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Mr. Big Shot

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As usual, Hirschfeld had found a way to stand out from the crowd. He had somehow gotten hold of two cars -- a red convertible Mustang and a blue Cadillac -- that were anything but common on the island. The Ford was such a lucky charm that a pair of cops who pulled them over for speeding let them go, even thanked them, just for a look at the engine.

Once, Cooter says, he borrowed the Mustang to go grab a beer and a bite to eat. "Christ, it was like being a movie star," he says. The car attracted a family celebrating their daughter's 16th birthday. When Cooter told them he'd take a photo of her sitting in the car, "you would have thought she'd just won a trip to Disney World."

Back to brass tacks with Hirschfeld, though: That was far less entertaining. Cooter leveled with his pro-bono client.

"Look," Cooter advised, "I understand these charges are bogus. There's a vendetta -- I agree with you. But you haven't been so damned smart here. Your judgment's been poor, and you can't fight the whole world all the time."

Hirschfeld looked at Cooter with tears in his eyes. "You really believe that?" he asked.

"I really do," Cooter replied. It was the only time he'd seen Hirschfeld so emotional, and Cooter tried to reassure him.

"Don't worry about it, Richard. It's just an observation. Calm down," Cooter said. "We'll play the ball where it is and figure out what to do and how to get out of it."

When Cooter visited him again a few months later, he was amazed at how well-connected his client had become with Cuban politicians -- up to and including Fidel Castro, whose policies Hirschfeld privately loathed.

"But I didn't go down there to talk politics with him," Cooter remarks. Instead, it was more of a cleanup visit, not terribly substantive, because of the brick walls Cooter faced in getting help for his client. He remembers they nearly crossed paths in London around the same time -- Hirschfeld could still move about the globe with ease. "I think the Cubans facilitated that somehow," Cooter says.

In Cuba, Hirschfeld gravitated toward posh seaside villas. Though closer to his family, he wasn't satisfied.

"Cuba," Cooter says with a small chuckle, "for a middle-aged white man, has its attractions. But whenever I talked to Richard, he was maudlin about his failure to have access to his wife and kids. He had this slavish devotion to his family. More than one would expect."

In the wake of 9/11, there was good reason to believe the government had more pressing concerns than a big-shot attorney with a checkered past, fugitive or not. Hirschfeld re-entered the country sometime in 2000 and was living in South Florida.

Loretta left Virginia to join him. "At first, I just thought I would go back and forth," she recalls. But in May of 2004, using the name Global Telesat -- a corporation headed by Loretta on paper but by Richard in reality -- the two purchased their dream home at 1310 Brickell Dr. They moved in the next month. In the back of her mind, she knew it was risky. "I'm so thankful for the short time we were together here, because we loved this house so much," she says. "I didn't think about someone knocking on the door."

On a bright April afternoon, Agent Russell, an imposing man with a tell-tale bulge of body armor under his blue T-shirt, returns to the parking lot. Absent-mindedly tapping the butt of his holstered pistol, he flexes muscles without being aware of it. With a Gordon Liddy gruffness and graying mustache, Russell's shorn scalp looks capable of farming two and a half heads' worth of hair. Without it, he's just that much more intimidating.

Returning to where the big nab went down clearly entertains him. Home only a few days after a three-month voluntary deployment to Baghdad ("a lot of fun!"), where he chased insurgents using black helicopters and Humvees, Russell is now driving his car across the grass of Colee Hammock Park, a prime picnic spot near the confluence of the New and Tarpon rivers.

"Chuck and I do mostly violent crimes," he says. "Homicides. With fraud guys, we usually give 'em an hour, and if we can't find 'em, we can't find 'em. But this was an international bad guy, on the run for years, and it always feels good to get a guy like that."

Pulling the front bumper an inch or two over the seawall, Russell edges the front tires against the stone barrier that separates the park from the water. A fishing boat bobs past as the lunch crowd stares.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton

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