By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In October 2012, just outside a pastel-painted Coral Gables apartment building, one of the largest gold heists in Florida history went down. A convicted thief named Raonel Valdez, who was supposed to be wearing a court-ordered GPS device, somehow jacked $2.8 million in gold from courier George Villegas. And within a few months, Valdez had vanished.
Private investigator David Bolton, hired by the Bolivian company that owned the stolen gold, stayed hot on Valdez's trail, but not even a $25,000 reward offered by his client produced any good leads. "We tracked him in four different countries," Bolton says. "We were always one step behind."
Until now. Last week, immigration authorities in Belize caught the wanted man in a small town bordering Guatemala. The arrest brings to a close one of the wildest crime stories in recent years, one that — as recounted in a New Times feature story last July — suggested Cuban gangs were infiltrating Miami-Dade County's underworld.
Valdez had been a career criminal since fleeing Cuba and arriving in Miami around 2005. In late 2012, he had a pending battery assault charge against his ex-girlfriend, and a judge had ordered him to wear a tracking device to ensure he stayed away from her.
Police arrested the thief a few weeks later and took him to court. Amazingly, despite the fact that he'd committed his heist while wearing an ankle monitor, Miami-Dade Criminal Court Judge Leon Firtel allowed Valdez to bond out — and put his trust in another ankle monitor to keep the bad guy secure.
Three months later, Valdez cut off the bracelet and vanished. The gold hadn't been recovered either. New Times reported how Valdez was likely part of a syndicate involving Cuban-born delinquents operating marijuana grow houses in South Miami-Dade and stealing go-fast boats in the Keys that were then used for illegally transporting Cuban migrants to Mexico.
Bolton, the P.I. on his trail, finally caught a break last week when he got a call from a Belize official. Officers came across Valdez hiding in some bushes in Benque Viejo del Carmen. He was carrying a Cuban passport with his real name but no stamp showing how he'd entered Belize. So he was detained for illegal entry. Valdez paid a fine of $2,000, and immigration officials planned to send him to Cuba. However, he was acting suspicious, so the immigration official Googled his name, Bolton claims.
"He had seen the wanted poster of Raonel I posted on the internet," Bolton says. "He wanted to know if it was true. I got him in touch with the U.S. Marshals Service."
Valdez should be back in Miami soon, Bolton adds, where he will most likely wait in jail until his trial date. But the slippery convict could beat the system once again. Villegas, the only witness against him, died last July.