Transcript: 142. Luis Vigoreaux, Burnt Alive | Puerto Rico

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The studio of a morning radio show is an exhilarating place. In the hour before going live on air, everyone is having a cup of coffee, generating energy for the show. On the morning on 18 January 1984, the running order handed to the sound engineer, the producer, the co-host… Everyone was on standby for the show to start. The only problem was that the host had not shown up for work. The host was not just anyone… It was Luis Vigoreaux, one of the best-known names in the Puerto Rican entertainment industry.

Luis absence confused his colleagues. In all his years of radio and television work, this veteran comedian, writer, producer and presenter had never just stayed away. With minutes to go before Good Morning at WBMJ went live, there was still no sign of Luis. Where was he?

Before long, everyone in Puerto Rico learnt that Luis’ burnt-out car was discovered in an isolated spot in Cupey Barrio in San Juan’s south. Police found a body in the trunk, burnt beyond recognition. Shockwaves went through the country police announced that the body was in fact Luis Vigoreaux. No one was more distraught than his wife, soap opera star, Lydia Echevarría. But was her anguish, or was she crying crocodile tears for the man who was about to leave her…

>>Intro Music

Luis Vigoreaux Rivera was born on the 12th of April 1928 in Esperanza de Ceiba, Puerto Rico. He was one of eight children of Eilalia and Enrique Vigoreaux. His father, who worked in a sugar cane field died when Luis was young. The family did not have much, but they were all hard-working. By the time Luis was fourteen, his mother moved Luis and his seven siblings to San Juan, to give everyone better opportunities.

Luis, a gregarious boy who loved courting an audience, was only in high school he made his first radio appearance. During World War II, professional Puerto Rican radio hosts were enlisted, which opened many doors to new, talented young people like Luis. His experience behind the microphone set the course for the rest of his life.

After high school, Luis enrolled to study at the University of Puerto Rico. He developed as a skilled comedian during this time and made strong connections in the entertainment industry. At the age of 22, he married Rosuara Loranzana, and they had three sons together: Luis Antonio (or Luisito), Roberto and Jorge.

Luis Vigoreaux’s career was going from strength to strength. He also had a role in the popular radio show, ‘Torito and Company’ in which he played the role of Torito’s father, Don Toribio Montes. It was the heyday of Puerto Rican radio soaps, and Luis, in the role of a patriarch, was one of the most famous voices in the country.

In 1954, Luis was established as a radio personality and tried his luck in front of the camera. Television was a new medium and it was anybody’s playing field. Luis was a natural on screen and the job opportunities came rolling in. He acted, presented, produced… Whatever Luis touched, turned to gold.

But his personal life soon became rather unsettled. At a viewing of a show called ‘La Hora Cero’ (or Zero Hour) which he produced with Mario Pabón, Luis met actress, Lydia Echevarría (êshê-var-ria). She was beautiful and soft spoken, and her ambition equalled his own.

Lydia was three years younger than Luis and also began her journey as an entertainer as a teenager. When she was only in high school, her acting talent shone through and she was invited to be a part of the prestigious Rolling Theatre Program of the University of Puerto Rico. She landed a couple of roles on radio soap operas and married Fernando Cruz in 1952, when she was 19 years old.

But the marriage wouldn’t last, because Lydia knew who she wanted, and it wasn’t Fernando. Luis Vigoreaux still married to Rosuara, and the couples frequently socialised together. It soon became evident that something was going on between Luis and Lydia. The first to leave a spouse was Lydia, hoping Luis would do the same. But Luis couldn’t bring himself to leave his wife. In the end, it was Rosuara who filed for divorce, citing adultery.

On the 10th of February 1960, Lydia Echevarría and Luis Vigoreaux got married and started their life in the limelight together. They had two daughters, Vanessa and Glendaly Vigoreaux, growing their blended family. In 1962, tragedy struck when Luis’ son from his first marriage, Jorje, died of leukemia. The only way Luis knew how to deal with it, was to keep busy. He never said no to a job and began working as a game show host with Lydia by his side.

Together they became a household name in Puerto Rico, hosting shows like Pa’rriba Papi Pa’rriba. They have been referred to as the Lucy and Desi of Puerto Rico – everyone knew them, and everyone loved them.

In 1970, Luis developed a game show ‘Sube Nene, Sube’, which became one of the most-watched shows on Puerto Rican television ever. This exert comes from the book ‘The Ladies Gallery – A Memoir of Family Secrets’, and it makes one feel like you’re in a living room, somewhere in Puerto Rico in the 1970s, watching your favourite TV show:

(audio clip of show into?)

“In Puerto Rico everything is in decline, but Luis Vigoreaux would set up a greased pole at the beginning of his program Sube Nene Sube (or Climb, Kid, Climb!), and everybody would come out blowing bubbles. In exchange for bedroom furniture or a 26-inch television set, somebody in the audience would try to climb the greased pole. It was a family program. Luis Vigoreaux, with that melodious voice that needed no microphone, directs the ceremony; beside him or his wife, wearing a wig of blonde curls, and his two daughters dressed as clowns. In the centre, the man on the greased pole, furiously trying to climb up. The audience shouts, Vigoreaux encourages him, his wife runs back and forth across the stage. Halfway up, the man seems to hesitate, starts to slip. Then Luis Vigoreaux’s wife and daughters surround the pole, touch it, shriek, “Climb, Kid, Climb!” Luis Vigoreaux was telling Puerto Rico: get going, there’s hope, it’s just a matter of using your knees right and hugging the pole tightly. Get going, come on make an effort!”

As Luis and Lydia developed more and more shows, they started their own production studio, Estudio EVC. In 1975, Luis was given the honorary title of Television Knight by the ‘Elbow festival’. He chaired the Puerto Rico Broadcasters Association and directed a fundraising campaign for the Infantile Paralysis Association.

When they appeared on TV together, it always seemed like Luis was the front-person and Lydia the graceful sidekick. But in reality, Lydia’s career and fanbase was every bit as strong as her husband’s. In the early eighties, Lydia was a tele-Novella star, at the top of her game, starring in two shows at the same time. And at home, she was known to call the shots.

Luis did his own thing too… He hosted radio talk shows, TV game shows, and after 30 years in the business – one of the best-known entertainers in Puerto Rico. He’s been called a mixture of Johnny Carson and Arthur Godfrey. But in Puerto Rico, he did not have to be compared to anyone, he was the godfather of television, a pioneer who needed no introduction.

But the vibe inside the Vigoreaux-Echevarría home was far from the happy smiles and graceful nods between hosts on stage. By 1983, it was common knowledge that Luis had moved on from Lydia. He had a passionate affair with the model Nidia Castillo. Nidia worked with both Luis and Lydia on the show ‘Pa’arriba Papi Pa’arriba’, back in 1973 and saw them both as her mentors. She often stayed over at their family home, and Vanessa and Glendaly adored her.

Lydia was a ferociously jealous wife, but never suspected the woman she took into her home would betray her. When she found out about the affair, Luis’ life became a living hell.

The eruption of their personal issues inevitably brought a lot of tension in their professional relationship as well. In 1979, their production house, Estudio EVC was declared bankrupt, and cracks in the seemingly perfect marriage was there for the whole nation to see.

Luis and Lydia tried to reconcile, but his heart was with Nidia. Puerto Rico’s power-couple of 21 years officially separated in 1981. But Luis pressed for a divorce, seeing as he wanted to marry Nidia. At first Lydia refused, but as time went by, she was forced to admit defeat. Luis no longer loved her, and she had to let him go.

After a drawn-out process, things were finally about to come to an end. On the 17th of January 1983, Luis and his attorney met with Lydia and her attorney to finalise the divorce. But Luis never returned home. When he did not show up for work the next morning, his colleagues at Good Morning at WBMJ were immediately alarmed. Luis had never missed a live broadcast before – where could he be?

Before long, the news broke that Luis’ burnt-out Mercedes was discovered the night before in Cupey Bajo. There was a charred body in the trunk – a black cinder with no recognisable features, other than teeth, some bones and a Rolex on the victim’s wrist. The body was transported to the lab so forensic examiners could determine whether it was Luis Vigoreaux or not.

The family was informed about the situation, hours after the car was found. Luis’ son, Roberto recalled receiving a phone call from his uncles at 1am on that fateful night.

““I remember going to the Police Headquarters where they showed me some of his personal items to see if I recognised them. I had already realised from the faces of the police that something bad was happening.”

The following day, forensic doctor, Rafael Criado declared that the man in the trunk was in fact, Luis Vigoreaux. His skull was fractured, and he had numerous wounds all over his body, caused by a sharp instrument. It pierced his heart, left kidney and lungs. The nation listened to Dr Criado’s statement with trepidation:

“This was a kind of Chinese torture… He had a fractured skull as if he had been given a tubazo. He had the typical blast fractures when a person is charred. When he was found, he had been dead for three hours or so. He had died inside the trunk of the car when he was found with the body. The host and producer of WAPA TV had been burned while he was still alive, as he had inhaled smoke and strange particles of charcoal.”

It was hard to believe. Less than 24 hours before, Luis’ voice graced the airwaves of the entire country during a live broadcast of Show del Mediodía. He was inside their homes, and now he was gone… Killed like a common criminal.

From the start of the investigation, speculation was rife: was Luis perhaps involved with the Mafia? Was there a dispute between producers? Or was it a crime of passion?

Everybody knew about Luis’ turbulent personal life. But no one thought that their beloved Lydia Echevarría would ever harm the larger-than-life Luis Vigoreaux. At his funeral, Lydia was almost hysterical, deeply distraught after losing her husband in such a brutal way.  Heart-wrenching photos show her crying inconsolably next to his coffin. Stories of the bitter divorce were long-forgotten, and Lydia was the grieving widow. Thousands of people attended the funeral, to pay tribute to the much-loved entertainer. Countless people lined up outside the cemetery, to catch a last glimpse of the man who made them laugh, cry and hope over the years.

After the funeral, Lydia seemed to work harder than ever. She continued starring in two soap operas. But she also revived her love for theatre, taking on the leading role in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. When asked how she managed to work so much in the wake of the tragic loss of her husband, she said:

“Work has always been my escape. Being a workaholic has always helped me overcome the crises in my life.”

Police were sceptical about Lydia Echevarría… At the end of January, they questioned her for two hours. During the interview, she admitted that she had been aware of her husband’s affair since 1978 or 1979. She confirmed that they were about to be divorced, but claimed that she loved him and that, even after all the pain he had caused her, they were the best of friends. She denied any involvement in her husband’s murder and police had no physical evidence against her, so she was released.

For more than a year, it did not look like investigators were getting any closer to solving Luis’ murder. It was such a high-profile case, and everyone was watching. Police were convinced that Lydia Echevarría was behind it all, but they did not have enough on her to make an arrest.

Then, almost 19 months after Luis was killed, on the 2nd of September 1984, the streets of San Juan were abuzz as police arrested four men in connection with the murder. A man called Edgardo Vázquez Reyes came forward and claimed that he received $50,000 from Lydia to kill Luis and that he then paid $6000 each to Pablo Guadalupe Aquino and his two sons, Jorge and Rubén to do the deed. The Guadalupe family was well-known to police. Pablo and his sons had been charged with the murder of a prominent lawyer who disappeared. The youngest Guadalupe brother, Juan Carlos also confessed to another killing.

But police had one more arrest warrant up their sleeves. The then Secretary of Justice, Nelson Martínez Acosta, personally arrested her at the home of her relative, where she had been staying. A mob of cameras filmed the famous actress being led to the police vehicle. Police cars chased through the city as they tried to avoid the onslaught of journalists, making Lydia’s one of the most memorable arrests in Puerto Rican history.

People gathered outside of the police station. But this was no curtain call for the infamous actress. No, the people had already convicted her, and shouted ‘Murderer!’ Some staunch fans of Lydia’s were there too, counter supporting the masses, shouting ‘Let her go!’ Bail was set for $600,000, and she was able to await trial at home.

In November 1984, Lydia Echevarría was formally charged with murder in the first degree, conspiracy, kidnapping and violations of the Arms Law. She pleaded not guilty and insisted that she was innocent. But before the trial was concluded, prosecution witnesses testified that they had lied in their accounts. The whole basis of the Prosecution’s case collapsed, and

Judge Francisco Pérez Rivera exonerated Echevarría and her co-defendants Edgardo Vázquez Reyes, Pablo Guadalupe and his sons Jorge and Rubén.

However, with a change of government, the Department of Justice re-opened the case. Investigators firmly believed that Lydia Echevarría was guilty. It was on official record that Luis Vigoreaux wanted a divorce. Lydia was adamant to make the legal battle as ferocious as possible. The months leading up to his murder was a public mud-slinging affair with Lydia pressing attempted murder charges against Luis on one occasion. She claimed he almost drove her over with his Mercedes Benz.

San Jose was the stage, and the love triangle was a loud and vengeful performance. It came as no surprise that many of Lydia’s claims involved Nidia. On one occasion, as the rumour went… Lydia pointed a gun at Luis and said she’d rather see him dead than married to Nidia.

Nidia confirmed this story in her interview with police and said that Lydia had confronted Luis after a play he starred in at the Silvia Rexach Theatre, Puerta de Tierra. Lydia insisted Luis took her home to her apartment in El Pilar, where she pulled out a weapon and threatened him. Police later recovered an unlicensed revolver fitting the description Luis gave Nidia from Lydia’s apartment, and could never determine how it came in her possession.

Nidia claimed that Luis was terribly unhappy in his marriage and had confided in her that Lydia treated him like a money-making machine, nothing else. Luis reportedly told his friends that he could not wait to be divorced from Lydia, so he could marry the 26-year-old Nidia. In the end, he died before his divorce from Lydia was final. In life and in death, he was HERS.  

Lydia Echevarría’s housekeeper came forward and said that a man who introduced himself as ‘David’ came to Lydia’s apartment on the 13th of January 1983 to collect an envelope. This was four days before Luis’ murder. ‘David’ allegedly had a hushed conversation with Lydia for about 15 or 20 minutes, then left. When the housekeeper was presented with a photo line-up, she identified a man who went by the nickname of ‘El Chino’ or ‘El Dominicano’.

Another witness came forward and said he recalled a conversation he had with a man called Francisco ‘Papo’ Newman in the week before the murder. According to the witness, Papo Newman had told him about a contract to kill Puerto Rico’s favourite comedian. When the witness asked Papo why Lydia Echevarría wanted Luis Vigoreaux killed, Papo claimed that she’d rather have him dead than divorce him.

As soon as police were able to establish that fashion model Papo Newman was an acquaintance of Lydia Echevarría’s, he was arrested. Newman confessed to the murder and said he would tell them everything – in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Desperate to close the case, the Prosecution agreed.

Papo Newman confirmed what police suspected all along: he said Lydia Echevarría had hired him to end her husband’s life. Lydia also wanted them to ‘physically liquidate’ the other woman in her husband’s life, Nidia Castillo. According to Newman, Lydia Echevarría approached him mid-1982, with the proposal and tasked him with finding the right person to execute her wish.

It took Newman more than six months to find the right guy for the job, but he eventually settled on drug-addict mechanic, David Lopéz-Watts, or ‘El Dominicano’. Echevarría would pay them each $2,500 to kidnap and ‘beat’ or ‘kill’ Luis Vigoreaux. What the exact request was has been a point of contention in the course of the investigation.

According to Papo Newman, Lydia informed him that she had set up a meeting between her and Luis and both their attorneys for the evening of 17 January 1983 at a Condominium called El Centro in Hato Rey. The aim of the meeting was to tie up all the loose ends relating to the divorce.

That evening, with the meeting in progress, Newman and López-Watts laid in wait for Luis Vigoreaux to leave the meeting. Luis and his lawyer came out of the building at 7:40pm. The assailants watched as the men walked to Luis’ car and followed them as they drove away. Luis stopped at the lawyer’s office to drop him off and carried on his way by himself, heading to Nidia’s place, but never made it there…

At an intersection on the Trujilo Alto Express, Papo Newman forced his way into the passenger seat of Luis’ Mercedes, using a key provided by Lydia Echevarría. He made Luis to drive to a secluded area in Los Guanos, Cupey – about a fifteen minute-drive away. López-Watts followed in the other car, a blue Mazda.

At Los Guanos, they forced Luis Vigoreaux out of his car, where López-Watts commenced an attack with an ice pick. They pushed a badly injured Luis into the trunk of his car, ready to leave him for dead. Then, Newman remembered something… Lydia had asked him to take Luis’ briefcase. Newman opened the trunk and was surprised when Luis grabbed a hold of his arm – he was still alive!

Almost instinctively, Newman struck a pleading Luis on the head with a tyre iron that happened to be in in the trunk. Luis was knocked out immediately. Newman closed the truck and walked away. From the scene, they went to someone López-Watts knew and borrowed a jerry can. They filled it up at a gas station and returned to Luis’s car. Newman then doused the car in fuel and set it alight. With Luis unconscious but still alive, they left him to die the most horrendous death thinkable. Less than an hour later, Luis’ car was discovered.

Papo Newman was remorseful and blamed his actions on drug addiction. Police were happy to charge the mastermind of the murder, Lydia Echevarría, for the murder of her husband once more. She was also charged with conspiracy, kidnapping and burning of insured assets.

After numerous judicial ups and downs, the trial against Echevarría finally began on the 21st of January 21, 1986. The trial against Lydia Echevarría and David López-Watts was one of the most sensational cases ever in Puerto Rico, due to the celebrity status of the victim and the accused. It was a real-life drama. It was a media circus, and the public could not get enough of the story. Crowds gathered outside the San Juan Judicial Center, hoping to catch a glimpse of the accused.

Because of the extensive media coverage of the case, the decision was made to sequester the jury. Jury members were taken to a hotel where they had no access to TV or newspapers – they had no contact with the outside world whatsoever. This was only done a month after the first trial date, the defence requested the dissolution of the jury, but it was denied.

The Prosecution’s star witness, Papo Newman, testified on March 20, 1986. He repeated his version of events, about the conspiracy between Echevarría, López-Watts and himself to kill Luis Vigoreaux and his lover, the model Nidia Castillo, in the midst of the problems that the Vigoreaux-Echevarría couple had during their divorce proceedings.

On the 2nd of May 1986, after deliberating for eight hours, the jury returned with a 9-3 vote. Lydia Echevarría was found guilty of ordering the kidnapping and murder of her husband of more than 20 years, Luis Vigoreaux. She was sentenced to serve 208 years consecutively for the crimes she was charged with. She was sent to a women’s prison in Vega Alta – and dubbed Puerto Rico’s most famous inmate.

In court, Luis and Lydia’s daughter Vanessa said:

“What started as a drama, had to end as one.”

Roberto and Luisito Vigoreaux turned their backs on their stepmother the moment she was arrested, whereas their half-sisters Vanessa and Glendaly stood by her. And that was pretty much an indication of the nation was divided too… Many believed Lydia Echevarría got what she deserved and should never be released, others called for mercy, supporting the soap opera star to the bitter end.

David López-Watts refused to accept the offer of immunity. He was acquitted of first-degree murder but convicted of conspiracy and kidnapping. For his part in the crime, López-Watts was sentenced to 114 years, but only served 15 years.

Papo Newman never spent a single day in jail, and even though he struck the match that lit up Luis Vigoreaux’s car and ultimately caused his death, he lived out his life as a free man. In November 2019, the 71-year-old’s badly decomposed body was found in his apartment in Paris Barrio, San Juan. He died due to natural causes.

In 1991, Lydia’s appeal stated that Papo Newman was never a credible witness. He was a known fraudster with a criminal reputation and his evidence (which was the basis of the Prosecution’s case) should never have been accepted in court. She also claimed that because of all the media attention, she did not receive a fair trial. Her appeal was denied and the jury’s decision upheld.

However, hers did not turn out to be a life-sentence. After serving 13 years, in December 1999, Governor Pedro Rosselló commuted her sentence and released her under house arrest. She could leave her house during the day however, as long as she was home before her curfew. According to Rosselló, his decision to grant her release was on ‘humanitarian grounds’, due to ill health. Many people were outraged – she was a convicted killer, why was she free? Other die-hard fans welcomed the decision and celebrated her freedom. After her release, Lydia Echevarría addressed the media and said:

“I ask forgiveness of the people of Puerto Rico, and even my critics, for everything they have gone through. What I cannot do is declare myself guilty of something I didn’t do.”

Roberto Vigoreaux, by this time a member of the house of Representatives said:

“This is a person who has shown no remorse, no rehabilitation and suffers from no chronic health problems that merit putting out on the streets a convicted killer… Why are they going to let her out? Because she’s more famous than other killers and she has more friends? What kind of a message does that send to people?”

Many Puerto Ricans believed the controversial early release was an act of revenge from Rosselló against Roberto Vigoreaux, because of political differences. Roberto was informed that his stepmother was set to be released in January and he was adamant to stop it. However, on the day of the announcement, Roberto was on a flight to America. He thought he would have time to contest the ruling, but while he was on the plane, Echevarría was released – giving him no time to take legal action.

Lydia Echevarría’s supposed health concerns did not stop her from re-igniting her career. In 2001, she resumed acting, and presented a play inspired by the women she met in prison. The play, Confinadas was performed inside the prison where she spent 13 years, as a homage of her time spent behind bars.

When a reporter asked about her health she said she had some knee troubles but felt fine otherwise. This left Governor Pedro Rosselló with egg on his face; he was clearly too lenient in his decision to commute her sentence. He had previously said that he would show no clemency to drug traffickers or offenders of violent crimes.

Over the years, Lydia Echevarría has been involved with several TV shows, either as an actress or as a producer. The only limit is her curfew, that states she has to be home by 8pm every night. She applied to have her curfew extended to 1am, so she could do evening performances, but it was turned down.

In July 2008, tragedy struck again, with the death of Lydia and Luis’ eldest daughter Glendaly Vigoreaux at her Glendale, Arizona home. Glendaly followed in her parents’ footsteps and became an actress. She lived in Glendale with her husband of a few months, Paul Hacker.

According to Glendaly’s lawyer, Fátima Seda Barlett), there were many suspicious elements to Glendaly’s suicide. Her new husband, Paul, convinced her to take out a million-dollar life insurance policy in the months before her death. He was the only beneficiary. On the day of her death, Paul said she kissed him goodbye, before walking into the next room and shooting herself in the temple. She reportedly covered the entire floor with towels so as to not make a mess when she shot herself. Her suicide note stated that, if she survived somehow, they should not try to save her.

By the time her sister Vanessa arrived, Paul had had packed all of Glendaly’s belongings away. If one didn’t know she had been married to him, you wouldn’t have said so walking into their home – there was no sign of her.

Lydia said she spoke to her daughter on the phone the night before she died, and there was no indication that she was depressed. On the contrary, Lydia felt Glendaly sounded upbeat and happy. But Arizona police believe Glendaly ended her own life, and there has been no further investigation.

As for Lydia Echevarría, She’s never admitted to anything, nor has she asked for forgiveness. She has never showed any remorse regarding her role in her husband’s murder. If anything, the killing gave her notoriety, which was great for her career in the public eye. Roberto Vigoreaux won’t forgive her for taking his father from him, and Luisito Vigoreaux, who became a famous producer and presenter like his dad, refuses to speak about his father’s murder. The only thing Luisito has ever said was that he will never forgive Echevarría, he emphasised his statement, saying that…

“It will never happen.”

Roberto claims that Lydia still acts as if Luis is ‘out there somewhere’. Like nothing ever happened, let alone that she was the one who had him killed. Luis Vigoreaux wanted to divorce Lydia Echevarría, so she wrote him out of the script of her life- just like a character in a play. But to those who loved Luis, the day he died, their lives became a tragedy, played out on a public stage, for the world to see…

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