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US man freed from Nicaragua jail back with family

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NEW YORK — The thought of his wife and 5-year-old son born with Down syndrome is what helped Jason Puracal endure two years in a crowded, bug-infested Nicaraguan prison serving a drug sentence that was later withdrawn when he won an appeal.

Now, the 35-year-old Tacoma, Washington man feels ecstatic to be back in the United States a free man and able to see his mother, two sisters, his wife and son, he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"It was very overwhelming. It still is very overwhelming," Puracal said. "The whole journey has been like a dream or a nightmare, I should say, and it still feels like it's not real. Here I am back in the U.S., back home."

Before last week's appeals victory, Puracal was an American serving a 22-year sentence in a Nicaragua maximum-security prison on money-laundering and drug charges that stemmed from a November 2010 arrest at his beachfront real estate office in the surfing town of San Juan del Sur, near the border with Costa Rica. Prosecutors charged that he used his business as a front for money laundering, selling farms on behalf of suspected drug traffickers. A judge convicted him of all charges in August 2011.

In prison, Puracal says he was assaulted more than once and was hospitalized for poor nutrition. He lost nearly 30 pounds because other inmates would often take his food. "I was robbed several times," he said.

Conditions were harsh, but he endured them hoping to eventually go back to his son, Jabu, and his Nicaraguan wife, Scarleth Flores, who he met in 2006.

"My son is my life. I was very worried with his development. He has Down syndrome," Puracal said. "I was always thinking of him. I knew I needed to endure this to get out and reunite with him. He gave me hope."

The Tacoma man says the case against him isn't closed yet. Nicaraguan authorities say they are studying the ruling by a three-judge panel announced last Wednesday before revealing if they will appeal with the Central American nation's Supreme Court.

Puracal said the U.S. government had to negotiate with the country's immigration authorities to let him exit the country on a long holiday weekend, instead of waiting until Monday.

He left the prison Thursday afternoon hunched down in the back seat of a car being driven by his lawyer. They spent the night at a hotel in Managua, the capital, guarded by the country's immigration police. Puracal and his attorney drove to Honduras the next night and then flew from Tegucigalpa to New York on Sunday.

"I am just so happy to be able to breathe some fresh air. Even New York fresh air," he said.

Puracal's case drew the attention of human rights advocates and U.S. lawmakers who defended him and pushed for an appeal hearing after many considered the judicial process flawed with inconsistencies.

Court documents say police had intelligence reports that Puracal and 10 other suspects were awaiting the arrival of a vessel containing drugs. Nicaraguan prosecutors charged that Puracal had used the money of suspected drug trafficker Manuel Ponce Espinoza to buy area farms, but didn't explain how the two men were allegedly connected. Ponce testified in court that he didn't know the American, and Puracal said he didn't know Ponce or any of the other nine defendants.

The appellate court ruled that the sentencing judge failed to carefully examine the evidence and explain the reasons for convicting Puracal and 10 others. Also, the court agreed the judge had violated the defendants' rights by not allowing the defense to introduce evidence. Courts officials said the judge that convicted and sentenced Puracal was missing paperwork to be officially certified to oversee cases.

The American has maintained that all his home sales were legitimate purchases by Americans, Canadians and Europeans looking to establish on the Nicaraguan and Costa Rican coasts. Moreover, he says authorities built an indictment against him based on lies.

"There is no way for me to know why exactly... what motivation the police had to invent such horrible lies about me, without any evidence, without any reason," he said. "I don't know and I don't know if I will ever know why I was put in this situation."

Puracal's family flew to New York to meet him Sunday night after he arrived from Tegucigalpa. His sisters and mother had launched a campaign to release him and took out loans, spending more than half a million dollars. His sister Janis Puracal, a Seattle attorney, was key in the efforts to vacate the charges, Puracal said.

"She has gone above and beyond what any family member would do. She has put in thousands of hours as an attorney," he said.

Despite living nearly two tough years, Puracal says he wouldn't change his decision of moving to Nicaragua. Ten years ago, he traveled there in a Peace Corps mission and taught farmers about vegetable gardening. After ending his stint in 2004, he decided to stay and made San Juan del Sur his home, living in a three-bedroom house overlooking the bay. He started selling homes and then obtained a Re/Max franchise with three other Americans.

On Nov. 11, 2012, masked police officers with AK-47s raided his office and arrested him. First, he shared a cell with between nine and 12 inmates who fought among them and prison guards, he says. Puracal claims the cell was infested with insects and at times there wasn't enough drinking water for inmates, which caused constant stomach pains.

After human rights groups and congressmen complained about the conditions, he was moved to solitary confinement.

The University of Washington graduate has plans to go back to the school he graduated with degrees in economy and zoology to study sustainable urban development.

"I am just focused in being with my family and moving forward" he said. "I am not really interested in looking at the past. I am interested in looking at the future."


Adriana Gomez Licon reported this story from Mexico City.

Claudia Torrens is on Twitter http://twitter.com/ClaudiaTorrens