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.

The robbery lasted barely fifteen minutes, half the time it took Elaudio Santiago to bleed to death from his bullet wound. The entire take: $45 in cash, plus a handful of jewelry. By the time City of Miami police arrived at Malaga, most of the terrified patrons had already fled.

On Monday, a day and a half after the robbery, police received an anonymous tip that the perpetrators were living in an apartment on SW Ninth Street, only a few blocks from Malaga. Detective Granado, the lead investigator assigned to the robbery, requested a SWAT entry, and the next night at 8:30 p.m. officers entered the apartment in a hail of shattered glass and broken hinges. Ulises Carrazana, eighteen, and Juan Betancourt, nineteen, were arrested on outstanding warrants. Police records indicate that eighteen-year-old Raul Rodriguez, the third suspect, agreed to come to the station to give a statement, as did his girlfriend Carmen Ruiz and her brother Carmelo.

During the next eight hours all three teens confessed on tape to the robberies committed two days earlier; Carmen and Carmelo Ruiz confirmed their accounts secondhand. Carrazana, who told police he had been armed with a sawed-off shotgun, also admitted to being cranked on cocaine that night. Betancourt, who said he had carried a knife, said he had primed himself with liquor. The trio's versions of the evening were remarkably consistent, with one exception: All three claimed the other two had pressured them into committing the Malaga heist.

Police, however, never located the weapons used in the robbery, nor any of the stolen items.

What I have done has been done out of necessity.
-- Raul Rodriguez's confession

According to court documents, Ulises Carrazana left a broken home at twelve, drifted from New Jersey to Miami, began taking drugs, and acquired a street name, "Zero," the letters of which he inked across the knuckles of his left hand. His friend Juan Betancourt, a.k.a. "Chico," ditched school in fifth grade and spent his teenage years amassing an extensive criminal record. Carrazana stood more than six feet tall and weighed 150 pounds. Betancourt was a foot shorter and at least twenty pounds heavier. The discrepancy would prompt Malaga eyewitnesses to characterize them as "the tall one with the shotgun" and "the fat one with the knife." Blue-eyed and fair-skinned, Raul Rodriguez was identified as "the American-looking one," no slight irony given that he had arrived from Cuba with his mother and sister only three years earlier.

By May 1991 all three suspects had abandoned efforts at gainful employment. Betancourt and Carrazana had no permanent homes. From the time of the robbery until their arrest they stayed with Rodriguez and his girlfriend Carmen Ruiz, herself a runaway.

Police surveillance reports indicate that a day before the SWAT team broke in, Rodriguez and Ruiz were spotted leaving her apartment and taking a bus to Coral Gables, where they inquired about renting a new apartment, presumably planning to use the money from the May 25 robberies. Had it not been for the weekend's bloodshed, they might have been just another young couple hoping to move up in the world.

Police photographs snapped after the raid depict Ruiz, her back against a wall, staring off-camera and crying. She wears a dingy nightshirt; her thin legs are scabbed at the knee. She was later treated for a broken arm suffered during the chaotic SWAT entry. Another shot shows a dirty pot on the kitchen stove, beans and rice burned to its bottom. The next frame: a mattress overturned on ratty household effects, a blond baby doll lying atop the mess. No evidence of killers on the run, only pitiful bids at domesticity.

Other photos focus on scrawls of graffiti near Ruiz's apartment, likely an attempt to establish a link between the Malaga robbers and a "youth gang"; police subsequently labeled all three suspects as members of the "Boys of Brickell," an accusation echoed by reporters in the limited coverage the Malaga robbery received.

This tendency to classify young criminals as gang members, while conveniently skirting the issue of motive, yields a sense of certainty, projecting order onto the random hatreds of the streets. The Malaga suspects, however, did not mention any gang affiliation in their sworn confessions. What they did mention was the influence of a fourth accomplice, an older criminal who allegedly masterminded the robberies, recruited the participants, and drove the getaway car. When the night was over, this modern-day Fagin was purportedly disbursed his share of the take. Police were never able to nail down his involvement.

The murder of Elaudio Santiago was, in the parlance of tabloid TV, a "senseless killing," which is another way of saying that as far as the authorities were concerned, the crime had no motive.

Police couldn't care less about motive when it comes to senseless killings. Their job is to nail down the whos and hows, not the why. Judges and juries and attorneys don't have much use for motive, either. Motive transforms defendants into people. It lends contour to flatly delineated evil. It gums up the system.

Even the media fail to take a sustained interest. And for good reason. The issue of why a growing number of young human beings are driven to sociopathic outbursts is not one that lends itself to courtroom sound bites; it points to cultural crises far too sweeping and subversive for a family newspaper's narrow columns A to absent families, tattered safety nets, urban dislocation, and the money-grubbing that drives the American economy.

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