Murdered in Havana

After the Catholic Church banished him, Cuba welcomed him. But the vibrant new life George Zirwas created for himself soon ended in tragic death.

At all hours a rich variety of people can be spotted at the park: women waiting for buses, students, a tourist or two, pretty boys on the make, unpretty men looking them over. Colina Park is not one of Havana's major gay pickup spots, but meetings and arrangements take place. It was probably there, perhaps a month earlier, that Zirwas met young Abel Medina Valdes, posing unimaginatively as a "masseur" (common code for "pretty boy for rent"). Medina and his half-brother would later confess to killing Zirwas and leaving him in his bed for his lover to find that Sunday morning.

As Ulises arrived at the front door of the apartment, he was surprised to see their parakeet Tweety, his cage still hanging in the open front window, which was always closed at night. He unlocked the wooden door and found Taco and Tico out of place too, in the front room instead of in bed with their master.

"I called out twice: 'George? George?'"

Zirwas' parties weren't wild -- they were camp
Zirwas' parties weren't wild -- they were camp

Ulises is recounting the life and death of George Zirwas in Cuba, at least as much as he knows and is willing to discuss, more than a year and a half after the murder. Now 34 years old, Ulises is of medium height and build, with thinning light-brown hair. He is seated at an open-air fast-food café on 23rd Street in Vedado, wearing a lab coat over jeans since he'll start work in a few hours. He doesn't want anything to eat (admittedly the scrawny ham sandwiches and perros calientes for sale in U.S. dollars are less than appetizing). Nor does a can of beer or bottle of chilled water appeal to him, even with the burning, deep-gold afternoon sun falling harshly across his fine features, penetrating his ivory skin and hazel eyes. Ulises concentrates instead on recollecting, albeit selectively. He has an exceptionally pleasing and expressive voice, which he doesn't waste on unseemly or ragged details. Occasionally his eyes well with tears.

He stepped through the kitchen on his way to their bedroom, half-dreading what he would find but never imagining the worst. "I looked in," Ulises goes on, "and he was lying face down on the bed, and his neck and the side of his face I could see -- the skin was dark, black. I ran out into the street in a panic. I was calling, 'George is dead! George is dead!' It was the only thing that came out of my mouth."

In a few minutes, he recovered some composure and called the police. An American friend of Zirwas had been asleep in the back bedroom of the apartment. Ulises' commotion awakened her and she too rushed outside, where she sat on the curb weeping. Shocked and curious neighbors began to venture near the front door. Within minutes, they saw as many as a dozen police cars race up Calle Mazón. The officers blocked off the street and began questioning Ulises, a process that would continue into the next morning at Havana's Villa Marista state security headquarters. The body was removed on a stretcher. Neighbors remember seeing large purplish feet sticking out from under the sheet that wasn't quite long enough to cover Zirwas' tall frame.

The rest of the day, detectives dusted for fingerprints and confiscated most of Ulises' clothes and possessions. Missing from the apartment were Zirwas' cell phone, a VCR, stereo equipment and some CDs, and a tote bag. The killers didn't take the ten-dollar bill Zirwas had slipped between the pages of a book to pay for the "massage." Nor did they come across the $5000 stashed in a dresser and a suitcase.

Around nightfall, an investigator found an address book and dialed the number of George's ailing 83-year-old mother at the family home in McDonald, Pennsylvania. The Cuban detective, though, could barely speak English. According to friends who learned of the call, a frantic Agnes Zirwas couldn't be sure what had happened to her youngest son. Within the next few days George's two brothers, Frank and Matthew, verified his death (by strangling, they were told, incorrectly) but were stymied in efforts to have the remains brought home to Pennsylvania.

The family members contacted their congressman, who enlisted the help of the U.S. Department of State and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. On June 11, two weeks after his death, Zirwas was buried in his vestments at his boyhood parish of St. Alphonsus. Twenty priests, two bishops, and more than a hundred mourners attended the full funeral mass. Before he was in the ground, though, Zirwas was the subject of scrutiny, speculation, and rumor, especially on the bustling Internet chat sites he had frequented. There was persistent talk he had been involved with pornography and/or prostitution rings. A week after the murder, during a routine briefing at the State Department in Washington, a reporter asked spokesman Richard Boucher about unspecified "trafficking" by Zirwas (Boucher said he'd try to find out, but the subject apparently didn't come up again). Zirwas' travel to Cuba no doubt violated the U.S. trade embargo; however, there's no evidence of anything more questionable than him sneaking through U.S. Customs a handful of cheap Cuban cigars whenever he re-entered the U.S. on periodic visits.

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