Chuck Rosenthal: So Tough on Crime That a Suspect Goes Free

The DA doesn't make deals. And that's why Jesus Salazar is living the free life in Venezuela while a teenage girl lies dead, stabbed 26 times.

But Felicia Ruiz's parents are fighting to change that.

Despite frosty international relations between the United States and Venezuela and a political minefield of extradition issues, Venezuelan authorities have agreed in principle to send Salazar back to Houston to face murder charges.

The main catch, though, is that Venezuela wants written assurances from Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal that his office will not seek a sentence greater than 30 years in prison for the charge of murder and that Salazar will be prosecuted within ten years of the crime, both of which are in accordance with Venezuelan law.

Lisa Huerta is serving a 30-year sentence.
Lisa Huerta is serving a 30-year sentence.
D.A. Chuck Rosenthal says he won't place a cap on Salazar's possible sentence because that would be rewarding him for fleeing the country.
D.A. Chuck Rosenthal says he won't place a cap on Salazar's possible sentence because that would be rewarding him for fleeing the country.

And Rosenthal does not want to agree to that. Rather than set a precedent of accepting a reduced possible punishment, the Harris County DA would rather sit this one out.

Carrie and Lou Ruiz have 22 months left to change Rosenthal's mind and get Salazar back to a Harris County court. Tick-tock.

According to the U.S. State Department, there have been no successful extraditions between the United States and Venezuela in the last five years. Only two people were extradited from Venezuela to the United States between 1997 and 2001, according to a 2002 report by the U.S. Embassy in Venezuela.

South American and Latin American countries have a history of imposing lighter sentences for crimes than the United States. Several countries, including Venezuela and Mexico, have abolished the death penalty, and much of South America has done away with capital punishment except for special circumstances such as during times of war. Life sentences are also seldom imposed, if ever. Mexico, for instance, defines a life sentence as anywhere from 20 to 40 years in prison.

For nearly the first seven years after their daughter's murder, Carrie and Lou Ruiz wanted desperately to get Salazar back to the United States, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept telling them nothing could be done. Salazar was a Venezuelan national, agents told the family, and Venezuelan law prohibits the extradition of its citizens.

Making matters even stickier, U.S. President George Bush and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have been going at each other for years.

In 2002, Bush supported a short-lived two-day coup against Chavez, and for the past few years they have been battling over the extradition of Luis Posada Carriles.

Carriles escaped from a Venezuelan prison in 1985 while awaiting trial for his involvement in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner, killing 73 people. He then purportedly worked with the Central Intelligence Agency and was linked to an assassination attempt against Cuban leader Fidel Castro in Panama in 2000. In 2005, Carriles illegally sneaked into the United States and was arrested. In April, the 79-year-old was released on bond in Florida. Chavez has demanded that the United States extradite Carriles, calling him an international terrorist akin to Osama Bin Laden, but so far his requests have fallen on deaf ears.

Despite its statements about the near impossibility of extradition from Venezuela, the FBI maintained an informant there who fed it information on Salazar's whereabouts. One report indicated he even had a child, says Carrie Ruiz. But several years ago, the mole got scared of being found out and harmed, so she clammed up and disappeared.

"The FBI kept telling us they were trying to lure Salazar to Aruba or some other foreign country," says Carrie Ruiz, "but nothing ever came of that. Then in 2006, the agent told us he was busy working cases on the 'high seas,' and that he'd lost track of Salazar. I could feel my blood boiling. Then I hung up the phone and called Congressman Gene Green."

FBI spokeswoman Patricia Villafranca says the bureau does not comment on active cases.

Green was immediately sympathetic but understood the challenges that lay ahead. Still, he committed himself to doing all he could.

"The FBI said they'd rather I not do anything," Green recalls, "and I said, 'Well, I've got two parents here and they need to know someone is working for them.' I think everybody needs to think how they'd feel if this was their daughter who was killed this way."

Green began sending letters to Venezuelan Ambassador Bernardo Alvarez Herrera and to Chavez requesting assistance. Alvarez Herrera responded, saying he would try to help if he could.

With the aid of Andy Kahan, director of the Mayor's Crime Victims Office, Carrie and Lou Ruiz and Houston police detectives got a meeting with Alvarez Herrera and forwarded him crime scene pictures of their mutilated daughter. Soon, Venezuelan authorities gave the Ruizes a ray of hope. They told the parents that despite their country's law prohibiting the extradition of its citizens, such matters were up to the discretion of the government and they would in principle agree to send Salazar back to Texas. That is, so long as certain conditions were met, most notably that the prosecutor would not seek a sentence of more than 30 years, the maximum punishment for murder under Venezuelan law.

This offer was again extended to the Ruizes by the Venezuelan Consulate General in Houston as recently as early December, says Carrie Ruiz.

When contacted by the Houston Press, Venezuelan Embassy spokeswoman Marielba Alvarez in Washington, D.C., issued a statement saying that the Venezuelan Embassy "has once again expressed its willingness to support (the Ruiz family) in all it can to see that justice prevails."

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