The muscular 40-year-old arranges an interview in an empty food court. He talks in mysterious acronyms, like "NOC" — which stands for "no official cover." He refuses to have his photo taken. He talks about elaborate takedowns and ruses that sound cribbed from a Burn Notice plot.
Getting the full truth is much harder.
Kelly contends he is 007 in Miami — a white American without a lick of Spanish who infiltrated Castro's espionage service, known as the Intelligence Directorate, or DI, and spied on a range of Miami's exile community leaders — including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
Oh yeah, and he was working as a double agent for the FBI the whole time.
If it's true, Kelly offers a rare behind-the-scenes look at the spy-craft that's defined the dark side of Miami-Cuba relations for four decades. If it's not, this is one convincing wacko. Riptide met with him in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife, Suad, a pretty, raven-haired Mexican about half his age.
Kelly's connection to Suad is the easiest part of his story to verify. She was born into an extensive Mexican crime family, the Castorenas, who dominated the fake-documentation business around the country for years. Her stepfather, Manuel Leija-Sanchez, ran the family's Chicago ring, until Suad began cooperating with the FBI and a federal sting took down the family four years ago. She has been interviewed on CNN and profiled in the Chicago Tribune.
Kelly's crazy tale continues thusly:
He met Suad in Nicaragua and helped persuade her to cooperate in the investigation into her family. Before that, he worked undercover for U.S. agencies. When the Elián González saga erupted in Miami, he saw the controversy as a way to infiltrate Cuba.
In 1999, he set up a website called the Voice of Cuba that was rabidly in favor of returning Elián to Cuba. Within months, Cuban agents in Costa Rica contacted him and asked him to visit the embassy. Over the next year, he refined his relationship with the Cubans until they flew him to Havana, where, he passed a long vetting process. "I played the role of the dumb white American to a tee," Kelly says. "My lack of Spanish was a major asset in convincing them I was the real deal. What spy agency would send a guy who doesn't speak Spanish to infiltrate Cuba?"
Once he'd earned an assignment from the DI, he approached the FBI and let them in on his game. They code-named him Lazarus. His assignments included missions to spy on prominent exiles, including former South Florida Democratic chairman Gus Garcia, Ros-Lehtinen, José Basulto of Brothers to the Rescue, and County Commissioner Jose "Pepe" Diaz.
It's difficult to check out his story. Diaz doesn't remember anyone by the name of Robert Kelly, although he allows he's "really bad with names." Judy Orihuela, spokesperson for Miami's FBI office, declined to comment when Riptide phoned her about Kelly's tale.
"That's your proof right there," Kelly says with a gleam in his eye. "They would have denied my story up and down if it weren't true."