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No one will ever know whether Hernandez paid Jeanette for sex. But several things are clear: He passed her $100 bills throughout the evening at the club. The pair left Thee Dollhouse together around 5:30 a.m. in Jeanette's sleek black 1997 Mazda 626. And Hernandez's deviant behavior began long before that night.
Born to Cuban immigrant parents July 10, 1965, at Mercy Hospital, Ariel Hernandez was a strawberry-blond baby. His father, Armando, was an accountant, and his mother, Mary, was a socialite-turned-seamstress. They didn't teach him English until he was seven years old.
When Hernandez was 13, a doctor told his mom he produced more testosterone than other boys his age and suggested he play sports. The budding alpha male dominated the football field as a fullback at Monsignor Edward Pace High School. During the summer, he worked on a family friend's farm in North Carolina. Girls liked him, but when he brought them home, his mother dismissed them as floozies.
At age 17, he ran away from home, "stole the car, and went to sign up for the military," he recalls. By age 19, in 1984, he enlisted in the Marines and went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. A skilled marksman, he soon became a sniper. "I was trained to kill people from long distances. I saw plenty of dead bodies," Hernandez says. "I could shoot the testicles off a fly." His attorneys allege he performed "top-secret operations on behalf of the U.S. Government."
Once he was out of the military, in 1991, his run-ins with cops began to pile up. In fall 1992, Hernandez was working at a gun and pawn shop in Northwest Miami-Dade when a kid came into the store and used a fake credit card to buy jewelry. Police were called and soon concluded Hernandez was getting kick-backs from fraudulent card use. He was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.
Soon after his release from a prison camp in Pensacola during spring 1993, he went to work as a personal trainer at Bally's Total Fitness in Kendall. Two years later, he moved to a South Beach apartment at 14th Street and Collins Avenue. It was a good time and place to be a bachelor. He became a bouncer at clubs such as Palace Centerfold and Café Iguana. "I was living the stud life, dating strippers," he says. "I said what I felt and did what I wanted. It's something they find attractive."
One of the women he later dated, a strong-willed, tight-bodied legal secretary named Tammy Bubel, says, "He was a decent person, always respectful to me, never violent."
Around that time, Hernandez says, he "tried catering to tourists with hookers as a side gig." ("I had black girls, oriental girls, any flavor you wanted.") He also sometimes sold Ecstasy and bricks of weed for extra cash, he says.
His rap sheet from those years could cover the walls of the cold, bare 10-by-12-foot prison cell he now occupies. Since 1985, he has been arrested 22 times. Charges include aggravated assault, stalking, battery, third-degree theft, and burglary. Some highlights:
Just after midnight February 13, 1996, near a Tri-Rail station in Boca Raton, Hernandez called the cops, claiming he had been "robbed at gunpoint" and the thief "stomped on his back," according to a police report. He then "stated he [had] a drug problem and would go to any extent for prescription medication." Citing inconsistencies in his story, Boca Raton cops charged him with filing a false police report. He paid a fine.
Two months later, a Miami-Dade officer responded to a call about a fight at the Riviera Motel, just a few blocks from Thee Dollhouse. The cop spotted a checkbook with the name David Porter on the dresser. Hernandez admitted to taking the checks to fund a cocaine addiction.
In December that year, an acquaintance reported Hernandez had taken some checks and her account was overdrawn by $389.25. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Around that time, he began producing counterfeit checks. Prosecutors say they were printed at a Sunny Isles restaurant, Beachside Mario's, which was owned by Freddy Massaro, a South Florida capo in the Gambino crime family. "I had a watermark and everything," says Hernandez, who claims he used high-tech printing equipment in his apartment. "That's how good I was."
Hernandez would use the fake checks to buy electronics from stores such as Office Max, The Sharper Image, and Toys R Us. Then he exchanged the goods for cash or sold them on the street. The operation made him about $15,000 a week, he says, some of which he would give to Massaro. Using the money, he bought a Jet Ski, a condo in Sunrise, and a Lexus.
At least eight others were involved in the scheme. Most were muscle for Massaro. Their jobs ranged from collecting money to cashing the fake checks. They also offered gamblers and struggling businessmen short-term loans with high interest rates. One of those involved was Julius Chiusano, who ran a business called Check Cashing Unlimited II on North Dixie Highway and gave customers' routing numbers to the crew.
Somewhere along the line — it's unclear when — Jeanette Smith learned about the check scheme, prosecutors say. Though she never reported the crime to the FBI, the Gambino crew mistook her for an informant and ordered a hit on her, according to a federal indictment handed down in September 2000. The assigned killer: Ariel Hernandez.