Saturday, October 10, 2009

38 years later, Hill still struggles with demons

By DeWayne Wickham

HAVANA — By his own admission, Charles Hill is a skyjacker. Prosecutors in New Mexico say he's a cold-blooded killer, too. They want to try the one-time member of the Republic of New Afrika, a Mississippi-based black separatist group, for the November 1971 killing of a state trooper.

Hill arrived in Cuba 38 years ago aboard a TWA flight that he and two other black activists allegedly commandeered at gunpoint from the Albuquerque, N.M., airport 19 days after prosecutors say one of them shot trooper Robert Rosenbloom on an isolated stretch of New Mexico highway.

Back then, Hill and his companions, Ralph Goodwin and Michael Finney, were foot soldiers in a movement that advocated the creation of a black nation — by ballot or bullet — in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina. The car they were in that night had a cache of high-powered weapons and dynamite in the trunk.

"I regret that a life was lost, but it had to be that way," Hill told me. "He drew his gun and he was going to kill us."

That's Hill's version of what happened — one that New Mexico prosecutors would no doubt love to challenge in a U.S. courtroom.

In the years since his flight to Cuba, Hill has been a "fixer" for Americans who come to Havana. Fluent in Spanish, he prowls hotels looking for people from the States who need help navigating their way through Cuban society. He knows all the best restaurants and bars. He knows the best places to buy cigars, to rent a car or to satisfy a visitor's offbeat requests.

When a New York lawyer in the hotel where I was staying told Hill she wanted a reading from a Babaloo, a high priest of the Santeria religion that is widely practiced among black Cubans, he arranged it in a couple of hours. This is how Hill makes a living. The money he earns gives him a standard of living higher than that of most Cubans. But his life in Cuba is no paradise.

Hill is a tormented man — tormented, I believe, by what happened on that lonely stretch of New Mexico highway 38 years ago. He doesn't say as much, but it doesn't take a psychiatrist to figure out he has demons.

"I'm a part-time alcoholic," he told me when he showed up in a drunken stupor an hour late for a meeting with me. "I'll be drunk for a week and then sober for three or four months."

During my talks with him over the past two years, Hill's alcohol binges always followed talk of Rosenbloom's killing. But when I asked Hill if there was a link between the shooting and his bouts of heavy drinking, he denied it.

"I started drinking because of me," Hill said, slurring his speech and pursing his lips as if to punctuate his words.

I don't buy it.

Hill yearns for the life he left behind. Whenever someone from the U.S. visits Cuba, Hill asks for any newspapers, magazines, movies or music CDs they might have brought with them. Every day, he gets up around 5 a.m. to listen to American radio broadcasts that overcome Cuba's efforts to block radio signals from the U.S.

Hill yearns to return to a place he knows he can't go. He would likely spend the rest of his life in prison if he ever goes back to the U.S.

Hill says he won't do that willingly — and doesn't believe the Cuban government would force him to return.

So he spends his days here in limbo, haunted by the memory of the crime that bought him to Cuba and the knowledge that he can never go home.

No comments: