Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Nifonged in Nicaragua: Eric Volz Story on Anderson Cooper 360

Partial transcript of CNN's ANDERSON COOPER 360 DEGREES, Aired April 23, 2007:
But, like buried -- being buried alive, that's what an American citizen says life is like inside a maximum security prison in Nicaragua. Now, he was convicted of a brutal crime that stunned the country. He says he is innocent and that he has the alibis to prove it.

Tonight, we want you to be the judge.

CNN's Rick Sanchez reports.


RICK SANCHEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): It was like a lynch mob. Angry Nicaraguans had been waiting for this moment. And 27-year-old Eric Volz was at the white-hot center. How he got here, to this awful place, is a story of: Whom do you believe?

Great waves attract surfers are to the sleepy seaside town of San Juan del Sur. And that's what originally drew Volz here two years ago. But he was also starting a magazine, "El Puente," "The Bridge," a serious cultural magazine intended to improve relations between Nicaraguans and Americans.

Then, last November, Doris Jimenez, just 25 years old, is found dead. The murderer apparently strangled her with his own hands in the clothing store she owned here.

By U.S. standards, the police response was casual. The murder draws bystanders, who actually crowd in to look. In just minutes, evidence is critically tainted. The murder of this beautiful young woman was a sensation. Police would quickly charge four men with the crime. One was American Eric Volz. He dated Jimenez. But they had broken up.

Thousands of miles away, in Tennessee, Eric's mother gets the news.

MAGGIE ANTHONY, MOTHER OF ERIC VOLZ: I got a phone call from a man that I had no idea who it was. So, I walked off to the side, and he told me that Eric had been arrested for Doris' murder.

SANCHEZ: For Volz's mother, it was the first step in what she considers the railroading of her son. His alibi rests entirely on this story, that he was two hours away from the victim at the time of the murder. And he provided testimony from witnesses who back him up.

(on camera) Keep in mind, the court record indicates that the murder took place Tuesday at 11:45 a.m., just 15 minutes before noon. Yet there are ten different people who have signed affidavits saying they saw Eric here between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the afternoon right here in his office.

RICARDO CASTILLO, NICARAGUAN JOURNALIST: We were in the same house, room. We had lunch.

SANCHEZ (voice-over): The caretaker on the property says that he, too, saw Eric that morning, and afternoon.

(on camera) You can swear that he was here Tuesday at noon?

CARLOS PEREZ, CARETAKER: (speaking Spanish)

SANCHEZ: He was there in his office, you say. You saw him, he was wearing shorts.

PEREZ: (speaking Spanish)

SANCHEZ: He was wearing shorts at noon? (speaking Spanish)

PEREZ: (speaking Spanish)

SANCHEZ (voice-over): Ten witnesses for him, no authentic forensic evidence against him, and yet Volz had a sense of foreboding.

VOLZ: I'm worried that this is bigger than anybody really understands.

SANCHEZ: His premonition proved correct.

(on camera) With Eric Volz on trial, his life hanging in the balance there in that courtroom, the mob here on the street was getting even more tense. And the message that they seemed to be sending to the judge was clear. We want the gringo convicted.

(voice-over) Outside, the chanting, "Viva Nicaragua" and "death to the gringo."

Inside the courthouse, Volz's lawyers present witnesses to prove he was in his Managua office two hours away at the time of the murder, ten of them.

His defense also provides cell phone records, even this time stamped instant message conversation Eric says he had with a colleague in Atlanta. That's Volz' screen name, EPMagazineEric. She's swapping messages from about 9 a.m. to two in the afternoon, covering the time just before noon when Jimenez was killed. His lawyer is convinced the alibis will win Eric his freedom.

RAMON ROJAS, ERIC VOLZ'S ATTORNEY (through translator): The evidence presented before the district judge coincided in showing his lack of participation and his innocence.

SANCHEZ: Outside, the mob is growing more agitated. Police fire rubber bullets to hold them back.

Leading the mob, Jimenez's mother, Mercedes. Like prosecutors, she believes Eric Volz was obsessed with her daughter and jealous that she was dating others.

(on camera) Tell me what evidence you think there is.


SANCHEZ: So he had a big scratch on the back of his shoulder.


SANCHEZ: Fingernails? (speaking Spanish)


SANCHEZ (voice-over): Volz did have marks on his shoulder at the time of his arrest. This photograph was taken the day after Jimenez's funeral. Volz told police the marks came from carrying her coffin. And, in fact, they do correspond to the correct shoulder.

But the prosecutor tells me she's certain the marks could only have come from fingernails. She also tells me Eric had blood under his fingernails when they arrested him two days after the murder. But she admits they never proved it.

What about witnesses, I ask. Surely somebody in the busy town would have seen Eric if he was there.

(on camera) How's it possible that nobody saw him?

(voice-over) Her answer, no, nobody saw him. Nobody, that is, except this man. He is Nelson Dangla (ph), who testified he saw Eric after the time police believe Doris was murdered.

But he is also tainted. Why? Because he was originally also arrested for Jimenez's murder and, in exchange for testifying against the American, he receives full immunity.

And that is why Eric is so worried as he sits outside the courtroom, waiting for the verdict.

VOLZ: I've been sitting in this room for almost 45 minutes alone. It's a thin wall right here. And that's where the trial is. There's like four police outside my door with machine guns. I'm just about to walk in the courtroom.

SANCHEZ: No one in Eric's family is prepared for what comes next.

This is Volz's mother telling his father the outcome.

ANTHONY: It's a guilty verdict.

SANCHEZ: Eric was found guilty of murdering Doris Jimenez. He was also found guilty of raping her, even though police never concluded that she'd been raped.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison and, if that seems strange after what you've heard, listen to this. Another man was also convicted of the same crime, by the same prosecutor, and the same judge, even though the prosecution never connected him with Eric Volz.

CNN arranged to interview Volz in prison. In fact we got a Nicaraguan court order allowing us access to him. When we arrived, we weren't allowed to see him.

(on camera) We have a signed document that was given to us by the presiding judge in this case, which is supposed to give us permission to go in and interview Eric Volz. But the director of the prison is telling us that he's not going to let us in.

(speaking Spanish)

We've been here now for the better part of five hours. And still they're saying the document's not good enough and that we're not going to be allowed to talk to Mr. Volz.

(voice-over) We don't know why. Perhaps Nicaraguan authorities decided they don't want this story told worldwide. We'll never know. And until his appeal, his parents can only see him in prison.

ANTHONY: Every meal, I think of him and what he's not eating. Every ice cube, every cold glass of anything, he doesn't have.

SANCHEZ: The U.S. embassy in Nicaragua is following the case. So for now, Eric Volz is in prison for 30 years and, despite a formal trial, no one seems certain justice was served.

Rick Sanchez, CNN, Managua, Nicaragua.

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