By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Winston Noe Curtis always wanted to learn about law enforcement. And for the past seven months the 24-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant, whose goal is to become a police officer, has been getting an education in the vagaries of Dade's legal system -- albeit a very slow one.
Last August 2, Curtis claims, he was attacked during an argument in a posh section of Miami Beach by a man brandishing a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. And ever since then he has been waiting for his alleged assailant to be charged with aggravated assault.
Curtis knows the wheels of justice can be pretty creaky, but he believes this particular delay is due to the stature of the purported pistol-packer: 51-year-old Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, owner of AIB Financial Group, a conglomeration of eleven companies that deal in home and auto insurance, mortgage loans, and wholesale travel packages. One of the nation's wealthiest Hispanics (with a net worth of $33 million, he ranks 64th on Hispanic Business magazine's recent list of the richest Hispanic Americans), Alvarez is vice president of the board of directors of Mercy Hospital's charitable foundation, and a prodigious contributor to political campaigns. He is also funding the construction of a church in Hialeah.
"If I had put the gun on this guy, do you think I'd ever see the sun again?" Curtis exclaims. "Never, never, because I don't have money. It's like O.J. -- it's because he has a walletful of money. I've got truth on my side, he's got money. And money wins."
The incident took place on Sunset Island number three, a small residential enclave north of the Venetian Causeway. Curtis, who was delivering supplies to a construction site on West 24th Street, pulled past Alvarez, who had just backed out of his driveway. It was a close call. As so often happens in Miami, a shouting match ensued, punctuated by honks and profanities. At some point during the shouting, say Curtis and five construction workers who witnessed the altercation, Alvarez sprang from his Mercedes SL 500, unzipped a yellow pouch, pointed his pistol at Curtis's head, and stated: "What do you want me to do? You want me to do something?"
While the construction crew pleaded with Curtis to shut up and not move, Alvarez returned to his car and departed, whereupon Curtis called his boss, who called Miami Beach police.
As chronicled in New Times last fall ("What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends?" October 24), the insurance mogul initially stymied Curtis's complaint by meeting with investigating officer Det. Gary Schiaffo and Assistant Chief Manuel Diaz at Miami Beach police headquarters on the day of the incident. Alvarez told the cops that Curtis was always driving fast through his quiet neighborhood, that the work crew had damaged his car with construction debris, and that he had not pulled his gun. "He took the gun case out and showed it to the guy," Schiaffo later told New Times, "because he thought the guy was going to get a bat or something out of his truck." Diaz recalled it somewhat differently: "[Curtis] came at Alvarez with a tire iron," he reported.
Schiaffo summarily closed the case without interviewing Curtis or the witnesses. His supervisor, however, reopened the investigation and witnesses were contacted. (The supervisor, Sgt. George Navarro, assured New Times that although it might look "really fishy," the move had nothing to do with the paper's inquiry into the matter.)
On November 20, a month after the New Times story appeared, Det. Larry Marrero completed his investigation and forwarded his findings to the Dade State Attorney's Office, where the case was assigned to Assistant State Attorney Patricia Cassells, who began the process of sifting through Marrero's file and evaluating the feasibility of getting a warrant for Alvarez's arrest. The charge -- aggravated assault with a firearm -- is a third-degree felony and carries a three-year minimum-mandatory sentence.
Alvarez hired George Yoss, a prominent defense attorney (and former chief assistant state attorney) whose client list includes such local luminaries as former Metro commissioner Larry Hawkins. (Alvarez himself would not comment on his run-in with Curtis for this story; he referred all questions to Yoss.)
Soon after the State Attorney's Office began looking into the matter, Winston Curtis alleges, he got word that Alvarez wanted to pay him cash to drop the whole thing.
Carlos Ramirez, a Miami Beach electrician, says his neighbor, Hollywood-based insurance agent Alvaro Cienfuentes, wanted to facilitate a deal between Alvarez and Curtis. So Ramirez gave Cienfuentes's business card to Curtis's cousin, whom he knew. "I've known Cienfuentes for many years; he's Alvarez's uncle," Ramirez says. "He said Alvarez wanted to make an arrangement with Winston, to pay some money." Ramirez says a second man, whom he didn't know, also approached him at work with a similar message: "He said Alvarez wanted me to be in contact with the witnesses because he wanted to make an arrangement with them -- pay them some money," the electrician recalls.
Norman Garcia Lovo, Curtis's cousin, says he got in touch with Cienfuentes at Ramirez's urging. "Cienfuentes said he was Alvarez's uncle and he didn't want to see him go to court," Garcia recounts. "He said, 'We can fix the problem. Tell your cousin to call me.'"