A Stripper, a Mobster, and a Murder
Hauling a fishing rod and bait, Orlando Maytin and his 12-year-old son trudged through a vacant parking lot just past Mile Marker 31 on Alligator Alley. It was 7:45 a.m. March 21, 1999, when they came to a quaint public fishing nook on the edge of a vast, swampy stretch. As Maytin cast a line into the oily canal water, he noticed a mysterious blue-and-brown duct-taped package bumping against the shoreline. It was about three feet long and two feet tall, with makeshift handles on the sides.
It didn't look right.
Maytin, a chunky 34-year-old with short brown locks slicked straight back, cast another line and, with the tender tug of a comb through hair, reeled it in some. He kept one eye on his boy and the other on the box. Then curiosity got the best of him. Setting down his fishing gear, he walked past an elderly fisherman with a weathered face who sat near the boat docks.
"I wouldn't go over there," the old man warned, nodding toward the package. Maytin gazed at him for a moment and walked on. Crouching down, he touched the damp cardboard. It was soaked but firm. He tried to pick it up "to get a sense of the weight."
Then it happened. The cardboard gave way and he caught a glimpse of long, stringy brown hair. What the hell is that? he thought, noticing something fleshy. In horror, he watched as the stiff, wrinkly corpse of a young woman broke through and splashed into the water.
The thin, tan girl had been bent like a pretzel and bound with shoelaces at the ankles. Her muscular arms were tied behind her back with white cloth, and she wore only a backward gray Calvin Klein sweatshirt. She was dead. Freshly dead. Why? Maytin thought. Why would someone do this?
His confusion quickly turned to fear. The killer must still be here. He must be hiding. Heart pounding, Maytin spun around to check behind him. Then he looked back to find his son, who was playing in the golden sunlight, oblivious.
After propping the body on the grassy shore to keep it from drifting away, Maytin called the cops. For the next three hours, he dutifully baby-sat the cold corpse.
Her features were difficult to ignore. This was a girl who, by anyone's standards, had been beautiful. Big, pouty lips remained pink with life. Eyelashes were still specked with traces of makeup. And on the curve of her delicate ankle rested two silver chains. One of them read, "Jeanette."
The body belonged to 22-year-old Jeanette Smith, a stripper who danced under the stage name Jade at Thee Dollhouse in Sunny Isles Beach. Investigators would soon conclude she had been brutally sodomized, strangled, and dumped.
A week later, authorities arrested brawny 33-year-old former Marine sniper Ariel Hernandez. In April 2002, a jury concluded the Gambino crime family had sent Hernandez to kill Jeanette after she apparently discovered a check-kiting scheme. U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced him to life in prison.
But the case isn't over. In January, a state court will reconsider Jeanette's murder in a trial that could turn up more details about the mob's South Florida operation and lead to Hernandez's execution by lethal injection. Jeanette's family, the Cooper City community where she grew up, and even workers from the strip club where she danced are still fixated on the case — and its unanswered questions — with obsessive passion. "I want the death penalty," says Jeanette's sister Krissy. "Otherwise what's the point?"
Jeanette Smith was born the youngest of three daughters in an Italian-Catholic family in Queens the day after Christmas 1976. Her mom, Gina, was a short, shaggy-haired special education teacher, and her dad, Ray, was a brainy, reclusive lighting technician. When Jeanette was 18 months old, the Smiths moved to a working-class neighborhood in Cooper City to escape the harshness of urban life. Their new place was modest: a one-story beige house with an arch over the front door and a small back yard.
As a first-grader with dimples, wide chocolate-brown eyes, and an easy laugh, Jeanette wore a short, Dorothy Hamill-style bob. Back then, she wasn't allowed to ride a bike with the neighborhood kids. She was too trusting and naive. "I guess you could say we were overprotective," says Gina, who is now a grandmother. "I always had a premonition I was going to lose her."
Neighbor Joanne Sedawie, a curly-haired family friend, recalls Jeanette "always had a smile, and [the Smiths] pampered her because she was the baby." Adds her tall, earnest husband Eddie: "Ray wasn't that close with the girls, but he was strict."
By fourth grade, Jeanette drew boys' attention. Returning home from a 10-year-old's birthday party one evening in 1985, she told her mom: "There was a black boy and a redheaded boy at the party. And nobody would dance with them. So I did."
At Pioneer Middle School, nearly all the kids in Jeanette's social circle were guys. "Girls tended to judge her for how she looked and acted," says her best friend, Tina Mendez. "She had a need for attention and started looking in the wrong places for it."
A natural artist, Jeanette doodled flowers and cartoon characters on her notebook paper in middle school. Teachers noticed and suggested she paint a brightly colored food mural including pineapples, pizza, and French fries on the cafeteria wall in 1989. She worked on the project for three months with a group of students and won an award for her dedication. (The mural was recently painted over.)
Throughout high school, she was at the top of her English class and earned A's and B's. At one point, she began wearing makeup and skimpy clothes that accented her good looks, drawing notice wherever she went. Shopping at Pembroke Lakes Mall with her mother, Jeanette was stopped by an older woman. "You should think about modeling," the stranger recommended.
In 1991, Ray lost his job and the family felt a financial crunch. "We weren't poor," Gina says. "But we didn't have extravagant things." There was also trouble at Cooper City High, where Jeanette met a boy named Jason Rodriguez, a slick bodybuilder with a chiseled face who had perfected the bad-boy persona. He was a "wild juvenile delinquent," Gina says.
After high school, Jason went to jail. Jeanette stuck by him until he got out, despite Krissy's concern that "he hit and abused her." When Jeanette was upset — perhaps when they fought — she would blast Whitney Houston's soundtrack to the movie The Bodyguard.
Jeanette worked at Frank's Nursery and Crafts, selling plants and lawn furniture in Cooper City, and dabbled in modeling. Her parents couldn't afford the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, so she compromised by taking classes at Broward Community College. "Jeanette wanted to be a million things," says Krissy, who is two years older and got into more trouble. "She was finding herself."
During winter 1995, Jeanette began working at the Goldfinger strip club on North University Drive in Sunrise. About two years later, she moved to the flashier, more lucrative Thee Dollhouse in Sunny Isles Beach. The club drew a clientele of well-off older gentlemen, and girls danced to alternative-rock radio hits. There she made a name for herself as Jade.
"She just started living the crazy life and got in with the wrong people," says neighbor Eddie Sedawie. "It wasn't her. I think if you're as pretty as her — and you have a body like she did — it's easy to have someone talk you into it."
Adds best friend Tina: "I think her insecurities led her down the wrong path. She knew she was pretty, and she used it to her advantage."
When she began working at Thee Dollhouse, Jeanette lived with her parents. She and Gina agreed not to tell Ray about her occupation. The place was notorious for "shower shows" (involving "friction" as a customer bathes backstage with a dancer, a step up from a lap dance). Popular girls such as Jeanette would leave with as much as $2,000 a night. "I think she got a taste of the money," Gina says. "The cash was just incredible."
Though Jeanette moved with her sister to an apartment in Pembroke Pines, she would take her mom shopping on weekends. With the newfound cash, Jeanette bought Gina $100 shoes, plane tickets, and decorations for the house. She kept herself in shape by kickboxing and going to Gold's Gym in Pembroke Pines four times a week.
At work, Jeanette put up a tough image, says former club makeup artist Helen McDonald. Unlike dancers who built their social scene around the strip club, Jeanette kept to herself and never got arrested. "She was very strait-laced," says smooth-faced club manager Marty Blumquist, sporting a comb-over. "No hanky-panky, no drinking, no drugs. After her shift, she'd get in the car and go."
Before leaving her apartment Friday, March 19, she kissed Krissy on the cheek and told her there was pie in the fridge. It was the last time Krissy would see her baby sister alive.
Four hours later, about 2 a.m. Saturday, Ariel Hernandez leaned against a cluttered bar at Thee Dollhouse and ordered a Johnny Walker straight up with a Budweiser on the side. Clean-shaven and cocksure, he had the body of a linebacker and an outfit torn from the pages of GQ. On his right arm was a cast, and above it a bulldog tattoo read, "United States Marine Corps."
Businessmen puffed cigarettes at round, café-style tables as they watched Jade's sculpted body twist to the throb of early-Nineties rock on a licorice-black stage at the club's center. A gray fog of smoke curled over the tan, toned five-foot-three beauty. An aging businessman tucked a bill into her G-string. She tossed back her thick light-brown hair and returned to a silver pole, caressing it like a lover as a disco ball showered the place in dappled light.
Hernandez told a regular named Chris Cunniff that he planned to sleep with Jade. The men begin to argue drunkenly.
"Suck my dick," Hernandez said.
"Whip it out," Cunniff shot back.
Hernandez unzipped his dress pants and exposed himself. A cocktail waitress noticed and complained, demanding his removal. After a commotion, he was allowed to stay, and as Jade got off the stage, he gave her money and put his arm around her. He told Cunniff: "This is my girl. I'm taking her home with me tonight."
No one will ever know whether Hernandez paid Jeanette for sex. But several things are clear: He passed her $100 bills throughout the evening at the club. The pair left Thee Dollhouse together around 5:30 a.m. in Jeanette's sleek black 1997 Mazda 626. And Hernandez's deviant behavior began long before that night.
Born to Cuban immigrant parents July 10, 1965, at Mercy Hospital, Ariel Hernandez was a strawberry-blond baby. His father, Armando, was an accountant, and his mother, Mary, was a socialite-turned-seamstress. They didn't teach him English until he was seven years old.
When Hernandez was 13, a doctor told his mom he produced more testosterone than other boys his age and suggested he play sports. The budding alpha male dominated the football field as a fullback at Monsignor Edward Pace High School. During the summer, he worked on a family friend's farm in North Carolina. Girls liked him, but when he brought them home, his mother dismissed them as floozies.
At age 17, he ran away from home, "stole the car, and went to sign up for the military," he recalls. By age 19, in 1984, he enlisted in the Marines and went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina. A skilled marksman, he soon became a sniper. "I was trained to kill people from long distances. I saw plenty of dead bodies," Hernandez says. "I could shoot the testicles off a fly." His attorneys allege he performed "top-secret operations on behalf of the U.S. Government."
Once he was out of the military, in 1991, his run-ins with cops began to pile up. In fall 1992, Hernandez was working at a gun and pawn shop in Northwest Miami-Dade when a kid came into the store and used a fake credit card to buy jewelry. Police were called and soon concluded Hernandez was getting kick-backs from fraudulent card use. He was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison.
Soon after his release from a prison camp in Pensacola during spring 1993, he went to work as a personal trainer at Bally's Total Fitness in Kendall. Two years later, he moved to a South Beach apartment at 14th Street and Collins Avenue. It was a good time and place to be a bachelor. He became a bouncer at clubs such as Palace Centerfold and Café Iguana. "I was living the stud life, dating strippers," he says. "I said what I felt and did what I wanted. It's something they find attractive."
One of the women he later dated, a strong-willed, tight-bodied legal secretary named Tammy Bubel, says, "He was a decent person, always respectful to me, never violent."
Around that time, Hernandez says, he "tried catering to tourists with hookers as a side gig." ("I had black girls, oriental girls, any flavor you wanted.") He also sometimes sold Ecstasy and bricks of weed for extra cash, he says.
His rap sheet from those years could cover the walls of the cold, bare 10-by-12-foot prison cell he now occupies. Since 1985, he has been arrested 22 times. Charges include aggravated assault, stalking, battery, third-degree theft, and burglary. Some highlights:
Just after midnight February 13, 1996, near a Tri-Rail station in Boca Raton, Hernandez called the cops, claiming he had been "robbed at gunpoint" and the thief "stomped on his back," according to a police report. He then "stated he [had] a drug problem and would go to any extent for prescription medication." Citing inconsistencies in his story, Boca Raton cops charged him with filing a false police report. He paid a fine.
Two months later, a Miami-Dade officer responded to a call about a fight at the Riviera Motel, just a few blocks from Thee Dollhouse. The cop spotted a checkbook with the name David Porter on the dresser. Hernandez admitted to taking the checks to fund a cocaine addiction.
In December that year, an acquaintance reported Hernandez had taken some checks and her account was overdrawn by $389.25. He was sentenced to 45 days in jail.
Around that time, he began producing counterfeit checks. Prosecutors say they were printed at a Sunny Isles restaurant, Beachside Mario's, which was owned by Freddy Massaro, a South Florida capo in the Gambino crime family. "I had a watermark and everything," says Hernandez, who claims he used high-tech printing equipment in his apartment. "That's how good I was."
Hernandez would use the fake checks to buy electronics from stores such as Office Max, The Sharper Image, and Toys R Us. Then he exchanged the goods for cash or sold them on the street. The operation made him about $15,000 a week, he says, some of which he would give to Massaro. Using the money, he bought a Jet Ski, a condo in Sunrise, and a Lexus.
At least eight others were involved in the scheme. Most were muscle for Massaro. Their jobs ranged from collecting money to cashing the fake checks. They also offered gamblers and struggling businessmen short-term loans with high interest rates. One of those involved was Julius Chiusano, who ran a business called Check Cashing Unlimited II on North Dixie Highway and gave customers' routing numbers to the crew.
Somewhere along the line — it's unclear when — Jeanette Smith learned about the check scheme, prosecutors say. Though she never reported the crime to the FBI, the Gambino crew mistook her for an informant and ordered a hit on her, according to a federal indictment handed down in September 2000. The assigned killer: Ariel Hernandez.
So at 5:30 a.m. March 20, 1999, Hernandez left Thee Dollhouse with Jeanette and took her to the seedy, one-story Villager Lodge Olympia Motel, where he had been staying for three weeks. Room 121 was drab and cramped, with boxes of stolen electronics stacked atop one another. Pastel floral comforters covered two full-size beds.
There, prosecutors say, the ex-Marine-turned-crook raped and strangled Jeanette. He tore cartilage in her neck, bruised her legs and right breast, bumped her head, cut her mouth, and shoved an object — likely a wine cooler bottle — into her anus. Then he bound her wrists and ankles, packed her into a Sony stereo box, and transported her lifeless body north in a borrowed blue Mazda Navajo SUV. Finally he tossed the box into the Everglades, expecting the alligators to take care of the rest.
After Orlando Maytin fished the body from the water, news of the murder flickered across television screens from Miami to New York.
At 11 a.m. that hot, clear Sunday, helicopters hovered over the murky canal along Alligator Alley, shooting photos of the crime scene. A parking lot just west of the otherwise peaceful fishing hole didn't stay empty for long. One by one, detectives, reporters, and medical examiners arrived. Standing on the shoreline, Broward Sheriff's Office Det. Frank Ilarraza watched divers fish the corpse from the water. The black-haired, bushy-mustached detective noticed white towels stained with blood floating around Jeanette's body. He jotted something on a notepad.
Then a radio call came in, reporting that men on a raft had discovered a black backpack 10 miles away, near Mile Marker 41. The bag, an officer told Ilarraza, was embroidered with a Dr. Seuss logo. Inside it a business card in bold letters read, "Thee Dollhouse."
With a Polaroid photo of the corpse, the detective headed for Sunny Isles. He arrived at the Thee Dollhouse at 8:30 p.m. and showed the picture of Jeanette to club manager Marty Blumquist. "Oh, God," Blumquist answered. "Yeah, that's her."
That night, the Smith family sat around a table at Mama Mia's Italian restaurant in Davie, twirling pasta with forks. They passed a plate of baked ziti and toasted Ray Smith, who was celebrating a birthday. But there was an empty spot. "This isn't like Jeanette," Ray said with a wrinkled brow. "Not showing up like this."
A few hours later, Krissy headed back to the empty Pembroke Pines apartment she shared with Jeanette. Soon Detective Ilarraza arrived with the Polaroid. "I lost it," Krissy recalls. She screamed, pulled down all the curtains, held her head in her hands. Then, eyes all raw and damp, she called her parents. "Jeanette ... in a box. Dead," was all she could muster.
"No!" Ray cried. He stepped out of bed but collapsed onto the floor.
Ilarraza soon learned more about the night of the murder. Helen McDonald, Thee Dollhouse's self-styled house mother who did dancers' hair and makeup, said she saw Jeanette backstage after her shift. She was counting out $1,400 and playfully fanning herself with the cash, which she credited to "one good customer." A bouncer reported escorting Jeanette and Hernandez to her black Mazda not long before sunrise. And a waitress at Denny's about a mile from the strip joint told the detective she served Hernandez and Jeanette breakfast after the two had left the club.
On March 26, after receiving wiretapped phone conversations from the FBI, detectives arrived at the Villager Motel in Sunny Isles. Hernandez had checked out four days earlier. In Hernandez's room, Ilarraza "observed several pieces of paper, which were located on top of the microwave oven," according to an investigative report. One of them, a receipt from The Sharper Image in Sunrise, caught his attention. It was billed to Hernandez for a Sony mini stereo system.
It bore the same model name — and serial number — as the box in which Jeanette was found. (Hernandez contends the evidence was planted.)
Ilarraza noted the white motel towels were "identical to the ones found in the water." Detectives then gathered samples of tiny blood spots from the carpet.
The next day, Broward cops received a strange phone call. The person asked to remain anonymous and then claimed to know what happened to "the girl found in the box." He named two guilty parties: Francisco Santana and Enrique Estevez. These men "tortured women," the caller said, by "sticking bottles, walking sticks, or whatever" into their anuses and forcing them "to perform oral sex."
Ilarraza recognized the voice from wiretapped conversations. It belonged to Ariel Hernandez.
Gambino boss Freddy Massaro called a meeting the next day. He told two criminal associates that Hernandez was "bringing too much heat" and "had to go," according to prosecutors. The three men planned to inject Hernandez with cocaine to make it look like an accidental overdose.
The following day at 9 a.m., Broward detectives and Sunny Isles Beach Police officers arrived at a quiet apartment at 172nd Street and Collins Avenue. They knocked on the front door, and Tammy Bubel, Hernandez' s girlfriend, opened it and let them in. Cops awoke Hernandez and brought the couple, in separate cars, to BSO headquarters in Fort Lauderdale.
They interviewed Bubel first. She began to cry and then gave a sworn statement alleging that Hernandez, while watching a news segment about the dead stripper, had admitted accidentally killing Jeanette. (Bubel would later testify the statement was coerced.)
Over the next few hours, Hernandez gave detectives three different stories. The first: He left Thee Dollhouse with Jeanette, but she dropped him off on Collins Avenue. Afterward, he saw a suspicious car following her. When detectives challenged this version of events, he claimed he had waited outside the motel room while two other men used a bottle to torture Jeanette and then a belt to strangle her. Finally he confessed that after paying the stripper $500 for sex, he mounted her, put his hands around her throat and "heard a crack, and she started gasping for air."
Ilarraza booked him that evening on murder one.
It got more disturbing. Left alone in a monitored room awaiting an interview with federal investigators April 8, 1999, Hernandez "began to massage his groin," according to the investigative report. He then "sexually gratif[ied] himself" and afterward wiped his hands on a nearby trash can. Detectives sent the garbage bag to a crime lab for DNA analysis.
Hernandez's big mouth worsened a bad situation. A fellow inmate reported hearing him say, "That bitch deserves it for sucking a stranger's dick." And two Broward detention deputies told investigators Hernandez had bragged, "She was sucking my dick and she choked."
But before he could be tried on the state charge, the federal government intervened, charging nine men including Hernandez with murder in the aid of racketeering, conspiracy to commit murder, passing counterfeit checks, and 15 counts of bank fraud. It was a bold attempt to bring down a significant Mafia operation, and on April 23, 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced Hernandez to life in prison. The judge gave Massaro life too. Anthony "Tony Pep" Trentacosta, who lived in Atlanta and oversaw the South Florida crew, got eight years. At trial, it came out that Trentacosta had once been sponsored by New York City mobster John Gotti.
The day of sentencing, before a courtroom packed with lawyers, journalists, and mobsters' families, Hernandez called the prosecutors' story "a sham." He claimed that his confession was coerced, that cops had planted the evidence to make him "look like an animal," and that officers had forced Bubel to rat on him.
Krissy Smith describes the court scene this way: "The Gambino crew just pissed all over him. They wouldn't even look him in the eye."
Ariel Hernandez, inmate 040061011, unwraps a cherry Jolly Rancher, pops it into his mouth, and says, "Are you interested in the truth?" Even handcuffed, swimming in a baggy red jumpsuit, he speaks with emphatic confidence.
On his pale face sprout the beginnings of a reddish beard (he says he is permitted to shave only once a week), and his clenched right hand bears a two-inch scar. He sits at a plastic table in a small white room; a massive green metal door is bolted shut. Outside, corrections officers at the Metro West Detention Center in Doral monitor prisoners, whose voices bounce off the walls with the echo of a locker room shower.
Since his conviction, Hernandez's time in jail has been rocky.
On March 11, 2003, as inmates made their way to a church service on the eighth floor of the Broward County Jail, a fellow prisoner with a shank stabbed him seven times in the head, arms, and chest. (He later sued Sheriff Ken Jenne for negligence, asking for $7 million, but lost in March 2006.)
Then, on August 2, 2006, he threw a metal phone at a nurse before "lurching at a [prison guard], causing injuries to his left eye," according to a Miami-Dade Police report. The guard noted Hernandez was upset because he couldn't get the medication he wanted. He countered that the guard had provoked him. Hernandez was charged with battery on a cop. The case is scheduled for trial in January.
Now, kept alone in a small chilly cell, he has become obsessed with proving his innocence. Working on his upcoming case, he is surrounded by boxes of documents. "They said I knew her before I killed her; that's a fuckin' lie," he says. "I didn't know the bitch. I just went to the club to get lucky."
He contends someone else killed her when he left the hotel room for three hours to buy some cocaine. Though he pondered reporting the crime to police, he chose to dump the body. "I got a roomful of stolen electronics and a bag of coke on me," he explains. "It might sound callous, but when a body is dead, it's dead."
The most critical evidence against him is flawed, he explains, flipping through court papers with strong hands that are bound in metal cuffs. He reveals a report detailing a phone call at 4 p.m. March 20, 1999, between Massaro and him.
"Listen, uh, things got a little messy yesterday," Hernandez says in the transcript. "I tied up the loose end, and I got a package to get rid of. Oh, man, I haven't been able to sleep. My stomach is all fuckin' turned around. What should I do?"
"I don't know," Massaro answers. "I'll talk to you in person. Let me shower and shave and I'll be out here, all right?"
Hernandez explains — his brown eyes dull — the "package" refers to bogus checks. He and his lawyer have requested FBI documents he contends will vindicate him. So far the agency has refused. In 2004, Hernandez rejected a plea agreement to serve life in state prison, because he believed he would eventually go free.
Prosecutors now plan to use semen found in Jeanette's mouth to link Hernandez to the crime. Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft — who specializes in organized crime, homicide, and public corruption — has worked the case for four years. "The evidence is compelling, and on top of that you have his confession," he says. "I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but he's earned it."
A hearing for Hernandez's trial is set to begin January 12, and the Gambino clan won't be part of it. Massaro died in prison August 17, 2003, after kidney and heart failure. Trentacosta also passed away, Christmas Day 2005.
Room 121 of the Villager Motel was never occupied after Hernandez's arrest, and the building has since been torn down. "I refused to rent that room ever again," says former manager Judy Schulman. "Not after what happened."
The Smith family recently fled to small-town Tennessee, leaving behind bitter memories of South Florida. At Christmastime this year, they will not put up a tree — it reminds them too much of Jeanette's birthday. When a Whitney Houston song comes on the radio, Gina quickly shuts it off. There is a constant, nagging empty seat at the dinner table.
After a suicide attempt and a trip to rehab over pills and alcohol, Krissy wants closure. "Hernandez gets to go outside, play cards, see his family," she says. "Jeanette doesn't get to live — to breath. Why should he?"
Gina is torn. Her Catholic faith doesn't permit her to wish death on anyone, yet she can't bear the thought of Hernandez alive — perhaps one day walking the streets. "After Jeanette was killed, the joy left this family," she says, her voice quaking. "It haunts me to this day."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.