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
He was wrong. Valdez didn't stick around to beat the rap. On March 19, three months after he bonded out, the Miami-Dade Corrections house arrest unit lost track of him after he cut off the bracelet.
He hasn't been seen since, and neither has Quri Wasi's gold. Michaels, his defense attorney, says Valdez might have been kidnapped. "His girlfriend told me she saw two guys pick him up," he relays. "She didn't know who they were."
Shedd, for one, doesn't buy that story. "His last record had him heading west on Okeechobee Road," he says. "For all we know, he could be back in Cuba."
His head in his hands, Villegas leans forward on a beige sofa in the living room of his apartment. It's been two months since the signal on Valdez's GPS tracker disappeared. He no longer ferries gold for Quri Wasi, instead spending his days watching television. "My cousin changed the entire system," Villegas says. "He is now using a Brink's truck with armed guards to pick it up."
Meanwhile, the investigation into the gold heist has been stymied by Valdez's disappearance. "After all the rattling we've done, nothing is happening," Shedd says. "No one is trying to fix the big mistake."
Valdez's tale reveals problems with how Miami's justice system addresses Cuban organized crime, experts say. Rather than using street criminals such as Valdez to get to the top of the local food chain, the court system bounces him around from petty charge to petty charge until he can pull off a major heist and then melt away again. And unlike other foreign-born crooks, it was nearly impossible to deport him despite an escalating record from the moment he set foot in Miami in 2005.
"There was a time when we would put a task force on a shit bird like Valdez and run him and his crew down," says Tom Raffanello, another ex-DEA agent working for Quri Wasi. "But this is a different era for law enforcement. Agencies are faced with revolving political priorities. Guys like Valdez should be at the top of everybody's list. Unfortunately, they are not."
There's certainly plenty of blame to go around in Valdez's case.
First, outside investigators question why local cops didn't investigate Valdez's girlfriend Acosta. Detectives quickly figured out she had assisted Valdez, according to Bolton, by chauffeuring him around during stakeouts of the Opa-locka refinery and Villegas' apartment. She was rewarded with the Toyota purchased five days after the robbery, Bolton alleges. (Acosta, who hasn't been charged with a crime, declined to comment.)
"She participated by driving him around and then helping him cover up his crime," Bolton says. "When she went to visit him in jail, he spoke to her in code about getting rid of incriminating evidence inside her apartment."
Yet when the Coral Gables detectives handling the investigation wanted to obtain a search warrant for Acosta's apartment in Hialeah, their bosses refused to do it, Shedd claims. "I just shake my head at the don't-give-a-shit attitude coming from the higher-ups," Shedd says. "They don't care because our client is in Bolivia."
(James McKee and Velier Zacheco, the Gables detectives working the case, referred calls to spokesman Dean Wellinghoff, who declined to comment because the investigation is open.)
Shedd also blasts Firtel, the judge who let Valdez walk free after his bond hearing. "He should recuse himself from the bench for the rest of his life," Shedd grouses. "He was fucking wrong, all right."
But Michaels, Valdez's attorney, says equal blame belongs to prosecutors for presenting a weak case. "The State Attorney's Office screwed up," he says. "Now they're trying to blame the judge for their ineffectiveness. A person is still presumed innocent until the state proves its case in court."
Bigger picture: Had law enforcement treated Valdez and his freelance crew of criminals the way it had treated the Battle organization and the Santiesteban clan of pot growers, Matojo and his gang might have been busted before they could walk away with millions of dollars in gold. Michael Levine, a former federal undercover agent and law enforcement consultant in New York, says the most effective way to build a case against an organized crime ring is by using racketeering or conspiracy charges.
"It is much easier to convict a bunch of people together than individually," he says. "A racketeering or conspiracy case opens doors to evidence like hearsay. You can take a statement of one conspirator and use it against another."
Instead of connecting Valdez to the larger organization suggested by his ties to grow houses, human trafficking, and Mexican conspiracies, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office assigned the gold heist case to the crime victims unit.
Quri Wasi has certainly made that connection, though. The company has filed a lawsuit in Miami-Dade Circuit Court alleging that Valdez, his girlfriend Acosta, and cousins Marrero Leal and Marrero Lara plotted and participated in the gold heist. (Marrero Leal and Marrero Lara, who haven't been criminally charged despite investigators tying them to the crime in their incident reports, did not respond to notes New Times left at their last known address.)