Fabio "Estefano" Salgado drove his midnight blue Aston Martin convertible down Biscayne Boulevard, across the Venetian Causeway, through the tollbooth, and into the driveway of his $7.5-million San Marco Island mansion. He passed the 12-foot-tall aluminum gate and entered the white modern two-story home with a commanding view of downtown Miami. Then he removed his shirt and shoes. Wearing only white cotton pants, he padded around the house and checked his e-mail.
Estefano, a trim, handsome man with a curly mop of dark hair, was just two weeks shy of his fortieth birthday. He had earned the opulence that surrounded him by producing records and writing songs for Gloria Estefan, Paulina Rubio, and Julio Iglesias. He was also deeply spiritual. He had recently been ordained as a babalao, or Santería priest.
It was 9 p.m. May 25, 2007. He was waiting for a Brazilian named Francisco Oliveira Jr., whom Estefano called Junior. The 29-year-old was five feet five inches tall and muscular; he had been convicted in Brazil on a drug charge, but since arriving in the United States in 2001, had lived a quiet life. Junior, who was married and had a young daughter, worked as a handyman at Estefano's music studio when he wasn't practicing jujitsu and karate.
That night, Junior was supposed to deliver some marijuana, which the songwriter liked to smoke while working.
The bell rang. Estefano buzzed open the gate and walked to the glass front door. Junior was standing there in a black motorcycle jacket, shorts, and leather gloves. He carried a backpack.
The two men walked into the large, sleek kitchen. Estefano hopped up onto a white marble-topped island, sat lotus-style, and said, "Junior, you seem nervous."
"Yes, Don Estefano, I'm a little nervous," came the reply. Junior removed the backpack and placed it next to his host.
As they chitchatted, the handyman reached into the backpack and in one quick motion, took out a silver handgun.
"Hey, Junior, put that away!" Estefano said.
Then an explosion rang out. Pah-poom!
"Junior, you shot me!" Estefano cried.
"You son of a bitch," the younger man shouted. "I'm going to break your head. I'm going to kill you!"
"Junior, it's me," Estefano replied, sliding off the island. "Think about your daughter, about your wife."
The handyman ordered him to kneel, and kicked his shoulder so he ended up on all fours. Then he shoved the cold metal of the gun behind his victim's right ear.
Estefano later woke up alone on the kitchen floor in a pool of blood. He had been shot in the head and chest. Rather than dial 911, he called a close friend — his studio office manager — who rushed to the house. Eventually he was taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital's trauma center. The bullets had miraculously skirted vital organs. In a strained voice, while lying on his back in a hospital bed, he named his attacker to police.
Before dawn, Miami Police officers arrested Junior and charged him with attempted murder. But in the months that followed, lawmen would learn there was far more to the case. Millions of dollars, Estefano would claim, were siphoned from his accounts by a Svengali-like businessman named Jose Luis Gil. The songwriter also asserted Gil had plotted to kill him with the help of a mysterious Santería church based in a $900,000 Kendall estate — which Gil and the church vigorously deny.
Estefano, a fiercely private man, suddenly found himself living a real-life telenovela.
Estefano's rise to Latin music's apex was steeped in a strange mix of pop music sensibility and mysticism. He was born in Cali, Colombia, and began writing songs at eight years old to escape the reality of growing up poor. Several years later, Estefano met an older, Argentine songwriter in a bar. Eduardo Paz would become his mentor. "It was a very personal apprenticeship," Estefano told Billboard magazine during a 2005 interview. "[Paz] taught me the magic and the enchantment to be found in words."
Inspired by his new guru, Estefano practiced his craft daily. One exercise involved composing 12 songs with one-syllable words. "That's how I learned how to write quickly," he said. Although he played guitar, he had never learned to read music. During his teens and early twenties, he made a record with an independent label in Colombia and wrote jingles for television. In 1989, he came to the United States, and after knocking around Los Angeles and New York, settled in Miami in 1992.
Around that time, he signed a contract with Foreign Imported Productions, a company owned by Cuban impresario Emilio Estefan, who in those years was the world's most famous Latin music producer. The young Colombian's timing was amazing; the Spanish-language music craze was beginning in the United States. Estefano helped propel it in 1992, when he coauthored two hits for Jon Secada: "Cree en Nuestro Amor" ("Believe in Our Love") and "Sentir" ("To Feel"). Both reached number one on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks chart.
Then in 1993, he wrote a song for Emilio Estefan's wife, Gloria: "Mi Tierra" ("My Homeland"). It was filled with catchy, old-school Cuban beats, and the album was Gloria's first in Spanish. It captured an immigrant's bittersweet memories of her homeland — especially poignant ones of Cuban exiles in the United States. "Cada calle que va a mi pueblo," begins one verse, "tiene un quejido, tiene un lamento, tiene nostalgia como su voz. Y esa canción que sigue entonando corre en la sangre y sigue llegando con más fuerza al corazón. [Each road that leads to my village has a cry, a lament, a nostalgia that's like its voice. And the song that repeats flows in my blood, ever stronger, on its way to my heart.]"
The song earned $1.3 million and topped the charts worldwide; today it remains one of the most popular tunes in Spain. The album Mi Tierra sold more than 5.1 million copies and won a Grammy. It was a springboard for the 26-year-old Estefano; his popularity soared in the years that followed. In 1997, he met a new mentor. Jose Luis Gil was 12 years older than Estefano and a producer/business manager for several Spanish-language artists. He was born in Brazil and split his time between South America, Miami, and Madrid. "Gil was a wonderful person with me as far as business is concerned," Estefano would later recall in court documents. "He always gives me the best advice, he has always taken care of me.... He's been with me longer in my career than my father. My father is not a businessman, and he doesn't know about this career. And in this career, you need people to help you out."
Gil had written a Spanish-language book about the music business titled Requiem por la Música, los Artistas y la Industria (Requiem for the Music, the Artists, and the Industry). Under the pseudonym J.L. Greensnake, he described working with big names such as Shakira, Ricky Martin, and Alejandro Sanz. And he detailed his disillusionment with the industry, which he felt was "selling out." He continued to work only with Estefano, whose "creativity was superlative."
In the late Nineties — the exact time is unclear — Estefano agreed to allow Gil to handle all of his business affairs, court records show. In return, the older man would receive a 10 percent cut. They never formalized this in writing.
The songwriter's reputation boomed. He wrote two hit songs on La Carretera, Julio Iglesias's first Top 10 album in a decade. He also penned tunes for Paulina Rubio and pop singer Chayanne — in addition to releasing two albums with Cuban musician Donato. Said Chayanne in 2005: "Estefano has known how to interpret my mind, my soul, and put it to song, and I consider that has been the key to the success of his work on my records."
Another key was his use of rich, romantic Spanish. From the Chayanne hit "Volver a Nacer" ("Born Again"): "Va creciendo el amor y en la ilusión se nos queda la piel amándonos. Es volver a nacer cuando tú y yo estamos juntos. [Love is growing, and in the illusion our carnal love remains. It's like being born again when you and I are together.]"
"He was all about speaking good Spanish," recalls Jose Pagan, who co-wrote songs with Estefano between 2002 and 2005. "It was very unique. Before I met him, I could write songs in Spanish, but after working with him, I had another way of seeing the words. He treated the songs like poetry."
Estefano's talent won him a cabinetful of prizes. He took home the BMI Latin Music Award for Songwriter of the Year in 2000, 2002, 2003, and 2004; in 2005, he tied for the honor with his old mentor, Emilio Estefan.
But there was a mysterious side to Estefano that the pop music world and tabloids knew little about: his association with Santería. Glimpses of his interest in the ancient Afro-Caribbean religion popped up in a few places. Spanish magazine Loft pictured him wearing all white and draped with red rosarylike beads — like a babalao. In 2000, a music video for one of his songs included images of Santería altars intertwined with that of a sexy woman on a bed.
The genesis of his interest in Santería is unclear, though there are indications it had something to do with Gil; the business manager and mentor was an expert on the Afro-Caribbean religion. (Both Estefano and Gil declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story, referring comment to their lawyers.)
In 2007, again under the name J.L. Greensnake, Gil penned a popular book called Brujo, Espiritu y Santo (Witches, Spirits and Saints). The 238-page tome described the inner workings of the Ochosi Yoruba Church in Kendall, which Estefano began attending around 2000. It profiled the church's leader, or padrino, Andres Suarez, who is called Andres Ochosi, and traced the history of Santería and a similar faith called Palo from Africa to the New World. In ethereal, sometimes incomprehensible language, it talks about judging a "balance" between "the dreams and the living, good and bad — magical reality."
Estefano's office manager, Odisa Beltran, would later testify that her boss once brought her to the Kendall church named in the book and that its leaders visited the studio often. Estefano would "disappear" occasionally and return with his normally long, black locks shaved off. "Very short hair, and he was wearing white," Beltran explained. "I knew that that's a way in Cuba of being a santo, or saint."
In 2005, Estefano seemed to reach the pinnacle of his career. He moved from a small studio in North Miami-Dade to a 16,000-square-foot facility at 5020 Biscayne Blvd. on the edge of Little Haiti. The sleek white building looked a bit like the San Marco Island home he bought two years before: white, modern, and sterile.
Aluminum doors greeted visitors at the front and back entrances, and a high ficus hedge provided a barrier to prying paparazzi. "This was my dream," Estefano told Billboard, "to have a place to make music where all creative energy could reach its full potential.... This is the place I dreamt of having all my life."
But suddenly there was failure. In 2005, Estefano released his own album, Codigo Personal: A Media Vida (Personal Code: At Midlife). He told the San Antonio Express-News it was a work that came from "the spiritual processes" of his life. Though it received worldwide distribution, the most popular single, "Un Hombre Que No Ha Sido el de Tus Sueños" ("A Man Who Has Not Been the One of Your Dreams"), peaked at number 19 on the Billboard Hot Latin Tracks and then disappeared. Critics loved the cleverly worded songs but nailed Estefano's vocals. "Codigo Personal is missing one hallmark of his work: an electrifying singer with spark, sizzle, and spice," wrote Jason Birchmeier of All Music Guide. "Put another way, Estefano is no Paulina Rubio."
Estefano must have been hurt by the criticism. He had given dozens of interviews prior to the album's release, but didn't speak with Billboard or anyone else about the disc's lackluster performance.
Then came an even bigger flop. Expectations were high when Sony BMG paired him with actress/singer/dance music goddess Jennifer Lopez on her first Spanish-language album. Lopez, who married fellow Puerto Rican Marc Anthony in 2004, wanted to return to her musical roots.
Estefano wrote 10 of the 12 tracks on Como Ama una Mujer (How a Woman Loves), which was released in early 2007. One tune affected Lopez so much that she wept as she sang and had to take a break in the studio. Another song, "Por Arriesgarnos" ("To Risk Ourselves"), included a Lopez and Anthony duet.
But mainstream critics who normally loved Lopez's pop sound universally panned the album. "Torpor, it turns out, really is the universal language," sniffed Entertainment Weekly, which gave the disc a C+.
It got worse. During the first few months of 2007, Estefano was having financial troubles at the Biscayne Boulevard studio, Beltran would later testify. By the end of each month, there was hardly enough money to make payroll or pay bills. "We were always struggling with money," she explained.
It seemed the problems might end when Estefano planned to receive two payments totaling $3.3 million from a songwriting contract with Sony. The money was supposed to be sent to accounts controlled by Gil and then forwarded to Estefano.
But very little of it arrived, so Estefano telephoned Gil to inquire. He was "met with delays, excuses, lectures, and a lot of resistance," says the songwriter's lawyer, Jay Thornton. This call, according to court records, might have been the fuse that lit the powder keg of Estefano's shooting.
Though Gil eventually released a few hundred thousand dollars, that money didn't last long. Estefano went to Colombia for a couple of weeks in May and then took a cruise with a girlfriend named Natalia. He returned to Miami during the week of May 20 and immediately began writing. An insomniac, Estefano enjoyed working at night. Which is why, on May 25, when he left the studio at 9 p.m. to meet up with his handyman Junior, he had every intention of returning to the studio before dawn.
As Estefano lay on the kitchen floor in a pool of his own blood, he faded in and out of consciousness. "When he shoots me, I feel the burn in my head, I feel the explosion in my head," Estefano would later recall. "I lose consciousness and that's it."
He knew he had to get to his cell phone, and to do that he had to crawl across the house. Smearing blood on the walls and floor, he circled the kitchen and living room. "I was like a monster," Estefano later testified.
He found the phone on a counter, but instead of dialing 911, he called Beltran. "I screamed at her," Estefano recalled. "I said, 'Odisa, Junior shot me!'"
Then he blacked out.
Estefano couldn't explain why he phoned the office manager instead of paramedics. Perhaps it was because he knew that her husband, Rene Ruiz, was a doctor. The couple arrived about 40 minutes later — they live in the western part of the county. They were horrified upon entering the bayside mansion. Beltran immediately called 911, and her husband tried to stanch Estefano's bleeding with compresses.
Soon Junior's fate was sealed. At the house, as paramedics wheeled the wounded songwriter into an ambulance, Beltran told police that Estefano had named the handyman. Officers headed to the studio, where a videotape showed Junior dropping off a truck and picking up the motorcycle. Finally, from his hospital bed, Estefano told cops that Junior was his attacker.
Around 2 a.m., detectives drove to the handyman's apartment building on NE 13th Avenue at Second Street. They took him to the police station just a mile away and charged him with attempted murder, a second-degree felony with a maximum sentence of life in prison.
In the days that followed, Estefano accepted only a few visitors: Beltran, the Santería padrino, Andres Suarez, and Suarez's son, Andres Jr.
Strangely, though Gil had flown to Miami from Spain after hearing about the shooting, he never visited the hospital.
The Ochosi Yoruba Church is headquartered in a large salmon-colored home on SW 129th Avenue at 38th Street in West Kendall. Surrounded by a six-foot-tall white metal fence, it's difficult to discern that it's a house of worship. Like the other homes on the street, there's a lush green lawn and well-manicured tropical foliage surrounding the house. A black Hummer and silver Porsche SUV are parked in the circular driveway.
The only details that distinguish it from the other Mediterranean-style homes in the neighborhood are a deer head above the front door, a white statue of a saint on the grass, and the word Ochosi printed in black letters on the front of the building.
Around 2000, Gil and his former musical partner, Donato, introduced Estefano to the place, according to court documents. And it was there that Estefano became a Santería priest. He became so devoted that he donated a black Hummer to Suarez. And he invited the padrino to an awards ceremony in Las Vegas in 2007.
Junior also attended the Ochosi church, the songwriter's attorneys assert. (Though defense lawyer H. Frank Rubio says his client "had no connection to the church.")
Gil had paved Junior's way into the United States by urging Estefano to petition for a work visa for him and then hire him to work as a handyman at the studio. At first, he and Estefano got along well. Junior loved to tell the songwriter about martial arts, motorcycles, and cars. Gil paid the muscular young man for keeping everything in working order and running errands. "He was a great worker," Estefano said.
Indeed Junior had no criminal record in Florida until he was charged with trying to kill the songwriter.
On June 13, 2007 — about three weeks after the shooting — cops interviewed Estefano. He'd become understandably obsessed with his safety. He was apparently staying in a rented condo — and at the same time had contracted a security firm at a cost of $30,000 to patrol his San Marco Island home. He could barely hear because one of the bullets had grazed his right eardrum. And his face and head were bruised and scarred from the bullet wound.
The detectives nevertheless pressed for clues: Had there been any business disputes or contract issues? Beefs with other artists?
Estefano shook his head. He didn't mention the frosty discussions with Gil over money some months back. "I'm neither a reggaetonero or a rapper," he told them in Spanish. "It's not that kind of business. Not at all! Not at all, not at all.... I would love to know the motive, the reason of this. The only thing I ask God is to know why this happened."
Estefano wondered whether Junior was worried about losing his job. Another man had been doing odd jobs around the studio, he explained. That theory gained credence when the songwriter described how Junior had been rude to Natalia, Estefano's girlfriend, shortly before the shooting.
When the detectives asked about Gil, the answer was emphatic: "This man has been with me from the heart, because another one would have torn my soul and charged me."
But Estefano had hired two lawyers — Thornton and Neil Taylor — who, along with Assistant State Attorneys Alicia Garcia and Michael Von Zamft, would make significant progress in determining Junior's motive. They would also discover clues to the possible role of both Gil and the Ochosi church in the shooting. By reviewing financial and court records, as well as interviewing principals in the case, they would learn the following, according to court records:
• Junior called the son of the Santería church leader, Andres Suarez Jr., a couple of hours after the shooting on May 25. They spoke for two minutes.
• After receiving money from Gil, the church paid Rubio $136,000 to defend Junior.
• Gil wired Junior's wife, Andrea Romer, $3,000 less than a month after Junior's arrest.
• For several years before the shooting, Gil had placed large amounts of Estefano's Sony contract money into Panama-based banks without the songwriter's knowledge; Junior was authorized to draw money from those accounts.
"We got a signature card, and guess who signed it?" Taylor recalls. "The handyman: Junior. And who authorized him to sign it? Gil.
"That was how the whole thing unfolded."
On November 13, 2007, nearly six months after the shooting, Estefano sued Gil in civil court, claiming his mentor had "stolen assets and diverted money to a Santería organization and its principals." The Brazilian had engineered the murder plot to cover up the theft, court documents claimed.
A month later, the songwriter amended his lawsuit. Some of the cash had been turned over to the Ochosi church and Andres Suarez Sr. and Jr., he claimed. "It appears Estefano was betrayed in unimaginable ways by people who had been close to him," Thornton says. "The thing is, had the church asked my client for money, he would have given them some. Not millions of it, though."
Gil and the church leaders responded that they had done nothing wrong. He could prove he didn't steal money, song rights, or anything else. Junior's withdrawals from the Panamanian banks were spent on studio upkeep. "[Estefano] may even owe Gil money," wrote Luis Delgado, Gil's attorney, in a motion.
Estefano had given money to the church willingly, added Delgado. There was no chicanery.
The civil case dragged on for months and grew nastier by the day. Bank documents, phone records, e-mails, and notes were demanded. Church attorneys claimed Estefano's assertions of theft and attempted murder were "libelous." Among the allegations made by the church: Estefano had put a "hex" on Emilio Estefan because of an earlier contract dispute. Estefano was depicted as paranoid and crazy.
In March, church attorneys threatened to release an embarrassing video of Estefano participating in a Santería ceremony unless the songwriter dropped his legal assault. "You suggested that Estefano should reconsider his lawsuit to spare himself the embarrassment," Thornton replied. "[He] is not intimidated by such threats."
But maybe he was. On April 16, the day before the video and other detailed testimony were to be presented in court, Estefano, Gil, and the Santería church settled the case. Terms were confidential, but all sides declared victory. "Estefano wants to move on with his life," Thornton says. "Civil litigation is very taxing emotionally and financially. This case could have dragged on for years and could have cost him millions."
Gil released a statement calling the criminal allegations "absurd, inexact fantasies." Church leaders declined to comment.
Rubio said the settlement benefited Junior. "If Estefano's allegations of a plot to kill him were true, why would he ever settle [the civil] case?" the lawyer asks.
Estefano has been through several surgeries to correct wounds to his head. He is no longer active in the church or with Santería. "He's just happy and thankful to be alive," Thornton says. "He wants to be known for his talent, his songwriting."
Junior remains in jail without bond even though a handful of friends and family has testified on his behalf. "He's a very peaceful guy," says Samuel Franklin McCoy, a Boca Raton police officer who knew Junior from a jujitsu class. "He never did anything negative."
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The attempted murder trial is scheduled for June. It won't be easy to prosecute. Police made a mistake: They didn't get a warrant to search Junior's home, so they never found his clothes, the backpack, or the gun. Plus the alleged shooter didn't have any gunpowder residue on his hands.
But the question that hangs in the balance is this: Will Gil or anyone from the church be charged in connection with the shooting? Will Estefano's allegations that Gil, Suarez, and Junior conspired in a plot to kill him ever be disclosed to a jury?
Prosecutors remain mum, but Estefano's attorney Taylor "anticipates more arrests.... I have no doubt there's going to be a reckoning."
Since the shooting, Estefano has avoided reporters, awards ceremonies, and concerts, instead immersing himself in the safe world of pen and paper, of words and songs.