Image Source Jason Puracal, with wife Scarleth and son Jabu.
Last November, when Janis Puracal heard that her older brother had been arrested in Nicaragua, the 32-year-old civil litgator working in downtown Seattle got on the next flight to the Central American country.
Image Source Jason Puracal, with wife Scarleth and son Jabu.
"I thought we'd get him and bring him home," she says.
But that's not what happened. After a long wait and a lengthy trial, Jason Puracal was convicted in August of money laundering, drug trafficking, and organized crime. On Tuesday, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison. His family and friends, Congressman Adam Smith, and former FBI agent Steve Moore are all insistent that the charges against Puracal are groundless.
So why is he in prison?
Puracal grew up in Tacoma and attended UW. After graduating with degrees in economics and zoology, he was intent on a career as a veterinarian. To gain real-world experience, he applied to the Peace Corps, with the hopes of being placed in Africa. Instead, he was assigned to Nicaragua, where he moved in 2002.
After completing his service the following year, Puracal moved to San Juan del Sur, a fast-developing beach town in the southwest of the country known for its surfing and hot housing market for wealthy expats. Along with three other Americans, he opened a RE/MAX office, and went to work as a real-estate agent. Not long thereafter, Puracal met Scarleth Flores, a beautiful local with a big smile. They married, and four years ago had a boy, Jabu, who was born with Down Syndrome.
Last year, Puracal--with his long hair, tattoos, and flashy car--was featured as a realtor on the HGTV show House Hunters International, which follows wealthy North Americans searching for their perfect piece of real estate in exotic locations. (To the family's dismay, the network continued to air the program long after his arrest.)
Everything changed on November 11, 2010. That night, Nicaraguan police, wearing masks and carrying AK-47s, raided Puracal's office. They seized his computers and files and placed him under arrest. The officers then proceeded to his house, where his wife, son, and 65-year-old mother--a Puget Sound-area physician who was in town for a visit--were asleep. After a six-hour search of the house, which his lawyers claim uncovered nothing illegal, Puracal was thrown in prison, where he has remained ever since.
Before his trial, Brandi Kruse of 97.3 KIRO FM traveled to Nicaragua and interviewed Puracal in prison. He comes off as articulate, and heartbroken that his wife, deprived of his income, is not able to afford the special education that is essential to maximizing young Jabu's mental capabilities.
"This case is delaying his development," Puracal told Kruse, tears in his eyes. "And there's no way to make up for that."
Puracal's trial was presided over by 27-year-old Kriguer Alberto Artola Narvaez, whom Puracal's lawyers claim is not a licensed attorney, meaning that his judgeship is a violation of Nicaraguan law. This was Narvaez's first case.
As Puracal's legal team lays out in the document below, the case against him is extremely threadbare, and only gets thinner upon closer examination. For instance, a trip to Costa Rica, allegedly to oversee his criminal operations, could also be explained by his going to pick up his mother from a conference there--a version of events that she was not able to offer, as she was not allowed to testify.
Despite extensive searches of his property, no drugs were offered as evidence against Puracal, and no witnesses linked him to drug trafficking. After their initial searches turned up nothing, cops used a VaporTracer, a machine used to detect trace levels of drugs and explosives, which purportedly showed a 70 percent trace of cocaine on Puracal. On cross-examination, the police officer explaining how the VaporTracer is used couldn't say what a 70 percent positive test result actually means.
As Puracal told Kruse before the trial, in a sentiment echoed by Congressman Smith and former FBI agent Moore, "They're accusing me of international drug trafficking without any drugs. They're accusing me of money laundering without any money. They're accusing me of organized crime, with the other 10 people that are charged in this case, when I don't know any of the other 10."
The trial was a study in frustration for Puracal's lawyers, who objected so frequently that the prosecution asked that their very objections be stricken from the record. On August 29, Narvaez found Puracal and his 10 co-defendants guilty. This week, he handed down Puracal's 22-year sentence.
The maximum-security prison where Puracal is housed, says his sister, is dilapidated and overcrowded, infested with vermin and ticks, has live electrical wires hanging from the walls, has contaminated water, and is filled with screaming and noise. Purucal has been beaten by guards and denied food and water for days at a time, his sister says.
"It is hell on earth," she says.
Assuming her brother is innocent, what made him a target?
"When it first happened, we were trying to figure out why," she says. At first, they they thought it might be part of a government land-grab. But Puracal doesn't own much property--just a house in town and his share of the RE/MAX office. And none of his business partners were implicated.
"Another possibility is that this is a political case," Janis Puracal says. That certainly makes sense in the case of co-defendant Robert Nunez, who was running a momentum-grabbing campaign for mayor of San Juan del Sur against the ruling Sandinista party candidate. But as Puracal denies ever having met Nunez, his arrest makes little sense in such a context.
There's the possibility that the leftist Sandinistas, who have had their share of problems with the United States, decided to take an American to hold as a pawn in a high-stakes game of chess.
The last American accused of a headline-grabbing crime in Nicaragua, Eric Volz, a surfer and real-estate agent whose girlfriend was raped and murdered in 2005, in the same town where Puracal lives, had his conviction overturned on appeal after pressure from the U.S. State Department. He was spirited out of the country amid concerns that he was being followed.
In his KIRO interview, Puracal puts forward the theory that his appearance and perceived lifestyle at the time of his arrest--his long hair, tattoos, and the fancy car he drove to impress clients--led the police to assume he must be involved in the drugs trade.
The bottom line is that no one knows why Puracal was arrested. Of course, it's also possible that he's guilty--though the evidence against him seems scant at best.
Whatever the reasons, Puracal's legal team is now preparing for his appeal, and his family is trying to compel the Obama administration, and Clinton's State Department, to intervene.
To that end, Janis Puracal is planning a rally for Jason on Sunday--the same day that President Obama will be in town. They'll be gathering at 8:30 a.m. at Fifth and Pine, and will march to the Paramount, where the president is scheduled to speak later that morning, in the hopes of getting his attention. Everyone, says Janis Puracal, is welcome to attend.