It was midday-hot in the tony neighborhood just north of Miami's Design District this past June 22 when as many as twenty snipers took aim with high-power rifles. A deep male voice shouted, "Get down to the ground!"
Minerva Vasquez hit the dirt. She pressed close to her doe-eyed, seven-year-old son, Prince, who had been sitting beside her at a patio table. Soon a black-clad, body-armored federal officer led over eleven-year-old Narcassia. She had been listening to Mariah Carey in the family's 1997 GMC van.
The trio laid still, face-down for twenty minutes. Then officers loaded Vasquez's husband, Narseal Batiste; and two co-workers who had been applying stucco to the home into a paddy wagon. Tears cascaded.
"It was like something out of a horror show," Vasquez recalls. "I was panicked, but my seven-year-old said, 'Just do as they say.' The kids were crying even before their father was taken away."
Thus began South Florida's most famous terrorism dustup since Mohammed Atta and his World Trade Center-bound buddies bickered with a barkeep at Shuckums in Hollywood. Batiste, the alleged leader of the Liberty City Seven, now sits in solitary confinement in downtown Miami for 23 of every 24 hours, his wife says. The 32-year Chicagoan's alleged crime: He and six others staked out buildings, pledged to "kill all the devils we can,'' and even swore allegiance to Al Qaeda at the behest of a handsomely rewarded federal informant.
Though no weapons, bombs, blueprints, plans, maps, money, or other incriminating evidence was turned up, Batiste's family is paying the price, reports Vasquez, a precise, brown-eyed 35-year-old. She is penniless. Their kids ages seven, eleven, twelve, and thirteen are crammed with four friends into a tiny one-bedroom apartment just south of Calder Race Course. Nine people sprawl on couches and floors there every night. The children have had to change schools, their grades have suffered, and the family is on welfare.
You probably remember the bust, a carefully choreographed affair the day before the Miami Heat's NBA championship victory parade downtown. It was trumpeted on television and in the press from Sydney to Siberia. For months Vasquez has remained virtually mum. But after three weeks of correspondence, Batiste's high school sweetheart, who carefully files her kids' report cards and favors a white head cover, agreed to speak for the first time about the case and her husband's background.
The entire affair, she says, took her family by surprise. Batiste, who has been almost unanimously vilified in press reports, is a gentle, charitable man and committed father, she reports. He helped set up fashion shows to benefit the elderly, and fed and clothed the homeless. "He feels that he has a calling to help people," she explains.
The two met seventeen years ago in Blue Island, a Chicago suburb. He was the son of a Louisiana farmer/preacher. She was born in Estancia de Animas, a small town in Zacatecas, Mexico, and came to the United States as a baby. She says she was bold. "We went to opposing schools. A friend convinced me to go to a dance, and I just walked up to Narseal and started talking. That was 1990. One of the first dates we went on was to a Baptist church. I thought he was very different, especially because I was raised Catholic."
Two years later, Giovanni, who will turn fourteen this week, was born. Nicholas followed the next year. Batiste studied modeling at Morain Valley Community College near their home and did some acting, once playing the millionaire in a production of Gilligan's Island. For three years they both modeled clothes in Christmas pageants. Proceeds went to the elderly.
From 1992 to 1995 he joined the Guardian Angels, mostly working on Rush Street, Chicago's skid row. There was no violence, though Narseal had studied martial arts since he was seven or eight years old. "They were just trying to keep everybody safe," she recalls.
Narseal's father married the couple in 1995, about the time Narcassia was born, and Prince arrived four years later.
As has been noted in a June 27 Miami Herald story and elsewhere, the death of Batiste's mother Audrey in 2000 had a powerful effect on the young man. He declared bankruptcy and reported earning about $40,000 per year with $11,000 in debt. The family moved full-time to his father's farm in Marksville.
But that wasn't the beginning of some sort of crazy fundamentalism, Vasquez reports. Rather "the kids brought home A's and B's. They walked in pride then, and we grew as a family."
Then Batiste's cousin, who lived in South Florida, "sold Miami to us" as a place for a new beginning, she says. They visited Disney World with the kids and decided to make the move. Batiste found a job as a garbage truck driver. He also refinished furniture. ("He could fix anything," says Arane Webster, the 57-year-old retired nurse who now puts up his family.) Vasquez worked part-time in an optical store.
Soon he began practicing kenpo, karate, and tai chi at Oak Grove Park near NE 149th Street and Second Court in North Miami. People asked him about this, and soon he was teaching classes. Press reports stating he was preparing a kung fu military squad "are preposterous," Vasquez comments. "He did martial arts with kids and old ladies."
In 2004 he was injured on the job when a metal rod from the back of a truck fell on him and he sprained his back. The company paid him a settlement, "not more than $5000," she recalls.
He used the money to open a construction company that would become Azteca Stucco and Masonry, renting a space in Liberty City, which would later give the accused terrorist group its name. His intention was also to start a church in the building near NW 15th Avenue and 63rd Street.
Batiste's religious beliefs in these years bear some examination. According to the Herald, he first followed a weirdo named "Master G.J.G. Atheea, the bearded, staff-wielding founder of an unconventional spiritual group in Chicago." In 1999 or 2000, Vasquez reports, he also became associated with the "Moorish Science Temple, a sect that blends Christianity, Judaism, and Islam."
Batiste "wanted to be a minister. He realized that this was his calling," his wife says, so they began a Bible-reading class in their $650-per-month, one-bedroom apartment. Soon three homeless families had moved in and more than 30 people were attending the sessions. "Narseal wanted to see the men be examples to their children," she relates. "He wanted them to be proud of their nationality.... We had black kids, Hispanic, European ... we even had one Chinese kid. It was multicultural."
Vasquez contends there was no racial or anti-American bias. Indeed her husband's great grandmother was Irish-American, and their son Nicholas has inherited her blue eyes. And, of course, Vasquez is Hispanic. Batiste was trying to inculcate "national pride" and nothing more, Vasquez asserts.
But it was about that time when the two federal informants joined the group and began taping the conversations that would land Batiste and his followers in solitary. One of the informants, referred to in documents as a North Miami convenience store owner named Mohammad, met Batiste in October 2005. Soon Batiste began talking about a "Moorish government in the United States," the informant alleges. He allegedly told Mohammad that Al Qaeda might help. This past March, a second informant, who posed as an Al Qaeda representative, led Batiste in an oath of loyalty to the terrorist group. The other six members of Batiste's collective did the same. Then came discussions about blowing up buildings including the Sears Tower, prosecutors charge, and Mohammad provided a video camera to film potential locations.
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Two details raise questions about even this scant evidence. The two informants were paid a combined $55,885 for their help and according to an article in the black-oriented Miami Times also received assistance in immigration cases.
"My question to the American people is: What was said to [Batiste] so that he would respond like he did?" Vasquez says of her husband's alleged terrorist statements. "He would never, ever, ever kill anyone.... He would never, ever hurt a fly."
Whether the government has more proof against Minerva Vasquez's husband remains to be seen. A trial is set for March 5. But for now the company has gone belly-up. Thousand of dollars of furniture in the Liberty City building has been vandalized or stolen. Tears come to Vasquez's eyes as she reports that this past August, she accepted food stamps for the first time. She also has had to take contributions from friends for gas and clothes for the kids.
Vasquez and Batiste's son Giovanni remembers that he was leaving trumpet class the June day when he learned of his father's arrest. He was angry. "For now I have no one to teach me to be a man," the thirteen-year-old says. "That sums it up."