The Missing Briefcase: Part 2
If there was one place Simon Steckel didn't want to be last Wednesday morning, it was Courtroom 3-2 of the Metropolitan Justice Building, where Dade County Circuit Court Judge Paul Siegel had convened a hearing to shed a ray of judicial light on a matter the Coral Gables attorney would just as soon forget.
"This court is concerned about whether a misuse was made of the justice system," Judge Siegel solemnly declared, glaring down from the bench. "I tell everyone involved that the court is concerned by that issue."
Though Siegel aimed his words at the half-dozen attorneys assembled before him, he might just as well have been talking to Steckel alone. The surreal series of events that transformed the 38-year-old defense lawyer into a crime victim has recently brought him closer to his more typical role -- only these days he's on the defensive.
Last Christmas Eve, while the recently separated Steckel was ensconced in a suite at the downtown Hyatt Regency, his new girlfriend, Melissa DeLeon, engineered a burglary that lightened his luggage by two briefcases containing an assortment of legal files, tens of thousands of dollars' worth of jewelry, and $52,000 in cash. DeLeon enlisted her friend Alverony Formeza (known as A.V.) and his girlfriend Lisa Lobman to steal the attache cases while Steckel was asleep. After Formeza emptied out the cash and most of the baubles (he mistook some of the pieces for costume jewelry), he dumped the briefcases into a West Dade canal. Meanwhile DeLeon, who had remained at the hotel to concoct a feasible tale of mayhem, lost her nerve and confessed the scheme when her boyfriend awakened.
When Steckel, a former assistant state attorney, summoned the authorities, he assumed a far more active role than most burglary victims. Although he has denied any improper behavior in the matter, at times it seemed Steckel was actually directing the the investigation and the prosecution. Among other curiosities described in "The Missing Briefcase" (for more information, see the October 13 issue of New Times), Steckel accompanied police to Lisa Lobman's house, where both Lobman and Melissa DeLeon claim he took part in the search of Lobman's home and car. He also had a hand in selecting the detectives who eventually tracked down A.V. Formeza, and was even permitted to ride along with detectives and prosecutors as they went on a midnight ride and questioned Formeza's relatives.
Further, the two young women, both of whom were arrested Christmas morning, claim that when Steckel was unable to recover his booty, he threatened to tell police that one of the briefcases contained a gun. The existence of a firearm would elevate the charges against them to armed burglary -- a far more serious charge and one for which they would be unable to immediately arrange bail. In fact, a gun was mentioned in the police report, and despite their insistence that the information was inaccurate, all three defendants (Formeza was taken into custody on January 13) initially were charged with armed burglary. And all were denied bail.
Lobman and DeLeon remained in jail for more than 40 days, even though both of them had no prior trouble with the law. DeLeon finally negotiated her freedom by agreeing to pay Steckel $50,000 from a trust fund. Lobman, who didn't have so much money, pleaded guilty to second-degree theft and agreed to pay Steckel all the money she had, about $3500. She, too, was freed. Formeza, who was also facing charges unrelated to the theft, remained in jail for about eight months. Eventually he pleaded guilty to second-degree theft, turned over the $6000 in cash he hadn't yet spent, agreed to owe Steckel $25,000, and was freed.
In all, Steckel has received or has been promised $84,500 in cash from the bungling burglars as restitution. Additionally, Judge Siegel signed a motion entitling Steckel to Formeza's late-model Nissan 300ZX, which Formeza had recently purchased for $29,000.
One goal of last Wednesday's hearing was to sort out the circumstances surrounding the court order releasing Formeza's car from the impound lot into Steckel's possession. That order, when it was submitted to the court by Steckel, was entitled "The Defendant's Unopposed Motion" for the return of property. Formeza and his attorney, however, have disavowed any knowledge of the motion -- and vehemently opposed it. In the courtroom on Wednesday, Judge Siegel described the motion as "probably a completely invalid order," in that Steckel's assertions in presenting it were "obviously inaccurate."
Assistant State Attorney Andy Hague, who has been handling the burglary case since the beginning, tried to distance himself from the issue, claiming he had nothing to do with the order. But Steckel pointed out that Hague had initialed the motion, indicating his approval.
"I signed it?" Hague asked, appearing somewhat startled. "If my initials are down there, my initials are down there..." he mused.
Steckel characterized the incongruity as a "typographical error," asserting that the motion should have read "The Victim's Unopposed Motion." His real concern, he added, was that at the time, the car was still in storage, accruing thousands of dollars in fees he would have to pay before it was released to him.
Equally difficult for Judge Siegel to grasp was the fact that Steckel actually stood to profit from the theft. Ownership of the 300ZX would bring Steckel's total bounty to nearly $112,000 -- substantially more than he had lost last Christmas Eve.
"The state is not in the business of over-restituting victims," protested prosecutor Hague. "It is not the state's intent for Mr. Steckel to receive a windfall." Hague, who estimated Steckel's loss at $75,000, asserted that anything in excess of that amount would ultimately be returned to Melissa DeLeon, because she had paid Steckel $50,000 of her own money.
Confessing that he had "a lot of difficulty" understanding how this deal had been structured, Siegel wanted to know how the State Attorney's Office had arrived at a figure of $75,000. Hague's explanation: $52,000 in cash, and the remainder in jewelry, only a "small portion" of which had been returned by Formeza after his arrest.
Hague's assertion, however, doesn't jibe with tape-recorded discussions between Steckel and Stephen Glass, the three defendants' attorney at the time, concerning the return of the jewelry. (The State Attorney's Office had permitted Steckel to record his dealings with Glass, in hopes that the conversations would reveal an extortion attempt by Glass. What they heard instead was Glass's seeming disregard for his own clients. At one point he declared, "I don't care if you let these people out of jail or not." But although they had reason to believe Glass was not properly representing the defendants, state prosecutors chose to keep the knowledge of the tapes and their contents to themselves. The state attorney's probe of Glass's activities remains open.) Only a few days after the theft, Glass gave Steckel an inventory of all the items he was about to return, including a gold Cartier watch, two gold Rolex watches, a diamond-studded watch, a pair of diamond earrings, a pair of gold bracelets, a 2.5-ounce gold ingot, and at least four rings, two of which contained diamonds.
The tapes reveal that after Glass read off the list, Steckel said the only major items that were missing were one diamond-studded Rolex and a Cartier watch. The tapes contain no indication that Steckel didn't receive all of the items Glass had listed.
Setting another hearing in the case for next January 14, Judge Siegel said he would be willing to hear further arguments and testimony regarding any of the issues that had been raised -- from the value of the 300ZX to the existence of a gun in Steckel's briefcase to allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. In calling into question such basic facts, Siegel also seemed to be inviting Lisa Lobman's and A.V. Formeza's defense attorneys to come forward with motions that might eventually erase their clients' convictions.
Steckel seemed to lapse into abject silence. Assistant prosecutor Andy Hague, feeling the need to rise to his own defense, assured the judge that the case had been handled properly in all respects.
The judge gazed down, smiled, and replied, "We'll see.
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