Maine woman wins lawsuit against Cuba

Posted Aug. 19, 2009, at 9:04 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — A Maine court has found the Republic of Cuba guilty of the wrongful death of an American veteran believed to have been shot down while on a covert mission over the island decades ago.

In finding in favor of Stockton Springs resident Sherry Sullivan, Waldo County Superior Court Justice Jeffrey Hjelm granted her damages of $21 million plus interest. Sullivan is the daughter of Geoffrey Sullivan, whose plane is believed to have disappeared over Cuba in October 1963.

“I’m just overwhelmed,” Sullivan said Wednesday. “It was never about money; it was to find out what happened to my father. The answer to finding my father is not what I got.”

Sullivan filed her suit against Cuba in May 2007. Also named were former President Fidel Castro, President Raul Castro and the Cuban army. Those names were dismissed without prejudice by Hjelm because it could not be determined whether they were ever served the documents. The Swiss Embassy in Havana served a copy of the suit to the Cuba Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Sept. 22, 2008. Cuba never responded to the suit leading Justice Hjelm to issue his default judgment on Aug. 10.

Justice Hjelm ordered that a pre-judgment annual interest rate of 5.99 percent be added to the $21 million along with a post-judgment interest rate of 6.40 percent for every year the Cuban government fails to pay the damages.

Damages have been paid to other litigants from Cuban assets frozen by the U.S. government shortly after the Castro revolution in 1959. According to The Associated Press, at the end of 2005, approximately $270 million in Cuban assets were frozen in U.S. bank accounts.

Hjelm found that Sullivan suffered through years of uncertainty, not really knowing what happened to her father and not knowing whether he was alive or dead. He found that Cuba repeatedly ignored her requests for information.

“This uncertainty has devastated Ms. Sullivan’s life,” Hjelm wrote.

Geoffrey Francis Sullivan was 29 years old when he disappeared. He was an Air Force veteran and held a commercial pilot’s license. He also served in the Army National Guard where he met Alexander Irwin Rorke Jr., a New York newspaperman, who was believed to be an operative of the Central Intelligence Agency who ran guns to Cuba.

The last known sighting of Geoffrey Sullivan was when he took off from Mexico in a twin-engine plane accompanied by Rorke.

A month earlier, Sullivan and Rorke had allegedly taken part in a bombing run over Cuba in a refurbished B-25 bomber. That daring act received widespread newspaper coverage at the time, and both men were identified as being involved.

The official story was that their plane disappeared somewhere over Central America, but Sullivan believes he was held in a Cuban jail for at least a decade and later executed as a spy. She was 5 years old when her father disappeared and has been investigating his fate for decades. The Department of Veterans Affairs has listed Sullivan as “missing in action.”

Her father was an ardent Cold War warrior, and Sullivan over the years has gathered thousands of pages of documents from that era, many of which were submitted with her suit.

In his ruling, Justice Hjelm cited reports of witnesses that seemed to place Sullivan in Cuba. Included was one from the U.S. State Department of “rumors” from Cuban refugees that Rorke and Sullivan crashed in Cuba and that one died. In addition, an American detained in Cuba in 1969 told authorities he heard Sullivan’s name mentioned by Cuban military police. Another American imprisoned in Cuba reported that he was detained in a cell next to Sullivan.

Hjelm found that despite those documents and many other requests filed by Sullivan over the years, “The government of Cuba has failed and refused to provide any information.” He also found that Maine and federal law provided him with the authority to rule on the suit against a foreign government.

Sullivan said similar suits filed by victims of the Cuban Revolution under anti-terrorism statutes have proved successful in courts in Florida and elsewhere. She said she was unsure when she would collect her award, but that it had taken others up to three years to collect frozen Cuban assets. If she does receive the money, she said, it will be used to help her daughters and grandchildren and to keep searching for the truth of what happened to her father.

In the meantime, Sullivan will continue to press the U.S. and Cuban governments for information about her father.

“I never, never once asked for money. I was in court asking for information, either from this government or the Cuban government, and I just can’t get it done. I’m still determined to get to the truth,” she said. “The money will surely make life easier for everybody. It will give me more funds to travel and interview people. I’ve done this investigation on a dime all these years.”

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