What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends? Part 3

Nearly a year ago insurance mogul and multimillionaire Jose "Pepe" Alvarez became embroiled in a traffic dispute outside his Miami Beach manse. Things got a little out of hand, and before long he was reaching for his handgun. No one was hurt. Alvarez put away his weapon without firing it and drove away from the scene. Seems, though, his anger hasn't much abated. "He's still upset," says the politically connected bigwig's attorney.

Alvarez recently put himself in the hands of some gentle, empathetic folks trained to help him deal with all that residual anger. They've prescribed a nice helping of community service and some anger-control classes.

Of course, the classes and community service are more than therapy; they're punishment. As a result of his provocative behavior during the tiff, Alvarez was facing a weapons charge; a conviction would've earned him as much as 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. Prosecutors agreed to his program of service and classes instead of standing trial, thereby ending a mini-saga of political influence, bungled policing, and class conflict.

As chronicled in New Times ("What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends?" October 24, 1996, and "Gunplay, Part 2" March 13, 1997), the story began on August 2 of last year, when Winston Noe Curtis, driving a construction delivery van, nearly collided with Alvarez's Mercedes outside the insurance executive's house on Miami Beach's exclusive Sunset Island number three. Curtis, who is 24 years old, was ferrying supplies to a building site down the block. The two men shouted epithets at each other, then leaped out of their vehicles.

The combatants couldn't be more different. Alvarez owns AIB Financial Group, a conglomerate of eleven companies that deal in insurance, mortgage loans, and travel packages. He's handsomely wealthy, too, ranking 64th on Hispanic Business magazine's recent list of America's richest Hispanics. A community-minded type, he is also vice president of the board of directors of Mercy Hospital's charitable foundation, and he funded the construction of a Hialeah church. In addition, he's chummy with local and state politicians, some of whom have benefited from his campaign contributions. Two notable recipients of Alvarez's largess: Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas, who received $10,500 from Alvarez and his companies during the 1996 mayoral race, and Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, who received $500 from Alvarez -- the maximum allowed by law -- during her 1996 re-election campaign.

Curtis, on the other hand, emigrated from Nicaragua eleven years ago, lives with his wife in a small Northwest Dade apartment, holds two menial jobs, and dreams of one day becoming a police officer.

On that August morning, the two faced off ten yards apart. According to Curtis and five construction workers who witnessed the squabble, Alvarez pulled a handgun from a yellow pouch and pointed it at Curtis's head. "What do you want me to do?" Curtis remembers Alvarez shouting. "You want me to do something?" The men say Alvarez then got back into his car and drove away.

A police officer was called to the scene and began looking into the incident. At the same time, Alvarez was doing a little damage control. He was arranging for a meeting that afternoon with Miami Beach Police Assistant Chief Manuel Diaz and Det. Gary Schiaffo. At the meeting he told his side of the story -- that Curtis was driving recklessly through the quiet neighborhood, endangering the lives of children; that debris from the construction site had ruined his car; and that he did indeed take the weapons pouch out of the car in self-defense, thinking Curtis was going to attack him, but he never actually removed the handgun.

Schiaffo was assigned the matter for investigation, but after his meeting with Alvarez, and without questioning the victim or witnesses, he summarily closed the case. Several weeks later Schiaffo's supervisor reopened the investigation. "I'm not very happy with Detective Schiaffo at this time," he told New Times soon afterward.

The matter was reassigned to another detective who conducted a far more thorough investigation and forwarded his findings to Assistant State Attorney Patricia Cassells, who charged Alvarez with aggravated assault with a firearm, a third-degree felony that carries a three-year mandatory-minimum sentence. By March of this year, a warrant for his arrest had been signed by a judge, but Alvarez, surprisingly, was never arrested.

Credit prominent attorney and former chief assistant state attorney George Yoss, whom Alvarez had called on after recognizing that his personal plea to Miami Beach Police brass hadn't worked. Just when it looked like Alvarez was going to be hauled off to the slammer in handcuffs, Yoss contacted Cassells's supervisor, Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hoague, and asked her to take one last look at the case. She complied, and within weeks she had reduced the charge from a felony to a second-degree misdemeanor -- improper display of a firearm, which carries a maximum sentence of 60 days.

Hoague, who is chief of the felony division, argues that Cassells hadn't collected all the necessary evidence -- including Alvarez's statement -- before charging Alvarez. In addition, she asserts, the first police officer on the scene had interviewed the witnesses in the presence of one another rather than separately, perhaps allowing them to corroborate their accounts. "Their testimony was subject to impeachment" by a good attorney like Yoss, she contends. Finally, Hoague notes, Alvarez eventually admitted to her that he had in fact pulled the gun from its pouch, "so the only issue was whether the gun was pointed [at Curtis]." Hoague says she was swayed by the results of a lie detector test Alvarez took. On the test, which was conducted by a private polygraph expert, Alvarez showed no signs of deception when answering a question about whether he had pointed the gun at Curtis.

"I'm not really saying the victim was lying," Hoague clarifies. "I'm just saying that this was the most reasonable charge that could be proved with the available evidence." As for her consent to Yoss's request for an additional review, Hoague claims that it did not amount to special treatment. As a division chief, she says, she complies on "many, many occasions" with requests by defense attorneys and police officers to review files.

Instead of taking the case to trial, Alvarez agreed in June to enter the Advocate Program Inc., a pretrial diversion program designed for nonviolent first-time offenders -- "the path of least resistance," explains Yoss. If Alvarez successfully completes the course, the state will drop the charges against him. (Neither the Advocate Program nor Yoss would reveal the full details of Alvarez's obligations, although the attorney said it definitely included some form of community service. Prosecutor Hoague confirms that the insurance man is also obligated to attend anger-control classes. Alvarez himself was out of town and could not be reached for comment.)

It's clear, though, that Alvarez is not going happily. "He doesn't think he should should be subjected to two separate police investigations, stories in the newspaper casting him in a negative light, and to be subject to the possibility of an arrest, suffering the humility of having the charge filed against him and having to go into the program," Yoss reports. "He's still upset."

For that matter, so is Winston Curtis. "He deserves to go to jail!" the laborer hollers when told of Alvarez's penance. "He could've killed me or anybody who was there. It has to do with money! The guy's got connections; he knows a lot of people. His attorney used to be state attorney or something, right? He set it up real good. If I pulled a gun on him, do you think I would've seen the sun again? No way! Hell, no! I have no doubt.

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Kirk Semple