Longform

A $2.8 Million Gold Heist Shows Cuban Gangs Still Rule Miami

Page 5 of 6

"Raonel was scoping out the gold while out on bond for the marijuana charge and the armed robbery of his ex-girlfriend," says Bolton, the private investigator. "Of course he doesn't care about getting caught because he's always back on the streets."

Valdez certainly gave police and prosecutors plenty of chances to catch up to him. For days after the heist, he peddled his ill-gotten booty at pawnshops around Dade. Then, on October 17, he took Acosta to a car dealer and bought her a 2008 Toyota Yaris.

Five days later, he voluntarily headed to court to answer for his marijuana-trafficking charge. If he was worried about getting pinched for the gold theft, he didn't show it. He was on time, pleaded guilty, and received two years of supervised probation from Judge Victoria Sigler.

Coral Gables Police, meanwhile, finally connected Valdez to the multimillion-dollar heist thanks to an anonymous tip. Villegas quickly identified Valdez from a photo lineup. The day after his pot sentencing, he was arrested in West Miami.

"The fact that this guy has an ankle monitoring device made it easy to place him on the scene," says Dean Wellinghoff, a Gables Police spokesman. With all of that data plus Villegas' testimony, prosecutors had more than a solid case.

Yet at a December bond hearing, Valdez came out on top again. Prosecutors pointed out his prior probation violations, his chronic history of failing to appear in court, and the fact that he allegedly committed his most recent crime while wearing an ankle monitor.

But Valdez's lawyer, Alexander Michaels, convinced Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Leon Firtel that the evidence was mostly circumstantial. What's more, prosecutors hadn't tied Valdez to any organized crime ring. Quri Wasi's investigators now believe he belongs to a crew that participated in his alleged crimes in Mexico. (Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office spokesman Ed Griffith would not comment on the case, referring New Times to the court transcripts.)

"I have a duty to do here, and I call it the way I see it," Firtel said while setting Valdez's bond at $75,000 and — amazingly — ordering him to wear yet another ankle monitor. "If I'm wrong, I'm wrong."

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.)

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Francisco Alvarado was born in Nicaragua and grew up in Miami, giving him unique insight into the Magic City and all its dark corners. An investigative reporter with a knack for uncovering corruption, Alvarado made his bones as a staff writer at Miami New Times and remains in dogged pursuit of the next juicy story.