LAist: LA County Deputy Public Defender Released After 21 Months In Venezuelan Prison

By Frank Stoltze

A veteran L.A. County deputy public defender was released by the Venezuelan government Wednesday after spending 21 months in prison on charges he was an American spy.

The release of Eyvin Hernandez came as part of a prisoner exchange involving 10 Americans, six of whom the U.S. government said had been wrongly detained, and a group of Venezuelans, according to a statement from President Joe Biden.

The Hernandez case attracted national attention and prompted the introduction of a congressional resolution calling for his release.

“It was literally an early Christmas present for our family,” Hernandez’s family said in a statement. “For over 21 months, he has endured horrible conditions and abuse.”

Biden said in a statement that the families of the Americans who had been wrongfully detained had already lost “far too much precious time with their loved ones.”

“Their families have suffered every day in their absence,” the president said. “I am grateful that their ordeal is finally over, and that these families are being made whole once more.”

Kidnapped on vacation
In March 2022, Hernandez, 45, went on a two-week vacation to Colombia and unknowingly walked into neighboring Venezuela, according to a website created to inform people about his case. When he refused to pay a bribe, Hernandez “was approached by heavily-armed men in masks,” accused of being an American spy, “and kidnapped in a violent manner.”

The armed men placed a black hood over Hernandez’s head, and he was taken away in the back of a truck, according to the website. He was held in a maximum security prison outside of Caracas and faced up to 16 years in prison on charges of criminal association and conspiracy.

In October 2022, the U.S. officially classified him as “wrongfully detained,” giving the State Department the green light to devote resources to securing his release.

Hernandez’s family said he had essentially become a political prisoner, given the poor relations between the U.S. government and the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro.

Reaction to his release
Some authorities in L.A. County agreed and expressed relief at the news that he would return home.

“Mr. Hernandez was an innocent bystander caught up in a political power play by the Venezuelan government and has suffered tremendously,” L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger said in a statement Wednesday.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said: “I am so relieved and grateful Eyvin Hernandez is safe and returning home … the L.A. County family never forgot Eyvin.”

Federal legislators weighed in on Hernandez’s release as well.

Sen. Alex Padilla was one of several legislators from California who spent time on the case. He said in a statement that he worked alongside the State Department’s Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs to secure Hernandez’s release.

“I am glad to see Eyvin finally released from his unjust imprisonment and headed home to Los Angeles,” Padilla said.

Rep. Nanette Barragán said: “Eyvin Hernandez is a dedicated public servant and a deeply beloved member of the community known for his devotion to justice, respect for humanity, and willingness to help others.”

As a child, Hernandez immigrated to the U.S. from El Salvador with his family, who was fleeing the civil war. He grew up in neighborhoods around downtown and South L.A., eventually graduating with degrees in math and physics from UCLA and then from UCLA Law School.

‘Passionate advocate’
He joined the Public Defender’s Office in 2006 and was a “passionate advocate for the most vulnerable people…experiencing homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse,” according to his support website. Most recently, he was assigned to handle felony cases at the downtown criminal courts building.

Hernandez also volunteered his time to advocate for children in the juvenile justice system, according to the website.

“I’m thrilled that Eyvin will be coming home and that this ordeal is finally over,” said Garrett Miller, president of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union. Miller said Hernandez was well-respected in the office and was involved in training new attorneys.

L.A. County Public Defender Ricardo Garcia said it had been a “long, hard road to this moment.”

“We are looking forward to the time when, after he’s had time to recover and rest, Evyin will return to his rightful place as an advocate in court for the indigent and vulnerable of Los Angeles County,” Garcia said.

As part of the swap, Venezuela will also return to the U.S. Leonard Glenn Francis, known to many as “Fat Leonard.” Francis, a military contractor who had been based in Singapore, oversaw one of the most brazen bribery conspiracies in the U.S. Navy’s history from 2004 until his arrest until 2013, according to a senior administration official.

He was federally prosecuted and had been on the lam since last year, when he cut off his GPS monitoring ankle bracelet while under house arrest in San Diego. He turned up later in Venezuela, where he had been since September 2022, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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