May 11, 2021

Editor’s Pick: The complicated death of Carlos Teo Cruz


Carlos Teo Cruz, world lightweight champion in 1968, was killed in a tragic flying accident two years later, writes Jose Corpas

ON February 15, 1970, at approximately 6.28pm,
Dominicana DC-9 took off from Las Americas Airport en route to Puerto Rico. The
twin-engine plane, which had flown in from San Juan a few hours earlier without
a hitch, was given the all-clear by the Dominican mechanics. It was the dry
season in that part of the tropics and every cloud in the sky was visible from
the cockpit. About two minutes later, still in its initial climb, the right
engine flamed out. A request for an immediate return to the airport was
followed by a hard right. Seconds later, still turning, the plane’s other
engine gave out. The plane went into an instant nosedive and plunged into the Caribbean
Sea just two miles from the airport. All 102 onboard perished, including the former
First Lady of the Dominican Republic and, Carlos Teofilo Cruz, the first boxing
champion from the Dominican Republic.

When he boarded the fateful flight, Cruz
was only months away from getting a chance to regain the title he had lost on
cuts. That he had ever become a champion, one good enough to have beaten
quality operators such as Carlos Ortiz and Mando Ramos, was a surprise to all except
those closest to him. He was 20 years old when he first slipped his fist into a
boxing glove. Two years and 17 amateur contests later, he turned pro and
plodded his way to a 7-7 mark. Despite the rocky start, those closest to him
saw improvements in his game. They knew that his poor record was a result of
poor training facilities, short notice fights and bad hotel rooms. Those
conditions were the norm until 1965, when he scored an upset victory over
Lancaster’s Frankie Taylor.

A 1960 Olympian, Taylor was poised to make
a move on the international scene. With a stoppage win over former super-featherweight
titlist, Harold Gomes, and a pair of scintillating victories over Lennie “The
Lion” Williams of Wales, Taylor was expected to beat the rugged visitor. Amid
talk of a possible title challenge against Howard Winstone and only a few
months after appearing alongside Henry Cooper on the cover of the November 6,
1964 issue of Boxing News, Taylor took on Cruz in a super-featherweight
match at the Town Hall in London.

Cruz, 129 1/4lbs and built like Marvin Hagler, rose to the occasion that night. With his chin tucked in close to his chest and his guard high and tight, he stalked, boxed out of a crouch, and attacked in a style reminiscent of Marcel Cerdan’s. Cruz outworked his foe to earn the decision. Taylor would fight only twice more before trading in his gloves for a pen and a successful career as a boxing correspondent. Cruz moved up to lightweight where he immediately became a ranked contender. Three years after beating Taylor, Cruz challenged long-time champ Carlos Ortiz for the world championship.

Held in a baseball stadium in Santo
Domingo on June 29, 1968, Cruz dropped and then walked Ortiz down over 15
rounds to become the lightweight champion of the world. The crowd, described as
enthusiastic, was much smaller than promoter Ulises Frias had hoped for. Political
correspondent, Tomas Montas, who was ringside, said it was a “difficult era due
to the political situation in the country,” and that “people were afraid to
leave their homes.”

More accurately, people were afraid of
saying the wrong thing in front of the wrong people. In 1961, President Rafael
Trujillo was assassinated. Those behind the killing spent more time plotting
the hit than they did on planning the aftermath. The years that followed the
assassination saw Trujillo supporters and family members compete ruthlessly
with generals and politicians for control. Civilians remained apolitical,
afraid their opinions be heard by the ears of the secret police. It took years for
the unrest to subside, but most felt it a necessary consequence. “The only way
to get rid of him was to kill him,” General Antonio Imbert, one of the gunmen,
explained to the BBC in 2011.

The night of May 30, 1961, on a secluded
and dark section of the highway that connected Santo Domingo to San Cristobal, a
dark Mercury parked in the shadows, the engine on, the lights off. Inside, the
occupants clutched their pistols and semiautomatic rifles while scanning the
road for the president’s light blue ‘57 Chevy. When Trujillo passed by, the
Mercury pulled out, the lights still off. About a kilometre and 60 bullet holes
later, under a row of coconut trees, the smell of burnt gunpowder filled the
air and the red blood of a dead dictator covered the road.

In his youth in San Cristobal, Trujillo had
amassed a rap sheet longer than Cruz’s amateur record. He was a thief, a cattle
rustler, a forger and, according to some sources, a rapist. Trujillo later joined
the American-controlled Dominican National Guard. His ambition, combined with
his work as a double agent, earned him the rank of general in less than 10
years. He seized control of the army after a revolt and shortly after, assumed
complete authority of the country. While president, he maintained friendships
in Washington D.C. and shared intel about Cuba and other Latin American nations
with American politicians. The well-dressed Trujillo, with his meticulously
trimmed toothbrush mustache, had friends in Hollywood too, even landing a cameo
as an airplane mechanic in the film classic, Casablanca. Over the years,
one of his mottos changed from “God and Trujillo” to “Trujillo and God.” He renamed
the nation’s capital to Trujillo City, ordered the removal of African drums and
rhythms from merengue music, and enlisted his son – aged four – into the army,
had a tiny uniform custom made for him and, everyone beneath the rank of
general had to salute him since he had officially appointed the little tyke to
the rank of colonel. Trujillo would later add murderer to his list of crimes.

He ordered an innumerable amount of
deaths, including the massacre of thousands of Haitians living in the republic.
Political rivals were kidnapped, tortured and allegedly thrown off a pier into
shark-infested waters. Some believe he fed his enemies to the large hogs he
kept on his ranch. Keeping vigil over the townsfolk was the Death Mobile – a
red Packard driven by trigger-happy disciples that slithered slowly through
neighborhood streets. Following a botched assassination attempt on the president
of Venezuela in 1960, the United States stopped backing Trujillo. That same year,
after three activist sisters named Mirabal were abducted and killed, members of
Trujillo’s own military had had enough. “Dammit! There are no real men left in
this country,” Imbert proclaimed.

Imbert was behind the wheel of the Mercury
that night. About a kilometre after the last streetlight, on the outskirts of
the city, shots were fired. Imbert passed the Chevy and cut it off. The
chauffeur slammed the brakes. A second car, an Oldsmobile, caught up and opened
fire. For about a minute, the night’s darkness was interrupted by the muzzle
flash of handguns and semiautomatic weapons. Imbert got out of his car and approached
the Chevy. The back door swung open. Trujillo stumbled out, “blood spurting
from his back,” and made his last stand. “Trujillo was wounded but still
walking, so I shot him again,” Imbert later said.

The 45-calibre bullet landed on his chin.

Trujillo spun halfway around, then fell on
his face. He died on the spot. His chauffeur died 38 years later. A few seconds
after Trujillo was shot, the chauffeur made a move towards the trunk. He was shot
in the head and knocked off his feet, out for a 10-count, but still alive. When
he gathered his wits, the assassins and the president’s dead body were gone.
All that remained, he said, was the light blue Chevy, the president’s bloodied
cap, and “the moon in the sky.”   

A passerby took the wounded chauffeur to
the nearest hospital where he identified most of the seven shooters. A distinct
handgun left at the scene of the crime helped find the others. A manhunt ensued
over the next 72 hours. Five of the shooters were located and killed. The sixth
gunman hid in a closet for six months. Imbert made it to a friend’s house, then
later stayed at the Italian embassy. His brother was captured, used as a lure, then
killed, but Imbert remained in hiding until December.

Cruz was residing in Puerto Rico when
Trujillo was killed. He had left behind the inexperienced gyms of the Dominican
Republic the year before. Never a boxing hotbed, the best his homeland had produced
was probably 1940s middleweight, Carlos Perez. A hard-hitting slugger with a
penchant for street fighting, Perez scored his biggest wins in Cuba, where he
beat both Kid Charol and the excellent Kid Tunero. Locally, he defeated the slick
boxing Antonio Medrano and, on the streets, a slew of neighbourhood toughs. In
1960, in a small café in his hometown, Perez, aged 37, sat down alone for a
late-night meal. It was a moment some had been waiting for. A quiet hand turned
off the lights. When they went back on, Perez was slumped on the floor with
multiple stab wounds in his neck and torso.

Cruz was one of nine children born into a
military family only miles from where Trujillo lived. When he was young, the
family moved to Santiago, where he got his start in boxing. After three fights
in Santo Domingo, he went to Puerto Rico. He lost a decision but found better
training facilities and a wife. Though he was losing as often as he won, he was
beginning to master his trade. By the time he reached London for his match
against Taylor, the Dominican Republic was in a civil war, Imbert was the
president, and Cruz had developed into a world-class fighter.

After the civil war ended, Imbert reverted
to his post as general. Trujillo loyalists had never given up on their quest
for vengeance. Imbert lived in constant threat of retaliation and travelled
with armed guards. On March 21, 1967, he was shot in Santo Domingo in an
attempted assassination by Trujillo’s supporters. Though he survived, the plots
against his life continued.

On February 15, 1970, Cruz was returning
to Puerto Rico with his wife, Mildred, and two children after attending his
sister’s wedding. Cruz had a fight lined up in France. After that, a title shot
awaited. His brother Leo – a future super-bantamweight champion – was weeks
away from competing at the Central American and Caribbean Games in Panama. The
family had a lot to look forward to.

They said their goodbyes then headed
towards the boarding gate. When they were asked to show their identifications, Mildred
checked her bags and pockets but did not have it on her. They were not allowed
through. His father and brother offered to drive back home and retrieve her ID,
though it was unlikely they could make it back in time. Cruz and family were
about to miss their flight.

Leo said his brother was polite and humble
about the situation. He did not ask for nor expect any special treatment. The
family was off to the side, in a huddle, considering their options, lamenting
their misfortune, when a different gate inspector noticed them. He approached
the first inspector and asked if he was aware who Cruz was. After advising him
that Cruz was “our champion,” they extended the family a courtesy and allowed
them to board.

Already on the plane were Guarina Tessón
Hurtado, Leslie Imbert Tessón and Aída Imbert Barrera – Imbert’s wife, daughter
and sister. A few rows back were most of the members of Puerto Rico’s women’s
national volleyball team. A total of 97 passengers and five crew members
strapped themselves in for lift-off.

Leo and his parents were almost home when
they heard the news over the car radio. “The worst day of our lives,” recanted the
younger brother. For two days, rescuers searched for bodies. Sharks beat them
to a few. The airline suspended all operations while an investigation ensued. Pilot
error was ruled out. Engine failure was the cause but, with a relatively new
plane, the collective eyebrows of the airline and FAA officials were raised. The
crash was classified an accident, but the status report remained inconclusive.
Contaminated fuel was the presumed cause, according to news reports. Four of
the mechanics who checked the plane prior to takeoff were arrested. Not much else
was reported. The people drew their own conclusions. The rumours spread to
every corner from La Avenida Maximo Gomez to the Heroes monument in Santiago.

Both Puerto Rico and the Dominican
Republic went into mourning. After champions Carlos Ortiz and Jose Torres, Cruz
was one of the more popular boxers in Puerto Rico. Headlining often at the
Hiram Bithorn and Sixto Escobar Stadiums, he was considered a local and was
eulogised publicly along with the members of the women’s volleyball team.
Carlos Ortiz, who was mistakenly thought to be a passenger on the flight,
received many calls asking if he was dead. While confirming he was alive, he spoke
reverently about Cruz, who he had known for many years. He was a “decent man”
and one of the best of the era for many years, he said of his ring rival.

In the Dominican Republic, Cruz was honoured
with the symbolic keys to San Cristobal – the city of his birth. He was also enshrined
in the country’s sports hall of fame. In 1996, the Coliseo Carlos Teo Cruz
opened in Santo Domingo. Commissioned by President Balaguer, who was a vice
president during the Trujillo regime, the stadium hosted several boxing matches.

Today, the stadium is empty most days. The
parking lot is used by area driving schools and the arena hosts mostly
religious and political events. Many seats in the arena are broken or missing
and sections of the roof leaks whenever it rains. Efforts to repair the arena –
like some investigations – went unfinished.

The rumours that surfaced after the
tragedy of 1970 said it was a terrorist attack – a hit on the Imbert family,
retribution for a dictator who died on a dark highway like a struck deer. Over
the years, the rumors were hushed until they became barely decipherable
whispers. Eventually, they faded completely, like the comeback hopes of a
talented boxer and decent man.


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