By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Fabio "Estefano" Salgado drove his midnight blue Aston Martin convertible down Biscayne Boulevard, across the Venetian Causeway, through the tollbooth, and into the driveway of his $7.5-million San Marco Island mansion. He passed the 12-foot-tall aluminum gate and entered the white modern two-story home with a commanding view of downtown Miami. Then he removed his shirt and shoes. Wearing only white cotton pants, he padded around the house and checked his e-mail.
Estefano, a trim, handsome man with a curly mop of dark hair, was just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday. He had earned the opulence that surrounded him by producing records and writing songs for Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, and Julio Iglesias. He was also deeply spiritual. He had recently been ordained as a babalao, or Santería priest.
It was 9 p.m. May 25, 2007. He was waiting for a Brazilian named Francisco Oliveira Jr., whom Estefano called Junior. The 29-year-old was five feet five inches tall and muscular; he had been convicted in Brazil on a drug charge, but since arriving in the United States in 2001, had lived a quiet life. Junior, who was married and had a young daughter, worked as a handyman at Estefano's music studio when he wasn't practicing jujitsu and karate.
That night, Junior was supposed to deliver some marijuana, which the songwriter liked to smoke while working.
The bell rang. Estefano buzzed open the gate and walked to the glass front door. Junior was standing there in a black motorcycle jacket, shorts, and leather gloves. He carried a backpack.
The two men walked into the large, sleek kitchen. Estefano hopped up onto a white marble-topped island, sat lotus-style, and said, "Junior, you seem nervous."
"Yes, Don Estefano, I'm a little nervous," came the reply. Junior removed the backpack and placed it next to his host.
As they chitchatted, the handyman reached into the backpack and in one quick motion, took out a silver handgun.
"Hey, Junior, put that away!" Estefano said.
Then an explosion rang out. Pah-poom!
"Junior, you shot me!" Estefano cried.
"You son of a bitch," the younger man shouted. "I'm going to break your head. I'm going to kill you!"
"Junior, it's me," Estefano replied, sliding off the island. "Think about your daughter, about your wife."
The handyman ordered him to kneel, and kicked his shoulder so he ended up on all fours. Then he shoved the cold metal of the gun behind his victim's right ear.
Estefano later woke up alone on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the head and chest. Rather than dial 911, he called a close friend — his studio office manager — who rushed to the house. Eventually he was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital's trauma center. The bullets had miraculously skirted vital organs. In a strained voice, while lying on his back in a hospital bed, he named his attacker to police.
Before dawn, Miami Police officers arrested Junior and charged him with attempted murder. But in the months that followed, lawmen would learn there was far more to the case. Millions of dollars, Estefano would claim, were siphoned from his accounts by a Svengali-like businessman named Jose Luis Gil. The songwriter also asserted Gil had plotted to kill him with the help of a mysterious Santería church based in a $900,000 Kendall estate — which Gil and the church vigorously deny.
Estefano, a fiercely private man, suddenly found himself living a real-life telenovela.
Estefano's rise to Latin music's apex was steeped in a strange mix of pop music sensibility and mysticism. He was born in Cali, Colombia, and began writing songs at eight years old to escape the reality of growing up poor. Several years later, Estefano met an older, Argentine songwriter in a bar. Eduardo Paz would become his mentor. "It was a very personal apprenticeship," Estefano told Billboard magazine during a 2005 interview. "[Paz] taught me the magic and the enchantment to be found in words."
Inspired by his new guru, Estefano practiced his craft daily. One exercise involved composing 12 songs with one-syllable words. "That's how I learned how to write quickly," he said. Although he played guitar, he had never learned to read music. During his teens and early twenties, he made a record with an independent label in Colombia and wrote jingles for television. In 1989, he came to the United States, and after knocking around Los Angeles and New York, settled in Miami in 1992.
Around that time, he signed a contract with Foreign Imported Productions, a company owned by Cuban impresario Emilio Estefan, who in those years was the world's most famous Latin music producer. The young Colombian's timing was amazing; the Spanish-language music craze was beginning in the United States. Estefano helped propel it in 1992, when he coauthored two hits for Jon Secada: "Cree en Nuestro Amor" ("Believe in Our Love") and "Sentir" ("To Feel"). Both reached number one on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart.
Then in 1993, he wrote a song for Emilio Estefan's wife, Gloria: "Mi Tierra" ("My Homeland"). It was filled with catchy, old-school Cuban beats, and the album was Gloria's first in Spanish. It captured an immigrant's bittersweet memories of her homeland — especially poignant ones of Cuban exiles in the United States. "Cada calle que va a mi pueblo," begins one verse, "tiene un quejido, tiene un lamento, tiene nostalgia como su voz. Y esa canción que sigue entonando corre en la sangre y sigue llegando con más fuerza al corazón. [Each road that leads to my village has a cry, a lament, a nostalgia that's like its voice. And the song that repeats flows in my blood, ever stronger, on its way to my heart.]"