Jacksonville-based NCIS cold case team key in solving terrorism slayings
By Jim Schoettler | The Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville | Published: May 10, 2014
Patty Ball waited 34 years for the call that came two weeks ago about a break in the slayings of her sailor husband and a comrade by militants who riddled a bus with bullets in an ambush just outside a U.S. Navy base in Puerto Rico.
The call came from a team of cold case investigators whose work began in 2001 while they were based in Jacksonville and continues to be managed today by agents in the same Southeast Field Office of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
The team told Ball it caught a man who agreed to plead guilty to planning the 1979 ambush and was with three gunmen when they sprayed 41 bullets into the bus carrying 1st Class Petty Officer John R. Ball, 29, and 3d Class Petty Officer Emil E. White, 20. Ten other sailors were wounded in the attack, which drew international condemnation.
Ball and a daughter, both from Wisconsin, watched from a New York courtroom Thursday as the suspect, Juan Galloza Acevedo, was sentenced to five years in prison. Though feeling some closure, Ball said she still waits for the day when the killers will be jailed.
So do the original investigators and those now managing the case. They have identified two of the three shooters, but objections to the evidence by Puerto Rican authorities have kept other charges from being filed.
Ball said she is thankful the original investigators were persistent in following leads. She said she got chills upon learning the case remained active, which she hadn't known for years.
"They never forgot," said Ball, 62, in a telephone interview.
TEAM THAT TOOK OVER
The team that took over the case from the FBI in 2001 included NCIS Special Agents Tim Quick, David Early and Tom Asimos and NCIS forensics guru Lou Eliopulos -- formerly the lead forensics investigator for the Duval County Medical Examiner's Office.
The jurisdiction of the local NCIS office includes the Southeastern United States, the Caribbean and parts of Central and South America.
Authorities knew almost immediately that the killing outside the Sabana Seca Navy Base was the work of the violent separatist Los Macheteros gang, which continues to seek Puerto Rico's independence from the United States.
Cells of the Los Macheteros, known in English as The Machete Wielders, have been involved in murder, attempted murder, robbery and assault in Puerto Rico and the United States, with the deadliest being the 1979 attack using assault rifles and a machine gun.
The militants said the attack, which occurred while the sailors were headed to work off base, was in revenge for the death of a member in a federal prison in Tallahassee.
Macheteros leader Juan Segarra Palmer was implicated as the mastermind of the attack. He served time in the United States for other charges until getting released in 2004, five years after President Bill Clinton granted him clemency.
ONE DOWN, MORE TO GO
Quick and Eliopulos told The Florida Times-Union Friday that they developed a series of leads using evidence and a database Eliopulos built that led them in 2006 to Acevedo, who admitted to being in the front passenger seat of the ambush van.
Acevedo, 78, surrendered to authorities in New York last year and was convicted Thursday of racketeering conspiracy.
"Together with our partners in the armed services and law enforcement, we will never abandon our heroes," U.S. Attorney Loretta E. Lynch said after the sentence.
"I hope that today's sentence brings a small measure of comfort to the families of Mr. White, Mr. Ball and the brave Navy personnel wounded in this attack."
White's family could not be reached to comment.
White, a radioman from the Virgin Islands, and Ball, a cryptologic technician from Wisconsin, were awarded the Purple Heart posthumously. Ball's widow, who was married nine years and is the mother of their two children, said her husband cared deeply for his family and his career.
"He loved life and he loved to be very adventurous," she said. "He loved being in the Navy because it gave him the opportunity to serve his country."
While the original investigators have either retired or moved elsewhere in NCIS, they continue to stay abreast of developments managed by the local office. They are also planning a return trip to Puerto Rico to try to convince authorities to prosecute the other suspects.
Ball said she spoke with some of the team while in New York for Thursday's sentencing: "Everyone was just so wonderful to me."