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'Master of disguises' believed dead in Cuba

Robert Vesco, the American fugitive who cooked up moneymaking schemes that allegedly involved everyone from drug lords to the brothers of U.S. presidents, reportedly died in Cuba recently.
Image:  Robert Vesco
Robert Vesco, shown in 1971, evaded the law during a quarter-century odyssey through the Caribbean and Central America after fleeing the U.S. in 1972.Don Hogan Charles / Redux Pictures
/ Source: The Associated Press

Robert Vesco, the American fugitive who cooked up moneymaking schemes that allegedly involved everyone from Colombian drug lords to the families of U.S. presidents, died in Cuba and was buried almost six months ago, according to an official document.

A burial record at Havana's Colon Cemetery shows that a man with the same name and birthdate — Dec. 4, 1935 — died on Nov. 23 from lung cancer and was buried the next day in a private plot. He was 72.

In his lifetime, Vesco was accused of looting millions from a Swiss mutual fund, attempting to find U.S. planes for Libya and inventing a drug that he claimed could cure AIDS.

He was linked to Latin American presidents, Soviet spies, smugglers of high-technology equipment — even the CIA.

And he was good at hiding.

Still alive but hiding?
Writer Arthur Herzog, who once interviewed Vesco in Cuba for a biography, called him "a master of disguises," noting the infamous con man had long employed elaborate schemes to escape justice.

"I don't know for sure, but I'm not certain he's dead," Herzog said from his home in New York. He said he recently spoke with a contact in Havana who indicated he had talked with Vesco in recent weeks.

Vesco was so crafty, a DNA test on the buried corpse would be necessary to know for certain it was him, Herzog said.

U.S. officials in Cuba said Monday they were unaware of Vesco's death.

Vesco evaded American justice during a quarter-century odyssey through the Caribbean and Central America after fleeing the U.S. in 1972.

It was Cuban courts that finally put him in prison in 1996, convicting him of marketing a drug, which he claimed could cure cancer and AIDS, without government permission. His business partner Donald A. Nixon Jr. — the nephew of former President Nixon — was detained along with Vesco, but was later released.

Vesco ended up serving most of his 13-year sentence, though it was not clear when he was released.

Vesco is still wanted in the United States on charges of looting $224 million from a investors in a Swiss-based mutual stock fund.

He also was indicted for allegedly contributing $200,000 to Nixon's 1972 campaign to try to head off a probe by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Two Nixon Cabinet members were later tried and acquitted.

Renounced his U.S. citizenship
Vesco renounced his American citizenship and traveled around the Caribbean and Central America in a yacht and various private planes — including a custom Boeing 707 equipped with a sauna.

He settled in Costa Rica, but was kicked out after a new president took office there in 1978.

Vesco moved to the Bahamas, but fled in 1981 aboard his U.S. $1.3 million yacht just before Bahamian authorities issued orders to deport him. In the United States, prosecutors accused him of plotting to pay a kickback to Billy Carter, brother of President Jimmy Carter, to win U.S. permission for Libya to buy C-130 military planes.

Vesco surfaced on the small Caribbean isle of Antigua in 1982 with a plan to buy half of Barbuda, Antigua's small sister island, and establish a principality called the Sovereign Order of New Aragon.

By the fall of that year he was living in Nicaragua. U.S. drug officials later said he collaborated with the Sandinista government to bring cocaine into the United States.

At the end of 1982, he came to Cuba, where he lived off the island of Cayo Largo aboard his yacht with his wife and children. The couple eventually separated and Vesco lived for years with a Cuban woman.

Vesco remained safe from U.S. justice in Cuba, which for decades has been at odds with the United States and refused repeated American requests to extradite him.

Cuban President Fidel Castro said in 1985 that his country allowed Vesco to come for medical treatment, accusing U.S. officials of persecuting the fugitive. "Is it right to harass a man like that?" he asked.

But Cuban officials began distancing themselves from him in the early 1990s after a U.S. federal indictment accused Vesco of working with Carlos Lehder, then reputed head of Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, to win Cuban permission for drug flights over the island.