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 a brief flurry of activity, the Acosta investigation once again fell dormant. Then one day in 1993 the phone rang in the homicide office of the Miami Police Department. It was Juan Carlos Correa calling from Colombia. Detectives hadn't heard from him since he had been deported four years earlier. He was looking to get out of Colombia. If they could arrange his return to the United States, Correa said, he was still willing to tell them about the Acosta murder. Ilhardt contacted Borah to see if he could help.

Initially Ilhardt and Borah tried to set up a meeting with Correa in Aruba, an island near the Colombian coast. Government officials, however, refused to grant Correa admittance. Desperate not to let him slip beyond their reach again, Ilhardt got a message to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, whom he knew from her days as Dade State Attorney, and asked for her assistance. Reno arranged for Correa to receive a special one-day visa to enter the United States so he could be debriefed by investigators.

So Correa flew into Miami International Airport on August 16, 1993, and was greeted by a team of local and federal agents led by Borah and Ilhardt, who took him to a private airport office where they met for several hours. Ilhardt and Borah tape-recorded the interview, during which Correa told them everything he knew about the Acosta murder.

Like Velasco, Correa identified the triggerman as Manuel Mattos. He added that they had been hired by one Javier Cadena. Ilhardt and Borah assured Correa they would work to relocate him to the United States. Then they put him back on a plane and sent him home to Medellin.

Mattos and Cadena weren't difficult to track down; they were sitting in a Georgia prison on unrelated charges. On August 23, 1993, Ilhardt, along with Miami Det. Nelson Andreu, confronted Mattos and Cadena about their role in the Acosta homicide, but the two men didn't say a word. The detectives tried to rattle them by playing Correa's taped statement implicating them. Mattos and Cadena still said nothing. "That was a waste of taxpayers' money," Ilhardt said of his trip in a recent deposition. "They didn't give us the time of day."

Approximately one week later Juan Carlos Correa was riding on a bus in Colombia when he was attacked by two men and repeatedly stabbed. He survived the attack and called Miami's homicide bureau. Detectives there knew they had blundered badly. By revealing Correa's statement to Mattos and Cadena, they had marked him as a snitch. It took no time for word to travel south.

DEA officials decided they no longer had time to fool with government red tape. And they certainly weren't about to plod through the legal morass of an extradition request. They wanted Correa in the United States and under their control without delay. So on September 21, 1993, the agency dispatched a Lear jet to Bogota. Ilhardt went along for the ride. DEA agents in Colombia had already snapped up Correa in Medellin and had him waiting for the plane when it landed in the capital city. The jet stayed on the ground just long enough for Correa to climb aboard.

He had no passport. No visa. No entry papers of any kind. When the plane landed in Fort Lauderdale, agents simply marched Correa past U.S. Customs and immigration officials. Nobody was going to stop them.

Through Correa and eventually Velasco, detectives were able to identify all key players in the Acosta murder. Manuel Mattos was the shooter. Javier Cadena organized the hit. Alvin Santiago stood guard near the conference room, and was the man Elizabeth Rodriguez saw walk into the room after the murder. Gregorio Tuberquia drove one of the getaway cars; Correa drove the other.

Correa also assisted detectives in solving another mystery. On the same day Acosta was executed, Tony Posada was nearly killed when his van was blown up by a pipe bomb. Posada, a former lieutenant in the Falcon-Magluta organization, had become a DEA informant and was prepared to testify against his former employers. Ilhardt and Borah quickly linked the two crimes, aided in part by the fact that a car Posada said was following him around the time of the blast matched the description of one of the cars seen leaving Acosta's office after the shooting. Posada even took down the car's license plate number, which investigators traced to Javier Cadena. Correa confirmed he was part of the group that planted the Posada bomb, and that they had made other failed attempts on Posada's life.

By 1995 the initial phase of the Acosta investigation was over. Juan Velasco was convicted for murder of the two men in Baltimore and his role in the Manuel de Dios killing. His cooperation with authorities earned him a relatively light sentence: fifteen years in prison.

Alvin Santiago was never caught and is believed to be hiding in Colombia. Juan Carlos Correa was ushered into the federal witness-protection program. And in May 1995, Mattos, Cadena, and Tuberquia were charged with Acosta's murder. With the first phase complete, state and federal agents began work on the next stage of their investigation: connecting the Acosta slaying to Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta.

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