A man touches a portrait of the late Haitian President Jovenel Moïse outside the Cathedral where a memorial service for him takes place in Cap-Haitien, Haiti, Thursday, July 22, 2021. (AP)

Twists and turns add doubt to Haiti’s assassination investigation

The Haitian president lay dead on the floor, with multiple gunshot wounds. Every drawer was flung open, and papers were scattered as if someone had been searching for something.

“The bedroom had been totally ransacked…documents everywhere,” Mr. Destin said. “There were a lot of witnesses, but they didn’t want to talk.”

Mr. Destin, a judicial officer often tasked with logging evidence at a murder scene, counted dozens of bullet holes and their locations at the presidential residence. He was struck by the chaos of the scene and the thin recollections from the bystanders who described little more than hearing the clatter of gunfire.

Outside, police frantically halted traffic as they searched for Colombian mercenaries they said had been running through the narrow streets of the hillside neighborhood.

Nearly a month after Haiti’s 53-year-old head of state, President Jovenel Moïse, was killed, the circumstances remain just as murky, with no shortage of suspects and speculation—and more new questions than answers. Complicating matters: key investigators, including Mr. Destin, are in hiding, saying they are being threatened and fear for their lives.

Haitian police have implicated more than 40 people in a plot to kill the president of one of the world’s poorest countries, in a conspiracy they say ran from working-class towns in the high Colombian Andes to the Miami suburbs.

But no clear motive or mastermind has emerged in the investigation.

In a jail near the country’s airport are 18 former soldiers from Colombia suspected in the plot; another three are dead after police said gunbattles broke out in the hills of the crowded capital of Port-au-Prince.

The men deny killing the president, and say they were on a lawful drug-enforcement mission and were set up to take the blame. One Colombian suspect in custody told a visiting human-rights lawyer that the president was already dead when he arrived on the scene.

Police have also detained a barely known Florida-based Haitian-born preacher who they say attempted to install himself as Haiti’s interim ruler. Haitian politicians say they have never heard of the man.

Several senior police officers, including Mr. Moïse’s own security chief and members of his detail, have been arrested. No one has yet explained how the attackers so easily entered the residence and carried out the crime.

The following account is based on more than a dozen interviews with legal officials, political advisers, diplomats, judicial officers and lawyers briefed on the investigation, and several currently under arrest, including Jean Laguel Civil, the head of presidential security.

The Wall Street Journal reviewed WhatsApp messages among some of the suspects and audio recorded during a private planning meeting involving the Colombian ex-soldiers. Documents recording testimony given by key witnesses and photos taken during and after the chaotic melée that led to the death of the president were also reviewed.

The information, which includes details that haven’t previously been reported, adds to questions about the official outlines of the investigation.

“I really don’t trust any immediate leads of what we’ve heard so far,” said Georges Fauriol, a Haiti expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank. “The story simply doesn’t add up.”

Haitian officials crucial to the investigation are now in hiding. Callers to Mr. Destin, the crime-scene officer, from blocked numbers have threatened his life and family, he said. Three other clerks and judicial officers on the case said they received the same calls. One colleague, tasked with interviewing suspects, left his lights on one Sunday night, then casually strolled away from his home with his wife, slipping into hiding with pages of handwritten notes from interviews with suspects, which haven’t yet been typed up.

For Haiti, the security failure could deepen chaos in a country where nearly half the population goes hungry, many young people are seeking to flee and violent gangs control swaths of territory and hold sway over elections. The killing has plunged the historically troubled country into its worst crisis since its 2010 earthquake.

Haitian police say publicly they are making progress.

“Whoever was involved in the murder, this person will be brought to justice,” Mr. Moïse’s successor, acting President Ariel Henry, said in a recent interview. “No matter who he is.”

Police have divulged little evidence against the accused and haven’t provided a plausible motive, helping feed doubts about the official story of the Florida preacher’s central role in the assassination. Police have also detained or implicated a Haitian ex-senator, two DEA informants—one a convicted cocaine trafficker—several Miami businessmen and a former security contractor for the U.S. Embassy.

In his last year as president, Mr. Moïse’s country had reached a crisis point. Gangs carried out massacres in politically contested neighborhoods and conducted extortion schemes across the capital, where they now control about a third of the territory, according to the United Nations. Kidnappings have risen, and prominent lawyers, journalists and civil rights activists have been gunned down. Meanwhile, Haitians faced a 23% inflation rate in 2020.

Mr. Moïse had canceled several public contracts he and advisers felt were gouging the cash-strapped Haitian state, creating new enemies. His government said it foiled a coup attempt in February. He and other politicians were accused of involvement with gangs, which he had denied.

Pressure had grown from protesters, opposition lawmakers and international groups for Mr. Moïse to step down or make way for an election.

The Florida preacher

According to police, a plot against him was being formed in Port-au-Prince, Miami and Colombia, involving the little-known Haitian-American preacher in Florida, Christian Emmanuel Sanon.

For years, the 63-year-old pastor, who is being held by police in Port-au-Prince, pitched himself on YouTube and in conference rooms as a man with a plan to eradicate Haiti’s poverty. Efforts to reach Mr. Sanon or his brother for comment weren’t successful. It couldn’t be determined if he has a lawyer.

“We need a new leadership that will change the way of life,” he said in a 2011 YouTube video. By 2015, friends and colleagues said Mr. Sanon began talking about a transitional government for Haiti that would provide security and build prosperity.

He held more than 10 online meetings since 2020 with Parnell Duverger, a retired economics professor at Broward College in Fort Lauderdale. Together, they envisioned an $83 billion economic development plan for Haiti that Mr. Duverger developed, involving roads, hydroelectric power plants and waste removal infrastructure, according to a presentation of the plan, called “A Marshall Plan for Haiti,” reviewed by the Journal.

In May, Mr. Sanon showed it to a small group gathered at a Fort Lauderdale conference room, Mr. Duverger said in an interview. Present were Venezuelan émigré Antonio Intriago, the head of Miami-area security company CTU Security, and Ecuador-born Walter Veintemilla, president of Florida-based Worldwide Capital Lending Group, Mr. Duverger said.

Alleged funds for effort

Haitian authorities allege that CTU hired the Colombian ex-soldiers who are now in custody, while Mr. Veintemilla’s loan company provided the funds for the operation. The FBI has since raided properties owned by the two men in southern Florida, including Mr. Veintemilla’s home in Weston, as part of the investigation into the assassination. The men haven’t been arrested.

“Our client is innocent and is working to clear his name,” a lawyer for Mr. Intriago said. In a statement, Worldwide Capital, Mr. Veintemilla’s company, said Mr. Sanon approached the firm to provide financing for infrastructure projects and that it had assisted in providing a loan of unspecified size to CTU to fund those efforts. It said there was no discussion of an assassination plot or of using violence to bring about change in Haiti’s leadership.

Mr. Duverger said Mr. Sanon wanted to become prime minister one day, but there was no discussion at the meetings about forcing an unconstitutional overthrow of political leadership in Haiti. Mr. Duverger said he can’t fathom that Mr. Sanon was the mastermind of the assassination plot.

Haitian officials said that when they raided Mr. Sanon’s hotel room in Port-au-Prince, they found a cache of automatic weapons.

Those who knew the preacher said he was averse to guns, according to Steven Bross, a 65-year-old airline pilot who was Mr. Sanon’s neighbor in the 2000s in Brandon, Fla. “He’s a godly man and thinks everybody else should be too,” he said.

Mr. Sanon’s main source of income appeared to be an MRI machine he owned in Haiti, Mr. Bross said. In 2013, Mr. Sanon filed for bankruptcy in Florida, according to state records, and his home went into foreclosure.

“He could be considered quite naive, he has no street smarts,” Mr. Bross said. “I could see him being taken advantage of…. [Whoever is responsible] set him up big time.”

Laurent Lamothe, a former prime minister and close ally of Mr. Moïse, said Mr. Sanon was a “smoke screen,” distracting the officials from finding the real mastermind.

“There is no way he could have financed an operation like that,” said Mr. Lamothe, who had never heard of Mr. Sanon before the killing.

Recruiting Colombian ex-soldiers

In Colombia, meanwhile, Duberney Capador, a 40-year-old ex-soldier, was recruiting veterans of the country’s long guerrilla conflict with two other former servicemen. Hired by CTU, Mr. Intriago’s Miami-area security company, Mr. Capador used a WhatsApp group to invite candidates for what he said would be a 400-man platoon on a five-year contract with an unnamed U.S.-based company to protect the political elite of a Central American country.

The job would pay about $3,000 a month, he said, according to the WhatsApp messages. Nearly 300 veterans swiftly signed up.

Mr. Capador took the job to raise money for his mother’s farm, his sister, Jenny Capador, said. The two had been in contact regularly after he reached Haiti on May 11, she said. “I can assure you that my brother is innocent,” she said.

On June 9, 100 applicants were invited to join a smaller WhatsApp group called “First Flight.” They were the lucky few who had made the cut, Mr. Capador wrote on WhatsApp.: “If you’re not on this list, go cry about it.”

The company had the support of the U.S. State Department, the former servicemen were told. The mission was vaguely defined, with no mention of Haiti or any plot to assassinate or overthrow a president, according to WhatsApp messages reviewed by the Journal.

It would involve threadbare accommodations and “urban combat,” Mr. Capador texted.

Anyone who didn’t feel up for the task should leave the group chat, he wrote. And to those who stayed, he added: “Welcome, gentleman, to this small but selective group.”

A State Department spokeswoman said reports that the ex-soldiers were acting on behalf of the U.S. government, whether the State Department, FBI or DEA, were false. The U.S. has dispatched FBI agents and other officers to Haiti to assist in the investigation.

“None of it makes any sense,” said Miguel Pinto, who leads a retired soldiers’ association that has been working with the families of the Colombian ex-soldiers to repatriate the bodies of those who died in Haiti and to ascertain the fate of those now in detention. “If a retired soldier wants to make money committing crimes, you don’t have to leave Colombia for that,” he said.

Days waiting by the pool

At least 24 of the men entered Haiti, mostly in early June, crossing the border from the Dominican Republic. Some spent their free time while they waited for details of their assignment at a house with a pool in Port-au-Prince, according to relatives who joined them on video chats. The ex-soldiers spent much of their days cooking.

At least two Haitians were part of the group, serving as translators, among other roles.

There was no whiff of trouble, said Luz Caceres, sister of Neil Caceres, who is in custody in Port-au-Prince. “We would say, ‘How are you, brother?’ He would say, ‘super good.’ “

The men were told their leader would be a fellow Colombian veteran Germán Alejandro Rivera, whose nickname was Col. Mike.

“Sirs, important info,” a Colombian ex-soldier, Gersain Mendivelso, wrote them over WhatsApp. “You are going to provide security for the president of this country, so for obvious reasons you have to be at your best.”

They needed to send their sizes for pants, shirts and boots, he added, “in order to prepare as soon as possible.” As for the weaponry, he told his comrades, “Don’t worry, it’s all American.”

On June 22, the men were taken to meet Mr. Intriago. His company, CTU, had long partnered with the U.S. Justice Department to help bring international criminals to justice, he told the room, according to audio recorded by one of the former soldiers and reviewed by the Journal. It had conducted far-flung operations from Iraq to Brazil to Peru, Mr. Intriago said. Mr. Sanon was present at the gathering, according to the audio.

The company was going to break two centuries of poverty in Haiti, Mr. Intriago continued, showing two videos of clean energy projects purportedly planned for Haiti. Each one of those projects, Mr. Intriago told the former soldiers, held promise for security contracts. “Those investors will not be here without security,” he said.

Supporting the project was Mr. Veintemilla’s Worldwide Capital, which Mr. Intriago said was a conglomerate of 200 companies, including his own.

Haiti, he reminded his South American audience, had helped Simón Bolívar liberate Colombia from Spain; now it was time for them to return the favor. “Here we are not Colombians. We are Haitians,” he said. “If you agree, let’s have a Hooah!”

All together, the Colombians cheered the battle cry: “Hooah!”

A mission to fight crime

A couple of weeks earlier, Reynaldo Corvington, the founder of what bills itself as Haiti’s largest security company, received a visit from Joseph Badio, a former official from the Haitian anticorruption agency, according to Mr. Corvington’s lawyer, Samuel Madistin.

Now in his 80s, Mr. Corvington had provided security for the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince during the 1990s, according to federal records.

Mr. Badio arrived with a small entourage that included Mr. Intriago; an opposition lawmaker, former Sen. John Joseph Joel; a convicted drug trafficker and ex-DEA informant, Rodolphe Jaar; another, occasional, DEA informant, Vincent Joseph; and the Colombian veteran nicknamed Col. Mike.

Mr. Joseph said he was working for the FBI on a State Department-backed mission to arrest 34 government officials for a host of crimes, including money laundering, corruption, drug trafficking and the sale of diplomatic passports in the Middle East, according to the lawyer, who added the men wanted Mr. Corvington’s advice on how Haitian people would react.

The men declined to share the names of those to be arrested, according to the lawyer. He said Mr. Corvington didn’t take them seriously, and the meeting ended without any subsequent contact.

Mr. Corvington and Mr. Joseph have since been arrested. Haitian police have also issued arrest warrants for Messrs. Badio, Joel and Jaar, who are at large and couldn’t be located.

The assassination unfolds

On the night of the killing, a small drone appeared hovering over the president’s home, according to Philogene Charles, an unemployed mother living in the hilltop neighborhood where the poor and wealthy live side-by-side.

She said she at first thought the commotion outside was coming from soccer fans, until she heard gunshots and a loud bang coming from Mr. Moïse’s estate.

“We thought the gang wars were finally coming to our area,” said Ms. Charles, who had hoped living next to the president would offer some security.

Five to seven Colombian men arrived first and quickly entered the building, according to neighbors and Colombian police, who have assisted the Haitians in the investigation. Gunfire and at least one explosion erupted.

From inside, the president at 1:34 a.m. dialed Jean Laguel Civil, the coordinator for presidential security, who said he jolted awake. “Your excellency, what’s happening?” Mr. Civil said he asked, in an interview.

“Send reinforcements,” he said Mr. Moïse asked. “Come, save me.”

Mr. Civil said he spent the next half-hour calling for reinforcements.

Around the home’s steep driveway and its blue metal gate, three different police units were assigned to guard the premises, each with their own commander. The head of the largest unit, Dimitri Herard, was off duty that night but immediately answered a call from Mr. Civil: “I’m on my way,” Mr. Herard replied, according to court testimony seen by the Journal and confirmed with Mr. Herard’s father. Mr. Herard, who is now in custody, said in an interview that he is innocent and feared he would be killed in jail.

Next, Mr. Civil said, he called the commanding officer present that night. “He never answered,” said Mr. Civil, who got in his pickup and began driving to the house himself.

On the gravel road outside the president’s home, a second group of Colombians arrived. A Haitian-American member of the group shouted through a loudspeaker, in English: “Get back, get back…This is a DEA operation.”

“There is no need to panic,” the man added in Haitian Creole, according to videos and neighbors.

At least three pickups full of police had arrived, as had Mr. Civil, the security coordinator, who said he was late on the scene because he didn’t want to show up by himself. Driving around a corner, he said he found about 20 Colombians in matching brown boots, several aiming assault rifles at him. He reversed and backed away.

Police began blockading the nearby roads with trucks and sent a small team on foot to make sense of the chaos inside the home, where first lady Martine Moïse had survived after being injured in the attack. Ms. Moïse declined to comment for this article. At her husband’s funeral, she said traitors had betrayed him because he wanted to change a corrupt system.

The Colombians were trapped by the roadblocks and began to scatter. Breaking into a nearby home for cover, Mr. Joseph, the former informant, called “someone in Washington” for advice, he told the human-rights lawyer who visited the men in custody.

A DEA spokesperson said that an agency official received a call sometime after the assassination from an individual who was at times a confidential source to the agency. “A DEA official assigned to Haiti urged the suspect to surrender to local authorities and, along with U.S. State Department officials, provided information to the Haitian government that assisted in the surrender and arrest of the suspect and one other individual,” the spokesperson said.

A gunbattle broke out in the neighborhood. Mr. Capador, the Colombian ex-soldier who had recruited his compatriots, texted his sister. His mission had gotten complicated, he wrote, and they had “arrived too late” to accomplish it. Now, he added, he was in a home facing oncoming bullets, according to WhatsApp messages.

By the time the shooting ended, Mr. Capador was dead, found shirtless with more than a dozen bullet wounds.

Eleven of the former soldiers later sought to hide in the Taiwanese embassy. Sheltered inside, one of the men sent WhatsApp messages to his wife: “They want to pass off the death of that man as if we were the ones that had done it,” he said. “They already had all of their intentions,” he said, adding “and they fooled us.”

The ambassador gave the police permission to enter and arrest them.

Two other men were found hiding in a nearby neighborhood and apprehended by residents who beat them and turned them into police, videos of the event showed. Reunited in a police cell, the men were packed together, some of them shirtless and bloodied, others in dirt-stained tees, all of them handcuffed, according to the human-rights lawyer who visited them.

By then, Mr. Destin, the judicial officer, had made it into the presidential house to record the scene. Within days, threatening calls from blocked numbers began, he said: “My life is in danger.”

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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