Eye for an Eye
As daylight begins to fade outside the Dollar and Beauty store at 1062 North Miami Beach Blvd., a deafening tidal wave of traffic roars into view. Like a firefly, a lone motorcyclist flits through the torrent of commuters. Snippets of radio songs spill from cracked windows of the passing vehicular swell, their perky lyrics drowned by the wail of a distant siren. On the westbound side of the six-lane street, a ground-floor office space dims to black, and a stream of employees trickles out. They filter onto the adjoining sidewalk and bustle past a group of youths who laugh excitedly and then disappear into the darkening night.
No one gives Mohammad Ayoub's deserted convenience store a passing glance. Six months ago, drivers would crane their necks to see the Saudi Arabian émigré's shop as they careened past the single-story strip mall. Pedestrians would stop and gawk.
But today floor-to-ceiling shutters mask haunting reminders of the horrific event that took place this past May: near the front door, a huge hole cut from the gray carpet that absorbed the brunt of the 60-year-old's fall; a crumpled dollar bill that fluttered and landed alongside him in a thick red pool of blood that had leaked from Ayoub's skull.
He was shot point blank in the face with a handgun. His killers got away with ten bucks.
"Had this happened in Saudi, [the murderer] would have been killed," Ayoub's petite and youngest daughter, 22-year-old Aisha, spits angrily, waving a tightly clenched fist. "It's about being responsible for your actions."
The physical similarities between father and daughter are undeniable: the playful grin, the round cheeks, the mischievous sparkle that lurks beneath their long, curly, dark lashes. But when Aisha, a fiercely intelligent University of Florida senior, speaks of her father's murder, her huge brown eyes blaze with rage. Then comes unrelenting grief: "I feel like I've been cheated," she says in a quivering whisper, straining to stop a waterfall of tears from flooding her chubby young face. "I don't understand why. Why did they have to do this to our family?"
Between July and September, police arrested three young men for Ayoub's murder. The first was nineteen-year-old Emmanuel Jean, alleged to be the shooter and the only one in the store with Ayoub during the incident. Keeping watch outside, cops contend, were Lazaro Esteban Cortes Jr., also nineteen years old, and Richard Mikey Petit, age sixteen.
Sometime in early 2007, prosecutors plan to ask a grand jury to indict the trio as adults on first-degree murder charges. If the jurors agree and the youths are convicted, a 1995 state law mandates they receive at least a life sentence without parole. Jean and Cortes, who both turned nineteen roughly one month before the murder, could even be sentenced to die.
"Our office has lots of things to consider [before seeking the death penalty]," says prosecutor Edward Tapones.
In Aisha's eyes, the logic is simple: "I want an eye for an eye."
When he was young, Mohammad Ayoub was attractive; his robust physique complemented his five-foot six-inch frame and full head of thick dark hair.
Eager to escape the poverty of his native Pakistan, Ayoub at an early age left his six younger siblings and set off in search of economic success. Following an estimated one million of his countrymen, Ayoub made the 2000-mile trek to Saudi Arabia.
It was on that country's west coast, in the cosmopolitan port city of Jeddah the principal gateway to Mecca that the young Ayoub settled into family life with his Pakistani bride, Fakhra. In a weathered black-and-white picture taken on the couple's wedding day in November 1974, the twentysomething Ayoub exudes charisma and charm; with one arm draped around his wife, he slightly cocks his clean-shaven face to one side and beams a wide, toothy smile. His light gray eyes sparkle with affection; his mouth is open with glee. His bride is dressed in a traditional burqa, her long dark hair barely visible. She smiles reservedly. (She declined to speak with New Times).
By the time the Ayoubs settled into married life, Saudi Arabia had evolved from an underdeveloped desert kingdom into one of the wealthiest nations in the world, thanks to its oil resources (by 2003, Saudi officials claimed to possess almost one-quarter of the world's petroleum reserves). It was also recognized as one of the most devout and insular countries in the Middle East, where the public practice of non-Islamic religions sometimes resulted in severe punishment, even death. The Urdu-speaking Ayoubs, who are practicing Muslims, nevertheless embraced their new surroundings. Less than two years after tying the knot, they celebrated the arrival of their first child, son Ahsen, who was followed two years later by daughter Fatima.
Ayoub honed his skills and became an accomplished draftsman, crafting architectural and engineering plans. He worked diligently to support his growing family, which by 1984 also included son Mohsin and baby daughter Aisha.
"He made very little money actually," laughs the diminutive Aisha. "But every single thing he did and every penny he had was for us, his family. That was just the kind of man he was," she adds proudly.
But as in any family, things were not always rosy. "When my parents would fight," Aisha giggles mischievously, mirroring her father's toothy grin, "Dad would always come to me. I was always his getaway." Pulling the long sleeves of her oversize blue hooded jersey over her small fingers, she beams at the memory: "I remember when I was really little, everyone would think I had no mother because I was always with my father." Then, almost inaudibly, she mumbles into the floor, wiping away a stray tear, "He was such a loving and generous man."
Ayoub raised his four children in accordance with Islamic law, but he was not overly strict. Outside the family home, a different set of rules existed; punishment for Saudi citizens who break the law was and remains severe.
Sitting in the bleachers of UF's virtually deserted Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on a recent evening, Aisha explains why crime in her homeland is almost nonexistent. "When I was about five, I stole a little red eraser," she confesses, rolling her eyes and blushing. "It was a stupid thing shaped like an apple that you put on the end of a pencil. I don't know why I stole it, but my father told me if I got caught, [authorities] would have cut off my hand."
Squirming at the thought of having a limb amputated which is legal in Saudi Arabia, as are public beheadings and floggings Aisha lowers her voice to a dull, husky growl: "And surely they would, but you know what, I never really appreciated the culture until now. I mean the news was always about stupid stuff; I never remember hearing about rape or murder...."
With her words still hanging in the brisk night air, the young woman takes a profound interest in the clasp of her small silver wristwatch as a river of tears gushes down her flushed cheeks.
In the early Nineties, Ayoub decided his kids particularly his two daughters would receive a better education overseas. For them life in the kingdom was very restrictive. So when Aisha was only seven years old, he sent her, his three other children, and their mother to Miami. He stayed behind, where he was assured a stable income.
For the next decade, Ayoub saw his family once every year or two.
But in 2001 he made the 7200-mile voyage from the Middle East to Florida with no return ticket. Mohammad Ayoub was finally home.
When North Miami Beach Senior High School senior Lazaro Esteban Cortes Jr. celebrated his nineteenth birthday this past April, his future seemed set ... despite his humble beginnings.
The only son of Cuban-born parents, Cortes lived in a three-bedroom apartment with his mom, 22-year-old sister Ivonne, and Ivonne's two children, ages six and one. His dad had moved out of the family home several years before, but the two maintained a healthy relationship, Ivonne says.
The Cortes family lives in a two-story, turquoise-color building at the end of NW Fourth Avenue a dead-end street flanked by NW Seventeenth Street and the Dolphin Expressway. It was here, in the heart of Overtown, that the young Lazaro lived for five years before his arrest in Ayoub's murder. The neighborhood is unwelcoming, run-down, and, according to residents, extremely dangerous. Visible from the cluttered balcony of the family's second-floor corner unit are drug addicts, prostitutes, drunks, and homeless.
"This is not the kind of neighborhood where you want to make friends," says the tall, slender, olive-skinned Ivonne, "but Boobie [Cortes] seemed to get on with everyone."
Indeed the family's elderly and friendly downstairs neighbor, Carrie Grant, describes Cortes as "a nice boy who kept to himself." Straightening her canary-color smock, she beams affectionately as she strolls past the green railings that separate her ground-floor home from the street. "I actually just got back from dropping [Ivonne] and the kiddies off at daycare, on account of the rain. They are such a pleasant family."
According to Ivonne, Cortes is generally well mannered and avoids trouble where possible. "If he happened to have a problem with someone, I would have to be the one to tell them to leave him alone," she laughs. "He just isn't an aggressive person."
Before he was charged with murder for standing guard outside the Dollar and Beauty, Cortes had never had a run-in with the law, Ivonne says. Records reveal he had never been arrested. "That's not the way we were raised," she adds. "He was just never a troublesome kid, never the one to start anything." Indeed Cortes boasts a muscular but not menacing physique. He stands an average five feet nine inches tall and weighs 160 pounds. Framed by closely cut black hair, his childlike face, with full lips and wide, questioning brown eyes, appears soft, not at all threatening.
The doe-eyed Cortes, his sister says, was working diligently on a plan to find a better life dedicating his time to football and his studies.
"He had a routine. He would get up sometimes as early as 6:00 a.m. if he had practice, go to school, and come home," says Ivonne. "Any free time, he either spent with his girlfriend Mika or working with our uncle [a locksmith]."
Ivonne claims she met several of her brother's friends, most of whom he knew through school, but never heard anything of Emmanuel Jean or Richard Petit.
Earlier this year Cortes's hard work began to pay off. He was offered a college football scholarship, Ivonne says.
He accepted and studied diligently throughout the spring semester to keep his grades up. He planned to seek a degree in a physical education-related field.
To help pay for his living expenses, Cortes spent the summer searching for a part-time job. He eventually landed a gig in a local office, Ivonne says. But five days before his scheduled September 18 start date, he was arrested and charged with murder. "We were shocked when we heard the allegations," Ivonne laments. "My mom was hysterical because we know what type of person he is. He had so much going for him."
This past May, a Barnes & Noble store in Los Angeles was packed with Father's Day cards of all shapes and sizes. But none seemed right to Aisha. Her dad wasn't verbally expressive, but she knew how much such things meant to him. She absent-mindedly scoured the shelves and plucked out a small one with the picture of a compass. Inside it read, "No matter where I go, I will always take you with me. Happy Father's Day."
She selected an envelope, walked to the register, and paid.
Upon returning to Florida and her sparsely furnished one-bedroom apartment less than ten blocks from campus, she tossed the card onto the pale wooden desk next to her laptop and made a mental note to send it. But she didn't have the chance. And it was still there when, this past May 25, she and three friends clambered into her Toyota Corolla and set off on a road trip to visit Northern Arizona University.
This would be the latest in a series of trips Aisha had taken throughout North America. Her father documented each journey with pins on a map that hung in the kitchen of the family's rented three-bedroom Aventura apartment.
Aisha was the only family member who lived away from home, but she usually spoke with her parents a few times a week.
And as she headed west that day, Mom and Dad were hot on her trail. "My mom kept on calling me, but I kept missing the call because I was in the middle of the desert," she says. So Dad picked up the phone, left a funny message, and hung up, confident his youngest would respond immediately.
"I called him and I spoke to him for about five minutes," she weeps, wiping wisps of her long dark hair from her tear-stained face. "He goes, 'Where are you? When are coming home? I really want you to come home,' and he never usually said that," she sobs. "I told him: 'Dad, I'm coming in August; I'll be home soon.' He said all right and passed me to my mom."
But Ayoub would not see his daughter again.
Nor would he keep his June 13 appointment with Citizenship and Immigration Services to attend a ceremony where he would be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Nor would he celebrate Father's Day.
Emmanuel Jean's soft brown puppy-dog eyes belie his propensity for violence.
As a minor, he was arrested several times. Though details are sparse because the juvenile record has been sealed, charges include vehicle theft, possession of marijuana, burglary, and resisting arrest.
"He is a thug, a menace to society plain and simple," spits North Miami Beach Det. Ed Hill.
It is unclear how, when, and where the skinny, five-foot nine-inch teen befriended Cortes and the baby-faced sixteen-year-old Haitian Richard Mikey Petit, who has no prior record. Although Jean's family could not be located for an interview, and Petit's family declined repeated requests for comment, police reports reveal that on May 29, the three friends hatched a savage scheme.
And it had nothing to do with Mohammad Ayoub.
The boys planned to carjack, kidnap, and rob the female manager of a cell phone kiosk located inside the 163rd Street Mall, Detective Hill says. An unidentified individual had tipped them off that the woman would head to the bank the following day during the early afternoon to make a cash deposit.
According to arrest reports, which are based on the defendants' testimony and statements from at least two eyewitnesses, the following occurred the morning of May 30: Jean, who was driving a gray Chevrolet Monte Carlo, picked up Cortes from a bus stop near his home. Cortes jumped into the passenger seat, and the duo sped off to collect Petit from his home on NW Third Court and 142nd Street. With Petit in the back, Jean drove north to the 163rd Street Mall.
The trio sat inside the car in the parking lot and spent "several minutes casing" the store. When the woman, who is not identified in police reports, departed the mall, they gave chase. But they drove too slowly, and she entered the safety of the bank before they could catch her.
Frustrated, they decided to rob Ayoub's dollar store, records reveal.
Shortly after 3:00 p.m., Jean pulled the Monte Carlo into a parking spot in front of a Goodyear tire store on North Miami Beach Boulevard just west of the mall. Less than 150 feet away was the Dollar and Beauty Store, where Ayoub was alone, preparing to enjoy a sandwich his wife had made for him that morning.
While Petit and Cortes acted as lookouts, Jean, who was dressed in baggy jean shorts, a gray T-shirt with red-stripe sleeves, and a red hat, sauntered inside. He continued to the cash register and began rifling through the drawer. Ayoub dashed toward the front door.
Just outside, the shopkeeper began yelling incoherently, trying to attract attention. He turned back to the front of the shop and began pulling hard on the metal door handle to keep it closed. Though Ayoub hoped to keep the robber trapped inside until police arrived, Jean overpowered him and exited.
He snagged eleven dollars.
As he was leaving, Jean fired a single shot into Ayoub's cheek. The bullet ripped through the victim's face, ricocheted off of his skull, and lodged in his nose. It is unclear whom the gun belonged to and where it came from. It is also unknown what the lookouts were doing when the shots were fired. One of the dollar bills was later found coated in Ayoub's blood.
Two doors down, Michael Williams, who was working at the International Soccer Supply store, heard the gunfire. The soft-spoken young man sped outside but saw nothing.
But at least two other witnesses did get a look at the shooter, according to police reports. "After stuffing a handgun down the front of his pants," the witnesses concurred, a man later identified by the witnesses from a photo lineup as Jean "fled westbound on foot, then disappeared behind an auto parts store, out of sight." The three sped off in the car.
Just moments later, an unidentified police officer drove past the store in an unmarked car. According to police records, he "heard an unknown black female yelling, 'He got shot, he got shot.' I walked to the front door and observed [Ayoub] lying on his stomach.... He was halfway out of the door and his face was on the ground."
The shop owner's Nike flip-flops lay on the ground a few feet away.
Ayoub was airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead.
Between July 18 and September 13, Jean, Petit, and Cortes were all charged with second-degree murder based on witness testimony, surveillance video, and forensic evidence. All three admitted to being involved in the incident, but none confessed to firing the shot that killed Ayoub. Prosecutors plan to indict the trio on first-degree murder charges early next year.
Attorneys for Jean and Petit declined to comment. Cortes's attorney, Amy Agnoli, claims her client "was not involved."
Jean, Cortes, and Petit will remain incarcerated until they stand trial. Neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys have any clear idea of when that might be.
But owing to a recent spate of teenage crimes, the proceedings will likely trail a series of other cases that could strongly affect the trial. Indeed prosecutors might use this case to make an example of violent youth. And jurors might feel the need to crack down.
A sample of recent South Florida incidents follows. All await trial:
In February 2004 fourteen-year-old Michael Hernandez slashed classmate Jamie Gough's throat, stabbed him 40 times, and left him to die in a bathroom at Southwood Middle School in Palmetto Bay. Hernandez, who confessed to the murder, was charged as an adult with first-degree murder.
Fourteen-year-old Ronald E. Salazar of South Miami Heights choked and slit the throat of his eleven-year-old sister in July 2005. He confessed and was arrested on charges of first-degree murder.
Tom Daugherty, age seventeen, and Brian Hooks and Billy Ammons, both eighteen, were charged as adults with premeditated first-degree murder for the January 2006 beating death of Norris Gaynor, a Fort Lauderdale homeless man. They are also accused of attempted murder in brutal attacks on two other homeless men in Fort Lauderdale.
At the heart of the issue is the Florida law that requires any adult found guilty of premeditated first-degree murder to receive a sentence of at least life in prison without possibility of parole. This has led to several cases of overzealous sentencing. Perhaps the most egregious example was in 1999, in response to the shooting death of cab driver Richard Phillips.
An inebriated fifteen-year-old named Rebecca Falcon hailed Phillips's cab with a fourteen-year-old male friend from school and his eighteen-year-old cousin, Clifton Gilchrist, who was armed. Though it was never determined who shot Phillips, Falcon was convicted of first-degree murder. She is incarcerated in Ocala at Lowell Correctional Institution, where she will remain for the rest of her life.
"It broke my heart," Steven Sharp, jury foreman, says of the sentence. "It's terrible to put a [teen] behind bars forever."
Falcon was too young to receive the death penalty, just like accused lookout Petit. But Jean and Cortes could be sentenced to die despite Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy's 2005 opinion in a case related to juveniles and the death penalty. "Teenagers [are] different," he wrote, "at least for purposes of ultimate punishment. They are immature and irresponsible. They are more susceptible to negative influences, and teenagers' personalities are unformed."
But to Aisha Ayoub, the issue is far less complex: "They killed my father for eleven dollars. They have to pay the price."
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