A Felony with That Croqueta?

On a recent weekday morning, in a small but impeccably decorated Coral Gables condo, Maritza Beato prepares for battle. At first glance, she doesn't seem like much of an insurgent. Dressed in a pretty blue blouse, blue beaded necklace, and blue slip-on jellies, her hair bleached blond and her lips painted an unyieldingly bright shade of pink, the middle-age Cuban-American looks more like the star of a telenovela. But beneath the mascara, there's fire in those eyes.

A few minutes later, she pulls up to Versailles Restaurant on SW Eighth Street. Things are quiet. Old men stand outside on the counter, sipping cafecitos and arguing quietly; a few look up incuriously as Beato clicks past them and into the restaurant, where she places about dozen copies of El Abogado (The Lawyer) — a tiny newspaper of which she is editor-in-chief — on a small wooden shelf filled with equally obscure periodiquitos. She turns around and heads resolutely out the door again, and she is gone.

Gone but, as she well knows, not unnoticed. Less than 10 minutes later, a burly, plaid-shirted man lumbers over from the bakery. His name is Orestes Raul Alayo, and he's well known at the restaurant; regulars greet him as he walks by, their hands stretched out to shake his as he passes. He proceeds determinedly inside, picks up all copies of El Abogado, walks back out, and places them in the garbage, front page up.

And so it has been for weeks now. Every day Beato puts the papers on the shelf, and every day Alayo throws them away.

"I have nothing to say about that woman," he says tartly outside the restaurant, "except that she is an hija de puta. That's all I have to say about her."

For decades, anybody with something to say about Cuban exile life has gone to Versailles. It was there that Miami Cuban-Americans waged war over Elián González; it was in front of the restaurant's storied façade that antiwar group CodePink provocatively called for the extradition of suspected bomber Luis Posada Carriles. When it was announced two years ago that Fidel Castro was too sick to appear in public, the place blazed late into the night with all the hope and fear of el exilio concentrated in one place. Versailles is to Miami as the Bastille is to Paris — but with pastries.

And that makes it perfect ground for Beato's editorial war on what she sees as the restaurant's dirty secret: a bullying clique of exiles, some of them felons, who've made it their second home. "Everybody knows about these guys," she insists. "But everybody's afraid of them."

El Abogado was started a year and a half ago by personal injury lawyer Jaime Suarez as a way to distribute news important to Hispanic lawyers and as an advertising vehicle. Suarez's handsome mug, along with his website and phone number, filled an ad above the fold on a recent front page.

Beato was hired as the newspaper's editor at the beginning. She was born in Havana, worked as school psychologist in Texas, and moved to Miami in 1999. She enjoys getting her hands dirty; her editorials have criticized school board chief Rudy Crew as well as board chairman Agustin Barrera.

It wasn't long after she began writing editorials, she says, when "strange things started happening at Versailles." Newspapers were trashed. One day her picture was cut out of the paper, scrawled over to give her a mustache and black teeth, and taped to the wall of the men's bathroom."They would harass me when I entered," Beato says. "So I began to investigate them." By "them," Beato means certain members of an informal group of old-guard Cuban-Americans who frequent the restaurant and refer to themselves as a peña, an old-fashioned Spanish word roughly meaning a social club or grassroots meeting place.

Just last May, the group bought a plaque and mounted it on a rock outside the restaurant. It was dedicated to "The Peña del Versailles ... those who meet daily in this restaurant Versailles, patriotic and cultural center of the exile, to contribute ideas and share the dream of return to the waiting homeland."

Beato soon discovered that at least a few members of the peña had criminal records. She decided to publish her findings in an inflammatory article titled "La Otra Cara de la Peña del Versailles" — the other face of the Peña del Versailles.

In the article, published this past January, she mentioned several patrons by name. One of them was Antonio Calatayud, who is a Bay of Pigs veteran, historian, poet, and member of the self-proclaimed Cuban parliament-in-exile. He is also a criminal, according to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle. In 2003, Calatayud was charged with defrauding the state's Medicaid program of nearly $300,000 in less than two years. Five years after the charges were filed, court records show, the case still hasn't gone to trial.

Beato also mentions Antonio Veciana, a Versailles regular convicted in the Seventies for drug trafficking; Alberto Gonzalez, editor of a local satirical weekly, La Política Cómica, who Beato says was charged with 12 counts of issuing bad checks in the Eighties (all charges were dropped); and Rene Avila, the retired editor of a New Jersey paper, Avance, who was convicted of tax evasion and served a year in prison.

And then there's Alayo, the man who removes El Abogado from the shelf at Versailles. A photo of him walking toward the camera as if about to rip it apart in his teeth accompanied Beato's article. And it is on his criminal record that she focuses most of her jeremiad. Since the early Eighties, Alayo has been charged with 21 felony counts in eight cases, among them arson, threatening to throw a bomb, and three counts of first- and second-degree murder. Charges were dropped or he was acquitted in all but one of the cases. In 1996, he was convicted of being an accessory after the fact and sentenced to 364 days in prison and two years of probation.

Beato describes Alayo as a bully who has enjoyed immunity for his alleged crimes while continuing to make mischief in and around Versailles. He is protected, she says, because of his connections to other powerful Cuban-Americans, including Versailles owner Felipe Valls: "Felipe is well aware of what this guy is doing."

"These guys say they want to go and take over Cuba," Beato points out. "Jesus, we have to topple these people before we can go back to Cuba and topple Fidel."

Beato says Alayo has slashed the tires of people he doesn't like, a claim she cannot substantiate. However, she's had her own tires sliced up twice in the past year, once at Versailles and then outside her Gables condo two weeks ago, when someone poked holes in all four tires and smashed every window of her PT Cruiser.

She found out about the vandalism when a Coral Gables Police officer traced her license plate number and knocked on her door at 2 a.m. The department is still investigating the incident.

Valls, who owns 10 restaurants in South Florida, denies he's protecting Alayo. "He never eats at the place; he hangs around there — you know what I mean? I don't know what kind of person he is. I can't accuse him of anything."

Valls adds that two or three years ago, he called the police when Alayo made an inappropriate pass at one of the women behind the counter. "I spoke to him and said, 'You cannot do that,'" Valls recalls. "And then we called the police. He had to stay out of there for a year.... He came back and he hasn't made any trouble. If he does, I will call the police again."

Carlos Muñoz Fontanills, honorary chairman of Peña del Versailles, says Beato's editorials against the peña are misguided. An enormous man, unfailingly vehement yet always kindly, he dismisses Beato's attacks on his group with a thump of his meaty hand. "This is not even worth talking about," he insists. "This is something personal between [Beato and Alayo]. It has nothing to do with the Peña del Versailles."

Fontanills has nothing against Beato. "She is Cuban," he says warmly. "She comes here to Versailles; she is one of us, one of the peña. Everybody is the Peña del Versailles. It is all of us who love Cuba."

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Isaiah Thompson