An Imperfect Murder

Charlie Moretto's off-white mansion on Millionaire's Row in Lighthouse Point would have been suitable for Al Capone. Nestled along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 7,042-square-foot estate opens onto azure seas and million-dollar yachts. Inside the home, bright-white tiles and pearl walls shine like gems amid the tasteful, earth-toned furniture. Above an ivory pool table, a sprawling circular staircase leads to a large master bedroom and three suites. From the second-story windows, guests can look out over the tiled roof and watch the parade of wealthy sailors pass.

A stout, 58-year-old Italian-American from Boston with light skin and receding brown hair pulled back and puffed up like the head of a sliced mushroom, Moretto was "a tough guy" and "a streetwise guy," according to one family member. He was also eager to sell the mansion. A July 2003 bid for $2.5 million fell through after the buyers pulled out at the last minute. He needed that sale. All his money was tied up in real estate.

But then in October, Moretto thought he might finally have his customer: Luis Martinez, a handsome, six-foot-two Cuban with blue eyes, thick black hair, and a preference for Anglicizing his name to Louis. Martinez told Moretto that he had $10 million to invest in South Florida real estate and businesses. What's more, he'd taken a liking to Moretto's mansion and the yellow 1996 Bentley parked out front.

At 10:30 a.m. October 28, 2003, Martinez arrived at the Lighthouse Point estate to discuss a deal. With Moretto was his cousin Billy Botelho, a standup guy save that incident more than 20 years ago when Massachusetts police busted him for dealing in stolen cars. "[Moretto] wanted me to be there because he was kind of leery with the gentleman he was having the meeting with," Botelho would later tell detectives from the Broward Sheriff's Office.

Dressed in a crisp black suit, Martinez sat down in a chair in Moretto's living room, a black bag clasped in his hands. He had offered $130,000 to purchase the Bentley. Although Martinez wouldn't say anything about the bag he carried, Moretto and Botelho thought they knew its contents: six figures in cash. In fact, they joked about it.

"Let me see what's in the bag," Botelho said. "Let me see the bag."

"Nothing is in the bag," Martinez replied. "Nothing is in the bag."

Just then, a red Jaguar pulled into the driveway. It was Martinez's wife, Nadezda Stefanovich, a 44-year-old real estate agent who works for the Broward Democratic Party.

"Let's go look at the other house," Martinez suggested, referring to another, smaller house around the corner that Moretto owned. The three men piled into the Jaguar, and Stefanovich drove them to the second property. Martinez explained that he had an investor friend who might be interested in Moretto's second house.

"Sell him my house," Botelho joked.

As Moretto escorted Stefanovich around the house, Martinez and Botelho started "shooting the baloney," the cousin would later tell detectives. The Cuban man began to open up. He said he was fresh out of jail: gun charges, something like that.

Then Martinez's cell phone rang. He walked over to the corner, speaking loudly in Spanish. The call ended abruptly. "We can't do this deal today," Martinez explained. "They wired the money into the bank, but the bank says I can't get the money for 24 hours. There's a hold on the bank. I don't know why. That's my goddamned money, and I can't get my own money."

They rescheduled. Martinez would buy the Bentley the next day.

"You want me to be with you tomorrow?" Botelho asked his cousin.

"No," Moretto answered. "Where they wired the money into the account, it's not cash. Everything should be OK."

It wasn't. The next day, Lighthouse Point police found Moretto's lifeless body inside the mansion. A bullet had entered the left side of his head and exited on the right, stopping finally on the carpet below his right leg. Three weeks later, Martinez was charged with first-degree murder.

The crime was shocking for its location alone: a predominantly white and quiet coastal city of roughly 11,000 people. Murder isn't common amid the salty air and manicured lawns of Lighthouse Point.

Indeed, this crime was anything but common. The victim, Moretto, was a convicted Mob associate working with the Genovese crime family. His accused murderer, Martinez, was a career criminal who had become an informant for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives. In fact, Martinez was on the government payroll the day Moretto was slain.

In a jailhouse interview, Martinez maintained his innocence. The mobster was most likely murdered by rival Mafiosi or Caribbean revolutionaries, he alleged. "The guy got killed," Martinez said. "It was a hit."

Born in Havana, Cuba, Martinez immigrated to the United States at age 15 during the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 124,776 immigrants -- some convicted criminals -- to South Florida. He often went by his childhood nickname: "Flaco," or "Skinny." Despite a brief stay in New York City, Martinez had spent most of his adult life in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

In December 1995, Laura Carnes, then a 21-year-old stripper working at Palace Centerfold in Miami, met Martinez. She was sitting at a traffic light near downtown Miami in her 1991 Acura Integra when the tall Cuban pulled up next to her in a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Porsche 993. "We were waving, smiling at each other," Carnes recalled in a 1996 deposition. They exchanged telephone numbers at the intersection, then talked on their cellular phones as they drove west on the Dolphin Expressway.

A relationship blossomed. Two months later, Carnes moved in with Martinez at his home on Park Avenue in Miami Beach. He was a man who liked to flaunt his status, Carnes said, and he hated the idea of his girlfriend's driving a commoner's car. Instead, he purchased her a Rolls-Royce, writing a check to the dealership. "I found out that the check was no good," Carnes would say later. Indeed, at the time, the stripper had only a vague idea of what her boyfriend did for a living. "From what I understand, he is an independent person who brings deals to different mortgage companies, different brokerage houses," she said. "Supposedly he owns a company."

She was right about one thing: Martinez was working. Since arriving from Cuba, he had been an industrious con artist. His rap sheet is littered with grand theft, fraud, and dealing-in-stolen-property charges. He received three and a half years of community supervision in 1989 for two grand theft charges and for writing a bad check. But the law had never given Martinez more than a pinch. Despite 11 felony charges by the mid-'90s, he had yet to spend a single day in prison.

Carnes' relationship with the con man was good in the beginning. Martinez spoiled her. But he had another, more ominous side. "He can be very calm at one moment," Carnes said, "and be a complete animal the next."

The breaking point came February 20, 1996, when their relationship was less than three months old. Martinez was on the phone at their Miami Beach home, and Carnes was about to leave with a friend. She invited her boyfriend along.

"Give me a minute," Martinez said.

Carnes went outside, and after about ten minutes, she came back to remind her boyfriend. "Luis, we have to go now," she said.

Martinez slammed down the phone, ripped it out of the wall, and then threw it at Carnes, hitting her in the leg. She fled. "I went out to the car, where my friend was, and I felt hands around my neck, around the back of my neck, and he was basically choking me," she recalled. Martinez released her, walked inside for a moment, then "came out of the house, calm as a cucumber, like nothing had ever happened," Carnes remembered.

"I'm leaving you," she told him. "I'm going to go get boxes, and I'm leaving you."

Carnes dropped off her friend and called her mother, crying. She made plans to meet her mother at Martinez's house to gather her belongings. But when Carnes arrived first, her boyfriend came out to the driveway. "He was very sweet to me, very nice," she recalled.

"Oh, I'm so sorry that this happened, and if you want to leave, I completely understand," she remembered him saying.

"Well, I'm just going to wait for my mom," she told Martinez. "I don't want to go into the house until she gets here."

Martinez stood in the driveway, talking gently to Carnes; then he suddenly yelled: "Come here, motherfucker!" Martinez grabbed her by the neck and pulled her into the garage. Carnes screamed.

She heard something from behind her.

"Hey, what the hell do you think you're doing to her?" a neighbor said as he ran into the garage.

That startled Martinez. He loosened his grip. Carnes broke free, ran down the street, and hid beneath hedges, crouching in silence and fear. Later, she heard the neighbor's voice.

"It's all right," he told her. "You can come out now."

Martinez was arrested and charged with domestic violence and aggravated battery. He bonded out of jail the next day. But he wasn't finished with Carnes. In the following days, she received letters and flowers at work and at her mother's home, some with nice messages, others threatening.

On February 27, 1996, Carnes was alone at her mother's house in Homestead, talking to a friend on the telephone. Just as she put down the receiver, she heard a noise. "I looked up, and I saw Luis in front of me," she said. "He was holding something in his hands... I thought it was a gun."

Martinez raised his arm and pulled the trigger. Carnes witnessed something spring forward. It attached to her right shoulder. A wire led from the device in Martinez's hand to the instrument on Carnes' body. "I felt a sizzling throughout my body," she recalled.

She'd been shot with a Taser gun. "I basically understood how they work, with the electricity running through the wire," she said. "I grabbed the wire and pulled it off me."

Carnes then ran into a utility room, closing the door and leaning against it. She was sobbing.

"Laura, why are you doing this to me?" Martinez asked from outside.

"I'm sorry," she replied. "I'll drop all the charges against you."

"That's just not enough," Martinez allegedly said in a calm voice. Carnes then heard a click, the unmistakable sound of the slide being pulled back on an automatic handgun. She looked back and saw the rear window. She ran toward the opening, sliding up the glass and punching out the screen. As she pulled her body through headfirst, she heard a crashing sound. The door opened. A hand took hold of the waistband of her jeans. "Help! Help!" Carnes yelled as she kicked at her attacker.

Slipping out of his grasp, Carnes fell out of the window. "I went face first in the concrete," she said, "and I sprung up and I ran through my yard and through my neighbor's yard and ran to the neighbors that I know are home all the time."

Carnes burst through the door without knocking. "Please call the police," she yelled. "This guy just tried to kill me. Please don't let me die."

The young woman curled into a fetal position on the floor and rocked back and forth.

Martinez's luck with the law finally ran out on April 6, 1996, two months after the final incident with Carnes. That day, Martinez arrived at Miami Acura at 16601 S. Dixie Hwy. in a blue Jaguar XJ7. He was trying to buy another car using fake identification and a stolen credit card. The dealership became suspicious and called authorities.

Miami-Dade police discovered that the Jaguar he arrived in had been reported stolen from West Palm Beach. As officers tried to handcuff Martinez, the Cuban punched both men in an attempt to escape. It didn't work.

Martinez had good reason for wanting to flee. He was already awaiting trial for a stolen-car rap related to the Rolls-Royce he'd given Carnes. The incident at Miami Acura added four new charges: two for grand theft auto and two for battery on a law enforcement officer. Martinez was looking at decades in prison.

Out on bond, Martinez called Miami-Dade Police Detective Hector Rivera, claiming he could provide information about drug smugglers. In return, he asked for leniency in his upcoming trials. It was a scheme Martinez would eventually master: providing information to law enforcement to save his own ass.

Rivera was interested in at least listening. But the volunteer snitch quickly became a nuisance. One night, Martinez called the detective. He sounded drunk. "He says, 'I have a guy that I know down in the Keys that has a hundred and something kilos of cocaine,'" Rivera explained in a 1997 deposition. But Martinez couldn't provide any additional information.

"Luis is a groupie," Rivera surmised. "He wants to be something he's not, whether involved with the police or whatever. Couldn't name any of the guys, date of birth, name the boat. He couldn't do anything like that."

And so Miami-Dade police never helped with his trials. From February to July 1997, Martinez received a total of 30 years behind bars for three charges of trafficking in stolen property, three of grand theft auto, two of battery on a law enforcement officer, and one of resisting arrest.

Five years later, while at Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, Martinez found a way to regain his freedom. Francisco Beltran, a Fort Lauderdale man who in 1996 had been sentenced to 75 years in prison for sodomizing his 3-month-old son, told Martinez that he wanted to kill Broward Judge Mark A. Speiser and Assistant State Attorney Dennis Siegel, both of whom had handled his case. Martinez called the ATF, and the federal agency helped set up a sting.

Martinez informed Beltran that he had a friend named Richie who could murder both men for a price. That friend was in fact Richard Zayas, an ATF special agent based in Tampa. Beltran asked Zayas to visit him in prison by posing as an attorney. During a visit on September 24, 2002, Zayas showed the inmate pictures of his "toys," the word the pair had used for pipe bombs. Beltran agreed to pay Zayas $1,000 to murder both men.

The next month, federal prosecutors indicted the prisoner for his role in the murder for hire. Beltran pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten additional years in prison.

Martinez's reasons for selling out a fellow inmate were anything but altruistic. "It was plain English," Zayas said in a May 14 deposition. "He wanted cooperation."

The ATF pulled strings, and Martinez was released from prison on November 4, 2002, 25 years before the expiration of his sentence. Three months later, he married a long-time girlfriend, real estate agent Nadezda Stefanovich, and settled into a suburban life in Lauderhill as a husband and stepfather of two teenage girls.

But there was a catch. "Part of the agreement with him being released from prison," Zayas admitted in a deposition, "was that he was going to work with us."

Charlie Moretto always knew the score. As a businessman, he could be cutthroat. "He's a real gambler, and he's a very brilliant man," 46-year-old ex-girlfriend Deborah Basha remembered in a statement to police. "There's nobody like him."

Overweight at five-foot-six and 190 pounds, the 58-year-old Moretto carried his money in an alligator clip and was fiercely independent. He was known for always being the guy behind the wheel during outings. "Charlie, nobody picks up Charlie," Basha recalled. "He takes his car everywhere."

Born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, Moretto spent most of his life in or around Boston, near his cousin and good friend Billy Botelho. The father of seven children, Moretto was a lifelong entrepreneur. He owned two clubs in North Reading, Massachusetts -- Maverick and New York Disco -- before finally making his money from the sea. More than 20 years ago, Moretto started Fleet Yacht Charters of Boston, which charters luxury yachts on Boston Harbor for events and dinners. By November 1990, Moretto had met a new girlfriend, Basha, and had handed control of the yacht-chartering company to two of his children, Christine and Gary, both of whom declined to comment for this article.

Around the same time, one of Moretto's other children, Richard, started adding lines to his Mafia résumé. In August 1990, a federal grand jury indicted the young Moretto and 50 others for involvement in a drug-trafficking ring led by infamous Boston mobster James J. "Whitey" Bulger. The group imported cocaine from Florida to South Boston. Trial evidence showed that Richard was one of the organization's tough guys, once making a veiled threat to a used car salesman. "You love your father and mother, right?" Richard told him. "Well, keep loving them." He was convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to 17.5 years. After serving a portion of his prison term, Richard rejoined the Mob on the outside. He then became an enforcer and a packager for a marijuana-smuggling ring, according to a federal indictment handed down in December 2002.

By then, the Moretto patriarch had already started a new life 1,500 miles south of Boston. After Basha gave birth to his daughter, Charly, the trio moved to Broward County in the mid-'90s. As it turned out, Moretto ran in some of the same circles as his incarcerated son. "I can just tell you that Charlie has a very colorful past..." Basha said. "I mean, he probably has a lot of friends that are wise guys. OK, I mean, he definitely does."

Moretto was an associate in the Genovese crime family. In 1996, he had been indicted in Broward County on racketeering charges for his connection to an illegal gambling enterprise headed by local Mob soldiers John "Johnny Sideburns" Cerrella and Vinnie Romano.

Cerrella and Romano ran a sports-betting operation in a Coral Springs apartment. The investigation into that business led to an Oakland Park nightclub called Club Fever, believed to have been a Mob front for money laundering. Moretto was swept up in the indictment for his interest in the club. He pleaded no contest to conspiracy to violate beverage laws and received five years of probation.

In 1999, Moretto reportedly went straight. As South Florida's real estate market heated up, he started fixing up luxury properties in North Broward, then selling them for a profit. It was honest work. "I think he's a legitimate, hard-working, law-abiding citizen now," Basha said. "I think he decided, you know what, this is the way to be, 'cause the other thing ain't working out."

Though their relationship didn't last, Moretto supported Basha and his daughter. Moretto paid for the woman's black Lexus, and she and her daughter lived in a $316,890 house that Moretto owned in Lighthouse Point. Eight-year-old Charly even attended Pine Crest, one of the area's most elite private schools, on daddy's dime. "We just set aside our differences when it came to her," Basha explained.

But Moretto's bond with his ex-girlfriend had become increasingly strained. Last summer, the two were embroiled in a bitter legal battle. Moretto filed a petition with the court seeking full custody of Charly, alleging that Basha's "use of illegal drugs and alcohol has risen to such a level as to endanger the safety and welfare of the minor child."

Exactly why, at the same time, Moretto was eager to sell his Bentley and Lighthouse Point mansion isn't clear. He didn't discuss his finances, Basha said. But she speculated that money had become tight. "He was definitely trying to liquidate," Basha said, "but Charlie is the type of guy that doesn't liquidate unless he gets what he wants. He'll hang tight."

On October 29, 2003, Basha's flight from New York to Fort Lauderdale was delayed. She had made plans with Moretto to pick up little Charly. She called to let her ex-boyfriend know she'd be late. He didn't answer. "Hi, Charlie, I'm actually on the plane," she said into Moretto's voice mail at 12:53 p.m. "It was delayed 45 minutes, so it looks like I'm getting in at 4:15. I should be home at 5."

Once back in Florida, Basha drove to Moretto's mansion at 3870 NE 31st Ave. in Lighthouse Point. When she pulled up to the house, she noticed the Bentley out front. She beeped. "Usually my daughter will run to the car," she would say later. "I beeped. Nothing." She knocked on the door. No answer. She peered through the glass. No one was moving inside. "I was thinking this is weird, because he would never leave his car anywhere," Basha said.

Still, she reasoned that Moretto and their daughter must have gone out for dinner. She went to her place. The phone rang. It was Pine Crest. "Your daughter, Charly, is here," the person said.

"What do you mean she's still there?" Basha replied.

She was worried. Moretto was getting old. His hearing was going, his health slowly deteriorating. His heart might have finally failed him. She called 911.

At 7 p.m., Lighthouse Point police found Moretto's body lying face up in the master bedroom, a few steps from the entrance to a bathroom.

Moretto's cousin, Botelho, immediately led detectives to Martinez, explaining that the day before, the Cuban man had made plans to purchase the Bentley and possibly the mansion. Moretto was wary of Martinez, Botelho explained. "He was afraid that he was gonna sign the title over to them, and he thought they was gonna -- they gonna whack him in the head and take the money back," he told detectives.

Soon, investigators discovered that they were handling much more than a murder mystery. The case represented an apparent intersection between the Mafia and ATF investigations into illegal arms dealing.

As it turned out, Moretto met Martinez through Boca Raton businessman Mike Umile. Martinez had told Umile that he had $10 million to invest in South Florida real estate and businesses. Moretto was looking for such an investor.

But Martinez was playing both ends against the middle, working simultaneously as a con man and as a paid snitch. On July 8, 2003, Martinez told the ATF that Umile was a member of the Gambino crime family, according to ATF reports obtained by New Times. He alleged that the Mafia was trying to acquire U.S. military arms, which the group would then exchange for narcotics with Caribbean revolutionaries. "Individuals from Trinidad-Tobago were interested in purchasing LAW missiles, M-16 rifles, and M-16 rifles with attached grenade launchers," according to an ATF report based on Martinez's information.

It's unclear whether organized crime outfits in the United States were indeed trying to partner with Caribbean extremists. Neither Umile nor the ATF would comment for this article. What is clear is that Martinez left investigators clues that seemed to connect him to the murder.

Authorities linked Moretto's Breitling watch and the title to his Bentley, both missing from the mansion, to Martinez. The watch was sold on eBay by one of the Cuban's friends. The car title was later destroyed by the same friend. What's more, on the day of the murder, cellular tower records indicated that Moretto's Nextel phone was in close proximity to Martinez's MetroPCS handset, leading detectives to believe that the con man had likely taken the phone following the murder.

Alligator Alley cuts across the swamps and marshland of South Florida like a 100-mile-long knife wound. On October 30, 2003, the morning after Moretto's body was found in Lighthouse Point, Martinez traveled across that road and pulled off Interstate 75 at an exit in Naples. He was there to meet an old friend: ATF Special Agent Richard Zayas.

When on assignment for the ATF, Martinez would earn $800 per week or $250 per piece of information. On May 30, 2003, he had helped Zayas apprehend a Fort Lauderdale man named Rohan McKay and four of his associates in a staged plot to steal cocaine from a stash house in Naples. McKay received a nine-year federal sentence in January, and Martinez walked away with a $3,000 bonus check from the federal government.

That afternoon in October, Martinez was in Naples to help Zayas ensnare Max Charlot, a 24-year-old Haitian-American from Miami who also went by the name Demauntri Dumantis. They were to use the same MO that the government had used to catch McKay.

Charlot would receive a call around noon with the address of the house storing about 50 kilograms of Colombian cocaine. Then Charlot and five of his boys would rob the place, split the loot, and live like kings.

Near a Cracker Barrel restaurant, Zayas talked with Charlot while Martinez waited in a car. The Haitian-American was on edge. It was past noon. They were awaiting a phone call to Zayas' pager that would be the signal. It didn't come.

Charlot wanted to know why. "You tryin' to send a nigga to prison or something, man," Charlot told Zayas.

"Dude, bullshit, dude," the undercover ATF agent said. "If you go down, I go down too."

"Look here, man, what do you think, we some fucking rookies?" Charlot said.

"Fuck no; that's why I'm with you guys."

A few minutes later, Zayas' pager went off. "Dude, I'm getting paged," he said, opening the car door. "I'm gonna go make that phone call, bro. I'll be back in two seconds. You guys get ready, man."

Zayas walked back to the car where Martinez was seated. "What the hell is going on?" Martinez asked. If indeed he had murdered Moretto, he must have been nervous.

"The guy is paging me right now," Zayas answered, dialing on his cell phone. "Hey," he said into the telephone, "you got, uh, you got three guys in the other car. You got three guys in the other car. You got three guys in the first car. Total of six guys. Total of six guys. Six guys in there. They're hinked up. They're hinked up. Be prepared. Six guys."

"They show you their weapons?" Martinez asked.

"No, I didn't see them," Zayas answered.

Then came the noise. ATF agents, guns drawn, stormed in and surrounded the two cars.

"Fuck this!" Martinez yelled.

"Shh," Zayas said, calming him down. "Shh."

Charlot and his associates were arrested. Charlot was later convicted of conspiracy to distribute cocaine and use of a firearm in relation to a drug crime. He received 26 years in prison.

But he wasn't the only one in trouble. Back in Broward, detectives were slowly piecing together the evidence that linked Martinez to Moretto's murder. On November 20, 2003, after a brief interview with detectives, the Cuban man was arrested and charged with first-degree murder.

Now the ATF won't publicly confirm that Martinez was on the federal payroll. But that reticence only confirms how dubious a business it can be when the government employs criminals to nab other criminals.

Dressed in a baggy, orange, county-issued jump suit, Luis Martinez sits behind a glass wall in the visiting room of the Broward Sheriff's Office Main Jail on the New River on a steamy July afternoon.

Martinez will have a difficult time convincing a jury of his innocence. In addition to evidence collected prior to his arrest, detectives found, while searching his Jaguar, two stolen checks written out for $1 million each. That corroborated the story police heard about Martinez's claiming to have $10 million to invest.

Martinez leans into the glass, the phone cradled in his right hand. "I didn't kill Moretto," he says. "I'm no angel, but I'm not a killer. That's not my style. They say that I killed him for a watch and the Bentley. Why would I do that? Why kill a man for something that I could just convince him to give me? That's my style. That's how I do things.

"I'm the perfect suspect," Martinez continues. "They didn't look for anyone else. They just looked at me and said, 'Let's blame Martinez,' because I've got a record. They don't have a single eyewitness. They don't have anyone who can link me to the murder. Nothing."

Martinez's murder trial should begin later this year. The state is seeking the death penalty. Among the likely witnesses is Zayas. Martinez claims that the ATF agent can exonerate him but hasn't come forward for fear of compromising pending federal investigations. Moretto had enemies, people who wanted him dead, Martinez claims. He says he's merely the fall guy. But unlike in 2002, when Martinez set up a fellow inmate in a murder-for-hire plot, the federal government doesn't appear willing to do him any favors.

"I have no love for the ATF right now," Martinez says. "I have no love for Richie Zayas."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson