In a dreary yellow living room, a gang leader named Rudy Villanueva leans toward a video camera to taunt the police. The word Cuban is tattooed across his forehead, and he waves two assault rifles above his head like a pair of trophies. "Metro-Dade gang unit, here I am, baby," he boasts. "Come get some."
Within days, the footage — which was posted on YouTube — began to circulate around the Miami-Dade Police Department. Cops took it as a challenge. Who did this ballsy felon think he was? You can't pack heat when you're a convict. This thug was going down.
So on January 15, 2008, a Miami-Dade SWAT team followed Rudy while he traveled in a Cadillac on a quiet South Miami road. His friends — who were trailing behind in a Range Rover — felt something hit them from behind. It was one of several undercover cop cars. Officers jumped out, pointed semiautomatic rifles, and shouted, "Let me see your fuckin' hands!" Rudy was pulled from his car, thrown to the ground, and cuffed.
It was one of those departmental victories that incited a media frenzy (cops, 1; gangsters, 0). Anybody who watched the news knew the name Bird Road Rudy. But the most compelling part of the story was never told.
Following in the SUV behind Rudy was a pudgy 30-year-old named Hugo Gonzalez. In the hours that followed, officers took him back to his million-dollar home, which stood on a one-and-a-half-acre lot in Glenvar Heights.
It wasn't a typical gangbanger's crib. A white electronic gate secured the front of the house. Around back were tennis courts, a guest home, and a pool that glistened in the fading light. The cops' goal: Find guns and drugs.
They found something else entirely: photos of nude young women, a disco ball, and sexy clothes strewn about. Stiletto heels and condoms dotted the bedrooms upstairs, a scene that was "consistent with a house of prostitution."
Sleeping in one of the bedrooms was a pretty 17-year-old former babysitter named L.G. She awoke, sat up, and told cops she was working as a hooker. The house was full of ladies like her, she explained, and Hugo was their pimp. He "required them to call him Daddy" and would "take all of their money," according to police reports.
A few hours later, detectives found porn clips of minors on a Mac, which Hugo had posted on a website called Newtothebiz.com. The site also advertised sexual services offered by the girls at the estate, earning him about $30,000 a month. It soon became clear the cops had stumbled upon one of South Florida's best-kept and most lucrative Internet prostitution dens. Hugo was arrested and charged with 34 counts of sex trafficking, racketeering, procuring prostitution, and sex with a minor. April "Diamond" Guadalupe — the madam, who also slept with the women — was also collared for sex trafficking.
At points, Hugo housed up to 12 girls in their late teens and early 20s. Most were runaways and former strippers from broken homes. At least two were minors. Ladies of the house were generally attractive, fit, and bisexual, with names like Giggles, Peaches, and Jade. They called the abode "the mansion."
In diary entries and New Times interviews with the prostitutes, they describe Hugo as a cult-like leader. He had sex with all of the women, forbade boyfriends, and financed their cosmetic surgery. Instead of violence, he controlled them with manipulation. "He's the perfect man," a redheaded escort named Pebbles says as if under a spell. "It was like a big family. Only kind of sick, if you think about it, because Dad and Mom were having sex with the kids."
Hugo is bald, has an underbite, and comes off about as threatening as a Sunday school teacher. This past September, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering and witness tampering. "I guess I was mind-fucking them," he reflects now. "The only punishment was getting kicked out."
Indeed, Hugo is rare in the annals of South Florida sex crime: He's still adored by his victims. Part shrewd businessman, part glittering patriarch, he ran something between a brothel and a halfway house — with intentions that can't easily be boiled down to good or bad. His is the story of the rise and fall of an illegal business, the strange culture inside the home, and the lives touched by the crime.
Says lead detective Tom Tundidor: "He took control of the girls at such a young age... Some of them may never fully recover."
Hugo counters he was merely a money manager, providing a safe haven for misfits who would have otherwise lived on the street.
Pebbles's mom agrees. "No parent wants her child doing this, but at least I could sleep at night knowing she was with Hugo."
Hugo was never the most handsome kid growing up, but he knew how to talk to girls. Just chubby enough to be nonthreatening, he had a winning smile and a mellow approachability. He made you want to tell him your secret.
"The rest of the boys had one girlfriend," remembers his father, also named Hugo Gonzalez. "But there were always two or three girls following Hugo around."
Hugo Olmo Gonzalez was born December 8, 1977, in Cuba. His dad was an honest government employee, his mom a homemaker. When he was 7 years old, the family flew to Miami in search of Hugo's grandfather. They eventually found him and moved to a middle-class home across the street from a canal in central Hialeah.
He had trouble speaking English and failed fifth grade but quickly became popular. Later, classmates from Hialeah Middle School often dropped by the house. "He never tried to impress anybody," remembers his brother, Handy Gonzalez. "Either you liked him or you didn't; it was all the same to him."
As a preteen, Hugo visited his godfather at a small bar he owned in Allapattah. He watched his mentor kiss two women on the lips — consecutively — and was surprised that neither gal got angry. When Hugo asked for instructions on how to pull off such a bold maneuver, his godfather replied, "Easy — just ask them if it's OK."
At Hialeah Senior High School, Hugo had to wear a bulky mouthpiece because of bad teeth. He turned his attention away from girls long enough to learn how to make money. A natural entrepreneur, he flipped car radios and took photos of weddings for extra cash.
By the time Hugo was 16, his quest for money got him in trouble. In September 1994, he supplied the pistol and the getaway vehicle while two friends robbed a pool hall near Melrose Park. They split the $1,200 profit three ways, according to the police report. (He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and received probation.)
Three years later, he used a stolen checkbook to buy $263 worth of electronics at BrandsMart USA and was caught when the clerk recognized the name on the check. (Again, he received probation.)
In his 20s, he married his high school sweetheart and went to work at Photo Lab in Miami Lakes. One day, a customer persuaded him to take a gig shooting photos of a porn actress for $400. It was "easy money," he says. So he drove to a big house in Plantation and snapped images of a naked woman next to a pool. In 2000, he scored a job with Adult Star Magazine taking pictures at a porn convention and an orgy. "I was like, Oh, that's how these people do this."
The next year, Hugo and a partner launched a website called Gstringphotos.com, where they sold nudie videos and made about $10,000 a month. The work led him to Booby Trap, Cheetah, and Tootsie's Cabaret, strip joints where he would hand girls a business card and recruit them for projects.
When the website fell through, he began pimping out strippers. "I put on some gold teeth and started with the nightlife," he remembers. His first girl was a five-foot-six-inch Brazilian dancer named Angel, who told her friends he treated her well. "It started to snowball," Hugo says. "Within a week, I had 12 girls."
Staffers at Booby Trap weren't thrilled about wannabe pimps such as Hugo hanging around the club. Joel Suraci, then general manager, says the racket began with "organized, scary criminals," but then the "little guys" moved in. Men like Hugo would "find the weakest girl mentally and emotionally and make her feel like she wasn't protected."
By late 2001, he had set up a two-bedroom oceanside penthouse in Hallandale Beach with a big screen TV set. Strippers would crash on couches and mattresses on the floor. They gave Hugo all of their dancing wages to pay the $1,100 rent, and he would rotate bedmates in order to not "cause conflict." Nobody was turning tricks back then. Hugo says, "Picture a sorority party."
A voluptuous brunet prostitute named Peaches stayed there temporarily. Asked why the girls would give him their hard-earned cash, she coos, "He's probably the sweetest person I've ever met. If I ever had any problems, he'd be there."
His wife, Nataly, wasn't the jealous type. For months, Hugo slept at both the apartment and their home in Hialeah. She even befriended some of the strippers, explaining, "I didn't mind at first." But then Hugo began to disappear for days at a time. "His family wasn't fun enough for him anymore," Nataly says sarcastically. "We got boring." So she gave him an ultimatum: them or her. Hugo chose them, and the two separated in 2002.
It didn't faze him much. He was becoming a big name in the clubs and "was pissing money away" on bottle service and luxury cars. "My favorite line to the girls was, 'I'm the closest thing to a pimp but the farthest thing from it,'" he grins.
Around that time, a pimp named Lulu noticed Hugo at a seedy strip club called Centro Español. Though Hugo dressed casually and drank only bottled water, he was constantly surrounded by beautiful Latinas. "I was like, damn, what does this guy do?" Lulu says. "He must sell drugs." (He didn't.)
In 2004, the clan moved to a $275,000 pad in Miramar. It had a theater room, a fish tank, and turntables. Hugo set up 32 video cameras around the house and planned to pitch his wild life as a reality TV show. "That alone drew girls," he remembers. "They all wanted to be famous."
Soon a tall and strong-headed escort moved in and showed Hugo "the ins and outs of the escort world," he says. She persuaded some of the younger ladies to become call girls. So in August 2004, he started Newtothebiz.com, posting photos of the girls along with code words for what they were willing to perform sexually ("going Greek," for example, stood for anal sex). It wasn't immediately a hit. For weeks, it garnered only three members. But after several girl-on-girl promotional "sex parties," thrown at the Miramar pad, the site's membership began to balloon.
Explains Hugo's lawyer, Greg Chonillo: "He is a brilliant businessman."
When the lease ran out, Hugo packed up an RV and offered traveling sex parties with the help of three girls, he says. They included Lily "Giggles" Real, a blonde who was prone to jealousy; April "Diamond" Guadalupe, a business-savvy Puerto Rican; and Maria "Jade" Orango, who had a labret piercing and preferred women. They turned tricks from Arizona to Washington, D.C., Hugo says.
Afterward — in search of stability — Hugo began to rent the mansion in 2006. With the help of their national tour, Newtothebiz.com had reached 3,000 members by 2007. Wealthy neighbors had no clue what was going on across the street. Says one middle-aged man: "I figured they were college students."
Newtothebiz.com members paid a small fee for porn videos on the site, but the bulk of the income came from the escort service. Girls put up profiles with "likes, dislikes" and charged $200 to $400 per hour. Clients would tip $20 to $100. All of it went to Hugo. At that rate, he was bringing in $360,000 a year. "The thing was starting to blow up," he says.
Pebbles wears pink hoop earrings to her "date" at a one-bedroom apartment in Aventura. Although her hair is the color of blood and the word forbidden is tattooed above her buttocks, the 24-year-old has a childlike presence. She smells like flowers and has sparkly brown eyes. Taking a deep breath, she rings the doorbell.
Her john answers. He is an overweight Hispanic guy who begins to talk about himself. He's trying to have a baby with his wife, he confesses, and has been under a lot of stress. Once in the bedroom, he has an unusual request: "Crush my laptop with your sexy feet."
Like an actress, Pebbles pretends to be strong as she stomps. He forks over $200 and she leaves without taking off her clothes. The call has been unusually easy. "The worst part," she says, "is never knowing what's gonna happen. He could have AIDS or be a psycho who wants to rob and kill me."
In Miami-Dade, the mansion girls aren't an isolated case. Upscale sex rings tend to pop up in quiet suburban parts of the county. "Why would people with wealth go to the ghetto for a hooker?" says Michael Berish, a retired police officer who worked 14 years as an undercover vice detective in Miami. "They've got high-priced call girls in their own neighborhood."
In a similar case from the mid-'80s, a brothel was operated inside a "really, really exclusive" Brickell apartment, recalls Berish. As with Newtothebiz.com, clients were admitted by recommendation. Well-paid attorneys, doctors, and politicians bought sex there. "It's the oldest profession," says Berish, who published a book about his career called Reflections from the Pit. "There's a market for it everywhere."
Teenage prostitutes in Kendall — not far from the mansion — made big headlines in the '90s, when authorities discovered a sex ring in the sprawling bedroom community. Pimps back then propositioned students at school bus stops, handed out flyers, and advertised at-home "delivery." Soon, cops across Miami-Dade began to crack down. In 2003, for example, Miami Beach Police made 60 prostitution-related arrests during Operation Clean Sweep.
This year has been a big one for prostitution busts. In February, cops busted an allegedly violent Miami Beach pimp named Rafael "Marco" Bernabe-Caballero for forcing immigrant women into sex work, using a website called MiamiUltimate.com. And just last month, authorities arrested a record 82 people over three days during Operation Cross Country IV, a sting that targeted those who profit from underage prostitutes.
Pebbles, who advertises "Come Play With Me" on Backpage.com, was the typical teenage prostitute: uneducated, abused as a child, and with no better place to go. She entered the world of escorting at age 18 through Hugo.
She was raised in a middle-class Hialeah neighborhood with a well-intentioned, if naive, mother and, from the age of 5, was molested repeatedly by her stepfather.
"If I didn't do what he wanted, I wasn't allowed to go outside or play with friends," she remembers. "My mom loved him, so it was like, 'Anything he says goes.'" When Pebbles talks about it, she stares down at her cell phone as if it will magically transport her away from that time and place.
Growing up, she sought any excuse to escape from the house. At age 16, she dropped out of Miami Lakes Technical Education Center in search of a husband. "I wanted to get pregnant so I could get married and get away from home." Instead, she got a fake ID and a job stripping at Gold Rush on Northeast 11th Street, across from Club Space in downtown Miami.
Her mother, Isel, admits she was too strict with Pebbles. She set a 10:30 p.m. curfew and made no exceptions. "She was a rebellious teenager, like most of 'em," Mom remembers, adding, "It wasn't like she lacked anything. We always had nice houses with pools."
While working as a stripper, she began taking Ecstasy, doing cocaine, and drinking. She chose the stage name Pebbles after the Flintstones character because they shared the same color hair. At age 19, she blacked out and awoke in the middle of sex with a couple she had never met. She asked them to stop, and they dumped her on the side of the road instead. She ran into an eatery for help.
After she worked for several violent pimps, friends told her about the mansion. Hugo liked her despite the cocaine addiction and invited her to move in. She lived there temporarily, and her young son stayed at the mansion from time to time.
Pebbles taps one of her French-manicured nails against her tooth and says, "I never liked dancing, to tell you the truth." Life at the mansion was better, she says. Hugo made sure her johns had been screened and weren't perverted or abusive. In fact, she can't recall a single case of an escort getting hurt by a client. "It was my safe house," she says.
If Hugo was a possessive father figure, he was also a cunning, meticulously organized businessman who ran the mansion with a strict set of rules: No johns or drugs inside. No talking to other pimps. No sex without a condom.
All the rules benefited Hugo. Women were allowed to have sex with each other but couldn't have relationships with men. Hugo, on the other hand, "would sleep with whoever he wanted" because "all the girls needed attention," Pebbles remembers.
The way Hugo tells it, he acted as a boyfriend to all the women. "Some pimps use fear," he says. "I treated it like a relationship. You listen to them and figure out what they need. Maybe one girl was neglected as a kid, so you give her attention... If you want something from them, you just ask." They almost never said no.
The house rules were enforced by Diamond, who prosecutors describe as the "bottom bitch." Anything Hugo wanted conveyed to the women, he would have Diamond relay it. She made sure nobody was being lazy or pocketing cash. "She was number one," Hugo explains. Jade and Giggles — who had been with Hugo the longest — were next in line in the unspoken hierarchy. They received the most attention and gifts.
Ladies were free to come and go as they pleased, but diary excerpts show they sometimes felt trapped. In an undated entry, Jade writes a half-poem in sharp, boyish handwriting: "So much rage/I am literally stuck in a cage/Someone has taken the key."
Diamond's penmanship is more bubbly. In her journal, she writes, "I love [Hugo] and this is his dream. I know I have to help him live his dream."
Using money from his hookers' tricks, Hugo paid rent on the home. He hired a computer programmer named Mark Alan Kiessling to live in the guest house and update the website. Girls were expected to work five or six days a week, with exceptions for sickness and STD flareups, but menstruation generally wasn't an excuse. Says Pebbles: "You use a cosmetic sponge. Trick of the trade."
Hugo contends, "There was no quota in my house. I never pressured the girls to work."
When escorts wanted material objects, they asked Hugo. He was usually generous, spending thousands on Louis Vuitton purses, breast implants, and jewelry. Many of the escorts grew up poor, and his "gifts" made them feel pampered and special.
He meticulously documented his expenses. In business files obtained by New Times, receipts are stored in brick-colored folders. He often scrawled notes to himself in his angular penmanship. On one piece of notebook paper, for example, he wrote, "Did dues," with a list of 24 girls below. He added abbreviated notes about their sexuality in the margin, such as "str8" or "les."
Another section, labeled "Hair," is filled with receipts for thousands of dollars in services detailing the escorts' physical upkeep: dyed hair, acrylic nails, hot waxes, and tanning. The receipts are photocopied and stapled neatly in the right-hand corner, with each woman's name labeled at the top.
He also kept a file with questionnaires for potential Newtothebiz.com girls. It asks, "Would you entertain couples? Do you have a car? Can you travel? Tell us about yourself..."
He even documented health costs: chlamydia tests, eye exams, and breast implants. "I was a bitch with benefits," Pebbles boasts.
Lead detective Tom Tundidor wasn't a suit-and-tie kind of cop. When he arrived at Hugo's home — two hours after the undercover bust — he wore casual shorts and a T-shirt. He could have passed for a high school football coach, if it weren't for the gun, the badge, and the 18 years on the job. Entering the home, he realized he "had never worked anything like this before," he says.
At 6:30 p.m., on the east side of the main house, "in plain view there were several computers and monitors," the police report states. "Some were on, displaying nude pictures of girls conducting sexual acts." Tundidor clicked on one of the computer files. A video of L.G. — the 17-year-old whom cops had found sleeping upstairs — began to play.
L.G. told officers that Hugo had "instructed her to have sex with another female on the stairs of the house" while his cameraman taped, according to the search warrant. Later, he told her she was pretty and asked her to move in.
Five hours later, the computer programmer, Mark Alan Kiessling, returned home. He claimed to be designing a website for Hugo but wouldn't give detectives permission to search the guest house. So Tundidor "secured the perimeter" and "camped out in the driveway overnight, typing up a search warrant." Cops then recorded names, phone numbers, and credit card information of clients, and copied the women's IDs.
Detectives soon took prostitutes to Starbucks and pressed them for dirt on Hugo. The girls defended their leader. "[Cops] were trying to say that he forced us into it," Pebbles says. "It was all lies." She explains Hugo didn't make them call him Daddy and that it was a nickname, "You know, like a boyfriend."
Later, officers arrested a Miami Beach psychiatrist named Evan Zimmer, a photographer named Felix Pabon, and Hugo's brother, Handy. Diamond, the madam, was arrested for sex trafficking and racketeering. Hugo's charges were the most serious. He faced more than 100 years in prison, along with status as a sex offender.
But two weeks after the arrest, he bonded out of jail. On January 30, he tracked down L.G. and instructed her to lie to investigators, according to court documents. If she didn't, "he was going to personally cut [her mother's] head off and mail it to [her]," she testified. (Hugo contends cops pressured her to make up the story.)
On February 12, the minor's deposition showed another side of Hugo. L.G. explained Hugo drove her to a sex store called Play Things, bought her a vibrator, and took her back to the mansion. There he gave her alcohol and suggested she make a sex video using the "gift." Hugo knew she was only 17, she testified. (He claims she lied about her age.)
Afterward, he told her: "You're really pretty. Would you like to live here?" She agreed, and although she was nervous, she had sex with the then-30-year-old in order to "practice" for clients. Over the next few weeks, her work included a threesome with a doctor, a sex show at a bachelor party, and oral sex with a regular client the girls had nicknamed HowIsIt?
Prosecutors then got hold of her diary, which is decorated with My Little Pony stickers. In it, she confesses her "first love" is named Vanessa and that her "goal in life" is to become a lawyer. A few pages later, using a pink pen, she makes a list of men's names — presumably clients — and draws tally marks next to them. In court files, the diary is labeled "Fuck book."
Another minor, a beauty school student from Las Vegas, gave a deposition in July 2008. She described how Hugo instructed her to have sex with a "fat," "bald" man who wrote critiques of the girls' sexual performances on the website. "As soon as he would write a review," she remembered, "all of the [clients] would start calling."
Three months after the bust, the State Attorney's Office filed Hugo's 52-page indictment. It alleged, among other charges, that Hugo had cashed in by "enticing, harboring, and transporting individuals to engage in prostitution."
Nearly all the charges were dropped. This past September 21, he pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit racketeering and witness tampering. His sentence: just under two years.
In a tiny room at Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, the echo of inmates howling in the distance is louder than Hugo's voice. His strong hands are folded in front of him, and he has a certain laid-back charm. With a cleanly shaven head and wide-frame glasses, he looks like a young professional. But his orange jumpsuit and the stale institutional air tell another story.
He's now broke and alone, and his fantasy life seems far away. The million-dollar abode has been traded for a cramped cell; the sound of girls laughing for the grunts of criminals. He spends his days reading and will "go for two weeks not talking to anybody."
Hugo frowns and says, "It wasn't supposed to end like this... Yes, I did it. I'm the bad guy."
He might still be running the business if it weren't for Rudy Villanueva, the gun-toting gangster from the YouTube video. They used to party together in 2007. Rudy was a boxer who approached Hugo about creating a website that would feature footage of back-yard brawls. The friends planned to call it Fightclub305.
Rudy was on his way to surrender to cops the day of the arrest, Hugo claims. He saw it as an opportunity to promote the website, so he followed in a Range Rover with a video camera. The ensuing crash would spell the end. His Hugh Hefner fantasy was over.
Asked about regrets, Hugo first mentions money. The girls are an afterthought. "I never meant to hurt anyone," he swears. He seems sincere, yet still proud of the playboy lifestyle he once lived. "Would I take it back?" he wonders. "No way."
In his hand is a letter from Giggles, the temperamental blonde. It's written on stationery with hearts. He reads it in a soft Cuban-accented baritone: "I just wish things could have worked out differently."
Hugo's father, an inspector for the City of Hialeah, has since "spent all of [his] retirement plan on [his son's] lawyer fees," he says. It seems to have paid off. In six months, thanks to the time Hugo has accrued, he will be a free man.
The girls will likely have a harder time leaving the sex trade. Many still work as prostitutes or strippers. Peaches, the voluptuous brunette, found "a normal job" as a cook, she says, but is having trouble adjusting to the long days and meager wages. Nobody throws tips at her anymore.
L.G. is back living at home with her mom and working as a waitress. The other minor has since been busted for burglaries, dropped out of beauty school, and returned to Vegas.
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In the meantime, Hugo's ex-wife, Nataly, has been raising their 10-year-old daughter. "Hugo will do fine for himself," she says. "He's a very smart man."
Pebbles's future doesn't look as bright. On a recent weeknight, she sits on the outskirts of a trailer park in west Hialeah, looking tired. Her sticky-cheeked toddler, crying and clutching his stubbed toe, climbs onto her lap.
Although she dreams about becoming a nurse, she's convinced the only way to support her four kids is by turning tricks or filming porn videos. "How else am I gonna pay for my babies and my bills?"
A week later, over the phone, she tells New Times she just got some bad news: "I'm pregnant again. I'm not gonna be able to work." She pauses as if she's waiting for someone to save her. "I really don't know what to do."