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Cuba Decision Gives Fraunces Tavern Bombing Victim's Son Hope for Justice

By Murray Weiss | December 19, 2014 1:48pm
 Joseph Connor and his father, Frank.
Joseph Connor and his father, Frank.
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Joseph Connor

MANHATTAN — For Joseph Connor, whose father was killed in the terror bombing of Fraunces Tavern 40 years ago, President Barack Obama's decision to normalize relations with Cuba gave him hope that there could finally be justice for his dad.

Connor’s father, Frank, a 33-year-old assistant vice president at Morgan Guaranty Trust and a father of two boys, was among four people killed while eating lunch on Jan. 24, 1975, when a massive explosion destroyed the historic Lower Manhattan restaurant. Scores of others were wounded.

William Morales, a bomb maker and leader of Puerto Rican terror group FALN, which was responsible for more than 120 bombings here and around the nation, was considered the prime suspect.

He was arrested back then, but managed to escape the Bellevue Prison Ward and eventually found sanctuary in Cuba, where he was protected against extradition.

“Over all the years, anytime I ever spoke to anyone in government about getting Morales back to face justice, I was always told it could never stand a chance because we had no relations with Cuba,” Connor, a Wall Street executive, told “On The Inside.”

But Obama’s historic détente has raised the possibility — albeit tenuous — that doors may eventually be opened for US officials to retrieve Morales, who was once considered America’s Most Wanted terrorist.

“I have never given up hope that Morales will be returned to New York,” Connor said, noting the coincidence of Obama’s move and the approaching 40th anniversary of the bombing.

Federal sources confirm that they have open arrest warrants for Morales and other fugitives shielded in Cuba, including Joanne Chesimard, a leader of the Black Liberation Army wanted for killing a New Jersey state trooper.

But they are uncertain whether normalization of relations will ultimately lead to extraditions.

When Connor talks about his father’s death, the memory feels as raw as the day it occurred.

He was just 9-years-old when his mother received the life-shattering call that her husband had been killed.  That evening, Frank Connor had family plans to celebrate Joseph's and his 11-year-old brother, Tom’s, birthdays, which were just days apart.

Connor still remembers what his mom was preparing to eat.

“My mom was born in Ireland, but she was making Lasagna,” Connor recalled.

“She knew something had happened, a bomb downtown, and she called my dad, and when he did not pick up the phone she had a premonition, a feeling that he was involved.

“My brother and I were out in the park playing and she came and told us we had to come home. She said dad was there, and then people started coming to our house from his job and they told us he had been killed."

The Connors managed to soldier on.

“We managed to live our lives without hate, but we never forgot,” said Connor, who would later lose a first cousin to terrorism on 9/11.

Morales, meanwhile, was captured July 12, 1978  — coincidentally on Frank Connor’s birthday — when a “bomb factory” he was operating in his Elmhurst, Queens, apartment exploded, leaving him buried in a pile of rubble, maimed and partially blinded with three quarters of his face blown off and every finger except a thumb.

He was transferred to the Bellevue prison ward and placed under heavy guard. But a coalition of terrorist organizations — including the FALN, the Black Liberation Army and the Weather Underground — conspired to break him out, according to federal sources.

With the help of one of his lawyers who secreted a bolt cutter under her skirt and slipped it to Morales during a May 1979 visit, Morales cut his way out of his cell and shimmied down a makeshift rope made of bed sheets to colleagues who were waiting in a commandeered telephone company cherry picker.

He eventually made his way to Mexico in 1983, where he was captured in a deadly gun battle with local police. Despite a request from then-President Ronald Reagan for his return, Mexican authorities allowed Morales to fly to Cuba, where he has remained since 1987.

But as Morales was living what the Washington Post described as a comfortable seaside life, working as a reporter for a pro-Puerto Rico independence journal, Connor wrote letters to the State Department lobbying for Morales return.

And when President Bill Clinton pardoned a group of FALN members in 1999, Connor was appalled.

In addition to destroying Fraunces Tavern, FALN attacks included the bombing of the Grand Central office of Mobil Oil in Aug. 3, 1977, where a young father died, and simultaneous New Years Eve 1982 explosions at Police Headquarters and FBI Headquarters in Lower Manhattan, maiming several NYPD officers. 

His escape has remained a source of anger and frustration for NYPD and federal law enforcement officers, including his victims.

“Morales certaintly has been my focus, getting him back,” said Connor.  “This has been a huge part of my life for 40 years,"’