If famed Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was assassinated in his hospital bed 40 years ago, as prosecutors in Santiago now suspect, the killer was almost certainly not Michael Townley, the US-born operative named in widespread news reports.
Townley, who would later become a Chilean secret police agent, was in Miami at the time, according to John Dinges, a former Washington Post foreign news editor who coauthored an investigative book on a political murder that Townley was indeed involved in, "Assassination on Embassy Row."
Dinges has a photocopy of Townley's U.S. passport, which the operative was issued under the name of Kenneth Enyart on Oct 7, 1973, two weeks after Neruda's death. "It was a stolen identity," Dinges said.
"Neruda died on Sept. 23, 1973. Townley was in Miami between Apr. 2 and the third week of October, 1973," Dinges said in a telephone interview, citing stamps in the passport.
"He was not in Chile at the time he supposedly participated in this murder. So it's highly unlikely that time he had anything to do with it."
Chilean prosecutors and a family lawyer now think Neruda, an ardent communist, was poisoned to death on the orders of military officials who had overthrown the elected government of Neruda's friend and ally, Dr. Salvador Allende, only 12 days earlier.
A doctor who had previously testified that he was at Neruda's bedside when he died from cancer "has changed his story," the London Independent reported
over the weekend.
"Dr Sergio Draper now claims a doctor called Price was with Neruda. There is no record of a Doctor Price in any of the hospital's records and Draper said he never saw the man again after leaving him with Neruda," The Independent's Nick Clark reported.
The mystery doctor gave Neruda an injection, Draper says.
"The prosecutor believes that whoever the man was, 'the important fact is that this was the person who ordered the injection' that may have killed Neruda."
Draper described the mystery doctor as "tall and blond with blue eyes," Clark reported, which "matches Michael Townley, a CIA double agent who worked with the Chilean secret police under Pinochet."
But Townley is not blond, said Dinges, a tenured professor at the Columbia University School journalism school. His hair is light brown, at best, Dinges said.
The misunderstanding arises from an English translation of the Spanish word for blond, "rubio." Chileans, who have very dark or black hair, commonly use "rubio" to describe anyone with hair lighter than their own, Dinges said.
Townley was an assassin, though. He spent five years in a U.S. prison after confessing to his role in and implicating Chilean secret police agents in the 1976 assassination of a prominent Chilean exile, Orlando Letelier, in Washington, DC. He was then released into the US witness protection program. He is believed to be living in Florida.
The widespread description of Townley as a "CIA double agent" is also wrong, according to Dinges and other experts on the Chilean military regime.
It's a conspiracy theory peddled by both leftists and right-wing Pinochet sympathizers in Chile, Dinges said.
Manuel Contreras, the Chilean secret police chief during the regime's murderous reign, uses it to deflect responsibility for his global assassination missions.
Contreras may even have picked the US-born Townley, the son of a Ford Motor Company in Chile, "as a built-in alibi so he could say these assassinations weren't done by a Chilean agent, this was an American CIA agent," Dinges said.
The CIA is a favorite whipping post for Chile's left, too.
"The left in Chile has jumped on pretty much the same thing," Dinges said, "blaming things on Townley where he's really not connected, and without checking evidence on whether ... he was even in the country."
Townley, who was involved with the right wing extremist group "Fatherland and Liberty" during the Allende era, left Chile in April 1973 with the police in pursuit of him for questioning in a murder investigation, Dinges said. "He was on a watch list so wouldn't have returned" until after Allende was violently replaced by a right wing military regime.
He returned about 10 days after Neruda died.
"This was two weeks after the coup. The military was just getting their act together. DINA (acronym for the new National Intelligence Directorate) wasn't up and running yet," Dinges said.
"Assuming for the moment the military did it, they really would have had to put this together on the fly. The regime really didn't have an assassination apparatus in place" when Neruda died, Dinges said. "They were killing people in the streets and dumping their bodies in rivers, but their intelligence apparatus was very primitive."