How the Puerto Rican Radicals Got Their Institutions

The key to the FALN’s early success was help provided by the National Commission on Hispanic Affairs and its director, Maria Cueto. Described as a quiet, determined single woman, Cueto refused to talk to investigators and to the end of her life refused to discuss the FALN. Years of investigation created suspicion, but found little concrete evidence, of her involvement. But her attorney was Elizabeth Fink, and after Cueto’s death, in 2012, Fink confirmed her onetime client’s key role in the FALN. According to Fink, it was Cueto who arranged to name a half-dozen FALN members, including Oscar López and Carlos Torres, to positions on the NCHA’s board, which allowed her to quietly pay them thousands of dollars in Episcopal Church monies that, in essence, funded the FALN’s birth.

“Maria was the quartermaster of the FALN, the person who arranged the money, the travel, the person who arranged everything, who made everything happen,” Fink recalls. “The church had this special house in Greenwich, Connecticut, and I know the FALN had meetings there. Remember, Maria was doing all this with the FALN at the same time she was running this amazing social-action ministry, helping Hispanics.”

Cueto and the NCHA, however, were only half the equation. Without dynamite and the expertise to use it, the FALN would never have sprung to life. For that it turned to its allies in the Weather Underground. Law enforcement for years speculated that Weather had played a role in the FALN’s formation. According to Charles Wells, a longtime member of the NYPD bomb squad, bombs built by the Weather Underground and FALN were of identical design. All of them, he explains, featured a single screw set into a clock at the “9”; the bomb detonated when the minute hand struck the screw. But the concrete evidence of Weather’s involvement came from its own bomb guru, Ron Fliegelman. “We gave them the training,” he acknowledged during a September 2012 interview. “We did that, sure. Was it me? I shouldn’t say. I don’t want to go there.”

By Thanksgiving 1976, with the startling disclosure that nearly a dozen suspects had some kind of affiliation with its NCHA charity, the headquarters of the Episcopal Church became the unlikely epicenter of the FALN investigation. Church officials initially gave the FBI free rein. In a search of the NCHA’s basement office agents found a receipt taped to the bottom of Maria Cueto’s desk. It was for a Smith Corona typewriter. Agents knew that the FALN’s communiqués had been typed on a Smith Corona. They hustled to the Brooklyn store that sold the machine but found nothing of use; the name on the receipt was an alias. The FBI lab had determined that the communiqués had been photocopied on a Gestetner copy machine; a search of Gestetner’s records indicated that such a machine had been sold to the NCHA in 1974, on the eve of the first bombings. It was now being used by another office, and it would take a round of subpoenas to get it.

Lou Vizi, meanwhile, met with the church’s top bishops and found them happy to furnish the NCHA’s financial records. He sensed they were intimidated by Cueto and her people, whose political leanings were far to the left of their own. “They were appalled,” Vizi remembers. “These were very nice people who had been stampeded into this charity stuff by their own guilt. The church treasurer got all the records for me, but they were a mess. He said, ‘We tried a thousand times to use proper accounting methods with these people, and every time higher-ups would say, “Don’t come down too hard, we don’t want any problems.”’ So no one was paying too much attention to where the church’s money was going, there were no receipts for a lot of this.”

The NCHA’s patchwork records, however, provided a trove of tantalizing leads. Some $53,000 of church money, for instance, had gone to a Puerto Rican school in Chicago José López had founded, where Oscar López and several other FALN members had briefly worked. The NCHA had even purchased airline tickets for Carlos Torres, López, and other FALN suspects. Matching these itineraries against the FALN’s attacks, agents felt they could establish a pattern of various suspects traveling to New York and Chicago within days of any number of FALN bombings. López, for one, had flown into New York the day before the first bombings in October and left shortly after. ...

Buttressing these charges [by Cueto's attorney against FBI subpoenas in the FALN case] was a parallel set of filings by none other than Paul Moore, the progressive bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York. In an affidavit he echoed Fink’s charges and alleged that the subpoenas were designed to “prevent the church from funding progressive Hispanic groups.” To the FBI’s surprise, this was the first sign of a sharp split in church ranks, Moore and a group of liberal bishops on one side, some of the national leadership on the other. Behind the scenes, the halls of Episcopal headquarters were rife with rumors—that Cueto was the FALN’s secret kingpin, and that FBI agents had been allowed to rampage through file cabinets monitored only by, in the words of a Times reporter, “a half-blind custodian called Buggsy."