Longform

Eddie Santana Makes Six Figures by Suing Restaurants From the Inside

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Four months later, he was arrested for stealing a half-dozen steaks from a Winn-Dixie on Sunset Drive in Kendall. According to an arrest report, Santana strolled out of the supermarket without paying. When two Winn-Dixie employees told him to stop, Santana said he would shoot them. Then he reached under the seat of his car and flashed a small black handgun before driving off.

Santana says that it was a friend who shoplifted and that there was no gun. But he spent nearly a month in jail before pleading no contest to third-degree grand theft. A judge assigned him to two years of probation and a drug rehab program because of the earlier crack cocaine charge.

"The judge thought I was robbing stores because I have a drug problem," Santana scoffs. But he failed to report to his probation officer after his release. When he finally showed a week later, he tested positive for benzodiazepines, such as Xanax. He was rearrested for breaking parole. This time, he was locked up for nine months.

While he was incarcerated, several banks closed his accounts and sent cashier's checks to his old address. Santana claims his brother cashed them without telling him. While behind bars, Santana sued six banks over the check debacle. When he was released in December 2008, he negotiated settlements including a $25,300 check from SunTrust. He even sued his brother, who couldn't be reached by New Times for comment. "I sued my own brother. What does that tell you?" Santana says. "My lawsuits aren't about the money. It's a matter of principle."

If Santana settles even half of the nine lawsuits he has pending, he will make six figures this year without serving a single meal. He says he'll use the money to quit the game: move away from South Florida, maybe even start his own restaurant. Then he'd never have to sue anyone ever again.

But the Barrio Latino case threatens to shatter that already unlikely dream. If Santana is convicted of assault, he could wind up back in jail for two months. A conviction would also scupper any chance at a settlement with Scheer and encourage other restaurants to go after him. At least, that's what Scheer hopes.

"I want a precedent on record in case this guy goes psycho," says Scheer, sitting in a Miami-Dade courtroom for Santana's assault hearing. The restaurant owner remembers that night in detail. Ten days earlier, Santana had shown up at Barrio Latino with a beer in hand, asking for a paycheck.

"I never hired him," Scheer insists. "Never." When Santana showed up a second time, Scheer says he asked him to step outside. Then Santana lifted a chair and smashed it onto the pavement.

"That's when he started yelling, 'Hit me! Why don't you hit me, pussy?' " Scheer remembers. "He was obviously trying to provoke me into starting a fight so he could sue me."

Scheer's girlfriend, a server named Vanessa Acurio, says she saw Santana spit and kick at her boyfriend when he turned his back. The loogie landed; the kick did not. "He looked like a devil," Acurio says of Santana.

When Santana ran to his car and grabbed what Scheer assumed was a gun, "I thought I was going to get shot," Scheer says.

Santana contends he lost his temper only when Scheer spit in his face and refused to pay him.

"Why would I show up to a restaurant that owed me money and start a fight?" Santana asks. "I'm not that stupid."

But as usual, Santana has an out. Scheer's security cameras failed to record the fight. "These restaurants think that just because I've made mistakes in my life that they can just do whatever they want and get away with it," he says after appearing in court in an immaculate pinstriped suit and gold tie. "They look at us waiters like trash, like peons or second-class citizens, and say, 'You're a criminal, so who's going to believe you?' "

Santana has already gotten the "deadly missile" charge dropped, but he still faces misdemeanor counts of assault and disorderly conduct. Another stint in jail is a real possibility. Almost as bad, he was recently fired from jobs at Miller's Ale House and Bongos Cuban Café at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. Santana claims he was axed because he had sued both establishments for stiffing him. Bongos says he quit.

As he leaves the courthouse, a middle-aged woman in a skirt and suit jacket stops him.

"Can you help me find my courtroom?" she asks.

Santana politely explains to her that she has to go back down to the first floor. "See? She thought I was a lawyer," he grins. "It happens all the time."

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Michael E. Miller