Puzzling questions about Cuban Embassy attack

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Six months after Alexander Alazo attacked the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., some details about the incident remain secret.
A State Department Special Agent and a State Department Joint Terrorism Task Force officer interviewed Alazo after he stopped in front of the embassy on April 30 and blazed away with an AK-47, firing 32 rounds into the building.
During a preliminary hearing in U.S. District Court, James Grebas, a patrol sergeant with the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division, described what Alazo told the State Department agents. The defendant’s lawyer, Tony Miles, objected, calling it a “private matter” and asking that Grebas’ statement about the interview be sealed. U.S. Magistrate Judge G. Michael Harvey agreed.
A transcript of the May 14 hearing also showed that Alazo claimed “Cuban intelligence was after him.” I hadn’t seen that detail before. A May 3 court document asking that Alazo be detained pending trial says nothing about Cuban intelligence. It says that Alazo claimed Cuban organized crime members wanted to hurt him and his family.
I wonder what the lawyers are hiding. My first reaction was that maybe they want to shield information about Alazo’s mental health, but many details about that were already disclosed in the May 3 document. So why censor information about Alazo’s interview with State Department agents? Is there some intelligence-related issue or is something else going on? Court documents don’t have the answer.
I can only wonder. Did Alazo have a personal dispute with someone at the Cuban Embassy? Was he upset over some issue involving a visa or his family? Was he suicidal and wanted someone at the Cuban Embassy to shoot him? Did he claim to be acting on behalf of someone else? Did he make references to President Trump?
Adding some intrigue to the case, the U.S. Attorney’s Office on Oct. 20 asked U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson to sign “an interim protective order governing the pretrial production of certain sensitive materials… Specifically, the government seeks to limit the viewing of certain materials that identify personal identifying information belonging to one or more individuals, records that may contain law enforcement sensitive information, and other information that may concern security measures and protocols employed by the United States Secret Service and other government agencies to protect U.S. and foreign officials and facilities, including protective intelligence investigative measures.” See document.
U.S. authorities in July announced that Alazo had been indicted. See indictment. If convicted, Alazo faces a mandatory sentence of at least 10 years in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
Below are excerpts of Sgt. Grebas’ testimony during the preliminary hearing. Alazo’s lawyer, Miles, a public defender, questioned him first.
Q. Sergeant Grebas, how did law enforcement become aware of the shooting at the Embassy of Cuba?
A. The District of Columbia has a ShotSpotter system that notified their Central Command system that sounds similar to that of — or was a gunshot had happened in that area, and there were dispatched units there, Metropolitan Police.
Q. Were there also any 911 calls that came in about a shooting?
A. Yes, sir. That is correct.
Q. Can you please tell the Court and parties, what is ShotSpotter, in a summary fashion?
A. ShotSpotter is a system that measures like acoustical sounds against similar to gunshots. It then coordinates a general area or vicinity of where the shot may have taken place, and then it sends an alert to a system. Then units are dispatched to that area to investigate the report of the shot.
Q. Are you aware of a ShotSpotter report prepared regarding the shooting occurring on April 30, 2020, at around 2 a.m.?
A. Yes, sir, I am.
Q. In a summary form, and particularly referring to the second to last page of the document, can you tell us the conclusions reached by the ShotSpotter analysts?
A. Yes, sir. Part of the conclusion of the report, it concluded that there was multiple gunshots reported at that incident and that approximately 32 rounds had been fired.
Q. Without naming all of the evidence in the case, could you describe what firearms were recovered?
A. Yes, sir. There was a black-and-brown in color Century Arms Incorporated semiautomatic rifle.
Q. And is that an AK-47 style weapon?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. In terms of shell casings, how many shell casings were recovered and from where?
A. From the evidence, approximately 32 shell casings were recovered and labeled. Their locations are listed in the chain of custody on the bottom of the form.
Q. Was a Cuban flag recovered by Secret Service Crime Scene?
A. That was also correct. There was a Cuban flag that was soaked with suspected gasoline, and it was labeled and handwriting on it.
Grebas then described a Alazo’s coat, decorated with the letters “FBI,” and were possibly handmade.
Page 15 would be the coat the individual was wearing with
Q. And is it a fair characterization to say that Crime Scene reported damage both to the exterior of the Cuban Embassy and damage interior, apparently, from projectiles entering the building?
A. To my knowledge, yes, sir.
Q. After Defendant Alazo was taken into custody, was he questioned?
A. He was. Yes.
Q. How many times?
A. He was questioned twice.
Q. Did you participate personally in either interview?
A. No, sir.
Q. And in that interview, did Defendant Alazo waive his
Miranda rights and agree to be questioned?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. Can you describe in a summary fashion what Defendant Alazo told law enforcement during the second interview?
A. Yes, sir.
MR. MILES: Your Honor, I object. This is a private matter, and this is a public hearing.
THE COURT: Well, are you objecting to — do you want this to be sealed —
MR. MILES: Yes.
THE COURT: — or you don’t think it’s relevant to the proceeding?
MR. MILES: I want it to be sealed.
Later in the hearing, Grebas said Alazo felt threatened.
A. Basically, that the Cubans were the enemy, and he needed to get them before they got him. He did state at the end, referring back to my notes, “I hate the Cubans.”
Q. Did Mr. Alazo indicate whether he always had his firearm with him?
A. He did. In the interview, he stated that he traveled with it for protection.
Q. And particularly as it pertains to when he came to the embassy on April 30, 2020, could he describe where he left and where he went?
A. From what I gathered from the video, he left his wife’s house in Pennsylvania and drove to the District of Columbia in the vehicle.
Q. So, to be clear, did he transport the firearm across state lines?
A. Yes, sir.
THE COURT: Well, how do you know that he didn’t purchase the AK-47 in the District of Columbia?
THE WITNESS: I’m not — I don’t have knowledge of that, sir. He explained he bought it in Loudoun, Virginia, from a previous interview with Intelligence.
Q. Did Mr. Alazo describe his activities with the Cuban flag?
A. He did. In an interview with the Department of State agents, he explained that he had doused it in gasoline a couple days prior while he was filling up his car at a gas station. He put it in a bottle of some sort and soaked it in gasoline.
Q. Did Defendant Alazo indicate what he did with the Cuban flag when he got to the Embassy of Cuba?
A. He tried to light it, but it would not light.
Q. Did Mr. Alazo indicate whether he believed people might be inside of the Cuban Embassy when he started shooting it?
A. I do believe so. He believed that people were inside, yes.
Q. And what was his expectation as to what would happen when he got to the Cuban Embassy?
A. That possibly somebody would come outside and shoot him.
Q. Did anyone, in fact, come outside?
A. No, sir.
Q. And when no one came outside, what did he decide to do instead?
A. He kept shooting the building, sir. And at one point he was asked, if anybody had come outside, would he have shot them. He did explain that if the ambassador had come out, he would have shot him or anybody from withinside.
Q. Did he admit if he knew that doing so would be illegal?
A. I can’t recall it, sir.
Q. Did he provide an explanation to law enforcement as to why he would have shot the ambassador or anyone else who came out of the building?
A. Because they are the enemy, sir.
Q. Did Defendant Alazo describe whether he had previously gone to the Embassy of Cuba?
A. That is correct, sir. He stated that he had previously been there and taken his mother, I believe he’d stated that, to renew her passport, roughly 2015 time frame, and then I believe he also expressed that a couple of weeks prior he drove down to D.C., located the embassy, and drove by and didn’t stop.
Q. When you say a couple of weeks prior, is that a couple of weeks prior to the offense of April 30, 2020?
A. I believe so, sir.
Q. And at that point, was he also driving back and forth from his home in Pennsylvania?
A. To my knowledge, yes, sir.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stuart D. Allen did the cross-examination of Sgt. Grebas.
Q. Okay. And did he indicate any — did he describe this enemy, who the enemy is or what the enemy is?
A. Basically, he explained that Cuban Intelligence was after him.
Q. So Cuban Intelligence.
A. That’s what he — he kept calling them Cuban Intelligence.
Q. Did he name any specific name of any individual?
A. No, sir. Not to my knowledge.
Q. Did he describe any person, in any way, by gender or appearance or age?
A. He did explain that at some point while — I believe it was in Pennsylvania, he thought somebody was looking — a female or that a lady was part of organized crime looking into — around the cars, I guess around his home.
Q. But did he say he was coming to the Cuban Embassy to look for that person?
A. That was two days prior to him driving down to see the route.
Q. Well, the question is, did he indicate when he was coming to the Cuban Embassy that he was looking for that person in
particular?
A. No, sir. That was not explained or stated.
Q. So as far as who he was looking for, who the enemies were that he was seeking, did he describe anybody in particular?
A. No, sir.
Q. Now, you say you’re relying on statements made in the video for what his purpose was for coming to the embassy. Is there any other information that you have and have seen that gives you an indication as to why he came to the Cuban Embassy on April 30, 2020?
A. Other than what we’ve talked about here today, sir, I have no other information regarding that.
Court documents show that Alazo left Pennsylvania in his 2015 Nissan Pathfinder at around 11 p.m. on April 29.
Allen asked about Alazo’s previous visits to Washington, D.C.
A. No, sir. He stated that he had driven his mom to the embassy to renew her passport, I believe, in 2015. And from what I gathered from the interview, I believe he stayed outside; he didn’t go in. He drove two weeks prior to the location in his 2015
Nissan Pathfinder.
Q. Did Mr. Alazo specify during his interviews with law enforcement as to whether he thought he was being pursued by Cuban intelligence or Cuban organized crime or both?
A. He believed so. Yes, sir.
Q. Given the body-worn camera that you watched, do you recall Mr. Alazo making any spontaneous statements to law enforcement after he’d been detained, talking about his feelings about Cubans and why they were in the United States?
A. I don’t recall any body-worn camera footage, sir, of that, pertaining to that.
Q. You were asked a number of questions on cross-examination about whether Mr. Alazo indicated whether he wanted to kill any particular person, and particularly anyone on the list of individuals that the Cuban government told U.S. Secret Service were in the embassy at the time. During the interview, did Mr. Alazo say that he would have killed anyone in particular or anyone at all?
A. From what I gathered from the video, if anybody had come outside, as I gather, he would have shot them, to include the ambassador.
Q. Did he say that?
A. I believe so in the video, sir.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen said he believed that the government had establish probable cause. He said:
The Defendant is charged with three offenses in this case: 18 U.S. Code 112(a), Protection of Foreign Officials, Official Guests and Internationally Protected Persons, and in relevant part, it says that, “Whoever assaults, strikes, wounds, imprisons, or offers violence to a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person or makes any other violent attack upon the person or liberty of such person, or, if likely to endanger his person or liberty, makes a violent attack upon his official premises,” shall be guilty of the
offense, and if that is done using a dangerous women, it is an enhanced offense.
And here we have established that this is the Cuban Embassy, the official Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C.; that it contained within it individuals who are affiliated with the Cuban government. And Defendant Alazo, by his own admission and by all of the corroborating evidence, went to that embassy armed with a firearm that was an AK-47 style firearm, and then proceeded to shoot approximately 32 times at the structure, including but not limited to shots that penetrated into the interior of the building as is shown in crime scene photographs.
The fact that no individuals happened to be struck by the bullets that penetrated does not change the fact that the Defendant in fact engaged in that violent attack upon the official foreign building with people inside whose lives were in danger. So we think that we have more than established that offense by probable cause.
The second offense with which the Defendant is charged is 18 U.S. Code 924(b), which is a firearms offense for if someone with intent to commit, basically, a felony offense transports a firearm or ammunition in interstate commerce. Here the evidence, by the Defendant’s own admissions, are that he left his home in Pennsylvania around eleven o’clock on April 29, 2020, and then drove to Washington, D.C., ultimately parking outside the Embassy of Cuba where he went, by his own admission, to confront his enemies, people that he perceived to be a danger to him and his family, and that he proceeded to fire approximately 32 times as a result.
So it is clear that the firearm was transported in interstate commerce. We also have the evidence that it had been acquired earlier in April in Loudoun County, Virginia, so we can see the movement of this firearm that the Defendant says was in his vehicle on — I believe the sergeant testified on the floorboards of the vehicle. And, in fact, when the vehicle was recovered, there was additional ammunition for the firearm found within the vehicle, also having clearly been transported in interstate manner.
And finally, the final charge of the complaint, 18 U.S. Code 970(a), in relevant part says, Whoever damages any property belonging or utilized by a foreign government is guilty of the offense. Quite plainly here, all of the evidence, from the surveillance video to the described body-worn camera footage, to the Defendant’s own statements, shows that the Defendant engaged in conduct with the AK-47 style rifle that damaged property belonging to a foreign government. We think we have more than probable cause on all three counts.
The public defender, Miles, said he didn’t believe the government had shown probable cause. He told the court:
Based on the record before this Court, the identity of whoever was in the embassy is vague. Their only evidence that somebody was in the embassy is what the ambassador said, who apparently was not in the embassy, or a list. So that’s somewhat weak as to whether anybody was in there.
But probably more importantly, it’s just a list of names with their title is what we learned. And whether any individual fits the definition of a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person, as § 112(a) says, as defined under 18 U.S.C. § 1116(b), they have not presented that to the Court.
We also have that the statute requires a showing that the conduct had to be likely to endanger such protected person, and I would argue that even if the Government’s evidence is accurate, there has been insufficient evidence to show that anybody was likely to be in danger. The officer had no knowledge as to whether any of these gunshots came anywhere near any individual where they were located in the embassy, assuming they were in there.
As I understood the testimony, he was only able to identify one shot that I guess struck the interior. All the other gunshots I understand were on the exterior. So the “likely to endanger” is an important part of the element here, and they have failed to meet that.
The judge disagreed, saying:
I do find probable cause to believe that the Defendant committed the three crimes that he’s been charged with. The most straightforward one is charge 3, which is Willfully Injuring or Damaging Property Belonging to or Occupied by a Foreign Government in the United States, under
18 U.S.C. § 970(a). I think the evidence is clear with respect to probable cause that this Defendant damaged or destroyed property located within the United States belonging to or utilized by a foreign government or international organization. That was clearly what
the sergeant testified to, and I don’t have any reason to doubt that the officer had no basis for his testimony that what was
being shot at was the Cuban Embassy.
With respect to the first charge, Violent Attack on a Foreign Official or Official Premises Using a Deadly or Dangerous Weapon or Attempt to Do the Same, under 18 U.S.C. § 112(a), again my understanding of the Government’s theory here is that the Defendant assaulted or offered violence in a way that was likely to endanger the person or liberty of a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person through a violent attack.
I think that certainly the evidence presented by the Government is sufficient to demonstrate probable cause with respect to those elements, given what has been seen on the surveillance video: an individual who is later identified as the Defendant exiting the car, first throwing the flag that appeared to have an accelerant on it, then taking out an assault rifle and shooting approximately 32 times at the Cuban Embassy, some of those bullets penetrating the interior of the embassy.
I think the Government has demonstrated probable cause to believe that, in doing so, it was likely that he was endangering the person or liberty of those individuals on the inside of the embassy, for which there is testimony were embassy officials.
With respect to charge 2, Interstate Transportation of a Firearm or Ammunition with the Intent to Commit a Felony, I think the evidence at least presented to me, especially with respect to the final exhibit regarding the trace of the firearm, combined with the Defendant’s own statements and the evidence recovered at the scene, I think certainly with respect to probable cause, the Government’s demonstrated that this Defendant crossed state lines with the firearm which he had previously purchased in Virginia.
That, combined with his statement afterwards about what his intent was, to include confronting his enemies, admitting to what he did, and admitting that he would have had a violent intent certainly — he was going to kill anyone who came out of that embassy — I think the Government has demonstrated probable cause that when he crossed the state line with that firearm, he did so with the intent to commit a felony, if not violence towards Cuban officials, certainly based on what we see him doing, it does appear he has a clear intent to commit a felony of damaging the Cuban Embassy. So I believe the Government has demonstrated probable cause with respect to all three.

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4 thoughts on “Puzzling questions about Cuban Embassy attack”

  1. This is an interesting transcript. There is an odd error at the end of one paragraph.Assistant U.S. Attorney Allen said he believed that the government had establish probable cause. He said:
    The Defendant is charged with three offenses in this case: 18 U.S. Code 112(a), Protection of Foreign Officials, Official Guests and Internationally Protected Persons, and in relevant part, it says that, “Whoever assaults, strikes, wounds, imprisons, or offers violence to a foreign official, official guest, or internationally protected person or makes any other violent attack upon the person or liberty of such person, or, if likely to endanger his person or liberty, makes a violent attack upon his official premises,” shall be guilty of the
    offense, and if that is done using a dangerous women, it is an enhanced offense

    Reply

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