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Through imprisoned Tacoma man, Eric Volz relives his hell

Since the arrest and imprisonment of Jason Puracal, a U.S. citizen who was living in Nicaragua, Eric Volz has tried to keep his involvement in the fight to free him a secret. Until now.

You have to understand that Volz had once sat in the very
prison in which Puracal now resides: La Modelo, it’s
called, “the model” penitentiary. No one knew better than
he the danger Puracal was in.

La Modelo, a dilapidated building on the outskirts of
Managua, sits among a small banana plantation at the end
of a dusty street, which is lined with chicken coops and
poorly constructed huts of brick and mortar. “Bienvenidos”
or “Welcome,” reads a rusted sign at the gated entrance,
which on this particular Sunday was guarded by a single
officer.

Stern shouts are heard in the distance, in the direction
of the prison yard, but are muffled by the hot, humid air.
In the other direction, back toward the city, you hear the
faint sound of music and celebration as annual Patron
Saint festivities come to life.

The sounds seem to clash at the gate; a reminder of both
the vibrant world Volz and Puracal had sought with so much enthusiasm to be a part of, and the dark part of that world which trapped them in.

A mysterious man

On the 23rd floor of a building in downtown Seattle, in
mid-July 2011, a young man sat quietly in the corner of a
boardroom.

He was the only one who didn’t introduce himself as I
walked in. He had found the only place in the room that
was cast in shadow, escaping the flood of light that
entered through the large, bright windows.

Also in the room that day were Janis and Jaime Puracal,
the younger sisters of Jason Puracal, whom I had met
before. I sat next to Fabbrith Gomez, a sharply-dressed
Nicaraguan attorney whose presence was the reason for my
visit. He had taken Puracal on as a client, and I had been
invited to interview him at length, through a translator,
about the approaching trial.

“Do they hate you?” I asked Gomez of Nicaraguan officials,
who had come to know him as the young man who defended the
“gringos” and fought hard to free those who he believed
were wrongly accused.

He laughed at the question, which was the last of our
interview.

As I stood up to shake hands with those in the boardroom,
I was approached by the young man who had watched from the
corner.

“I’m Eric Volz,” he said, and handed me a business card.

We would speak many times after that day, and I would come
to understand the extent of his involvement in the Puracal
case, and the secrecy behind it.

‘Gringo nightmare’

“American freed in Nicaragua goes into hiding,” was the
headline on CNN Dec. 22, 2007.

A day earlier, Eric Volz had been freed by a Nicaraguan
judge after an appellate court overturned his conviction
and 30-year sentence in the gruesome rape and murder of
his former Nicaraguan girlfriend.

The judge, the same one who had convicted him, had for
days refused to sign release papers (a step required in
the Nicaraguan judicial system), which meant Volz would be
sent back to La Modelo, despite his exoneration.

It took demands from Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice to finally free him.

“The court has spoken,” she said.

A media caravan followed Volz and his mother to the
airport in Managua, where he immediately left the country,
headed for an undisclosed location to escape threats
against his life.

Angry mobs were a fixture outside of his trial, often
calling on authorities to bring the “gringo” outside to be
killed. The Sandinista government had turned public
opinion against him.

Volz, a California-native who was raised in Nashville, Tenn., moved to Nicaragua in 2004 and met Doris Ivania Jimenez while living in San Juan del Sur, a quaint seaside
village. The beautiful Nicaraguan owned a dress shop in
town and the two dated for a year.

But the relationship ended mutually when Volz sought ventures elsewhere. A college graduate who majored in Latin American studies at the University of California in San Diego, Volz had started a bi-lingual magazine called El Puente, or The Bridge. It focused on sustainable development, eco-tourism, and bridging the gap between foreign and local culture. When the publication began to take-off, Volz moved to the bustling capital city of Managua.

It was in his office in Managua, on Nov. 21, 2006,
that Volz said he heard the news of Jimenez’s murder. She
had been raped, sodomized, strangled, and was found dead
on the floor of her boutique.

Ten witnesses put Volz in Managua, a two-hour drive from
San Juan del Sur, at the time of the murder. Phone records
showed he was in a conference call at El Puente
headquarters at the time of death. His alibi was
airtight. But nonetheless, after Volz raced to the scene
later that evening, he became a suspect.

Some say it was “anti-gringo,” or “anti-American”
sentiment that eventually led to Volz’s conviction in
Feb. 2007; and there was plenty of it. Nicaraguans
didn’t want him to go to trial, they wanted him dead.
Some still do.

Reliving his hell

Eric Volz is no longer hiding.

Now 32, Volz lives in Los Angeles, where he is managing
director of the David House Agency, an organization that
helps Americans facing wrongful detainment and other
legal and political situations abroad.

They are cases that the agency calls “international show
trials,” due to overwhelming media attention and resulting
political pressure.

Volz and the agency advised the family of Amanda Knox, a
Seattle-native who was convicted, then exonerated of
murdering her British roommate in Perugia, Italy, and also
helped to provide the momentum needed to overturn a death
sentence for Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a 28-year-old former
U.S. Marine suspected of espionage in Iran.

It was from a tourist in Central America that Volz first
heard of the arrest of another American abroad: Jason
Puracal. The native of Tacoma, Wash., and former Peace
Corps volunteer had been arrested in Nicaragua.

Puracal, 35, was taken into custody by Nicaraguan National
Police in San Juan del Sur on Nov. 11, 2010 on charges
of drug trafficking and money laundering. Authorities
there claim he laundered drug money through his RE/MAX
real estate office. He was convicted the following August
and sentenced to 22 years in prison.

He has maintained his innocence.

Volz knew he had to hide his involvement in the case from
officials in Nicaragua, many of whom still believe he got
away with murder.

“We really were hoping that the court system would do what
was right and weigh the evidence objectively,” Volz said.
“We didn’t want Jason’s case to become public. We didn’t
want it to become political…and distract from what’s
important here: Jason Puracal is an innocent man.”

The similarities to his own case, Volz said, are
“haunting.”

“No one in the world can understand as well as myself what
Jason Puracal is feeling,” he said. “I think that’s one of
the things that gives me a lot of motivation to fight for
him.”

The decision to go public with his involvement “took a
long time to make,” Volz said. But the case has now turned
into one of those “international show trials,” and the
attention can only help.

“I think the Nicaraguan government realizes they’re not
going to be able to keep this lie hidden much longer,”
Volz said.

Puracal now sits in La Modelo prison. Had Volz not been
released, they would be there together, at the end of that
dusty road lined with chicken coops. Come August, they
would hear the faint sound of Patron Saint celebrations
coming from the city, beyond the gate. They would be
reminded of that vibrant world they were once a part of,
and curse the dark part of that world which trapped them.

“I can become overwhelmed with the emotion and the fear
that I have for him,” Volz said. “I know exactly what he
is going through and it’s horrifying.”

Eric Volz is author of Gringo Nightmare: A Young
American Framed for Murder in Nicaragua.

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