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What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends? Part 2

Winston Noe Curtis always wanted to learn about law enforcement. And for the past seven months the 24-year-old Nicaraguan immigrant, whose goal is to become a police officer, has been getting an education in the vagaries of Dade's legal system -- albeit a very slow one.

Last August 2, Curtis claims, he was attacked during an argument in a posh section of Miami Beach by a man brandishing a 9mm semiautomatic handgun. And ever since then he has been waiting for his alleged assailant to be charged with aggravated assault.

Curtis knows the wheels of justice can be pretty creaky, but he believes this particular delay is due to the stature of the purported pistol-packer: 51-year-old Jose "Pepe" Alvarez, owner of AIB Financial Group, a conglomeration of eleven companies that deal in home and auto insurance, mortgage loans, and wholesale travel packages. One of the nation's wealthiest Hispanics (with a net worth of $33 million, he ranks 64th on Hispanic Business magazine's recent list of the richest Hispanic Americans), Alvarez is vice president of the board of directors of Mercy Hospital's charitable foundation, and a prodigious contributor to political campaigns. He is also funding the construction of a church in Hialeah.

"If I had put the gun on this guy, do you think I'd ever see the sun again?" Curtis exclaims. "Never, never, because I don't have money. It's like O.J. -- it's because he has a walletful of money. I've got truth on my side, he's got money. And money wins."

The incident took place on Sunset Island number three, a small residential enclave north of the Venetian Causeway. Curtis, who was delivering supplies to a construction site on West 24th Street, pulled past Alvarez, who had just backed out of his driveway. It was a close call. As so often happens in Miami, a shouting match ensued, punctuated by honks and profanities. At some point during the shouting, say Curtis and five construction workers who witnessed the altercation, Alvarez sprang from his Mercedes SL 500, unzipped a yellow pouch, pointed his pistol at Curtis's head, and stated: "What do you want me to do? You want me to do something?"

While the construction crew pleaded with Curtis to shut up and not move, Alvarez returned to his car and departed, whereupon Curtis called his boss, who called Miami Beach police.

As chronicled in New Times last fall ("What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends?" October 24), the insurance mogul initially stymied Curtis's complaint by meeting with investigating officer Det. Gary Schiaffo and Assistant Chief Manuel Diaz at Miami Beach police headquarters on the day of the incident. Alvarez told the cops that Curtis was always driving fast through his quiet neighborhood, that the work crew had damaged his car with construction debris, and that he had not pulled his gun. "He took the gun case out and showed it to the guy," Schiaffo later told New Times, "because he thought the guy was going to get a bat or something out of his truck." Diaz recalled it somewhat differently: "[Curtis] came at Alvarez with a tire iron," he reported.

Schiaffo summarily closed the case without interviewing Curtis or the witnesses. His supervisor, however, reopened the investigation and witnesses were contacted. (The supervisor, Sgt. George Navarro, assured New Times that although it might look "really fishy," the move had nothing to do with the paper's inquiry into the matter.)

On November 20, a month after the New Times story appeared, Det. Larry Marrero completed his investigation and forwarded his findings to the Dade State Attorney's Office, where the case was assigned to Assistant State Attorney Patricia Cassells, who began the process of sifting through Marrero's file and evaluating the feasibility of getting a warrant for Alvarez's arrest. The charge -- aggravated assault with a firearm -- is a third-degree felony and carries a three-year minimum-mandatory sentence.

Alvarez hired George Yoss, a prominent defense attorney (and former chief assistant state attorney) whose client list includes such local luminaries as former Metro commissioner Larry Hawkins. (Alvarez himself would not comment on his run-in with Curtis for this story; he referred all questions to Yoss.)

Soon after the State Attorney's Office began looking into the matter, Winston Curtis alleges, he got word that Alvarez wanted to pay him cash to drop the whole thing.

Carlos Ramirez, a Miami Beach electrician, says his neighbor, Hollywood-based insurance agent Alvaro Cienfuentes, wanted to facilitate a deal between Alvarez and Curtis. So Ramirez gave Cienfuentes's business card to Curtis's cousin, whom he knew. "I've known Cienfuentes for many years; he's Alvarez's uncle," Ramirez says. "He said Alvarez wanted to make an arrangement with Winston, to pay some money." Ramirez says a second man, whom he didn't know, also approached him at work with a similar message: "He said Alvarez wanted me to be in contact with the witnesses because he wanted to make an arrangement with them -- pay them some money," the electrician recalls.

 

Norman Garcia Lovo, Curtis's cousin, says he got in touch with Cienfuentes at Ramirez's urging. "Cienfuentes said he was Alvarez's uncle and he didn't want to see him go to court," Garcia recounts. "He said, 'We can fix the problem. Tell your cousin to call me.'"

Curtis wanted no part of any deal, and Garcia called Cienfuentes back with the news. "He said, 'Tell Winston to think about it. Tell him to think about the opportunity he has. Ask him how much he wants to drop the case,'" Garcia remembers.

Cienfuentes confirms that he knows Ramirez and might well have given him his business card -- but not with instructions to pass along a message to Curtis. He says he never spoke to Garcia. Though he admits he might have referred to Alvarez as his nephew, he says he was kidding: "That was a joke," he says. (Alvarez's attorney George Yoss declined to comment on Ramirez's and Garcia's allegations or any other specifics: "I'm not going to comment on the facts of the case," Yoss says.)

According to Patricia Cassells, such meddling, if indeed it occurred, might constitute witness tampering. "This is very, very serious," says the prosecutor. "It's interfering with our investigation." She says she knew nothing about the matter, and adds that Curtis should have filed a police report.

Detective Marrero says that when Curtis called and told him about the alleged offers -- and, later, about a harrowing day during which he was tailed for hours while he made deliveries -- he advised him to file police reports but warned it would be difficult to prove anything in either case. Curtis says he thought it would be futile to pursue the issue.

As she proceeded with her review of the Alvarez investigation, Cassells says, Yoss called her and promised he'd provide new information that would prove his client's innocence. Though no startling revelations ever came to the prosecutor's attention, she says Yoss later approached her and asked whether she'd be willing to delay a decision until Alvarez took a lie-detector test.

A Dade prosecutor for four years, Cassells had never met Yoss, who left the State Attorney's Office in 1987, but she says she was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. "He asked me, 'What if Alvarez took a polygraph?' and I said, 'It's up to you.' I didn't even know who Yoss was, but I heard about him through the grapevine. I met him and he's a gentleman. He's on the up and up, a straight shooter."

Yoss arranged for a polygraph to be administered by preeminent expert George Slattery and turned the results over to Cassells on February 21. (He says his client passed the polygraph but would not divulge specifics.) Four days later, however, she decided to prosecute. Though she won't discuss the specifics of the case, she says the witness statements Marrero provided were very convincing. An investigator from the State Attorney's Office also interviewed Curtis. "What the witnesses said was a big influence on me, the statement of the victim and the witnesses," the prosecutor notes. "How can you ignore that?"

Taking three months to make a decision about a case is not unusual, she adds: "I didn't know who Alvarez was. I had no idea he had clout and power. The bottom line is, he can't buy me. We make a decision, and justice hopefully will be done." (Alvarez, a frequent Democratic Party benefactor, was a contributor to Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's 1996 campaign, when she ran for re-election unopposed. He donated $500, the maximum allowed by law.)

Despite Yoss's skillful intercessions on behalf of his client, Alvarez's arrest seemed merely a matter of a few formalities: Cassells's supervisor, Criminal Intake Chief Johnette Hardiman, would approve a warrant, whereupon Marrero would be called upon to take the document to court and have it signed by a judge.

Indeed, Marrero has had the warrant -- complete with Circuit Court Judge Henry H. Harnage's signature -- since February 26. But he was forbidden to bring in Alvarez.

"When I called Yoss to arrange for Alvarez to surrender himself, he said, 'I'm shocked,'" Marrero recalls. "And I said, 'What do you mean you're shocked? I've been waiting three months for this.' And then he put me on hold." The next thing Marrero knew, he was on a three-way conference call with Yoss and Patricia Cassells. "She said she never approved the warrant," explains the incredulous detective.

Cassells blames the snafu on an overeager paralegal who called in Marrero and handed over the warrant before it had been properly authorized. Hardiman, she says, had agreed to meet with Yoss before a warrant was issued.

 

That meeting took place last Tuesday, March 4.
But although Cassells says the warrant has now been properly authorized, as this story went to press March 11, Alvarez had not been taken into custody.

The police detective, who had been calling the State Attorney's Office repeatedly since mid-January to inquire about the case, is baffled by the entire chain of events. "Yes, cases do take a long time to decide," he marvels. "But not this long.


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