Killers in the Can

The Escobar brothers are in jail for murdering a cop, but 20 years later, there's still no verdict.

After a day-long drinking binge on March 30, 1988, Douglas and Dennis Escobar were driving a stolen gray Mazda on Calle Ocho near SW 32nd Avenue when they passed a police cruiser.

Miami Police Lt. Victor Estefan, a 49-year-old veteran of the force, turned on his lights and sirens and followed the brothers as they sped through a residential neighborhood. After a brief chase, 29-year-old Douglas pulled the Mazda over and turned to his 28-year-old brother. "If he gets out," Douglas allegedly said, "shoot him."

As Estefan emerged from his squad car, Dennis jumped out from the passenger side, trained a .357 Magnum pistol at the lieutenant, and fired three shots. One bullet hit Estefan in the left forearm and another tore through his abdomen. The officer crumpled to the ground. The Escobars sped off, but not before smashing the Mazda's right rear bumper into the cruiser.

Estefan died the following morning, leaving behind his wife Delia, son Angel, and daughter Alina. His death rocked the community. For 20 years, he had been one of the few Hispanics on the force. "He was a special guy," recalls Fraternal Order of Police President Armando Aguilar. "He gave meaning to community policing."

In January 1991, the Escobar brothers were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. But six years later, the Florida Supreme Court overturned the conviction, holding that the siblings hadn't received a fair trial.

Today, 11 years after the verdict was thrown out, the Escobars remain in jail. No jury has been impaneled to hear their case. The charges haven't been dropped. This seems to violate the brothers' right to a speedy trial and raises questions about how criminal justice is enforced in Miami-Dade, says Ronald Lowy, a criminal defense attorney who handled Douglas's appeal. And it has cost taxpayers more than $350,000 in psychological testing, court, and attorney fees.

"It is absolutely startling and shocking that they have not been retried," Lowy says. "It is either laziness or a desire not to try the case."

The brothers were born in Nicaragua and came to the United States as young men. Dennis Escobar, who was in the country illegally, had been picked up and released twice by immigration authorities before the March shooting. Little is known about their youth, but both had been arrested for armed robbery. Dennis was acquitted. Douglas was charged in California, and police issued a warrant for his arrest. The Mazda they were driving was stolen several days before Estefan's murder.

FOP President Aguilar, then a member of an undercover narcotics task force, was first on the scene after the shooting. "I found [Estefan] laying in a pool of blood," Aguilar recollects. "He said, 'Armando, it hurts.... It hurts real bad.' Those were the last words I heard him say."

During the next four days, police seized more than 20 gray vehicles, and the Miami City Commission approved a $50,000 reward. A month later, California police arrested the pair after a roadside shootout with highway patrolmen near Paso Robles, a small town 186 miles north of Los Angeles. Both brothers were wounded.

Miami homicide Det. George Morin flew to California, and two days later, the Escobars confessed to shooting Estefan.

But when their trial got underway January 8, 1991, Dennis and Douglas blamed each other for the lieutenant's death. Their contradiction would prove key in the breakdown of justice.

During eight days of testimony, witnesses persuaded the jury of the brothers' guilt. Three men — Angel Bonilla, Douglas Saballos, and Ramon Arguello — described how the pair had threatened and robbed others. On January 16, the Escobars were convicted of premeditated first-degree murder. Judge Sydney Shapiro sentenced them to death.

But six and a half years later, on July 10, 1997, the state supreme court overturned the decision, ruling that the Escobars should have been tried separately. Because Dennis claimed Douglas ordered him to shoot Estefan — and Dennis couldn't be forced to testify — the state had violated Douglas's constitutional right to confront his accuser. The judges also threw out Saballos and Arguello's testimony, deeming it inflammatory and irrelevant. (Bonilla's testimony was allowed.)

The court ordered a retrial within 180 days.

But prosecutors were in no hurry to comply. After all, they were swamped with murder cases in those days. And between the brothers' trial for Estefan's murder and the supreme court decision, the pair had been convicted and sentenced to life in California for attempted murder of a law enforcement officer. (No one died in that shootout. It's unclear whether any officers were wounded.)

For a few years, Douglas's mental health was a factor. On December 9, 1998, he was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation to determine if he was fit to stand trial. That took two months and was followed by more continuances. Finally in 2002, after Douglas spent time at a state mental health facility, he was found competent.

Defense lawyers were busy. Prosecutors were busy. Dennis went through several court-appointed attorneys, including Lance Stelzer, who withdrew on June 20, 2000, and Yery Marrero, who quit in December 2005.

In February 2006, Dennis tried to escape while he was being examined in Ward D, the wing of Jackson Memorial Hospital designated for inmates. He attempted but failed to wrestle a gun away from an officer, who was later fired as a result of the incident.

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