Hialeah Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder

He's behind bars for life.

And finally, Ricky had more experience with law enforcement. On July 29, 1995, plainclothes officers from Pembroke Pines PD pulled over then-19-year-old Ricky on SW 10th Court and Hiatus Road. A search of his 1985 Toyota turned up a stolen chrome-plated .22-caliber pistol under the passenger's back seat (the same caliber as the gun that killed George and Michel). Ricky was arrested on two felony counts of third-degree grand theft and carrying a concealed firearm, as well as driving with a suspended license and loitering and prowling. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and got off with no jail time.

Ricky was nailed again in Pembroke Pines on August 21, 2004, for battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer with violence, and trespassing. He was out on bond after being charged as an accessory in the double murder. According to the arrest report, Ricky was asleep in the VIP area of Café Iguana when a security guard awakened him and asked him to leave. Ricky refused. When an off-duty policeman tried to escort Ricky out, he got very belligerent. He repeatedly twisted his arm out of the officer's grip and smacked the cop's hands down, according to the report. Finally, Ricky "struck Officer Ruiz in the left arm as he was being escorted to the parking lot." Those charges were eventually dropped.

Two months after his January arrest, jail authorities moved Santo to the eighth floor of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, the county jail just west of Miami International Airport. Within a few days, he met Cesar Morales, a 46-year-old Hialeah Cuban with a serious crime problem.

Santo Hernandez is serving a life sentence in state prison for a crime he says he didn't commit.
Courtesy of the Hernandez family
Santo Hernandez is serving a life sentence in state prison for a crime he says he didn't commit.

On December 10, 1999, Morales and two other men had allegedly kidnapped liquor store owner Jorge Serrano in the parking lot of the Muscle Gym at 3320 W. 84th St. They handcuffed him at gunpoint and threw him into a burgundy cargo van. When police caught up to the kidnappers later that evening, Morales, a 241-pound man with brown hair and brown eyes, jumped out of the van and began shooting. Police caught and arrested him minutes after the shootout.

On November 14, 2002, after almost three years in jail, Morales worked out a deal with prosecutors. He would plead guilty to attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, extortion, and kidnapping and spend only another 18 months — rather than life — in prison. In exchange, he would "act ... in an undercover capacity" by persuading other inmates to tell "him about another case," according to the agreement prepared by Assistant State Attorney Gail Levine. To put it simply, Morales became a snitch.

Santo met Morales in March 2003. "I helped him," Morales later told police. "I guided him a little bit."

Santo began talking about the murders three days after arriving at TGK, the snitch later told police. He gave three versions of events:

• First, Santo allegedly said he had planned to rip off George for $230,000 by selling him fake cocaine. When George discovered the hustle, Santo killed him.

• Next, he allegedly claimed to have been paid $300,000 by the owner of Casa Romeu for the murders.

• Finally, he said Ricky killed George and Michel. But the snitch believed Santo had by then guessed his informant status.

In addition, Morales claimed in a sworn statement that Santo had his younger brother, Abilio Jr., pick up the $530,000. Flush with cash, Santo had then bought his nephew a $2,500 motorcycle, a new boat under his brother's name, several pieces of gold jewelry, and land in Broward County. Morales even drew for the investigators a diagram of a canal where Santo supposedly had disposed of the murder weapon. But it was not recovered.

The information worked. Morales was released from TGK December 2, 2003, and then took up snitching full-time. According to a January 2007 memo, he received $15,450 for providing information about investigations, including two marijuana growhouse busts and something related to the unlicensed distribution of prescription drugs. He was also reimbursed $26,484 for car rentals, cell phone bills, meals, etc., at the direction of the federal government. "The informant has been found to be reliable by the FBI," Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Jean Throne wrote.

Meanwhile, Santo churned through five court-appointed attorneys. His court date kept getting postponed, which angered George's mother. "I spent five years pressuring the State Attorney's Office to take him to trial," Mercedes says. "And he kept wasting taxpayer money by changing his lawyers."

Even if Santo is telling the truth, she will never forgive him, Mercedes affirms between sobs. "He claims to be my son's best friend," she says. "What kind of friend leads you to your death? Santo Hernandez is a disgraceful liar. He deserves the electric chair."

And she refuses to believe George was involved in crime. "My son never spent a day in jail," she asserts. "Sure, a bunch of criminals said all these bad things about my son. But it is all speculation."

Finally, on January 10, 2007, five years after the slayings, Santo went to trial. Though prosecutors listed 80 potential witnesses, they called only two people to the stand during the three-day trial: Morales and Det. Lionel Gracia, one of two lead detectives on the case. The defense called no one.

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