Octobre 03, 2008
MIAMI -- A former Argentine airport officer who became a Latin American pinup model testified in U.S. court Friday about discovering a suitcase stuffed with nearly $800,000 in cash brought to a Buenos Aires airport from Venezuela.
Maria del Lujan Telpuk, 27, was working as an armed security officer at the airport in August 2007 when she spotted something odd about the suitcase carried off a private flight from Caracas. She asked one of the passengers, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, what was inside.
"At first he said books," said Telpuk, testifying in Spanish that was translated into English. "Then he said, just some papers."
Antonini's demeanor changed when she ordered him twice to open the suitcase. "He became somewhat serious and he was staring me straight in the eye. That's when I got a suspicion that something was going on," she testified.
When the suitcase was opened, Telpuk said she saw stacks of $50 bills.
"It was completely full," she testified.
Telpuk, a petite woman with straight black hair, had worked as an airport police officer for more than two years when the suitcase was opened.
Since quitting the police in December 2007, her life has taken a major turn: she has posed nude for Latin American versions of Playboy magazine, made TV appearances and has been training for a skating show in Argentina similar to the U.S. "Dancing With the Stars" program.
She became famous overnight in Argentina as the "suitcase girl" after she discovered the bag of cash, which triggered an international political scandal and a criminal case in Miami.
"Yes, it has changed," she said of her new life.
Prosecutors will cross-examine Telpuk on Tuesday when the trial resumes.
She was ordered by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard not to comment about the case while testifying. Lenard also said she doesn't want prosecutors to bring up Telpuk's nude poses or their appearance in Playboy, but they can question her about how she has profited.
"This is federal court," Lenard said. "We have a certain amount of decorum here."
U.S. prosecutors say the money was a contribution from Venezuela's government to the campaign of new Argentine president Cristina Fernandez. Telpuk testified in the trial of 41-year-old Franklin Duran, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman accused of acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S. to cover up the source of the money.
Venezuela wanted Duran and others to persuade Antonini _ a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen who was living in Key Biscayne _ to claim the money was his and create a fake paper trail to back that up, prosecutors say. Duran faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted; three other men have pleaded guilty in the case.
Prosecutors rested their case Thursday in the trial's fifth week. Defense attorney Ed Shohat will attempt to show in the coming days that Duran was simply trying to help Antonini, his friend and business associate, escape from a growing scandal.
The first defense witness was Duran's 14-year-old nephew, Pedro Duran, who attended a meeting at a West Palm Beach hotel with Duran and Antonini shortly after the scandal broke. Pedro Duran said he thought of Antonini as "desperate" and that the man had asked Duran for $1 million to deal with the mess.
"Antonini was asking Frank for help," Pedro Duran said.
Antonini, who testified earlier in the case, contacted the FBI shortly after the suitcase was opened and cooperated in the investigation. The FBI secretly recorded numerous conversations between Duran and the others that were played for jurors.