A Stripper, a Mobster, and a Murder

Yep, that's Miami.

They interviewed Bubel first. She began to cry and then gave a sworn statement alleging that Hernandez, while watching a news segment about the dead stripper, had admitted accidentally killing Jeanette. (Bubel would later testify the statement was coerced.)

Over the next few hours, Hernandez gave detectives three different stories. The first: He left Thee Dollhouse with Jeanette, but she dropped him off on Collins Avenue. Afterward, he saw a suspicious car following her. When detectives challenged this version of events, he claimed he had waited outside the motel room while two other men used a bottle to torture Jeanette and then a belt to strangle her. Finally he confessed that after paying the stripper $500 for sex, he mounted her, put his hands around her throat and "heard a crack, and she started gasping for air."

Ilarraza booked him that evening on murder one.

Jeanette Smith was sodomized, strangled, and tossed into the Everglades.
Photo courtesy of the Smith family
Jeanette Smith was sodomized, strangled, and tossed into the Everglades.

It got more disturbing. Left alone in a monitored room awaiting an interview with federal investigators April 8, 1999, Hernandez "began to massage his groin," according to the investigative report. He then "sexually gratif[ied] himself" and afterward wiped his hands on a nearby trash can. Detectives sent the garbage bag to a crime lab for DNA analysis.

Hernandez's big mouth worsened a bad situation. A fellow inmate reported hearing him say, "That bitch deserves it for sucking a stranger's dick." And two Broward detention deputies told investigators Hernandez had bragged, "She was sucking my dick and she choked."

But before he could be tried on the state charge, the federal government intervened, charging nine men including Hernandez with murder in the aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, passing counterfeit checks, and 15 counts of bank fraud. It was a bold attempt to bring down a significant Mafia operation, and on April 23, 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced Hernandez to life in prison. The judge gave Massaro life too. Anthony "Tony Pep" Trentacosta, who lived in Atlanta and oversaw the South Florida crew, got eight years. At trial, it came out that Trentacosta had once been sponsored by New York City mobster John Gotti.

The day of sentencing, before a courtroom packed with lawyers, journalists, and mobsters' families, Hernandez called the prosecutors' story "a sham." He claimed that his confession was coerced, that cops had planted the evidence to make him "look like an animal," and that officers had forced Bubel to rat on him.

Krissy Smith describes the court scene this way: "The Gambino crew just pissed all over him. They wouldn't even look him in the eye."

Ariel Hernandez, inmate 040061011, unwraps a cherry Jolly Rancher, pops it into his mouth, and says, "Are you interested in the truth?" Even handcuffed, swimming in a baggy red jumpsuit, he speaks with emphatic confidence.

On his pale face sprout the beginnings of a reddish beard (he says he is permitted to shave only once a week), and his clenched right hand bears a two-inch scar. He sits at a plastic table in a small white room; a massive green metal door is bolted shut. Outside, corrections officers at the Metro West Detention Center in Doral monitor prisoners, whose voices bounce off the walls with the echo of a locker room shower.

Since his conviction, Hernandez's time in jail has been rocky.

On March 11, 2003, as inmates made their way to a church service on the eighth floor of the Broward County Jail, a fellow prisoner with a shank stabbed him seven times in the head, arms, and chest. (He later sued Sheriff Ken Jenne for negligence, asking for $7 million, but lost in March 2006.)

Then, on August 2, 2006, he threw a metal phone at a nurse before "lurching at a [prison guard], causing injuries to his left eye," according to a Miami-Dade Police report. The guard noted Hernandez was upset because he couldn't get the medication he wanted. He countered that the guard had provoked him. Hernandez was charged with battery on a cop. The case is scheduled for trial in January.

Now, kept alone in a small chilly cell, he has become obsessed with proving his innocence. Working on his upcoming case, he is surrounded by boxes of documents. "They said I knew her before I killed her; that's a fuckin' lie," he says. "I didn't know the bitch. I just went to the club to get lucky."

He contends someone else killed her when he left the hotel room for three hours to buy some cocaine. Though he pondered reporting the crime to police, he chose to dump the body. "I got a roomful of stolen electronics and a bag of coke on me," he explains. "It might sound callous, but when a body is dead, it's dead."

The most critical evidence against him is flawed, he explains, flipping through court papers with strong hands that are bound in metal cuffs. He reveals a report detailing a phone call at 4 p.m. March 20, 1999, between Massaro and him.

"Listen, uh, things got a little messy yesterday," Hernandez says in the transcript. "I tied up the loose end, and I got a package to get rid of. Oh, man, I haven't been able to sleep. My stomach is all fuckin' turned around. What should I do?"

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