The Missing Briefcase: Part 2

A judge begins to scrutinize this tangled attache case, and he finds a lot of disturbing loose ends

If there was one place Simon Steckel didn't want to be last Wednesday morning, it was Courtroom 3-2 of the Metropolitan Justice Building, where Dade County Circuit Court Judge Paul Siegel had convened a hearing to shed a ray of judicial light on a matter the Coral Gables attorney would just as soon forget.

"This court is concerned about whether a misuse was made of the justice system," Judge Siegel solemnly declared, glaring down from the bench. "I tell everyone involved that the court is concerned by that issue."

Though Siegel aimed his words at the half-dozen attorneys assembled before him, he might just as well have been talking to Steckel alone. The surreal series of events that transformed the 38-year-old defense lawyer into a crime victim has recently brought him closer to his more typical role -- only these days he's on the defensive.

Last Christmas Eve, while the recently separated Steckel was ensconced in a suite at the downtown Hyatt Regency, his new girlfriend, Melissa DeLeon, engineered a burglary that lightened his luggage by two briefcases containing an assortment of legal files, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry, and $52,000 in cash. DeLeon enlisted her friend Alverony Formeza (known as A.V.) and his girlfriend Lisa Lobman to steal the attache cases while Steckel was asleep. After Formeza emptied out the cash and most of the baubles (he mistook some of the pieces for costume jewelry), he dumped the briefcases into a West Dade canal. Meanwhile DeLeon, who had remained at the hotel to concoct a feasible tale of mayhem, lost her nerve and confessed the scheme when her boyfriend awakened.

When Steckel, a former assistant state attorney, summoned the authorities, he assumed a far more active role than most burglary victims. Although he has denied any improper behavior in the matter, at times it seemed Steckel was actually directing the the investigation and the prosecution. Among other curiosities described in "The Missing Briefcase" (for more information, see the October 13 issue of New Times), Steckel accompanied police to Lisa Lobman's house, where both Lobman and Melissa DeLeon claim he took part in the search of Lobman's home and car. He also had a hand in selecting the detectives who eventually tracked down A.V. Formeza, and was even permitted to ride along with detectives and prosecutors as they went on a midnight ride and questioned Formeza's relatives.

Further, the two young women, both of whom were arrested Christmas morning, claim that when Steckel was unable to recover his booty, he threatened to tell police that one of the briefcases contained a gun. The existence of a firearm would elevate the charges against them to armed burglary -- a far more serious charge and one for which they would be unable to immediately arrange bail. In fact, a gun was mentioned in the police report, and despite their insistence that the information was inaccurate, all three defendants (Formeza was taken into custody on January 13) initially were charged with armed burglary. And all were denied bail.

Lobman and DeLeon remained in jail for more than 40 days, even though both of them had no prior trouble with the law. DeLeon finally negotiated her freedom by agreeing to pay Steckel $50,000 from a trust fund. Lobman, who didn't have so much money, pleaded guilty to second-degree theft and agreed to pay Steckel all the money she had, about $3500. She, too, was freed. Formeza, who was also facing charges unrelated to the theft, remained in jail for about eight months. Eventually he pleaded guilty to second-degree theft, turned over the $6000 in cash he hadn't yet spent, agreed to owe Steckel $25,000, and was freed.

In all, Steckel has received or has been promised $84,500 in cash from the bungling burglars as restitution. Additionally, Judge Siegel signed a motion entitling Steckel to Formeza's late-model Nissan 300ZX, which Formeza had recently purchased for $29,000.

One goal of last Wednesday's hearing was to sort out the circumstances surrounding the court order releasing Formeza's car from the impound lot into Steckel's possession. That order, when it was submitted to the court by Steckel, was entitled "The Defendant's Unopposed Motion" for the return of property. Formeza and his attorney, however, have disavowed any knowledge of the motion -- and vehemently opposed it. In the courtroom on Wednesday, Judge Siegel described the motion as "probably a completely invalid order," in that Steckel's assertions in presenting it were "obviously inaccurate."

Assistant State Attorney Andy Hague, who has been handling the burglary case since the beginning, tried to distance himself from the issue, claiming he had nothing to do with the order. But Steckel pointed out that Hague had initialed the motion, indicating his approval.

"I signed it?" Hague asked, appearing somewhat startled. "If my initials are down there, my initials are down there..." he mused.

Steckel characterized the incongruity as a "typographical error," asserting that the motion should have read "The Victim's Unopposed Motion." His real concern, he added, was that at the time, the car was still in storage, accruing thousands of dollars in fees he would have to pay before it was released to him.

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