Hialeah Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder

He's behind bars for life.

Mercedes confronted her son about fencing stolen goods. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm not doing anything wrong."

On July 30, 2002, local cops and federal drug agents seized a cargo container aboard the Helsinki, a ship docked on the Miami River. Inside it they found 3,300 pounds of cocaine. The agents believed the dope had been sent from Colombia to Haiti via speedboat and then transferred over land to the Dominican Republic, where it was packed in shipping containers bound for the 305.

Five months later, on December 3, shortly before dawn, the agents served 10 search warrants at homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and arrested six people, including suspected ringleader Pedro Rodriguez and his wife Maria at their Miramar home. Rodriguez owned a gas station on Palm Avenue and East 41st Street in Hialeah, as well as Casa Romeu, a popular Cuban eatery at 18620 NW 67th Ave., not far from city limits.

After investigating the crime scene, Hialeah Police found traces of blood and a spent casing from a .22-caliber gun.
Courtesy of the Hernandez family
After investigating the crime scene, Hialeah Police found traces of blood and a spent casing from a .22-caliber gun.

George's friends and family had no idea he was connected to the Casa Romeu crew. But soon they noticed a change in his demeanor. He was no longer carefree. Then he told his mother he was worried the feds were looking for him. "They busted some friends of mine," he said. "Mom, this is big shit going on." He explained he had taken a trip to the Dominican Republic with someone, but he wouldn't say with whom or for what purpose.

George's grandmother, Evangelina Collazo, noticed he was very upset after seeing a news report about the Casa Romeu case. "I am too close to those people," he told her.

Details of George's exploits came to the fore in late December 2002, when 44-year-old Cuban Lazaro Rivas was busted on a cocaine-trafficking charge in Tampa. He told homicide detectives he wanted to provide information about George, whom he had known for a decade. The handsome 34-year-old mechanic, Rivas said, liked to talk about his daring exploits, such as when he transported 100 kilos of cocaine into the United States from the Dominican Republic by stowing it inside the back of his racecar. "The car would then be placed into its trailer and surrounded by burnt transmissions," Rivas said. "If the cocaine passed customs, George would get paid up to 40 keys for his risky maneuver." (A subsequent police search of George's racecar and trailer did not turn up evidence of cocaine or any narcotics.)

Rivas claimed George would sell him two to three kilos of blow at a time, usually on consignment. "He'd seek my advice about how to move the cocaine," Rivas recollected. "But George was careless in who he trusted and lost several kilos to people who would not pay."

By the beginning of December, things had begun to tighten up for George. The busts following the seizure of the coke on the Helsinki had likely dried up his sources, and heat was intensifying. He closed the auto parts shop and transferred the lease to a buddy, Luis Gonzalez, who let George continue to keep his Grand Prix there.

Around 10:30 a.m. December 12, the last day of his life, George emerged from the restroom at the shop. He and Luis discussed putting a new engine in a racecar, and then George headed toward his Ford Expedition to leave. But Luis stopped him. "If someone comes asking for you," Luis inquired, "what do I tell them?"

"If it is the FBI," George replied, "tell them I'm dead."

About an hour and a half later, George was behind the wheel of the white delivery truck he had used to transport auto parts for his now-defunct business. His stout, tan 24-year-old cousin, Michel Aleman, was riding shotgun. Soon the pair pulled into a parking space in front of 4183 W. Ninth Ct., a brown and tan two-story townhouse where Santo and Vicky lived.

George was there to collect on a drug deal, Santo would later testify. He planned to sell several kilos of coke to Vicky's 26-year-old cousin, Ricky Valle, for $30,000. Santo had agreed to let him use the place while no one was home. "I said, 'Sure, no problem,'" Santo recollects. "I was just doing him a favor like he would do with me."

When George and Michel knocked on the front door, Santo was washing dishes. Ricky was in the bathroom. "Come in!" Santo hollered.

Michel took a seat at the dining room table, facing Santo. George hung up his cell phone and closed the door behind him. "Hey, this has to happen quick because I gotta leave," George said, looking at Santo.

What followed is unclear. Ricky would claim he heard an argument that was followed by three gunshots. When he opened the bathroom door, Ricky says, George and Michel were dead on the floor and Santo held the gun.

Ricky claims he tried to escape but Santo chased him, threatened him, and then pleaded with him to help clean up the crime scene. Ricky said he picked up the shattered glass and helped Santo put the bodies in George's truck. "I didn't know what to do," Ricky explained in a recorded interview with police. "I just didn't want no problems with this guy, you know what I mean."

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