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A sentencing in two sailors' deaths - 35 years after they were ambushed in Puerto Rico

The bus the U.S. sailors were traveling in when they were attacked in Puerto Rico by the separatist group Los Macheteros NCIS

For more than 30 years, Patty Ball thought this moment would never come. At 28, she lost her husband in an ambush on a bus carrying a group of U.S. sailors in Puerto Rico.

Her husband, John Ball, was among 16 U.S. Navy personnel travelling on winding back roads near the Sabana Seca Naval Base when they were attacked by militants of the separatist group Los Macheteros on Dec. 3, 1979. Two American sailors were killed and 10 others were wounded.

Three decades later, she can still remember that day. It was early in the morning and she could hear sirens in the distance from her home in Puerto Rico.

"I knew something was wrong," said Ball, now 63 and living in Madison, Wisconsin. "You could hear it. The black car drove up and I knew it. And of course they said it, but I knew it."

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Inside the bus the sailors were traveling in when they were caught in a hail of bullets
NCIS
What she knew was that her husband had been killed, but for decades she didn't know who was responsible.

But on Thursday, Ball finally got the closure she needed. A federal judge at a Brooklyn courthouse sentenced Juan Galloza Acevedo, one of the men responsible for her husband's death, to five years in prison.

"I never expected anything to come of it," she said. "After all these years, they could never find anybody. I felt relief and hope there could be closure."

The team of communication specialists was on a routine trip from the base to a transmitting tower just outside of San Juan. Their bus slowed down when a pickup truck got in front of them. Suddenly another vehicle carrying five men pulled up alongside and opened fire with powerful assault weapons. The bus was caught in a hail of bullets. When the chaos subsided, John Ball, a cryptologic technician petty officer first class, and Emil White, a Navy radioman petty officer third class, were dead. Ten others were wounded.

The militant nationalist movement known as Los Macheteros claimed responsibility for the attack. In a communique, found in a phone booth near the scene of the ambush, it said the attack was in response for the deaths of two pro-independence youth activists killed by police a year earlier and the death of an anti-Navy activist who committed suicide while in a Florida prison.

Galloza Acevedo, now 78, was in the front passenger seat of the van that opened fire, according to agents from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. In all 13 militants orchestrated and took part in the attack.

Last July, Galloza Acevedo admitted to agents his involvement in the ambush and agreed to cooperate. He pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy, murder and robbery conspiracy for helping to plan and carry out the ambush.

During the sentencing, he expressed remorse and apologized to the families of the victims, including John Ball's wife and Warren Smith, a sailor who survived the attack

For years the FBI and NCIS worked the case, chasing all possible leads, before it eventually went cold.

"This case was made difficult by the fact that the group operates in secrecy, using code names and disguises, said NCIS Special Agent, Tim Quick. "We couldn't get anyone to cooperate, so it was hard to put together."

The case was reopened in 2001, following a decision in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks to apply cold case homicide methodology to terrorist events.

With the help of technological advances, NCIS was able to get a DNA from some of the evidence collected from inside the bus and the militants' vehicles, such as ear buds, gloves and nylon pantyhose, which they used on door handles to eliminate fingerprint traces. The DNA profile led them back to Galloza Acevedo in Puerto Rico.

"It was the break we'd been looking for," Quick said. "We used that to get a federal search warrant to collect his DNA."

"More than bring someone to jail, we want to let the families know that we were working on this and that we never forgot about them," said Lou Eilopulos, director of the NCIS Office of Forensic Support.

Los Macheteros was a pro-independence organization who wanted the United States out of Puerto Rico and had cells on the mainland. Its members were also behind the 1983 robbery of a Wells Fargo depot in Hartford, Connecticut. They stole $7 million and used it to wage war against the United States. Victor Manuel Gerena, accused of being involved with the robbery, remains on the FBI's top ten most wanted list.

As the NCIS pressed on with their investigations, Patty Ball has found herself changed in ways she says she may not yet realize.

"The wound is opened up again and now you're processing how you're really thinking about the experience," she said. "It takes you back. It brings me to how it has so affected myself as a person and changed me and everything in my life."

At the time she had two children, a six-year-old son and five-year-old daughter. She and her daughter, Karen, attended the sentencing together.

"I'm so glad she was with me," said Ball. "I needed her for support and she needed me and to do this together was something we will share forever. It's hard for anyone to comprehend."

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