By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Around 2 p.m. December 12, 2002, Mercedes Hernandez dialed her son George Collazo's cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. That was odd. He always answered. Then the 60-year-old, blond, brown-eyed mortgage broker tried to reach her nephew, Michel Aleman, who was with George. Again, no answer. So she drove about 1.5 miles to the auto parts store where George worked and his cousin hung out.
A co-worker said they had left about noon. They hadn't returned.
About an hour later, at 3:41, Hialeah firefighters received a call about smoke billowing from a 1995 white Chevrolet delivery truck parked in front of a three-bedroom house at 160 W. 40th Pl. When they opened the truck's rear door, flames shot out. After they doused the blaze, the firemen made a gruesome discovery: the charred remains of two dead men.
Twenty-five minutes later, cops, detectives, onlookers, and news crews swarmed the area. Yellow crime tape and two patrol cars blocked access to the truck. Investigators questioned three neighbors who recalled first seeing the truck between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. None had seen anyone behind the wheel. And they didn't know who had set the fire.
Mercedes saw a TV report about the fire and rushed over. When she tried to approach the Chevy, an officer stopped her: "You cannot go past the line."
"But I think that's my son's truck," she implored. So the cop let her move just close enough to see the Chevy's bay, where she recognized white folding chairs and a cooler she had lent her son. She was terrified but didn't lose focus. So she informed an officer that George had been wearing a T-shirt from his auto parts store, Car Tunes.
Then she heard an investigator in the distance say, "Yeah, positive, that's what he's wearing." Somehow she believed it might not be her son. "You know," she said, "you always hope."
Two days later, the Miami-Dade County medical examiner confirmed it. George and Michel were the dead men. Autopsies revealed the cousins had died not from the fire but as a result of wounds from a .22-caliber pistol. George was shot twice, once in the neck and once in his right forearm. Michel had six bullet holes, in his left arm, chest, abdomen, and lower back.
A month after the murders, Hialeah homicide detectives arrested the last two people to see George and Michel alive. One of them was Santo Hernandez, a burly 34-year-old, sporadically self-employed trucker who claimed to be George's best friend. He was charged with two felony counts of first-degree murder. The other was Ricky Valle, a 26-year-old Pembroke Pines resident. He was nailed with a felony charge of accessory after the fact.
Though Santo had no criminal record and evidence against him was largely based on testimony of a controversial jailhouse snitch, a jury convicted him January 12, 2007. A few weeks later, Judge William Thomas sentenced him to two concurrent life sentences in the state's Okeechobee Correctional Institute, a prison in the middle of a sleepy Central Florida town of about 5,000 people. Ricky — who declined to comment for this story — has yet to stand trial almost six years after the crime. He remains free on bond. His Coral Gables-based defense counsel, David Tucker, says Ricky is innocent. "The police got it right when they charged Santo Hernandez with the murders," Tucker says. "The unfortunate part is that they charged my client as an accessory for telling the police what he knew."
Over a six-week period, New Times analyzed hundreds of pages of police reports, sworn statements, depositions, and court hearing transcripts. The investigation reveals Hialeah homicide detectives rushed to charge Santo with the murders and didn't pursue leads that might have implicated Ricky as the triggerman. "I've been carrying a crime I didn't commit for the past six years," Santo says to New Times, "while the real killer is walking around free."
George and Santo were childhood buddies. Their story is like that of many others: They drifted apart and then found each other at a very different time in life.
In spring 1979, when Santo was a cheery, talkative 11-year-old, the Hernandez clan relocated from Jersey City to Hialeah, where his parents, Abilio and Mirta, purchased a three-bedroom house at 181 E. 39th St. for $39,000. Five years later, Santo met George, a charismatic, gregarious 14-year-old. Both were students at Edison Private School. "We had a lot of things in common," Santo remembers. "We both liked fishing, and we both liked working on cars. My parents had a house in the Keys; his family had a house in the Keys."
At George's 15th birthday party, Santo made quite a first impression on his friend's mother. "He stood out of the crowd because he got drunk," Mercedes says. "I don't know where he got the liquor from, because there is no liquor in my house, but he got so drunk that we called him 'The Drunkie.'"
Mercedes, who's been divorced twice and splits her time between Hialeah and Tampa, says her son's downfall was believing everyone was his friend. "He was a very noble, happy-go-lucky person," she says. "He thought everyone in Hialeah was his family."