Steckel, who had slept through the arrival and departure of A.V. and Lisa, was awakened by the sound of Melissa frantically tossing clothes and makeup onto the floor. "I was sitting there on the bed mesmerized," he remembers. "Finally I said, 'What the hell are you doing?' and she just freaked out."

Startled by Steckel's sudden consciousness, Melissa began babbling about going down the hall for ice and coming back to find the room in disarray. When he realized his precious briefcases were missing, he immediately made two calls: to hotel security and to police at emergency 911. "She broke down and confessed in about 90 seconds," says Steckel. By the time police arrived, Melissa was telling anyone who would listen that A.V. and Lisa had the briefcases.

A.V. and Lisa first drove to his house in Kendall, where they counted the cash A $52,000 A and broke open the metal briefcase, in which they discovered a bounty of jewelry later estimated to be worth another $50,000. In addition to the cash and valuables, the black leather attache also contained legal files. "I just flipped quickly through them to make sure there wasn't any cash hidden in any of them," recalls A.V. Though he didn't take time to read any of the documents, he says he remembers that some of the folders were labeled with a name. The name was "Gersten." Says A.V.: "The name Gersten was marked on at least two of the files." (Simon Steckel's relationship with ex-County Commissioner Joe Gersten spans nearly a decade. In the mid-Eighties, while Gersten was serving as a state senator, he and Steckel shared office space. Today Steckel's Coral Gables office is located in a building owned by Gersten. According to Melissa DeLeon, during the time late last year when she and Steckel were dating, they would occasionally encounter Gersten in social settings.)

Sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., A.V. and Lisa drove to Lisa's house, where A.V. removed the cash and most of the jewelry before carrying the briefcases to a nearby canal. Lisa says she watched as her boyfriend threw the two attaches into the murky water, where they floated momentarily then sank out of sight. Cash and jewelry in hand, A.V. then left. Lisa went to bed.

Shortly after sunrise Lisa was awakened by someone pounding on her front door. It was Melissa, and she was in a tizzy. Steckel knew everything, she blurted out as Lisa let her in, and they had better give back the briefcases or there would be big trouble. Lisa listened but told her friend she didn't have the briefcases. After about half an hour, Melissa made a startling admission: The police were waiting outside.

And wait they did. For the next eight hours on Christmas Day, half a dozen uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives, along with their assorted police vehicles, camped out on Lisa's front lawn.

A frightened Lisa contacted A.V. He told her not to worry, that he would call Stephen Glass, the defense attorney they had seen the night before. A short time later Glass phoned Lisa, who explained what was happening. Glass assured her that at worst she would be charged with theft. If the police arrested her, she recalls him saying, she would be out of jail on bond within a day. That, of course, was before Glass learned the name of the victim.

"A detective gets on the phone and tells me he has the victim there and that it is somebody I know, and he puts on Simon Steckel," Glass remembers. "Now, I've known Simon for many years as a friendly acquaintance, somebody I would say hi to. He gets on the phone and tells me he's so glad that these are my clients because he knows I'm a good guy. He's throwing all the flattery he can on me. And he asks me if I can help him get him back his stuff."

Steckel explained to Glass that for several days he'd been collecting money owed him by clients and he hadn't had a chance to deposit it in the bank. "He had also gotten all of his jewelry together recently," Glass recalls. "He mentioned something about a divorce and that he didn't want to leave it at his house. So he had a briefcase full of jewelry, some private papers, and a briefcase full of cash." Glass told Steckel he would make a few calls to see if he could track down A.V.

In the meantime, Miami Police Department detective Boris Montecon asked Lisa if he could search the house. As soon as she agreed, four officers went to work. She had expected such a team of detectives to conduct the search. But she did not expect to find Simon Steckel rummaging through her belongings. "I walk into the living room," she recounts, "and Simon is going through my closet. I said, 'What are you doing?' Since when do the police allow the alleged victim to take part in the search of a suspect's house?

"We were yelling at the detectives to get him out of the house," she continues. "So they finally take Simon outside." A few minutes later Lisa looked out her window. "And I can see Simon is in my car, searching it, lifting out the floor mats, looking under the seats," she says. "I told him, 'Simon, there's nothing in the car.' What makes me mad is that the cops are letting him do that." The search turned up nothing incriminating.

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