When the late Steve Psinakis accepted an offer to build a power plant in Manila, he had no idea his life would change forever. In the three decades that followed, the Greek engineer became a central figure in an underground war against a powerful dictator, risking his and his family’s lives for years. In light of his passing, Rogue brings back a 2008 profile on Psinakis, which tells the tale of how he and his family stuck together through death threats, F.B.I. harassment, and a brutal criminal trial—while living the story of one of our nation’s bravest fighters of freedom.
Psinakis, photographed for Rogue in 2008 by Mark Nicdao, passed away last March 15, 2016 at the age of 85.
Presy Lopez Psinakis is a strong woman, but something happened on October 15, 1979, that filled her heart with real fear. Her husband, Steve Psinakis, was driving to the Pita Pocket—their Mediterranean restaurant on Bush and Montgomery in the financial district of downtown San Francisco—at 5:30 one fog-dark morning when a jet-black ’79 Cadillac Seville pulled up next to him at a stoplight. There was an African-American man behind the wheel and a Caucasian in the passenger seat who motioned to Psinakis to roll down his window. Assuming they were lost, Psinakis rolled down his window and found himself staring point-blank down the barrel of a black pistol silencer. The man holding the gun said, “Psinakis, you son of a bitch—you don’t seem to believe we mean business; this is your last warning, you understand me? Wise up or you’re a dead man.” They sped away. Psinakis froze but took note of the license plate—433 DGH. “It’s a funny feeling,” he says, “but your life really does flash before your eyes in a couple of seconds.” It was at that precise moment that Psinakis suddenly realized that he or any member of his family could be killed at any moment.
PROLOGUE: THE LOPEZ CONNECTION
It all began on a fairly even keel. A native of Athens, Greece, Steve Psinakis came to America in 1949 on a college scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh, where he graduated with an engineering degree in 1955. In June of 1958, when Psinakis was working for Gilbert Associates—an engineering consulting firm in Reading, Pennsylvania that specialized in the design of power plants—he was assigned to the position of project engineer for Meralco, the biggest company in the Philippines at the time.
The company was originally American-owned, and then later acquired and operated by the powerful Lopez family led by its revered patriarch, Don Eugenio, whose brother Fernando was Marcos’s vice-president. “Don Eugenio was a very exceptional man,” says Psinakis, who I have been spending hours talking to at his Rockwell penthouse with his gracious wife, Presy, and their smart and impeccably raised daughter, Geni.
During his years with Meralco, Psinakis became close friends with Don Eugenio’s son Geny. “Geny and his father were very similar,” he begins in a deep and low rumble of a voice, “Geny was a sharp businessman whose batting average was pretty good in decision-making. In very difficult and risky situations, he would call the shots and call them right. Both Geny and his father were bold risk-takers with good instincts, and they were always very decisive.” Psinakis eventually became a trusted figure in the Lopez organization, and Don Eugenio oftentimes surprised him with rewards like a thin gold Piaget and a leather briefcase full of cash.
Presy was Don Eugenio’s only daughter—“his crown jewel,” as Psinakis describes her. “She was a stunningly beautiful young woman who moved gracefully and always seemed at ease, while effortlessly making everyone around her feel the same.”
She was also a “Blue Lady”—a very close friend and confidante of the First Lady Imelda Marcos. Psinakis always assumed she would end up marrying into royalty and disappear in some castle in Europe, “but I had no idea,” he says, “that her polished exterior hid a depth and strength of personality unparalleled to anything I had encountered in my life so far.”
Because Presy was the boss’ daughter and his best friend’s baby sister, Psinakis stayed away from her for many years, until they both attended an industry dinner for travel agencies and ended up sitting together the whole night. “I discovered she could do much more than smile and look pretty,” he says, “from the little time I spent with her that evening, she seemed caring, perceptive, and intelligent. That made her even more beautiful.”
Their next accidental date was in Tokyo, when Presy accompanied her father and Psinakis on a business trip to meet with their Japanese partners Marubeni. Don Eugenio was invited to have dinner at the home of the president of Marubeni one evening, so Psinakis “had arranged with Ben Guingona, his wife, and another close friend of hers to get Presy a little drunk. But it was the others who got drunk, and we stayed up talking for hours, not wanting the night to end.” Presy and Steve fell in love that night.
Presy’s parents did not take this news too well. Whenever Psinakis would greet her mother, Doña Pacita, she would grunt and give him the cold shoulder. And although Don Eugenio never attempted to force a break-up, he always had two armed men closely follow them whenever they went out.
Despite this, their love for each other—and each others’ sons from previous marriages, Rogy, Lee and Yuri—blossomed, and Psinakis eventually proposed marriage. Don Eugenio was outraged. He wanted his daughter to marry a Spanish prince but she was in love with a Greek engineer—so he forced him to quit and threatened to disown Presy if she pushed through with the marriage. They discussed it and Presy said, “My dad doesn’t want us to be together, and because of who he is, he can make our life very difficult in the Philippines. . . . I love him dearly and I know he’s only thinking of my happiness, but I will not allow him to become an obstacle. So until he sees how happy I really am, we’ll just have to live somewhere else. Let’s leave the Philippines.”
That was the beginning of a relationship that has lasted 39 years. “39 years of happiness,” he says, “every day of which I am grateful for.”
The Psinakises at their Seacliff home in San Francisco in the early 70s.
Psinakis and Don Eugenio Lopez at a cocktail in Japan in the 60s. “Don Eugenio was a bold risk-taker with good instincts.”
The relationship with Don Eugenio did not go quite as smoothly, and the problems began immediately after Japan. It is useful to point out here that nobody argued with Don Eugenio except Presy. “I made life a little hard for him because I was always defiant and he was so absolute,” says Presy, while serving me a slice of pizza she had ordered for us. “When he said something, he wanted everyone to agree.”
Don Eugenio was livid over their marriage. “He saw it as a crime,” says Psinakis, “because he could not imagine his daughter marrying someone like me. I never had any hatred for him, but I wouldn’t give him an inch.” Psinakis’s secretary, Josefino, who had been loyal to the company for many years, was fired and this triggered a series of nasty telexes between Psinakis and Don Eugenio. So the Psinakises eloped to Greece, and in less than six months friends were already visiting. “I was about to hang a ‘no vacancy’ sign,” says Presy, laughing. After two years, Don Eugenio sent another letter offering to reconcile if they asked for forgiveness. Psinakis, the equally proud alpha-male, answered back by saying, “If you ask Presy for forgiveness, we might consider it.”
Tensions were very high, and according to Presy, Don Eugenio “even went to the extent of tricking me by saying he was very ill so I would come back to Manila.” Finally, Don Eugenio decided to come to Greece with an entourage of friends and relatives, and upon his arrival, Steve told his wife, “I will give your dad my hand in friendship, but if he so much as turns away—that’s it. Presy answered “OK” but her heart quaked inside. “I was not sure what was going to happen, so I told the housekeepers to prepare the food but not to cook it until I called them.” When Don Eugenio walked slowly out of the departure terminal, followed by several other recognizable faces, he approached his daughter and hugged her, and then extended his hand to Steve. They shook firmly and smiled. Presy called home and said, “Sige na, magluto na kayo.”
THE MARCOS CONNECTION
According to an article in Time magazine on January 23, 1978, “Since President Marcos imposed Martial Law in 1972, his relatives and cronies, as well as those of his glamorous wife Imelda, have been amassing huge fortunes. Their blatant influence peddling has prompted one amazed diplomat in Manila to observe: ‘It’s incredible what they’ve taken over.’”
Human rights were stripped away routinely and political prisoners were subjected to what Jeri Laber of Amnesty International (in an article written for The New York Times on October 30, 1976) calls the “San Juanico Bridge”—where “the prisoner is forced to lie with his naked body suspended between two beds and is beaten and kicked in the stomach and thighs whenever he sags or falls.”
The Psinakises lived in Greece from 1969 to 1974. When Geny Lopez was arrested, they moved to San Francisco—the city that became the headquarters of the anti-Marcos activities. Raul Manglapus—who was literally on a plane back to Manila when Martial Law was declared—was the first to organize the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP). Sonny Alvarez was the secretary-general, and other members included Raul Daza and Bonnie Gillego.
“They asked me to join them,” Psinakis says, “to help them convince the U.N. not to support Marcos. I had no idea about politics and how it worked. It was a very risky invitation but, strangely enough, I accepted it because I believed the truth would eventually come out.” From 1974 to 1976, Psinakis was directly involved in the negotiations with the Marcoses and in the movement to become a thorn in their policy-making.
They met in Washington to discuss their options, and unanimously decided that they would not give in to any threats. “If you don’t try and solve the problem,” he says, “you’re a part of it—and you can never get rid of an oppressive regime by giving in to their threats and demands.” A few days later, they got a call from Sonny Alvarez’s father saying that military men came in the night, took out his younger brother Marsman, and beat him to death, gouged his eyes out, and cut off his ears and tongue.
“It was definitely done on purpose,” he says, “to be seen by everybody, to warn them and to stop Sonny.” They left the body in the town square, and two weeks later Sonny’s father died of a heart attack.
Other incidents of political violence during Martial Law involved Governor Lingad, a close friend of Ninoy, who was supposedly killed by one of the closest and most trusted associates of Marcos while pumping gas at eight o’clock in the morning, in broad daylight. Evelio Javier, who was also very close to Ninoy, was chased into an alley by a gang of thugs who pumped his body with hollow-point bullets.
“Geny went on a hunger strike,” shares Presy, “in November of ’74, and he asked Steve to bring out the plight of the political prisoners. We went to New York, and we didn’t know anybody—and I was pregnant with Geni. We had no idea who to call or where to begin. We were like babes lost in the woods—not political at all.” By this time, Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña had been in jail for two years and no charges had been filed against them. The MFP became very effective and credible and the most respected group to back up the liberal Democrat U.S. congressman and senators who tried to take the lead in correcting the situation in the Philippines. Stephen Solarz was one of them. Ted Kennedy, another.
In 1980 the Reagans—close, personal friends of the Marcoses—moved into the White House, and the risks for the opposition quadrupled. This is when Ninoy Aquino met with Imelda and convinced Psinakis to do the same. That historic meeting was an early sign of their downfall because it was the first time the Marcoses had realized that the opposition was a real threat, and had initiated a dialogue to deal with it.
“The U.S. government clearly supported Marcos,” says Psinakis, “and so when Ninoy decided to take a risk and return to Manila, they warned him that some people were being mobilized to have him shot. Ninoy talked to Imelda and tried to come up with some non-violent solutions, but he was presumably double-crossed by Marcos’s trusted defense minister, Enrile. He was supposed to release Geny and Serge, but I knew he never intended to do that. So when I heard that Tommy Osmeña suggested they escape, I was very happy. I said, ‘We can do this,’ but it took several years to plan and finally execute.”
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Sitting across from me and lighting a cigarette, Steve Psinakis continues to talk. “My involvement in the anti-Marcos activities were not designed,” he says. “It was accidental. My brother-in-law was imprisoned and he asked me if I could help him escape. We were best friends, and he knew that I would help if he needed it. He asked me because he knew that I would do it, knowing it was the right thing to do.”
Lopez told Psinakis that he didn’t mind dying as long as it wasn’t in vain but in the service of the people—and that’s when he decided to escape. Through a series of clandestine communications that transpired between the U.S. and Manila over the course of two years, Psinakis developed a complicated and costly escape plan to get Geny Lopez and Serge Osmeña out of the Philippines and into the U.S. The plan would involve a nighttime breakout from their jail cell in Fort Bonifacio, followed by a series of connecting flights under false aliases that would eventually take them to Los Angeles.
The maximum-security detention center where Lopez and Osmeña were held was composed of two compounds surrounded by barbed-wire fences, searchlights, and guard towers occupied by gun-toting M.P.’s. They would have to break out of their jail cell quietly, crawl across a garden lit up by spotlights, climb a fence into the next compound, crawl again through a ditch and across the prison grounds until they got to the main fence, which they would have to scale in order to run through a four-and-a-half-kilometer-long tall cogon grass forest before reaching a main road in the military base where Lopez’s two eldest sons, Gabby and Raffy—who were both in their early twenties—would be waiting for them in a getaway car.
After many visits, Gabby and Raffy discovered a loophole in the visitation process—a moment or two when they weren’t being watched and contraband could be handed over to their father. During visits, you first presented your I.D. at the main gate, and then you were driven to a building where the visitations took place. After the guards dropped you there, they drove back to the main gate and left you unattended for several minutes before another group of guards arrived to search you. During those unattended minutes the Lopezes hid escape tools behind the toilet in the bathroom Godfather-style, so they wouldn’t be discovered when they were searched. They retrieved the tools once they were left alone with the prisoners and handed these to them. They would also smuggle khaki cargo clothes that they camouflaged with black, brown, and green spray paint taken from the prison workshop where they were being used on furniture. The clothes and tools were carefully hidden in a punching bag in their cell whenever they had to attend tribunal hearings.
On the outside, Psinakis had purchased a twin-engine, six-seat, Cessna 320 that would be used to fly into Lingayen Bay in the northern Philippines to pick up the fugitives and take them to Hong Kong. All he needed was a pilot. Tommy Osmeña suggested an Israeli-American friend of his named Reuven Jerzy, a fighter pilot in the Six Day War who later became an airplane salesman in the U.S. Jerzy was a good-hearted ladies man and a real Indiana Jones adventurer type. “A typical playboy,” says Psinakis with a smile. “He was very good-looking and fun to be around,” adds Presy.
Reuven Jerzy downed four planes himself in the Six Day War, so he was used to flirting with danger and seemed to actually enjoy it. He used to ask Osmeña about his jailed brother and half-kid about busting him out.
“We were living on 35th avenue at the time,” Presy recalls what appears to be an amusing story. “Geni was two, and we had to entertain Reuven and his girlfriend. They were staying with us and, one night after dinner, we came home and wondered how we were going to entertain this guy. He really liked to party! I guess you really have to let yourself go, and how could we do that when we were planning the escape?!”
In an interview Lopez gave to a reporter from the Boston Phoenix in 1977, he said, “We accepted the fact that we had only one chance, one attempt; we would not have another.”
The first date they set was September 19, but they postponed it to September 22 because the 21st was the fifth anniversary of Martial Law, and the president usually released some political prisoners on this day. But, as Psinakis and Lopez expected, he didn’t.
When the 22nd rolled along, so did a terrible typhoon, and the plane was experiencing engine trouble—so they rescheduled a third time and set the escape date for Thursday, September 29, nine P.M.
Reuven Jerzy flew the Cessna into Manila with his girlfriend from California, Angel Slater; they posed as honeymooners cruising the islands for a fishing resort. According to Psinakis’s plan, Angel would call home as soon as she arrived in the Philippines and find out that her mother was seriously injured in an auto accident. She would leave the next day on a flight for L.A. via Hong Kong, where she was going to meet Psinakis.
Lopez’s wife, Conchita, would send them bags of food and delivered coded messages to them by the way she wrote Geny’s name on the bag. “Geny Lopez” was a green light, which meant that the escape was going to happen that night; “E. Lopez” was a yellow light—wait another 24 hours; and a plain “Lopez” was a red light or aborted until further notice.
At noon of September 29, they received a bag that said “Geny Lopez.” “Tonight’s the night,” he said to Serge. It was shortly after this time that the problems began.
First, a guard walked in and informed Lopez that a dental appointment he had requested a few weeks earlier was approved and that he was to be picked up at six that evening. He tried to avoid the appointment by saying he was sick, but this just complicated matters when a sympathetic guard gave him a bottle of Aspirin marked “E. Lopez,” which, of course, meant wait 24 hours.
“As far as I knew, the escape was a go,” says Psinakis. “I had checked out of the hotel and went to the airport early because I couldn’t sleep. Mitos Santisteban tried to call me in Hong Kong with the message ‘the poker game was off,’ which meant that the escape was postponed for a day, but I missed her call because I was restless and checked out of the hotel early. Obviously they didn’t arrive, and I waited and waited and waited until I was sure they had failed. I thought they had either been shot or arrested. That was the first time I broke down and started crying in the airport. I tried to hide it, but I couldn’t. There was a cleaning woman who saw me and tried to console me by whispering some words in English. That was one of the worst moments of my life because I felt responsible for planning the escape. Presy was trying to call me, but she couldn’t get me because I was at the airport. It’s hard to describe or even imagine the flood of relief that came over me when I found out they were still alive.”
Psinakis with Geny, son of Don Eugenio.
At nine o’clock the following night, they made their move. After tucking in pillow dummies in their beds, they put on their camos, pried open the rusty nails of a framed iron-grille bathroom window, then slowly removed the frame and the six glass jalousies behind it. Beyond that there was a wire screen they had to cut open before jumping out into the garden. Geny went first, while Serge made a pulley to pull the frame back into place with a rope he tied around the showerhead. They were only able to replace five out of the six jalousies because they were making too much noise.
According to Lopez, there was a full moon that night and events seemed to conspire against them. It was a still night, and sneaking out silently was a difficult task. They squatted in the shadows for about 30 minutes until they figured the guard at the watchtower had fallen asleep, at which time they crawled like caterpillars along the edge of the garden, hiding under the shadow of the nipa fence that surrounded it.
They cut through the nipa and the barbed wire fence behind it and crawled into the next compound where Communist rebel Victor Corpuz was imprisoned with his family many years ago. As they crawled along the perimeter of the lot, they stumbled upon an obstacle—a guard shed they thought was a pump shack. Lopez’s sons took telephoto pictures of the terrain around the area by standing on parked cars during drag races in a nearby oval—and in these pictures, the shed appeared to contain a water pump. They agreed to wait till midnight.
By 12:00 they could still hear noises coming from the shed, so they decided to wait another hour. Given the great distance to freedom and the number of hours before sunrise, they couldn’t wait any longer and decided to crawl through a ditch as quietly as possible and pray nobody would see them. Lopez went first, crawling several yards before he reached a grassy knoll where he waited for Osmeña, who had not yet shown up an hour and a half later. It took him an hour to wait for the guard to settle down and, by this time, Lopez had crawled back 20 yards to look for him.
When they met, they proceeded to cut through the talahib with the gardening shears they had smuggled in, until they reached the chain-link perimeter fence of the prison area which they cut through with a pair of wire-cutters. Once free, they had to then deal with a dense, tall cogon grass forest that stretched out into the darkness for four and a half kilometers. Burrowing through it was like swimming through quicksand, and the fugitives stumbled and lost their direction for about 40 minutes.
“This was the first time I really got scared in all this,” says Lopez, “because Serge suddenly said, ‘Look! Somebody’s coming!’” It was the silhouette of what looked like a soldier charging desperately at them. Just as they were about to surrender, they heard a voice—and relief hit them like 10 buckets of ice water.
“Dad, let’s get the hell out of here!” urgently whispered Raffy as they ran to the road where the getaway car was parked. He and his brother stuffed their father and his friend in the trunk and drove off to a dark street corner in Forbes Park where they met Augusto “Jake” Lopez (no relation to Geny), a lawyer who pushed Lopez and Osmeña to make an attempt to escape by telling them they had already become symbols for the opposition.
They drove at top-speed to the Lopez-owned Manila Chronicle Building, while Jake called Jerzy to prepare the plane. After a quick change of clothes, they left at four A.M. for Lingayen, Pangasinan, where they were going to meet Jerzy and the Cessna on a small, unattended airstrip that sat about 400 yards from the surf. Lopez and Osmeña watched the most meaningful sunrise of their lives through the car window as they drove through the northern provinces towards freedom.
They got there at 6:30 and waited more than an hour for the blue-and-white Cessna to arrive—and when it did, it never stopped moving: it landed, made a U-turn, opened its doors and picked up the five passengers without stopping, and took off again in the direction of Hong Kong where Psinakis was waiting for them. They were officially out of the country on their first day of freedom in five years.
“Now, although this is by far the most dramatic part of the escape in terms of danger to life,” says Psinakis, “what is perhaps as intriguing is how we got through four countries—the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan, and the U.S.—without being detected. There have been dramatic escapes from Fort Bonifacio before, but no one has, to my knowledge, gotten 10,000 miles away in 33 hours.”
First they needed phony passports, so Psinakis took his two-year-old daughter, Geni’s, and his six-year-old son, Mike’s; and that of a friend from the Bay Area named Bill Chapman. He also took Angel Slater’s passport when she met him in Hong Kong. He had four legitimate passports—one for Osmeña, one for Lopez, and two for his sons, who couldn’t risk using their own passports if a manhunt was underway.
The Cessna landed in a frenzied air-traffic jam, and the five fugitives walked into the terminal and disappeared into the connecting flight lounges while Psinakis went up to the counter to secure their boarding passes for their flight to Japan. He had booked six seats on a Japan Air Lines flight to L.A. via Tokyo in the names of the six passports he had.
“When the desk clerk asked where my children were,” says Psinakis, “I said they were still doing some last-minute shopping with their relatives.” She bought it and gave Psinakis six boarding passes, which he gave to the fugitives in the transit lounge after giving Angel’s passport back to her (she was leaving the following day) and walking through immigration. When the flight was called, they boarded the plane and escaped Hong Kong.
“As the plane lifted off the runway,” he says, “that was the first time we relaxed.” It was a straight flight to L.A., with only a brief stopover in Tokyo for refueling, where the passengers could remain in their seats. The men hugged each other and cried, then had a few drinks to celebrate their freedom, followed by a good rest on the flight.
But the worm turned again. Half an hour before landing in Tokyo, the captain announced that all passengers would have to disembark in Tokyo for a passport check due to tight security caused by a hijacking of another JAL plane that had just occurred. Psinakis’s reaction was “Shit! This was the only place where we hadn’t anticipated any problems, and now we’re about to get busted!”
In Hong Kong, the U.S. or British governments might have bailed them out, but getting busted in Japan was a fatal checkmate because Marcos and Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda were very close allies. There was a brief moment of panic on the plane, but Psinakis acted quickly and told everybody to pretend they were asleep and let him do the talking. He told the steward he was traveling with his sons and had paid for first-class tickets in order to get some rest; and would appreciate it if they did not have to disembark. The steward accepted the request as reasonable, but said an immigration officer would nevertheless come on board to check their passports. Another moment of panic.
When the immigration officer came on board, Psinakis put his index finger up to his lips and whispered, “Ssshhh, they’re with me—my sons and their uncles.” The officer looked down for a moment to verify something on a piece of paper he was holding, then looked back up at Psinakis and asked to see their tickets and passports. In an instinctive bluff he handed over his own passport and said, “Look, we’re all together and they’re asleep—do we really need to wake them?”
Fortunately not. When the officer left the cabin, their eyes slowly crept open until they realized they had lucked out again, and a heavy sigh of relief echoed across the first-class compartment. Lopez was out cold the entire ordeal.
But when he had woken up hours later and seen the California coastline through his window as they approached LAX, another rush of emotions came over him and tears rolled down his cheeks. He was finally free.
As they disembarked the plane, they followed Psinakis to the immigration lines to a young lady officer who stamped his passport and welcomed him back to America. When she asked for the others, Psinakis looked at her and said, “They don’t have any passports.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well, you see, they just escaped from a prison in the Philippines,” he answered quite matter-of-factly. The officer looked at him like she had just heard a dog speak 12 words of perfect English.
The supervisor threatened to send them back to Manila on the next flight, but Psinakis implored him to call Benjamin Fleck, the U.S. State Department’s head of Philippine Affairs.
“I even gave them his home number,” he says. “Because of my lobbying for the Movement for a Free Philippines, I knew Mr. Fleck quite well, and he knew who Geny and Serge were.”
When they called Fleck—who was working in his study at home—and told him that Lopez and Osmeña were in the U.S., he almost fell off his chair. He immediately called two senior State officials, Richard Holbrooke and Philip Habib, who were both in New York for the U.N. General Assembly, along with a large delegation from the Philippines including Imelda, Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile, and 87 other people, some of whom were close friends of the Lopezes and Osmeñas. By this time, news of the escape had still not broken in Manila, and Marcos was embarrassed to be informed through Enrile by the State Department that—not only had Lopez and Osmeña escaped—they were already in the United States.
The following Monday morning, the men appeared before immigration officials and formally requested for political asylum. They were granted a 90-day “parole” period allowing them to stay in the U.S. until a decision was made.
Psinakis with Charlie Avila, a Filipino known for his anti-Marcos sentiments, in San Francisco, 1984.
In the sweltering summer of 1979, the “floating casino”—allegedly one of the many undocumented sources of income for the Romualdez family—and several other government and commercial buildings such as the Sulo hotel, Rustan’s department store, the COMELEC building, the Puyat factory, and Imelda’s multi-million-dollar Plaza hotel were set on fire by a fearless band of revolutionaries called the “Light-a-Fire Movement.”
The group—which the military claimed had attempted to assassinate cabinet ministers by sending them gift-packaged bombs—was led by a Harvard-educated Filipino businessman named Eduardo Olaguer, who was arrested with 15 other suspected “terrorists” from the Light-a-Fire Movement, including an American named Ben Z. Lim who had allegedly signed confessions to smuggling into the Philippines explosives, incendiaries, timing and detonating devices, and “C.I.A. Explosives for Sabotage Manuals” that were given to him by Psinakis. He also allegedly confessed that he and other members of the movement were trained by Psinakis somewhere in the Arizona desert on the use of explosives and techniques of urban guerilla warfare. The Psinakises divulged that Doris Baffrey—a “very matapang” Filipina-American citizen who was also tortured during the Martial Law years—was the one who planted the bomb in the ASTA (the American Society of Travel Agents) convention; but when asked if he was involved in these bombings, Steve pauses, looks at me, smiles, and says, “I was very supportive of any bona fide acts against Marcos.” Charlie Avila, a Filipino whose opposition to Marcos goes back to pre-Martial Law days, once said to Psinakis, “In the eyes of the Marcoses, you are seen as the military strategist of the guerilla warfare and as the main supplier of the explosives; even the supplier of the funds.”
They would have strategy sessions to study their options and consider their long and short-term plans. Do they use force or do they use passive and peaceful means? Various anti-Marcos organizations had decided to orchestrate symbolic bombings, not to hurt people—but to embarrass Marcos because he was inviting V.I.P.’s from all over the world, and they wanted to warn them not to come because there was a civil war going on in the country. Enrile confirmed that there was a new group of moderate businessmen that had found a more effective way of destabilizing the government than the Muslims and the N.P.A.’s. Mainly because they had the funds and the resources coming from wealthy anti-Marcos financiers like taipan Alfonso Yuchengco.
There were several groups who conducted the bombings, and although Psinakis was somewhat connected to all of them, they tried to appear splintered so that they would be harder to deal with. “But it was difficult because the Filipino culture is very different. It’s hard to keep a secret and to do things on time. So the bombs went off on ‘Filipino time.’”
Keeping separate groups was actually a strategy in itself, and one of the rules was that you weren’t supposed to talk to anybody about what the activities were. “We were divided into cells, and nobody in each cell knew what the other cell was doing except the two top people.” The group decided on the selected use of violent force, and the art of waging this kind of underground war could apparently be learned from published books found in the local bookstores and libraries of the time. Psinakis said he found C.I.A. booklets and manuals that taught you how to make bombs out of aspirin and other common household items. “It’s common knowledge among the countries of the world that the best way to change a government is to disrupt its machinery.”
After a bomb was made, they thought hard about where to plant it, where it would be most effective without harming anybody. Where it could definitely be seen and heard without necessarily being felt. Warnings were sent out two hours before so that people could evacuate. 60 bombs went off in two months, and only one person was killed.
“It was an American lady,” says Presy, “who was killed because she wasn’t evacuated in Rustan’s. . . . Those were really dangerous years, and all this while Geni was growing up. I don’t know how we kept our sanity.”
Twenty simultaneous bombings were planned on the day Ninoy Aquino, Psinakis, and Sonny Alvarez were supposed to meet then Secretary of State of Asian Affairs Richard Holbrooke—a longtime Reagan/Bush insider—in Washington to negotiate the terms of his return to the Philippines. “During that meeting, I already knew what they had planned to do. I knew the targets and times and days—and it was hard to deal with because Ninoy asked us to take a walk so they could meet alone, and I was coping with the agony of whether we were about to succeed or get caught. It was a long meeting because Ninoy never stops talking, but when they finally came out Ninoy said, ‘Greek, did you hear about the bombings in Manila today?’ and I answered, ‘What bombings?’”
TWO “TERRORISTS” MEET
On December 19, 1980, after anti-Marcos resentment had reached a fever pitch and bombs were exploding in public places in Metro Manila almost every week, Psinakis—the man the Marcoses accused of planning the bombings—agreed to meet face-to-face with the First Lady at her $3,000-dollar-a-night, five-bedroom suite at the Waldorf Astoria. Imelda’s motive for arranging the meeting, Psinakis believed, was to learn as much as she could about the opposition’s destabilization plan. The meeting lasted five-and-a-half hours and was documented in Psinakis’s first book, Two “Terrorists” Meet. In the book Psinakis describes a scene where he nearly lost his temper after attempting to explain to Imelda how most guerrillas felt about violence:
He said, “Most, if not all, the activists I talked to condemn the use of violence and abhor the use of terrorism.” Imelda responded by saying “Why then have they taken to violence and terrorism?” “Because they condemn violence and abhor terrorism,” he emphasized. “For eight years they have been subjected to the violence and terrorism of your repressive regime. They want it to stop. You’ve convinced ordinary peace-loving Filipinos that the only way to stop your institutionalized violence is to respond with violence.”
The next few words that came out of Imelda’s mouth were the ones that triggered a betrayal of anger in Psinakis’s voice. She said, “It’s not fair, Steve, to say that we have institutionalized violence. The little violence that has occurred by some overzealous military has been the exception to the President’s policy. . . .” Psinakis interrupted: “Mrs. Marcos, you are not talking to some foreign correspondent at a formal press conference in Malacañang. You are talking to me in the privacy of your suite. Don’t talk to me about isolated cases. When your secret agents can raid any house at any time and arrest people without warrants, jail them for years without filing charges, deny them legal counsel, extract confessions through inhuman tortures, that is institutionalized violence. When your secret agents can pick up a citizen at night and the next morning return his mutilated body to the town square, that is institutionalized terrorism.”
During this conversation Psinakis felt he had genuinely gotten to Imelda and instilled the concern in her that the revolution was impending—particularly when he said the second step of the destabilization plan was to carry out “symbolic assassinations.”
But there were lighter moments as well, like when Bong Bong Marcos—who was studying at Wharton at the time and was the alleged target of an assassination plot wherein Psinakis was again supposedly implicated—arrived, and Psinakis said, laughing, “Hello Bong Bong, come in. I promise not to kill you.”
Psinakis speaking at the Movement for a Free Philippines (MFP) Convention, held at the San Francisco Clarion Hotel, August 25, 1984.
THE AQUINO CONNECTION
Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr. and Steve Psinakis became good friends when Ninoy was temporarily released from prison in May of 1980 and allowed to travel to the U.S. for a heart by-pass operation. Psinakis says this was considered one of the most important events that occurred after the imposition of Martial Law. “Ninoy had always been acknowledged as the arch political rival of Ferdinand Marcos and as the man who would have been president of the Philippines had Marcos not imposed Martial Law and cancelled the presidential elections which were scheduled for late 1973. But, most importantly, Ninoy was viewed as the only politician capable of uniting the fragmented opposition.”
Psinakis describes Ninoy Aquino as “a brilliant politician, a true patriot and obviously ambitious because he wanted to be leader of the country. He was competent and honest, and he did not want to use violence and force. He wanted a diplomatic approach—and he was killed for it.”
Psinakis felt that Ninoy was the torchbearer of the opposition and that, politically, he needed to return because the country needed a spark to light the fire. “He knew that Marcos was very sick, but I said all the more reason for him to kill you. It was his only chance of beating you. He asked me if he should go back, and I said yes. He asked me if it would be dangerous, and I said yes. Ninoy always analyzed situations on a scale from one to 10. I told him his chances for being jailed were two to three; his chances for being placed on house arrest were three to four; and his chances of getting killed were five to 10. He knew the odds and, unfortunately, he proved them right. He knew he was walking into a death trap.”
According to excerpts from Psinakis’s new book, Ninoy made a public announcement in Washington that he would return home. In order to ensure his safety, Psinakis was going to call Philip Habib, the acting U.S. Secretary of State, to provide the same security Kim Dae Jung was given when he returned to South Korea. Ninoy stopped him, saying he didn’t want to ask for favors. “The U.S. government knows where I am and when I am going to Manila,” he said. “If they want to provide me with some security, considering the threats that have been floating around, they should offer the assistance. It’s humiliating for me to ask for it and be denied.”
“Not a day goes by,” says Psinakis, “without me thinking what if I had prevented him? What if I had asked, pleaded, and begged him not to return? But history is not made of ‘what if’s.’ It is made by men like Ninoy.”
On the evening of August 20th, 1983, the Psinakises and some close friends waited at their home in San Francisco for news of Ninoy’s safe arrival in Manila. They waited for hours until finally the phone rang. It was Tessie Oreta crying over the crackle of static: “They killed him, they killed him. . . . ”
“Time froze,” says Psinakis. “Our hearts broke.”
Ninoy had been shot in the head as he was walking down the stairway of the airplane. “He was dead moments after he touched the soil of his beloved country,” he says. “Tessie, who had been at the airport to meet her brother, after the unfolding of the tragic events and in her state of shock and confusion and wanting to inform us as soon as she could, rang on the door of some house and asked to use their phone. She made that difficult phone call from inside a total stranger’s house.”
Psinakis’s daughter Geni remembers: “I was sick with the flu and was resting in my parents’ bedroom, where my mom would come in and check on me from time to time. My parents and their friends were in the study, a few steps down the hallway. I knew that something big was going on with Tito Ninoy but wasn’t sure exactly what. Everyone kept mentioning his name, and they all seemed so nervous and impatient. The phone rang and everybody shut up. A few moments later, I peeked out of my parents’ bedroom and saw my dad, dropped down on his knees, his whole body shaking, and, as he cried, he pounded his fists on the floor.”
“During those first few days,” he says, “I do not know what depressed me the most—the immense grief I felt over losing one of my dearest friends, my guilt for supporting his decision to return home, or the overwhelming sadness of knowing that the Philippines had lost a unique and irreplaceable leader.” It took Psinakis days to regain some measure of self-control and call Cory to express his condolences. “Up until then, I thought I would make a fool of myself not being able to control my emotions. After three days, I gathered the courage to try to call her. When Cory answered the phone, I could not utter a word for a couple of minutes. I managed to extend my condolences between sobs. I remember Cory in her unimaginable grief trying to console me instead of me consoling her. That’s the person full of strength, compassion, and understanding I knew Cory to be. The whole nation and the rest of the world would also soon find out.”
One of the most significant media-related events and learning experiences in Yuri’s life came after Ninoy’s assassination. “I remember watching, waiting for news. The fact that it was no surprise did nothing to soften the blow that a friend was killed. It was the first time I saw Dad cry. Maybe the only time.”
Psinakis knew that the news reporting Rolando Galman as Ninoy’s killer was not the truth. The next days and weeks were spent deconstructing the events as presented and doing so with the exact information provided by the local media at the time. This is where Yuri came in. His “homework” was to sit in front of the T.V. during broadcast news hours and flip back and forth through the networks and local channels scanning for any news of the Philippines, and in particular, Ninoy’s assassination. Over the next days and weeks, Yuri had amassed a compilation that helped his father come to the conclusion that the information being delivered into the homes and heads of Filipinos and anybody with a television was simply not the truth.
Unaware of it at the time, Steve Psinakis had been the target of a case the F.B.I. had been methodically building against him over the last six years. Many of the opposition leaders, including Ninoy Aquino, had suspected they were being watched but had somehow taken it as a sign of safety rather than a cause for alarm. When Ronald Reagan became president, things changed, and the Bureau began to clamp down on Marcos’s enemies.
On the morning of March 2, 1981, not even two months after Reagan took office, Ninoy Aquino, Steve Psinakis, Raul Manglapus, Raul Daza, Sonny Alvarez, Bonnie Gillego, and several other key members of the MFP in the U.S. were visited simultaneously by teams of two F.B.I. agents each, in a well-planned “surprise attack” that would give none of the targets a chance to prepare or communicate with each other.
It was codenamed “Operation Interview,” and the logistical precision and accuracy of its execution was frightening: F.B.I. agents knocking on doors in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Washington, Tucson, Seattle, San Francisco, and other cities across the U.S. at exactly the same time not to arrest, search, or interrogate, but to “interview.”
According to Psinakis, special agent Al Cruz was a likable, well-educated, and well-mannered man in his early forties, whose responsibility it was to thoroughly investigate him. “It was evident that, after two or three meetings, he was convinced I had committed criminal acts,” he says, “but we always treated each other with respect.” So much so that Cruz agreed to come back the following day when Psinakis said he had an appointment he couldn’t miss.
During his appointment, Psinakis missed 15 phone calls, and when he got home, he received one more from an active member of the MFP’s New York Chapter. He sounded terrified and was barely coherent: “Mr. Psinakis,” a trembling voice said, “two F.B.I. agents came to my house this morning, and they were asking all kinds of questions about the MFP. Most of their questions were about you.”
“Tell me,” Psinakis said calmly, “what questions were they asking you?”
“They started asking me about the MFP members in New York; whether they are raising funds for the rebels in Manila, whether MFP is in favor of violence against the Marcos government; whether I know you and what I knew about your activities—but I didn’t tell them anything. They became angry and said that if I don’t cooperate, they could deport me!”
The panic kicked up a notch.
“Did you tell them anything?”
“Of course not!”
“Then what are you worried about?”
After assuring him that everything was fine, Psinakis ended the conversation. The following day Al Cruz and his partner Steve Davis showed up for the interview. When Psinakis pulled out a tape recorder to record the interview, Al said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Psinakis, F.B.I. procedures prohibit anyone from tape recording our interview.” To which Psinakis replied, “Then I’m also sorry, Al. If I, who am suspected of violating the law, am willing to have my answers recorded, I can’t think of any legitimate reason why you are reluctant to have your questions recorded. I think this interview is over.”
THE MIDNIGHT RAID
At around 11:30 P.M. on December 17, 1981, the Psinakis’s San Francisco home was raided by a large squad of approximately 20 plainclothes agents from the F.B.I., the I.N.S., and several other agencies, accompanied by a mob of uniformed police officers from the San Francisco and San Mateo County police departments, and a bomb-sniffing canine unit. The house was surrounded by police cars with flashing lights led by Cruz, Davis, and a lanky G-man named Frank Doyle.
The family dogs—a German Short-haired Pointer named Prince and an English Springer Spaniel named Princess—were going absolutely crazy, barking and howling at the outrageous scene outside this otherwise peaceful home. Psinakis brought them downstairs to his son Yuri’s bedroom and instructed him to keep them there because strangers were inside the house.
A rookie on his first assignment, Frank Doyle was a bumbling nervous wreck—it was a cold winter night in San Francisco, and the man was sweating like a pig; his hands were shaking, his voice was cracking, and he was uncontrollably jittery. He spoke: “Mr. Psinakis, we’ve got a warrant to search your house—are your dogs locked up?”
“They’re in my son’s room,” he answered, “but I’ll take them out to the backyard.” As he opened the door to the backyard, the dogs ran out and a gunshot exploded. Doyle forgot he had agents back there too.
“Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! It’s Doyle!” He screamed, hoping to God nobody was hurt—and nobody was, but the situation had instantly become extremely tense.
When the dust settled, the search commenced and lasted for three and a half hours, during which two laws were broken. It was the family’s constitutional right to observe the search, but they were confined in a room while their home was ransacked. And, although the search warrant applied only to explosives, they photocopied and confiscated many of the family’s personal files and documents. In the end, the search turned up nothing but embarrassment for Frank Doyle and his gang of loose canons.
Yuri remembers the night: “It was my freshman year of high school and I was awakened when the agents and their dogs were ‘invited’ in to search our home. I just moved from room to room to keep out of their way. Mike, amazingly, slept through the whole thing! I remember them going into the room while he slept and even lifting his mattress to see if anything was hidden there. The next day, I went to school like everything was normal. I never told anyone government agents had opened my presents the night before, looking for explosives.”
But that was only one of a series of similar encounters with the F.B.I. The fix was definitely in. Imelda’s veiled threats during the infamous meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria were being carried out with terrifying regularity, and the most powerful government in the world was going after Steve Psinakis and several other Filipino citizens who risked deportation back into the clutches of Marcos. The message was clear and hostile: oppositionists were not welcome in the United States.
“In the years that followed,” says Psinakis, “my name would occasionally pop up in their system, a red flag goes off somewhere, and I am pulled out of the line and taken to a private room where two or three I.N.S. agents empty my suitcases.”
The Psinakises remember at least three instances when their garbage was stolen. One night they stayed up late to try and catch the culprit. At about two o’clock in the morning, two drunkards walked across their lawn and threw something over the wall and into their garden where Prince was barking after hearing the two hobos singing in loud slurs. Fifteen minutes later, they brought him up to their bed and he fell asleep. At around 3:45 A.M., a black van with no lights drove up to the house and, in a matter of seconds, spewed out six marauders that sprinted across the lawn, grabbed their garbage bags, and drove away with them. “We knew our garbage had been tampered with before,” he says, “but seeing it with our own eyes was very disturbing.”
The nightmare continued the next morning when they discovered Prince was barely breathing and was, in fact, almost on the brink of death. They rushed him to the vet and found that he had overdosed on horse tranquilizers. “It was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day,” says Yuri. “For a number of years, we would go to the Sheraton Palace for a Christmas Banquet with all our family and old friends. We missed this one because we had to rush Prince to the vet. It was suggested that he was poisoned—It certainly would have been easier to rummage through our garbage without the dogs barking.”
Another time, Presy’s cousin from Manila had dinner with them in their San Francisco home. After a pleasant evening, they walked her out to her car and said goodbye. Two or three days later, after she arrived in Manila, she was approached by a total stranger at a supermarket who looked straight into her eyes and without saying a word pulled something out of his jacket pocket—a photograph of her saying goodbye to the Psinakises in front of their home. “That was Marcos’s intimidation tactic—he wanted to show that he had a record of everything and everybody who came into contact with us, no matter who it was or for what reason. And this tactic worked on many people. There were friends and even some relatives that couldn’t take the pressure and kept their distance from us throughout all those years.”
“I remember Dad having a night-vision device around that same time,” says Yuri. “It was very cool. I couldn’t hold it up to my face because it was so big and heavy, like it should be mounted on a tank.” According to Yuri, there were numerous occasions where there was a random unmarked, or suspiciously logo-ed van across the street. “Our neighborhood and street were very quiet. Even I knew which cars belonged and which didn’t—even to the point where I’d recognize our neighbors’ regular visitors. I can’t imagine anyone surveilling us actually thought they might have been inconspicuous. We used to say, ‘Hey look, the Roto-rooter guys must be spending the night at the neighbor’s again.” Yuri also remembers random incidents of road rage with his dad, but did not think anything of it at the time, but “of course now I understand that people were paid to harass, follow, and insult us.
To this he attaches an important personal note: “Through everything growing up—the very real threats to my dad’s personal well-being and that of his wife and children—I never felt unsafe, in trouble, or in danger. Not only that: I have always felt like everything is as it should be. Though it may have been possible to keep some, or even most, of the information from us, we kids weren’t oblivious. That said, something was so right and so in place that I never worried for my safety or that of my family. Not once that I can remember. It is part his care, his strength, his intention, and certainly part my mom’s quiet strength and crystal-clear relationship with spirit that supports everything else. I think these things, coupled with ethics, an authentic concern for others, and a sense of purpose superseded anything else in my family.”
News of Psinakis’s arrest was met with outrage. The story was widely circulated through major newspapers, and many held protests calling for Psinakis’s freedom.
In the preface of Two “Terrorists” Meet, Psinakis writes, “Although Marcos was viewed as an ‘astute politician,’ he has committed and continues to commit almost all of the errors of his fellow dictators—past and present. The ‘first signs of revolution’ are all much too clear. The question is now whether the Marcoses will be an exception to the rule or one more addition to the same statistic.”
He emphasized this point to Imelda at the Waldorf when he told her, “What is happening today in the Philippines is the beginning of a violent revolution, which, unless it is understood and attended to very soon, will reach an irreversible point. If that happens, it will not only cause your destruction, but it will also cause destruction to your country that will set it back for years.”
True enough, the People Power Revolution made history and restored freedom and democracy. The Lopezes were able to regain control of the companies they ran for years. But almost immediately, symptoms of residual low-level corruption began to appear, and this frustrated Psinakis. Bobby Tañada explained the corruption in Cory’s administration: “Even though all the new heads were changed, the ones under remained and the culture of corruption was still festering in the lower ranks until it grew.” This is when Psinakis realized that corruption in the Philippines could only be changed from the bottom up, and he decided to abandon politics.
THE ARREST AND TRIAL
After 14 years of Martial Law, the Philippines was finally free, and once democracy was restored—Psinakis and his family returned to work with the Lopez group. “It was a good time for all of us,” he says, “a hopeful time, with vision and plans for the future. A future that a few years ago seemed dark and bleak. We had survived extortion, persecution, and heavy losses; and we had come out relatively unscathed.” The Lopez family had a lot to look forward to because Geny was, according to Psinakis, “an unstoppable force in Philippine business.”
Psinakis withdrew from politics to be with his family—but just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in: On Sunday, July 5, 1987, Psinakis arrived in San Francisco for a business trip and was arrested and handcuffed at the immigration line by two I.N.S. agents who said he had been indicted by the U.S. Government for “transporting explosives across state lines.” He spent the night in a federal holding jail on Bryant Street, but made a phone call to former San Francisco Chronicle editor (and ex-husband of Sharon Stone) Phil Bronstein, who had been observing the political situation in the Philippines for many years now. When he went down to the jail to see Psinakis, the first question he asked was “Why the hell were you arrested now?”
Psinakis was taken to “The Tank”—a 25 x 25-foot square concrete room with a steel door, a small window, and an exposed toilet in the corner. Suspected criminals arrested over the weekend are held in this room until a judge is available to process them, and The Tank was full of all manner of strange and fearful human deviations—pederasts, rapists, and muggers; kleptomaniacs and people with no sex or sanity at all. Psinakis almost choked to death with the stench of alcohol, urine, stale perfume, and cigarette smoke. He stood out like a sore thumb in his blazer, black slacks, and Italian leather shoes, standing near the window so he could signal the guard if a fight broke out. When he lit up a cigarette, a huge African-American man walked up to him and said, “Gimme a stick.” So he gave him one and that’s as tense as the night got. The next morning Psinakis was able to get a hearing on the bail issue, but had to remain in custody for three extra nights in an orange uniform.
The news of Psinakis’s arrest hit Manila like a raging typhoon. It was on the front page of every major newspaper, and the reaction it elicited from family, friends, politicians, and people he didn’t even know was overwhelming. Mailgrams to Magistrate Joan Brennan protesting the arrest and requesting that Psinakis be granted bail started to pile up. If bail was not granted, he could have potentially languished in jail until the pretrial motions were completed—which, in Psinakis’s case, took about two and a half years. “All of the former dissidents I worked with together in exile in the U.S. from 1974 to 1986 offered to travel from wherever they were to testify during my trial. The growing list of people that wanted to show up in court on my behalf was a who’s-who of Filipino politics. I was touched and grateful,” he says.
On July 9, the judge set bail at $200,000, which was guaranteed by Geny Lopez and the bail bond of $25,000 was immediately put up by their close family friend Arturo Rocha. The pretrial hearings went from July 1987 to June 1989, during which time all the motions filed by Psinakis’s lawyer Jim Brosnahan were dismissed until they eventually proposed a plea bargain—which Psinakis was not interested in taking because it would be an admission of guilt. Although impressed with his client’s refusal to compromise his principles, Brosnahan was worried they would not win the case. “You must have a hell of a good reason to risk going to jail for 15 years,” he told him.
On behalf of the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives, Senator Jovito Salonga sent a letter to Secretary of State George Schultz appealing for the dismissal of the case. According to Psinakis, Schultz’s response was “arrogant, insulting, and contemptuous,” which outraged most of the signatories in Salonga’s letter and prompted the Philippine government to honor Psinakis with the “Presidential Citation for Outstanding and Distinguished Service to Philippine Democracy.”
Brosnahan was now building the case around the dismissal of the indictment on the “selective prosecution” principle, which makes it unconstitutional and therefore illegal for the government to select and indict a person “among many others similarly situated.”
Brosnahan called many high-powered witnesses to the stand, including the dignified and eloquent Foreign Affairs secretary of the Philippines, Raul Manglapus; U.S. Congressman Steve Solarz; and even former Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal. “Former President Diosdado Macapagal was a man of great stature and integrity,” says Psinakis. “He was President from 1961 to 1965, and was defeated by Marcos in the 1965 elections. During his presidency, he initiated revolutionary reforms and fought graft and corruption, which earned him the nickname ‘The Incorruptible.’ I admired him deeply and he honored me with his friendship. President Macapagal had volunteered to fly in from the Philippines just to testify as a character witness in my trial.”
But the biggest blow to the prosecution came when they tried to present Psinakis’s case out of the context of his so-called “terrorist” activities, i.e. the restoration of freedom, justice, and democracy in the Philippines. “It became clear during the trial that the only charge in the indictment was: COUNT I—Conspiracy to transport explosive materials and COUNT II—the transportation of explosive materials across State lines without permits. The jurors would have liked to know the destination of the explosives; who were they intended for; who and how were they going to be used; and what were their specific targets, if any,” said Psinakis.
In a slam-dunk legal tactic devised by Brosnahan, special agent Al Cruz was called to the stand, where he shed light on the real motives for Psinakis’s arrest by lying under oath and denying many of the events that took place during the investigation. Most damaging of these false statements was when Cruz claimed he had found incriminating evidence in Psinakis’s house when they searched it on that December night. Cruz had forgotten that after the search that night, he used Psinakis’s phone—which was still being wiretapped by the F.B.I.—to call his boss and report that nothing was found. A copy of the tape was used to refute his testimony and embarrass him in front of a jury.
“I was completely shocked by the array of lies that Al Cruz said during his testimony,” says Psinakis. “What was particularly shocking to me was the fact that he knew that I knew he was lying under oath and that did not seem to bother him at all. I then realized that he was not the professional, respectable F.B.I. agent I thought him to be; he was sadly a pawn who did or said anything that his superiors instructed him to do without any regard for the truth.”
During a court recess, Psinakis walked up to Cruz and said, “Hello, Al. How are you?” “Fine,” he answered, a bit startled by the query. “Al,” continued Psinakis calmly, “would you agree that I always treated you with respect as if you were a professional doing your job even though your job was to help put me in jail?” “Yes, Mr. Psinakis,” he answered, “I have also treated you with respect”—which was true. “Yes, Al, I agree that you have treated me with respect until the moment you stepped on the witness stand and were sworn in to tell the truth.” “Why?” he asked. “Because you know and I know that you are lying under oath and that is perjury—a felony equal to or perhaps even worse than the charges against me. You are a disgrace to your profession and to your colleagues who do their work fairly, honestly, and truthfully. If you had any decency, you would resign from the F.B.I.”
“During the trial,” says Yuri, “I had a similar experience wherein I witnessed some of the testimony of some of the U.S. government officials—primarily F.B.I., I suppose—and began to understand that each person was making a case for their own story with little regard for the truth.”
On June 7, 1989, after many hours of deliberation, the jury had reached their decision. The courtroom was filled with supporters of Psinakis, anxiously awaiting the announcement of the verdict. Judge Schnacke said, “You have been a good audience throughout the trial, and I expect you to be the same when the verdict is read. The four marshals are here to see that you are—will the jury foreman please read the verdict.”
Friends in the courtroom broke out into applause and embraced one another. Steve hugged Jim who was next to him, and he held him tight for what felt like a very long time, perhaps to hide his own tears of joy. “I congratulated Jim when my voice was no longer cracking. I looked across the courtroom and saw the foreman sporting a broad, satisfied smile for the first time. I said, ‘Thank you’ from a distance.”
Psinakis, pictured in his early years.
Psinakis had no idea at the time that he would be involved in such a long and dangerous battle. “An Odyssey,” Presy calls it, like the Greeks. “But,” Psinakis says, “What is life if we don’t do what is right? We have to try and make a difference in life.”
Finally, I ask him what could be the most important question: how he became the man he is. Where he drew his strength. “Both my parents always told me,” he says, “that truth is the strongest thing alive in a man’s worth. If you are bound by the truth, you can never be defeated . . . because the truth does not change. That’s what I learned. I don’t make decisions based on whether I’ll get shot; I make them based on what’s right and wrong. People used to ask me if I was scared when I received all those death threats, and I would say, ‘of course I was scared.’ But I was sure I was doing the right thing. And if a threat to me or my family would make me do the wrong thing, then what is my purpose?”
There were many moments of genuine pale-faced fear in Steve Psinakis’s life, but it never seemed to affect his decision-making. His parents instilled in him a deep respect for the truth and a willingness to sacrifice for it no matter what. His father did not come from a prominent family—financially or politically. But he told him things that have stayed with him all his life.
“I’ve told Geni this many times,” he says, triggering a giggle from his daughter next to him. “If you let your emotions affect your decisions, it takes away the logic from the decision. The truth is always there. It’s only a question of how and when it will come to the surface. In my life, the thing that affected me the most is this belief that when you come to this world, things have to be done because they are right and not because you will benefit from it. It takes a lot of courage to accept that—but I’m a happier man for it.”
This story first appeared in Rogue’s 2008 State of the Nation Issue (June 2008).