Rhett Fuller spent 21 years running from murder charges; now he's coming home

Rhett Fuller spent 21 years running from murder charges; now he's coming home
Illustration by David Pohl

Rhett Fuller paces the cool living room of his palm-shrouded house in a suburb of Belize City. He cradles the cell phone to his ear and admits the truth: Twenty years running from the law has taken its toll. "Every single day, I regret my choice," Fuller says, his lilting Caribbean accent masking a grave tone. "No matter how strong they went after me, by now I'd have served my term, been out of jail, and moved on with my life instead of constantly dealing with this."

Fuller doesn't look like a fugitive. Rather, he's the respectable-businessman type, with cropped, curly black hair; a high, smooth forehead; and an easy smile.

Down the hall, his wife Ann tends to their three young kids.

David Pohl
David Pohl

In Belize City, the largest town in Central America's smallest nation, Fuller is well known as the co-owner of a construction firm, Fabro's Industries. Nationwide, he's a celebrity for another reason: For more than a decade, he has waged a public fight to avoid returning to Miami on charges he helped murder a man in 1990.

Fuller's epic case is an extreme example of a daily fact of life for Miami-Dade prosecutors. In a county where more than half the residents were born in another country, every year dozens of accused killers, drug smugglers, and rapists return to their homelands rather than face arrest and trial here.

If they hail from one of the many Latin American countries that don't see eye-to-eye with Uncle Sam — for instance, a jungle nation that doesn't extradite its citizens or an island ruled by an ancient, bearded dictator — they can evade justice for years, decades, sometimes forever.

"No other State Attorney's Office in Florida deals with suspects hiding abroad anywhere nearly as often as us," says Barbra Piñeiro, head of Miami-Dade's extradition unit. "We've got open cases with almost every country in South and Central America. It's the flip side of being such an international city."

Fuller's case is unique, though, not only because he's been living openly in Belize for so long since he took part in a botched North Miami Beach drug deal turned deadly, but also because his struggle has wound such a strange course from London high courts to mildewy Third-World jails to accusations of police extortion.

Now, finally, the odyssey is ending, and Fuller is ready to come in from the cold.

"This has affected every part of my life now for 20 years," he says. "My family, my business, my health. I'm tired. I'm just tired."

Every extradition begins with a phone call to Piñeiro's fifth-floor office across from the Richard E. Gerstein Justice Building.

Some days, it's an FBI agent in La Paz, Tegucigalpa, or Mexico City. Other times, it's a sargento in Uruguay or a constable in Jamaica. Once, a particularly canny hotel clerk in Belgium was on the line. They all have the same message: "They'll say, 'We think we've found the guy you're looking for,'" Piñeiro says. "Immediately, my adrenaline starts pumping."

In just the past couple of years, the cheerful prosecutor has chased a convicted murderer who staged a Hollywood-style prison escape to Mexico, a rapist in Peru who impregnated his stepdaughter, a Puerto Rican who might have killed his ex-girlfriend, and a Spanish double murderer. The most recent case involves a 2010 Boynton Beach cop of the year, David Britto, who fled to his native Brazil after getting busted for methamphetamine.

But after that first exhilarating phone call, each case takes years. Thanks to complex treaties, red tape, corruption, and incompetence, returning a murderer hiding abroad is among the toughest tricks in law enforcement.

"Most people, even other prosecutors, don't understand how complex it is to extradite someone," says Piñeiro, who has "well over a hundred" open cases in foreign lands at any given moment. "They say, 'You know exactly where he is — just bring him back.' But it's not nearly that simple."

A tough-minded pioneer, Piñeiro broke barriers in the U.S. Army as the first woman to simultaneously leap out of planes as a paratrooper and serve in the Judge Advocate General Corps Trial Defense Service at Fort Bragg. She graduated from the University of Miami's law school in 1979 and took a prosecutor gig in 1985. In 1990, she became Miami-Dade's only full-time state attorney working extraditions.

After the first tip, Piñeiro must decide whether it's worth bringing back the fugitive. The average extradition runs taxpayers $40,000 and 36 months of work, so if the case isn't strong or the crime isn't heinous, she passes.

With some maniacs on the run, though, cost is no barrier. Take Juan Jesús Fleitas.

The Cuba native, a short thug cut like a chiseled underwear model, arrived during the Mariel boatlift and immediately began breaking into houses. On Halloween night 1985, Fleitas and a friend tried to burglarize a West Hialeah home they'd scouted out while doing odd jobs. But when 21-year-old Miguel Rudelando Pérez came home unexpectedly, Fleitas panicked and shot him three times in the face with a .45-caliber machine gun.

Fleitas's name didn't start gnawing at Piñeiro, though, until 1995. That's when the convicted murderer and five cellmates escaped Glades Correctional Institution after digging a 45-foot tunnel under the prison church. Four were quickly caught and one was shot and killed by police, but Fleitas disappeared into the night and then absconded to Mexico. It took more than a decade to bring him back.

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8 comments
Reddi
Reddi

What is also appalling in this case is Detective Ed Hill's numerous indiscretions and criminal actions. He has incurred suspensions and thats it??? He should have been fired from the department and charged criminally, but unfortunately he is back on the beat. How can he be trusted in any case which he is the investigating officer?

Joy4fold
Joy4fold

I can't believe 1st degree murder only gets you ten years in jail. This guy was there but the one who actually did the killing served 10 and is now free!!!

Rawknbetty
Rawknbetty

that story went on forever... it could have been a lot more interesting if shortened and not so wordy

J.R.
J.R.

What a scumbag. How typical of the new times to use the poetic "on the lam" instead of the more accurate "fugitive from justice". I think there should be more press coverege: all murderes and other criminals should be made aware that they can commit any crime they want, then live the rest of their lives in another country. The victim is still dead. This fugitive still lives - and has reproduced.

Craig29
Craig29

Great story!! So sad that a good kid made one dumb split decision mistake and ruined his life!! Great story!! Rhett has suffered enough!!

dave chatt
dave chatt

Please sign this petition for the Federal Gov't. to try Casey Anthony~She made a MOCKERY of the State of Florida~ Push the Federal Government to review their options under the Dual Sovereignty Doctrine. President Obama will review it and respond after Oct. 22nd. https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/pe...

PaulyG
PaulyG

"One dumb split decision mistake"? He helped kill someone you worthless piece of shit. I hope someone makes "one dumb split decision mistake" and kills your dumbass today, you fucking idiot.

J.R.
J.R.

"rhett has suffered enough"? Is his victim still suffering?

 
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