Mosaic of a Murder

Raul Rodriguez said he killed a man during a 1991 holdup at Malaga restaurant. At his trial this spring, the jury didn't see it that way.

At 4:30 p.m. on Friday, April 22, the jury empaneled in the case of State of Florida v. Raul Rodriguez returned a verdict. It was nothing like in the movies.

The jurors had deliberated just four hours, including lunch, but they looked cranky and out of sorts as they filed into the jury box. Anita Rowden, a matronly switchboard operator, wore sunglasses to mask red, puffy eyes. Clarence Mills, Jr., a retired U.S. Air Force mechanic, glared at the ceiling. Mark Laney, at 37 the youngest juror, refused to look beyond his shoes.

The defendant, accused of first-degree murder and twelve other counts stemming from a 1991 robbery at Malaga Restaurant in Little Havana, sat motionless beside his court-appointed lawyer as thirteen slips of paper were passed from the jury foreman to the bailiff to Circuit Court Judge Fredricka G. Smith. Smith glanced at the slips dispassionately before handing them to a clerk, who read the same ruling into the official record thirteen times:

"Not guilty."
The words punctured Assistant State Attorney Nelson Rodriguez. With each pronouncement, his head sank deeper into his hands. The news, he knew, would not sit well with his trial partner, Flora Seff. Defense attorney David Peckins hugged his client and tried to thank the jurors as they left the room. For the first time during the five-day proceeding, Raul Rodriguez's stony face broke into a broad grin. By Monday the rumor making the rounds among Judge Smith's staff was that Rodriguez had laughed all the way out of the courthouse.

The jury that acquitted him, by contrast, stepped into the muggy Miami rain and conveyed themselves home, condemned, along with the prosecutor, to a sleepless weekend spent brooding over doubts as indelible as the homemade tattoos on the defendant's arms.

I aimed so they would leave [my friend] so we could go, but at the moment I went to aim at them, a shot escaped me and I fired at a gentleman who was there. So then we left.

-- Raul Rodriguez's confession to Miami police

Of the words, at least, there is little doubt. They were recorded at 4:30 a.m. on May 29, 1991, in Sgt. Luis Albuerne's fifth-floor office at Miami police headquarters. The speaker was Raul Rodriguez, a prime suspect in the Malaga robbery. Also in the room were Albuerne, Det. Jose "Pepe" Granado, and a third officer.

"Do you swear under the eyes of God that all you are going to say is the truth?" Granado asked in Spanish. "The whole truth?"

Rodriguez, pale, slight, and perhaps a murderer, raised his right hand and swore.

In slangy Spanish he told Granado and his colleagues of a crime spree he had undertaken with two friends, Juan Betancourt and Ulises Carrazana, three nights earlier. They had hit a Farm Store first, Rodriguez said, nabbing $300 in cash, then had proceeded to Malaga, a bustling eatery on SW Eighth Street. They had entered the restaurant just before midnight, cased the establishment, and retreated to strategize. Armed with a handgun, he had returned with his friends to hold up the diners. When one patron refused to cooperate, Rodriguez recalled half an hour into his statement, "I raised my hand to point at him and I aimed at him and I hit him. I didn't think I had hit him, but I got him. I got him in the stomach."

Actually the victim, a 57-year-old native of Puerto Rico named Elaudio Santiago, had been shot through the heart.

Rodriguez was arrested; his mugshot was snapped and a photo lineup prepared. Seven eyewitnesses would later identify him as the man who shot Santiago.

I was laughing, the way we walked in there to get some money. We came out with shit. Shit, I was laughing at that. Then I remember, 'Damn, that old man got shot.' That's fucked up.

AUlises Carrazana's confession to Miami police
Judging by eyewitness accounts and statements made to police by all three alleged perpetrators, the crimes of May 25, 1991, were sloppily planned and executed, an amateurish debut in the big leagues of lawbreaking.

That night at Malaga, both dining rooms were full of middle-age couples decked out for Saturday night. Still more were packed into the restaurant's back room, where flamenco dancers clacked atop a small raised stage. Just before midnight, Malaga customers told police, three young men entered the restaurant flashing weapons and bellowing threats. Two of the men, one armed with a pistol, the other with a knife, herded patrons and staff into the back room; the third robber commandeered the stage, sawed-off shotgun in hand, and ordered everyone to surrender their belongings.

As the robbers began collecting the valuables, one customer picked up a water glass and threw it at the assailants, striking the man with the gun. A scuffle ensued, in which the patron was stabbed twice by the suspect armed with the knife, and shot by the man with the pistol. One other shot was fired, according to eyewitness accounts, when Amador Fernandez, Malaga's owner, attempted to intercede. That bullet missed. The two young men sprinted out of the restaurant, joining their shotgun-toting partner in a getaway car.

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