Accused Holyoke ex-councilor Puello-Mota bolts to join Russian army



Wilmer Puello-Mota is shown in a video still at a Russian army enlistment center in western Siberia.

Wilmer Puello-Mota is shown in a video still at a Russian army enlistment center in western Siberia. KHANTY-MANSI REGIONAL GOVERNMENT/TELEGRAM

Wilmer Puello-Mota is shown in a video still shaking hands with an official at a Russian army enlistment center in western Siberia.

Wilmer Puello-Mota is shown in a video still shaking hands with an official at a Russian army enlistment center in western Siberia. KHANTY-MANSI REGIONAL GOVERNMENT/TELEGRAM


Staff Writer

Published: 04-11-2024 5:05 PM

Modified: 04-11-2024 5:20 PM

A one-term Holyoke city councilor who appears to have decamped to fight with Russian forces in the Ukraine war to avoid having to register here as a sex offender has, unsurprisingly, become the focus of national and international media coverage.

Wilmer Puello-Mota, 28, was due to change his plea to child porn possession and other charges in a Rhode Island court in January when his lawyer learned that he had left the country.

“He said, ‘I joined the Russian army,’ or something like that,” attorney John M. Cicilline told the Boston Globe this week. “I thought he was joking.”

Cicilline declined to comment to the Gazette. But he told the Globe he was sure his client left the country because he didn’t want to have to register as a sex offender, and he didn’t believe he had a future in the United States.

The plea agreement with prosecutors required Puello-Mota to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for an 18-month prison term and registering as a sex offender, according to his attorney.

A video widely circulated online shows Puello-Mota entering and being interviewed at a Russian army enlistment center. He says he feels lucky to have met up with people from the International Brigade, a combat unit of mostly Serbian forces.

“Y’know, we did our work, we did our job, we did what we were supposed to do … I definitely would do it again,” he says on the video.

Later, he says he has been made to feel most welcome in Russia.

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“The social support has been absolutely fantastic from the moment I got here,” he says. “This is the least I can do, is to give back and help. Everyone has been so kind.”

The video is undated, but he seems to refer to a Ukrainian town that surrendered to Russian forces in February.

“Avdiivka, it’s terrible, it’s sad what’s happened there, it’s a very bad situation,” he says.

Puello-Mota worked as a staff sergeant with the Massachusetts Air National Guard at Barnes air base in Westfield from June 2019 until October 2022, Barnes public affairs specialist Jerry Hewitt said Thursday.

He was severed from service “because his values did not align with ours,” Hewitt said.

Puello-Mota had been charged five months earlier with forging his commander’s signature in a misguided bid to resolve his child porn charges without a guilty plea.

In Rhode Island, the attorney general acknowledged last month that Puello-Mota had fled the country and joined the Russian military, or somehow created the story to hide his whereabouts, according to news reports.

Officials said at that time he was believed to be in Istanbul, and videos and photos had emerged showing him in Russia and Ukraine.

One of the videos showed someone alleged to be Puello-Mota planting a U.S. flag in a Ukrainian city in support of Russian forces. The person’s face is blurred but he has been identified by his voice.

“I’m here to plant the U.S flag as a sign of friendship and support for all the things people are enduring here,” he says.

The Guardian reported last week that he had “resurfaced at an enlistment centre in the Russian region of Khanty-Mansiysk in western Siberia, where he was captured on film signing a military contract, seated in a room adorned with photographs of Vladimir Putin and the defence minister, Sergei Shoigu.”

Police involvement

Puello-Mota’s legal troubles began in 2020 in Warwick, R.I., after he called police to report that his gun had been stolen at a hotel.

Police learned he was there to meet a 17-year-old girl he had met online. When they searched his phone they found nude photos of the girl, and he was charged in January 2021 with possession of child pornography.

Puello-Mota, who was 24 at the time, told police he believed the girl was 22. The girl allegedly told police that he had sent her money for sexually explicit photos when he knew she was underage.

He pleaded not guilty to the felony charge and was released on conditions. He was working with his lawyers either to have the case diverted or converted to an offense that wouldn’t require him to register as a sex offender, according to court documents.

Court records show state prosecutors were amenable to those requests, though he would have to prove that his supervisors in the Massachusetts Air National Guard knew about the charge and supported his continued service, the records say.

But in May 2022, Puello-Mota was arrested on two new charges — obstruction of justice and forgery and counterfeiting. He was accused of forging his military supervisor’s signature on a fraudulent memo to Rhode Island prosecutors, and of having someone pose as his commander during a phone call with a prosecutor.

A judge revoked his bail for violating his conditions of release by being charged with a new offense, and he was extradited to Rhode Island to serve 90 days in jail.

In August 2022, he resumed his duties on the City Council, saying he had no plans to resign his seat. But the city’s law department determined that he had run afoul of the city charter and declared his seat vacant.

Puello-Mota filed suit to reclaim his seat, and he was back on the council by October after a Hampden Superior Court judge ruled he could not be removed from his seat while facing charges in Rhode Island.

Judge Michael Callan ruled that, under the charter, only the councilor’s conviction could force him to give up his elected position. He said the bail violation for which Puello-Mota served 90 days did not count as a conviction.

Ward 3 Councilor David Bartley said Thursday it was shocking to hear that his former colleague had gone off to fight with Russian forces. He described him as a friend, and said the subject of Russia had never come up between them.

He recalled when Puello-Mota joined the council in 2021 as one of six new councilors.

“He was head and shoulders above the rest,” Bartley said. “He was prepared, he participated in meetings, he met with constituents.”

After reclaiming his seat, Puello-Mota continued to take his position seriously, Bartley said.

“Other than that four-month gap, he was there,” he said. “He was under a lot of pressure, but he gutted it out.”

Puello-Mota ran unopposed for Holyoke’s vacant Ward 2 seat in 2021. He did not seek reelection after his term expired last year.