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
Around 12:30 p.m. March 30, 1991, cops watched Rodolfo roll into Fort Pierce in the same white and blue Chevy pickup that a known Miami drug dealer had used a few weeks earlier to deliver a bulging manila envelope of cocaine.
Exact details of the bust are unclear, but two years later, a jury convicted Rodolfo for unloading at least a pound of cocaine. On February 22, 1993, a judge sentenced him to ten years in federal prison and fined him $250,000 plus court costs.
Soon after that, Rodolfo boarded a bus for the Butner Federal Correctional Complex, a sprawling penitentiary in the hills of central North Carolina. It was home to President Reagan's would-be assassin, John Hinckley Jr.; and the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, Omar Abdel-Rahman. Today it houses disgraced financier Bernie Madoff.
The sentence devastated Rodolfo's two young sons. Not long after their dad left for prison, the boys, their sister, and their mother moved to a small, one-story home on Jose Canseco Street, just a few blocks west of Miami Coral Park Senior High School, which both brothers would attend a few years later.
The brothers declined to discuss their father's arrest, except to ask it not be included in the story. "It doesn't define our lives at all," Robert says. "We were just little kids. We had nothing to do with it."
Their father rejected an interview request, and their mother's last listed address, a West Kendall townhouse, was abandoned and padlocked. Michelle, now a student at FIU, didn't respond to an email seeking an interview.
Rudy admits he began rebelling against his mother after losing his dad to jail. "I'm an independent person. I can't live with rules that well," he says. "I needed to do my own things. My father understood that you can guide someone in the direction you need to guide them, but you need to let them make their own decisions. I don't know if my mother could accept that."
Despite that adolescent rebelliousness, Rudy excelled at Coral Park High. Yearbook photos from 1999 to 2002 show a pudgy kid with an earnest smile whose long, parted bangs inched up his forehead. By his senior year, Rudy wore a serious expression and a businessman's no-nonsense haircut.
He was active in Coral Park's Future Business Leaders of America. His adviser, Nelly Odio, remembers him as perhaps the best computer whiz to pass through the school. "He was extremely smart, just leaps and bounds above everyone else when it came to computers and programming," she recalls.
Robert began attending Coral Park a year after Rudy. He also stood out in the classroom, Odio says.
She knew about the brothers' tough home life. "[Rudy] might just call me Mom if you mention me today," Odio says, because of all the support she offered.
Odio remembers Rudy hanging out with a group of smart kids, doing well in class, and even volunteering to design Coral Park's website for free. He also worked long hours after school designing computer systems for businesses around Miami. Rudy declines to name them, but Odio confirms he pulled in serious cash even as a 16-year-old. "He was making tons of money in high school as a computer consultant, probably more than I do today," she says, laughing.
Maria and Rodolfo divorced in 1996, two years before he earned early release from federal prison — a move that only threw the Pedrazas' lives into more disarray. The parents soon began battling in court over custody of their children, according to records.
By 2000, Rudy's sophomore year of high school, he had moved out of his mom's house and in with his dad. In 2001, Robert joined them. Michelle stayed with her mother, according to court records. "Our dad just gave us a lot more freedom to do our thing," Rudy says.
In custody papers, Rodolfo Sr. wrote that "verified allegations of child abuse or neglect [had] been made" in the case. Maria denies this in her filings, claiming there had "never been any verbal or physical abuse." She says she allowed Rudy to "live temporarily with his father" in late 2000, but a few weeks later, "it became evident the former husband was not providing a safe, secure, and appropriate home."
The boys mostly stayed with their dad after that. Rudy graduated in 2002 with grades good enough to get him into the University of Florida. "That was the happiest I'd ever seen him, when he got accepted," Odio says.
Robert, in contrast, transferred out of Coral Park after his sophomore year and attended nearby Felix Varela Senior High School. He never graduated.
Through all the conflict, the brothers realized their passion for computers. In the mid-'90s, they talked their mom into buying a computer. It was a clunky PC that could barely run word processors.
With their mom pulling in only about $600 a week as a legal secretary and their dad struggling to return to life outside the pen, the Pedraza brothers couldn't afford better.
Rudy moved to Gainesville in fall 2002 and enrolled in UF's college of liberal arts and sciences. His plan was to study computer science, but university records show he was an English major. Either way, the point was moot by the end of his sophomore year, when he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery on his mouth. "I had a serious cancer scare," Rudy says, pointing at the left side of his mouth. Most of his bottom teeth are missing on that side, and Rudy talks with a pronounced lisp. "It shook me up, so I dropped out of school for a while."