When the two Miami Senior High School dropouts were finally captured by federal agents in October of 1991, prosecutors alleged that they’d amassed more than $2.1 billion in cash and assets by smuggling at least 75 tons of cocaine into the United States over the years.
But that was only the beginning of the legal proceedings against Willy and Sal, which dragged on for nearly a decade, dogged by law-enforcement snafus, doomed prosecutorial strategies, numerous incidences of jury tampering, escapes, murders, and other mayhem.
This is the fifth of then-Miami New Times staff writer Jim DeFede’s longform stories about the case, originally published in the paper's February 25, 1999, issue and titled “In Pursuit of Willy & Sal, Part 1.” The story picks up with Falcon and Magluta, already in prison on relatively minor charges, awaiting their second major federal trial.
Writes DeFede: Prosecutors are now presenting to a Miami federal grand jury evidence that former Falcon and Magluta attorney Juan Acosta was gunned down in September 1989 to prevent him from becoming a government witness against the drug smugglers. The three men who carried out the homicide pleaded guilty this past July and are now government informants, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Before reaching their deal with both state and federal prosecutors, the three men — Manuel Mattos, Gregorio Tuberquia, and Javier Cadena — were facing the death penalty for the contract killing. All three pleaded guilty in state court to the reduced charge of second-degree murder.
In a highly unusual move, their sentencing hearing last fall was closed to the public and the transcript of the proceeding was sealed. Although the precise terms of their sentences are unknown, New Times has learned that in return for their cooperation in developing a new case against Falcon and Magluta, the three men eventually will be eligible for parole.
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Embarrassed after suffering the biggest loss of a narcotics case in U.S. history, federal prosecutors in Miami are preparing a major new indictment against legendary drug kingpins Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. Since their failure three years ago in the original Falcon and Magluta trial, in which the pair was accused of smuggling into the United States 75 tons of cocaine worth $2.1 billion, prosecutors have managed to keep them in jail on a variety of relatively minor charges. The effectiveness of that tactic, however, is nearing an end, and federal prosecutors must either come up with a new, substantive indictment this year or risk having one of them slip from their grasp.
Falcon is in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, completing a sentence for illegal possession of a firearm. He is scheduled to be released in December and his attorneys are already making arrangements to relocate him to an undisclosed country, presumably one that has no extradition treaty with the United States.
Magluta is in a similar situation. Housed in solitary confinement at the federal detention center in downtown Miami, he is approaching the end of a nine-year sentence for passport fraud and bail-jumping, and could be free in a few years.
The prospect of either Falcon or Magluta going free is so personally offensive to some members of the law-enforcement community that they have devoted themselves over the past three years to building a new case against them using federal racketeering statutes known as RICO. Prosecutors are expected to allege that Falcon and Magluta, both of whom attended Miami Senior High, were in charge of a criminal organization that engaged in acts of money laundering, obstruction of justice, retaliation against government witnesses, and murder. If convicted they would likely spend the rest of their lives in prison.
Prosecutors are now presenting to a Miami federal grand jury evidence that former Falcon and Magluta attorney Juan Acosta was gunned down in September 1989 to prevent him from becoming a government witness against the drug smugglers. The three men who carried out the homicide pleaded guilty this past July and are now government informants, according to sources familiar with the investigation. Before reaching their deal with both state and federal prosecutors, the three men — Manuel Mattos, Gregorio Tuberquia, and Javier Cadena — were facing the death penalty for the contract killing. All three pleaded guilty in state court to the reduced charge of second-degree murder. In a highly unusual move, their sentencing hearing last fall was closed to the public and the transcript of the proceeding was sealed.
Although the precise terms of their sentences are unknown, New Times has learned that in return for their cooperation in developing a new case against Falcon and Magluta, the three men eventually will be eligible for parole. They have already begun appearing before the grand jury. Mattos appeared on February 10, and according to a source familiar with his closed-door testimony, he admitted being the triggerman.
Reid Rubin, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted Mattos, Tuberquia, and Cadena, declined to comment on any aspect of the case, citing the existence of an ongoing investigation. John Schlesinger, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami, also refused to comment. Attorneys for the three men either could not be reached this past week or were equally circumspect. Bruce Fleisher, who represents Tuberquia, would neither confirm nor deny that the trio was cooperating with prosecutors. "All I can say is no comment," Fleisher says.
The timing of a new indictment is not known. "They've been threatening it for months," says a source close to the Falcon and Magluta defense team. Falcon's pending release date may not be the only event pushing prosecutors. Another, more mundane, item is the fact that the grand jury hearing the case is near the end of its eighteen-month term; jurors are scheduled to be dismissed in April. Prosecutors, however, could ask to have the grand jury's tenure extended for a few months. In any event, an indictment does not seem far off.
In addition to murder, prosecutors are also hoping to include a charge of obstruction of justice and bribery under the RICO banner. These counts would stem from the alleged bribe paid to the foreman of the original 1996 jury that acquitted Falcon and Magluta. Prosecutors suffered a setback this past month when the jury hearing the bribery case against former jury foreman Miguel Moya failed to convict him. That case ended in a mistrial because jurors could not agree on whether Moya had taken a bribe. He is now scheduled to be retried April 5, and prosecutors hope that if he is convicted, they can pressure him to testify in the RICO case against Falcon and Magluta.
Convicting Moya has added significance for the U.S. Attorney's Office. Stung by criticism they mishandled the original trial of Falcon and Magluta, prosecutors are eager to make the argument that it wasn't their fault they lost the case.
During that 1996 trial, the government faced an all-star defense team led by Roy Black, Albert Krieger, and Martin Weinberg. Prosecutors would like to avoid a rematch in "Willy & Sal II." As part of its renewed assault, the U.S. Attorney's Office is quietly attempting to prevent Black, Krieger, and Weinberg from appearing on behalf of Falcon and Magluta.
Over the past few months, each of the attorneys — as well as every other attorney who has ever had anything to do with Falcon and Magluta — has been served with subpoenas to appear before the federal grand jury or to provide documents relating to their relationship with the two drug kings.
Prosecutors are demanding that the attorneys turn over billing and payment records, notes from interviews with various witnesses from the original Falcon and Magluta case, as well as all notes and records regarding jury selection for that 1996 trial. Prosecutors have even subpoenaed records from Falcon and Magluta jury consultant Sandy Marks.
Black, Krieger, and Weinberg declined to comment on the subpoenas or the ongoing investigation of Falcon and Magluta. In the past Black has derided the government's obsession by referring to it as "the case that will never end."
The attorneys themselves are not targets of the investigation, according to sources familiar with the case. Rather prosecutors are hoping the files contain evidence that can be used against Falcon and Magluta in a RICO indictment. By embroiling the attorneys in a fight for those records, and then possibly forcing them to become witnesses in a RICO case, prosecutors might block them from defending Falcon and Magluta in court.
Citing attorney-client privilege, the lawyers have refused to turn over any of the requested material. Both sides are arguing their positions through sealed pleadings and closed hearings. Eventually a judge will decide the matter.
This is not the first time prosecutors have attempted to dismantle Falcon and Magluta's courtroom dream team. Last summer they tried without success to have Black disqualified from representing Magluta on charges stemming from his arrest on the bail-jumping charge because Black's name and phone number appeared on some papers Magluta was carrying when he was caught. Black's response: "I just think they want us off the case so they have a better chance of winning."
No law has been a better friend to prosecutors than the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act of 1970. Initially passed by Congress for the narrow purpose of prosecuting traditional organized-crime groups such as La Cosa Nostra, RICO has been greatly expanded over the past three decades. Today defendants can be convicted merely for being part of a criminal enterprise that supports itself "through a pattern of racketeering activity," even if the defendant didn't personally take part in the crimes. The purpose of the law is to catch the bosses of illegal organizations, the ones who rarely get their hands dirty.
To establish a pattern of racketeering, a prosecutor must prove the organization committed two or more illegal activities from a long list of state and federal crimes. According to the statute, these crimes, known as predicate acts, could include not only murder, kidnapping, and extortion, but even comparatively minor offenses such as copyright infringement, misuse of a visa, or transporting stolen goods over a state line.
In a RICO case against Falcon and Magluta, prosecutors could offer the jury a laundry list of predicate acts:
- Murder: Prosecutors have focused on Acosta's death, but three other killings that authorities have attempted to tie to Falcon and Magluta could each be charged as separate predicate acts
- Obstruction of justice: For allegedly tampering with the jury that heard the 1996 case
- Bribery: For the money purportedly paid to jury foreman Miguel Moya
- Retaliating against a government informant: During the course of the Acosta investigation, detectives discovered that the same people responsible for carrying out that execution also tried to kill Tony Posada, a former confidante of Falcon and Magluta who became a government witness
- Making a false statement in application and use of a passport: This charge could apply to Magluta, who was caught possessing phony passports when he was arrested in 1991 and again in 1997.
Other predicate acts could be included: money laundering, wire fraud, and witness-tampering.
In order to convict Falcon and Magluta, prosecutors must first prove they were part of a criminal enterprise. Defense attorneys can be expected to argue that by acquitting Falcon and Magluta on the drug charges three years ago, a jury already decided there was no criminal organization and therefore any RICO indictment should be dismissed. But G. Robert Blakey, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, disagrees with that analysis. As counsel to U.S. Sen. John McClellan in 1970, Blakey was chief architect of the RICO statute. Despite Falcon and Magluta's acquittal, he asserts, prosecutors can still present evidence that their organization existed and that its purpose was criminal in nature. The 1996 acquittal, he says, doesn't mean there wasn't an organization; it just means prosecutors failed to prove the specific acts charged under that previous indictment.
After establishing the existence of the organization and Falcon and Magluta's role in it, prosecutors would have to show the enterprise committed two or more predicate acts in the course of doing business. If a jury, for instance, concluded that Magluta used a phony passport and that somebody in his organization bribed Miguel Moya, that would be enough to convict him and possibly send him to prison for life.
The man running the grand jury that will ultimately decide which acts to include under the RICO umbrella is Assistant U.S. Attorney Pat Sullivan, who, along with AUSA Chris Clark, tried the 1996 case against Falcon and Magluta. Sullivan is a career prosecutor who has been involved in some of the biggest trials in South Florida, including the conviction of former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega.
Colleagues says Sullivan approaches his cases in a detached, unemotional manner. One fellow prosecutor refers to him as "the Joe Friday of the U.S. Attorney's Office," not particularly inspiring, "but certainly competent." Indeed one repeated criticism is that Sullivan lacks passion for the job and even seems somewhat uninterested at times.
The case against Falcon and Magluta may be the exception.
"He is absolutely obsessed with Falcon and Magluta," says defense attorney Frank Rubino, who has represented members of the Falcon and Magluta organization in the past. Rubino, who also represents Noriega, says he likes Sullivan as a person but believes the prosecutor would do anything to keep the two men behind bars.
Coincidentally Rubino recently represented a man accused of being part of the Falcon-Magluta gang. It wasn't a particularly big case, Rubino says, and normally would have been resolved with a plea bargain. Sullivan, however, wouldn't discuss a deal that didn't include the defendant becoming a witness against Falcon and Magluta. "I told him I thought he was obsessed with Falcon and Magluta," Rubino recalls, "and he said to me, 'I'm going to get them.'"
Rubino isn't surprised Sullivan has cut a deal with Acosta's killers in an effort to nail Falcon and Magluta. "He'll give them probation, two hookers, and a steak dinner if he thinks they would rat out Falcon and Magluta," the attorney jokes. "Getting them is all he cares about."
Juan Acosta didn't usually handle divorces, but on this day, September 18, 1989, he agreed to see two people who requested his help dissolving their marriage. The couple arrived at Acosta's bland-looking office at 4100 NW Ninth St. shortly after noon and were greeted by Elizabeth Rodriguez, his receptionist.
Rodriguez put herself through the University of Miami's law school working part time for Acosta, and though she had passed her bar exam a couple of months earlier, she came to his office from time to time to help out when he was shorthanded. She guided the couple into a conference room, and a few minutes later they were joined by Acosta. After discussing the attorney's fee, the wife excused herself from the room on the pretense of going to her car to retrieve some cash.
Rodriguez took out her notepad and began to jot down information for the divorce filing when she noticed out of the corner of her eye that the husband had stood up and was holding a gun. "All I remember was a black gun, and it was very large," she related last year in a deposition. "The next thing I remember, Acosta had tried to give him his watch. I think he had thought it was a stickup, and he had a gold watch on, and I remember him beginning to take off the watch. And he had his hands up."
Moments later the man began shooting. Rodriguez recalled hearing three muffled shots (the gun was equipped with a silencer), but in fact the 62-year-old Acosta was shot at least six times. "The next thing I remember was Mr. Acosta on the floor bleeding," she said.
Paralyzed by the unfolding events, Rodriguez didn't say a word. A second man then walked into the conference room and spoke briefly with the shooter. "Get the girl," she remembered one of them saying, an apparent reference to the woman who played the part of the wife. And with that the two men disappeared. Rodriguez dialed 911 and waited in the conference room for the police and paramedics to arrive. They would be too late. Acosta was already dead.
The next morning Drug Enforcement Administration agent David Borah noticed a headline in the local section of the Miami Herald: "Slain attorney mourned; lawyer gunned down in his office." Veteran City of Miami homicide detective Ron Ilhardt told the Herald investigators were baffled as to a motive for the killing. Friends and neighbors of Acosta were equally dumbfounded by his violent demise. "He was very distinguished," said his long-time housekeeper Elvia Garcia. "He was very nice. I don't know of anybody who'd want to kill him."
Borah, on the other hand, immediately thought of two people who might like to see Acosta dead: Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta. At the time of the shooting, Falcon and Magluta were fugitives, wanted in both Florida and California on a bundle of drug charges. Borah was in the midst of building his own federal case against the duo and had spent years gathering evidence. As a result he knew that Acosta was one of the attorneys who helped the smugglers launder their drug profits through offshore bank accounts and dummy corporations in Panama.
Borah also knew that Acosta had recently been served with a subpoena to appear before a federal grand jury and that at the time of his death he had agreed to become a government witness against Falcon and Magluta. The DEA agent promptly contacted Ilhardt, and the two began a joint investigation of the Acosta homicide. As part of that endeavor, Ilhardt and Borah seized hundreds of files from the lawyer's office, the contents of which offered a rare glimpse into the financial workings of the Falcon-Magluta organization.
Investigators received their first break in October 1989, less than a month after the slaying, when an inmate at the county jail, Juan Carlos Correa, admitted he had driven one of the getaway cars.
Correa, a Colombian national who was in the United States illegally, had just been arrested on an unrelated matter and was about to be deported when he contacted detectives. He told them he could identify Acosta's killers. All he wanted in return was to stay in the United States, even if it meant staying in an American jail. Ilhardt knew Correa could be the key to solving this murder, but before he could contact immigration officials, Correa was deported to Colombia.
Manuel de Dios Unanue was an expert on the Cali cartel. The former editor in chief of El Diario-La Prensa, a New York-based Spanish-language daily, de Dios had written extensively throughout the Eighties about the drug organization. He had identified its leaders, printed their pictures in his newspaper, and published magazine articles on their misdeeds. By 1992 he was working on a book about the cartel.
De Dios's crusading style angered the drug bosses in Colombia, who sought to make an example of him. On March 11, 1992, the journalist was sitting at a bar in the Jackson Heights section of Queens when a gunman wearing a hooded sweatshirt walked up behind him and shot him twice, pointblank, in the back of the head.
De Dios's murder outraged the city. The police department mounted a massive manhunt for his killer. A core group of detectives, mostly Hispanics whose families had come from Puerto Rico and South America, worked the case during their off-duty hours. Eventually their diligence produced results. They learned that the man who had hired the gunman at the request of cartel leaders was a contract killer by the name of Juan Velasco, also known as Leopold Lopez.
Arrested shortly thereafter, Velasco admitted he had been paid to set up the de Dios murder and had recruited a seventeen-year-old Colombian to carry out the execution. Velasco also admitted personally killing two men in Baltimore in 1991. One of those men, John Shotto, had lost several million dollars of the cartel's money in a failed investment scheme. Displeased with Shotto's business acumen, the drug barons sent Velasco to permanently sever their relationship. As Shotto walked to his car after work one evening, Velasco approached him and shot him once in the temple.
Standing alongside Shotto was Raymond Nicholson, an innocent bystander who had nothing to do with the cartel or the lost money. It didn't matter. According to one witness, after blowing off the side of Shotto's head, Velasco turned to the driver of the getaway car and said, "The other one might as well go." The diminutive assassin then fatally shot Nicholson in the back.
Velasco had another piece of information for New York detectives. He told them that in 1989 he had been hired to kill an attorney in Miami. He had gone down to Miami to carry out the hit, but as he approached the door to the lawyer's office, his partner lost his nerve and backed out. A week after this botched attempt to kill the attorney, Velasco told detectives, the job was completed by another man.
The name of the attorney, he added, was Juan Acosta. The person who shot him was named Manuel Mattos.
New York City detectives contacted the Miami homicide office and passed along Velasco's information. When Ilhardt heard the news, he was eager to talk to Velasco in person and offered to fly to New York. But the U.S. Attorney's Office in New York had already swooped in and taken control of Velasco, stashing him in the federal witness protection program and refusing to share their prized informant with some South Florida cop. Two years would pass before Ilhardt was given the opportunity to speak with Velasco.
In the meantime, Ilhardt took what little information he had and, using a picture of Mattos, assembled a photo lineup for Acosta's receptionist Elizabeth Rodriguez, hoping she would be able to identify him as the shooter. The events of that violent and bloody day, however, were still too blurry for Rodriguez. She failed to pick out Mattos.
After a brief flurry of activity, the Acosta investigation once again fell dormant. Then one day in 1993 the phone rang in the homicide office of the Miami Police Department. It was Juan Carlos Correa calling from Colombia. Detectives hadn't heard from him since he had been deported four years earlier. He was looking to get out of Colombia. If they could arrange his return to the United States, Correa said, he was still willing to tell them about the Acosta murder. Ilhardt contacted Borah to see if he could help.
Initially Ilhardt and Borah tried to set up a meeting with Correa in Aruba, an island near the Colombian coast. Government officials, however, refused to grant Correa admittance. Desperate not to let him slip beyond their reach again, Ilhardt got a message to then-Attorney General Janet Reno, whom he knew from her days as Dade State Attorney, and asked for her assistance. Reno arranged for Correa to receive a special one-day visa to enter the United States so he could be debriefed by investigators.
So Correa flew into Miami International Airport on August 16, 1993, and was greeted by a team of local and federal agents led by Borah and Ilhardt, who took him to a private airport office where they met for several hours. Ilhardt and Borah tape-recorded the interview, during which Correa told them everything he knew about the Acosta murder.
Like Velasco, Correa identified the triggerman as Manuel Mattos. He added that they had been hired by one Javier Cadena. Ilhardt and Borah assured Correa they would work to relocate him to the United States. Then they put him back on a plane and sent him home to Medellin.
Mattos and Cadena weren't difficult to track down; they were sitting in a Georgia prison on unrelated charges. On August 23, 1993, Ilhardt, along with Miami Det. Nelson Andreu, confronted Mattos and Cadena about their role in the Acosta homicide, but the two men didn't say a word. The detectives tried to rattle them by playing Correa's taped statement implicating them. Mattos and Cadena still said nothing. "That was a waste of taxpayers' money," Ilhardt said of his trip in a recent deposition. "They didn't give us the time of day."
Approximately one week later Juan Carlos Correa was riding on a bus in Colombia when he was attacked by two men and repeatedly stabbed. He survived the attack and called Miami's homicide bureau. Detectives there knew they had blundered badly. By revealing Correa's statement to Mattos and Cadena, they had marked him as a snitch. It took no time for word to travel south.
DEA officials decided they no longer had time to fool with government red tape. And they certainly weren't about to plod through the legal morass of an extradition request. They wanted Correa in the United States and under their control without delay. So on September 21, 1993, the agency dispatched a Lear jet to Bogota. Ilhardt went along for the ride. DEA agents in Colombia had already snapped up Correa in Medellin and had him waiting for the plane when it landed in the capital city. The jet stayed on the ground just long enough for Correa to climb aboard.
He had no passport. No visa. No entry papers of any kind. When the plane landed in Fort Lauderdale, agents simply marched Correa past U.S. Customs and immigration officials. Nobody was going to stop them.
Through Correa and eventually Velasco, detectives were able to identify all key players in the Acosta murder. Manuel Mattos was the shooter. Javier Cadena organized the hit. Alvin Santiago stood guard near the conference room, and was the man Elizabeth Rodriguez saw walk into the room after the murder. Gregorio Tuberquia drove one of the getaway cars; Correa drove the other.
Correa also assisted detectives in solving another mystery. On the same day Acosta was executed, Tony Posada was nearly killed when his van was blown up by a pipe bomb. Posada, a former lieutenant in the Falcon-Magluta organization, had become a DEA informant and was prepared to testify against his former employers. Ilhardt and Borah quickly linked the two crimes, aided in part by the fact that a car Posada said was following him around the time of the blast matched the description of one of the cars seen leaving Acosta's office after the shooting. Posada even took down the car's license plate number, which investigators traced to Javier Cadena. Correa confirmed he was part of the group that planted the Posada bomb, and that they had made other failed attempts on Posada's life.
By 1995 the initial phase of the Acosta investigation was over. Juan Velasco was convicted for murder of the two men in Baltimore and his role in the Manuel de Dios killing. His cooperation with authorities earned him a relatively light sentence: fifteen years in prison.
Alvin Santiago was never caught and is believed to be hiding in Colombia. Juan Carlos Correa was ushered into the federal witness-protection program. And in May 1995, Mattos, Cadena, and Tuberquia were charged with Acosta's murder. With the first phase complete, state and federal agents began work on the next stage of their investigation: connecting the Acosta slaying to Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta.
From the moment he learned that Acosta had been scheduled to testify before a grand jury, Det. Ron Ilhardt assumed Falcon and Magluta were responsible for the attorney's death. During a 1997 deposition, Ilhardt testified that Falcon and Magluta's motives were obvious: "Acosta controlled all of the offshore corporations and knew where the money was. He controlled the money. That was a pretty good motive to want him killed."
Lawyers defending Falcon and Magluta have always denied their clients were involved in Acosta's death. In May 1995 Roy Black, attorney of record for Magluta, told the Miami Herald his client knew nothing about the murder. "This is one in a series of false accusations," Black said. "We found out awhile back that this investigation was going on, so we had a polygraph done on Sal Magluta April 13, 1995. He denied any involvement in this homicide and the polygraph operator found that he was truthful."
Today sources close to the defense say it's obvious that prosecutors do not have clear and compelling evidence of Falcon and Magluta's direct involvement in the killing of Acosta. If they did, the sources contend, they wouldn't be using RICO statutes to go after Falcon and Magluta; they'd simply charge them with capital murder and seek the death penalty.
But for prosecutors the appeal of RICO is that they don't have to prove direct involvement. According to legal experts, federal RICO statutes wouldn't even require prosecutors to show that Falcon and Magluta had advance knowledge of the murder, only that the killing was carried out in support of their criminal organization.
The U.S. government has long theorized that Acosta was actually killed on orders from cartel bosses in Colombia as a way of assuring the survival of Falcon and Magluta, two of their biggest customers. Key for the government will be finding as many links as possible between cartel bosses and Falcon and Magluta. But the difficulty of doing that became apparent in 1997, when lawyers for Mattos, Cadena, and Tuberquia deposed Juan Velasco. Miami defense attorney Joe Rosenbaum led the questioning:
"Who contacted you?" Rosenbaum asked.
"There was a person I know as Indio," Velasco replied.
"Do you know his real name?"
"Is he Colombian?"
"Colombian, he is."
"Do you know if he is in jail now?"
"I don't know where he may be."
"So this fellow approached you [in New York] to see if you wanted to do a contract killing in Miami."
"He approached me and asked me whether I'm capable of committing a murder. I said yes. Do I get money? Yes."
"This is before you had done or been involved in the other two contracts for murder, right?" Rosenbaum asked, referring to the Manuel de Dios and John Shotto slayings.
"That was before," Velasco confirmed.
Rosenbaum was curious. Why would Indio, a relative stranger, approach Velasco about doing a murder in Miami? What was it about Velasco that made Indio think he was a killer?
"I tell you," Velasco responded, "I have a strong personality and out on the street I'm known as capable of doing quite a few things."
"Did he know you were capable of doing murder?"
"Yes, I assume he did."
"Why were you interested in doing the job?"
"I needed the money."
"Indio approached you on the street?"
"You were just walking by, he said 'Hi' and that's how it began?"
"No. I was driving and he hailed me: 'Hey, hey, hey.'"
"And you stopped and you talked to him?"
Velasco claimed that Indio took him to meet another man, known as Ramiro.
"What did you and Ramiro talk about?" Rosenbaum asked.
"Ramiro asked me whether I could go to Miami to commit a murder, and I said yes, I could. Could I leave that same night? I said yes. And then he said did I know somebody who could go with us; I said yes also."
"Who did you have in mind?"
"A guy from Medellin who told me he was doing badly moneywise and that he would do whatever for a few extra bucks." Velasco said the man's name was Hugo.
Having missed the last flights from New York that night, the trio — Hugo, Ramiro, and Velasco — flew to Miami the next day and checked into a single hotel room on South Beach. The following morning they met with Javier Cadena.
"[Cadena] spoke to Ramiro, and since the room was small ... we could overhear part of the conversation," Velasco recounted. "And he told him that we're going to do a job there and that he would start with three people but he spoke about a list."
"You never saw a list?"
"No, I never saw a list, but that is what he said."
"When he talked to Ramiro, though, did you hear about the names that were on the list?"
"No. He simply said we would do three people and that two would be DEA informants and the other was an attorney."
"Did he tell you during the first meeting or did you overhear why the lawyer was going to be killed?"
"Yes," Velasco replied. "He mentioned something like he was blackmailing somebody else."
"Did you hear any names?"
"He managed to say something about a falcon, but I did not know to whom he was referring."
Rosenbaum pointed out that the conversation took place eight years earlier. Was he sure he overheard the name Falcon? Velasco said he was.
"How many times did [Cadena] mention the name Falcon?" Rosenbaum asked.
"You never heard the name before?"
Adding murder to the RICO charges that might be brought against Falcon and Magluta represents an enormous gamble for prosecutors. They risk committing the same mistake they made in the first Falcon and Magluta trial: relying on revulsive government informants. In this case, though, it may be an even bigger problem. In the 1996 trial, prosecutors used convicted drug dealers; this time they will be basing part of their case on the testimony of admitted killers. Defense attorneys will have a field day destroying the credibility of Mattos, Cadena, Tuberquia, Correa, and especially Velasco.
Witnesses, however, aren't the only danger for prosecutors. The defense may present an alternate theory as to who would want to kill Acosta, a theory that could prove embarrassing to the U.S. government. Acosta's death may not have been the result of an effort to aid Falcon and Magluta, the attorneys could argue, but rather to protect Guillermo Endara, whom the U.S. government installed as president of Panama after invading that country in December 1989.
Acosta helped launder Falcon and Magluta's drug profits by establishing shell corporations in Panama in the early and mid-Eighties. Assisting him in setting up those business entities was Endara, who at the time was merely an attorney in Panama City. Endara even acted as treasurer for some of the companies.
The irony is evident: The United States invades Panama to remove Gen. Manuel Noriega because of his ties to the Colombian cartels, and replaces him with a man who helped launder the fortunes of two of the biggest drug smugglers in U.S. history.
Endara's ties to Falcon and Magluta were first made public in 1991, though he denied knowing that the corporations were created to launder drug money. He also claimed he had neither met nor spoken with Falcon and Magluta. "I never knew them," Endara told U.S. News & World Report in December of that year. "They never called our office."
In February 1992, however, Manuel Noriega's attorney, Frank Rubino, told New Times that Endara had in fact met with Falcon and Magluta in the early Eighties and was well aware they were drug traffickers.
Det. Ron Ilhardt also touched on the Endara connection in his depositions. During his first session, on May 20, 1997, Ilhardt told Bruce Fleisher, defense attorney for getaway driver Gregorio Tuberquia, that in the early stages of the murder investigation he had interviewed one of Acosta's ex-wives, who claimed to be well aware of her former spouse's involvement with Falcon and Magluta.
"She told me who the middleman was," Ilhardt said.
"Who was that?" Fleisher asked.
"Well, I'm not going to say because the middleman is a very, very high-ranking political figure," Ilhardt explained. "In fact, the president of another country. And it's my understanding that the U.S. government may be working a case."
"You mean against him right now?"
"Yeah, and it might be an ongoing investigation. So I don't think I should divulge any information I may have in that area."
During his second deposition a few months later, on August 13, 1997, Ilhardt, who had retired from the force in 1995, was even more candid. "The president of Panama that the U.S. government put in was [Acosta's] tight man," he offered. "He was one of the original money launderers for these dope dealers, setting up offshore corporations and hiding the money and purchasing all kinds of real estate and stuff under these offshore corporations."
If motive becomes an issue in deciding Falcon and Magluta's culpability in Acosta's death, their defense attorneys might well ask jurors to consider who had the most to gain by his death: Falcon and Magluta, who were already fugitives? Or Guillermo Endara, who was in line to become president of Panama and who wanted to keep secret his ties to a pair of notorious drug traffickers? Defense attorneys could even argue that the cartel ordered Acosta killed not to help Falcon and Magluta but to protect Endara.
If prosecutors learned anything from their decade-long pursuit of Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, it's that during a trial, especially one in a Miami courtroom with a Miami jury, just about anything is possible.
Next week: Within days of losing the first Willy and Sal trial, prosecutors began investigating members of the jury, an investigation that culminated in the indictment of its foreman, Miguel Moya, on bribery charges. Prosecutors thought they had an airtight case, but this past month a jury failed to convict him. What went wrong? Click here to read Part 2 of "In Pursuit of Willy & Sal."
Originally published in the February 25, 1999, issue of Miami New Times. Click here to return to "Everything There Is to Know..."