By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
By Frank Owen
By Allie Conti
Aluminum doors greeted visitors at the front and back entrances, and a high ficus hedge provided a barrier to prying paparazzi. "This was my dream," Estefano told Billboard, "to have a place to make music where all creative energy could reach its full potential.... This is the place I dreamt of having all my life."
But suddenly there was failure. In 2005, Estefano released his own album, Codigo Personal: A Media Vida (Personal Code: At Midlife). He told the San Antonio Express-News it was a work that came from "the spiritual processes" of his life. Though it received worldwide distribution, the most popular single, "Un Hombre Que No Ha Sido el de Tus Sueños" ("A Man Who Has Not Been the One of Your Dreams"), peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks and then disappeared. Critics loved the cleverly worded songs but nailed Estefano's vocals. "Codigo Personal is missing one hallmark of his work: an electrifying singer with spark, sizzle, and spice," wrote Jason Birchmeier of All Music Guide. "Put another way, Estefano is no Paulina Rubio."
Estefano must have been hurt by the criticism. He had given dozens of interviews prior to the album's release, but didn't speak with Billboard or anyone else about the disc's lackluster performance.
Then came an even bigger flop. Expectations were high when Sony BMG paired him with actress/singer/dance music goddess Jennifer Lopez on her first Spanish-language album. Lopez, who married fellow Puerto Rican Marc Anthony in 2004, wanted to return to her musical roots.
Estefano wrote 10 of the 12 tracks on Como Ama una Mujer (How a Woman Loves), which was released in early 2007. One tune affected Lopez so much that she wept as she sang and had to take a break in the studio. Another song, "Por Arriesgarnos" ("To Risk Ourselves"), included a Lopez and Anthony duet.
But mainstream critics who normally loved Lopez's pop sound universally panned the album. "Torpor, it turns out, really is the universal language," sniffed Entertainment Weekly, which gave the disc a C+.
It got worse. During the first few months of 2007, Estefano was having financial troubles at the Biscayne Boulevard studio, Beltran would later testify. By the end of each month, there was hardly enough money to make payroll or pay bills. "We were always struggling with money," she explained.
It seemed the problems might end when Estefano planned to receive two payments totaling $3.3 million from a songwriting contract with Sony. The money was supposed to be sent to accounts controlled by Gil and then forwarded to Estefano.
But very little of it arrived, so Estefano telephoned Gil to inquire. He was "met with delays, excuses, lectures, and a lot of resistance," says the songwriter's lawyer, Jay Thornton. This call, according to court records, might have been the fuse that lit the powder keg of Estefano's shooting.
Though Gil eventually released a few hundred thousand dollars, that money didn't last long. Estefano went to Colombia for a couple of weeks in May and then took a cruise with a girlfriend named Natalia. He returned to Miami during the week of May 20 and immediately began writing. An insomniac, Estefano enjoyed working at night. Which is why, on May 25, when he left the studio at 9 p.m. to meet up with his handyman Junior, he had every intention of returning to the studio before dawn.
As Estefano lay on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood, he faded in and out of consciousness. "When he shoots me, I feel the burn in my head, I feel the explosion in my head," Estefano would later recall. "I lose consciousness and that's it."
He knew he had to get to his cell phone, and to do that he had to crawl across the house. Smearing blood on the walls and floor, he circled the kitchen and living room. "I was like a monster," Estefano later testified.
He found the phone on a counter, but instead of dialing 911, he called Beltran. "I screamed at her," Estefano recalled. "I said, 'Odisa, Junior shot me!'"
Then he blacked out.
Estefano couldn't explain why he phoned the office manager instead of paramedics. Perhaps it was because he knew that her husband, Rene Ruiz, was a doctor. The couple arrived about 40 minutes later — they live in the western part of the county. They were horrified upon entering the bayside mansion. Beltran immediately called 911, and her husband tried to stanch Estefano's bleeding with compresses.
Soon Junior's fate was sealed. At the house, as paramedics wheeled the wounded songwriter into an ambulance, Beltran told police that Estefano had named the handyman. Officers headed to the studio, where a videotape showed Junior dropping off a truck and picking up the motorcycle. Finally, from his hospital bed, Estefano told cops that Junior was his attacker.
Around 2 a.m., detectives drove to the handyman's apartment building on NE 13th Avenue at Second Street. They took him to the police station just a mile away and charged him with attempted murder, a second-degree felony with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In the days that followed, Estefano accepted only a few visitors: Beltran, the Santería padrino, Andres Suarez, and Suarez's son, Andres Jr.