Hialeah Man Wrongly Convicted of Murder
Around 2 p.m. December 12, 2002, Mercedes Hernandez dialed her son George Collazo's cell phone. It went straight to voicemail. That was odd. He always answered. Then the 60-year-old, blond, brown-eyed mortgage broker tried to reach her nephew, Michel Aleman, who was with George. Again, no answer. So she drove about 1.5 miles to the auto parts store where George worked and his cousin hung out.
A co-worker said they had left about noon. They hadn't returned.
About an hour later, at 3:41, Hialeah firefighters received a call about smoke billowing from a 1995 white Chevrolet delivery truck parked in front of a three-bedroom house at 160 W. 40th Pl. When they opened the truck's rear door, flames shot out. After they doused the blaze, the firemen made a gruesome discovery: the charred remains of two dead men.
Twenty-five minutes later, cops, detectives, onlookers, and news crews swarmed the area. Yellow crime tape and two patrol cars blocked access to the truck. Investigators questioned three neighbors who recalled first seeing the truck between 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. None had seen anyone behind the wheel. And they didn't know who had set the fire.
Mercedes saw a TV report about the fire and rushed over. When she tried to approach the Chevy, an officer stopped her: "You cannot go past the line."
"But I think that's my son's truck," she implored. So the cop let her move just close enough to see the Chevy's bay, where she recognized white folding chairs and a cooler she had lent her son. She was terrified but didn't lose focus. So she informed an officer that George had been wearing a T-shirt from his auto parts store, Car Tunes.
Then she heard an investigator in the distance say, "Yeah, positive, that's what he's wearing." Somehow she believed it might not be her son. "You know," she said, "you always hope."
Two days later, the Miami-Dade County medical examiner confirmed it. George and Michel were the dead men. Autopsies revealed the cousins had died not from the fire but as a result of wounds from a .22-caliber pistol. George was shot twice, once in the neck and once in his right forearm. Michel had six bullet holes, in his left arm, chest, abdomen, and lower back.
A month after the murders, Hialeah homicide detectives arrested the last two people to see George and Michel alive. One of them was Santo Hernandez, a burly 34-year-old, sporadically self-employed trucker who claimed to be George's best friend. He was charged with two felony counts of first-degree murder. The other was Ricky Valle, a 26-year-old Pembroke Pines resident. He was nailed with a felony charge of accessory after the fact.
Though Santo had no criminal record and evidence against him was largely based on testimony of a controversial jailhouse snitch, a jury convicted him January 12, 2007. A few weeks later, Judge William Thomas sentenced him to two concurrent life sentences in the state's Okeechobee Correctional Institute, a prison in the middle of a sleepy Central Florida town of about 5,000 people. Ricky — who declined to comment for this story — has yet to stand trial almost six years after the crime. He remains free on bond. His Coral Gables-based defense counsel, David Tucker, says Ricky is innocent. "The police got it right when they charged Santo Hernandez with the murders," Tucker says. "The unfortunate part is that they charged my client as an accessory for telling the police what he knew."
Over a six-week period, New Times analyzed hundreds of pages of police reports, sworn statements, depositions, and court hearing transcripts. The investigation reveals Hialeah homicide detectives rushed to charge Santo with the murders and didn't pursue leads that might have implicated Ricky as the triggerman. "I've been carrying a crime I didn't commit for the past six years," Santo says to New Times, "while the real killer is walking around free."
George and Santo were childhood buddies. Their story is like that of many others: They drifted apart and then found each other at a very different time in life.
In spring 1979, when Santo was a cheery, talkative 11-year-old, the Hernandez clan relocated from Jersey City to Hialeah, where his parents, Abilio and Mirta, purchased a three-bedroom house at 181 E. 39th St. for $39,000. Five years later, Santo met George, a charismatic, gregarious 14-year-old. Both were students at Edison Private School. "We had a lot of things in common," Santo remembers. "We both liked fishing, and we both liked working on cars. My parents had a house in the Keys; his family had a house in the Keys."
At George's 15th birthday party, Santo made quite a first impression on his friend's mother. "He stood out of the crowd because he got drunk," Mercedes says. "I don't know where he got the liquor from, because there is no liquor in my house, but he got so drunk that we called him 'The Drunkie.'"
Mercedes, who's been divorced twice and splits her time between Hialeah and Tampa, says her son's downfall was believing everyone was his friend. "He was a very noble, happy-go-lucky person," she says. "He thought everyone in Hialeah was his family."
Soon Santo left for Hialeah Senior High, while George stayed at Edison. By the time Santo dropped out in 10th grade, he had lost touch with his friend, who also failed to finish high school.
Santo would spend the next decade drifting in and out of jobs and relationships. "I was hard-headed," he explains. In 1991, he married Monica Mojena, an 18-year-old he met shortly after quitting school. They divorced eight months later. He walked down the aisle again, in 1995, this time with Elizabeth Garciga, the mother of his son Michael, who was born a year before they wed.
Two years later, while still married to Garciga, Santo began seeing a woman named Nancy Curbelo, who had four children. He divorced Garciga in 1998 and moved in with Curbelo. They lived together for three years. But then, on August 22, 2001, Hialeah Police arrested Santo after a heated argument. According to a police report, he yanked the phone cord from the wall when she threatened to call the cops on him. Because Curbelo had to use a phone inside a store down the street from their apartment to call 911, prosecutors charged him with felony obstruction of justice. The charge was dropped a month later.
That would be the only blemish on his record until the murder charge two years later.
By early 2002, Santo moved on to another girl, Vicky Rodriguez. They had hooked up in their twenties for a one-night stand. Shortly after reconnecting, Vicky dropped a bombshell: Santo was the father of her eight-year-old son, Anthony. They moved in together. Santo seemed to be finally settling down. He paid the rent and bought things for their son and Vicky's other two kids. In addition, he paid Garciga child support for Michael, who is very close to his father.
Now 14 years old, Michael recalls how he and his dad used to fish off bridges over Biscayne Bay and the Keys. "We'd catch red and yellowtail snapper," Michael says. "It was awesome."
It was around this time when Santo and George rekindled their friendship. George had led a far more stable life. At age 34, he'd been married to the same woman, Irene, for 14 years. He didn't have a criminal record, and he seemed to be leading a marginally successful life as a car mechanic and auto racer.
Soon Santo became a regular visitor to George's high-performance vehicle repair shop at 1535 W. 35th Place. It was located near the old Hialeah Speedway, where a Target and a Lowe's now stand. "We were like brothers," Santo says of George. "He could count on me, and I could count on him."
The auto parts business wasn't working out. George wasn't servicing enough cars to pay the bills. On top of that, he was a committed racecar driver who was often short on cash. His Pontiac Grand Prix was worth an estimated $20,000 to $30,000, and maintaining it was an expensive endeavor. He constantly struggled to come up with money to prepare for competitions in Homestead, West Palm Beach, and Sebring.
George's father Joaquin and mother Mercedes sponsored the racer. Their businesses names, Payless Mortgage and Miami Auto Collision, were advertised on the car. "I would give him a lot of money for that," Mercedes says. "His father would do the same." In 2000, the Sports Car Club of America named George driver of the year.
George was very close with his mom, meeting her for lunch three times a week and talking to her on the phone at least five times a day, Mercedes says. She always looked after her boy. She even added his name to the deed of the three-bedroom house she owned at 3735 W. Eighth Ave. George, Irene, and their two children, George Jr. and Daniel, lived there.
Though George was responsible for the $950 monthly mortgage payment, he often didn't have enough money. His mother would always bail him out.
His father wasn't so lenient. Around September 2002, George stopped speaking to Joaquin, who had cut off monetary support. "My son refused to get a job that paid so he could support his wife and family," the dad says.
By April 2002, George's marriage was falling apart. He suspected Irene was seeing other men — perhaps because she was mad at him for refusing to keep a steady job. Things only got worse after George told Irene he was involved in illegal activity.
Irene later recounted this story in a hand-scrawled note to authorities: A friend had a boat in the Keys. George had gone to pick it up. "George said to me: 'This boat was used to smuggle people from Cuba,'" Irene wrote. "But the boat was confiscated in Cuba. And [his friend] hired someone to go and steal the boat from Cuba, so they did."
She also claimed the friend hired George to find clients who would buy fenced goods.
But there was a caveat. Irene didn't believe much of what her husband told her. "George talked a lot of shit," she noted and then added he rode around in Porsches, BMWs, and Mercedes Benzes.
Their relationship fizzled, and in September 2002, Irene and the kids moved out. A month later, she filed for divorce.
Mercedes confronted her son about fencing stolen goods. "Don't worry," he said. "I'm not doing anything wrong."
On July 30, 2002, local cops and federal drug agents seized a cargo container aboard the Helsinki, a ship docked on the Miami River. Inside it they found 3,300 pounds of cocaine. The agents believed the dope had been sent from Colombia to Haiti via speedboat and then transferred over land to the Dominican Republic, where it was packed in shipping containers bound for the 305.
Five months later, on December 3, shortly before dawn, the agents served 10 search warrants at homes and businesses in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and arrested six people, including suspected ringleader Pedro Rodriguez and his wife Maria at their Miramar home. Rodriguez owned a gas station on Palm Avenue and East 41st Street in Hialeah, as well as Casa Romeu, a popular Cuban eatery at 18620 NW 67th Ave., not far from city limits.
George's friends and family had no idea he was connected to the Casa Romeu crew. But soon they noticed a change in his demeanor. He was no longer carefree. Then he told his mother he was worried the feds were looking for him. "They busted some friends of mine," he said. "Mom, this is big shit going on." He explained he had taken a trip to the Dominican Republic with someone, but he wouldn't say with whom or for what purpose.
George's grandmother, Evangelina Collazo, noticed he was very upset after seeing a news report about the Casa Romeu case. "I am too close to those people," he told her.
Details of George's exploits came to the fore in late December 2002, when 44-year-old Cuban Lazaro Rivas was busted on a cocaine-trafficking charge in Tampa. He told homicide detectives he wanted to provide information about George, whom he had known for a decade. The handsome 34-year-old mechanic, Rivas said, liked to talk about his daring exploits, such as when he transported 100 kilos of cocaine into the United States from the Dominican Republic by stowing it inside the back of his racecar. "The car would then be placed into its trailer and surrounded by burnt transmissions," Rivas said. "If the cocaine passed customs, George would get paid up to 40 keys for his risky maneuver." (A subsequent police search of George's racecar and trailer did not turn up evidence of cocaine or any narcotics.)
Rivas claimed George would sell him two to three kilos of blow at a time, usually on consignment. "He'd seek my advice about how to move the cocaine," Rivas recollected. "But George was careless in who he trusted and lost several kilos to people who would not pay."
By the beginning of December, things had begun to tighten up for George. The busts following the seizure of the coke on the Helsinki had likely dried up his sources, and heat was intensifying. He closed the auto parts shop and transferred the lease to a buddy, Luis Gonzalez, who let George continue to keep his Grand Prix there.
Around 10:30 a.m. December 12, the last day of his life, George emerged from the restroom at the shop. He and Luis discussed putting a new engine in a racecar, and then George headed toward his Ford Expedition to leave. But Luis stopped him. "If someone comes asking for you," Luis inquired, "what do I tell them?"
"If it is the FBI," George replied, "tell them I'm dead."
About an hour and a half later, George was behind the wheel of the white delivery truck he had used to transport auto parts for his now-defunct business. His stout, tan 24-year-old cousin, Michel Aleman, was riding shotgun. Soon the pair pulled into a parking space in front of 4183 W. Ninth Ct., a brown and tan two-story townhouse where Santo and Vicky lived.
George was there to collect on a drug deal, Santo would later testify. He planned to sell several kilos of coke to Vicky's 26-year-old cousin, Ricky Valle, for $30,000. Santo had agreed to let him use the place while no one was home. "I said, 'Sure, no problem,'" Santo recollects. "I was just doing him a favor like he would do with me."
When George and Michel knocked on the front door, Santo was washing dishes. Ricky was in the bathroom. "Come in!" Santo hollered.
Michel took a seat at the dining room table, facing Santo. George hung up his cell phone and closed the door behind him. "Hey, this has to happen quick because I gotta leave," George said, looking at Santo.
What followed is unclear. Ricky would claim he heard an argument that was followed by three gunshots. When he opened the bathroom door, Ricky says, George and Michel were dead on the floor and Santo held the gun.
Ricky claims he tried to escape but Santo chased him, threatened him, and then pleaded with him to help clean up the crime scene. Ricky said he picked up the shattered glass and helped Santo put the bodies in George's truck. "I didn't know what to do," Ricky explained in a recorded interview with police. "I just didn't want no problems with this guy, you know what I mean."
Tucker, his attorney, says Ricky was so frightened of Santo that he didn't want to show up at his court hearings. "My concern is that when this article comes out, my client will be scared again," Tucker says. "Santo Hernandez may be in prison, but that doesn't mean he can't have someone on the outside do his bidding."
Santo provides a more compelling description of what happened to George and Michel. He insists Ricky burst out of the bathroom wearing black gloves and holding a .22-caliber pistol equipped with a homemade silencer. He shot George twice, capped Michel six times, and put a gun to Santo's head. "He told me if I didn't help him that something would happen to me and my family," Santo recalls. "He called George a snitch."
Along with a third man, whom Santo identified as Ricky's friend Ernesto Alanis, the pair cleaned up the blood and scooped up shards of glass from a patio glass door that had been shattered by a stray bullet. Then they wrapped the bodies in bed comforters and loaded them into the back of George's truck. Ricky drove off in it.
It was 3:40 that afternoon when firefighters found the burning truck with the bodies inside.
The investigation seemed easier than anyone could have imagined. On January 21, 2003, around 6:15 p.m., Santo's girlfriend Vicky met with Hialeah Police investigators. Before Santo moved in, she said, he had sold "coke, pills, and grass." But then he promised to leave that lifestyle behind. In addition, she remembered Santo had only $2,000 to $3,000 in cash in November, but he suddenly came upon $10,000. When she inquired about the money, he told her: "The less you know the better it is."
Vicky said Santo and Ricky were together between 1:30 and 2 p.m. December 12, 2002, when the pair showed up at her beauty school to drop off cosmetology supplies. Vicky says Santo was behind the wheel of her 1998 Toyota Corolla. Ricky, who was riding shotgun and wearing a trench coat, briefly got out to say hello and then returned to the passenger's seat. "Ricky was acting strange," she recalled. "He normally gave me a bear hug when he saw me, and this time he didn't." Santo, she said, "was a little anxious to get out of there."
Vicky came home later that evening to find the patio glass door shattered and a bullet hole in the front door. When she asked about it, Santo said he and Ricky had been playing with Ricky's pistol when it accidentally fired. She didn't believe him and kicked him out of the townhouse.
A couple of days later, she discovered the two missing bed comforters and called Santo, who by then was staying at his parents' house. He claimed to know nothing. Before ending their conversation, Santo asked Vicky to get rid of a brick of fake cocaine he had stashed in her house. Ricky also called to inquire about the powdery substance. He offered to get rid of it for her, but she had already flushed it down the toilet. Vicky also told cops that Ricky had given her money to pay for the glass door and that he patched up the hole in the front door.
When detectives showed her the crime scene photos depicting the comforters used to wrap and burn the victims, she confirmed they were hers. In the townhouse, forensic investigators found traces of blood and a spent casing from a .22-caliber bullet in the living room.
Two days later, at 8:55 a.m., Hialeah Police picked up Ricky in the parking lot of his mother-in-law's home at 150 E. First Ave. During a daylong interrogation, he at first denied any knowledge of the murders but then pinned the deaths on Santo. He said he knew nothing about a drug deal with George. That night, Ricky was charged with one felony count of accessory after the fact.
On January 25, Hialeah Police arrested Santo. Though he described the events in the house in detail, police didn't believe him. The following day, he was booked on two counts of first-degree murder. "I never, ever thought that there was going to be a killing inside my house," Santo insists. "George was my best friend. I would never set him up. All I knew was that he wanted to use my place to count some money Ricky owed him."
So why did cops charge Santo, but not Ricky, with murder? It boils down to Santo's admission that he agreed to let George and Ricky use his home to conduct a drug transaction. Under state law, anyone who admits to participating in a crime that results in a person's death can be charged with murder.
Ricky, on the other hand, never admitted he was at Santo's house to participate in a drug deal. In fact Ricky said he knew nothing about George except that he was one of the murder victims.
The reason for charging Santo might lie in the men's backgrounds and the circumstances of their interrogations. The cops questioned Ricky first, so that likely shaped their view of things. Also, Santo, who had no record, knew the two lead detectives, Carlos Arango and Lionel Gracia, from his childhood. He felt comfortable opening up to them during his interrogation, the first and only time Santo was questioned by police about the crime.
And finally, Ricky had more experience with law enforcement. On July 29, 1995, plainclothes officers from Pembroke Pines PD pulled over then-19-year-old Ricky on SW 10th Court and Hiatus Road. A search of his 1985 Toyota turned up a stolen chrome-plated .22-caliber pistol under the passenger's back seat (the same caliber as the gun that killed George and Michel). Ricky was arrested on two felony counts of third-degree grand theft and carrying a concealed firearm, as well as driving with a suspended license and loitering and prowling. He later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and got off with no jail time.
Ricky was nailed again in Pembroke Pines on August 21, 2004, for battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting an officer with violence, and trespassing. He was out on bond after being charged as an accessory in the double murder. According to the arrest report, Ricky was asleep in the VIP area of Café Iguana when a security guard awakened him and asked him to leave. Ricky refused. When an off-duty policeman tried to escort Ricky out, he got very belligerent. He repeatedly twisted his arm out of the officer's grip and smacked the cop's hands down, according to the report. Finally, Ricky "struck Officer Ruiz in the left arm as he was being escorted to the parking lot." Those charges were eventually dropped.
Two months after his January arrest, jail authorities moved Santo to the eighth floor of the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, the county jail just west of Miami International Airport. Within a few days, he met Cesar Morales, a 46-year-old Hialeah Cuban with a serious crime problem.
On December 10, 1999, Morales and two other men had allegedly kidnapped liquor store owner Jorge Serrano in the parking lot of the Muscle Gym at 3320 W. 84th St. They handcuffed him at gunpoint and threw him into a burgundy cargo van. When police caught up to the kidnappers later that evening, Morales, a 241-pound man with brown hair and brown eyes, jumped out of the van and began shooting. Police caught and arrested him minutes after the shootout.
On November 14, 2002, after almost three years in jail, Morales worked out a deal with prosecutors. He would plead guilty to attempted murder of a law enforcement officer, extortion, and kidnapping and spend only another 18 months — rather than life — in prison. In exchange, he would "act ... in an undercover capacity" by persuading other inmates to tell "him about another case," according to the agreement prepared by Assistant State Attorney Gail Levine. To put it simply, Morales became a snitch.
Santo met Morales in March 2003. "I helped him," Morales later told police. "I guided him a little bit."
Santo began talking about the murders three days after arriving at TGK, the snitch later told police. He gave three versions of events:
• First, Santo allegedly said he had planned to rip off George for $230,000 by selling him fake cocaine. When George discovered the hustle, Santo killed him.
• Next, he allegedly claimed to have been paid $300,000 by the owner of Casa Romeu for the murders.
• Finally, he said Ricky killed George and Michel. But the snitch believed Santo had by then guessed his informant status.
In addition, Morales claimed in a sworn statement that Santo had his younger brother, Abilio Jr., pick up the $530,000. Flush with cash, Santo had then bought his nephew a $2,500 motorcycle, a new boat under his brother's name, several pieces of gold jewelry, and land in Broward County. Morales even drew for the investigators a diagram of a canal where Santo supposedly had disposed of the murder weapon. But it was not recovered.
The information worked. Morales was released from TGK December 2, 2003, and then took up snitching full-time. According to a January 2007 memo, he received $15,450 for providing information about investigations, including two marijuana growhouse busts and something related to the unlicensed distribution of prescription drugs. He was also reimbursed $26,484 for car rentals, cell phone bills, meals, etc., at the direction of the federal government. "The informant has been found to be reliable by the FBI," Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Jean Throne wrote.
Meanwhile, Santo churned through five court-appointed attorneys. His court date kept getting postponed, which angered George's mother. "I spent five years pressuring the State Attorney's Office to take him to trial," Mercedes says. "And he kept wasting taxpayer money by changing his lawyers."
Even if Santo is telling the truth, she will never forgive him, Mercedes affirms between sobs. "He claims to be my son's best friend," she says. "What kind of friend leads you to your death? Santo Hernandez is a disgraceful liar. He deserves the electric chair."
And she refuses to believe George was involved in crime. "My son never spent a day in jail," she asserts. "Sure, a bunch of criminals said all these bad things about my son. But it is all speculation."
Finally, on January 10, 2007, five years after the slayings, Santo went to trial. Though prosecutors listed 80 potential witnesses, they called only two people to the stand during the three-day trial: Morales and Det. Lionel Gracia, one of two lead detectives on the case. The defense called no one.
Gracia described how cell phone records revealed Santo and George had been in constant contact the morning of December 12, 2002. This led to the townhouse where the murders were committed.
Before Morales took the stand, Santo's attorney tried to suppress his testimony. But the judge refused. On January 12, 2007, the trial's final day, Morales testified about Santo's confession. In cross-examination, he denied he worked with cops to get leniency on his own felony charges.
Closing arguments were held later that day. The 12-person jury deliberated through the night. Santo was in the room next door and could hear them debating. When he came back into the courtroom, he looked at his mother, shook his head, and ran his index finger across his throat. The jury found him guilty of both murder charges.
Located amid verdant cow pastures, Okeechobee Correctional Institute is a medium-level security prison where 1,642 inmates live inside military-style barracks with white exterior walls and light blue trim. At the entrance, guards behind tinted windows screen visitors. It's May 30, and Santo Hernandez and New Times meet for more than three hours to discuss his story.
Dressed in the prison's standard light blue uniform, Santo sits inside a bland conference room. He has lost about 30 pounds since arriving in February last year. His cheeks are sunken and his arms gangly. His face is clean-shaven and his hair is thinning. He insists he was wrongfully convicted. "The police conducted a sloppy investigation," he gripes. "They got to Ricky first. He lied and they believed him. It is a joke the way my case was investigated."
Indeed, until Morales the snitch came forward, the case against Santo was about as solid as Jell-O. Strangely, during a September 2, 2006 deposition, the lead detective, Gracia, insisted he had no knowledge of Morales receiving a reduced sentence for testifying.
Morales was only "assisting us in the information he had obtained from Mr. Hernandez in jail," Gracia testified, adding he was not aware the snitch had also implicated another inmate. The detective said Morales was promised nothing for testifying against Santo.
Santo denies discussing his case with the snitch. "I knew he was an informant, so I didn't talk to him," Santo says. "Yet he knew every detail about me, from my children's first names to my date of birth to my driver's license number to my addresses from 22 years ago."
The only people outside his immediate family who seem to believe Santo are his ex-girlfriend Vicky and José "Pepe" Trujillo, a Miami-based private detective who has spent years on the case pursuing angles missed by Hialeah Police homicide investigators.
Vicky contends the detectives tried to pit her against Santo. "I still can't understand why they would accept [Ricky's] word," she says. "I don't think it is right that Santo got convicted and my cousin has not even gone to trial. They both were there."
Trujillo alleges detectives failed to follow up with key witnesses, especially Ernesto Alanis, a friend of Ricky's whom Santo claims helped dispose of the bodies. Though Ricky claimed Alanis dropped him off at Santo's house the day of the murders, Alanis asserted he didn't know whether he'd ever visited Santo's townhouse.
Alanis, who has a criminal record that includes arrests in Miami-Dade and Broward for, among other things, battery on a police officer, marijuana trafficking, and carrying a concealed firearm, said he never knew Ricky was involved in dealing drugs. (Alanis was convicted on the pot and gun charges in 2002.) He even claimed to never have heard about the slayings.
Finally, Trujillo argues it doesn't make sense that Santo would kill George in his house. "Why would Santo commit a murder in his own home, considering all the blood and the bullet casing the police found in there?" Trujillo opines. "Ricky set it up nicely so Santo would get the blame for the hit."
Santo is preparing for an appeal to overturn his conviction. "If I am the one who shot and killed these people, wouldn't it be on me to fix the front door and the glass door?" Santo rationalizes. "Yet it was Ricky who fixed the doors. And when the truck was found burning at 3:40 in the afternoon, I was signing my son Anthony out of school. So that couldn't have been me who set it on fire."
Santo maintains he would never have set up his friend to die. In fact, Santo says, he — not Ricky — should have been the one charged with accessory after the fact. "George would do anything for me," Santo says. "It is easy to say that I should have gone to the cops. But when the person who just killed two people in front of you is holding a gun to your head and threatens you and your family ... you believe him."
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