Jeanette Smith’s body was dumped in Florida’s Everglades and turned up details about the Mob

Hauling a fishing rod and bait, Orlando Maytin and his 12-year-old son trudged through a vacant parking lot just past the 31st mile post on Alligator Alley. It was 7:45 a.m. on March 21, 1999, when they came to a quaint public fishing nook on the edge of a vast, swampy stretch. As Maytin cast a line into the oily canal water, he noticed a blue and brown, duct-taped package bumping against the shoreline. It was about three feet long and two feet tall, with makeshift handles on the sides.

It didn't look right.

Maytin cast another line and, with the tender tug of a comb through hair, reeled it in some. A soft-spoken, chunky 34-year-old with short brown hair slicked straight back, he kept one eye on his son and the other on the box.

Then curiosity got the best of him. Setting down his fishing gear, he walked past an elderly fisherman with a weathered face who sat near the boating docks.

"I wouldn't go over there," the old man warned, nodding toward the package. Maytin gazed at him for a moment and then walked on. Crouching down, he touched the damp cardboard.

It was soaked but firm. Intrigued, he tried to pick it up "to get a sense of the weight."

Then it happened. The cardboard gave, and he caught a glimpse of long, stringy brown hair. What the hell is that? he thought, noticing something fleshy. In horror, he watched as the stiff, wrinkly corpse of a young woman broke through and splashed into the water.

The tan, thin girl had been bent like a pretzel. Her muscular arms were tied behind her back with white cloth, and she wore only a backward gray Calvin Klein sweatshirt.

Her features were hard to ignore. This was a girl that, by anyone's standards, had been beautiful. Big, pouty lips remained pink with life. Eyelashes were still specked with traces of makeup. And on the curve of her delicate ankle rested two silver chains. One of them read "Jeanette."

The body belonged to 22-year-old stripper Jeanette Smith. Investigators would soon conclude she had been brutally sodomized, strangled, and dumped.

A week later, authorities arrested brawny 33-year-old former Marine sniper Ariel Hernandez. Authorities claimed that the Gambino crime family had ordered Hernandez to kill Smith after she discovered a check kiting scheme. In April 2002, a jury found Hernandez guilty of murder. U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced him to life in prison.

But the case isn't over. Hernandez now faces related state charges, and the trial could turn up even more details about the Mob's South Florida operation. It could also lead to Hernandez's execution by lethal injection.

Smith's family, the Cooper City community where she grew up, and even workers from the Sunny Isles strip club where she danced are still fixated on the case — and the unanswered questions. "I want the death penalty," says her sister Krissy Smith. "Otherwise, what's the point?"

Jeanette Smith was born the youngest of three daughters in an Italian-Catholic family in Queens the day after Christmas 1976. Her mom, Gina, was a short, shaggy-haired special-education teacher, and her dad, Ray, was a brainy, reclusive lighting technician. When she was 18 months old, the Smiths moved to a working-class neighborhood in Cooper City.

Throughout school, she was at the top of her English class, earning A's and B's. In high school, she began wearing more makeup and skimpier clothes. Shopping at Pembroke Lakes Mall as a teenager, strangers stopped her and commented on her good looks. "You should think about modeling," Gina remembers an older woman recommending.

After high school, in 1995, Jeanette began working at the Goldfinger strip club on North University Drive in Sunrise. About two years later, she moved to the flashier, more lucrative Thee Dollhouse in Sunny Isles Beach. Thee Dollhouse was known for "shower shows," in which a customer bathes backstage with a dancer. Popular girls like Jeanette, who danced under the name Jade, would leave with as much as $2,000 a night. "I think she got a taste of the money," Gina says. "The cash was just incredible."

On March 19, 1995, Jeanette was singled out by a man named Ariel Hernandez, who told a regular at Thee Dollhouse that he planned to sleep with Jeanette. Clean-shaven and cocksure, Hernandez had the body of a linebacker and an outfit torn from the pages of GQ. On his right arm was a cast, and above it, a bulldog tattoo read "United States Marine Corps."

Hernandez passed her hundred-dollar bills throughout the evening. The pair left Thee Dollhouse together about 5:30 a.m. in Smith's black 1997 Mazda 626.

Hernandez was a Cuban immigrant who ran away from home at 17. Two years later, he joined the Marines, where he became a sniper. "I was trained to kill people from long distances," Hernandez tells New Times. "I saw plenty of dead bodies. I could shoot the testicles off a fly."

Once out of the military in 1991, run-ins with the cops started to pile up. Since 1985, he has been arrested 22 times. Charges include aggravated assault, stalking, battery, third-degree theft, and burglary.

In 1996, he began producing counterfeit checks. Prosecutors say they were printed at a Sunny Isles restaurant called Beachside Mario's, which was owned by Freddy Massaro, a South Florida capo in the Gambino crime family. "I had a watermark and everything," Hernandez says. "That's how good I was."

Hernandez would use the fake checks to buy electronics from stores such as Office Max and Sharper Image. He exchanged them for cash or sold them on the street. He made $15,000 a week, he says, some of which he gave to Massaro. 

Eight other men were indicted, most of whom were muscle for Massaro. Their jobs ranged from collecting money to cashing the fake checks.

Somewhere along the line — it's unclear when — prosecutors say Jeanette Smith learned about the check scheme. Though she never reported the crime to police, the Gambino crew mistook her for an informant and ordered a hit on her, according to a September 2000 federal indictment. The assigned killer: Ariel Hernandez.

At 5:30 a.m. on March 20, 1999, prosecutors say Hernandez left Thee Dollhouse with Smith and took her to a seedy, one-story hotel called Villager Lodge Olympia Motel, where he had been staying for three weeks. Room 121 was drab and cramped, with boxes of stolen electronics stacked on top of one another.

There, prosecutors say, he raped and strangled Smith. He tore cartilage in her neck, bruised her legs and right breast, bumped her head, cut her mouth, and shoved an object — likely a wine cooler — in her anus. Then he bound her wrists and ankles, slipped her into a Sony stereo box, and transported her lifeless body north in a borrowed blue Mazda Navajo SUV.

Finally, he tossed it into the Everglades, expecting alligators to take care of the rest.

After Orlando Maytin fished the body from the water, news of the murder flickered across television screens from Miami to New York.

Broward Sheriff's Office Homicide Det. Frank Ilarraza took a photo of Smith's corpse to Thee Dollhouse for identification. A bouncer reported escorting Smith and Hernandez to her black Mazda.

On March 26, after receiving wire-tapped phone conversations from the FBI, detectives arrived at the Villager Lodge in Sunny Isles. Hernandez had checked out four days prior. In his room, Ilarraza found a receipt from a Sharper Image in Sunrise for a Sony Mini Hi-Fi stereo. It was the same brand — and serial number — of the box in which Smith was found.

Ilarraza noted that the white motel towels were "identical to those found in the water." Detectives then gathered samples of tiny blood spots from the carpet.

The next day, Broward cops got an anonymous call from a man who claimed to know what happened to "the girl found in the box." He said two men tortured women by "sticking bottles, walking sticks, or whatever" into their anuses and forcing them "to perform oral sex."

Ilarraza recognized the voice from wire-tapped conversations. It belonged to Ariel Hernandez.

Freddy Massaro called a meeting the next day. He told two Gambino criminal associates that Hernandez was "bringing too much heat" and "had to go," according to prosecutors. The three men planned to inject Hernandez with cocaine to make it look like an accidental overdose.

At 9 a.m. the following day, Broward detectives and Sunny Isles police arrived at a quiet apartment at 172nd Street and Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles. Inside were Hernandez and his girlfriend, Tammy Bubel.

Bubel was interviewed first. She began to cry, then gave a sworn statement. She alleged that while watching a news segment about the dead stripper, Hernandez had admitted accidentally killing Smith. (Later, she testified that her statement was coerced.)

Hernandez gave three different stories. The first: He left Thee Doll House with Smith, but she dropped him off on Collins Avenue, where he saw a suspicious car following her. When detectives challenged this version of events, he claimed that he had waited outside the motel room while two other men tortured her with a bottle, then strangled her with a belt. Finally, he confessed that after paying Smith $500 for sex, he mounted her, put his hand around her throat, then "heard a crack, and she started gasping for air."

Left alone in a monitored room — awaiting an interview with federal investigators — Hernandez "began to massage his groin," according to the investigative report. He then "sexually gratif[ied] himself" and afterward cleaned his hands on a nearby trash can. Detectives sent the garbage bag to a crime lab to garner DNA.

Hernandez's big mouth worsened a bad situation. A fellow inmate reported hearing Hernandez say, "That bitch deserves it for sucking a stranger's dick." And two Broward detention deputies told investigators Hernandez had bragged: "She was sucking my dick and she choked."

On April 23, 2002, U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced Hernandez to life in prison for murder in the aid of racketeering, racketeering conspiracy, conspiracy to commit murder, the passing of counterfeit checks, and 15 counts of bank fraud. He also gave Massaro life for racketeering. Anthony "Tony Pep" Trentacosta, who lived in Atlanta and oversaw the South Florida crew, got eight years. He had once been sponsored by New York City mobster John Gotti.

On the day of sentencing, Hernandez called his prosecution "a sham." He claimed the confession was coerced, that cops had planted the evidence "to make me look like an animal," and that officers had forced Bubel to rat on him.

Since his conviction, Hernandez has become obsessed with proving his innocence. Speaking to New Times at the Metro West Detention Center in Doral, he contends someone else killed her when he left the hotel room for three hours to buy some cocaine. "They said I knew her before I killed her — that's a fuckin' lie," he says. "I didn't know the bitch. I just went to the club to get lucky."

He says he pondered reporting the crime to police but chose to dump the body. "I got a room full of stolen electronics and a bag of coke on me," he explains. "It might sound callous, but when a body is dead, it's dead."

The most critical evidence against him is flawed, he explains, flipping through court papers with strong hands that are bound in silver cuffs. Then he reveals a report detailing a phone call at 4 p.m. March 20, 1999, between Massaro and Hernandez.

In the transcript, Hernandez says: "Listen, uh, things got a little messy yesterday. I tied up the loose end, and I got a package to get rid of. Oh, man, I haven't been able to sleep. My stomach is all fuckin' turned around. What should I do?"

Massaro answers: "I don't know. I'll talk to you in person. Let me shower and shave and I'll be out here, all right?"

Hernandez explains — his brown eyes dull — that the "package" refers to bogus checks.

In 2004, Hernandez refused a plea agreement on the state charges. The deal would have sent him to prison for life, but prosecutors wouldn't seek the death penalty.

Prosecutors say they plan to use semen found in Smith's mouth to link Hernandez to the crime. "The evidence is compelling, and on top of that, you have his confession," Assistant State Attorney Michael Von Zamft says. "I'm not a big fan of the death penalty, but he's earned it."

A hearing for Hernandez's trial is set to begin January 12.

The Smith family recently left behind the biting memories of South Florida for small-town Tennessee. Gina Smith says she isn't sure if her daughter's killer should get the chair. Her Catholic faith doesn't permit her to wish death on anyone, and yet she can't bear the thought of Hernandez alive — perhaps one day walking the streets. "After Jeanette was killed, the joy left this family," she says, her voice quaking. "It haunts me to this day."

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Natalie O'Neill