"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XI)
“It is always very hard to say goodbye to a good friend,” the Governor said without any preamble. “Harder still when we, the people of Puerto Rico, were so accustomed to his steady hand and his wise guidance, particularly through the difficult times that have been visited upon us recently. Through more than three decades, Roberto Maldonado steered the course of his beloved Police Department, molding it into the strong, formidable force that it is today, weeding out those who tried to corrupt it or who did not measure up to his high moral standards, but at the same time fiercely supporting, and many times protecting, those who lived up to his code of duty.”
"I remember the first time I met him. I had just been hired as a brand new federal prosecutor, and had to coordinate a joint state and federal raid to search several locations—some homes of some well-know politicians of the time—in what came to be later known as “The Payola Case”.
He smiled, as he relived his memories.
“I made the rookie mistake of telling him about the law, and how he should handle any evidence that his men obtained, even though he knew more about the handling of evidence than I would ever know. Maldonado listened patiently to me, not once interrupting me. When I finished speaking, he raised his eyes from the floor and calmly said, without any recrimination in his voice, ’You know I am a lawyer, right?’”
Several in the audience laughed. Lucas glanced at the Superintendent’s son and saw him grin.
“I quickly learned that he was indeed a lawyer, and a very good one. No operation directed by him ever produced any evidence that was later vacated by a court.”
The Governor eyed Maldonado’s widow, who was smiling wistfully.
“In fact, there is an urban legend about how he passed the bar exam. In his time as a law student, the Justices of the Supreme Court would, as part of the exam, personally quiz the students in open court. It must have been a terrifying experience, and more so for Maldonado, who was the last student of that day’s long session. You can imagine how nerve-wracking that wait must have been for him.” Pietrantoni shot a quick glance at Lily Ordoñez, the present Supreme Court’s chief judge.
“The then Chief Justice, tired of the day-long questioning and grading of the scared examinees, told Maldonado, ‘I will ask you only one question, and one question only. If you answer it correctly, I will pass you. If you don’t, I will fail you. Is that acceptable to you?’”
Pietrantoni’s smile widened, while the room echoed with various nervous snickers.
“‘Yes, Your Honor,’ Maldonado answered in that deep rich voice that characterized him. The Chief Justice then looked at him and asked, to the shock of his other fellow judges, ‘What is the color of my car?’”
Pietrantoni paused, waiting for the increasingly amused buzz of the crowd to subside.
“Maldonado, I am told, did not bat an eye, and answered in his most casual voice, ‘It’s the same color as my car, Your Honor.’ The Justice looked at him with surprise, and then inquired in a peeved tone, ‘And what color would that be?' ‘With all due respect, Your Honor,’ Maldonado replied in the same casual voice, ‘You said you would only ask one question.’”
The crowd burst into laughter and applause, as Pietrantoni added, “And he passed, of course.”
The Governor cast a mischievous glance at Maldonado’s widow, who laughed while she dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Many years later, shortly after I was elected Governor, I asked him if the story was true. He answered in one of his typical growls, ‘You ask too many questions.’ And that was the end of that conversation, because if you learned something from hanging around the Police Superintendent is that you did not argue with him.”
Lucas looked at the crowd around him. Many were smiling, some nodding in acknowledgement.
“Roberto was a man of simple tastes. Unlike other members of the various cabinets he formed a part of, he refused to be driven in a limousine, or to enhance his status by buying himself an expensive Mercedes or BMW. Instead, he used the same model of transportation that was used by his men to patrol the streets, his only luxury being his faithful chauffeur of thirty years, Beto.”
Pietrantoni nodded with his head to Maldonado’s driver, who was weeping openly behind the Superintendent’s widow, “And he only agreed to be chauffeured around because he used the time he spent inside the car to communicate with his men, sometimes by radio, sometimes by cell phone.”
Again the Governor halted, referring briefly to the notes he had written on an index card. Then he continued.
“As we all know, he never varied in his way of dress: a dark blue suit with a red and blue striped tie. In fact, there was a running gag within the department that Maldonado had the tie and shirt tattooed to his chest, and that that was the reason why he never removed his jacket.”
More laughter followed the Governor’s remarks.
“But those who mistook his simple tastes for a simple mind, mostly his enemies and his detractors, invariably were in for a big surprise. Because behind his honest, sincere, sometimes harmless-looking façade operated a first rate intellect, an intellect that allowed him to deal with some of the biggest crises our island ever faced. That includes the terrorist attack that our island suffered last year where, had our destinies have been guided by any lesser man, only God knows what would have happened.”
Pietrantoni grimaced, briefly wiping what seemed to be a tear from one of his eyes.
“We will miss him sorely, this humble public servant who devoted his life to make ours better, working fourteen to sixteen hour days, both under several Commonwealth and pro-Statehood administrations with equal zeal, loyalty, and devotion. If you don’t believe me, ask yourselves: what party did Maldonado belong to?”
The Governor looked at the crowd around him. Lucas saw Montañez shake his head thoughtfully.
“Doña Crucita may know,” he said, staring at Maldonado’s widow. “I certainly don’t, since he never mixed politics with his work, with his colleagues, or with his corps. His beloved police corps. Like I said before, he dedicated his life to the people in his police department, and his men idolized him for it. He agonized over their welfare, and rejoiced in their triumphs. He defended them when they were unjustly criticized, and celebrated and promoted them when they succeeded. They knew he would not fail them, because invariably he stood shoulder to shoulder with them, not asking anyone to do anything that he would not personally do. And he did it all so well, so efficiently, that we sometimes took his work for granted.”
Pietrantoni shook his head in admiration.
“Maldonado died like he lived. He was a real life hero. In his final moments, as the approaching terrorists fired their AK-47s, he stood in front of my wife and the children attending last Monday’s ceremony, and defended them even after being seriously wounded by the criminals’ bullets.”
The Governor had to stop briefly, as his voice momentarily failed him. He breathed in deeply, and continued.
“I was with him as we waited for medical help to arrive. It was evident that he was dying. But even so, his main concern was for his men, asking Montañez about the casualties they had suffered. He passed away a short time later.”
Again the Governor paused, trying to maintain a calm voice.
“Puerto Rico has lost a great man at one of its greatest moments of need. We have been dealt a severe blow by the soulless criminals who attacked us, and been deprived of one of our greatest champions…But rest assured of one thing. We will find his killers, and we will bring them, and those who murdered so many of our innocent people last Monday, to full and complete justice, no matter how long or where it takes us.”
Pietrantoni looked sadly at the flag-draped coffin where the Police Superintendent’s body lay.
“Maldonado dedicated his life to the welfare of his people not to gain any credit or fame, but because he thought it was the right thing to do. However, I think it’s time that we gave him the recognition he truly deserves. I ask all of you to rise, and give him a standing ovation.”
The response was instantaneous.
As one, the mourners rose from their seats and burst into a thunderous applause interspersed with various shouts of “Bravo!” that lasted for several minutes. Then the police band, which had stood at attention on the outside steps of the Capitol, started to play “La Borinqueña”, Puerto Rico’s national anthem, and first the people inside the rotunda, then quickly the crowd waiting outside, took up the song’s words.
After the hymn ended, two policemen wearing white gloves marched to the casket and folded the flag that covered it. Then one of them walked to Doña Crucita, and presented it to her. Maldonado’s widow stifled a sob, and gently received the flag while her son looked on.
Lucas saw Archie wipe away his tears with the sleeve of his suit’s jacket. Pietrantoni walked to Maldonado’s widow and his son Bobby, spoke briefly with them, and then led them to the casket. Doña Crucita placed both of her hands on her husband’s coffin, said something unintelligible, and then her legs failed her. She would have collapsed had not Bobby grabbed her, and with the help of the Governor, brought her back to her chair.
Others in the room began to file past the casket, and afterwards stopped to give their condolences to Doña Crucita and her son Bobby. Lucas followed Archie and managed to join the queue of mourners before the toad-like Speaker of the House got there. He heard her snort with annoyance, and felt a perverse pleasure in beating her to the line.
While he waited, he was struck by how much Maldonado’s son looked like his dad. It was not so much his facial features—Maldonado and Bobby looked, overall, very different—as were his eyes. They were the same intelligent eyes of his father, the same calm eyes that had regarded Lucas a year ago as he had described how San Miguel had met his end; the same eyes that had silently conveyed to him that he did not believe a word of his made-up story. He instinctively liked Bobby.
Archie embraced the widow and then Bobby, and turned towards Lucas to introduce them.
“This is my brother-in__” he began to say, but Doña Crucita cut him off.
“Lucas,” she said, grabbing his hand between both of hers. “I know. My husband used to speak very highly of you. He said you were a true hero,” she told him. She looked up at her son, standing behind her. “You remember him, don’t you, Bobby?”
“I do,” Bobby replied, in a voice so similar to his father’s that it surprised Lucas. He shook Lucas’ hand warmly. “I am so sorry about your mother. And your aunts. And your sister Michelle. It is a terrible tragedy. If there is any way that I can help…” Maldonado’s son looked directly into Lucas’ eyes. “Any way…Let me know.”
“Thank you. The Superintendent was an extraordinary man. I don’t know what we will do without him.”
The Speaker, standing behind Lucas, cleared her throat impatiently, and Bobby arched one of his eyebrows, conveying quietly to Lucas his exasperation.
“Remember what I said,” Bobby repeated, leaning towards Lucas as the latter began to move away. “Anything you need…”
Lucas stared at him and was struck by the intensity of Bobby’s expression. He nodded once, and left.
* * *
The casket was carried by the police honor guard down the steps of the Capitol, between two lines of policemen that extended from the exit of the rotunda to the sidewalk on Constitution Avenue. All of the officers saluted as the pallbearers walked, followed by Maldonado’s widow and his son, and held the salute until the casket was placed inside the hearse.
Lucas could not help but notice how Doña Crucita unconsciously clutched the casket’s flag to her chest, trying to maintain her composure. The crowd outside watched in silence, many of them placing their hands across their chests, or waving small Puerto Rican flags.
As the hearse moved away, escorted by two rows of twelve motorcycles, applause from the crowd lined on both sides of the road erupted.
It did not stop until the funereal caravan stopped at the city hall of the town of Fajardo, about an hour and a half later.
(Chapter XII will be posted on Monday, June 1st)