Read How to Get Away With Murder in America Online

Authors: Evan Wright

Tags: #General, #Criminology, #Social Science, #Law

How to Get Away With Murder in America (6 page)

BOOK: How to Get Away With Murder in America
Wrecking Ball

Typically, a case involving a large criminal enterprise would trigger a request by police or prosecutors, called “state attorneys” in Florida, to federalize the investigation, with an aim toward RICO convictions. Contrary to the depictions in movies, in which cops invariably resent the intrusion of FBI agents, federalizing an investigation is a boon to police working it. The process does transfer control to federal prosecutors, but cops on the case are sworn in as federal agents, investing them with significant powers. Notably, they fall under section 1001 of the U.S. Code, which makes it a felony to lie to a federal agent. “There’s no law against lying to a cop,” says Mike Fisten. “But once you take that federal oath, it’s like magic. You tell us any lie, we can seriously fuck you up. That’s leverage.”

Federal RICO laws are a legal sledgehammer in the hands of police. Geared toward ensnaring every participant in a criminal enterprise, from boss to soldier, they are based on a simple formula. Any criminal deed undertaken to promote the enterprise is deemed a “predicate act.” A person who commits just two predicate acts can be prosecuted for a count of racketeering, which carries a twenty-year sentence. The RICO formula has a devastating impact on sentencing because crimes that under state law might be misdemeanors, like simple arson, can count as predicate acts in a RICO case. And there is no double jeopardy in RICO. A defendant can be convicted of a homicide—a predicate act in a federal RICO trial—and then retried for the same homicide on state murder charges.

But perhaps the biggest benefit federal RICO cases offer cops is that they insulate them from local political interference. The detectives working Albert’s case expected it to be federalized, but the state attorney’s office in Dade County decided to prosecute it as a state case. The office was run by Janet Reno, who would later become attorney general of the United States. At the time, she was facing a tough reelection as state attorney. Former MDPD cops allege that Reno ordered her prosecutors to hold on to Albert’s case because she wanted her office to lead a high-profile drug case and burnish her image as a crime fighter.

Then came a surprising development on another political front. In December 1985, state troopers assigned to protect Governor Bob Graham made an unusual discovery: a note, taped to Graham’s bathroom mirror, written by Bobby Erra’s girlfriend, Marsha Ludwig, and addressed to the governor’s wife, Adele. It read in part: 

Dear Adele,
This is a note for Bob’s mirror. A good friend of mine, Alberto San Pedro, has a case coming before Bob and his cabinet on December 18. Albert is hoping for a full pardon so he can become an American citizen.


Unaware that he was under investigation, Albert was still working all the angles to obtain a pardon for his old convictions. Even before Ludwig sent the note to Adele Graham, her husband already appeared to have signaled his intent to pardon Albert, defending him to the parole board by praising the “impressive statement of his community record.” But when Albert’s case came up for final review in December, the governor deferred his decision.

Albert was arrested in February 1986 and charged with more than fifty counts related to drug trafficking and corruption of public officials. No officials were named in the arrest documents, but speculation in the media torched political careers. Robert Shevin, the former state attorney general who had written a letter attesting to Albert’s character, was forced to abandon his campaign for governor after the letter surfaced. More than two dozen officials who’d been close to Albert or had taken campaign contributions faced public grillings. The
Miami Herald
called Albert’s case a “wrecking ball for political reputations.”

Graham, who’d just launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate, faced reporters in March after state troopers leaked the story of finding Ludwig’s note taped to his bathroom mirror. Graham insisted that “there was nothing unusual about either the message or the transmitting” of the note. He blamed the matter on his wife’s loyalty to her old friend. Ludwig later told federal prosecutors that Bobby Erra had persuaded her to send the note to Adele Graham, but Erra’s name never came up at the time of the note incident. Erra’s access to the governor through Ludwig was potentially the most awkward issue Graham might have faced. Ludwig was not just friends with Graham’s wife. She’d gone to high school with Graham and introduced him to Adele. During the fourteen years Ludwig had been dating Erra, she’d continued to socialize with the Grahams. Although there was no evidence of the governor having a relationship with Erra, the link to him through Ludwig would not have looked good had it gotten out. But Graham sailed through the crisis (and got elected to the Senate a few months later) in part because Erra’s name never did get out.

Albert had detailed his criminal alliance with Erra in his earliest taped meetings with the undercover cop, but Janet Reno’s office declined to bring charges against Erra. The MDPD cops on the case were shocked. “We had an opportunity to take down a major Mafia figure,” says Detective McGruff, “and nobody wanted us to touch him.” McGruff and other detectives believed Erra was left out of the case to avoid damaging the governor.

None of the former MDPD detectives I spoke to produced evidence that Graham, or Janet Reno, who campaigned for Graham in his Senate bid, took improper actions to remove Erra from the case. But however it happened, MDPD brass began starving the investigation of resources even before Albert’s arrest, quietly pulling officers off the case and cutting overtime. One detective received an unrequested promotion to sergeant, which resulted in his automatic removal from the squad. Of the nearly 1,300 hours of wiretap recordings police had gathered, fewer than 200 hours were properly logged or even listened to. Some 1,000 hours of tape were dumped in an evidence locker. The wrecking ball hit the police case harder than their targets, though officials publicly touted the investigation as a turning point in the fight against crime. “They declared victory,” says McGruff, “ as they terminated our case.”

In 1988, Albert was convicted of a single count of drug trafficking and five counts of bribing street cops. He was sentenced to five years in prison. The
New York Times
summed up the outcome with the headline “ ‘Great’ Corruption Case in Miami Turns Out to Be Much Less.”

Get Out of Jail Free

Shortly after Albert’s conviction, President Reagan nominated Dexter Lehtinen as the U.S. attorney in Miami. Lehtinen was a popular Florida state senator, a tall, fair-haired war hero—wounded in Vietnam—with a Dudley Do-Right image that his backers hoped would one day carry him to the governor’s office. Upon becoming the top federal prosecutor in Miami, Lehtinen vowed to make “public corruption” a top priority.

Though Albert more or less skated in the state trial, the federal government had the power to bring RICO charges against him, using evidence from the state case. From his jail cell, Albert’s criminal muse seems to have spoken to him. According to Albert’s wife Lourdes, Albert plotted to manipulate Lehtinen to his benefit. Albert had met Lehtinen in 1985 when he attended a fundraising dinner for Lehtinen, who was then a state senator, and, according to Albert’s lobbyist Donald Dugan, Albert made a contribution. According to Lourdes, Albert believed he knew what made Lehtinen tick: ambition, for himself and his wife.

Lehtinen had recently gone through a divorce and then gotten remarried, to a fellow state legislator, Ileana Ros. In 1988, Ros had her eyes on the congressional seat held by Claude Pepper, who was eighty-eight and ailing. Pepper’s death—and a special election to fill his seat—was expected at any moment. But there was a hitch: Hialeah mayor Raul Martinez was the favorite to win.

Even before Lehtinen took office, federal prosecutors had Martinez on a list of targets for corruption investigation, and in this Albert saw his opportunity. He contacted Lehtinen through his attorney and offered to testify against Martinez in exchange for federal immunity for all his past crimes. Lehtinen jumped at the offer. That’s right: The top law enforcement official in Miami launched his campaign against corruption by going after his wife’s political opponent.

Lehtinen granted Albert “transactional immunity,” the broadest type the government can give. “Never have I seen an immunity agreement negotiated directly by the U.S. attorney,” says Albert’s then-attorney Fred Schwartz. There was more. The deal Lehtinen crafted omitted a “null and void” provision, without which Albert’s immunity couldn’t easily be revoked, even if he failed to cooperate. (Basic to any contract, “null and void” language is what makes a contract enforceable.) One former prosecutor described the deal as a “government-issued Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Armed with Albert’s promise of cooperation, Lehtinen’s office targeted Raul Martinez in a corruption case. Details were leaked to the press even before the charges were filed. To those inclined to believe Lehtinen launched the case to undermine his wife’s opponent, the timing was perfect. Martinez was forced to suspend his planned campaign for Pepper’s seat shortly before Pepper’s death, in May 1989. Lehtinen’s wife, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, won the special election for his House seat, which she still holds today.

When Martinez was later put on trial, Albert never testified. As Fred Schwartz explains, “My client Mr. San Pedro never testified about Raul Martinez in the trial because my client didn’t know anything about Raul Martinez.” Albert’s offer had been a ruse. Federal prosecutors obtained convictions against Martinez, but they were subsequently thrown out, in part because without Albert’s testimony, the government case lacked sufficient evidence.

When I contacted Lehtinen, who is now in private practice, he claimed not to remember anything about an immunity deal with Albert, then insisted, “I had nothing to do with it.” His recollection contradicted the findings of federal judge Jose Gonzales, who in 1991 examined Albert’s deal and concluded, “Lehtinen directly negotiated the transactional immunity agreement with Albert San Pedro.” After I shared this with Lehtinen, he said, “I might have approved it. I suppose I had to, since I was the U.S. attorney. All I remember is that Albert San Pedro was a really bad guy. He’s still in jail, I hope?”

Albert was released from jail on December 20, 1989. Sprung early for good behavior on his state conviction, he returned home, a free man. He could not be federally indicted for any past offenses, though neither the police nor the FBI nor even most federal prosecutors in Miami knew this. His immunity deal with Lehtinen had been kept secret inside the U.S. attorney’s office.

Operation Rabid Dog

In 1989, Mike Fisten’s CENTAC had concluded its investigation of the Tabraue smuggling ring. During the trial, the Tabraues burnished their civic image by donating tigers to the Miami Metro Zoo. The family’s love of big cats was legendary. The farm they used as their smuggling hub ran with exotic cats to whom, according to informants, the Tabraues would threaten to feed their enemies. Now those cats delighted families at the zoo, next to a sign thanking the Tabraues. Visiting the zoo that year with his three-year-old son, Fisten saw the Tabraue cats and became “outraged to the point of physically ill.”

His anger motivated him to redouble his efforts to solve the 1980 murder of the ATF informant that was believed, but not yet proven, to have been committed by the Tabraues’ enforcer, El Oso. Fisten turned witnesses who provided evidence against El Oso, who was about to be released from prison after serving time for illegal-weapons convictions. Fisten staked out the bus station where the convict’s wife and twelve-year-old son waited to be reunited. As El Oso stepped off the bus, Fisten arrested him in front of his family. “I wanted him to have that little taste of air, so he would know what he was missing when we took it away,” Fisten says. “That’s fair. He murdered a person, and he was going to prison for it. That’s how it’s supposed to work in this country.”

None of what happened next in Fisten’s career would go according to that principle. After El Oso pleaded guilty and accepted a twenty-year sentence, Fisten left the CENTAC and was reattached to the MDPD Homicide Bureau.

Around that time, Ed Hinman, a sergeant in the MDPD’s Organized Crime Bureau, decided Bobby Erra was a worthy target for his squad. Though Erra was suspected to be a top mafioso, no one had ever made a case against him. “Bobby Erra was an arrogant asshole who thought no one could touch him,” Hinman says. He met with federal prosecutors, who are called assistant U.S. attorneys, and proposed federalizing his squad to target Erra in a RICO investigation. The prosecutors suggested Hinman augment his squad with a strong homicide investigator: Fisten. Hinman had never met Fisten before, but the two hit it off, though they were a study in opposites. Fisten spoke in New York inflections and moved at a frenetic pace; Hinman was a lanky Southerner known for his unflappable cool. Over a few days together, they wrote a formal request to target Erra in a RICO investigation that Hinman named Operation RHABDO—phonetic slang for “rabid dog,” his code for Erra.

Dexter Lehtinen approved the operation, and Hinman was given an office near his in the federal building, from which to oversee more than a dozen personnel assigned to the OCS: a half dozen MDPD detectives, two FBI agents, and support staff. No one—certainly not Lehtinen himself—could have anticipated that the investigation of Erra would circle back to Albert San Pedro and bring to light his secret immunity deal. Nor could anyone have imagined that Albert’s trail would take them to a CIA officer named Enrique Prado, who was then stationed in the Philippines. “If they had known the can of shit we were about to kick open,” Hinman says, “they never would have authorized our task force.”


The “Quiet Man”: Ricky Prado at a family party, circa 1977.
From the OCS files

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