Posts Tagged ‘Sheridan Circle’

Memorial to Orlando Letelier

Memorial to Orlando Letelier

It was 38 years ago today that Orlando Letelier, a former Chilean government minister, diplomat and ambassador to the U.S., was assassinated here in D.C. I was only 14 years old at the time, but I remember it happening because of the unusual and audacious method by which he was killed – a car bomb.

Marcos Orlando Letelier del Solar was a Chilean economist, Socialist politician and diplomat during the presidency of Socialist President Salvador Allende. After a military coup d’état led by General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the government in 1973, Letelier was arrested. He spent approximately a year in prisons and various concentration camps, including the infamous Dawson Island, which was used by the Allende regime to house political prisoners suspected of being communist activists. After diplomatic pressure from Venezuelan government prompted his release, Letelier moved to D.C. at the invitation of writer and film-maker Saul Landau to work at the Institute of Policy Studies, a left-wing think tank. He then became the leading voice of Chilean resistance to Pinochet, lobbying Congress and European powers to stop trading with the military dictatorship of American-backed General Pinochet.

Approximately a year after coming to D.C., on September 21, 1976, Letelier was on his way to work like any other day, except that he was giving his assistant, Ronni Karpen Moffitt, and her husband, Michael, a ride because their car had broken down. Letelier was driving, while Ronni was in the front passenger seat and Michael was in the rear behind his wife. As they rounded Sheridan Circle in northwest D.C. at approximately 9:35 am, a violent explosion under the car lifted it off the ground and caused it to collide with another car that happened to be parked illegally in front of the Irish embassy.

Michael was able to escape from the car by crawling out where the shattered rear window. Assuming Ronni was alright when he saw her get out of the car and stumble away, he made his way around the car to check on Letelier, who was still in the driver’s seat. Letelier’s lower torso was blown away and his legs were severed, but he was still alive. Both Ronni and Letelier were taken to the George Washington University Medical Center. Letelier succumbed to the massive injuries suffered in the explosion approximately 20 minutes later.   Ronni’s died a little over an hour later, her larynx and carotid artery having been severed by a piece of shrapnel from the bomb. Michael suffered only a minor head wound.

An FBI investigation determined that the assassination had been orchestrated by agents of the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), the Chilean secret police, led by an American named Michael Townley, who was a DINA U.S. expatriate who had once worked for the CIA, along with right-wing Cuban militants who they had hired to carry out the hit. Townley was extradited to the U.S., and agreed in a plea deal to provide evidence against his co-conspirators in exchange for pleading guilty to a single charge of conspiracy to commit murder and being given a ten-year sentence. Townley’s wife, Mariana Callejas, also agreed to testify in exchange for not being prosecuted. The Chilean government refused to extradite two DINA officials who were involved, but they were tried and convicted in Chile, and sentenced to between 6 and 7 years in prison. The Cubans were tried in the U.S. and sentenced to life in prison. Soon after the trial, Townley was freed under the Witness Protection Program.   General Pinochet, who died in December of 2006, was never charged or brought to trial for the murders, despite CIA evidence implicating him as having ordered the assassination.

On this bike ride, I rode to the Letelier-Moffitt Memorial at the site of the bombing in which they were killed. The memorial is located in the southwest area of Sheridan Circle, near 23rd Street and Massachusetts Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Embassy Row neighborhood. The memorial consists of a small brass plaque embedded in the grass between the sidewalk and the curb where they were killed, near the Irish and Romanian embassies.

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General Philip Sheridan Memorial

General Philip Sheridan Memorial

The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is located in the center of Sheridan Circle, which is a traffic circle at the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and 23rd Street (MAP), in the Embassy Row neighborhood of northwest D.C.  A bronze sculpture dedicated in November of1908, it depicts General Sheridan during battle on his horse.  It was sculpted by John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, commonly referred to as Gutzon Borglum, who also produced an enormous carving of Confederate leader Robert E. Lee’s head at Stone Mountain in Georgia, and went on to create his crowning achievement, the Presidential Memorial at Mount Rushmore in South Dakota.  The General Philip Sheridan Memorial is part of a group of statues entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city, and are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

Philip Henry Sheridan was a career U.S. Army officer and a Union general during the Civil War.  His military career was noted for his rapid rise, but it did not start off as successfully.  He obtained an appointment to the United States Military Academy from Congressman Thomas Ritchey, but only after the congressman’s first candidate was disqualified.  While at West Point, Sheridan was suspended for a year for fighting with a classmate and threatening to run him through with a bayonet in reaction to a perceived insult.  He was allowed to return, and graduated in 1853, but was ranked 34th in his class of only 52 cadets.

His physical stature and appearance most likely did not enhance his career either.  Fully grown, he reached only 5 feet 5 inches tall, a diminutive stature that led to the nickname, “Little Phil.”  And he was even described by Abraham Lincoln as “A brown, chunky little chap, with a long body, short legs, not enough neck to hang him, and such long arms that if his ankles itch he can scratch them without stooping.”

But despite his physical appearance and his career’s less than stellar beginnings, Sheridan went on to achieve great success in his military career.  He demonstrated his capacity for command during assignments on the U.S. frontier and in early Civil War operations.  Sheridan’s successful Shenandoah Valley Campaign in 1864 crushed Confederate General Jubal Early’s cavalry while destroying much of the South’s food supply.  Sheridan was also instrumental in General Robert E. Lee’s withdrawal from Petersburg, Virginia, after which Lee would soon surrender to Grant in April of 1865 to end the war.  Many contend that his career was also the result of help from influential friends, including his close association with Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant.  Sheridan eventually became the Commanding General of the U.S. Army in November of 1883, and just before his death in June of 1888, he was promoted to General of the Army of the United States – the same rank achieved by Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.

Sheridan also enjoyed a number of other somewhat unusual successes during and after his military career.  In 1871, Sheridan was present in Chicago during the Great Chicago Fire and coordinated military relief efforts.  The mayor, Roswell B. Mason, to calm the panic, placed the city under martial law, and issued a proclamation putting Sheridan in charge.  Sheridan also played an important role in the establishment and protection of Yellowstone National Park, which was officially created in 1872.  Mount Sheridan, which rises more than 10,000 feet and is located within the national park, was named after him.  Sheridan served as the ninth president of the National Rifle Association as well.

On a personal note, in 1875 Sheridan married Irene Rucker, a daughter of Army Quartermaster General Daniel H. Rucker. She was 22 at the time, and he was 44. They had four children.  After the wedding, Sheridan and his wife moved to D.C., where they lived in a house given to them by Chicago citizens in appreciation for Sheridan’s protection of the city during the Great Chicago Fire.  In 1888, at the age of 57, Sheridan suffered a series of debilitating heart attacks.  Knowing that his end was near, Congress promoted him to General of the Army on June 1, 1888.  Sheridan died on August 5, 1888.  He was survived by his wife Irene, who never remarried, saying, “I would rather be the widow of Phil Sheridan than the wife of any man living.”

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