A prominent attorney. A briefcase full of cash. A scheming girlfriend. And a severely manipulated legal system. They all come together in the bizarre tale of The Missing Briefcase
This was not going to be a particularly pleasant holiday season for Simon Steckel. Just two days before Christmas 1992, the prominent Coral Gables attorney had injured his back badly enough that he would later need surgery. Adding to his discomfort was the sorry state of his marriage, which appeared to be heading for divorce. He had been separated from his wife for nearly a year, and the thought of spending the holidays alone at his Kendall home was unbearable.
To ease his suffering, Steckel had checked into a suite at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. He had been residing there since December 16. A hotel room may not have provided the most festive atmosphere, but at least the 37-year-old lawyer did not lack for companionship.
Simon Steckel, after all, was a powerful man, and powerful men have needs. Melissa DeLeon could appreciate that. A bleached blonde with bright sapphire eyes and an alluring figure, Melissa was experienced beyond her 24 years. She had already been married and divorced twice. She'd never held a job and instead lived off a trust fund left by her deceased father, Larry Tritsch, one of the great Opa-locka flea-market barons.
Over the years Melissa's relationship with her mother had become strained. "Her mother keeps telling me to forget her, but how can I? She doesn't have anyone else," her grandmother Roberta would say. "Melissa has always run with the wrong people. Hasn't had much luck with men, either. When she was younger, we hoped she might go to college, but..." The thought would trail off with a shrug, followed by: "But she's a good girl."
Good girl that she was, Melissa was dismayed to learn that her Yuletide lover was still married during the time they were together. "I didn't know," she would say later. "He always referred to her as his ex-wife."
Simon Steckel and Melissa DeLeon were an odd-looking pair. She of the dangerous curves, he rail-thin and quite tall. At six-foot-seven-inches, he towered over her by more than a foot, though given her penchant for high heels, she was often able to meet him halfway. Except for his taste in fine jewelry and gold watches, he was a black-and-white photograph next to her Kodachrome radiance.
Heading into the holidays emotionally hobbled and physically injured, Steckel nonetheless was at the peak of his professional life. As a successful prosecutor he had moved quickly up the ladder at the Dade State Attorney's Office. Over four short years he had risen from intern to supervisor, then division chief. In 1983 he left the office and "flipped," as they say, opening a practice as a criminal defense attorney, representing the sort of people he had once put in jail and facing off against prosecutors who had been his colleagues.
His most celebrated case was one he initially lost. In 1988 Derrick Robinson was charged with killing a Dade man. Despite steadfastly proclaiming his client's innocence, the best Steckel could do was to cut a deal in which Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison. If Robinson had gambled and gone to trial, he could have faced the death penalty.
But Steckel continued to believe Robinson was innocent and hired his own detectives to reinvestigate. Eventually they uncovered the evidence needed to exonerate Robinson, who walked out of prison in 1991.
Perhaps if he had told Melissa that revealing story of persistence and determination, she might have realized that Simon Steckel was not a man to cross. And perhaps she would have reconsidered what she was about to do.
By Christmas Melissa had been dating Steckel for two months. During that time, one thing about him struck her as odd: his perverse attachment to his briefcase. Wherever they went, the attache accompanied him. Even when they went to a movie, Steckel would carry his black leather briefcase with him into the theater.
Though she didn't dare ask, Melissa wondered what could be so important that her boyfriend would never let it out of his sight. Her curiosity was heightened when, on Christmas Eve, she met him and he was bearing not one but two briefcases. In addition to his usual black leather case, Steckel was toting a second one made of metal and clearly locked. Her inquisitiveness was only sharpened when Steckel, citing his sore back, asked her to carry them.
That evening the two drove around town attending to last-minute errands. Steckel had suddenly remembered a 60 Minutes segment that had aired some months earlier and which featured a Miami doctor who had adopted a number of retarded children. Touched by the spirit of Christmas, he decided to play Santa and rushed with Melissa to a Toys R Us store just before closing time, where he filled several shopping carts with presents for the kids -- "even though I could barely walk," Steckel would later recall. "This will give you an idea of the kind of person I am." He anonymously dropped off the toys at the doctor's home, and then he and Melissa enjoyed a late dinner and a couple of bottles of wine at a Thai restaurant in South Miami.
After that the pair drove to Steckel's house, where he said he needed to pick up a few things. Steckel asked Melissa to wait in one room while he went off to another, but she kept coming in to see what he was doing. It was during one of those intrusions, Steckel would later speculate, that Melissa saw the money. Tens of thousands of dollars piled high on a table. An assortment of jewelry, too.
And what was Steckel doing with so much cash? As he later explained, he had intended to deposit the money in the bank and had arrived about five minutes before closing. When the teller realized he had such a large cash deposit, he was asked to come back another day. "Everybody wanted to leave early," he says today. "They told me to just come back after Christmas." Steckel, however, refuses to identify the bank. The cash, he says, came from legal fees owed him, though he won't say if the money came from a single client or more than one client. Nor will he explain why he was being paid in cash, bundles of tens and twenties.
After stuffing the money and jewelry into his two briefcases that Christmas Eve, Steckel and Melissa drove back to the Hyatt Regency. By the time they arrived, sometime around 11:30 p.m., Steckel was so tired all he could do was take several Advil and fall asleep. Melissa, however, was feeling restless. She began making a few telephone calls.
For one night at least, Lisa Lobman had decreed there would be no beepers. She was sick and tired of her boyfriend's pager interrupting them wherever they went. Enough was enough. In fact, she had smashed it earlier in the evening. If he wanted to buy a new beeper after the holidays, fine. But she wasn't going to compete for his attention on Christmas Eve.
This holiday was to be a special time for 21-year-old Lisa and her beau Alverony Formeza, known by his nickname "A.V." They had recently gotten back together after a nasty fight in which A.V. had been arrested for allegedly assaulting Lisa. While 25-year-old A.V. had a long history of run-ins with the law, Lisa had never been arrested. She had been attending community college and one day hoped to become an architect. When her parents moved to Broward, she stayed behind and lived with a roommate at the family home in Kendall.
Lisa knew A.V. dealt drugs, but as long as he didn't do it in front of her, or use drugs in her presence, she tried not to think about it. "I'm a bad guy," A.V. candidly admits. "I mean, I'm not a real bad guy, but I do some bad things. If you've got something that's stolen, I'll sell it. If you want some pills or you want some marijuana, I'll get you the best pills or marijuana money can buy."
Among the Christmas Eve parties Lisa and A.V. attended was one hosted by Joaquin "Wacko" Agrenot, a long-time friend of A.V.
Also at Wacko's party was Miami criminal defense attorney Stephen Glass, who had represented both Wacko and A.V. in the past. Wacko handed Glass two bottles of Scotch as a gift. Everyone seemed to have a good time.
Lisa and A.V. returned to her Kendall house around 1:00 a.m. "When we got home, the phone rang and it was Melissa," recalls Lisa. A.V. answered and was talking about meeting her at a hotel, Lisa recalls. He was saying something about a Rolex watch.
When A.V. told Lisa he was going to the Hyatt Regency to meet Melissa, she became angry and jealous. "I've been friends with her since I was about eleven years old," Lisa says of her friend Melissa. "I was the maid of honor at her second wedding. I know her. I know her. And there was no way my boyfriend was going to a hotel room alone to meet her." So together Lisa and A.V. drove from Kendall to downtown Miami. "I didn't really ask what we were doing," Lisa says today. "A.V.'s not the kind of person who you can sit there and question."
After reaching the Hyatt and parking in the hotel's circular driveway, A.V. realized he'd neglected to ask Melissa for her room number, so from a lobby pay phone Lisa dialed her beeper. Melissa called back and told them to come up to room 2128.
According to Lisa and A.V., Melissa met them in the hallway outside the suite. As if offering Christmas gifts, she held out Steckel's two briefcases and gave them to A.V. She also handed over her purse. "She told me she was going to make it look like a robbery," A.V. recalls, "and that I should take her things as well."
In the elevator on the way down, A.V. took a quick look inside the black leather briefcase, which was unlocked. It was brimming with cash. Lisa had her first glimpse once they got in the car. "I was shocked," she says today.
Steckel, who had slept through the arrival and departure of A.V. and Lisa, was awakened by the sound of Melissa frantically tossing clothes and makeup onto the floor. "I was sitting there on the bed mesmerized," he remembers. "Finally I said, 'What the hell are you doing?' and she just freaked out."
Startled by Steckel's sudden consciousness, Melissa began babbling about going down the hall for ice and coming back to find the room in disarray. When he realized his precious briefcases were missing, he immediately made two calls: to hotel security and to police at emergency 911. "She broke down and confessed in about 90 seconds," says Steckel. By the time police arrived, Melissa was telling anyone who would listen that A.V. and Lisa had the briefcases.
A.V. and Lisa first drove to his house in Kendall, where they counted the cash A $52,000 A and broke open the metal briefcase, in which they discovered a bounty of jewelry later estimated to be worth another $50,000. In addition to the cash and valuables, the black leather attache also contained legal files. "I just flipped quickly through them to make sure there wasn't any cash hidden in any of them," recalls A.V. Though he didn't take time to read any of the documents, he says he remembers that some of the folders were labeled with a name. The name was "Gersten." Says A.V.: "The name Gersten was marked on at least two of the files." (Simon Steckel's relationship with ex-County Commissioner Joe Gersten spans nearly a decade. In the mid-Eighties, while Gersten was serving as a state senator, he and Steckel shared office space. Today Steckel's Coral Gables office is located in a building owned by Gersten. According to Melissa DeLeon, during the time late last year when she and Steckel were dating, they would occasionally encounter Gersten in social settings.)
Sometime between 3:00 and 4:00 a.m., A.V. and Lisa drove to Lisa's house, where A.V. removed the cash and most of the jewelry before carrying the briefcases to a nearby canal. Lisa says she watched as her boyfriend threw the two attaches into the murky water, where they floated momentarily then sank out of sight. Cash and jewelry in hand, A.V. then left. Lisa went to bed.
Shortly after sunrise Lisa was awakened by someone pounding on her front door. It was Melissa, and she was in a tizzy. Steckel knew everything, she blurted out as Lisa let her in, and they had better give back the briefcases or there would be big trouble. Lisa listened but told her friend she didn't have the briefcases. After about half an hour, Melissa made a startling admission: The police were waiting outside.
And wait they did. For the next eight hours on Christmas Day, half a dozen uniformed officers and plainclothes detectives, along with their assorted police vehicles, camped out on Lisa's front lawn.
A frightened Lisa contacted A.V. He told her not to worry, that he would call Stephen Glass, the defense attorney they had seen the night before. A short time later Glass phoned Lisa, who explained what was happening. Glass assured her that at worst she would be charged with theft. If the police arrested her, she recalls him saying, she would be out of jail on bond within a day. That, of course, was before Glass learned the name of the victim.
"A detective gets on the phone and tells me he has the victim there and that it is somebody I know, and he puts on Simon Steckel," Glass remembers. "Now, I've known Simon for many years as a friendly acquaintance, somebody I would say hi to. He gets on the phone and tells me he's so glad that these are my clients because he knows I'm a good guy. He's throwing all the flattery he can on me. And he asks me if I can help him get him back his stuff."
Steckel explained to Glass that for several days he'd been collecting money owed him by clients and he hadn't had a chance to deposit it in the bank. "He had also gotten all of his jewelry together recently," Glass recalls. "He mentioned something about a divorce and that he didn't want to leave it at his house. So he had a briefcase full of jewelry, some private papers, and a briefcase full of cash." Glass told Steckel he would make a few calls to see if he could track down A.V.
In the meantime, Miami Police Department detective Boris Montecon asked Lisa if he could search the house. As soon as she agreed, four officers went to work. She had expected such a team of detectives to conduct the search. But she did not expect to find Simon Steckel rummaging through her belongings. "I walk into the living room," she recounts, "and Simon is going through my closet. I said, 'What are you doing?' Since when do the police allow the alleged victim to take part in the search of a suspect's house?
"We were yelling at the detectives to get him out of the house," she continues. "So they finally take Simon outside." A few minutes later Lisa looked out her window. "And I can see Simon is in my car, searching it, lifting out the floor mats, looking under the seats," she says. "I told him, 'Simon, there's nothing in the car.' What makes me mad is that the cops are letting him do that." The search turned up nothing incriminating.
Finally at 4:00 p.m., after waiting at the house all day while attorney Stephen Glass tried unsuccessfully to recover Steckel's briefcases, detectives decided to arrest Lisa and Melissa.
Once at the police station in downtown Miami, the two women say Steckel met with them separately, without any police officers present, and made it clear that if his briefcases weren't returned, he would see to it that they didn't get out of jail. But this didn't make sense to Lisa and Melissa, given that Glass had assured them they would be able to make bail in the morning.
That assurance, however, was based on Glass's assumption that the women would be charged with simple theft, an assumption that turned out to be wrong. As Lisa recalls, "Simon said, 'If you don't get me my stuff back, I'm going to say there was a gun in the briefcase and I'm going to put you away for three years, minimum mandatory.'"
If Steckel claimed there was a gun in one of the briefcases -- even though it didn't belong to Lisa, Melissa, or A.V. A the charge would be armed burglary, not simple theft. One of the most serious crimes on the books, armed burglary is usually reserved for home invaders who break into houses and terrorize the occupants with weapons. Not only can it carry a life sentence, defendants facing such a charge do not have an automatic right to be released on bond.
Lisa, Melissa, and A.V. all insist there was never a gun in either briefcase. The two women being held at the police station believed Steckel was using that claim to keep them locked up and to pressure A.V. into returning his property. "When I heard it," Lisa says, referring to the gun allegation, "I told Detective Montecon, 'Why don't you go see if the gun is in Simon's car.' Melissa had told me Simon usually keeps the gun in the glove compartment of his Cadillac." In fact, Melissa says she's sure the gun was locked in the glove compartment because she had seen Steckel place it there the day before. According to Lisa and Melissa, Montecon refused to check Steckel's car. Steckel confirms that Montecon did not ask to search his car. (Montecon was on vacation last week and unavailable to comment for this article.)
Today Steckel asserts there was indeed a gun in his black leather briefcase and that it wasn't an issue with the two women until after they were in jail, not before. But he refuses to describe the gun or to provide its serial number. Montecon's police report of the theft, prepared Christmas Day at the station, does mention a gun, but it does not include any description -- no brand name, no model, no caliber, no serial number, no indication whether it was a revolver or an automatic. In contrast, Steckel did provide police with all similar information regarding the cellular phone he said was stolen as well.
Defense attorney Stephen Glass says he heard nothing about a gun until after Lisa and Melissa had been arrested. "Before then," he recalls, "when Simon was telling me what was missing, all he said was cash, jewelry, papers. He never mentioned a gun. And then all of a sudden they are charged with an armed burglary." Glass simply doesn't believe there was a gun, a view that was reinforced in the weeks after Christmas. In all his many discussions regarding recovery of the briefcases, Glass says Steckel never once inquired about the gun. "Nobody is asking, 'Where the hell is the gun?'" he recounts. "Everything else is being requested back, but there is not a word about the gun. That to me was strange."
With Lisa and Melissa now in jail on armed burglary charges, and A.V. still on the loose, Steckel's best hope of recovering his belongings lay in the hands of Stephen Glass. In the days following the arrest of the two women, Glass and Steckel were in constant contact by phone. Initially Steckel stressed his demand that everything be returned, but before long he seemed willing to relinquish some of the money in exchange for the missing files.
A series of offers and counteroffers was exchanged between Steckel and A.V., with Glass acting as middleman. (Glass says he was not in direct contact with A.V. and did not know his whereabouts. Messages were passed through A.V.'s friend Joaquin "Wacko" Agrenot.)
The first deal called for Steckel to receive his files, jewelry, and $25,000 in cash if he wouldn't press charges against A.V. and would drop the charges against Lisa and Melissa.
Then the amount of money Steckel was to recover dropped to $10,000, according to Glass. "You know what my feeling is, Simon?" Glass told Steckel during a December 27 telephone call. "You sign those papers, you aren't going to see a penny. That's my gut feeling. He doesn't want to give up any of the money. I feel as a friend I have to warn you about that."
"This guy has got balls," Steckel replied.
"He does, he does," Glass affirmed.
"He does the crime and then he's got the nerve to try and extort money out of me," Steckel said.
"My feeling is he's going to run with whatever money is left," Glass continued. "That's my gut feeling."
As the conversation continued, Glass reminisced for a moment. "It's funny, Simon, that I always wind up in a situation where I have to tell you something to protect you," Glass mused. "Remember when I was in the Keys A"
"Yeah, I remember," Steckel interrupted. "That funny thing that happened down in the Keys."
"And I always will, I always will," Glass said. "I would never hurt a brother attorney."
That, however, was one credo to which Steckel did not adhere. While Glass was apparently trying to help him, Steckel was secretly recording all his conversations with Glass and then turning over the tapes to the State Attorney's Office. Though the State Attorney's Office has the power to authorize a private citizen to secretly tape-record telephone conversations, it is rare. Rarer still to grant broad authority, as in Steckel's case -- unsupervised and from any location.
The State Attorney's interest in Glass's comments, however, may be the least of the defense attorney's concerns. Those tapes could end up in the hands of the Florida Bar, which has investigated Glass four times since July 1991, according to Bar records: twice for neglecting client interests, once in a fee dispute, and once for allegedly "interfering with justice." All complaints were dismissed due to insufficient evidence. This time, however, Bar officials might take a dimmer view of Glass's expressed interest in protecting his friend at the expense of his clients.
"Those girls will never leave the jail until all of the jewelry, documents, everything is in your hands," Steckel threatened at one point.
"That's fine, that's fine," Glass replied. "I don't have any problem with that."
By the afternoon of Tuesday, December 29, both men seemed to be growing weary of A.V.'s recalcitrance. "The longer this goes on, the more complicated it's going to be," Steckel chided.
"Yeah," Glass agreed. "If they don't do this quickly, I'm going to withdraw from representation. I don't like the position they're putting me in. Plus they haven't paid me anything."
"Well, I want to get my shit back from them," Steckel said. "With each day I get more and more angry at these people."
"Well, I got a suggestion," Glass offered. "This is a little strange suggestion and it has nothing to do with the criminal case at all. A promise of no prosecution does not include a promise of no civil liability. You could always sue them."
"Oh, come on," Steckel moaned.
"My point is, I'm not going to ask for any release of liability for them from civil liability," Glass confided. "And from what I'm told, this girl has money in a trust fund or something like that. You could get a judgment against her."
But Steckel's interest in his missing files remained constant, and he pressed Glass to find out what he could about the black briefcase, which contained them. Late that night Steckel received the bad news. "The bag's gone," Glass reported.
"The bag's gone?" Steckel asked.
"The bag's gone."
"They will give you the location of where everything was dumped," said Glass, "but you are not going to like where it was dumped, because it was a watery grave."
The term "watery grave" didn't make an impression on Steckel. "I want to know tonight where the grave is," the attorney demanded, "because I'm afraid the shit is going to be blown away."
Glass told Steckel he needn't worry about the wind. "It's in the water," he explained.
"In the water?" Steckel groaned.
"They put it in a canal," answered Glass.
"I got to get this bag!" Steckel huffed.
As Steckel reiterated his demand, the tape he used to record the conversation ran out. By the time he popped a new cassette into his recorder, Glass was telling him that A.V. was afraid Steckel was going to have him killed. "I said, 'I hope he does. I hope he does kill you,'" Glass bragged to Steckel. "And I said, 'But that isn't part of the deal. The deal isn't that he promises not to kill you. The deal is he promises not to prosecute you criminally.'"
Glass again emphasized the beauty of the agreement. By deliberately failing to protect his clients from a civil lawsuit, Glass was leaving an opening for Steckel to sue them.
"But I can break his neck," Steckel said half-joking.
"You can do that and you can probably nail them civilly, too," Glass reminded. "Please don't let them know I told you that."
"No, no, no," Steckel assured him.
"I'm doing that as a favor to you so you can recover," Glass said.
But Steckel seemed unconvinced Glass was doing him a favor and said it would be futile to sue any of the defendants because none of them had anything aside from what they had stolen.
"Not true," Glass shot back. "I'm finding out that your little blondie Melissa has plenty."
"Well, let me tell you something," Steckel replied. "I've heard that, but I don't know if that's real, either. If it's real, great. But if it's not real, you know."
"Several people from her family have called me very concerned, offering beaucoup bucks to get her out of there," Glass said.
"That is certainly something I'm going to look into," Steckel responded. "But again, that is between me and you, and I don't want you to share that with her."
"No, no," Glass said. "And please don't let them know I told you that. I'm trying to give you a way to recover because I don't like what they've done. They have made me look like a fool, too."
As the conver-sation continued, Glass summarized the problem for Steckel: Was the return of his valuables and the location of the dumped briefcases more important to him than prosecuting Lisa, Melissa, and A.V.? "You've got to make the choice of, Is it worth walking away from these guys?" Glass concluded.
"Well, put it this way," Steckel answered. "Do I really have a fucking choice?"
"No," Glass said. "Unfortunately you don't. You're in the stage now where you have to minimize your loss. And you can get your revenge. You can do what you have to do. And please don't let me know about it. I don't need to have a Bar problem on this one. And I've already probably developed one because I've been helping you."
"At this point I've got to get back whatever I can get back," Steckel repeated.
"Do me a favor, though," Glass interrupted. "As your word as a gentleman, don't tell them what I've told you."
"How am I gonna tell them?" Steckel asked incredulously. "It's not like they are going to call me up tomorrow."
The next day, December 30, Stephen Glass and Joaquin "Wacko" Agrenot were sitting in Glass's white Mercedes in the parking lot of the Waldenbooks store on North Kendall Drive near 111th Avenue. All morning Glass and Steckel had exchanged calls, firming up final details of a trade: the jewelry for an agreement from Steckel not to pursue prosecution of Lisa and Melissa.
Steckel pulled into the parking lot in his silver Cadillac at about 3:30 p.m. Initially he had been "wired" by investigators so his conversations with Glass could be recorded. But at the last moment he ripped off the wire, fearing it would be discovered.
"As Simon shows up, we see he's being followed by what I presume are police," recalls Glass. "These guys are like Keystone Kops; they were right on his tail. When he turns, though, they miss the entrance, go half a block down, skid in the street, turn around, and come back into the parking lot, where they hide behind some bushes in their car. It was so obvious! So I get pissed off at Simon. I figure I'm doing everything legitimate."
As Steckel walked over to the Mercedes, Glass and Wacko got out of the car and Glass handed Steckel a package containing most A but not all A of his jewelry. Wacko then passed long a message from A.V.: The briefcases are in the canal at 129th Avenue near Miller Drive. In return, Steckel handed over a form from the State Attorney's Office verifying his commitment not to press charges against Lisa and Melissa.
But Steckel had pulled a fast one. The form had not been filled out. It was blank -- and useless to the two women. Although he clearly hadn't kept his end of the deal, Steckel still wanted Wacko to show him exactly where the briefcases had been dumped.
At Glass's prodding, Wacko agreed. While Steckel followed in his Cadillac, Glass drove Wacko in his Mercedes. "We get into the car and start driving, and I see this other car following," Glass recalls. "I'm now fit to be tied. I'm being put into the middle of this and I'm just tired of it. So I pull the car over." Steckel followed suit.
As automobiles loaded with post-Christmas bargain hunters whizzed by, Glass marched over to Steckel's car and demanded to know what was going on. Steckel said he had no idea what Glass was talking about. Using his car phone, Glass then called Andy Hague, the assistant state attorney in charge of the case. Hague, according to Glass, denied any knowledge of police surveillance. For nearly an hour Steckel, Glass, and Wacko remained parked by the side of the road, arguing about the bizarre situation. Finally Wacko, afraid he was about to be arrested, began screaming that he wanted out and that he now refused to guide Steckel to the canal.
At last Steckel and Glass parted company. A few hours later, shortly before 7:00 p.m., Steckel called Glass to discuss the day's events. Once again Glass was unaware that his words were being recorded.
His voice was frantic. He claimed that after the botched trade, A.V. was looking to get even with him. "Right now I'm in trouble with these people. I'm in trouble," Glass cried. "And believe me, I haven't been paid anything. This kid is wild now. I've got three threats already." Glass added that he was even afraid to drive his Mercedes because A.V. could identify it: "I'm driving my fuckin' Lincoln so I don't get killed!"
"All I want to do is get my stuff back," Steckel responded coolly.
"Okay, listen, I don't care if you let these people out of jail or not," Glass said, referring to his clients. "You don't understand. I wanted you to get this stuff. The point is, don't set me up so it looks like I'm in bed with you."
"All I want to do is get my stuff back from these people," Steckel repeated.
"I'm trying to help you," Glass said, pleading for understanding. "I don't like people I like -- and I like you -- getting ripped off. I told you that the first day. I didn't like this, I didn't like the fact that it was my clients. If you were a stranger, I could care less."
Glass then let on that he knew Steckel was going to double-cross A.V. and refuse to spring Lisa and Melissa from jail. "I knew you weren't going to do it. I'm not stupid. I knew you weren't going to do it. I wouldn't do it either," Glass said, his voice rising with emotion. "The point is, if you want the rest of that shit back, you've got to work with me a little bit and make me look a little good with these people."
"I will work with you," Steckel replied. "My only interest, like I told you from the very beginning, is to get all of my stuff back."
"I don't mind the cops being there for safety but they were so fucking stupid," Glass muttered.
"Listen," Steckel commanded, "all I want you to do is just help me get my stuff back. That's what should have been done the first day."
At a minimum, two officials from the State Attorney's Office listened to these recorded conversations soon after they were taped: prosecutor Andy Hague and Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hogue. Both of them heard Glass relaying offers to return portions of Steckel's property in exchange for dropping charges against Lisa and Melissa. As a result of those statements, Kathleen Hogue acknowledges that an investigation was begun to determine if Glass was committing extortion against Steckel. That investigation, says Hogue, remains open.
The 21st tape-recorded call took place on New Year's Eve. By this time Glass had composed himself, and his anger toward Steckel was palpable.
Steckel asked Glass to have Wacko tell him exactly where the briefcases had been dumped. "Why should he, though?" replied Glass indignantly. "Why should he? This is at the point where he felt betrayed. I felt betrayed. Why should he help you? I mean, I helped you and what did it get me? What did it get me? Now I'm stuck defending two girls in jail, no fee, and a wacko guy running around on the street. That's what it got me."
"There is a very simple solution. They can return the bag and the money," Steckel reiterated.
"A.V. is splitting, that's the word I'm getting," Glass hissed. "And he's pissed off at me and I'm losing a fee. And I'm at risk whenever he shows up or whenever his friends decide to drive by my house and put a couple of bullets into it, like they've been known to do to people. You made me look like a total moron."
"I'm taking the position that unless I get complete restitution from these people, I'm not doing anything," Steckel said flatly.
"Well, that's the way it ends," Glass countered.
"If Melissa wants to dip into her trust account --" Steckel began.
"Then that's the way it ends," Glass interrupted. "That's the way it ends."
"-- and then she can recover the money from A.V. when she gets out," Steckel continued.
"That's nice that you can think so, but that isn't going to happen," Glass now said defiantly, adding that he'd get Lisa and Melissa out of jail in a week.
"We'll see," Steckel said smugly.
Steckel then warned that if Wacko didn't come forward and reveal everything he knew, Steckel would come after him as well.
"Simon, I don't care. I don't care!" Glass shouted. "I haven't been paid. I haven't made a penny. I've spent a week on this thing negotiating for both sides, back and forth. Running around like something out of a James Bond novel yesterday. For what? So that I can get my house shot at or something? So you can tell me you're not happy and make like you are going to get this client or that client? I don't need this shit. I've been put in the middle and I've gotten nothing from it. I didn't even get a thank you from you for getting you your damn jewelry -- which I thought was rude on your part. I didn't have to do this. I could have represented them and said, 'No, there is no deal,' and just represent the girls, let them keep everything, and gotten paid. And instead I tried to do what was right by you because I considered you a friend and get you your jewelry back and I don't even get a thank you. I get trailed by cops. I've got some wacko threatening to kill me. Wonderful. Wonderful!"
In subsequent days, the Miami Police Department dispatched a team of divers to search the canal near 129th Street and Miller Drive. They came up with nothing. Then Steckel hired his own diver to scour the watery grave in search of his lost files. Still nothing.
With fading hopes of recovering the documents, and having exhausted Glass's usefulness, Steckel and the State Attorney's Office then set their sights on Joaquin "Wacko" Agrenot in the belief he could lead them to A.V. Squeezing 23-year-old Wacko was no problem given that he was on probation for a drug-related conviction. When he showed up at the probation office the second week of January for his required monthly visit, investigators were waiting for him. They told him that unless he rolled over on his friend A.V. and set him up to be arrested, they were going to claim he had violated his probation by helping A.V. and would immediately be sent to jail.
The pressure tactic was successful. Detectives learned from Wacko that A.V., despite the intense interest in his whereabouts, had not left Miami. They began to narrow the list of his possible hiding places. But detectives weren't the only ones on the prowl. According to A.V., he began hearing from friends that at least one ominous-looking figure was offering $10,000 to anyone who could provide information about his location. "Sure, I asked a bunch of people to ask around," Steckel acknowledges, but he denies offering a reward. Steckel's own attorney, George Yoss, says he hired private investigators as part of the case, but he won't divulge their mission.
Though A.V. was doing his best to stay hidden, he couldn't resist the temptation to make a few public excursions. After all, he had suddenly found himself in possession of a large sum of money A which for A.V. meant it was time to buy a new car. He had his eye on a used Corvette for $23,000, but when he announced his intention to pay in full, in cash, the dealer began asking more questions than A.V. wanted to answer. So he ended up at a more obliging and less inquisitive Nissan dealer, who sold him a new charcoal-gray 300-ZX with a twin turbo engine and leather interior. The price: $29,000. "It was a sweet car," A.V. says today. In an effort to throw off snoopy investigators, A.V. asked that the car be registered in the name of a friend, 26-year-old Ronald Speers, who accompanied A.V. to the dealership.
With Wacko's reluctant assistance, police now had several fresh leads to pursue in locating A.V. The only problem was manpower. Boris Montecon, the Miami police detective handling the case, had gone on vacation. Steckel, however, wasn't about to wait for his return. He wanted action now. But that meant he needed a new squad of investigators. "I believe I suggested names of people that I knew," Steckel says. "I think I suggested a whole bunch of people."
Steckel was in a position to know police officers and to call in favors. During his years in private practice, he had defended officers in trouble with the law. His best-known client of late was Miami police officer Carl Seals, whose aggressive use of a chokehold left Antonio Edwards in a long-term coma and cost the City of Miami seven million dollars in settlement.
Although Steckel, a private citizen, now seemed to be directly involved in internal police affairs, he maintains he wasn't doing anything improper. "I wasn't running the show," he says. "I do not carry that kind of weight." Yet his "suggestions" were usually followed. The officers he recommended, for instance, were assigned to the manhunt for A.V., even though they weren't members of the robbery unit, which officially should have been investigating the case.
If, as Steckel asserts, he was not running the show, he certainly was afforded a front-row seat. For example, on January 13, the night A.V. was finally captured, Steckel was personally driven to the scene of the arrest by Assistant State Attorney Andy Hague, whose assignment to the case was itself unusual. (Hague normally prosecutes murderers.) In fact, Hague and Steckel had been cruising around that night, searching for A.V. on their own. "I was babysitting Simon," Hague explains, dismissing any suggestion that Steckel was being given preferential treatment. "He was very emotional about this case. We didn't want him going off on his own, so he was riding with me. That way we could control his movements." Later that night, when detectives decided to visit several of A.V.'s family members to see if they had information about the briefcases, Steckel and Hague again tagged along.
Today Hague says A.V. is lucky he wasn't killed when he was arrested, and so were the police officers who risked their lives to apprehend him. The cops had under surveillance several of A.V.'s suspected hideouts. At about 10:00 p.m. they spotted him driving the 300-ZX and followed him to a gas station. When A.V. pulled in, they followed, drew their guns, and cornered him. Though for a moment he contemplated using his powerful car to make a run for it, A.V. surrendered without resistance. He was unarmed.
Officially Steckel was at the arrest scene to see if he could identify any of his belongings. But since nothing was found in the 300-ZX except an expensive leather jacket that A.V. had purchased, Steckel's role seemed to be more that of a celebrant. According to A.V., the attorney arrived and began slapping high-fives with the arresting officers. Steckel then grabbed the jacket from A.V.'s car, searched the pockets, and placed it over his arm as if he was going to keep it. A.V. says he hasn't seen the jacket since. (Both Steckel and Hague say they don't remember seeing a leather jacket that night.)
A.V. was taken to the Miami police station, where he was charged with armed burglary and questioned for several hours. "The main thing they kept asking me about were the files. They didn't even ask me about the money, just the files," he recalls. While refusing to provide a formal statement to police, A.V. did A off the record A agree to help them, so the next morning he was taken back to the canal, where he pinpointed the exact spot he had dumped the briefcases. A team of police divers stood at the ready. For the second time their search turned up nothing.
In a case filled with bizarre twists, that morning provided yet another. "While A.V. was there at the canal, my house got burglarized and searched, thoroughly searched," says Lisa Lobman, who was still being held in jail. "They didn't just look around, they thoroughly searched my whole house. They moved the refrigerator. They turned over mattresses, removed the pillow cases and sheets. All of the pockets of all my pants were turned inside out. All the papers I had in a briefcase were scattered."
Lisa was told of the damage by her roommate, and a police report confirms their house was burglarized and ransacked on January 14. In order to break in, the burglar had to pry off a tightly secured framework of metal bars so he could force open a rear window. "That's some coincidence," Lisa notes sarcastically. "In 22 years, my house had never been robbed A until then." In addition to turning the place inside out, the burglar made off with a television set, a VCR, and a strongbox containing about $1800 in cash.
With all three suspects now in jail, Steckel took Stephen Glass's earlier advice and went after Melissa DeLeon's trust fund. He began by negotiating with Melissa's new attorney, Barry Shevlin, who was brought into the case by Melissa's family. As for A.V. and Lisa, neither had any substantial money, but Steckel quickly learned that Lisa's mother owned the Kendall house in which Lisa and her roommate lived.
One day while Lisa's mother, Bonnie Giacobbi, was sitting in court awaiting a hearing in her daughter's case, Shevlin approached her and said Steckel wanted to speak with her in the hallway. "They were very, very interested in the property I owned," she recalls. "They kept asking me questions like, 'Did I bring the mortgage deed with me?' They wanted to know what my house was worth and what the market value on it was. They kept trying to push me [into signing over the house to Steckel]. And they said that if I didn't do this, there was a possibility that Lisa would stay in jail a very long time. I was very nervous and very upset. But I knew this wasn't right, that I shouldn't do this. Simon was miffed at me when he realized he wasn't getting anywhere. Lisa did commit a crime. But the way this has been handled was really wrong."
Steckel denies that the encounter with Bonnie Giacobbi ever took place. Undisputed, however, was his success in obtaining money from Melissa's trust fund. In a deal struck with Steckel and prosecutors, Melissa agreed to pay Steckel $50,000. She also agreed to testify against A.V. and Lisa. In return she would be released from jail and all charges against her would be dropped.
On February 5, Melissa's attorney presented a $50,000 check to Steckel, who promptly told prosecutors to have her released. When they came for her, she was sitting in court, handcuffed to Lisa. As the bailiff led Melissa out, Lisa remained behind, alone, exactly where Steckel wanted her.
Every working day for the past six years, attorney Tom Payne has spent much of his time at the criminal courthouse, representing the usual assortment of woebegone clients for the Dade County Public Defender's Office. But on this day, February 5, two odd things caught his eye. He couldn't help but notice Simon Steckel in the courtroom and soon discovered the former assistant state attorney was there as an alleged victim. Although this sparked Payne's curiosity, he didn't have time to inquire further; he had far too many cases of his own to worry about.
As the day progressed, though, Payne's attention was drawn to another figure in that same courtroom: a pretty young woman sitting off to the side, handcuffed and crying. Payne thought she seemed even more lost and confused than the sorry souls who normally march through the pens each day.
In a few minutes of conversation, between heavy sobs, Lisa Lobman described to Payne the events of the previous six weeks. "Something stunk," Payne says. "You could tell immediately something very funky was going down in this case, that something clearly wasn't right." Payne's suspicions grew when Assistant State Attorney Andy Hague entered the otherwise deserted courtroom.
Hague appeared surprised and concerned that someone from the Public Defender's Office was speaking to Lisa. He hurried over and interrupted them. "He said something to me to the effect of, 'Don't worry about her case. It's going to be worked out.' And I told him I was worried about it," Payne recalls. "I was mad and I was very pissed off. I see all these big hitters in there -- Andy Hague and Simon Steckel -- and I'm thinking, 'Somebody better take care of this girl before she gets walked all over.'"
Hague asked to speak with Payne outside, alone, attorney to attorney, but Payne refused. Instead he continued talking to Lisa, and promised her he would keep an eye on her case and would make sure that the next week, when she was scheduled to appear again in court, an attorney from the Public Defender's Office would be by her side.
Although the Public Defender's Office hadn't been officially appointed to represent Lisa, and Stephen Glass was still listed as her attorney of record, Payne saw to it that her case file was routed to one of the senior lawyers in his office, Suzanne Driscoll.
The following Friday, February 12, when Driscoll walked into the packed courtroom searching for her new client, she had no trouble picking out Lisa from the crowd. "She looked overwhelmed and just pathetic," Driscoll remembers. "She was hysterical and crying. I took her in the back and started talking to her and she was telling me things I just couldn't believe.
"She was not the type of person we usually see come through the system. She didn't belong in jail and she shouldn't have been in jail all that time," Driscoll argues. "Normally a case like that comes along and you're out the next day with supervision. Guys with a page full of priors get out within a day of being arrested. And here is this little girl, who has never been in trouble before, sitting in jail almost 50 days. I've never seen anything like it."
Driscoll says she was amazed Lisa hadn't been granted a bond hearing much earlier. Stephen Glass had missed at least two scheduled hearings, which caused them to be further delayed. (Glass says he didn't attend because he was still trying to work out a deal with Steckel, and that it was Steckel who asked to have the hearings delayed.)
Among Driscoll's other complaints was her belief that the State Attorney's Office should have done a better job reigning in Steckel. It was clear to her, she says, that he was directing the case and negotiating directly with the defendants and their families. "That's the role of the State Attorney's Office," she contends. "The victims are not supposed to be the prosecutors.
"I understand the relationship between Simon Steckel and Andy Hague," Driscoll continues. "I know Simon was formerly an assistant state attorney and I understand that as a result they felt close. I understand how things like that happen. It's not unusual. But when we started trying to negotiate some sort of plea to work this thing out, you couldn't tell who was in charge. Andy Hague would be talking to the judge, and you could see Simon pulling on Andy's coat, telling him to add this or add that and telling Andy what conditions he wanted set. It was ridiculous. It was a dog-and-pony show. It was the most ridiculous behavior I have ever seen in court. After listening to Andy Hague and Simon Steckel in court that morning, I was nauseated. I finally asked the judge, 'Who's the prosecutor?'"
What particularly galled Driscoll was the fact that Melissa had been released from jail a week earlier, while Lisa was still in custody. "I was trying to get the judge to realize that something strange was going on here," says Driscoll, who emphasized her argument in court by using some colorful language. "I wanted to know why Steckel's concubine, the woman who planned the whole thing, was free while my client was still in jail," Driscoll recalls with a smile. "I was mad and it just came out. When I said it, the judge lost it and started laughing." Nearly everyone in the courtroom also began laughing -- except Steckel. Later, while passing in the hallway, Steckel nodded at Driscoll and deadpanned, "Nice choice of words."
Though her tone may have flip, her point was serious: "I told the judge that if Lisa had a whole bunch of money like Melissa, then Lisa wouldn't be in jail, either."
That was only the beginning of the fireworks. Driscoll stressed to both Hague and Steckel that as committed as Steckel may have been to keep Lisa in jail, she was equally determined to get her out. The first thing she did was prepare a subpoena to question Steckel. Driscoll was shocked to learn that Steckel had never given a formal sworn statement to anyone connected with the case. He hadn't even been seriously questioned. If Lisa wasn't released immediately, Driscoll warned, Steckel would be in her office for a sworn deposition the following week.
Apparently the prospect of testifying under oath held little appeal for Steckel. Within hours Hague and Steckel agreed to a plea bargain in which the state would drop the armed burglary charge and Lisa would plead guilty to second-degree theft. She was sentenced to a year's probation and ordered to turn over to Steckel the $3000 insurance check she was scheduled to receive from the burglary of her house. After seven weeks in jail, Lisa was released.
"I was happy she was out of jail," Driscoll says. "That's what she wanted, and as her attorney that's what she wanted me to do for her, and so that's what I did. I think she probably should have fought the case. She took the deal to get out of jail. Personally, I don't think she was guilty of anything except being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person."
A.V., who also had hired a new attorney, struck his own deal this past August, after seven months in jail. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of theft and was given five years' probation. As part of the bargain, he owes Steckel $25,000 in addition to the $6000 in cash he relinquished shortly after his arrest. A.V. also abandoned any claim to the Nissan 300-ZX. (The car is now in Steckel's possession. The attorney says he received a court order allowing him to retrieve it, but prosecutor Hague claims not to know how Steckel got the vehicle, and the judge refuses to discuss the case. The 300-ZX's titled owner -- A.V.'s friend Ronald Speers -- says he wants the car. Barring that he wants its value deducted from the $25,000 A.V. owes Steckel.)
And what of the missing files, some of which were reportedly labeled "Gersten"? Steckel vehemently denies that any of them concerned ex-county commissioner Joe Gersten. The files, he says, contained original accounting and legal papers that would be difficult, if not impossible, to replace.
That explanation evidently hasn't deflected the interest of another group of law enforcement officials. Investigators from the U.S. Attorney's Office reportedly have contacted a number of people involved in the Steckel case. Both Lisa and A.V. say they have been questioned. Public defender Suzanne Driscoll also confirms she was approached by and discussed the case with federal authorities -- the same investigators who for months have been probing Joe Gersten's conduct during his tenure as a county commissioner.
Though the U.S. Attorney's Office will not comment, it is apparent that some sort of investigation concerning Steckel's case -- by some agency -- has been under way for several months. Prosecutor Andy Hague will only say the case file has been "well traveled." Chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hogue refuses comment except to acknowledge the existence of an extortion investigation. The principals themselves are no more specific. Simon Steckel will not comment. Glass says he is unaware of any interest on the part of the U.S. Attorney's Office, but he suspects the State Attorney's Office is still in pursuit. "I've heard they were looking at me," he says. "They think somehow I've got Simon's missing papers or his money and I was controlling the situation. I offered to take a lie-detector test."
One aspect of Glass's involvement that could be subject to scrutiny is the matter of his fees. In many of his recorded conversations with Steckel, Glass insisted he had never been paid a dime as part of the case. But A.V. has told authorities that in fact Glass received at least $10,000 of the stolen money as a retainer to defend Lisa and Melissa after their arrest. The cash, A.V. says, was delivered by Wacko's brother-in-law. Glass flatly denies the allegation and is quick to direct attention elsewhere. "I heard they were looking into Simon," he offers. "I mean, just the idea that this guy has $50,000 in a briefcase and all that jewelry and is just walking around with it is highly unusual. That's not a normal thing."
Walking around with $50,000 in cash may not be normal, but to some people involved in the case, it was no less strange than Steckel's subsequent actions. Lisa Lobman, for example, continues to be amazed at the time and effort expended by the Miami Police Department and the State Attorney's Office. "Simon has a lot of pull," she observes. "For anyone else would they have gone to this extreme? If it was an ordinary citizen, they would have gotten a little card with the case number on it and that's it."
Prosecutor Andy Hague continues to deny that Steckel was given special treatment. "I don't think there was anything inappropriate done in this case," he says. "I was just following orders, doing what I needed to do." Hague's supervisor, Kathleen Hogue, explains the unusual nature of Steckel's participation by saying the case involved "sensitive-type things" and needed to be handled carefully.
Simon Steckel himself can only shake his head wearily. "If you think I feel like I got special treatment, you're wrong. The only thing I did was act as a catalyst to get the system to work the way I know it can work.
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