Thursday, May 17, 2007

Justice, Politics, Paradise

A new article on the wrongful conviction of Eric Volz appears in the City Lights section of the San Diego Reader. Entitled Justice, Politics, Paradise and written by Joe Deegan, the article offers background information and an overview of the case.

Justice, Politics, Paradise:

In February, a Nicaraguan court convicted former UCSD student Eric Volz of murdering a beautiful young Nicaragüense he had previously lived with. She was found dead early on an afternoon last November, strangled and hog-tied on a dress- shop floor in the village of San Juan del Sur. The court sentenced Volz to 30 years in prison. "I saw the trial on tape," says Kensington videographer Kevin Carpenter, "and my only reactions were shock and disbelief."

Carpenter and Volz met in a 2002 telemedia class at Southwestern College. "I was about seven years older than most kids in the class, who didn't seem to know what they wanted to do yet in life," Carpenter tells me. "Since I already had video experience, I would try to help the more serious students. And Eric was one of them. You could see that he knew exactly what he wanted to do. He had gone to Central America once already to work on a surfing documentary. He was always a self-confident person, and a lot of ambition showed clearly in his personality."

The two became friends and started spending time together outside of class. After Volz went to Nicaragua in 2005, they talked several times by phone. "Eric had a World Phone," says Carpenter. "Or it may have been Skype, a voice-over-Internet protocol that allows you to avoid telephone charges."

Aisha Carabello met Volz in 2004 when they were students together at UCSD. Volz was majoring in Latin American cultural studies, while Carabello studied education. Today she lives in the Bay Area, where she is a preschool teacher.

"I liked Eric right away," Carabello tells me by phone from Berkeley, "and since I was looking for a roommate at the time, I invited him to move in as soon as a friend introduced him to me. That was in November. Then, when he announced he was leaving for the Dominican Republic in early 2005, I was very disappointed. We were not romantically involved, but he had become one of my best friends even though he had only lived at my place for a little more than two months. Now he wanted to surf in the Caribbean. And he loved to travel." Volz stayed briefly in the Dominican Republic before moving on to Costa Rica and finally to the small Nicaraguan coastal village of San Juan del Sur, famous in the surfing community for its fine waves. Carabello says she stayed in monthly contact with Volz by phone.

Moving on so abruptly is characteristic of Volz, according to Carabello. It helps to explain a few things, she says, that have intrigued watchers of Volz's case in Nicaragua. Shortly after his arrival in the country, Volz started dating Doris Jiménez, who worked as a waitress in one of the village's restaurants. Soon they moved in together, and Volz helped Jiménez with a business plan to start up a small dress shop. Meanwhile, Volz worked as a Century 21 real estate agent and earned enough money to start a business that fit his interests. He was successful in getting a little magazine called El Puente (the Bridge) off the ground. The magazine is devoted to promoting "smart growth and ecotourism" in Central America.

A Century 21 Web advertisement, El Puente's Web homepage, and recent Nicaraguan history suggest that Volz had entered turbulent waters. "Imagine if you could have bought beachfront property with stunning ocean views in Malibu or San Diego 100 years ago at amazingly low prices," reads the Century 21 ad. "Come see for yourself why Nicaragua is one of the most beautiful and safest countries in the world."

On El Puente's homepage we find the following: "Growth also brings to mind the region's rising tourism and development, which are two timely issues we keep an eye on. Much of our content deals with the socio-economic effects of tourism and development on contemporary society in Central America. From the explosion of surf culture to the anxiety experienced in small coastal towns because of the oncoming waves of foreigners, construction, and the almighty dollar. Society is reacting and evolving."

And less than a month before Jiménez's murder, the Sandinista party's Daniel Ortega was reelected as Nicaragua's president after 16 years out of office. Ortega was the Marxist firebrand who provoked the ire of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, leading him to support a terrorist opposition movement in the now-infamous Iran-Contra fiasco.

In the summer of 2006, Volz left San Juan del Sur to set up offices for his magazine in Managua, Nicaragua's capital. At the same time, Volz has told reporters and the Nicaraguan court, he and Jiménez agreed to split up and go their own ways after a relationship of one year. They remained friends, said Volz. But Jiménez would stay to operate her dress shop in San Juan, where she met a new Nicaraguan boyfriend. At the time on November 21 that Jiménez was killed in her shop, El Puente staff members say that Volz was working in their magazine offices in Managua, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from San Juan.

In the weeks following Jiménez's death, the Nicaraguan press, especially the left-leaning newspaper El Nuevo Diario, characterized Volz as the jealous boyfriend. Jiménez's mother and a close girlfriend testified in court that the victim had told them of Volz's jealousy and that shortly before her death someone had been following her.

MSNBC's Keith Morrison claims Volz reported that while he lived in San Juan, villagers had been resentful toward Jiménez. "There were a lot of people," Morrison quotes Volz as saying, "that were envious of the fact that she was dating me." When the reporter asked further whether Jiménez wanted to continue their relationship and move to Managua with the American, Volz said, "She wasn't invited."

Both comments fueled speculation that Volz gives off an arrogance that might have rubbed Nicaraguans wrong. Former roommate Carabello understands the perceptions. But she thinks the comments have to be understood in the context of great emotion. "Eric does have a kind of cockiness," she says. "He and I used to joke about it, how some people seemed to comment on his being cocky." But Carabello describes Volz as a "carefree, free spirit, kind and gentle. And he is not the jealous type at all. At the time I got to know him he was just coming out of a relationship. I detected no traces of jealousy in him."

The Nicaraguan court that eventually convicted Volz did not allow Volz's alibi to be entered as legal testimony. In contrast to the case against him, that alibi seems incontrovertible.
Click here to read the balance of Justice, Politics, Paradise.

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