had some sort of psychological problem, doctors prescribed drugs "to quiet his nerves," recalls Aguilera.

It was Aguilera who urged Gonzalez to head north. After arriving in South Florida during the Mariel boatlift, Aguilera wrote letters home to his first cousin. "I said if you come here you can make a lot of money. I was thinking business. Ricardo was thinking about a quiet life."

In 1992, Gonzalez, his nephew Alexei, and a friend named Enrique spent a week studying the habits of Cuban coast guard boats, then evaded them and crossed the Florida Straits in three days, just enough time to become hungry and sunburned. After the trio arrived on American shores, a local relief group sent them to Texas.

But soon, Gonzalez and his nephew headed back to South Florida. The pair found an apartment on Madison Street in Hollywood and went to work for a roofing company. But in 1993, the company closed, leaving them jobless.

During the next few years, Gonzalez occasionally found work and sometimes slept in a Dania Beach patio-furniture store owned by Aguilera. But increasingly, he slept on the street or in his van. When he would get a job, he would continue working on the side fixing TVs. He learned to read English well and write a little, Aguilera explains, but he couldn't speak it. Friends recall that Gonzalez "said he was too old for the language to enter his head."

He lived in a trailer for a while near Melrose Park, then in a rooming house on Southwest 29th Avenue. He'd work sometimes in the television repair store on Davie Boulevard and would occasionally sleep there too. He had business cards with his name and cell-phone number. "Actually, they were just pieces of paper," Morales says. At the Super Saver, where Morales and a half dozen other Cuban men gather each morning to sip café Cubano, pretty much everyone cites Gonzalez's skill with electronics. "He never talked about his family or anything," recalls Cerero Hernandez. "But he fixed everyone's TVs cheaply."

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