Christmas in Prison
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.
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."
Alvarez describes Gonzalez as "extremely practical, a man of the earth." Once, Gonzalez treated a skin condition on his arm with battery acid. Another time, he didn't have a stove, so he heated a can of beans on the hood of his van. A Cuban friend describes giving Gonzalez a pair of shoes, then noting that they were too small. "It's OK; my feet will adjust" came the response.
Alvarez and Gonzalez became friends. Often, the older man would visit Alvarez's home. There were hints that something wasn't quite right. "He was always a little paranoid," Alvarez recalls. Once, Alvarez tried to fill Gonzalez's prescription for psychotropic medicine. "The doctor said anyone taking these pills shouldn't be on the street," he says. The prescription was never filled.
Back in January or February, Gonzalez fixed Simmons's TV at her home on Evanston Circle. In broken English, he told her he was trying to raise enough money to pay for traffic tickets he had received. Over the next few months, he fixed half a dozen neighborhood TVs, all at reasonable prices: $20, $50. So she told him he could park his van in the carport of a house she owns across the street. Sometimes, she brought him Caribbean food on a plate. Gonzalez occasionally took his bicycle to the Super Saver.
During the months that followed, he would sometimes find a room, then drift back into the street. He sometimes slept at Alvarez's store too. He kept his cell phone, though, so people could find him.
Then about six weeks ago, someone stole Gonzalez's bike. Shortly thereafter, a group of young toughs beat him up. They left bumps all over his head, Alvarez recalls, saying, "They scared the pants off him." Adds Aguilera: "He told me he didn't want to be on the street anymore. That people were murdered around that neighborhood."
Aguilera offered to pay Gonzalez's way back to Cuba. ""Your mother will take care of you,' I told him. "Life will be better.' He replied that he wouldn't live in Cuba as long as Fidel Castro was in power."
Of the 19 people I interviewed in Melrose Park over three days, no one recalls Gonzalez's mentioning a word about bombs. The morning before he was arrested, Aguilera called Gonzalez's cell phone and offered him some work. The two agreed to meet at a Sedano's supermarket on State Road 441. Aguilera would drive his cousin home when the job was complete. ""That's good,' he said, "I don't want to walk. It's dangerous,'" Aguilera recalls.
But after Aguilera arrived at the store, he waited and waited. No one showed. The next day, Gonzalez called from the main Broward jail. "He said they had arrested him with a pistol. I said "Ricardo, they said you had lots of bombs on TV.' He answered that a lawyer had advised him not to say anything more."
On Monday, a Broward County magistrate set bond in Gonzalez's case at $20,000. He was in a holding cell for several days, and his attorney, he told Aguilera, spoke only a bit of Spanish. The public defender's office, he had been told, would send someone else soon.
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