After 22 years on the run from a 60-year jail sentence, Adam M. Zachs, a convicted killer and West Hartford native, still has time on his side.
It may not be a luxury for long. But as Zachs waits in a Mexico City jail for authorities to make their next move, he probably has learned some new Spanish words. One of those words is almost certainly amparo.
“Anything can happen down there,” said David L. Garza, former chief of the Foreign Prosecution Unit of the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “It’s the tail wagging the dog down there.”
Zachs, who was captured Feb. 1 in Leon, Mexico, already understands dinero. The combination of amparo and money could delay local, state and federal efforts to put Zachs behind Connecticut bars to serve his sentence, which now amounts to life in jail.
“There’s a point in the [extradition] process that’s called an amparo, which is akin to our habeas corpus proceeding,” Garza said. “He can file an amparo and continue fighting extradition and he can keep on filing amparos until he runs out of money.”
Zachs, now 47, gunned down Peter Carone, a 29-year-old West Hartford man, on March 22, 1987, in an apparently one-sided dispute. A jury took two hours to convict him after a 17-month legal process. Zachs fled while free on appeal, capitalizing on a legal loophole that Connecticut lawmakers closed 10 years later.
Mexico’s laws are often byzantine despite an extradition treaty signed Jan. 25, 1980. If Zachs is pondering another loophole to evade justice – a long shot, authorities say – he apparently came to the right country. Mexico, though, could decide to hasten the extradition process.
“[Mexico] could deport him as a persona non grata,” said Garza, who for five years was the Texas state liaison with the Mexico attorney general’s office under former Texas Attorney General John Cornyn, now a U.S. senator. “That’s really the fastest way for that person to come back.”
Zachs, a graduate who lived on South Quaker Lane at the time of a murder that still resonates in West Hartford today, does not seem to be in a hurry.
“He has lawyered up, as they say,” Chief James Strillacci said last week.
Extradition in hands of Justice Department
The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs helps to direct international law enforcement matters. Details regarding Zachs will not be available while the case is active, a Justice Department official in Washington said Thursday.
The time-consuming extradition process ultimately will be in the hands of Justice Department attorneys at the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City, Garza said.
“We’ve been in contact with our colleagues in Mexico City but we haven’t gotten down to anything [Zachs] might have said [regarding extradition],” said Joseph P. Faughnan, U.S. Marshal in charge in Connecticut. “He’s being held pending an extradition hearing at a date to be determined. Ultimately there will be a decision. And ultimately there will be a process to exit him out of the country.”
A 60-day deadline
The clock started ticking the minute Zachs was arrested Feb. 1 by Mexico’s Federal Investigative Agency, U.S. Marshals and the FBI.
The next step comes 60 days after the arrest date. “If all the paperwork is in, they’ll set another date for a full-blown hearing. If they determine that all the paperwork isn’t in, then they’ll release him,” Garza said.
The odds that Zachs could take advantage of another legal misstep, flushing years of relentless pursuit and invesigation, would appear long – at least as long as the odds of evading capture for 22 years.
Beginning with Strillacci’s department, notably West Hartford detectives Mark Puglielli and Dane Semper, no fewer than 15 local, state, federal and international law enforcement agencies concentrated their efforts and resources to nab Zachs, who was swarmed by police as he left his house in Leon to go to work at a computer repair business.
“It depends on a number of variables down there. But I don’t think anybody would want to stay in a Mexican jail longer than they have to,” Faughnan said.
Strillacci said the same thing. “I hope he’ll consider penal conditions in Connecticut are superior to those in Mexico.”
That might depend.
When Zachs jumped bail, he left behind a $250,000 bill for his aunt. Authorities are investigating whether local connections were supporting Zachs, Strillacci said.
“It’s not any secret there’s corruption down there, all the way to the top in Mexican law enforcement,” Garza said. “When I was working for the [Texas] Attorney General, I learned the hard way that you need to know who you’re dealing with.”
Zachs has been described in media reports as a “rich kid” and the son of a wealthy West Hartford businessman. He reportedly had $20,000 in cash when he was hiding out with a girlfriend in New Mexico in the early 1990s.
“If you’re in a Mexican prison and you have money, hypothetically you can have all kinds of things,” Garza said. “There’s a saying, you can eat as much as your family can bring you. There are all kinds of things going on [in Mexican prisons], especially with the drug cartels. There can be some pretty swanky [prison conditions] down there.”
“Juicio de Amparo”
Zachs does not appear to want to return voluntarily, leaving two scenarios that appear in play. Zachs can fight his extradition, which can take months, even years; or Mexico can kick him out as an undesirable person.
His lawyer can file a Juicio de Amparo, which translates to judgment of protection, guaranteeing a prisoner’s rights under Mexico’s laws, Garza said.
“You just got to come up with some argument like, you can’t extradite me because of X, and if that fails you can turn right around and file another amparo that says you can’t extradite me because of Y,” Garza said. “I’m not saying that’s going to happen; I’m just saying that’s another element that can come into play.”
Zachs, who reportedly was going by the name Ruben Fridman, apparently is married to a Mexican citizen and has children. It is unclear whether he became a Mexican citizen or could apply for Mexican citizenship while in jail.
“The fact he married somebody down there and had a family might give the Mexican government pause,” Garza said. “If he has a good lawyer, he could argue about how [Zachs is] leaving a family behind with no way to support themselves. That could throw a wrench into the process. Off the top of my head, I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
Articles 10 through 21 of the U.S.-Mexico Extradition Treaty outline the meticulous steps required to successfully pry an American criminal from Mexico. Most of the document's language a lawyer can appreciate. Or a criminal.
“Really there’s nothing left to be done except to deport him or to extradite him,” Garza said. “Mexico tends to be more willing to [deport] American citizens because they’re always trying to get Mexican citizens from the U.S. back to Mexico. It’s in their best interests to work cooperatively with the U.S. government.”
“Justice will be done”
Peter Carone’s mother had a birthday anniversary shortly before West Hartford Det. Puglielli called her in the morning on Feb. 2. In the afternoon, Strillacci announced Zachs' capture.
One more time, Strillacci calculated the seemingly senseless events that triggered Zachs to put a 9-mm bullet in Peter Carone’s back as he turned to rejoin his fiancee, Kathleen, inside the .
“There was a joke about washing the top of the bar,” Strillacci said. “Mr. Carone made a remark about spit-shining it. Mr. Zachs took offense. … There was a discussion [outside]. When Mr. Carone turned around to walk back into the bar, Mr. Zachs shot him in the back. He died the same day.”
The men, from different parts of town, barely knew each other, police said.
“They didn’t look like they were having an argument at all,” Carone’s fiancee told “America’s Most Wanted,” which has profiled the Zachs case four times – first in 1989, most recently in 2005. “They just looked like they were having a normal conversation.
Strillacci said local connections ultimately led to Zachs.
“We are still looking into those connections. But people known to him here who may have been assisting him pointed us in the right direction,” Strillacci said.
At least one West Hartford detective traveled to Mexico in December and the FBI and U.S. Marshals became involved. With a family, Zachs, a one-time handyman in West Hartford, tried blending into Leon, about five hours northwest of Mexico City.
“Zachs started a second life of his own, but Peter Carone never got that opportunity,” Strillacci said. “We’re happy that justice will be done in this case.”