MIAMI (AP) - A judge said Monday he may order former Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez's body moved to an above-ground crypt to allow more time to settle the feud between his estranged wife and longtime mistress over his final resting place.
Miami-Dade County Circuit Judge Arthur Rothenberg said at a hearing he was troubled that the body of Perez, who died Dec. 25 in Miami at age 88, is being stored in a refrigeration unit at a local funeral home.
Entombing the remains in a stone crypt, he said, would bring dignity to the former leader and preserve the rights of both sides. He said it could be April before a final decision is made.
"The body would be laid to rest with dignity until all of these issues are heard," Rothenberg said.
Attorneys for Perez's mistress, Cecilia Matos, said they would agree. But lawyers for wife Blanca Rodriguez de Perez raised concerns that once the body is interred in Miami, she may lose her claim seeking to have Perez buried in Venezuela. He was president from 1974-79 and 1989-93.
Rothenberg said he would decide on a temporary burial after reviewing the law.
Rodriguez de Perez, who did not attend Monday's hearing, contends that under Florida law she has sole authority over the disposition of her husband's remains because he left no written instructions. She took legal action to halt a planned Dec. 29 burial in Miami.
"She is his wife," said Rodriguez de Perez attorney Juan Antunez. "She, better than anyone, can decide how to deal with the body with dignity."
Matos, who has two daughters with Perez and lived as his virtual common-law wife since the 1960s, is trying to show that Perez did not want a Venezuelan burial so long as political foe Hugo Chavez remained president. Chavez once tried to overthrow Perez through a coup and, according to Matos' attorneys, prevented Perez from obtaining a divorce.
"He did not want to return to Venezuela in death," said Rebecca Fischer, one of Matos' lawyers. "He was stalked by Hugo Chavez for 20 years."
One daughter of Matos and Perez, 30-year-old Maria Francia Perez-Matos, testified that their family lived in Venezuela's presidential palace during Perez's second term, while Rodriguez de Perez and her six children lived in a separate residence.
"I never saw her," Perez-Matos said.
Matos' attorneys also say Perez's decision a year before his death to purchase two Miami burial plots is clear evidence of his intentions.
The hearing is expected to continue at least into Tuesday. Rothenberg did not say when he would decide, but said if the matter remained unsettled after this week it would be March or April before he could return to it.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)