Everyone's seen him. Everyone knows him. A friendly, middle-age man with classic Latin good looks, the type of gentleman who inspires instant trust. You've seen him on television, just being a family man: sitting around the dinner table with an equally attractive wife and children, laughing with old friends at a holiday gathering, helping with household chores.
You've seen this man because he's one of the most successful commercial actors in the nation, particularly in the Spanish-language market. Of course if you had to say his name, you wouldn't have a clue. That's because 52-year-old Emilio Plana is paid -- a lot -- to be a nameless face people immediately find likable and believable.
And precisely because his name is unknown, only industry insiders were shocked to hear the news: On October 1 at about 9:00 p.m., Plana pumped multiple .38-caliber bullets into one Luis Ibarra, a 35-year-old immigrant who had been renting an apartment owned by the actor.
As Ibarra's wife and son rushed to the wounded man's side, Plana dialed 911. Before paramedics arrived, according to one version of the story, Plana also attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on his victim. Ibarra died around midnight at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Besides Ibarra's wife, Alina Reyes, and their thirteen-year-old son Ronald Ibarra, witnesses to the shooting included Plana's wife Kayla and Kayla's son.
The problem apparently began a few days earlier when the Ibarras moved out of the Little Havana apartment they had been renting from Plana. On October 1, as Plana and Kayla were cleaning the apartment in preparation for a new tenant, Ibarra and his family showed up to collect the security deposit of about $1000. According to the Miami Police Department arrest affidavit and Alina Reyes, Ibarra became angry when Plana refused to return the deposit. He picked up a pipe or crowbar and went to work on a toilet in the apartment. "[Ibarra] broke the toilet ... when he saw that [Plana] was not going to give him the money," Reyes told WLTV (Channel 23) reporter Ronald De Souza the next day. (When contacted later, Reyes referred New Times to her attorney, Steve Lorenzo, who was unavailable for comment.) "Then the owner of the apartment went into the kitchen and got a pistol."
Both wives, according to Channel 23, "grabbed Plana by the arm to stop him from shooting, but they couldn't control him." Plana fired several shots (the exact number has not been disclosed by authorities). Reyes said the bullets hit her husband in the back. Video footage at the scene shows Plana in profile talking to police, the images grainy and phantasmagoric in the jittery police strobe lights. Plana and his wife were probably the only ones there who might have sensed the irony of what may turn out to be his final appearance on camera. In any event the media covered the crime as just another Miami murder.
He was arrested (he had no previous criminal record), charged with first-degree murder, and jailed. The charge was later reduced to second-degree murder because, according to Assistant State Attorney Vicki Brennan, the state was not prepared to prove premeditation. But, Brennan adds, second-degree murder with a firearm is also a nonbondable offense. Thus the neatly groomed prisoner with salt-and-pepper hair remains locked up at the Miami-Dade County Pretrial Detention Center, emerging from time to time, handcuffed, in jeans and a button-down shirt, to appear for hearings before Circuit Court Judge Cecilia Altonaga. A trial date has been set for February 4, 2002, but Plana's attorney, Mark Seiden, may need more time to prepare the vigorous defense he has planned. "This is not necessarily the way it appears," Seiden insists, offering a few clues as to how he intends to defend Plana. "[Ibarra] at the time of his death was armed with a crowbar and was in a rage," Seiden asserts. "He was a grave danger to anyone who crossed his path."
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Meanwhile in the rarified world of South Florida's film and commercial-production industry, Plana's incredulous peers have been exchanging rumor and speculation. "The next morning someone called and told me," recalls Plana's agent, Esteban Alvarez of Miami. "I couldn't believe it. I don't see how he's going to come out of this one. Although he looks younger, he's already over 50. He can't start over like a 20-year-old guy. He ruined his career, yes, but he also ruined his life. I don't understand how this could have happened."
Alvarez, one of the nation's top agents for Hispanic talent, says he has represented Plana for about six years. Plana's most recent career triumph came when he won the leading (nonspeaking) role in a television commercial for Downy fabric softener. One nationally distributed spot like that can earn its star $30,000 or more per year in residuals, say people familiar with the industry. And Plana has been the face in dozens of big commercials over the past several years. His credits also includes minor to moderate roles in films and soap operas. At the time of his arrest, Plana was shooting a film produced and directed by his long-time friend, actor Omar Caraballo. In the movie, Ripper, Plana plays a veteran detective tracking a murderer.
"You see him at castings," says prominent Coral Gables-based director Earl Falcon, whose multitude of credits include last month's Latin People's Choice Awards (El Premio de la Gente) broadcast on Telemundo. "I used [Plana] maybe two or three years ago in a Hispanic spot. He's got that great generic middle-age look."
That look. No one can exactly define it, but advertising pros recognize it immediately. What's more, all the beauty or talent in the world can't take its place. Plana's competitors were frequently reminded of this reality. "We'd go to all these castings together," remembers Miami musician and actor Gaby Gabriel, "and it's a funny story -- I went on a final casting for Colgate, and I have really white teeth, so my agent says, Guess what, you're gonna get it.' Well, when I walked into the room I saw Emilio over there, and I said, Shit.' And he got [the part]. He got it because not only are his teeth white, they're big! He was so lucky. One time [an ad agency] was doing two versions of a commercial -- one Spanish-market family, one American-market family -- and Emilio was in the Spanish family. But in the middle of shooting, the producer decided: We're gonna use the Spanish family for both versions.' So the guy got paid double!"