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Killer Scam

Jeremy Eaton

Just before noon on May 29, a black four-door 2003 Chevy Impala with darkly tinted windows barreled north on Congress Avenue toward John F. Kennedy Medical Center in Atlantis. The front driver's-side tire was shredded, its exposed metal rim slicing into the hot black concrete.

James L. Johnson, a 29-year-old construction worker who was helping to remodel the hospital's exterior, saw the Impala coming. That bare rim, he thought, will cut into the fresh pavement outside the hospital like a chain saw against a cypress tree. Johnson ran toward Congress Avenue and waved at the Impala, trying to stop the car. "That's when I realized the gentlemen in the car were all bloody," Johnson would later tell police.

Blood covered the right side of the driver's body. An elderly man in the back seat had wrapped his arm around the driver's neck, apparently trying to strangle him. In the reclined passenger seat, a third man lay motionless. Blood was everywhere.

Johnson waved the car into the parking lot, new concrete be damned. The Impala came to a halt outside the emergency room. "Someone get out here!" he yelled, running into the hospital.

Then Johnson heard the horn. The bloodied driver, a rotund Latin man with short black hair and a thin moustache that looked as if it could have been drawn with a pencil, honked ceaselessly. "They tried to rob us!" the driver yelled. "We've all been shot! We need help!" He then broke free of the man in the back seat and exited the car.

"At first, what appeared to me was that he was being robbed and being choked," Johnson said. But then the driver opened the back door and dragged out the man who'd been strangling him. He leaned the old-timer, a slender man standing five feet, nine inches tall, against the side of the car.

"We've been shot! We've been shot!" the driver yelled again. "We were robbed by two Puerto Ricans!"

"Oh boy, I ain't gonna stand by that story," the older man said. "I ain't standing by that."

Emergency room personnel scrambled outside. First came a wheelchair for the old man. He had suffered a gunshot wound to the jaw but was conscious and mobile. Then came another wheelchair for the driver. He'd taken a bullet to the right biceps that had shattered the bones in his upper arm. Finally came a stretcher for the man in the passenger seat. A bullet had put a hole in the left side of his head. His body was covered in blood; he wasn't moving.

"The guy took my gun and shot us," the driver told Alex Correa, a 32-year-old emergency room custodian.

Atlantis police officer Chris Scerbo reported to the scene and confronted the driver, who said his name was Jorge. "I was at SunTrust Bank at Forest Hill and Jog at 10 [a.m.] when two unknown males approached my car," Jorge told the police officer. "They demanded our money, and one male had a gun, and the other male grabbed my gun and shot us, killing both of my friends."

Somehow Jorge didn't realize that the old man he had propped against the car had survived. Although the back-seat passenger had suffered a gunshot wound just below his left ear, the injury wasn't life-threatening.

In fact, the man -- who gave his name as Reginald Argentieri and said he was 75 years old -- was stable and wanted to talk to police, hospital staff told Scerbo. "I was with Jorge and my cousin in Jorge's car at SunTrust bank when Jorge pulled out a gun and shot my cousin and then shot me," Argentieri told Scerbo. "I attempted to choke Jorge with both my hands when Jorge bit me. Jorge thought I was dead. Then Jorge shot himself. I don't know why."

Atlantis police immediately handed the case over to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. John Cogburn, a 37-year-old detective with 11 years' experience, arrived at the hospital and followed Scerbo into an x-ray room where Argentieri was being examined. The older man lay with sheets wrapped around him and an oxygen mask over his nose and mouth.

"Can you tell me who shot you?" Cogburn asked, according to a taped interview submitted to the court.

"Jorge Cortes."

"Cortes shot you? Why do you think he did this?"

"Because he was in a real estate scam."

"Can you tell me where Jorge Cortes is right now?"

"He's supposed to be in this hospital."

"Was he also shot?"

"I think he shot himself accidentally."

"Can you tell me where this took place, where this happened?"

"In his car, somewhere in Greenacres."

Then Cogburn asked where the three men were seated in the car. Cortes was driving, Argentieri said, and he was sitting in the back. In the front passenger seat was Argentieri's cousin from Fort Lauderdale, Richard Ferayorni.

 

"You guys were involved in some kind of real estate stuff, right?" Cogburn asked.

"Yes, I was involved and another friend of mine with Jorge."

"Do you feel that Jorge was trying to scam you guys today?"

"Yes."

"OK. Do you feel he was going to try to rob you?"

"No," Argentieri answered. "He wasn't trying to rob us. He owed us money. We were supposed to settle up and have a closing with the money he owed us."

"And tell me about the conversation, what was going on, and how the gun came into play."

"There was no conversation. He just pulled out the gun and shot."

"So he stopped the car in the parking lot. Who did he shoot first?"

"My cousin," Argentieri answered.

"And then he turned the gun on you?"

"Yep."

"And after he did that," Cogburn asked, "what did he do?"

"He drove away."


The driver identified himself to detectives as Jorge Cortes Jr. According to Sheriff's Office reports, he was a five-foot-ten, 298-pound 33-year-old. Cortes preferred to anglicize his name to George, but his Southern Comfort Properties business card, which advertised him as a Spanish translator and real estate assistant, referred to his nickname: Big Jorge.

When Cogburn and Det. Sgt. William Springer, a 57-year-old with 24 years' experience, found Cortes in the JFK emergency room around 2 p.m., the real estate assistant complained of sharp pain. He couldn't move his right arm. Cogburn read the man his Miranda rights. "Do you understand these rights as I read to you?" the detective asked.

"Yes," Cortes responded.

"Do you have any questions?"

"Yeah. Why, why are you reading me rights, though?"

"Basically, we have you being involved in the gunshot," Cogburn answered.

"OK."

"We have another fellow that's also suffered a gunshot, and we need to determine what happened."

"Uh, OK."

"Because you're the only person right now that can give us a statement and tell us what happened," Cogburn explained.

"He may be all right, though?" Cortes said, referring to Argentieri.

"Well, that's something we don't know," Cogburn responded. "He's been shot too. So we have three gentlemen that have suffered gunshots."

Cortes explained what happened. He had picked up Argentieri and Ferayorni in Boynton Beach and then driven them to SunTrust on Forest Hill Boulevard and Jog Road in Greenacres. They needed a cashier's check to close on a property. About 10 a.m., while sitting in the parking lot south of SunTrust, the three men began to count the cash for the check. They needed $37,106. "And then there was a car on the right-hand side of me and a car on the left-hand side of me," Cortes said. "And then two guys approached me, so I lowered the window down."

That's when the man on the passenger side drew a pistol, according to Cortes. "I was stupid," Cortes said. "I should have just let them take, you know, the stuff." Instead, the real estate assistant said he pulled out the Bernardelli 9mm he kept hidden under a T-shirt near the center console. "I've got a concealed license," he explained. But he wasn't fast enough. The gunman on the passenger side placed the barrel of his weapon to Ferayorni's head. "So I gave him the gun," Cortes said.

Then, without warning, Cortes explained, one of the two men whom he described as "thuggish" Puerto Ricans, shot Ferayorni. A second shot hit Argentieri in the back seat. "And then he was going to hit me," Cortes told sheriff's deputies. "I think he fired two shots at me. I'm not sure." One of those shots apparently entered Cortes' right biceps. Then, the real estate assistant said, he swung his arm around and struck the gunman, knocking his Bernardelli onto the floor of the car. He hit the accelerator and passed by the drive-through teller, leaving the attackers behind and driving directly to JFK.

Cogburn began to ask more questions. Cortes answered without hesitation. The car that pulled up next to them was a white Ford Explorer Sport, he said, and the two attackers spoke clear English.

Then Cogburn played his ace. "Reggie's telling us that something else is going on," the detective said. Cogburn observed Cortes' eyes scan the room frantically and his left hand tremble.

"Like what?" Cortes asked.

"Reggie has said that you and him had these problems financially with this real estate deal and that the guy, Richard, has been trying to verify if these are legit deals or not."

 

"That's not true. I mean, as far as -- "

"OK, well, I'm just telling you," Cogburn said. "They're saying they're not sure -- "

"Oh, if they're going like that, then I'll seem dumb because I'm covering up for them."

"Right, well, what they're trying to say is -- "

"If that's what they're saying," Cortes interjected, "then I've changed my testimony and I won't cover for them."

"OK, well, then what are you trying to say now?"

"I mean, they didn't want to tell me -- "

"Are you trying to say that they're involved in some criminal activity?" Cogburn asked.

"Yes."

"And what is that?"

"He told me to just say what I just told you and I'll be all right."

"OK."

"Because I guess they're mobsters or something."

Cortes alleged that he was set up, that Argentieri and Ferayorni had crossed him. "They robbed us," he added. "They specifically robbed us. I mean, whoever it was, they robbed us."

"So what you're telling me now," Cogburn said a moment later, "is you guys got set up or you were set up?"

"I think he set me up."

"OK."

"Because if he's going to lie about me," Cortes said, "I'm going to tell you the truth."

"OK. OK."

"I don't even want to talk to nobody. I'd rather have my lawyer here."

"What's that now?" Cogburn said.

"If that's [how] he's going to react," Cortes continued, "then I'm going to bring him down with me... I had a feeling for a while. I even told my wife that. And I told my mother that too."

"You want your attorney?" Sgt. Springer interjected.

"Yeah."

The third passenger, Ferayorni, was pronounced dead on arrival at JFK. The evidence collected in the Impala only added mystery to this murder investigation.

On the driver's-side floor rested a Bernardelli semiautomatic 9mm pistol registered to Cortes. Inside the chamber was a .380-caliber round, which is shorter than the ones designed for the gun. Another .380-caliber bullet remained in the clip. Casings from .380 bullets were found on the rear floorboard and under both the driver's-side and passenger-side seats. A live .380-caliber round was found under the driver's-side seat as well. Detectives also uncovered briefcases belonging to Cortes and Ferayorni. Inside those briefcases were documents related to real estate deals. According to an inventory report of the car, no money was found. However, in Ferayorni's pocket, detectives discovered 46 $100 bills.

How property transactions could end in a bloody car with one man dead baffled detectives, remembers Shirley T. Kazakis, a Palm Beach real estate agent who was interviewed by law enforcement. "They couldn't make heads or tails over it," Kazakis recalls.

But Cogburn apparently never doubted that Cortes was the triggerman. Deputies took the suspect into custody following his treatment at JFK Medical Center. On June 26, a grand jury indicted Cortes, charging him with the murder of Richard Ferayorni and the attempted murder of Reginald Argentieri as well as with shooting within an occupied vehicle. The state is seeking the death penalty.


Jorge Cortes Jr.'s 67-year-old mother, Margarita Serrano, lives in a modest townhouse off Gateway Boulevard in Boynton Beach. The television blares Spanish programming as Serrano walks out of her bedroom on a September afternoon. The chubby woman is barely over five feet tall. She has short thick hair pulled back and dyed copper as a penny. She takes a seat at her dining-room table. "Siéntese," she insists. "Siéntese."

"Sit down," translates her granddaughter (and Cortes' daughter) Stephanie, a 15-year-old who has long, curly, black hair and wears a blue T-shirt with sweatpants. "Sit down."

A poster of the Brooklyn Bridge hangs in the dining room as a reminder of a previous home. Serrano moved to South Florida from the Bronx last November to be closer to her son. But since late May, she's been waiting for his regular telephone calls just as she did in New York. Only now, those calls come from pay phones in the Main Detention Center of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office.

Cortes is close to his mother. Even though Serrano has lived in the United States for more than three decades, she speaks limited English. Her son would often translate for her, she explains. "He was my heart," Serrano adds in Spanish, looking down as she rubs her palms together. "He was the best."

She points to pictures of her son posing with family members. "He's not capable of killing," she says in Spanish. "He was in the wrong place..."

 

"At the wrong time," Stephanie finishes in English.

Indeed, Cortes seems an unlikely killer. The youngest of eight children, he was a trusting gullible person even as a child, according to his mother. "He had no concept of people being mean or bad," Serrano says. "He just took the person as he was." At age 16, in his sophomore year, Cortes dropped out of high school and began to work odd jobs in New York while living with his mother.

He soon fell in love with and married his first wife, Yesenia Nuñez, a woman three years his senior. Their daughter, Stephanie, was born in 1988. As the girl grew older, Cortes became anxious, Serrano explains. He worried that he wouldn't be able to provide a good life for his family in New York City, where hustlers abound. "I raised my son right," Serrano says. "As a very young child, he worked. He never stole. The American dream, the way it should be."

In 1993, at age 23 and with a young wife and 5-year-old daughter, Cortes moved his family to Lake Worth. He took up odd jobs again, from irregular gigs transporting automobiles for rich snowbirds to driving long-haul tractor-trailers. He loved to fish and was drawn to the tropical climate. In fact, several pictures at the house show a smiling rotund Cortes with either a fishing pole or a fish in hand.

Cortes experienced his first run-in with Florida law enforcement in April 1993. An off-duty Pompano Beach police officer's car was struck by a tractor-trailer on Interstate 95 in Delray Beach, causing the car to flip and skid about 200 feet on its roof, according to a report in the Palm Beach Post. Witnesses gave investigators Cortes' license plate number, and he was charged with causing an accident. But two months after the April incident, a judge dismissed the charge against the defendant. According to a news report at the time, Cortes said he did not drive a tractor-trailer -- which may be false; his mother and daughter both now say that Cortes indeed worked as a truck driver, though they couldn't say when.

If he was a schemer, as his alleged victims claim, Cortes dressed the part. Wherever he went, he wore handsome clothing, according to family members. A family friend says it was common to see Cortes sporting a starched white shirt and tie with a nice pair of pressed slacks and shoes, even in the summer.

The accused killer apparently had a benevolent side as well. Over the past few years, according to a close family friend who requested anonymity, Cortes had become active in his community. The poor, largely Hispanic Gateway area of Boynton Beach had been ignored by the city. No streetlights, few sidewalks, a breeding ground for crime. Cortes was among the community activists who attended regular meetings of the neighborhood association and pressured the city to pay more attention to the rundown area north of Boynton Beach Boulevard.

He felt a particular obligation toward Hispanic immigrants who lacked the street smarts to thrive in the United States. Unfamiliar with the U.S. banking system, many of Boynton Beach's Guatemalans carried hundreds of dollars in cash in their pockets. They were easy targets for thieves. "He would tell them, 'You have to go to the bank. You have to establish credit,'" a family friend remembers. "He was just that type of person. He gave back. He loved helping people. That's his heart; he had a big heart."

Cortes and Nuñez have divorced. Since April of last year, Cortes has lived with his second wife, Vanessa, in a modest two-bedroom house at 2616 NE Fourth Ct. in Boynton Beach.

They both worked in the booming South Florida real estate industry. Vanessa is a notary and title agent at SunTitle in Lake Worth. Her husband has worked as a Spanish translator for Palm Beach County real estate agents and mortgage brokers since at least 2001. According to Richard N. Livingstone, a Boynton Beach mortgage broker who worked with Cortes, the accused murderer had applied for a Florida real estate license some time during the past year. He was denied. "He said that he lied on his application," Livingstone told detectives, "so he couldn't get his license."

During the murder investigation, Palm Beach County sheriff's detectives asked Livingstone whether Cortes had ever acted as a real estate agent even though he wasn't licensed. The broker replied that he hadn't known Cortes to do anything more than translate for potential homebuyers. "If you would have called me two weeks ago," Livingstone told detectives, "I would have said he was a good friend of mine. Here's a guy who, when I was having my third baby... was willing to fly up [to New York] three weeks after September 11 and drive my mother down here." Then Livingstone added something rather ominous: "People either liked Jorge or didn't like Jorge."

 

That may be because the Puerto Rican-American apparently had a dark side that few people saw.

On November 2, 2002, at 11:20 p.m., Boynton Beach police were called to 816 S. Seacrest Blvd. on a false-imprisonment report. According to the police report, Vanessa Cortes was visiting her aunt, Iris Mass, when Jorge came to the house. Mass told police the two had been separated. Before going outside to talk with Jorge, Vanessa told her aunt that she didn't want to leave with him, according to the police report. Five minutes after Vanessa exited the house, Mass heard a car peeling away. Vanessa was gone.

In the maroon Chevy Blazer, according to the police report, Cortes called Gregorio Lind, a 32-year-old Lauderdale Lakes man whom Cortes apparently believed was seeing Vanessa. He was driving south with his wife, Cortes told Lind, and he wanted to "settle this once and for all," according to a Broward Sheriff's Office report. Then Cortes told Vanessa that if Lind didn't meet with him, he'd "put a cap in her," according to the BSO report.

After receiving Cortes' call, Lind phoned BSO at 11:53 p.m. and described the Blazer. A deputy spotted the vehicle on Oakland Park Boulevard and pulled it over. Cortes was arrested for false imprisonment. A BSO deputy observed that Vanessa Cortes had a fat bleeding lip and a red mark on the right side of her neck. In the pocket of the passenger seat, deputies found a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson. Vanessa would later reconcile with her husband and the charges would be dropped. (Vanessa Cortes and Gregorio Lind declined to comment. Vanessa has since left her husband for another man, according to Cortes' mother.)

If Cortes lashed out and threatened violence against his wife last November, his actions would have surprised friends and family. Seven months later, they would be shocked.


Joan Scheeler, a thin 66-year-old with a squeaky voice and bottled blond hair, walks around her nicely decorated home off Boynton Beach Boulevard on a September afternoon. Reginald Argentieri, the man who turned up at JFK with his arm around Jorge Cortes' neck, lived with her. Whatever happened on May 29 to Cortes, Argentieri, and real estate developer Richard Ferayorni -- it's clear the events started here. "They'd all crowd around the table like good friends," Scheeler remembers, pointing to her dining room.

It seemed to Scheeler that Cortes had found Argentieri rather serendipitously back in late 2002. The series of events that led to their acquaintance began when Argentieri met a sales associate at a Boynton Beach Sears. His name was Hector Martinez. "He gave us coupons for markdowns," Scheeler explains.

Argentieri mentioned to Martinez that he was interested in the real estate game, Scheeler recalls. Martinez knew just the guy: Big Jorge Cortes. "He explained that his cousin was a realtor," Scheeler recalls, "and so Jorge came over to meet with Reggie [Argentieri]... He dressed really sharp, and he was smart and charming. The only thing Jorge didn't have going for him was his weight. He was a big guy."

Beginning this past February, Scheeler explains, Jorge would arrive at their home every Saturday about 9 a.m. Also present was Argentieri's long-time friend Vincent Sagesse, a fellow retired engineer. Sagesse had some money. He wanted to make more.

Around the dark-brown dining-room table, the three would review printed information on available properties and then leave for houses and condominiums that appeared to be good investment opportunities. "[Cortes] claimed he could make them a lot of money," Scheeler remembers. Jorge's wife, Vanessa, would handle the paperwork.

Soon, Argentieri, Sagesse, and Argentieri's 77-year-old sister, Gloria Rallo, were cutting checks to Cortes, who claimed to work for a company called Southern Comfort Properties. But Argentieri quickly became suspicious. By April, according to a statement he gave to the Sheriff's Office, he had paid Cortes $75,000. But only one deal had materialized -- for a condominium worth $16,500. Although they were supposed to have closed on three other Boynton Beach properties, there was no sign of progress.

Rallo, who declined to speak to New Times, told investigators in June that she confronted Cortes about the real estate deals. "I called and said, 'What's the delay, Jorge? When is this closing going to take place?'" Rallo reported. "'Oh,' he said, 'tomorrow, tomorrow.' He just kept putting me off."

By the end of April, according to Argentieri's statement to the Sheriff's Office, Argentieri and the others had given Cortes a total of about $125,000. At a family gathering last spring, Scheeler recalls, Argentieri discussed his real estate woes. He was nervous. Richard Ferayorni, Argentieri's 45-year-old cousin and a real estate developer, took an interest. He believed Cortes wasn't acting on the up-and-up.

 

"[Argentieri and Rallo] felt they were getting conned," said Lynn Anderson, Ferayorni's 35-year-old sister, in a taped statement to detectives. "They asked [Richard] to get involved. They were family, so he did."

One morning in April, Argentieri and Cortes reviewed real estate records around Scheeler's dining-room table as they had so many times in the past. But this time, Ferayorni joined them. He asked the right questions, the ones about paperwork and titles. Cortes became anxious. "Jorge admitted that some of this money was out in the street," Scheeler told detectives. Cortes became rattled and walked outside, she recalls. Ferayorni followed him into the driveway and issued an ultimatum: return the money or he'd go to the police.

That night, Ferayorni described Cortes as "a fraud," his sister remembered. "[Argentieri and Rallo] are old," Anderson recalled her brother saying. "They feel like they lost their money. It's their life savings, and they're scared. I'm gonna help them."

Ferayorni hired a private investigator, who turned up Cortes' concealed weapons license and the police report that described the November incident with his wife. Cortes is dangerous, the investigator warned, according to Anderson's taped statement.

It apparently didn't take long for Cortes' actions to corroborate that warning. About ten days before the bloody car pulled up to JFK, Cortes showed up at Argentieri's house and asked him to come outside, according to Anderson's statement to law enforcement and Scheeler's interview with New Times. "You better tell your cousin to stay out of it," Cortes allegedly told Argentieri, "or I'm going to have someone go down there and take care of it in Fort Lauderdale." He then showed Argentieri his gun, according to Anderson. Cortes denies that he threatened Argentieri or Ferayorni.

On May 23, Ferayorni was told about the threat, according to Anderson and Scheeler. That day, Ferayorni demanded that Cortes return all the money by May 29. "I'm going to put you in jail," Scheeler remembered the developer saying.

That evening, Ferayorni told his sister of the alleged threat. "If someone shows a gun," Anderson told her brother, "they're crazy and you don't know what they're going to do."

"He's just a punk," Ferayorni said.


Wearing a polo shirt, black Guess jeans, and Teva sandals, Richard Ferayorni arrived at Joan Scheeler's house around 9:30 a.m. May 29. Cortes got there just before 10 a.m., dressed sharp as always. He had on a Roundtree and Yorke button-up shirt with a tan pair of Savane pants and brown Stacy Adams shoes. "He was jolly," Argentieri recalled.

Cortes said he was having personal troubles, according to Scheeler's statement to detectives. His wife had apparently just undergone breast surgery; she was in the hospital. "We asked what hospital," Scheeler recalled, "and he said, 'Oh, a local hospital.' He didn't give us any hospital." Detectives would later learn that she was having a boob job done.

Cortes then admitted that he didn't have the money with him. "I was angry with Jorge at this point," Scheeler told detectives later that afternoon. "He swore on his mother and he swore on this one and he swore on that one, and he didn't come up with any money." Scheeler told detectives that she overheard Cortes say he had $300,000 or $400,000 at SunTrust.

The three men got into Cortes' Impala and headed north on Jog Road, according to Argentieri's statement to detectives. Cortes maintains that the sequence of events beyond this point is fabricated, part of Argentieri's alleged plot to frame him for the murder of Ferayorni. At the intersection of Jog Road and Forest Hill Boulevard, Cortes turned into a strip mall that included a movie theater, a Publix, and a Walgreens. In the northeast section is a SunTrust, a white building with a Spanish tile roof. Cortes entered the parking lot south of the bank and turned off the car. Then he started up the engine again, Argentieri remembered.

"I'm going to let it run," Argentieri recalled Cortes saying.

That's when it happened, according to Argentieri. Cortes pulled out his Bernardelli and shot Ferayorni, sending a bullet into the left side of the 45-year-old man's head. Cortes then turned, pointed the gun about two inches from Argentieri's face, and allegedly pulled the trigger once more, according to the surviving victim's account. "Boom, boom, just like that," Argentieri recalled in a taped statement to detectives. The bullet hit the man near the base of his jaw, the force pushing him onto the back seat.

 

Both victims lay motionless, Argentieri stated. Although he survived the gunshot, Argentieri said he played dead, fearing a second bullet from Cortes. The gunman then put the car in gear and drove out of the parking lot. At some point, Cortes apparently reached over Ferayorni and reclined the seat back to move the lifeless, bloodied body out of public view.

Then, about ten to 15 minutes later, according to Argentieri, Cortes shot himself in the right arm -- either accidentally or in an effort to make his moving crime scene look like a botched robbery. But Argentieri, regaining his strength, arose from the back seat and wrapped his arm around Cortes' neck. "He kept driving," Argentieri told detectives, "but hit curb after curb after curb. He says, 'Let me go, let me go. You're choking me, you're choking me. '"

"You son of a bitch," Argentieri told him. "We treated you like a kid."

"I didn't mean to do it," Argentieri recalled Cortes telling him. "I didn't kill you. I didn't want to kill you."

"Yeah," Argentieri answered, "you didn't kill me because you missed."


Jorge Cortes Jr. leans up against a wall in the inmate visiting room of the Main Detention Center of the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. His oversized blue uniform barely covers his large belly. Surrounding him are other inmates who scurry behind windows and phones as they look for loved ones on this Friday morning in August.

"You just made my weekend," Cortes tells New Times, leaning into the glass. "I'm innocent. I never shot them. Give me a lie-detector test."

Cortes has a round quarter-sized scar on his right biceps where a bullet entered his arm and remains. He continues to tell the story he gave detectives at JFK Medical Center on May 29. Reginald Argentieri and Richard Ferayorni, he says, are mobsters who set him up.

When the armed men approached the car, Cortes claims, he tried to reason with them after he'd handed over his Bernardelli 9mm. "They're going to fuck you," he says he told them, "because they fucked me. If they fucked me, they'll fuck you."

At that point, apparently believing that Argentieri and Ferayorni would double-cross them just as they'd allegedly double-crossed Cortes, one of the gunmen opened fire on the car, Cortes says. The shots killed Ferayorni and wounded Argentieri. A third bullet apparently entered Cortes' right arm. Then he swung his arm around, knocked the Bernardelli back into the car, and drove away.

On the way to the hospital, Cortes says, Argentieri told him to take them home and not go to the hospital. According to Cortes, Argentieri threatened him: Go to the hospital and I'll pin the murder on you. "Who do you think they're going to believe," Argentieri allegedly added, "a spic like you or a 70-year-old man?"

When they arrived at the hospital, Cortes explains, Argentieri was choking him because he didn't want to be taken to the emergency room. "How could I have shot them?" Cortes says. "They found .380 bullets. I own a 9mm." That doesn't mean much: In the car, investigators found Cortes' 9mm loaded with .380 rounds, according to the sheriff's report.

Cortes' attorney, Glenn H. Mitchell, echoes his client's story about Argentieri's and Ferayorni's being involved in mob activity. "Their last names end in vowels, don't they?" he says. Mitchell believes that the complicated nature of the case, involving multiple real estate deals and conflicting statements, will make it difficult for the state to prove Cortes' guilt. "There are many, many unanswered questions," Mitchell says. "It will probably take the better part of a year until we get to the bottom."


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