Eric Volz visits Tahoe after time in ‘Waiting Room to Hell’
The mountains surrounding Lake Tahoe provide many things to many people – beauty, recreation, even peace – but to Eric Volz, visions of Sierra Nevada summits gave momentary escape from “La Modelo,” a maximum-security Nicaraguan prison where he spent 13 months on a murder charge that later was overturned.
“Tahoe has always been a real, kind of, refuge,” Volz said during an interview Wednesday at Rude Brothers Bagel and Coffee Haus. “During some of the darkest times, I would go back to Tahoe – hiking peaks, climbing Lover’s Leap.”
In November 2006, Nicaraguan authorities arrested Volz on accusations that he had raped and murdered his 25-year-old former girlfriend, Doris Ivania Alvarado Jiménez.
After a trial viewed as deeply flawed by U.S. observers and many Nicaraguan people, Judge Ivette Toruno Blanco sentenced Volz to 30 years in prison in February 2007.
Conditions inside the penitentiary were “dangerous in every way you can imagine” and left the young man unsure as to whether he would make it out alive, Volz said.
As well as living with the very real potential for violence, Volz developed asthma and a kidney stone during his stay in prison.
He also noted, seemingly from personal experience, that a person’s hair and fingernails stop growing when someone hasn’t received sunlight for three days.
Political pressure to keep Volz in prison from Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista regime as well as anti-American sentiment fueled by inflammatory media accounts contributed to his imprisonment, according to Volz.
Volz, now 29, was released from La Modelo in December after an appellate court composed of three judges ruled 2-1 to overturn his conviction.
Before moving to Nicaragua in December 2004 to start an English-Spanish magazine called El Puente that focused on sustainable tourism and social justice, Volz spent five years at the South Shore.
He recently returned to the area for two weeks to visit close friends, rest, recover from several ailments he developed in prison and visit some of his favorite spots around the lake.
Volz attributes his faith in God, prayers from around the world and the hundreds of letters of support he received while in prison for the strength to continue when his future appeared lost.
“If it wasn’t for their support, I wouldn’t be alive,” Volz said.
Letters from South Shore residents were among the comforts that got Volz out of bed each morning.
“The support that came out of Tahoe was so humbling,” Volz said. “So many people I don’t even know stepped up.”
After his release from prison, Volz expected his return to the United States to be peaceful compared with his time in La Modelo.
“It wasn’t that way at all,” Volz said.
After arriving in the States, Volz went into hiding for a week because of threats against his life.
On Wednesday, he said he hasn’t received any threats for the past six weeks but added there is an open FBI investigation into the source of the menacing remarks.
Nicaraguan prosecutors also have urged the country’s Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s decision, but even if the court took such an action, Volz said extradition “would never happen.”
At one point during Wednesday’s interview, Volz glanced around the coffee shop, where about a half-dozen patrons sipped from paper cups, and realized his voice was nearly the only sound. Later, he smiled while saying he hopes he didn’t traumatize anyone who overheard him recount his ordeal over the past 18 months.
Despite the struggle Volz has undergone, he spoke of something bigger that has grown from his imprisonment: a network of people from different backgrounds who rallied around the injustice they saw in his situation.
After Volz’s arrest, supporters set up pages on the MySpace and Facebook Web sites. A third site, http://www.friendsofericvolz.com, also was established and since has been turned into a site supporting those who still face situations similar to Volz’s around the world.
Volz now splits his time between Nashville, Tenn., where his mother lives, and New York City. He recently secured a book deal with St. Martin’s Press to commit his account of recent events to paper.
A possible title for the book is “The Waiting Room to Hell,” Volz said, a phrase he has used to describe life inside La Modelo.
“The story is really ugly in the details, but in the end it’s about redemption, community and love,” Volz said. “And at the end of the day, I’m really grateful.”