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.

From the moment he learned that Acosta had been scheduled to testify before a grand jury, Det. Ron Ilhardt assumed Falcon and Magluta were responsible for the attorney's death. During a 1997 deposition, Ilhardt testified that Falcon and Magluta's motives were obvious: "Acosta controlled all of the offshore corporations and knew where the money was. He controlled the money. That was a pretty good motive to want him killed."

Lawyers defending Falcon and Magluta have always denied their clients were involved in Acosta's death. In May 1995 Roy Black, attorney of record for Magluta, told the Miami Herald his client knew nothing about the murder. "This is one in a series of false accusations," Black said. "We found out awhile back that this investigation was going on, so we had a polygraph done on Sal Magluta April 13, 1995. He denied any involvement in this homicide and the polygraph operator found that he was truthful."

Today sources close to the defense say it's obvious that prosecutors do not have clear and compelling evidence of Falcon and Magluta's direct involvement in the killing of Acosta. If they did, the sources contend, they wouldn't be using RICO statutes to go after Falcon and Magluta; they'd simply charge them with capital murder and seek the death penalty.

But for prosecutors the appeal of RICO is that they don't have to prove direct involvement. According to legal experts, federal RICO statutes wouldn't even require prosecutors to show that Falcon and Magluta had advance knowledge of the murder, only that the killing was carried out in support of their criminal organization.

The U.S. government has long theorized that Acosta was actually killed on orders from cartel bosses in Colombia as a way of assuring the survival of Falcon and Magluta, two of their biggest customers. Key for the government will be finding as many links as possible between cartel bosses and Falcon and Magluta. But the difficulty of doing that became apparent in 1997, when lawyers for Mattos, Cadena, and Tuberquia deposed Juan Velasco. Miami defense attorney Joe Rosenbaum led the questioning:

"Who contacted you?" Rosenbaum asked.
"There was a person I know as Indio," Velasco replied.
"Do you know his real name?"
"No."
"Is he Colombian?"
"Colombian, he is."
"Do you know if he is in jail now?"
"I don't know where he may be."

"So this fellow approached you [in New York] to see if you wanted to do a contract killing in Miami."

"He approached me and asked me whether I'm capable of committing a murder. I said yes. Do I get money? Yes."

"This is before you had done or been involved in the other two contracts for murder, right?" Rosenbaum asked, referring to the Manuel de Dios and John Shotto slayings.

"That was before," Velasco confirmed.
Rosenbaum was curious. Why would Indio, a relative stranger, approach Velasco about doing a murder in Miami? What was it about Velasco that made Indio think he was a killer?

"I tell you," Velasco responded, "I have a strong personality and out on the street I'm known as capable of doing quite a few things."

"Did he know you were capable of doing murder?"
"Yes, I assume he did."
"Why were you interested in doing the job?"
"I needed the money."
"Indio approached you on the street?"
"Yes, sir."
"You were just walking by, he said 'Hi' and that's how it began?"
"No. I was driving and he hailed me: 'Hey, hey, hey.'"
"And you stopped and you talked to him?"
"Yes, sir."
Velasco claimed that Indio took him to meet another man, known as Ramiro.
"What did you and Ramiro talk about?" Rosenbaum asked.

"Ramiro asked me whether I could go to Miami to commit a murder, and I said yes, I could. Could I leave that same night? I said yes. And then he said did I know somebody who could go with us; I said yes also."

"Who did you have in mind?"
"A guy from Medellin who told me he was doing badly moneywise and that he would do whatever for a few extra bucks." Velasco said the man's name was Hugo.

Having missed the last flights from New York that night, the trio -- Hugo, Ramiro, and Velasco -- flew to Miami the next day and checked into a single hotel room on South Beach. The following morning they met with Javier Cadena.

"[Cadena] spoke to Ramiro, and since the room was small ... we could overhear part of the conversation," Velasco recounted. "And he told him that we're going to do a job there and that he would start with three people but he spoke about a list."

"You never saw a list?"
"No, I never saw a list, but that is what he said."
"When he talked to Ramiro, though, did you hear about the names that were on the list?"

"No. He simply said we would do three people and that two would be DEA informants and the other was an attorney."

"Did he tell you during the first meeting or did you overhear why the lawyer was going to be killed?"

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