South Beach Menace
Just four blocks from Ocean Drive and haute high-priced South Beach eateries China Grill and Tuscan Steak, a rail-thin homeless man sat in the trash-strewn parking lot of a Walgreens this past December 28. Reynaldo "Flaco" Martin took a swig of vodka, then noticed Carlos Bustamante, a fellow Cuban-American in his sixties who friends call "el Pescador."
"Do you know where I can find a revolver?" Martin inquired.
"What do you need a gun for?" replied Bustamante, who was walking past the store.
"Because I want to kill someone," Martin shot back.
"You're looking at 60, 80 years if you go shoot someone with a gun," Bustamante said.
A couple of hours later, at approximately 3:10 p.m., Martin, a 35-year-old felon whose skeletal appearance belied his bubbling, alcohol-fueled rage, staggered through an alley to the twin fenced-in apartment buildings on Fifth Street and Michigan Avenue. He was bellowing obscenities: "A mi la pinga!"
Martin stumbled past Hector Serna, the manager of 545 Michigan, who was walking his three dogs. Then he spotted Hipolito Hernandez on the balcony outside a second-floor apartment next door. "I'll cut your face!" he screeched.
Hernandez, a husky 29-year-old Puerto Rican handyman, ignored Martin. He was chatting with some friends. His fetching girlfriend, Isabel Morales, was inside feeding their one-month-old son, Saul.
A little more than a year before, Martin had harassed Morales, saying "he wanted to do some pretty nasty sexual stuff to me," Morales says. Hernandez demanded he leave her alone. Martin never got over it.
That day on South Beach, Martin shouted "puta," "maricón, " and other colorful Spanish insults at Hernandez and his companions. He challenged all three to street combat. "I'll fuck all of you up!" Martin shouted.
Then he retrieved a black-handled knife from behind a dumpster.
The area where Martin stashed his knife is the little-known dark side of South Beach. Geographically, the neighborhood runs from Euclid Avenue to Michigan Avenue between Fifth and Sixth streets. It includes a community center, a Catholic church, several small grocery stores, a Laundromat, and a Latin cafeteria. When he's done patrolling with the Miami Beach Police, Shaquille O'Neal passes by on his way home to Star Island. Gloria and Emilio Estefan also drive past Martin's stomping grounds on the way to their Ocean Drive restaurant, Lario's on the Beach.
The area comprises mostly rundown Art Deco apartment buildings that are home to predominantly working-class immigrants from Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Central American nations such as Honduras and El Salvador. The two-story building where Hipolito Hernandez and Isabel Morales reside has a peeling, faded white exterior with blue trim.
In the past year alone, Miami Beach police have made 600 arrests in the six-square-block area. There were 135 drug-related busts, as well as 58 for assault, robberies, and weapons violations. The remaining incidents mostly included public intoxication, disorderly conduct, petty larceny, and simple battery.
"It has been hard to clean up that little area," said Miami Beach Commissioner Matti Bower, who is running for mayor this year.
Why? For one thing, the city can't legally ban homeless people from coming to Miami Beach, Bower says. She adds that the neighborhood is close to the MacArthur Causeway, the city's main entry point from mainland Miami.
For years, Bower continues, the community center drew homeless transients because it had been largely abandoned. "No one took care of the property," she says. "The open area in the front provided a place for the homeless and other people with nothing to do."
Another factor contributing to the neighborhood's unpleasant state has been property owners who are not interested in investing in their assets. "People don't want to fix up their buildings," Bower says.
Police records show that crimes in the area have extraordinary range there's a valet parking company owner who rammed his SUV into a motorcyclist; there are street brawls and purse snatchings galore. One thing many of these cases have in common: They're hard to prosecute. Witnesses disappear, victims change their minds about complaining, and judges hand out light sentences like candy at Halloween.
This past March 18 two homeless men got into an argument on the 600 block of Euclid Avenue. One of them, Roberto Pastor, pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot the other in the groin. Pastor fled the scene before police arrived. The cops apprehended Pastor two months later while he was drinking on Eleventh Street and Washington Avenue. However prosecutors dropped the attempted murder charge against Pastor because he had thrown his firearm into Biscayne Bay and the victim had left town.
This past April 8, 53-year-old Miguel Angel Salazar held his mother against her will inside her apartment on Alton Road. According to the arrest affidavit, Salazar blocked the front door with his body while he walloped his madre on the cheek with a clenched fist. When she tried to push past him, her son threw her to the ground. Salazar was arrested on Jefferson Avenue on domestic violence and false imprisonment charges. They were dropped when his mother refused to cooperate with prosecutors.
Alex Bullard, an unemployed 39-year-old, entered the Walgreens, selected four bottles of Grey Goose vodka and one bottle of Seagram's gin, and walked up to the cashier at about 10 p.m. this past May 7. The bill came out to $190.41. Bullard didn't have any money and began to make a scene. When the store manager approached him, Bullard pushed the Walgreens employee, knocking him into a nearby shelf. Bullard ran out of the store carrying the boosted booze in a white plastic bag. Police apprehended him next to a blue dumpster on Jefferson Avenue. Bullard was arrested for felony strong-arm robbery and a simple battery misdemeanor. Two months later the charges were reduced to petty larceny and Bullard was released.
Angel Portas, a tall, burly man with a booming baritone, is one of the area's most significant property owners. His family once owned the Pelican Hotel on Ocean Drive. Since 1984 Portas, his parents, and his brother have owned three apartment buildings on Michigan Avenue and Fifth Street, including the one where Hernandez stood on the balcony that day in December.
They purchased the three properties (551, 557, and 559 Michigan) for a combined $420,000. Today they have a market value of $1.8 million, according to the county tax appraiser's Website.
Portas acknowledges the crime in the neighborhood is worse than in other areas of South Beach, like the streets and avenues closer to Lincoln Road and Española Way. But Portas claims that it used to be a lot worse in the Eighties and early Nineties. "Today the only problem is the borrachitos like Martin who hang outside the bodegas," he says.
Reynaldo Martin has droopy hazel eyes and short, buzzed black hair. He sports one tattoo of the grim reaper on the inside of his left forearm, and another reading "His Pain Your Gain!" on his left shoulder blade. He arrived in Miami from Cuba in 1994. A year later he was issued a Social Security number. He then established a brief residence in Hialeah before becoming homeless and landing on Miami Beach, according to public records.
"[Martin] was always bragging that he did seven years in Castro's prisons," claims Jamie Serrer, a 54-year-old Uruguayan car mechanic who lives in the apartment next door to Hipolito Hernandez and his girlfriend. "He'd always call me a 'faggot' or an 'ass' when he saw me." Martin's run-ins with the law began on February 28, 1999, shortly before 11:00 p.m., when he was behind the wheel of a gray 1988 Honda sedan traveling southbound on Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles Beach. The front end was damaged and both left tires had disintegrated to the rim.
Police Sgt. Roger Thomas spotted Martin at 158th Street, and turned on his lights and siren. But the Cuban immigrant continued driving, swerving erratically, according to an arrest affidavit. Thomas pulled up next to the Honda and screamed, "Pull over!"
Martin, whose head was covered in blood, stared at the cop but did not stop.
The Honda's engine finally conked out at 95th Street and Byron Avenue in Surfside, and Martin was taken into custody. His breath "reeked of alcohol," his speech was "extremely slurred," and he had "bloodshot" eyes, Thomas observed. The sergeant searched the vehicle and found two crack cocaine rocks on the driver's side floorboard. Martin was charged with two felonies, for fleeing a cop and cocaine possession. On March 22 of that year he received one year of probation.
Five months later Martin tested positive for coke and marijuana. He also failed to complete the required community service hours, so he was sent to county jail for 180 days.
After his release, it didn't take long for Martin to find trouble again. On October 10, 2002, at about 4:30 p.m., he was loitering near the entrance to the Tu Grocery convenience store on Sixth Street and Meridian Avenue. As two men strolled by Martin hit one of them in the back of the head with a rock. Then he tried to grab some money and a cell phone from him. The man slammed Martin into the store's window, smashing it and cutting the homeless man's hands. Martin took off running but the cops apprehended him a block away. He was arrested for felony armed burglary but as with so many other cases in this quadrant state prosecutors dropped the charges when the victim and witnesses declined to cooperate.
Mohammed Soukat Hossain, owner of Meridian Food Market at 812 Sixth St. as well as a nearby nutrition center and yoga studio, had an even more violent run-in with the Cuban immigrant on September 9, 2003. The incident and prosecutors' tepid response provide insight into how Martin was free to accost Hipolito Hernandez. "I'm very lucky," Hossain comments. "God saved me that day."
At 4:36 p.m. Hossain pulled up in front of his market. Martin approached and began to pound on the window of his car. "I told him I was going to call the police if he didn't leave," Hossain recalls. Then Martin pulled a knife from his front pocket and slashed it back and forth in the air, threatening to kill him.
The dark-skinned, bearded entrepreneur then drove to the market's back door and exited his car. Suddenly Martin came up behind him with a pal, 33-year-old Alberto Fernandez. The two were brandishing knives and shouting profanities. "[Martin] pulled back the knife to stab me," Hossain says. "I jumped backwards and screamed. All my employees came running to the back and this guy öFlaco' and his friend took off."
Martin and Fernandez were apprehended three minutes later on Fifth Street and Washington Avenue. Martin remain incarcerated in the county jail without bond for almost a year. On May 25, 2004, Martin pled guilty to felony aggravated assault and received a one-year sentence, but he was out of jail just two weeks after receiving credit for time served
Since 1999, Martin has been arrested 35 times and holds nine felony convictions.
According to Ed Griffith, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office, he was convicted of low-level drug felonies that don't warrant hard prison time. Griffith says Martin received the maximum punishment for those crimes.
Jorge Luis Rangel, a local bartender who lives in an apartment at 545 Michigan Ave., last saw Martin on Christmas day of last year, just three days before his conflict with Hipolito Hernandez. The homeless man was passed out on the stoop of the bartender's building. "It's a damn shame what he did to that kid," Rangel laments.
Isabel Morales has laid out some photographs of her lover and best friend, Hernandez, on a conference room table. In one of them, he flexes his left bicep in front of a dismantled water heater. In another, the handsome, goateed Puerto Rican is cheek-to-cheek with his son, then only one month old. "Hipolito always wore his heart on his sleeve," Morales says. "Even when he was broke, he would give me money for gas. He was like that with everybody."
Hipolito was an active young man, she says. He lifted weights regularly, which added muscle to his towering six-foot-two frame. He enjoyed playing baseball and basketball recreationally at Flamingo Park with his brother and his nephew.
In addition Hernandez didn't mind acting as a surrogate father to Morales's four-year-old daughter from a previous relationship, Morales says. "She keeps asking me where Hipolito is," Morales says, choking back tears. "I tell her he is on a trip, because I don't want her to know what happened to him."
Morales, a soft-spoken young lady with wide brown eyes, met Hernandez in May 2005 at a gas station in Hialeah. "I'll never forget. He was wearing army fatigues," Morales says. "I have a thing for men in uniform." After about a month of dating, Hernandez and Morales moved into their cozy, one-bedroom apartment on the second floor of 559 Michigan. She didn't have a job, but Hernandez worked as a painter for Miami-based Unique Painting & Waterproofing.
It didn't take long for the couple to become accustomed to the homeless people who passed through the complex's courtyard. "It was kind of funny actually," Morales says. "One time we woke up in the middle of the night because we heard some guy screaming, 'Give me back my rock or I'm gonna call the cops on you!'"
For the most part, the bums were harmless. The couple would sometimes share a plate of food with "Vicente," a short, emaciated drunk who took shelter beneath the building's stairwell. "One time [Hernandez] brought me a pillow and a blanket," Vicente says in Spanish. The toothless hobo, who came to Miami Beach by way of the Dominican Republic, doesn't know much about Reynaldo Martin. "I stay away from that cat," he says.
Sometime in November 2005 Isabel Morales ran into Reynaldo Martin for the first time. "He was leaning up against the window of the grocery store on Jefferson Avenue," she recalls. "And he was telling me, öOye, mami' and some really dirty stuff no lady should put up with. I just turned my head and kept walking."
When she returned to the apartment, Morales told Hernandez of the encounter. Later the couple headed to the store. When they approached Martin, "Hipolito told him, öI am not going to fight you or threaten you. I'm just letting you know this is my girl, please respect her,'" Morales says. Then when Hernandez brought up the earlier comments, "of course, [Martin] denied it," she says. "After that, we'd always see him getting arrested, and the next day he'd be out on the corner again, drinking."
Morales says Martin would also become angry whenever the tenants of 557 and 559 Michigan secured the gates of the wrought iron fence. "He used to come and go through the courtyard whenever he pleased," Morales says. "He'd curse and scream at himself whenever the gate was locked."
Over the next thirteen months Martin tried to pick fights, Morales continues. "He would constantly harass [Hipolito] and our neighbors," she says.
That year Martin was arrested seven times twice for felony cocaine possession (he was convicted once). He served 30 days before being released in June. Between July and October he was arrested four times on misdemeanor charges of drinking in public. On November 16, 2005, he and an accomplice stole a bunch of MP3 players from the Spec's music store on Fifth Street and Collins Avenue. They took off in a stolen blue Mercury Sable, ran into an occupied car, then, after passing through Overtown, were picked up on NE Fifteenth Street and Biscayne Boulevard. Martin remained in the pokey until February 9, 2006, when he pled guilty to felony grand theft auto and was fined $498. Astonishingly he was released the following day after receiving credit for time served.
In 2006 Martin was popped twelve times by Miami Beach police for marijuana possession, weapons violations, drinking in public, and other petty crimes. This past April 13, when two plainclothes detectives stopped him for trying to sell a parking permit to a pedestrian on Sixth Street and Jefferson Avenue, Martin informed them someone else stole the decal: "Jose broke into the vehicle and gave it to me to sell for $10."
Though he was arrested on a felony charge of dealing in stolen property, after one night in jail the charges were dropped and he was released. Again.
At approximately 3:10 p.m. this past December 28, Vitorio Dattilo arrived at 559 Michigan. The rangy 54-year-old Italian was just dropping by to say hello to his pal Serrer at his second-floor apartment.
Serrer introduced Dattilo to Hipolito Hernandez and the three walked out onto a balcony. They were soon interrupted by Reynaldo Martin's screaming. "He was calling us pieces of shit as well as some of his other favorite insults," Serrer says. "Hipolito yelled at him to take it easy and that we didn't want any trouble with him."
Martin continued his tirade for about five minutes before disappearing behind the building. "I thought he left," Dattilo says. "But now I think that he went looking for the knife he had hidden in the dumpster."
(Hector Serna, the 36-year-old apartment manager at 545 Michigan, later informed Miami Beach detectives he saw Martin arm himself with the dagger. "He asked me not to call the cops," Serna says.)
Serrer and Hipolito Hernandez went downstairs to change a car battery. At approximately 3:20 p.m. Hernandez was mounting the stairs when he heard Martin yelling at him again. Only this time the street dweller sounded close.
In fact Martin was in the courtyard daring Hernandez to take him on.
What happened next isn't completely clear. "I think Hipolito saw the knife because he ran back upstairs and yelled at me to call the police," Serrer recounts. "Hipolito took a crowbar of mine and went downstairs again. I saw [Martin] lunge at Hipolito and then Hipolito swung the crowbar, grazing [Martin's] left arm."
During the throwdown, Hernandez repeatedly yelled, "Call the police! Call the police!"
By then Martin had plunged his weapon into Hernandez's neck. It caught his jugular. While still holding the crowbar Hernandez managed to grab Martin's hands and pin him to the ground, Dattilo says. "I saw all this blood covering [Martin's] face," he says. "I thought Hipolito had punched him so hard that [Martin] was injured. Later on, I realized it was the blood squirting out of Hipolito's neck."
At 3:23 p.m. a concerned citizen flagged down Miami Beach Police officer Arley Flaherty. He said two men were fighting in the courtyard. Flaherty drove to the alley, exited her marked unit, and ordered Hernandez and Martin to stop and raise their hands. They continued to struggle. Flaherty, unsure who was the aggressor, shot Hernandez in the back with her Taser.
Hernandez stepped back and released his grip. Officer Flaherty immediately spotted the black-handled knife in Martin's left hand, so she subdued him. He dropped the knife. The officer handcuffed Martin, who had welts all over his face.
By then Hernandez had walked back to the foot of the stairs, but he could not summon the strength to return to his apartment. "He had lost so much blood," Dattilo says. "But no one had noticed how badly he was hurt." In fact the first fire rescue truck, which arrived at 3:30 p.m., tended to Martin first.
At 3:36 p.m. the second fire rescue unit showed up on the scene. By then, Hernandez had lost half a pint of blood and a considerable amount of oxygen to his brain. "I really don't understand why it took them so long considering the fire station is just six blocks away," Serrer says.
Hernandez's girlfriend, Morales, was completely shocked. "One minute he's telling me that he's going to Walgreens to get some cigarettes," she says. "Then five minutes later, he is on the floor bleeding, and the cops are everywhere."
This past February 1 the sixth-floor courtroom of Miami-Dade County Court Judge Cristina Pereyra-Shumner was bustling with accused criminals awaiting arraignment. Among the hardened criminals sitting in the jury box was Martin, handcuffed to a scruffy black inmate. Both were dressed in orange prison uniforms.
For most of the hearing, Martin played with his neatly trimmed goatee and ran his fingers along the outline of his grim reaper tat. He appeared bored. State prosecutor Jason Jones had already dropped the attempted murder charge against Martin for stabbing Hernandez, but he was pressing ahead with an armed burglary count.
When Martin's name was finally called, he pled not guilty through a court-appointed translator. He declined comment for this article.
Four days earlier Isabel Morales had met with Jones, who relayed some unfortunate news. "He told me there was a possibility [Martin] could come out," Morales recalls. "I was like, 'How could this be possible?' The guy confessed on tape. It was premeditated."
According to Martin's arrest affidavit, he gave a sworn statement to Miami Beach detectives at 2:15 a.m. this past December 29. Martin stated, "I was going to cut him." Martin also acknowledged having "problems with the victim in the past." State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith said Martin also told the detectives he used the knife to defend himself from Hernandez's crowbar. "Witnesses at the scene support Martin's self-defense theory, that the victim swung the crowbar," Griffith says. "That makes it difficult to prove attempted murder without a reasonable doubt."
Sloppy police work may have also contributed to Martin beating the attempted murder rap. Detectives did not conduct follow-up interviews with key witness Carlos Bustamante, the man walking by the Walgreen's who claims he heard Martin say he wanted to kill someone just hours before the stabbing.
Regardless armed burglary is a first-degree felony, and Martin could receive a life prison term if convicted. "It's too early to talk about sentencing," Griffith says.
It's unlikely that Hernandez will be able to testify at Martin's trial, which is scheduled for May 14. He has been hospitalized at the Ryder Trauma Center intensive care unit for 71 days. He suffered severe brain damage, a stroke, and paralysis throughout most of his body. He is fed through a tube and has undergone a tracheotomy. In late January Hernandez caught pneumonia, and his lungs were filled with phlegm.
Outside the hospital, just two blocks away from the jail where Martin resides, Hernandez's mother, Luz Lasalle, and his older siblings, Saul and Mari Luz, console one another. Luz Lasalle says that she arrived from San Juan this past December 29 and has not left her son's side since. "I had just spoken to him for a good twenty minutes on the phone before this happened to him," Lasalle says, her lips quivering with sadness. She fights the urge to cry. "My son had his whole life ahead of him," she says. "Now there is a chance they might release the man who stabbed him? Why? So he can stab more people?"
If it were up to him, Saul Hernandez says, Martin would get at least 20 years. "That man has destroyed our lives in every sense of the word," Saul says. "He should not be allowed on the streets."
The recent developments have also left Morales, Serrer, and Dattilo bitter. "We live in a very bad part of Miami Beach," Morales says. "Yet we're surrounded by all these multimillion-dollar condos. So if this happened to someone with some cash in their pocket who could afford a lawyer to pressure the state attorney, maybe Hipolito would get some justice. But when you're struggling to make ends meet and raise a family, it is impossible."
Serrer, Hernandez's neighbor who witnessed part of the altercation, says he is afraid Martin will return to the neighborhood if he's released. "Of course he is going to claim self-defense," Serrer snaps. "But if this guy comes back, I'm moving the heck out of here."
Griffith assures there will be no plea deal for Martin. "We are taking this case to the jury," he says, "and the community will make the final decision on Mr. Martin. And if he is convicted, he won't be coming back."
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