By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Gracia described how cell phone records revealed Santo and George had been in constant contact the morning of December 12, 2002. This led to the townhouse where the murders were committed.
Before Morales took the stand, Santo's attorney tried to suppress his testimony. But the judge refused. On January 12, 2007, the trial's final day, Morales testified about Santo's confession. In cross-examination, he denied he worked with cops to get leniency on his own felony charges.
Closing arguments were held later that day. The 12-person jury deliberated through the night. Santo was in the room next door and could hear them debating. When he came back into the courtroom, he looked at his mother, shook his head, and ran his index finger across his throat. The jury found him guilty of both murder charges.
Located amid verdant cow pastures, Okeechobee Correctional Institute is a medium-level security prison where 1,642 inmates live inside military-style barracks with white exterior walls and light blue trim. At the entrance, guards behind tinted windows screen visitors. It's May 30, and Santo Hernandez and New Times meet for more than three hours to discuss his story.
Dressed in the prison's standard light blue uniform, Santo sits inside a bland conference room. He has lost about 30 pounds since arriving in February last year. His cheeks are sunken and his arms gangly. His face is clean-shaven and his hair is thinning. He insists he was wrongfully convicted. "The police conducted a sloppy investigation," he gripes. "They got to Ricky first. He lied and they believed him. It is a joke the way my case was investigated."
Indeed, until Morales the snitch came forward, the case against Santo was about as solid as Jell-O. Strangely, during a September 2, 2006 deposition, the lead detective, Gracia, insisted he had no knowledge of Morales receiving a reduced sentence for testifying.
Morales was only "assisting us in the information he had obtained from Mr. Hernandez in jail," Gracia testified, adding he was not aware the snitch had also implicated another inmate. The detective said Morales was promised nothing for testifying against Santo.
Santo denies discussing his case with the snitch. "I knew he was an informant, so I didn't talk to him," Santo says. "Yet he knew every detail about me, from my children's first names to my date of birth to my driver's license number to my addresses from 22 years ago."
The only people outside his immediate family who seem to believe Santo are his ex-girlfriend Vicky and José "Pepe" Trujillo, a Miami-based private detective who has spent years on the case pursuing angles missed by Hialeah Police homicide investigators.
Vicky contends the detectives tried to pit her against Santo. "I still can't understand why they would accept [Ricky's] word," she says. "I don't think it is right that Santo got convicted and my cousin has not even gone to trial. They both were there."
Trujillo alleges detectives failed to follow up with key witnesses, especially Ernesto Alanis, a friend of Ricky's whom Santo claims helped dispose of the bodies. Though Ricky claimed Alanis dropped him off at Santo's house the day of the murders, Alanis asserted he didn't know whether he'd ever visited Santo's townhouse.
Alanis, who has a criminal record that includes arrests in Miami-Dade and Broward for, among other things, battery on a police officer, marijuana trafficking, and carrying a concealed firearm, said he never knew Ricky was involved in dealing drugs. (Alanis was convicted on the pot and gun charges in 2002.) He even claimed to never have heard about the slayings.
Finally, Trujillo argues it doesn't make sense that Santo would kill George in his house. "Why would Santo commit a murder in his own home, considering all the blood and the bullet casing the police found in there?" Trujillo opines. "Ricky set it up nicely so Santo would get the blame for the hit."
Santo is preparing for an appeal to overturn his conviction. "If I am the one who shot and killed these people, wouldn't it be on me to fix the front door and the glass door?" Santo rationalizes. "Yet it was Ricky who fixed the doors. And when the truck was found burning at 3:40 in the afternoon, I was signing my son Anthony out of school. So that couldn't have been me who set it on fire."
Santo maintains he would never have set up his friend to die. In fact, Santo says, he — not Ricky — should have been the one charged with accessory after the fact. "George would do anything for me," Santo says. "It is easy to say that I should have gone to the cops. But when the person who just killed two people in front of you is holding a gun to your head and threatens you and your family ... you believe him."