By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
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By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Hauling a fishing rod and bait, Orlando Maytin and his 12-year-old son trudged through a vacant parking lot just past the 31st mile post on Alligator Alley. It was 7:45 a.m. on March 21, 1999, when they came to a quaint public fishing nook on the edge of a vast, swampy stretch. As Maytin cast a line into the oily canal water, he noticed a blue and brown, duct-taped package bumping against the shoreline. It was about three feet long and two feet tall, with makeshift handles on the sides.
It didn't look right.
Maytin cast another line and, with the tender tug of a comb through hair, reeled it in some. A soft-spoken, chunky 34-year-old with short brown hair slicked straight back, he kept one eye on his son and the other on the box.
Then curiosity got the best of him. Setting down his fishing gear, he walked past an elderly fisherman with a weathered face who sat near the boating docks.
"I wouldn't go over there," the old man warned, nodding toward the package. Maytin gazed at him for a moment and then walked on. Crouching down, he touched the damp cardboard.
It was soaked but firm. Intrigued, he tried to pick it up "to get a sense of the weight."
Then it happened. The cardboard gave, and he caught a glimpse of long, stringy brown hair. What the hell is that? he thought, noticing something fleshy. In horror, he watched as the stiff, wrinkly corpse of a young woman broke through and splashed into the water.
The tan, thin girl had been bent like a pretzel. Her muscular arms were tied behind her back with white cloth, and she wore only a backward gray Calvin Klein sweatshirt.
Her features were hard to ignore. This was a girl that, by anyone's standards, had been beautiful. Big, pouty lips remained pink with life. Eyelashes were still specked with traces of makeup. And on the curve of her delicate ankle rested two silver chains. One of them read "Jeanette."
The body belonged to 22-year-old stripper Jeanette Smith. Investigators would soon conclude she had been brutally sodomized, strangled, and dumped.
A week later, authorities arrested brawny 33-year-old former Marine sniper Ariel Hernandez. Authorities claimed that the Gambino crime family had ordered Hernandez to kill Smith after she discovered a check kiting scheme. In April 2002, a jury found Hernandez guilty of murder. U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced him to life in prison.
But the case isn't over. Hernandez now faces related state charges, and the trial could turn up even more details about the Mob's South Florida operation. It could also lead to Hernandez's execution by lethal injection.
Smith's family, the Cooper City community where she grew up, and even workers from the Sunny Isles strip club where she danced are still fixated on the case — and the unanswered questions. "I want the death penalty," says her sister Krissy Smith. "Otherwise, what's the point?"
Jeanette Smith was born the youngest of three daughters in an Italian-Catholic family in Queens the day after Christmas 1976. Her mom, Gina, was a short, shaggy-haired special-education teacher, and her dad, Ray, was a brainy, reclusive lighting technician. When she was 18 months old, the Smiths moved to a working-class neighborhood in Cooper City.
Throughout school, she was at the top of her English class, earning A's and B's. In high school, she began wearing more makeup and skimpier clothes. Shopping at Pembroke Lakes Mall as a teenager, strangers stopped her and commented on her good looks. "You should think about modeling," Gina remembers an older woman recommending.
After high school, in 1995, Jeanette began working at the Goldfinger strip club on North University Drive in Sunrise. About two years later, she moved to the flashier, more lucrative Thee Dollhouse in Sunny Isles Beach. Thee Dollhouse was known for "shower shows," in which a customer bathes backstage with a dancer. Popular girls like Jeanette, who danced under the name Jade, would leave with as much as $2,000 a night. "I think she got a taste of the money," Gina says. "The cash was just incredible."
On March 19, 1995, Jeanette was singled out by a man named Ariel Hernandez, who told a regular at Thee Dollhouse that he planned to sleep with Jeanette. Clean-shaven and cocksure, Hernandez had the body of a linebacker and an outfit torn from the pages of GQ. On his right arm was a cast, and above it, a bulldog tattoo read "United States Marine Corps."
Hernandez passed her hundred-dollar bills throughout the evening. The pair left Thee Dollhouse together about 5:30 a.m. in Smith's black 1997 Mazda 626.
Hernandez was a Cuban immigrant who ran away from home at 17. Two years later, he joined the Marines, where he became a sniper. "I was trained to kill people from long distances," Hernandez tells New Times. "I saw plenty of dead bodies. I could shoot the testicles off a fly."
Once out of the military in 1991, run-ins with the cops started to pile up. Since 1985, he has been arrested 22 times. Charges include aggravated assault, stalking, battery, third-degree theft, and burglary.