The Denise Calvo Mystery

Denise Calvo's turbulent past has met a traumatic present
COURTESY WPLG-TV

For some people who know Denise Calvo well, the shock, anger, and sorrow caused by the September 18 murder of her husband, José Calvo, must have been informed by a very specific sense of remorse. Their regret would be even more acute because they've known all along that undercover cops busted Denise two and a half years ago in a Coconut Grove condominium and charged her with possession of cocaine and drug paraphernalia (a crack pipe).

The secret of Denise Calvo's drug use became public last week, when the Miami Herald quoted a police investigator as saying there was a link between Calvo and her husband's suspected killer, 31-year-old Anthony Craig Lee. Immediately after the murder, Calvo told police she didn't recognize the gunman. According to the investigator, however, Calvo did know Lee's mother Verneka, from whom she allegedly has bought crack cocaine. Verneka Lee's small Coconut Grove house is located several blocks north of the Calvos' luxury home. Police arrested Verneka at her home last week and charged her with cocaine possession. (At press time Anthony Lee remained at large and was considered armed and dangerous.)

Since then the murder mystery has taken an even more bizarre twist, one that could have been lifted from the pages of a classic Miami crime novel. On Friday, September 26, eight days after the shooting, the investigation led police to search the Calvo residence. That night Calvo and her infant son left with a man identifying himself as her father, Michael Angelo Caligiuri, according to media reports. Amid the post-murder trauma and swarm of journalists, Calvo was reportedly retreating to her parents' home in Broward.

Calvo's concerned father may have had his own reasons for wishing to escape the media spotlight and put some distance between himself and a house full of law enforcement officers. Federal authorities once considered Caligiuri an "armed and dangerous" member of New York's notorious Gambino organized-crime family. In 1988 the Brooklyn native was arrested and charged with theft, kidnapping, narcotics trafficking, and racketeering. Prosecutors said he was part of a syndicate that distributed most of the counterfeit Quaaludes on the underground market in the Eighties. He was convicted and sentenced to twelve years for racketeering and possession of cocaine with intent to distribute.

Caligiuri had been free on bail during the trial in Miami's federal court, but rather than send him immediately to prison after his conviction, U.S. District Judge Kenneth Ryskamp granted him a few days' freedom to celebrate his 30th wedding anniversary. Caligiuri returned the favor by fleeing. After roughly nine years as a fugitive, he was arrested in Virginia in 1997. According to federal law-enforcement sources, he ended up serving about five years in prison.

The surfacing of Michael Angelo Caligiuri is likely to fuel the public's active imagination regarding those unexplained aspects of José Calvo's murder. Indeed the former fugitive elicited fear in a man who called New Times in June 2001 with information about Denise's drug arrest, which had taken place two months earlier. After ominous references to Denise's father, the caller insisted on remaining anonymous.

He knew Denise Calvo because they were both members of the Advertising Federation of Greater Miami. (The professional association voted her Advertising Person of the Year in 1996.) The caller said he and others who knew Calvo from AdFed were extremely worried about her cocaine addiction, especially as it might affect her unborn baby. In an attempt to administer some tough love, the caller explained, they wanted to publicize Calvo's arrest in hopes that doing so would jolt her into recognizing the severity of her problems.

Her drug bust had not been reported in any media, the caller noted, and just a month later the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the case. With no adverse publicity, and without the humiliation of a public trial and the benefits that a court-mandated drug-treatment program might have provided, Calvo had continued to party and to deny she had a drug problem, according to the anonymous caller.

Why did prosecutors drop Calvo's felony drug case? Was her father somehow involved? No. The case dissolved because the arresting cops, Miami officers Luis Cabrera and Pablo Camacho, twice failed to appear for a pretrial hearing. The case was formally closed on May 18, 2001. A month later Jane Hyde, the assistant state attorney who handled the case, told New Times that prosecutors can't move forward when police officers don't appear in court, particularly if they are the only witnesses. "It's not common, it's not uncommon -- it happens," Hyde said, adding that the State Attorney's Office had from time to time pressed then-police Chief Raul Martinez to rectify the no-show situation. Had the incident involved a victim, it would have been treated differently, she pointed out: "If there's a victim and the victim comes in and the cop doesn't, we subpoena the cop."

So why did Cabrera and Camacho fail to appear in court after going to the trouble of setting up an undercover drug operation? In 2001 neither officer returned messages seeking an explanation. More recent efforts were also unsuccessful. But today no one at the Miami Police Department or the State Attorney's Office is free to comment on the Calvo case, and no records of it are available. At some point the arrest record was expunged and the case file sealed. (The police report of Calvo's arrest remained a public document at least through late June 2001, when New Times obtained a copy of it.)

During an interview in June 2001, Calvo's defense attorney, Kieran Fallon, told New Times he did not know why Cabrera and Camacho didn't show, and he assured that he'd never spoken with the officers or any of the prosecutors. "My client maintained her innocence," Fallon said, noting that the outcome of the case was "not unusual."

Denise Calvo, in a July 2001 telephone interview with New Times, said she too didn't know why Cabrera and Camacho had failed to appear in court. She also said she didn't understand why a reporter would be interested in pursuing a story about affluent white people being busted for crack cocaine in a Coconut Grove condominium. "What do you mean you haven't ever heard of it? It happens every day," Calvo remarked. "I can give you six names. No, I'm only kidding. I don't know anybody that does crack.... I never found it to be interesting. I did smoke pot in the Eighties." (Calvo graduated from Miramar High School in 1981.)

But eventually she grasped the notion. "Oh, I see what you're saying -- in the nice part [of the Grove]," she offered in regard to crack cocaine. She proposed scheduling an interview after she'd spoken with her lawyer. "I'd be happy to go over that with you, because there is somebody out there trying to sabotage me, I think, personally. That's why I gotta talk to my attorney.... I don't want him to get on your case just because you happen to be a very good, very diligent reporter," she said, hinting at the prospect of a libel lawsuit. "I don't want him to be calling you with, 'Now look, you're going to be subpoenaed.' I don't want that. It's dirty." Her lawyer and private investigator had already spoken with one publisher, one editor, and one reporter at three other newspapers and had "gotten to the bottom of how they got the [police] report. Because that person is maliciously out to sabotage somebody. I don't know who. Maybe the guy who got arrested, that guy that owned the [condo]. I don't know what the story is."

Yet she was sure she'd been mistakenly mixed up in an undercover bust aimed at Charles Anderson, the man in the Mary Street condo whom Camacho and Cabrera arrested along with Calvo. "The only thing that I can tell you is, and this is kind of funny, when I saw the shit on the table I go, 'Charles, I'm out of here,'" Calvo recounted. "That turned into: 'You can have my pipe,' or however they wrote it in the report. Which is like totally ludicrous. But I was then told by a friend of mine who is a sergeant that sometimes they have to do that to get a police collar or whatever they call it. They have to put stuff in the report that's not true. Can you imagine? I can't fathom.

"Anyway, here's the thing -- I'm pregnant and I'm recently married and I really don't need my name in the media," Calvo continued. "That's why I had my attorney researching the people who were going to try to do stories, and they all didn't do the story because there was no story, because the police didn't show up, because the charges were dropped, because I was in fact innocent.... I do a lot of business with your newspaper, by the way," she added. "I buy a lot of advertising from you guys."

Throughout the interview she maintained a sense of humor, especially when she hiccuped loudly. "Excuse me! Drunk again!" she joked, then clarified: "It's all these vitamins you have to take when you're seven months pregnant. Oooph."


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