Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
For more than a year, the prison authorities would not allow Avelino Gonzalez-Claudio proper medical treatment. Then, a month before he returned to a Hartford court on February 5, 2010, he got the neurological test he needed. Under a plea deal, he will face seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine for his role in the 1983 Wells Fargo robbery. The heist received world-wide attention and made a young Hartford man famous. Or infamous.
Victor Gerena is Hartford’s anti-hero. In September, 1983, he allegedly robbed Wells Fargo of $7.2 million and then dropped it off to Los Macheteros in Hartford’s south end. It was a daring, non-violent daylight theft that brought down the full weight of the United States government on him, his family, his friends, and the entire movement for Puerto Rican independence both here and on the Island.
The Feds want Victor: he’s on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List. A million dollar reward from the FBI for information leading to his capture is still in effect. And bounty hunter wannabees will give you $1,000 for information leading to his arrest (now that’s a crime). Victor is a wanted man, but more than thirty years after the robbery, he still hasn’t been caught.
What a difference a century makes. Colorful figures like Jesse James and Pretty Boy Floyd were considered thieves and killers back in their own day. The Wells Fargo corporation profits off its “wild west history” by promoting the legendary characters who used to rob their stage coaches, calling them “varmints” on the corporate website.
While Victor Gerena doesn’t rate any space in Wells Fargo mythology, Black Bart does.
Bart, whose real name was Charles E. Bolton, robbed 27 stages over a period of four years in the late 1800’s. Even Wells Fargo will tell you that he was known for his polite manner when he relieved the company of its gold. And he wouldn’t rob passengers on the stage–only the company strongbox.
It was Black Bart’s poetry, though, that really made him famous. With wordplay that is worthy of a 21st century city kid who tags subway cars, Bart signed himself “The Po8”. Here’s some of his work:
“I’ve labored long and hard for bread/ For honor and for riches/ But on my corns too long you’ve tread/ You fine-haired sons of bitches.”
The story goes that Bart was caught when a detective found a laundry marking on a handkerchief he left behind. Bart did some prison time; when he got out it was rumored that Wells Fargo paid him money just so he wouldn’t rob any more of their stagecoaches.
American culture has a long history of celebrating the outlaws who rob the rich and protect the poor. Woody Guthrie sang about Pretty Boy Floyd and made him even more famous. A traditional song about Jesse James goes: Jesse was a man, a friend to the poor/He never would see a man suffer pain/ And with his brother Frank he robbed the Chicago bank/And stopped the Glendale train.
Black Bart’s last Wells Fargo robbery was 1883. Victor Gerena’s first was 1983. How long will it be before songs are sung about Victor?