A ROYAL PAIN
By Russ Baker
P.O.V. April 1997
Few people travel to the exotic island of Saint Martin for work, but Hugo Arriazu had a rather unusual assignment when he ventured down to the Caribbean in April 1995. The 23-year-old Spanish photographer was on a fishing expedition of sorts, but this one, in addition to a rented boat, also required a disguise— complete with fake beard—and a really long telephoto lens.
As a boatman eased the craft through the waters adjoining a secluded luxury hotel, Arriazu used his viewfinder to scan for prey. What he saw amounted to a Moby Dick for paparazzi. Amid a group of people lounging on an isolated strip of beach was the crown prince of Spain, Felipe de Borbon, the 28-year-old JFK Jr. of the Iberian Peninsula. And sitting next to him was a statuesque young blonde, who held his hand and accepted the suntan lotion Borbon rubbed up and down her back. They embraced.
Felipe de Borbon had a new paramour! And Carlos Hugo Arriazu Sanchez had the scoop of a lifetime. For a Spanish journalist, a hot story about the royal family is big paella and Arriazu figured that he just might have ousted the country’s next queen. His nerves jangling, Arriazu closed one eye, steadied his aim and began shooting, methodically pumping through eight rolls of film within minutes. No one on the beach even noticed him.
Those photos proved the beginning of a Kafkaesque
adventure, the likes of which the baby-faced Arriazu couldn’t even begin
to fathom. This adventure soon found Arriazu choking down the tasteless
starch of New York City’s notorious Rikers Island prison, serving a
six-month sentence for tapping the phone of that young woman whom he’d
photographed on the beach.
How does a celebrity photographer suddenly become convict number 3109601357, sharing a single cell and three toilets with 50 of the Big Apple’s worst apples? A lot of bad luck to counter Arriazu’s fortunate find; a seemingly overzealous U.S. justice system; and perhaps, if you’re a bit conspiracy-minded, a more overarching reason: a desire by the Spanish Crown to see Pesky journalist Numero Uno crushed—and prevented from doing any more to turn the House of Borbon into a Mediterranean version of the scandal-ridden House of Windsor (an allegation the Spanish royal family adamantly denies).
Arriazu, whose father owns a small photo
agency that supplies the Spanish press, was a professional royalty-tracker
who pursued the Borbons anywhere and everywhere on earth— thus breaking
a code adhered to by most of the Spanish media. “There’s an
unwritten agreement with the press not to get personal,” says Juan Velazquez
of EFE, the Spanish news agency. “The media say it helps stabilize the
monarchy, helps stabilize the country.
Arriazu sees it in narrower terms. “The journalists are afraid of them,” he asserts in Spanish during an interview in Rikers Island’s grim meeting room, after a guard had removed his handcuffs. “The royal family can stop them.” He insists he was wrongly jailed while merely—and legally—doing his job. The hunter had become the hunted, and finally, the captured.
The case provoked a brief frenzy in Spain (and news
for a day in the New York tabloid world), but once it had his
pictures, even the Spanish press forgot about the young photographer. No
one in the media of either country made much effort to explore the nagging
question: Had the defendant engaged in the serious crime of
wiretapping, or was he, as his family claims, a naif caught in a
P.O.V. has developed the following account, pieced
together from court documents and interviews with numerous sources,
including the incarcerated Arriazu and his father, Spanish journalists,
and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office, which provided limited
documentation on request but refused to let us talk with the prosecutor,
Catherine Mullen. This account is necessarily based on what the parties
remember—and would share.
The affair began in April 1995, with Arriazu cooling
his heels at his Miami base, where he’d been living for the past six
months. A call came in from
his editor father, Santi, who had started his news agency peddling mostly
royal gossip after eight years editing Spain’s most popular
photo-and-fluff magazine, Hola! Now Santi Arriazu issued an urgent
assignment. Through secret connections, he had learned that Prince Felipe
would be vacationing on Saint Martin; Hugo was to hustle down there,
And Hugo got the goods. For the young Castilian who
conceded defeat to dyslexia and dropped out of college five years earlier
for a career in photojournalism, the ensuing beach photoplay of the Borbon heir and his mysterious paramour would represent the professional
pinnacle. “It was an image many journalists would want to take,” he
says. “It was a moment that was very special in my career.”
His father decided not to publish the photos of the
two together right away; instead, they sold shots of the couple, with
friends, hugging. “We
didn’t want to do any damage or hurt them,” says Arriazu. “It gives
them ammunition. It is not always necessary to publish everything.”
Sound a bit too altruistic? ‘When pushed, Arriazu drops the
goody-goody veneer and concedes that his father intended to sell the
sexiest shots at the most lucrative opportunity—for example, if it was
announced that the couple was engaged. Although the Arriazus don’t
want to talk dollars, one Spanish journalist figures that Santi got about
$100,000 for what’s been published so far.
Soon after some of his Saint Martin exclusives
appeared in print, another Spanish publication featured shots of the
couple—the woman’s identity still undiscovered—in New York City. Santi Arriazu, a competitive man, was on the phone again to Miami,
ordering his son to find out her name and address.
The younger Arriazu says he turned to a Spanish-speaking private investigator, Carlos Fernandez, whom he found in the Miami Yellow Pages. For $580, Fernandez delivered the pay dirt: the mysterious young woman was one Giselle “Gigi” Howard.
A delighted Santi Arriazu next instructed his son to travel with Fernandez to New York to verify the information and to take more pictures of Gigi. Once there, Hugo was told to seek a short, impromptu interview with his green-eyed target, whom he now knew was a 25-year-old Columbia University student from Georgia, who had given up modeling to pursue a child psychology degree. She had met the prince in Washington, D.C., where he was studying at Georgetown University.
At a Radio Shack, Hugo bought a microcassette tape recorder. Following Howard from her apartment to a bench in Central Park, he sat down and, with the recorder concealed, began asking questions, with Fernandez translating. “At first, she said she didn’t have anything to say, because they were just friends, but then I showed her a compromising photo of the two, and she was speechless,” says Arriazu, his slight frame clad in a prison-issue gray jumpsuit, a stark contrast to his pricey-looking tortoise-shell glasses. “I asked if it was love, and she said, ‘The photos show everything.’”
As to her future with the Borbons, she said it was
“too early to tell.” Hugo relayed the news to his father, who was
ecstatic, and cautioned him to safeguard the revealing tape. Next came the
marching orders: find out more about her, with the objective of obtaining
biographical photos of her home, family, friends. Fernandez, the P.I.,
came on the phone and, according to the elder Arriazu, asked what he would
be paid for the additional work. Santi replied that the fee would depend
on how hot the resulting photos were. Fernandez then asked for— and
received—permission to bring in a Miami man who sometimes worked with
him. That man in turn said he would bring his brother.
The next day, Fernandez, with Hugo Arriazu at his
side, drove to JFK airport to collect the brothers. But when Luis Jiminez
stepped off the plane, he was accompanied not by his sibling but by a
non-Hispanic man who identified himself only as Thomas. Because of a
language barrier, there was no conversation between the man and Arriazu as
they drove into Manhattan to their hotel.
The next day, June 19, Arriazu staked out Gigi Howard’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, while the other three, parked in a second vehicle out of sight around the corner, went about their work. Arriazu claims that he did not inquire about what each of the operatives was doing.
When asked why neither father nor son did so, Santi replied: “If you hire a professional, you can’t exactly ask how he does his work.” In an interview at an East Village restaurant, he angrily recounted his involvement while diving into a mozzarella, ham and mushroom omelet, washed down with a beer. “This type of journalism, when you’re following someone, is complicated. It wasn’t expensive to get another guy up here. And $300 for a possible future queen of Spain isn’t much.”
On the afternoon of June 19, Fernandez told young Arriazu that Thomas needed to get back to Miami, and asked him to drive the man to the hotel so he could collect his baggage. At the hotel, Thomas managed to communicate to Arriazu that he would arrange his own airport transportation. Arriazu then returned to the stakeout.
At about 6 PM, he finished a long-distance
conversation with his father, hung up the pay phone and turned the corner.
As he strolled across 79th Street, a sedan swerved into his path.
According to Arriazu, in an instant, a muscular man had jumped out and
pushed Hugo to the ground. Then the driver put a gun to his temple.
As Arriazu tells it, neither man identified himself as a police officer, but one did tell him to “shut up, son of a bitch.” He says he was handcuffed and left in the vehicle for three hours by the still-unidentified gunmen. It was only then, he says, that a female police officer attempted to read him his rights—unsuccessfully—in Spanish. Frustrated, she finally handed him a printed Spanish version of the Miranda warning. Before being moved to Rikers Island, Arriazu was held together with men arrested for violent crimes. He was petrified. Finally, the Spanish consulate, which thought the gentle-looking Arriazu was in danger, intervened and had him moved.
Fernandez and Jiminez were arrested at about the same time, as they sat in the second vehicle, listening to—and recording—Gigi Howard exchanging banal confidences with a male friend. Thomas, already back in Miami, would be later unmasked as Thomas Busciglio, a government informant who was working off jail time for drug trafficking, according to the Dade County State Attorney’s office. He was wired during every moment of his New York adventure. Everything he said, and everything said to him, was transmitted directly back to a large retinue of law-enforcement officers tracking Arriazu’s entourage. Busciglio, it turned out, had personally placed the tap on Gigi Howard’s telephone line.
Arriazu and Fernandez were tried together on wiretapping charges. (Jiminez’s trial has just begun.) At the trial, the prosecution focused on the apparent fact that Busciglio, as Arriazu’s sub-subcontractor, was carrying out the Spaniard’s instructions. Evidence included surveillance photos of the four men together, the receipt from Radio Shack for the tape recorder and testimony that Arriazu’s camera bag was found in Fernandez’s car when police closed in—a sure sign, the assistant district attorney argued, that the photographer was aware of what the others were doing in that vehicle.
The prosecution also introduced a statement made by Hugo Arriazu when he was arrested. A police officer asked him if “it” was common practice in Spain, to which Arriazu said, “Yes, journalists do it all the time.” The district attorney said that this was Arriazu confessing to wiretapping; Arriazu says he thought they were asking about the general use of tape recorders.
The district attorney introduced as evidence two tapes—from Arriazu’s park bench interview and from the wiretapped phone conversation. He then asked the reluctant witness, Gigi Howard, if she had authorized either taping. No, she said.
Arriazu’s attorney, Michael Hertzberg, insisted that his client never intended to tap anyone’s phone and never issued instructions that someone do so on his behalf. He argued that Arriazu never spoke more than a few words to the man who put.the tap on, and that the wiretapper took his action with no guidance from Arriazu. He added that Arriazu had left his heavy camera bags with the others for a brief time but was never in the car to witness any taping.
Certain factors, taken together, could suggest Arriazu’s guilt. Clearly, he was nearby when the tap was installed. Busciglio testified that Arriazu had heard Howard’s voice coming through the tap, said “great” and left the car. The man Arriazu hired, Fernandez, was in the car when the cops closed in. Clearly, his father, as the driving force behind the operation, could have indicated his desire that the act take place. But consider the evidence that points to his exoneration. Hugo Arriazu, everyone agrees, did not install the wiretap. Nor did the P.I. he had hired. Neither of the tapes introduced at trial showed Arriazu asking anyone to tap the phone—the informant’s wire picked up very few comments at all from Arriazu. One tape did contain Fernandez discussing a tap with Busciglio, but Busciglio had a big incentive for turning his description of the job into as serious a crime as possible.
To boot, Busciglio’s law-enforcement sponsors may have played a role in “helping” the phone tap take place. At one point, Busciglio, wearing a NYNEX hat, ran into a snag finding the line running into Howard’s apartment. A phone company employee appeared at the scene and pointed out the correct phone box.
Despite the elaborate sting effort, the police got awfully little damning stuff on Arriazu. This raises further questions: If the police were trying to show that Arriazu had ordered the tapping, why didn’t the wire catch Busciglio asking a question that would incriminate him? Why was there no mention, by anyone, of Arriazu wanting the taping done? Busciglio testified that the others translated for Arriazu, and that Arriazu said he was going to pay him for the job, but there is no supporting evidence on tape of Arriazu saying anything about a tap—not to Busciglio, with whom he could barely communicate, and not to either of the Spanish-speaking private eyes. According to Santi, one of the only times his son’s voice is heard on the tapes is when he asks Busciglio what his name is. Santi also claims that another tape, not introduced as evidence because of what police said was poor-quality sound—which the Arriazus dispute—has Busciglio speaking into his wire, inquiring about Hugo, “Who is this guy?”
It took the jury three days to settle on a guilty verdict. While the jury was out, both Arriazu and Fernandez turned down a plea bargain offer that would have allowed them to go free after pleading guilty and paying a $5,000 fine. As Arriazu later explained, he was so convinced of his innocence that he found the idea of a plea bargain to be odious, Ignoring a request from the Spanish consul general that the young man be granted clemency and even a request from Gigi Howard herself that Arriazu not serve time, Manhattan State Supreme Court judge Franklin Weissberg sentenced him to six months on Rikers Island.
Given the lack of direct evidence, the little harm actually caused by the tap and the first-time nature of the alleged offense, many found the sentence unduly harsh. “Maybe [Arriazu] went over the line as a journalist,” says Rosemary Armao, former executive director of the trade group Investigative Reporters and Editors. “I wouldn’t recommend one of my reporters do it. But Rikers Island is for serious criminals.” Ultimately, say some legal experts, the Arriazu case is a sobering cautionary tale. The bottom line:
You may be responsible for those in your employ. “If he didn’t know, he should have,” says one trial lawyer.
The Arriazu family, along with numerous Spanish journalists, say it is more a lesson about the costs of being a pain in the royal butt. For years, Spanish journalists observed unwritten rules about dealing with the House of Borbon. In general, the Spanish press lay off King Juan Carlos and his brood, withholding the juiciest photos and shockers, and in return are rewarded with leaked “scoops.”
“The only articles about the Spanish royal family are the ones that they authorize...like biographies,” says Hugo Arriazu. “They will even go so far as to threaten them.. .not to work on a certain story.” Alejandro Duenuas, U.S. bureau chief of Spain’s Antena 3 television, says that Hola!, the popular magazine, spends a fortune on hot material in order not to publish it. “Then [Hola!] goes to the royal house and tells them, and in return gets exclusive photos and interviews.”
But Santi Arriazu, whose bread-and-butter is photos dealing with the love affairs of the royals, has, with his son Hugo, gone where no other Spanish paparazzo has gone before. They introduced a sort of National Enquirer sensibility where none had existed.
“They know me very well,” Hugo says of the royals. “Their bodyguards have threatened me many times.” He says that he knows journalists who have been threatened. “They [representatives of the royal family] say things like, ‘We know who you are.. .we know where you live. You would probably get a tax audit.’”
There is no evidence at all that the Spanish crown had any role in Arriazu’s arrest or prosecution. In fact, Ascuncion Valdes, spokesperson for the Spanish palace, denies that there has ever been any communication between the palace and any U.S. government agency regarding the incident. She also denies the royal bodyguards ever acted improperly.
But it might be interesting if law enforcement officials would reveal just how Thomas Busciglio got involved in the caper, what deal he cut with Dade County law enforcement and how such a costly and elaborate interstate sting operation was authorized when those resources surely could have gone toward bigger, dangerous game. Will other would-be wiretappers face such intensive treatment? Both New York and Dade County officials declined to elaborate.
Meanwhile, Hugo Arriazu accepted his fate. He didn’t appeal because his lawyer believed that the appeals process would outlast the sentence. And he grew to enjoy his cellmates, many of whom spoke Spanish; others helped him with his English. “They are good people...very nice people,” he says. “Had I never been put in here, I would have never seen it. It’s practically worth the trouble to see the suffering.”
In a case that entirely revolved around the power of the press, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise—although it did shock his posttrial lawyer—that after P.O.V. had concluded its inquiries Hugo Arriazu was granted conditional release on Friday, December 13—three months early. In an even more unusual move, he was permitted to forgo probation entirely and return to Spain. The only conditions: Stay away from the United States and the royal family for one year.
End of story? Of course not. “I will write my book about this history, and I will later work as a photojournalist,” said the resilient Arriazu immediately following his release. Covering what? The royal family, of course: “Why not?” He paused. Then he added: “But I will be more careful about the people I deal with.”
And his dad, meanwhile, is quietly telling people that the last round hasn’t been fought. There is plenty of royal dirt that the press is holding back, Santi claims. One guarantee, though: The focus won’t be on Gigi Howard. She reportedly saw the prince a number of times for a year or more, and was in the palace as recently as last spring—but rumors have the prince seeing someone else now. Repeated efforts to reach Gigi Howard by telephone were unsuccessful; the Manhattan District Attorney’s office rejected P.O.V. ‘s request to arrange an interview with her. “She’s the ultimate victim,” Santi Arriazu says, self-righteously. “After testifying against a Spaniard, you can’t be queen of Spain. This case could have changed the Spanish succession.”
Investigative journalist Russ Baker has written for New York magazine, The Nation and The Village Voice. This is his first article for P.O.V.