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.

Borah also knew that Acosta had recently been served with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury and that at the time of his death he had agreed to become a government witness against Falcon and Magluta. The DEA agent promptly contacted Ilhardt, and the two began a joint investigation of the Acosta homicide. As part of that endeavor, Ilhardt and Borah seized hundreds of files from the lawyer's office, the contents of which offered a rare glimpse into the financial workings of the Falcon-Magluta organization.

Investigators received their first break in October 1989, less than a month after the slaying, when an inmate at the county jail, Juan Carlos Correa, admitted he had driven one of the getaway cars.

Correa, a Colombian national who was in the United States illegally, had just been arrested on an unrelated matter and was about to be deported when he contacted detectives. He told them he could identify Acosta's killers. All he wanted in return was to stay in the United States, even if it meant staying in an American jail. Ilhardt knew Correa could be the key to solving this murder, but before he could contact immigration officials, Correa was deported to Colombia.

A frustrated Ilhardt unsuccessfully tried to locate Correa, and as the days and weeks passed, the Acosta investigation grew cold. Ilhardt moved on to more pressing cases and Borah pursued different avenues against Falcon and Magluta. It would be nearly three years before detectives came upon their next solid lead in the Acosta murder, and it would come from the unlikeliest of sources: a five-foot five-inch hit man known as Leopold.

Manuel de Dios Unanue was an expert on the Cali cartel. The former editor in chief of El Diario-La Prensa, a New York-based Spanish-language daily, de Dios had written extensively throughout the Eighties about the drug organization. He had identified its leaders, printed their pictures in his newspaper, and published magazine articles on their misdeeds. By 1992 he was working on a book about the cartel.

De Dios's crusading style angered the drug bosses in Colombia, who sought to make an example of him. On March 11, 1992, the journalist was sitting at a bar in the Jackson Heights section of Queens when a gunman wearing a hooded sweatshirt walked up behind him and shot him twice, pointblank, in the back of the head.

De Dios's murder outraged the city. The police department mounted a massive manhunt for his killer. A core group of detectives, mostly Hispanics whose families had come from Puerto Rico and South America, worked the case during their off-duty hours. Eventually their diligence produced results. They learned that the man who had hired the gunman at the request of cartel leaders was a contract killer by the name of Juan Velasco, also known as Leopold Lopez.

Arrested shortly thereafter, Velasco admitted he had been paid to set up the de Dios murder and had recruited a seventeen-year-old Colombian to carry out the execution. Velasco also admitted personally killing two men in Baltimore in 1991. One of those men, John Shotto, had lost several million dollars of the cartel's money in a failed investment scheme. Displeased with Shotto's business acumen, the drug barons sent Velasco to permanently sever their relationship. As Shotto walked to his car after work one evening, Velasco approached him and shot him once in the temple.

Standing alongside Shotto was Raymond Nicholson, an innocent bystander who had nothing to do with the cartel or the lost money. It didn't matter. According to one witness, after blowing off the side of Shotto's head, Velasco turned to the driver of the getaway car and said, "The other one might as well go." The diminutive assassin then fatally shot Nicholson in the back.

Velasco had another piece of information for New York detectives. He told them that in 1989 he had been hired to kill an attorney in Miami. He had gone down to Miami to carry out the hit, but as he approached the door to the lawyer's office, his partner lost his nerve and backed out. A week after this botched attempt to kill the attorney, Velasco told detectives, the job was completed by another man.

The name of the attorney, he added, was Juan Acosta. The person who shot him was named Manuel Mattos.

New York City detectives contacted the Miami homicide office and passed along Velasco's information. When Ilhardt heard the news, he was eager to talk to Velasco in person and offered to fly to New York. But the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York had already swooped in and taken control of Velasco, stashing him in the federal witness protection program and refusing to share their prized informant with some South Florida cop. Two years would pass before Ilhardt was given the opportunity to speak with Velasco.

In the meantime, Ilhardt took what little information he had and, using a picture of Mattos, assembled a photo lineup for Acosta's receptionist Elizabeth Rodriguez, hoping she would be able to identify him as the shooter. The events of that violent and bloody day, however, were still too blurry for Rodriguez. She failed to pick out Mattos.

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