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Soon Santo left for Hialeah Senior High, while George stayed at Edison. By the time Santo dropped out in 10th grade, he had lost touch with his friend, who also failed to finish high school.
Santo would spend the next decade drifting in and out of jobs and relationships. "I was hard-headed," he explains. In 1991, he married Monica Mojena, an 18-year-old he met shortly after quitting school. They divorced eight months later. He walked down the aisle again, in 1995, this time with Elizabeth Garciga, the mother of his son Michael, who was born a year before they wed.
Two years later, while still married to Garciga, Santo began seeing a woman named Nancy Curbelo, who had four children. He divorced Garciga in 1998 and moved in with Curbelo. They lived together for three years. But then, on August 22, 2001, Hialeah Police arrested Santo after a heated argument. According to a police report, he yanked the phone cord from the wall when she threatened to call the cops on him. Because Curbelo had to use a phone inside a store down the street from their apartment to call 911, prosecutors charged him with felony obstruction of justice. The charge was dropped a month later.
That would be the only blemish on his record until the murder charge two years later.
By early 2002, Santo moved on to another girl, Vicky Rodriguez. They had hooked up in their twenties for a one-night stand. Shortly after reconnecting, Vicky dropped a bombshell: Santo was the father of her eight-year-old son, Anthony. They moved in together. Santo seemed to be finally settling down. He paid the rent and bought things for their son and Vicky's other two kids. In addition, he paid Garciga child support for Michael, who is very close to his father.
Now 14 years old, Michael recalls how he and his dad used to fish off bridges over Biscayne Bay and the Keys. "We'd catch red and yellowtail snapper," Michael says. "It was awesome."
It was around this time when Santo and George rekindled their friendship. George had led a far more stable life. At age 34, he'd been married to the same woman, Irene, for 14 years. He didn't have a criminal record, and he seemed to be leading a marginally successful life as a car mechanic and auto racer.
Soon Santo became a regular visitor to George's high-performance vehicle repair shop at 1535 W. 35th Place. It was located near the old Hialeah Speedway, where a Target and a Lowe's now stand. "We were like brothers," Santo says of George. "He could count on me, and I could count on him."
The auto parts business wasn't working out. George wasn't servicing enough cars to pay the bills. On top of that, he was a committed racecar driver who was often short on cash. His Pontiac Grand Prix was worth an estimated $20,000 to $30,000, and maintaining it was an expensive endeavor. He constantly struggled to come up with money to prepare for competitions in Homestead, West Palm Beach, and Sebring.
George's father Joaquin and mother Mercedes sponsored the racer. Their businesses names, Payless Mortgage and Miami Auto Collision, were advertised on the car. "I would give him a lot of money for that," Mercedes says. "His father would do the same." In 2000, the Sports Car Club of America named George driver of the year.
George was very close with his mom, meeting her for lunch three times a week and talking to her on the phone at least five times a day, Mercedes says. She always looked after her boy. She even added his name to the deed of the three-bedroom house she owned at 3735 W. Eighth Ave. George, Irene, and their two children, George Jr. and Daniel, lived there.
Though George was responsible for the $950 monthly mortgage payment, he often didn't have enough money. His mother would always bail him out.
His father wasn't so lenient. Around September 2002, George stopped speaking to Joaquin, who had cut off monetary support. "My son refused to get a job that paid so he could support his wife and family," the dad says.
By April 2002, George's marriage was falling apart. He suspected Irene was seeing other men — perhaps because she was mad at him for refusing to keep a steady job. Things only got worse after George told Irene he was involved in illegal activity.
Irene later recounted this story in a hand-scrawled note to authorities: A friend had a boat in the Keys. George had gone to pick it up. "George said to me: 'This boat was used to smuggle people from Cuba,'" Irene wrote. "But the boat was confiscated in Cuba. And [his friend] hired someone to go and steal the boat from Cuba, so they did."
She also claimed the friend hired George to find clients who would buy fenced goods.
But there was a caveat. Irene didn't believe much of what her husband told her. "George talked a lot of shit," she noted and then added he rode around in Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes Benzes.
Their relationship fizzled, and in September 2002, Irene and the kids moved out. A month later, she filed for divorce.