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A DECENT MAN: The complicated death of Carlos Teo Cruz

Carlos Cruz - lightweight. February 03, 1964.(Photo by Adams/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).
Carlos Teo Cruz, world lightweight champion in 1968, was killed in a tragic flying accident two years later, writes Jose Corpas

ON February 15, 1970, at approximately 6.28pm, Dominicana DC-9 took off from Las Americas Airport en route to Puerto Rico. The twin-engine plane, which had flown in from San Juan a few hours earlier without a hitch, was given the all-clear by the Dominican mechanics. It was the dry season in that part of the tropics and every cloud in the sky was visible from the cockpit. About two minutes later, still in its initial climb, the right engine flamed out. A request for an immediate return to the airport was followed by a hard right. Seconds later, still turning, the plane’s other engine gave out. The plane went into an instant nosedive and plunged into the Caribbean Sea just two miles from the airport. All 102 onboard perished, including the former First Lady of the Dominican Republic and, Carlos Teofilo Cruz, the first boxing champion from the Dominican Republic.

When he boarded the fateful flight, Cruz was only months away from getting a chance to regain the title he had lost on cuts. That he had ever become a champion, one good enough to have beaten quality operators such as Carlos Ortiz and Mando Ramos, was a surprise to all except those closest to him. He was 20 years old when he first slipped his fist into a boxing glove. Two years and 17 amateur contests later, he turned pro and plodded his way to a 7-7 mark. Despite the rocky start, those closest to him saw improvements in his game. They knew that his poor record was a result of poor training facilities, short notice fights and bad hotel rooms. Those conditions were the norm until 1965, when he scored an upset victory over Lancaster’s Frankie Taylor.

A 1960 Olympian, Taylor was poised to make a move on the international scene. With a stoppage win over former super-featherweight titlist, Harold Gomes, and a pair of scintillating victories over Lennie “The Lion” Williams of Wales, Taylor was expected to beat the rugged visitor. Amid talk of a possible title challenge against Howard Winstone and only a few months after appearing alongside Henry Cooper on the cover of the November 6, 1964 issue of Boxing News, Taylor took on Cruz in a super-featherweight match at the Town Hall in London.

Cruz, 129 1/4lbs and built like Marvin Hagler, rose to the occasion that night. With his chin tucked in close to his chest and his guard high and tight, he stalked, boxed out of a crouch, and attacked in a style reminiscent of Marcel Cerdan’s. Cruz outworked his foe to earn the decision. Taylor would fight only twice more before trading in his gloves for a pen and a successful career as a boxing correspondent. Cruz moved up to lightweight where he immediately became a ranked contender. Three years after beating Taylor, Cruz challenged long-time champ Carlos Ortiz for the world championship.

Held in a baseball stadium in Santo Domingo on June 29, 1968, Cruz dropped and then walked Ortiz down over 15 rounds to become the lightweight champion of the world. The crowd, described as enthusiastic, was much smaller than promoter Ulises Frias had hoped for. Political correspondent, Tomas Montas, who was ringside, said it was a “difficult era due to the political situation in the country,” and that “people were afraid to leave their homes.”

More accurately, people were afraid of saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong people. In 1961, President Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. Those behind the killing spent more time plotting the hit than they did on planning the aftermath. The years that followed the assassination saw Trujillo supporters and family members compete ruthlessly with generals and politicians for control. Civilians remained apolitical, afraid their opinions be heard by the ears of the secret police. It took years for the unrest to subside, but most felt it a necessary consequence. “The only way to get rid of him was to kill him,” General Antonio Imbert, one of the gunmen, explained to the BBC in 2011.

The night of May 30, 1961, on a secluded and dark section of the highway that connected Santo Domingo to San Cristobal, a dark Mercury parked in the shadows, the engine on, the lights off. Inside, the occupants clutched their pistols and semiautomatic rifles while scanning the road for the president’s light blue ‘57 Chevy. When Trujillo passed by, the Mercury pulled out, the lights still off. About a kilometre and 60 bullet holes later, under a row of coconut trees, the smell of burnt gunpowder filled the air and the red blood of a dead dictator covered the road.

In his youth in San Cristobal, Trujillo had amassed a rap sheet longer than Cruz’s amateur record. He was a thief, a cattle rustler, a forger and, according to some sources, a rapist. Trujillo later joined the American-controlled Dominican National Guard. His ambition, combined with his work as a double agent, earned him the rank of general in less than 10 years. He seized control of the army after a revolt and shortly after, assumed complete authority of the country. While president, he maintained friendships in Washington D.C. and shared intel about Cuba and other Latin American nations with American politicians. The well-dressed Trujillo, with his meticulously trimmed toothbrush mustache, had friends in Hollywood too, even landing a cameo as an airplane mechanic in the film classic, Casablanca. Over the years, one of his mottos changed from “God and Trujillo” to “Trujillo and God.” He renamed the nation’s capital to Trujillo City, ordered the removal of African drums and rhythms from merengue music, and enlisted his son – aged four – into the army, had a tiny uniform custom made for him and, everyone beneath the rank of general had to salute him since he had officially appointed the little tyke to the rank of colonel. Trujillo would later add murderer to his list of crimes.

He ordered an innumerable amount of deaths, including the massacre of thousands of Haitians living in the republic. Political rivals were kidnapped, tortured and allegedly thrown off a pier into shark-infested waters. Some believe he fed his enemies to the large hogs he kept on his ranch. Keeping vigil over the townsfolk was the Death Mobile – a red Packard driven by trigger-happy disciples that slithered slowly through neighborhood streets. Following a botched assassination attempt on the president of Venezuela in 1960, the United States stopped backing Trujillo. That same year, after three activist sisters named Mirabal were abducted and killed, members of Trujillo’s own military had had enough. “Dammit! There are no real men left in this country,” Imbert proclaimed.

Imbert was behind the wheel of the Mercury that night. About a kilometre after the last streetlight, on the outskirts of the city, shots were fired. Imbert passed the Chevy and cut it off. The chauffeur slammed the brakes. A second car, an Oldsmobile, caught up and opened fire. For about a minute, the night’s darkness was interrupted by the muzzle flash of handguns and semiautomatic weapons. Imbert got out of his car and approached the Chevy. The back door swung open. Trujillo stumbled out, “blood spurting from his back,” and made his last stand. “Trujillo was wounded but still walking, so I shot him again,” Imbert later said.

The 45-calibre bullet landed on his chin.

Trujillo spun halfway around, then fell on his face. He died on the spot. His chauffeur died 38 years later. A few seconds after Trujillo was shot, the chauffeur made a move towards the trunk. He was shot in the head and knocked off his feet, out for a 10-count, but still alive. When he gathered his wits, the assassins and the president’s dead body were gone. All that remained, he said, was the light blue Chevy, the president’s bloodied cap, and “the moon in the sky.”   

A passerby took the wounded chauffeur to the nearest hospital where he identified most of the seven shooters. A distinct handgun left at the scene of the crime helped find the others. A manhunt ensued over the next 72 hours. Five of the shooters were located and killed. The sixth gunman hid in a closet for six months. Imbert made it to a friend’s house, then later stayed at the Italian embassy. His brother was captured, used as a lure, then killed, but Imbert remained in hiding until December.

Cruz was residing in Puerto Rico when Trujillo was killed. He had left behind the inexperienced gyms of the Dominican Republic the year before. Never a boxing hotbed, the best his homeland had produced was probably 1940s middleweight, Carlos Perez. A hard-hitting slugger with a penchant for street fighting, Perez scored his biggest wins in Cuba, where he beat both Kid Charol and the excellent Kid Tunero. Locally, he defeated the slick boxing Antonio Medrano and, on the streets, a slew of neighbourhood toughs. In 1960, in a small café in his hometown, Perez, aged 37, sat down alone for a late-night meal. It was a moment some had been waiting for. A quiet hand turned off the lights. When they went back on, Perez was slumped on the floor with multiple stab wounds in his neck and torso.

Cruz was one of nine children born into a military family only miles from where Trujillo lived. When he was young, the family moved to Santiago, where he got his start in boxing. After three fights in Santo Domingo, he went to Puerto Rico. He lost a decision but found better training facilities and a wife. Though he was losing as often as he won, he was beginning to master his trade. By the time he reached London for his match against Taylor, the Dominican Republic was in a civil war, Imbert was the president, and Cruz had developed into a world-class fighter.

After the civil war ended, Imbert reverted to his post as general. Trujillo loyalists had never given up on their quest for vengeance. Imbert lived in constant threat of retaliation and travelled with armed guards. On March 21, 1967, he was shot in Santo Domingo in an attempted assassination by Trujillo’s supporters. Though he survived, the plots against his life continued.

On February 15, 1970, Cruz was returning to Puerto Rico with his wife, Mildred, and two children after attending his sister’s wedding. Cruz had a fight lined up in France. After that, a title shot awaited. His brother Leo – a future super-bantamweight champion – was weeks away from competing at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Panama. The family had a lot to look forward to.

They said their goodbyes then headed towards the boarding gate. When they were asked to show their identifications, Mildred checked her bags and pockets but did not have it on her. They were not allowed through. His father and brother offered to drive back home and retrieve her ID, though it was unlikely they could make it back in time. Cruz and family were about to miss their flight.

Leo said his brother was polite and humble about the situation. He did not ask for nor expect any special treatment. The family was off to the side, in a huddle, considering their options, lamenting their misfortune, when a different gate inspector noticed them. He approached the first inspector and asked if he was aware who Cruz was. After advising him that Cruz was “our champion,” they extended the family a courtesy and allowed them to board.

Already on the plane were Guarina Tessón Hurtado, Leslie Imbert Tessón and Aída Imbert Barrera – Imbert’s wife, daughter and sister. A few rows back were most of the members of Puerto Rico’s women’s national volleyball team. A total of 97 passengers and five crew members strapped themselves in for lift-off.

Leo and his parents were almost home when they heard the news over the car radio. “The worst day of our lives,” recanted the younger brother. For two days, rescuers searched for bodies. Sharks beat them to a few. The airline suspended all operations while an investigation ensued. Pilot error was ruled out. Engine failure was the cause but, with a relatively new plane, the collective eyebrows of the airline and FAA officials were raised. The crash was classified an accident, but the status report remained inconclusive. Contaminated fuel was the presumed cause, according to news reports. Four of the mechanics who checked the plane prior to takeoff were arrested. Not much else was reported. The people drew their own conclusions. The rumours spread to every corner from La Avenida Maximo Gomez to the Heroes monument in Santiago.

Both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic went into mourning. After champions Carlos Ortiz and Jose Torres, Cruz was one of the more popular boxers in Puerto Rico. Headlining often at the Hiram Bithorn and Sixto Escobar Stadiums, he was considered a local and was eulogised publicly along with the members of the women’s volleyball team. Carlos Ortiz, who was mistakenly thought to be a passenger on the flight, received many calls asking if he was dead. While confirming he was alive, he spoke reverently about Cruz, who he had known for many years. He was a “decent man” and one of the best of the era for many years, he said of his ring rival.

In the Dominican Republic, Cruz was honoured with the symbolic keys to San Cristobal – the city of his birth. He was also enshrined in the country’s sports hall of fame. In 1996, the Coliseo Carlos Teo Cruz opened in Santo Domingo. Commissioned by President Balaguer, who was a vice president during the Trujillo regime, the stadium hosted several boxing matches.

Today, the stadium is empty most days. The parking lot is used by area driving schools and the arena hosts mostly religious and political events. Many seats in the arena are broken or missing and sections of the roof leaks whenever it rains. Efforts to repair the arena – like some investigations – went unfinished.

The rumours that surfaced after the tragedy of 1970 said it was a terrorist attack – a hit on the Imbert family, retribution for a dictator who died on a dark highway like a struck deer. Over the years, the rumors were hushed until they became barely decipherable whispers. Eventually, they faded completely, like the comeback hopes of a talented boxer and decent man.

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