January 08, 2001 12:00 PM

At a brief “purification” ceremony in Santiago, Chile, Joyce Horman dips her fingers into a small clay bowl and flicks water into the evening air. Since her husband, American freelance journalist Charles Horman, was executed in the National Stadium in September 1973—an event dramatized in the Oscar-winning 1982 movie Missing (with Sissy Spacek as Joyce)—Horman, 56, has felt “a deep, deep sadness and a terrible pain.” But, she tells a group of about 80 gathered near the stadium, “I’m happy to be here now, among people who share my search for the truth.”

It is a quest she has asked the Chilean courts to join. On Dec. 7 she filed a criminal complaint against Gen. Augusto Pinochet, 85, and others accused of responsibility for some 3,000 deaths during the Chilean strongman’s 17-year reign. Horman believes U.S. intelligence officers share culpability for the murder of her husband, a 31-year-old Harvard graduate who wrote favorably of President Salvador Allende’s regime before Pinochet overthrew it with covert American support.

Joyce Horman’s suspicions were bolstered recently by the release of thousands of once-classified U.S. government documents. One State Department memo, dated Aug. 25, 1976, states that “U.S. intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman’s death.” At best, the U.S. role “was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder,” the memo adds.

Charles and Joyce, a native of Owatonna, Minn., had been married for three years when they set out from New York City for South America in 1971. Like many idealistic young Americans, they were intrigued by Allende’s socialist agenda. Two years later, on the day Pinochet’s forces stormed the presidential palace, Charles was sightseeing in the coastal city of Viña del Mar. There, Charles told Joyce, he ran into a U.S. civilian naval engineer named Arthur Creter, who boasted of helping to plan the coup. (Creter, 70 and retired in Albany, Ga., says he neither played any part in the coup nor discussed it with Horman, whom he recalls as “hippyish.”)

After Charles returned to Santiago, he and Joyce made plans to flee the country. Before heading off on separate errands on the morning of Sept. 17, they kissed each other goodbye. It was the last time they saw each other. That evening, witnesses say, some 15 soldiers dragged Charles away. Trapped overnight by a military curfew in another part of town, Joyce returned the next day to find her house ransacked and her husband missing. In the agonizing weeks that followed, she and Charles’s father, Ed Horman (memorably played by Jack Lemmon in the movie), an industrial designer who flew down from New York City, combed the city’s hospitals and morgues. Finally, in mid-October, they received a tip that Charles had been murdered in the National Stadium shortly after his abduction, and they so informed the U.S. embassy. The next day the U.S. consul notified them that Charles’s bullet-riddled body had been buried in a wall at the National Cemetery.

For years, Joyce and Ed Horman, who died in 1993, worked to have the case investigated; their cause was taken up in a 1978 book by Thomas Hauser, The Execution of Charles Horman, and its film version, Missing. But by 1982 Joyce was fighting lymphoma (now in remission) and her family’s wrongful death suit against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had been dismissed. To have a life again, she says, “I let it go.” She never remarried.

In October 1998 Pinochet was arrested in London after a Spanish court sought to try him for human rights violations. Her hope reborn, Joyce took a leave from her computer consulting job in Manhattan (where she lives in the same building as her mother-in-law, Elizabeth Horman, 96) to testify before the House of Commons in London against Pinochet. “Finally there was some justice,” she says. “But it didn’t answer my questions: Who killed Charles? And what did the U.S. have to do with it?” Judged unfit to stand trial, Pinochet returned to Santiago, where he is now fighting Chilean charges of kidnapping and murder.

Judd Kessler, a former government official in Chile, insists that U.S. involvement in Horman’s death is a “myth” and that nothing in the declassified documents “provides a shred of credible evidence” to the contrary. But Peter Kornbluh, an analyst with the National Security Archive, a nonpartisan research organization, believes that the CIA is still covering up evidence about Horman’s death. “It’s tragic and scandalous,” he says.

Joyce Horman may never be able to prove her case, but she is nearly certain she knows why she lost her husband. “Charles was killed because he knew too much,” she says.

Bruce Frankel

J. Todd Foster in Washington, D.C., Marc Killinger in Santiago and Bob Meadows in New York City

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