The smoldering wreckage of Orlando Letelier’s car.

How one man narrowly escaped the assassination of Orlando Letelier

Letelier, a former Chilean diplomat, was murdered in Washington 40 years ago this week. Juan Gabriel Valdés came horrifically close to dying with him. This is his story.

By Karen DeYoung, David Montgomery, Missy Ryan, Ishaan Tharoor, and Jia Lynn Yang

On a muggy autumn morning four decades ago, a car exploded in Washington.

It had motored along Massachusetts Avenue NW, rounding the bend at Sheridan Circle, when a remote-controlled bomb taped beneath the vehicle was triggered.

A driver in a car nearby would later describe the fiery impact of the blast: “I saw an automobile actually coming down out of the air.”

The smoldering wreck lurched to a halt in front of the Romanian Embassy, its windows blown open and entire floor panel gone. A police officer who arrived on the scene remembered welling up with nausea. There was blood and debris everywhere and a human foot in the roadway. A fatally wounded man lay on the pavement; his legs were missing from above the knees.

Orlando Letelier

This was Orlando Letelier, a 44-year-old former Chilean diplomat who had been driving to work at a D.C. think tank along with his colleague, Ronni Moffitt, 25, and her husband, Michael.

Letelier died within minutes. Shrapnel had pierced Ronni Moffitt’s throat, and she drowned in her own blood a half-hour later. Michael, who had been sitting in the back seat, tumbled out largely unscathed. He was beside himself in grief and shock.

They were victims of a brazen, perhaps unprecedented plot, the target of a foreign regime that had sent agents into the United States to kill Letelier. Here was a case of state-sponsored terrorism in the heart of the American capital. Only in this instance, the state was a close Washington ally in the Cold War.

One man, however, escaped the carnage: Juan Gabriel Valdés, Chile’s ambassador to the United States. At the time, Valdés was Letelier’s assistant at the Institute of Policy Studies and was nearly in the car that was bombed.

Below, we’ve excerpted Valdés incredible story from our extensive oral history of the assassination, which contains interviews from Letelier’s associates, family and government investigators, as well as documents, video and archival photos.

We had seen strange cars stopping in front of our office, at Dupont Circle, and Orlando had received threats, under his door. But Orlando always dismissed our concerns, saying: “They would never dare to attack me in Washington. If they want to attack me, they will wait for me to be in Europe, particularly in [the Netherlands],” where he traveled a lot. Therefore, he dismissed the issue. He was never concerned about it.
The night before, he called me at around 10 o’clock telling me that he wanted to pick me up the next morning either at my home, or on the way coming down Massachusetts Avenue from Wisconsin Avenue, because he wanted me to give him a draft of a paper I had been writing with another assistant. The Chilean dictatorship had stripped him of his nationality, and Orlando had decided that he wanted to answer the military in the New York Times, and we prepared a draft.
I said to him, “Look, Orlando, why don’t we wait until 9:30, because my wife is going to the supermarket in the morning.” I had to stay with my two small children at the time. Orlando didn’t like the idea. He said to me: “Why don’t you tell Antonia to go another day to the supermarket? I mean, I need that paper.” We have to remember that at the time, there were no faxes and no emails. I said to him: “Why don’t you wait until 9:30? I mean, it’s just half an hour and I will be with the paper at your office.” He said okay. We said goodbye. And that was the main reason why he didn’t pick me up in the morning.
He was with Michael and Ronni Moffitt in the car. Michael had his car in the garage, so he needed a car and borrowed Orlando’s. Life is curious. If Michael had been driving the car, it would have been Michael who would have died with the bomb. But Orlando decided to drive himself.
Michael Moffitt tumbles out of the car, unscatched. “Assassins, fascists!” he yells.
I was at home. I was finishing the draft. And then I received a call from Orlando’s assistant telling me that “Orlando had a terrible accident.” I believed it was a car accident, and then I received a call telling me, “You have to go to the hospital and then to the house, because the FBI is going to call and somebody has to talk to them.” I said, “What, the FBI?” I mean, this was an accident. And the response was: “This was not an accident. This was a bomb. Orlando has been murdered.”
It was one of the greatest shocks in my life. Probably the most important one.

Valdés’ harrowing story continues at The Washington Post.