"A case like Fleitas, it eats you up because you've already convicted him," Piñeiro says. "You've got to find him, and you've got to bring him home."

Other recent fights have clawed at her conscience. There's Jovany Araujo, a block-headed, flat-nosed Peruvian who bought an airline ticket to Lima after knocking up his 14-year-old stepdaughter. And Roque Torres, a 60-year-old, bland-accountant look-alike who hopped a plane to Nicaragua after police found his ex-girlfriend in the Everglades, her head hollowed by a single shot to the temple. And Carlos Santys, who brutally gunned down two business rivals in Doral before dissolving into the Spanish countryside.

In each case, Piñeiro has had to navigate a maze of roadblocks. First, she needs a federal warrant. FBI agents or U.S. Marshals must get a positive ID in person, all while avoiding local cops and the fugitive. "We can't tip off the local authorities, because the suspects often have political ties at home," Piñeiro says. "They'd warn them off."

If the runaway isn't from the country where he's hiding, Piñeiro can sometimes win a deportation order within a few weeks.

But if he's a citizen of his hideout nation, international appeals can take years. And some countries, most notably Brazil, refuse to extradite their citizens altogether.

Then there's Cuba. If a criminal flees there, prosecutors are SOL. There's a storied history of fugitives hiding under Fidel Castro's nose, most famously Robert Vesco, a criminal financier who spent 25 years in Havana dodging fraud charges before dying in 2007.

Others have pulled the same trick. Convicted cop-killer and black militant Joanne Chesimard, AKA Assata Shakur, has lived openly in Cuba since 1984; William Potts has also hidden out since 1984, when he hijacked a Miami-bound flight and diverted it to Havana. Since the FBI began cracking down on Medicare fraud in Miami two years ago, more than 150 wanted suspects have bolted to Latin America, mostly to Cuba, according to a Miami Herald report in July.

Miami prosecutors don't keep statistics on open extradition cases, and nationally, the Department of Justice tracks cases only from a few of the busiest international havens. Federal numbers do offer one clue to Piñeiro's work: Last year, 148 prisoners were extradited from Colombia to the United States, mostly through Miami. That number has risen drastically from 2000, when only 13 were sent packing from Bogotá.

Cuban cases aside, once Piñeiro finds a criminal living abroad, the wheels of justice usually grind slowly to bring him home — generally it takes three to five years.

That's why Rhett Fuller's case is so amazing, and so agonizing.

"Fuller has been running as long as I've been in this office," Piñeiro says. "That's one I can't wait to close."

When Rosalind Fuller talks about her grandson Rhett and his children in Belize, her aquamarine eyes well up and her weathered face creases. The 87-year-old sits in a plastic lawn chair on her small front porch in Hollywood. Next door, a local cop waxes his cruiser in a driveway and glances over suspiciously every few minutes.

"Rhett's been through a lot already," she says, her voice reedy but still melodic with its Caribbean accent. "We don't know what's going on with his case. But he's got three little kids, and one of them is autistic. I don't understand why this is still carrying on today."

Fuller's 20-year dash from the law has torn emotional rifts in his family from Belize City to Broward. Before that one terrible night in a shabby North Miami Beach apartment, though, he never could have expected his life would turn into an international manhunt.

He was born in October 1970 in Belize City, a sun-blasted town of 70,000 on a lush peninsula jutting into the Caribbean Sea. His mom, Veradale, was descended from Belize's native Indians and English captains who'd emigrated to British Honduras, as Belize was known until 1981. They harvested tropical wood. The family's lineage is obvious in Rhett's light skin and his grandmother's startlingly bright-blue eyes.

Belize went through years of turmoil after achieving independence from Britain. When Rhett was 10 years old, Veradale and Rosalind decided to join the scores of relatives who had moved to South Florida looking for work.

In the States, Rhett was a normal immigrant kid. At Fulford Elementary in North Miami Beach, he picked up the trumpet, blasting strident tunes through the small apartment where his grandma and mom raised him. (His dad, who had never been around much, stayed in Belize.) "I only worried about [Rhett] because he had really serious asthma," Rosalind says.

At North Miami Beach High, Rhett was a lead trumpeter in the jazz ensemble. In yearbook photos, he's a serious-looking, bright-eyed teenager wearing a skinny black tie. After graduating in 1989, he enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College and then enlisted in the Navy. "I wanted to get my citizenship and to see the world," Fuller says.

In May 1990, he had a few months to burn between classes and basic training, which was scheduled to begin July 4. So he bummed around with two close friends: Carlos Cuello, a heavyset teen who had emigrated from Belize around the same time as Rhett, and Alex Napolitano, a thin, long-faced pal from high school.

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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!!

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?

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...

 
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