The Unbelievable Truth
One day, Martin showed up at Carlos's house with a yellow suitcase. "Need you to take this for me for a couple of days," Martin told the West Kendall private investigator and bodyguard. He plopped the heavy valise, which Martin said was stuffed with cash, on the kitchen counter. Carlos, slipping steadily into debt, wanted desperately to believe it was true. He wanted to believe everything Roberto Martin Cabrera had told him -- that Martin was an ex-spy who had stolen a billion dollars from Fidel Castro; that he was about to share this wealth with friends and business associates; that their dreams were about to be fulfilled.
At Martin's behest, Carlos had put himself more than $100,000 in the hole, and now Martin was being evasive about when the debt might be repaid. Plus Carlos had introduced Martin to several friends, who had also invested heavily in the "operation." So Carlos really didn't want to know whether the teeth of intuition gnawing away at his stomach were indicative of something more than butterflies. "Bro', this better not be stolen money because if it is, I'll kill you myself," he warned Martin, in his typically hyperbolic way. But he took the case anyway.
Carlos stood in his kitchen and looked at the suitcase. He walked around it. He thought. He stood and looked at it again. Then he decided. "I picked the lock," he reveals. "I open it up and guess what? It's full of paperwork, books, nothing that has to do with money. That's when it hit me. Oh my God, I've been conned."
Roberto Martin Cabrera has conned many in his decade-long career in the business of false promises. He arrived in Miami in the Nineties and almost immediately began a series of scams in which he traded on ties to family and friends from Cuba to convince gullible exiles that he could make them rich. In 1996 he was found guilty of fraud and grand theft charges. But felony convictions were only a hindrance, not a halt. Even while on probation, Martin was circulating, creating a persona as a businessman and ex-spy about to come into incredible wealth.
Martin also has a gift for tapping into that vein of Miami lore which has served so many other scam artists well. This has always been a town full of giddy potential, political intrigue, and a whiff of the surreal. Many are seduced by the illusions underpinning Miami's history, although frequently a harsh and sun-baked awakening awaits.
So perhaps it is not surprising that the 35-year-old Martin convinced people that he was a wealthy former Cuban spy who got away with the biggest financial heist in history and a federal informant working on a secret operation to transfer money stolen from Castro to Miami. This is clearly a specialized scheme, one that would not have worked anywhere else.
A grand jury indictment filed this past February by the U.S. Attorney's Office charges that within the past two years, Martin and an associate named Christopher Johnson scammed four people out of money -- and in Martin's case a Mercedes and a Rolex -- by pretending they were working with the U.S. government. According to the indictment, Martin claimed to be a former Cuban intelligence officer who had stolen the money, while Johnson, using the name and business card of real-life Secret Service agent Chris McClenic, backed up his story. They needed a few angels to help finance the operation up front. In return, those investors would get a share of the loot. There were props: Martin brandished a Smith & Wesson 9mm pistol and a badge case. Johnson also carried a gun and wore a two-way radio headset, just like a presidential bodyguard. Martin told the suckers to open bank accounts with Salomon Smith Barney in Miami, into which dough would soon roll.
Over the course of several months, Martin signed documents either promising, or purporting to have actually transferred money to the accounts -- a whopping $50 million in one case. As Martin was reeling in his credulous marks, he hobnobbed on the edges of respectable exile society. He managed to get Proyecto, a magazine published by the Latin Builders Association, to run an article on him, in which he claimed to be an investor who had inherited substantial money from relatives in Spain. He visited the offices of La Liga Contra el Cancer, a prominent nonprofit organization that provides free medical care to needy cancer patients, promising to donate a million dollars. "He said he was coming into an inheritance," says executive vice president Adriana Cora. "Then he just disappeared."
Eventually his marks were roused from greedy reverie and realized they'd been scammed. Martin had also made a critical error in hiring a former state prosecutor, attorney Christopher Rundle, to prepare some of the bogus documents he used to fool his victims. Rundle eventually went to the FBI with that information, which greatly aided an investigation the agency was already conducting (Rundle did not return several messages seeking comment). In May Chris Johnson pled guilty to impersonating a U.S. Secret Service agent (he is awaiting sentencing). Martin, however, is fighting conspiracy, mail fraud, and other related charges. His trial is set to begin this summer. "This guy was a piece of work," remarks Maria Peña, another lawyer who also briefly worked for Martin.
Carlos (who asked that his full name not be used) is not a witness in the Martin case, but the story of how he got sucked in illustrates the con artist's modus operandi. Martin is a short, chubby, and otherwise unremarkable man, except for one distinctively skewed amblyopic eyeball. Yet Carlos and others who have dealt with him say Martin excels at selling a lie. "If you give him a minute he'll duck out of it," Carlos says. "Give him another and he will convince you. Give him a third minute, and you will go bankrupt."
Carlos should have known better. After all, when he first met Martin in 2000, it was because he had been hired to find him by the owner of a Hialeah check-cashing store to whom Martin had passed $70,000 worth of bad checks. Carlos found Martin to be a friendly, accommodating guy, very happy to pay back the store owner. Martin pulled out a briefcase, filled with impressive-looking papers from banks and investment companies. The papers, Martin explained, showed that he had more than a million dollars in investments, but it needed to be transferred to an account in Miami. "I'm like, 'Okay, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt for 30 days,'" Carlos recalls. Instead Martin managed to convince the store owner that he should invest in a business deal.
As the men became better acquainted, Martin began to tell of his days as a Cuban intelligence operative. "He shows me a card from the FBI and says, 'You know, actually I used to be like a CIA guy in Cuba,'" Carlos remembers. "I'm going, 'Is this for real, or what?' He says, 'I'm a confidential informant that was helping them with a case. My nickname was Robalo.'"
If only Carlos had seen the 1999 movie Office Space, everything might have been different. A plot device involved disgruntled cubicle drones hacking into their company's digital financial records to siphon off a minute percentage of every transaction.
Martin claimed to have been a confidant of Fidel Castro himself, entrusted with overseeing certain financial transactions. "I stole Fidel's money little by little and he didn't know," Martin revealed. He explained that he'd done it through a complicated method of secretly transferring a fourth of one percent per year of the dictator's investments into his own Swiss bank account. He was vague about the amount, but intimated it was worth more than a billion dollars. He also claimed to have stolen some gold.
As Carlos was trying to get Martin to pay his debt to the Hialeah check-cashing store, Martin took an interest in Carlos's career. Martin mentioned that he had a lot of contacts with people who could use bodyguard protection, such as the local Spanish consul and FBI informants. Maybe they could do some business together.
Carlos took this information back to his boss at the security company, George Hatmaker. "What do you think?" he asked Hatmaker. Hatmaker suggested running Martin's name through the criminal records computer at the Miami-Dade County courthouse. Carlos did that. Martin came up clean. "George says, 'Well, maybe it's true. Set up an appointment.'"
Hatmaker, a Tennessee native who had had a long career in U.S. naval intelligence before serving as a Miami Beach reserve police officer and starting his own security company, says now that he was skeptical, but stranger things have happened in Miami. Hatmaker figured he would let Carlos try to bring in some extra business, but ultimately he retired and moved to Virginia. In 2001 Carlos started his own security company, with Martin as a corporate officer. Another partner in the venture was Christopher Johnson, a young man who had once worked as a bodyguard with Carlos.
A person of reasonable worldliness might be expected to pause and reflect at some point on whether a guy who bounced a lot of checks in Hialeah was likely to be the same criminal mastermind who got away with the financial crime of the century. Carlos says he wondered many times if Martin was lying. But Martin did seem to have a lot of good information that matched up on many occasions with data Carlos was able to verify elsewhere. For instance, he says Martin drove him to places he said were FBI safe houses, and when Carlos checked with some cop friends, they told him the intelligence was correct.
On more than one occasion, he says, Martin took him to local banks, where an account representative confirmed that large sums of money were in Martin's accounts, though inaccessible for whatever reasons. This was a key element of Martin's endless prevarication, the assertion that he couldn't access large sums of cash until the government agencies with which he was working gave him the go-ahead.
Martin kept people on the hook by doling out relatively small amounts of cash, and when that failed, he would just write a large, worthless check. This is what happened to Carlos. Martin told him that if they wanted to get these plum protection gigs, they needed to show clients they were serious and buy some serious-looking vehicles. He promised to help him pay for them. So Carlos bought four brand-new Chevrolet Suburbans on his own credit, about $130,000 worth of SUVs. Martin gave him two checks, one for $100,000 and another for $30,000. The checks bounced.
Martin stalled Carlos with a few months' worth of truck payments and hired Carlos and Chris Johnson to be his personal bodyguards as he swanned around town. "The finest restaurants, and he's doling out money left and right," Carlos recalls bitterly. "All the time, he's meeting people, making deals. Like, 'If you invest 30 grand, I'll give you back 60 grand.'"
At any rate, after discovering the suitcase full of bogus bills, Carlos decided to recheck Martin's name at the courthouse. After visiting Martin's house in Miami Lakes, it suddenly occurred to him that he should check under the last name of Martin's wife. "Her name was Cabrera," he says. "I went to the courthouse and plugged in Roberto Martin Cabrera. And guess what? He pops up -- with a fucking record."
In 1995, Martin, just 26 years old, was putting himself through the equivalent of grad school for professional con men. He had a nice little collection of scams going. The centerpiece: He convinced more than twenty people to invest a few hundred dollars apiece in a gold jewelry-making scheme, netting about $20,000. According to court records, he targeted low-income Cuban exiles, telling them he worked for Mayors Jewelers.
It was Martin's craving for attention that ultimately got him caught. In April of 1996, he walked into the headquarters of the Cuban American National Foundation just west of Miami International Airport and declared himself to be a potential assassin and a terrorist. Ninoska Perez Castellon, then director of and a radio personality on La Voz de la Fundacion (which broadcasts primarily to Cuba), remembers the day. "He walks in and says he needs to talk to me," she recalls. "He said, 'I have instructions from the Cuban government to kill you.'"
Martin proceeded to tell Perez and later, law enforcement, that he'd been sent to blow up the CANF building using an explosives-packed van. He was also supposed to kill two other members of the CANF brain trust -- board chairman Jorge Mas Canosa and president Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez. A wild story in any other town, but in Miami, it seemed plausible.
And Martin had lots of documents to back up his claims, including secret notes on paper that could be dissolved by spit. "He had all these papers with spy codes," Perez recalls. "He had phone numbers for safe houses. He had beeper numbers for contacts in New York." City of Miami police immediately began investigating, and offered protection to both CANF members and Martin himself. "He's a spy," declared then-police Chief Donald Warshaw at a press conference held a week later. "This guy obviously has some legitimate information."
Over the course of several months, during which Martin led police and the FBI on a merry chase, the story unraveled. "Yeah, that was a weird case," says Mark Shapiro, then the assistant state attorney prosecuting the case against Martin. "He really ran the FBI around, as I recall. I think he even went as far as going to Washington and pointing out people in the park who were spies. That's when they realized he was full of it. The FBI was embarrassed by this guy."
Rene Palomino, Jr., the defense attorney who represented Martin after his victims, who saw Martin's face all over the media, had him arrested, laughs heartily, thinking about his client's imaginative tales. "The stories he gave to these people," he says. "I've never laughed so much through a deposition. Me and the cops were almost in tears with the things this guy pulled." One example: A couple of marks approached Martin on the street, demanding to know what happened to their money. "He fakes a heart attack, and they take him to the hospital," Palomino giggles.
Palomino maintains that Martin wasn't a bad guy really, just an incorrigible confidence man. "He goes to the magic shop and buys some magic paper and cons CANF into thinking he's a spy," he recounts. "He even had them protecting him for a couple of days. It could have been a hilarious movie, the whole thing was so ridiculous."
"I don't understand why somebody like that would attract attention to himself," marvels Perez. "The guy was a real nutcase."
When Carlos saw Martin's criminal record, he realized that he would never get a penny of his investment back. He tried to warn numerous people involved in Martin's schemes, including his bodyguard buddy Chris Johnson, to get away from all of them. Carlos says they didn't believe him because Martin convinced them he was just angry he hadn't gotten a big enough cut of the deal. "I said, 'Okay guys, I'm pulling out,'" Carlos remembers.
Not long after that, Pedro Artiles, the check-cashing store owner, asked Carlos to help him find another con artist who'd made off with $50,000 by giving Artiles fake paperwork for a money order. Carlos and Chris Johnson came into contact with a couple of Secret Service agents working the case. The agents gave them their business cards. One of the agents was named Chris McClenic. Later Carlos got a call from somebody he knew who owned another check-cashing store. "He says, 'Carlos, you know this guy Chris McClenic?' I say, 'Yeah I know him, he's a Secret Service agent.'" The man said McClenic had told him he was holding Martin's money for him. Carlos knew exactly what had happened -- Chris Johnson, feeding into Martin's lies about working with the government.
Through his attorney, Johnson declined comment for this story, as did Martin. "Chris is a good kid," Carlos maintains of his former friend. "He just got swamped the same way I did."
Meanwhile Carlos realized he couldn't handle the debt. He called the bank and told it to repossess the Suburbans, even helping the repo man load SUVs onto the trailer. He declared bankruptcy in 2003, and moved farther north along Florida's Atlantic coast. He is bitter about losing an estimated $180,000, but coping. "I wanted to bury him in the Everglades and leave his head for the mosquitoes. But I got into therapy instead."
Carlos started to hear from some of his old friends, whom he'd said goodbye to once they sided with Martin against him. "We should have believed you!" they lamented. He urged one friend to go to the FBI, and gave him the documentation he had.
Juan Rene Caro, Jr. doesn't want to talk about Roberto Martin Cabrera. Caro, the owner of La Bamba Check Cashing, off Bird Road in Kendall, emerges warily from a back room. A reporter hands him a business card. "You got ID besides this?" he asks, tapping the card. "I got fooled before."
Court documents filed in the case indicate that Martin promised to pay Caro at least three million dollars. "Man, the stories I could tell," Caro says. "You'd think I was lying." Caro appears about to spill the goods. Then he reconsiders. "You know, a story like this is bad for business," he says. "What's in it for me?" He asks about the possibility of a book and maybe even a movie deal if he talks. Even now, Caro is grabbing for the profit angle. Suddenly it is easy to see how he got taken by Roberto Martin.
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