SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua — Jason Puracal made his home in this Pacific coast beach town after a Peace Corps stint, wed a Nicaraguan woman and had a son. He watched the surfing community on the crescent-shaped bay flourish as more expats arrived and settled.
But Puracal's seemingly paradisiacal life changed abruptly in late 2010 when masked policeman raided his real estate office and took him to Nicaragua's maximum security prison. Prosecutors charged that Puracal was using his business as a front for money laundering in a region used to transport cocaine from Colombia to the United States.
Because no drugs or cash were seized, Puracal's family and friends thought he wouldn't be held long. Court documents didn't explain the alleged connections between the Tacoma, Washington, man and suspected drug traffickers arrested the same day.
But nine months later, a judge convicted Puracal and sentenced him to 22 years in prison for money laundering, organized crime and drug trafficking. "It's never made sense," said Jesse Pedro Resau, Puracal's best friend in San Juan del Sur and a fellow American. "Somebody got convicted and I have no idea how."
As a three-judge appellate panel mulls the 35-year-old American's fate, the case has drawn the scrutiny of U.S. lawmakers and human-rights advocates, including the California Innocence Project, which works to absolve people who have been wrongfully convicted. A decision is expected any day from the court, which began hearings on the case in mid-August and had been expected to rule last Tuesday.
Puracal's family has been assisted by another American, Eric Volz, who was absolved by a Nicaraguan appeals court after being charged in the 2006 strangling death of his ex-girlfriend. The Los Angeles-based David House Agency that Volz founded after his ordeal offered to help navigate international justice, file petitions and publicize the case. "It was very easy to get people involved in this case because everything was so clear," Volz said.
A complaint that his attorneys filed with the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention early this year alleges that Puracal did not receive a fair trial and was arrested illegally in a raid conducted without a warrant. The complaint further alleges Puracal has been imprisoned in unsanitary conditions and at times has been denied food, water and medical care.
The Nicaraguan government did not respond to a request by The Associated Press to interview Puracal at the prison outside Managua, and did not return calls regarding his case.
The U.S. State Department has been in contact with the Nicaraguan government, spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in May. In a letter signed by 42 other members of Congress, U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, has asked Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega for an independent review of the case.
"The judicial process in Nicaragua is underdeveloped, and the case wasn't handled as it should have been," said William LeoGrande, an American University professor who specializes in Latin American politics.
Puracal arrived in Nicaragua in 2002 as part of a Peace Corps mission to teach vegetable gardening to local farmers. The University of Washington graduate spoke little Spanish, but fell in love with the place and the people.
Born in Evanston Illinois, but raised in Tacoma, Puracal finished his Peace Corps stint in 2004 and decided to stay in Nicaragua with his pet Rottweiler, which he named Trueno, or Thunder. Puracal was among expatriates who settled on Nicaragua's coast near the Costa Rican border in the mid-2000s.
There, on the southwestern tip of the nation, huge mansions are built atop green cliffs that drop down to the sea, and large umbrella-like guanacaste trees offer shadow from the intense sun.
"Living the American Dream in Tropical Paradise" Puracal wrote in his biography on the real estate company's website. In San Juan del Sur, he rented a three-bedroom house with a second-story deck overlooking the ocean and a hill topped with a white statue of Jesus Christ. He soon began selling homes.
In 2006, he met Scarleth Flores. They wed and had a son, Jabu, who was born with Down syndrome in March 2007.
Townspeople remember Puracal as a long-haired man with tattoos, big sunglasses and a Mercedes Benz G-Class SUV. But they say he was also a loving caretaker.
"He was all Jabu," said Julie Speier, head of the English day school the boy attended. "He was the one who woke up in the morning, fed Jabu, gave Jabu a shower, put Jabu into a strap-on backpack, walked down the beach with him and the dog, brought him to school."
Puracal was featured in a 2007 episode of HGTV House Hunters International, helping North Americans choose the perfect home along Nicaragua's exotic beaches. That year, he obtained a Re/Max real estate franchise and opened his business with three other Americans.
Puracal was working in the real estate office when National Police agents burst in without a warrant on Nov. 11, 2010. According to court documents, police said they 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.
Weeks later, prosecutor Rodrigo Zambrano offered the first document of evidence that named several purchase and sale agreements Puracal had allegedly made as a co-owner of the Re/Max franchise. It didn't establish a connection between presumed drug traffickers and the purchases, but said Puracal had made national and international deals buying properties with large sums of money from unknown sources "to legitimize the flow of cash coming from the criminal organization."
Puracal has said all of the large cash transactions involved legitimate real estate transactions.
"Why not then investigate the people who own all these properties?" asked Fabbrith Gomez, Puracal's local attorney.
Puracal's trial date was postponed several times, and a new judge was assigned to the case when the original judge was attending a training session out of town. Judge Kriguer Alberto Artola Narvaez ruled Aug. 29, 2011, that Puracal was guilty, and said in a sentencing document that the American's bank accounts had registered deposits and withdrawals of large sums of money.
Local news media reported that Artola was not registered as an attorney with Nicaragua's Supreme Court. Courts spokesman Roberto Larios said there was just one signature lacking on Artola's paperwork for him to be fully certified, and it was not enough to keep him from being named a judge. "In the eyes of the court, he was legally practicing law," said Larios.
Congressman Smith wrote a subsequent letter with four other senators last year asking Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to push for a speedy appeal in the case.
Following complaints of Puracal's alleged mistreatment in La Modelo prison just outside the capital, where his family and friends claim he lost more than 40 pounds, he was moved this year from a cell shared with about seven other men to solitary confinement.
Recently at the appeal's hearings, Puracal's defense insisted there was no connection between the home and lot sales and the other defendants, and that police officers testifying had offered different dates and no documents for what they described as suspicious travels with money to Costa Rica.
"I have never sold, bought or consumed cocaine. I have never laundered money in any way," Puracal said at the hearing. "I know you will find the truth."
Luis Manuel Galeano contributed to this report from Managua, Nicaragua
Adriana Gomez Licon is on Twitter http://twitter.com/agomezlicon