"Where is Julio Llanessa!" screamed the lawman's voice on the phone. Ivanhoe Smester was baffled. The Dominican immigrant hadn't spoken to his childhood friend in more than a year, even when Llanessa was arrested for mortgage fraud. So why were U.S. Marshals calling him now?
Unbeknownst to Smester, Llanessa and girlfriend Laura Fernandez had jumped a half-million dollars in bond, jetting out of the country on a private plane. It was March 2010. Prosecutors were furious. They were also convinced Smester knew where his buddy from Santo Domingo was hiding.
In a matter of days, Smester's life was turned upside down. Feds showed up at his mother-in-law's house looking for him. They called his father in the Dominican Republic. On April 26, Smester turned himself in. Prosecutors charged him with bank and wire fraud involving a dozen properties in South Florida. "I was shocked," Smester says. "I've never been involved in the mortgage business. I've never even bought a house here in the U.S."
At the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami, prosecutors again leaned on Smester for his friends' whereabouts. They told him he was facing 30 years if he didn't cooperate. Even worse, because Smester hadn't yet become a citizen after marrying his American wife, prosecutors threatened to deport him. He might never again see his 1-year-old son. All because his name appeared -- misspelled Semester -- on a check supposedly cashed by Fernandez.
"The reason why Ivanhoe was indicted on such thin evidence was that they truly believed that he knew where Julio and Laura were," says Smester's lawyer, Silvia Piñera-Vasquez. "They were fishing. The government just threw out a net and caught him, but he didn't have anything to do with it."
Jail was a living hell. The government even secretly recorded visits from his wife. Even she was losing faith. Their marriage was falling apart.
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"I spent those ten months in jail wondering one thing," Smester says. "Why did they use my name? Why involve me in the fraud they were committing?" He replayed in his mind the last time he had seen Llanessa, when the property flipper's $700,000 Lamborghini was repossessed in Brickell.
Finally, three days before Valentine's Day 2011, a judge dismissed the counts against Smester. He lost nearly a year of his life because of a bogus check. He holds out hope that his childhood friend will pay for setting him up. "I think they'll catch him," Smester says. "Julio has hurt a lot of people."