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.

Medina and Alfonso were arrested about ten days after Zirwas was found dead. Two friends of the former priest testified they were at the Calle Mazón apartment when Medina stopped by on Sunday, May 26, around 5 p.m. The friends said Zirwas told them he was getting a massage and that they could stick around, but they decided to go home. They returned around 8 p.m., and again at midnight, but no one answered their knocks on the door.

Medina told police he left the apartment around 7 p.m., after injecting Zirwas with an animal tranquilizer just below the base of his skull. High doses of the relaxant, succinil colina, can cause respiratory and cardiac paralysis, and apparently did so to Zirwas as he sat in a kitchen chair just outside the doorway to his bedroom. After the injection, Medina dragged him, dying, onto the bed. At about 2 a.m. Medina, this time in the company of his half-brother Alfonso, returned by taxi to Calle Mazón, unlocked the door with Zirwas' keys, and stole several items. They knew there was a woman (Andree Kahl) sleeping in the back room.

Medina later admitted he had persuaded a friend who worked at a hospital to slip him several vials of the relaxant. He and his half-brother also confessed they had used the same technique to attack three other men: A Canadian tourist and a Cuban man both died, and an Italian cornered in an elevator managed to escape. All the victims were gay, and the brothers said they had a list of eight more men they intended to kill and rob. But their haul after three murders was minimal.

Polly Becker
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico
Left: Zirwas as the Green Screen's El Juez found Cuba wanting, but fascinating. Right: An atypical Cuban family: Ulises, Zirwas, Taco, and Tico

Word of Zirwas' death, presumably by strangulation, was immediately the hot topic on radio bemba (slang for word of mouth). "It was common knowledge in Havana that an American had been killed, and it was quite the source of gossip on the street," wrote one Green Screen correspondent.

The streetwise also knew about the earlier murders but didn't know they were connected. Even if the murders were related, one school of thought held, police weren't going to disrupt tourism and lucrative side dealings like the trade in false immigration documents, drugs, sex, and cigars.

"Everyone knew two Italians had been killed," a Habana Vieja jinetero confided this past October, demonstrating the shifting truths available at street level. The jinetero (a sex- and companionship-provider for foreigners), who goes by the pseudonym Manuel, acknowledged he had never met Zirwas or his crowd. "I didn't know who did it, but other people said they knew who did and that the police were turning a blind eye. Why? Because once they started trying to break up all the illegal little businesses around the tourist trade, they'd have to arrest everybody -- [Communist] Party people and army people -- and they couldn't cause that kind of upheaval. But then an American got killed, so the police had to act."

Soon after the arrests, a squad of police cars again converged on Calle Mazón. (Ulises and Andree Kahl had been told to find other residences.) Medina and Alfonso, in handcuffs, were unloaded and escorted inside Zirwas' apartment, where each, police later confirmed, re-created his actions the night of the murder.

Meanwhile, a crowd again gathered outside, and there was yelling: "Asesinos!" "Keep our streets safe!" "Down with violence!" Just about everyone who lived nearby showed up, even those who didn't approve of homosexuality but who had come to like, even respect, the personable American.

Ulises, who'd endured almost 24 hours of questioning while he was still shocked and grieving, believes the police treated him with a blatant lack of respect because he and Zirwas were a gay couple. He is also angry that most of his clothes and possessions seized by the police hadn't been returned.

Medina and Alfonso were sentenced in January 2002. There was some controversy in the courtroom about whether Medina, the man who had given the fatal injections, should be sentenced to death. His half-brother, Armando Vicente Alfonso, hadn't actually killed, so nobody complained when he got 35 years. Though Medina had confessed to three murders and had been planning more, there were factors in his favor: a reluctance to take two sons from their mother, and growing opposition within Cuba, as in other nations, to the death penalty. Ultimately Medina was condemned to die by firing squad.

As far as Zirwas' loved ones were concerned, the horrific ordeal was over, but the family was shattered. Agnes Zirwas, whom George had so conscientiously shielded from his spiritual shortcomings, never recovered from the trauma of his sudden loss. She died almost one year to the day after her son, on May 21, 2002.

In Havana, Zirwas' group dissolved. None of the men who practically lived at his apartment has been seen again on Calle Mazón; most of them lost contact with each other after the trial. Ulises took Tweety to his mother's apartment, where the cage now hangs just above the television in the tiny front room. "But Tweety has never sung again," Ulises laments. The apartment couldn't accommodate Taco and Tico, so they were given to a family who lives several miles away; just a month later Taco died.

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