The Unbelievable Truth

Roberto Martin Cabrera, a professional grifter on the big con, went too far -- but nearly got away with it

One day, Martin showed up at Carlos's house with a yellow suitcase. "Need you to take this for me for a couple of days," Martin told the West Kendall private investigator and bodyguard. He plopped the heavy valise, which Martin said was stuffed with cash, on the kitchen counter. Carlos, slipping steadily into debt, wanted desperately to believe it was true. He wanted to believe everything Roberto Martin Cabrera had told him -- that Martin was an ex-spy who had stolen a billion dollars from Fidel Castro; that he was about to share this wealth with friends and business associates; that their dreams were about to be fulfilled.

At Martin's behest, Carlos had put himself more than $100,000 in the hole, and now Martin was being evasive about when the debt might be repaid. Plus Carlos had introduced Martin to several friends, who had also invested heavily in the "operation." So Carlos really didn't want to know whether the teeth of intuition gnawing away at his stomach were indicative of something more than butterflies. "Bro', this better not be stolen money because if it is, I'll kill you myself," he warned Martin, in his typically hyperbolic way. But he took the case anyway.

Carlos stood in his kitchen and looked at the suitcase. He walked around it. He thought. He stood and looked at it again. Then he decided. "I picked the lock," he reveals. "I open it up and guess what? It's full of paperwork, books, nothing that has to do with money. That's when it hit me. Oh my God, I've been conned."

Mark Poutenis
Mark Poutenis

Roberto Martin Cabrera has conned many in his decade-long career in the business of false promises. He arrived in Miami in the Nineties and almost immediately began a series of scams in which he traded on ties to family and friends from Cuba to convince gullible exiles that he could make them rich. In 1996 he was found guilty of fraud and grand theft charges. But felony convictions were only a hindrance, not a halt. Even while on probation, Martin was circulating, creating a persona as a businessman and ex-spy about to come into incredible wealth.

Martin also has a gift for tapping into that vein of Miami lore which has served so many other scam artists well. This has always been a town full of giddy potential, political intrigue, and a whiff of the surreal. Many are seduced by the illusions underpinning Miami's history, although frequently a harsh and sun-baked awakening awaits.

So perhaps it is not surprising that the 35-year-old Martin convinced people that he was a wealthy former Cuban spy who got away with the biggest financial heist in history and a federal informant working on a secret operation to transfer money stolen from Castro to Miami. This is clearly a specialized scheme, one that would not have worked anywhere else.

A grand jury indictment filed this past February by the U.S. Attorney's Office charges that within the past two years, Martin and an associate named Christopher Johnson scammed four people out of money -- and in Martin's case a Mercedes and a Rolex -- by pretending they were working with the U.S. government. According to the indictment, Martin claimed to be a former Cuban intelligence officer who had stolen the money, while Johnson, using the name and business card of real-life Secret Service agent Chris McClenic, backed up his story. They needed a few angels to help finance the operation up front. In return, those investors would get a share of the loot. There were props: Martin brandished a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol and a badge case. Johnson also carried a gun and wore a two-way radio headset, just like a presidential bodyguard. Martin told the suckers to open bank accounts with Salomon Smith Barney in Miami, into which dough would soon roll.

Over the course of several months, Martin signed documents either promising, or purporting to have actually transferred money to the accounts -- a whopping $50 million in one case. As Martin was reeling in his credulous marks, he hobnobbed on the edges of respectable exile society. He managed to get Proyecto, a magazine published by the Latin Builders Association, to run an article on him, in which he claimed to be an investor who had inherited substantial money from relatives in Spain. He visited the offices of La Liga Contra el Cancer, a prominent nonprofit organization that provides free medical care to needy cancer patients, promising to donate a million dollars. "He said he was coming into an inheritance," says executive vice president Adriana Cora. "Then he just disappeared."

Eventually his marks were roused from greedy reverie and realized they'd been scammed. Martin had also made a critical error in hiring a former state prosecutor, attorney Christopher Rundle, to prepare some of the bogus documents he used to fool his victims. Rundle eventually went to the FBI with that information, which greatly aided an investigation the agency was already conducting (Rundle did not return several messages seeking comment). In May Chris Johnson pled guilty to impersonating a U.S. Secret Service agent (he is awaiting sentencing). Martin, however, is fighting conspiracy, mail fraud, and other related charges. His trial is set to begin this summer. "This guy was a piece of work," remarks Maria Peña, another lawyer who also briefly worked for Martin.

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