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

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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.

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Natalie O'Neill