Hit-and-run driver Carlos Bertonatti isn't the only troublemaker in his family

Just after 8 a.m. January 17 on Bear Cut Bridge, the last link before Key Biscayne, a tired and drunk 28-year-old singer named Carlos Bertonatti drifted at high speed toward the shoulder.

Suddenly, his windshield exploded with a crushing impact.

Bertonatti didn't stop to see who or what he'd hit. He didn't slow down. Instead, he swerved back into the eastbound lane and stomped on the gas. On the side of the road, a mangled 44-year-old cyclist named Christophe Le Canne quickly bled to death as passing bikers scrambled to help.

Two weeks later, Bertonatti's crime is still reverberating in the Magic City, where a fierce debate rages about whether Le Canne's death could have been prevented with safer bike lanes, more money for fire departments, or better traffic cops.

But hardly anyone has really looked into the culprit himself.

Behind the flash-bulb smile and sparkling charisma, Bertonatti is a rich kid whose family repeatedly bailed him out of trouble, from more than 40 driving violations to assault and battery charges.

And he isn't the only member of the Bertonatti clan with legal problems. His dad, a former telecom exec, has been tangled up in nearly a dozen lawsuits in Miami, charging him with swindling insurance companies, a hospital, and a famous painter.

"Whatever you think of Carlos, it's absolutely tragic all around," says Daniel Wohlstein, owner of South Beach's Jazid nightclub, where Bertonatti frequently played.

Carlos Guillermo Bertonatti was born in 1981 in Venezuela, where his father, Carlos Alberto Bertonatti, worked as an executive at telecom companies.

The younger Bertonatti grew up wealthy in Caracas, surfing, playing guitar, and taking months-long trips to Bariloche, an exclusive ski town in the Argentine Andes. Bertonatti even trained as a member of the Argentine ski team, according to his MySpace page.

In 1994, Bertonatti's parents purchased a $470,000 condo in the posh, waterfront Mar Azul development in Key Biscayne. Bertonatti lived on and off in Miami as a teenager, bouncing between high school in Venezuela and life in the Magic City.

Nine months after he turned 16, Bertonatti was pulled over by Miami-Dade Police Officer Brian Benson after the teen flew at 63 mph through a 45 mph zone.

The ticket, which was later dropped with an $80 fine, was the first mark in what would become a jaw-droppingly awful driving career. Before he turned 18, Bertonatti racked up six more tickets — including two speeding violations in less than a month, for rocketing at 69 and then 71 mph in a 45 mph zone.

His family paid the fines, and Bertonatti kept driving. Six more tickets followed between his 18th and 21st birthdays.

In 2000, Bertonatti — then 19 — and his father were charged in separate assault-and-battery and disorderly intoxication cases. Both case files have been destroyed by the courts, which routinely purge old documents, so it's not clear exactly what happened.

Three years later, tragedy struck the Bertonatti family.

In early 2003, the whole clan was visiting Miami from Caracas, staying in the Key Biscayne condo. On January 4, Carlos's 14-year-old sister, Daniela, returned to the condo from a party. Her father later testified that an adult at the party had knowingly given her alcohol until she was drunk. Either way, that evening, she fell from the tower's ninth-floor balcony to the ground.

Miraculously, Daniela survived. But she spent three months at Jackson Memorial Hospital recuperating. During that time, she racked up a nearly $200,000 bill. The family's Venezuelan insurance company refused to cover the costs, citing a suicide exemption.

Bertonatti's father took them to court, where he began a lengthy civil fight against the insurer — Mapfre — and Jackson Memorial Hospital and the Miami-Dade Public Health Trust.

It wasn't the elder Bertonatti's first tussle in Miami civil court. And it wouldn't be his last.

Bertonatti was first sued in 1995 in a contract dispute. By 1998, two different suits — one with Bill Ussery Motors and another with a local Jaguar dealer — followed. In 1999, a national insurer sued Bertonatti after he tried to claim a $500,000 policy on a boat destroyed during Hurricane Georges. The company claimed fraud and said Bertonatti didn't try to protect the boat from the storm. Those cases were either dismissed or resolved with a mediator.

In May 2002, Jesús Fuertes, a well-known Spanish cubist painter based in Miami, alleged Bertonatti swindled him out of two paintings and nine frames worth more than $110,000. The two settled out of court in 2005.

The most serious charge came in 2006, when Luis Arias, the CEO of a local communications company called Blackstone, filed a suit that claimed Bertonatti stole his company's proprietary credit card processing systems. Bertonatti was an exec with Blackstone when his "greed overtook [his] loyalty," the suit charged, and he stole the system and tried to walk off with a global contract with Siemens. That case was also settled out of court.

As the lawsuits waged on, Carlos G. Bertonatti's music career began to take off. Bertonatti — now living full time in Key Biscayne — trained under a well-known Spanish guitarist and hooked up with Chris Rodriguez, a local producer.

By 2007, Bertonatti was playing regular gigs at small venues and coffee shops around Miami, including Jazid. Musically, Bertonatti had an even but bland voice, and his songwriting shot for John Mayer-lite acoustic ditties with titles such as "A Million Miles" and "It's So Easy." But what Bertonatti lacked in originality or skill, he made up for with good looks and charisma. He is muscular, tall, and strikingly handsome, with a wide smile and narrow eyes.

"His voice wasn't impressive, but he was OK at guitar and very charismatic," says Wohlstein, who began booking Bertonatti for weekly shows. "He was a great promoter, and he drew a lot of support. The chicks who showed up to hear him — it was amazing."

On his website and MySpace page, Bertonatti portrayed himself as an adventuresome playboy looking for love. He surfed and wakeboarded in one video and talked about his love for older women in another.

He never mentioned that in 2006, according to state records, he tied the knot with a now-32-year-old Miami native named Arlene Tur. Tur, a former professional beach volleyball player and model, is now an actress on the cable series Crash and has a part in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love.

Bertonatti's regular gigs soon turned into a national contract in February 2008 with Sony ATV and Epic Records, which signed on to promote his debut, Times Are Good.

The musical success didn't change Bertonatti's driving habits. He even joked about it on his MySpace page, bragging that he once flipped a car in reverse. Since 2003, Bertonatti has notched 30 citations, for everything from running a stop sign to driving without a license or insurance to skipping tolls and speeding.

In October 2009, following six tickets earlier in the year, the state finally suspended his license. That didn't stop him from blowing through a 50 mph zone at more than 80 this past January 8. He was cited for speeding and driving without a license.

Just more than a week later, he hopped into his silver 2007 Volkswagen Jetta early in the morning Sunday, January 17. Police haven't said how fast Bertonatti was traveling when he slammed into Le Canne, a South Miami resident, father, and avid travel photographer. But witnesses estimated he was going close to 70 on a bridge with a 45 mph speed limit.

When police arrested him — after he dragged Le Canne's bike under his fender for three miles, right to the front of his condo on Grape Tree Drive — Bertonatti refused to believe he'd killed anyone. "You're lying to me! Cops do that stuff all the time," he yelled as officers strapped him to a backboard and forcibly took a blood sample.

Bertonatti faces counts of felony DUI manslaughter, vehicular homicide, driving without a license, leaving the scene of a fatal accident, and resisting arrest. His first court appearance is set for February 8.

His lawyer, Susy Ribero-Ayala, did not return multiple calls for comment. The last phone number listed for the Key Biscayne condo has been disconnected.

In the meantime, Bertonatti is a free man. As usual — for $100,000 bond this time — his family bailed him out.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink