Reporting Mike Hellgren
BETHESDA, Md. (WJZ) — Right now, a Maryland man may be dying in a Cuban jail, part of an unfolding international drama. The U.S. government contractor is desperately appealing a 15-year sentence for trying to overthrow the Castro regime.
Mike Hellgren takes you inside the case of Alan Gross, who claims he’s innocent but is caught in a political nightmare.
Alan Gross went from a comfortable life in the Maryland suburbs to living a nightmare, locked in a Cuban prison after the government there branded the aid worker a spy.
His family now fears he could die inside that Communist jail.
“Alan has done nothing wrong and we need him home,” said his wife, Judy Gross.
Depending on who you believe, Gross was either working on a secret government mission to bring democracy to Cuba or simply a humanitarian who’d helped the needy in more than 50 countries and clung to his blue-collar Baltimore roots.
The most harrowing journey of Gross’ life began almost three years ago. The United States was offering big money to provide Internet access to Havana’s Jewish community.
“I’ve known Alan for about 30 years,” said Rabbi David Schneyer.
It’s a cause his rabbi says was dear to Alan’s heart.
“He loves his culture and the Jewish people,” Schneyer said. “It is not fair to him and to his family that he…that his family should be going through this.”
Gross worked for Development Alternatives, a company based in Bethesda. They scored a multi-million dollar contract with the government and knew exactly the man they wanted in Cuba.
Gross went back and forth, bringing in satellite equipment and setting up computer stations. The frequent trips quickly caught the attention of Cuban authorities, who believed the good Samaritan act was a front to overthrow their government.
But Deborah Mulhern, who’s known Gross for years, says he’s no spy.
“He was a big, burly guy, very funny, always smiling,” she said. “He’s extremely, extremely intelligent.”
She says if there was an international plot unfolding, Alan Gross was an innocent pawn.
“It wasn’t like he was naive, like he didn’t understand. It was more…there was some agenda that they had that he would have no way of knowing,” Mulhern said.
After a trial—which the U.S. denounced as a sham—the Cubans sentenced Gross to 15 years behind bars, drawing stinging criticism from the most powerful in Washington.
“We call on the government of Cuba to release him,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson told WJZ he’s pushing for Gross’ freedom to right a terrible wrong.
“Our appeal here is a high moral, emotional principal,” Jackson said.
Maryland Representative Chris Van Hollen says, bottom line, a man’s life is at stake.
“Alan Gross has lost over 90 pounds,” Van Hollen said. “The Cuban government so far has been obstinate and outrageous.”
Not only is Alan suffering, his mother and daughter were recently diagnosed with cancer.
“It’s very difficult. Our hearts are with the family and we wish we could do more,” Schneyer said. “I keep hope alive because there’s not much of a choice.”
Former President Jimmy Carter recently met with Gross in prison.
“I did not come with the expectation of bringing him home. The Cuban officials made it very clear to me before I left my home that the freedom of Alan Gross would not be granted,” Carter said.
With his health getting worse by the day, his family’s pleas are growing more urgent to bring Alan back to Maryland before it’s too late.
“Alan is an incredibly loving father. His daughters miss him terribly,” Judy Gross said. “We need him home.”
Gross’ wife recently sent Cuban President Raul Castro a Passover message, asking him to free her husband as a “genuine gesture to the Jewish community around the world.”
Gross’ U.S. lawyer has filed an appeal with Cuba’s Supreme Court that is pending consideration by the judges.