Man Connected With Americans in Haiti Makes His Case While on the Run
By MARC LACEY and IAN URBINA • New York Times
MEXICO CITY — Jorge Torres — a k a Jorge Puello, a k a the self-described “lawyer” who advised the 10 Americans arrested in Haiti last month — certainly has unusual habits for a man on the run. A fugitive of the modern age, he fires off e-mail messages on the lam, defends himself on Web sites against the charges looming over him and grants media interviews even as law enforcement agencies pursue him.
In a rambling telephone interview on Tuesday from what he said was Panama, but could have been anywhere, Mr. Torres said he was not guilty of anything, pointed reporters and police officers alike to his new Web site and vowed to turn himself in soon to prove he had done nothing wrong.
“All I’m waiting for is for my lawyer to tell me, ‘Surrender,’ ” he said.
The man on the phone clearly had the same voice as the one who once presented himself as the lawyer for the 10 Americans jailed on child abduction charges. But he abruptly disappeared after it emerged that he was not a lawyer at all, and that the authorities in El Salvador were seeking his arrest on charges of sexual trafficking.
Jorge Aníbal Torres Puello appears to be his real name, and Mr. Torres e-mailed copies of identity documents to support that. He acknowledged using numerous aliases over the years, sometimes to leave his criminal past behind him and sometimes for other shadowy reasons.
But even his wife, Ana J. Galvarina Ramírez Orellana, was sometimes confused about his identity.
When they first started dating, she said, she thought his name was Georges Albert Simard Puello. Then, after American authorities unsuccessfully sought to extradite him on suspicions that he was trying to smuggle migrants from Canada to the United States, he informed her that he was actually Jorge Aníbal Torres Puello.
Speaking from a jail cell in El Salvador last week, Ms. Ramírez said her mysterious husband, who had repeated brushes with the law, changed his identity with ease and left her behind in the advanced stages of pregnancy when the police sought the two of them last year in connection with the Salvadoran sex trafficking ring. Ms. Ramírez was jailed on the trafficking charges.
She now suggests that she may soon be divorcing him.
Mr. Torres, 32, said his wife was innocent of any wrongdoing and ought to be released. As for himself, he said he relished the opportunity to clear the air in a courtroom. Until that time, though, he said he had altered his appearance, was traveling on a passport from an unidentified country, frequently changed telephones and moved from safe house to safe house to avoid capture.
Mr. Torres could not fully explain why he became involved in the Americans’ case when he knew arrest warrants were out for him. But even with the obvious risk of exposure, he seemed to delight in the media attention. “I’m in demand,” he said of the many journalists trailing him at the time, not the law enforcement officials now in pursuit.
Eight of the 10 Americans he once advised have returned to the United States. The two others have remained in Haitian custody as the judge in their case investigated them further. On Tuesday, the judge, Bernard Saint-Vil, said he intended to let Laura Silsby, the leader of the group, and her assistant, Charisa Coulter, go as well this week, news agencies reported.
So far, there is no indication that Mr. Torres knew any of the Americans before they were detained by Haitian authorities on Jan. 29. Instead, it appears that on Jan. 31 Mr. Torres called the Idaho church that five of the 10 missionaries attended and, using the name Jorge Puello, offered his legal services pro bono.
Relatives of some of the detainees took him up on his offer, apparently not knowing with whom they were dealing. He ended up receiving tens of thousands of dollars, a small amount of which he said Tuesday he intended to return to the families. “It’s in the bank,” he said. “The problem is, I can’t show up in a bank and say, ‘Here I am.’ ”
Court records and interviews fill in some of the gaps of Mr. Torres’s troubled past.
Born in Yonkers on Oct. 15, 1977, to a Dominican mother, Ana Rita Soledad Puello, and a Puerto Rican father, George Torres, he was raised mostly in Santo Domingo but also lived in South Florida, Philadelphia, Canada, Puerto Rico and El Salvador.
Trained in computer science, he has set up a variety of Web sites over the years, some containing false information, and uses a variety of e-mail addresses. “He reads, writes and speaks four languages,” court records say. “He worked as bartender, car salesman and credit manager.”
It was as Jorge Aníbal Torres that records show he married his first wife, Valerie Sara Ramos Velásquez, in 1995.
Four years later, he was arrested after trying to use a fake driver’s license under the name George Boyd Jr. to withdraw money from a bank account in Philadelphia in which a stolen United States Treasury check for $66,000 had been deposited. Mr. Torres, who pleaded guilty to bank fraud and served a year in prison, said Tuesday he was involved in an elaborate government sting operation at the time.
Around the same time, he was in trouble again after being charged in Miami for possessing documents under a fake name.
Mr. Torres acknowledged his past run-ins with the law but denied that he was a trafficker. When told that one of the e-mail addresses he still uses was included in advertising for what Salvadoran prosecutors call a prostitution Web site, he said he could not explain.
“There’s a lot of things that don’t make sense,” he said. “God is my witness, I have no knowledge.”
At a home raided by Salvadoran authorities last May were an array of passports and identity documents, some of them for Mr. Torres but each with a slightly different identity.
“I don’t even believe him when he says his name,” Augusto Cotto, the deputy director of investigation for the Salvadoran police, said by phone.
Blake Schmidt contributed reporting from Managua, Nicaragua, and Clara Villatoro and Gene Palumbo from San Salvador. Kitty Bennett contributed research.