Captain Davis and “el caso Missing”

Charles Horman, a freelance filmmaker, was one of two American arrested and killed in the aftermath of Chile’s 1973 military coup.

In 1980 I was at a lunch hosted by the Chilean-American Chamber of Commerce in Santiago, when a man sitting across the table began talking nervously about a book in which his name appeared.  Lies, he told the man sitting to my left, who nodded sympathetically.  Retired U.S. navy captain Ray Davis, formerly head of the US. Military Mission in Chile, had settled in Santiago and had his own version of what transpired during the country’s 1973 military coup.

I happened to have read the book in question, Thomas Hauser’s The Execution of Charles Horman, which describes the arrest and killing of a young freelance filmmaker, his family’s search for him, and the seriously unhelpful actions of the U.S. Embassy in Chile.  Horman and a friend had been in the coastal resort town of Vina del Mar when the coup occurred, and it was Davis who had given them a ride back to Santiago.  A nice gesture, perhaps, but Davis’s actions over the next several days seem questionable at best.  He went to the hotel where Horman had stayed and confiscated his registration card.  He also invited Horman’s wife Joyce and the Hormans’ friend Terry Simon to his home for dinner, claiming that a Chilean admiral who could help them find Charles would also be there.  The admiral never appeared.

I should have made some attempt to talk to Davis, but was too startled to do more than keep my eyes down and listen.

“And now there’s going to be a movie,” he was saying.  The film based on the book, Costa-Gavras’s Missing, was released two years later,  and won an Academy Award for best adapted screenplay as well as Oscar nominations for Jack Lemmon (who played Horman’s father) and Sissy Spacek (who played Horman’s wife).  Missing takes some liberties with real life events, with Joyce Horman renamed Beth and shown being caught by the curfew and taking shelter in a stairwell the night before her husband’s arrest.  But in a 2006 documentary film, Cruel Separation, she said she had in fact gone “to say goodbye to friends” that day and stayed that night before returning to find their house ransacked and her husband missing.  Davis is not mentioned by name in the film—though there is a character clearly based on him—and even Chile is not mentioned.  But Davis, former U.S. ambassador Nathaniel Davis and former U.S. consul Fred Purdy filed a $150 million lawsuit for libel against Costa Gavras and Universal Studios, which was eventually dismissed.

Fast forward nearly two decades and the United States declassifies and releases hundreds of documents on Chile, and some of them contain disturbing information about the case. As one cable states:

“There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death. At best, it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [government of Chile]. At worst, U.S. intelligence was aware the GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and U.S. officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia.” http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/19991008/01-04.htm

There is a review of the circumstances surrounding Horman’s arrest and killing, and Captain Davis, now back in the United States,  is questioned.  Why had he taken Horman’s hotel registration card?  Davis at first denies having done so, but when shown the incriminating US document changes his story and says, “I don’t see why it’s important.”

This week a Chilean prosecutor, Judge Jorge Zepeda, announced he was seeking Davis’s extradition as part of his investigation into the death of Charles Horman and another young American, Frank Teruggi.  In his ruling Zepeda, who has been investigating the case since 2003 and has made extensive use of the U.S. declassified documents, said that Captain Davis could have prevented the killings of the two Americans “given his coordination with Chilean agents.”  The country’s Supreme Court will have to authorize the extradition request, and the American. Embassy in Santiago  said the United States  “continues to support a thorough investigation into the Horman and Teruggi deaths in order to bring those responsible to justice.”

One comment on “Captain Davis and “el caso Missing”

  1. LisaPie says:

    Very interesting update to that tragic story.

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