Willy & Sal, Episode 7: Right Out of a Movie

A courtroom illustration from Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami
A courtroom illustration from Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami Illustration courtesy of Netflix
Editor’s note: Below is the seventh of ten in-depth stories Miami New Times published about the federal government's dogged pursuit of Augusto Falcon and Salvador Magluta — AKA Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta, AKA Willy and Sal, AKA "Los Muchachos," AKA "The Boys" — two Cuban-American boyhood friends from Miami who grew up to head what was alleged to be the most lucrative cocaine empire in South Florida for nearly 20 years beginning in the late 1970s.

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 column by then-Miami New Times staff writer Jim DeFede, was originally published in the paper's August 27, 1998, issue and titled “Right Out of a Movie.” The column describes the undercover federal investigation that led to the arrest of Miguel Moya, who, investigators had learned, took a $500,000 bribe to sway the jury to acquit Willy and Sal of all charges in their 1996 trial.

Writes DeFede:

Now, it seems, a bit of revisionist history is creeping into the retelling of that infamous trial. Scott declared during his press conference that, had Moya not been bribed, Falcon and Magluta would have been convicted. The Herald interviewed another juror, Darrell Weekley, who with remarkable hindsight now claims that Moya directed all discussion in the jury room and that the other jurors followed him like sheep.

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Last month Miguel Moya was walking to his car in an employee-only parking lot at Miami International Airport when he was approached by a large and rather ominous-looking fellow. The man stood approximately six feet four inches tall and appeared to weigh in excess of 300 pounds. His face was pinched into a scowl, as if he had just gulped down some curdled milk. His demeanor was just as sour.

"I'm from Willy and Sal's people," the man growled as they stood alongside Moya's car.

Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta were reputed to be two of the biggest drug smugglers in U.S. history. They were accused of importing 75 tons of cocaine — two billion dollars' worth — into the United States during the Eighties and early Nineties. They were legends, mythic figures in both the drug and law-enforcement communities.

There was no need, however, for this hulking beast to recite Willy's and Sal's pedigrees to Moya. Over the course of their four-month federal trial in late 1995 and early 1996, Moya served as foreman of the jury that ultimately acquitted "the boys," as they were known, on sixteen different charges. It was the biggest drug-trafficking trial ever lost by federal prosecutors anywhere in the country.

Moya, a balding 35-year-old ramp mechanic, stood about seven inches shorter than his unwelcome visitor and had to crane his neck in order to look him in the eye — or at least to look him in the chin. The man told Moya there was a problem and showed him a piece of paper. He said it was a copy of a secret federal indictment that accused Moya of taking a bribe in the Willy and Sal case. He'd obtained it by paying off someone at the courthouse. Moya said he didn't know what the man was talking about and that he never took any money.

The man grew insistent: What did you do with the money we gave you?

Moya again protested that he hadn't taken any money.

The man jabbed his finger at the paper and told Moya that the indictment alleged he'd recently bought a house in the Keys.

Moya responded that his parents bought the house.

The indictment also claimed that Moya purchased a Rolex watch. How could Moya afford a Rolex watch?

"I worked for that," Moya replied.

And the trip to Hawaii? The man told Moya authorities knew about his two-week excursion. Did Moya think the feds were stupid? Didn't he know they would be watching him after the verdict?

Moya told the man he paid for that trip with his credit card.

Moya's protestations of innocence angered the man. "You're playing games with me," he snarled. "You're playing games. I guess I'll have to tell Willy and Sal you're playing games."

As he prepared to walk away, the man asked Moya another question: "Did you ever see the movie Pulp Fiction?"

Moya said he hadn't.

"Well, I'm Wolf." He then explained that Wolf was a hired killer called in to clean up after other people's mistakes. Moya was making a mistake, the man warned. Moya was in fact becoming a mess that he might have to clean up, he said menacingly.

Once again he pointed to the secret indictment and asked Moya what he intended to do about it. "I don't know," Moya responded, his pleas of ignorance quickly evaporating.

The man told Moya there was a good chance prosecutors would try to make a deal with him, a deal in which they would want Moya to implicate Willy and Sal in the bribery scheme. Moya said he'd "take twenty years" in prison before he'd ever do something like that. He would never reveal where the money came from. "That goes down with me," Moya insisted.

Then the man informed Moya that Willy and Sal had arranged for an accountant to meet with him so they could figure out a way to either hide or justify his expenditures.

"I see," Moya replied.

The man became angry at Moya's indifference and barked: "Damn! Son of a bitch! You spent all the money, didn't you?"

Moya stammered: "I left it — gave it to my family."

The man asked Moya who else he'd told about the bribe. He wondered if perhaps Moya had gotten drunk some night and told a few friends.

"No, no, no, no man," Moya protested, adding that the only people who knew were "my wife, my parents."

As the conversation came to an end, the man gave Moya a phone number and told him to call it and he'd give him instructions on how to get in touch with Willy and Sal's accountant. The man then turned and walked away.

Miguel Moya was arrested last week for allegedly taking a $500,000 bribe during the Willy and Sal trial two years ago. His parents were also arrested and charged with helping him conceal the money. His wife, a Miami Police Department dispatcher who filed for divorce from Moya earlier this year, is believed to be cooperating with prosecutors.

The arrest culminated a two-year investigation prompted by an anonymous letter to prosecutors alleging that Moya had been bought off during the trial. Prosecutors now claim Moya spent most of the $500,000 on various purchases, including a $198,000 house in Tavernier, a $31,000 boat, a $6000 Rolex watch, a Mitsubishi 3000GT sports car, a two-week vacation in Hawaii, season tickets to the Florida Marlins, and pricey clubhouse seats during last year's World Series.

Moya, who earns about $36,000 per year at MIA, also took seventeen gambling cruises after the trial ended and made two trips to Las Vegas. Despite the gambling junkets, it's a safe bet Moya isn't a very good poker player; the July 21 meeting between Moya and the brute at the airport parking lot was a giant bluff. A masterful bluff, yes, but a bluff nonetheless. The hulking Pulp Fiction fan was really an undercover FBI agent sent to trick Moya into admitting he took a bribe. Not only was the agent wired with a hidden microphone, the FBI secretly videotaped the entire encounter.

As for the piece of paper — the supposed secret indictment — it was merely a prop. There was even a clichéd television-cop-show moment when Moya asked the undercover agent: How can I be sure you're not a cop or someone working with the police? The agent deftly sidestepped the question by turning the tables on Moya and angrily accusing him of not taking his problems seriously. Moya promptly backed down.

In addition to the videotape, prosecutors have nearly two months of wiretaps of conversations between Moya and family members in which Moya allegedly directs them to lie to investigators. Moya's attorney, Paul McKenna, says his client is innocent and that the evidence he's seen, including the parking-lot recordings, is inconclusive and that when the case goes to trial he will be able to offer reasonable explanations for his client's statements.

Neither Falcon nor Magluta has been charged in connection with the alleged bribery. Prosecutors have not yet identified the "representative" of the Falcon-Magluta organization who made the payments, nor have they detailed exactly how the payments were made. Those facts are expected to be revealed in the next round of indictments, which, according to sources familiar with the case, should come in four to eight weeks.

At a press conference last week, U.S. Attorney Tom Scott called this case "one of the most personally gratifying" indictments of his tenure, a notable statement that underscores how devastating a loss the Willy and Sal case was for the government. Not only did it lead to then-U.S. Attorney Kendall Coffey's nibbling romp with a stripper (which in turn led to his resignation), but it also resulted in a widespread review within the Justice Department of the use of informant testimony in criminal prosecutions.

Now, it seems, a bit of revisionist history is creeping into the retelling of that infamous trial. Scott declared during his press conference that, had Moya not been bribed, Falcon and Magluta would have been convicted. The Herald interviewed another juror, Darrell Weekley, who with remarkable hindsight now claims that Moya directed all discussion in the jury room and that the other jurors followed him like sheep.

Moya's arrest made news across the nation, with all the stories repeating the same theme: When Willy and Sal were acquitted, prosecutors were dumbfounded because they had such a strong case and overwhelming evidence. Now, these stories note, prosecutors know why they lost: A juror was bribed.

For more than six years I've closely followed the travails of Willy and Sal, and Moya's arrest has prompted a few thoughts. First, a juror isn't bribed to win an acquittal; a juror is bribed to prevent a conviction, by causing a hung jury if necessary. This distinction is not meant to minimize the significance of the foreman's alleged transgression. If Moya is found guilty, Scott will have been absolutely correct in declaring it one of the most egregious violations of the jury system.

But let's not forget that the prosecution of these Miami High dropouts went awry long before the jury began its deliberations. Rather than asserting discipline over the sprawling case by concentrating on those charges that were based on the best evidence and the most credible witnesses, federal prosecutors threw everything they had against the wall in hopes that something would stick.

That may be one way to make sure your spaghetti is properly cooked, but it's not the way to win convictions. Proof of that was evident when the jurors began their deliberations, before Moya could cast his magic spell. They took a straw vote and found that more of them were leaning toward acquittal than toward guilt.

In February 1996, after the verdicts were announced, I interviewed Moya, who told me he hadn't found the government's case convincing. "People keep asking me, 'How could you put those guys on the street?'" he said at the time. "I don't know, maybe I did put two guys on the street who don't belong there. I don't feel good about that, but we went by what the government put in front of us. And that's all we could do."

I didn't ask him what Willy and Sal had put in front of him. But even if I had tried, I don't think I could have intimidated him into incriminating himself. After all, I hadn't seen Pulp Fiction either.

Originally published in the August 27, 1998, issue of Miami New Times. Click here to return to "Everything There Is to Know..."
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Jim DeFede
Contact: Jim DeFede