In Pursuit of Willy and Sal

When infamous drug smugglers Falcon and Magluta won the first round, prosecutors vowed revenge. This time it's personal.

After establishing the existence of the organization and Falcon and Magluta's role in it, prosecutors would have to show the enterprise committed two or more predicate acts in the course of doing business. If a jury, for instance, concluded that Magluta used a phony passport and that somebody in his organization bribed Miguel Moya, that would be enough to convict him and possibly send him to prison for life.

The man running the grand jury that will ultimately decide which acts to include under the RICO umbrella is Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Sullivan, who, along with AUSA Chris Clarke, tried the 1996 case against Falcon and Magluta. Sullivan is a career prosecutor who has been involved in some of the biggest trials in South Florida, including the conviction of former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega.

Colleagues says Sullivan approaches his cases in a detached, unemotional manner. One fellow prosecutor refers to him as "the Joe Friday of the U.S. Attorney's Office," not particularly inspiring, "but certainly competent." Indeed one repeated criticism is that Sullivan lacks passion for the job and even seems somewhat uninterested at times.

The case against Falcon and Magluta may be the exception.
"He is absolutely obsessed with Falcon and Magluta," says defense attorney Frank Rubino, who has represented members of the Falcon and Magluta organization in the past. Rubino, who also represents Noriega, says he likes Sullivan as a person but believes the prosecutor would do anything to keep the two men behind bars.

Coincidentally Rubino recently represented a man accused of being part of the Falcon-Magluta gang. It wasn't a particularly big case, Rubino says, and normally would have been resolved with a plea bargain. Sullivan, however, wouldn't discuss a deal that didn't include the defendant becoming a witness against Falcon and Magluta. "I told him I thought he was obsessed with Falcon and Magluta," Rubino recalls, "and he said to me, 'I'm going to get them.'"

Rubino isn't surprised Sullivan has cut a deal with Acosta's killers in an effort to nail Falcon and Magluta. "He'll give them probation, two hookers, and a steak dinner if he thinks they would rat out Falcon and Magluta," the attorney jokes. "Getting them is all he cares about."

Juan Acosta didn't usually handle divorces, but on this day, September 18, 1989, he agreed to see two people who requested his help dissolving their marriage. The couple arrived at Acosta's bland-looking office at 4100 NW Ninth St. shortly after noon and were greeted by Elizabeth Rodriguez, his receptionist.

Rodriguez put herself through the University of Miami's law school working part time for Acosta, and though she had passed her bar exam a couple of months earlier, she came to his office from time to time to help out when he was shorthanded. She guided the couple into a conference room, and a few minutes later they were joined by Acosta. After discussing the attorney's fee, the wife excused herself from the room on the pretense of going to her car to retrieve some cash.

Rodriguez took out her notepad and began to jot down information for the divorce filing when she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the husband had stood up and was holding a gun. "All I remember was a black gun, and it was very large," she related last year in a deposition. "The next thing I remember, Acosta had tried to give him his watch. I think he had thought it was a stickup, and he had a gold watch on, and I remember him beginning to take off the watch. And he had his hands up."

Moments later the man began shooting. Rodriguez recalled hearing three muffled shots (the gun was equipped with a silencer), but in fact the 62-year-old Acosta was shot at least six times. "The next thing I remember was Mr. Acosta on the floor bleeding," she said.

Paralyzed by the unfolding events, Rodriguez didn't say a word. A second man then walked into the conference room and spoke briefly with the shooter. "Get the girl," she remembered one of them saying, an apparent reference to the woman who played the part of the wife. And with that the two men disappeared. Rodriguez dialed 911 and waited in the conference room for the police and paramedics to arrive. They would be too late. Acosta was already dead.

The next morning Drug Enforcement Administration agent David Borah noticed a headline in the local section of the Miami Herald: "Slain attorney mourned; lawyer gunned down in his office." Veteran City of Miami homicide detective Ron Ilhardt told the Herald investigators were baffled as to a motive for the killing. Friends and neighbors of Acosta were equally dumbfounded by his violent demise. "He was very distinguished," said his long-time housekeeper Elvia Garcia. "He was very nice. I don't know of anybody who'd want to kill him."

Borah, on the other hand, immediately thought of two people who might like to see Acosta dead: Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. At the time of the shooting, Falcon and Magluta were fugitives, wanted in both Florida and California on a bundle of drug charges. Borah was in the midst of building his own federal case against the duo and had spent years gathering evidence. As a result he knew that Acosta was one of the attorneys who helped the smugglers launder their drug profits through offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations in Panama.

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