Mexican-style South of the Border Justice has arrived in America with a vengeance, and is on display in a courtroom in Miami where three members of New York’s Gambino Family, Anthony "Big Tony" Moscatiello, Anthony "Little Tony" Ferrari, and James "Pudgy" Fiorello, are on trial for the murder of Suncruz Casino tycoon Gus Boulis.
The Boulis trial confirms the appearance on these shores of the kind of blatant immunity from prosecution that Mexican gangsters, politicians, drug cartel bosses and Generals—many of whom wear more than one hat—have long taken for granted in our neighbor to the South. Given the continuing devolution of the formerly-great superpower, this should not be considered an especially surprising development.
Yet it is still a shock to realize how much justice in today’s Miami resembles that in, say, Tijuana, fabled home of risque sex acts and now “stewmasters” making “Mexican meat soup” by dissolving bodies in 55-gallon industrial drums in auto repair shops placed strategically across the dusty landscape.
Tijuana is located in a semi-failed state that you could call a banana republic, if that weren’t a slur on nutritious fruit.
Guess what? So is Miami.
Gus Boulis was a casino cruise operator who had recently sold his 11-ship operation to Jack Abramoff, the big-time Republican lobbyist who was at the time one of America’s most powerful men. After Abramoff and Kidan “forgot” to pay Boulis for the purchase of his casino cruise line, his continued existence almost instantly became inconvenient.
Héctor Félix Miranda was a well-known journalist whose continued existence was also considered inconvenient by one of Mexico’s most powerful men.
Both suffered the same fate, in the same way. Also, the aftermath of the murders played out almost identically.
Hector Felix Miranda was ready to go to work. On a rainy morning in April, 1988, he left his house and climbed behind the wheel of his Crown Victoria LTD to drive to his job as co-editor of ZETA, a widely-read muckraking newspaper.
Across the street from Hector that morning sat a man watching from a black Pontiac TransAm with its engine running. Victor Medina was a burly former state policeman, an expert marksman, and a professional bodyguard to Jorge Hank Rhon, the son of Carlos Hank González, the most powerful man in Mexico at the time.
Parked facing Hector, maybe 150 feet away, was a brown Toyota pickup truck with two men aboard. One wore Levis and work boots, while the other, the shooter, Antonio Vera Palestrina, who had been Carlos Hank González’ personal bodyguard when Hank was Mexico City’s mayor, was decked out in cowboy boots, cowboy hat, an expensive suit, and a belt with a gold belt buckle.
The black TransAm pulled out in front of Hector, then suddenly stopped. Coming up behind him was the brown Toyota pickup, which pulled up beside Hector.
Gus Boulis was ready to go home. Finished with a later meeting that lasted until 9:15 p.m. on a cool breezy night in February 2001, he walked outside to his BMW, and pulled out of the parking lot and turned south, towards home.
Watching Boulis drive away, according to his testimony at the trial, was James “Pudgy” Fiorillo, described as a "dog-walking, food-fetching, car-washing, and baby-sitting wanna-be Mobster from New Jersey.” Pudgy got his nickname back in high school, where he stood 5’6” while weighing 260 pounds.
Prosecutors used to think Pudgy had been the gunman who killed Boulis. But they accused him only of spying on Boulis and reporting his movements to “Little Tony” Ferrari on the night of the murder. Two years ago, he pled guilty to murder and conspiracy charges, and got a light sentence in return for testifying for the prosecution.
Boulis had only driven a few blocks before a car pulled in front of his BMW, forcing him to slow down, and then stop. The car in front of him didn't budge. Boulis slammed on the brakes to avoid a collision. Just then, witnesses told police, a second car, a black Mustang drove up and pulled alongside him in the oncoming lane.
The Mustang's driver opened his window. Boulis turned to look, and made a grim discovery. The man in the Mustang was pointing a gun right at him. Boulis raised his hand as if to shield himself, but it wasn’t enough to stop three hollow-tip bullets from burrowing deep inside his chest when the driver opened fire, shooting Boulis at least three times with a semi-automatic weapon.
As the black Mustang front of him sped away, Boulis screamed, a loud blood-curdling animal sound that eyewitnesses said they will never forget. Bleeding and barely conscious, Boulis pressed the accelerator, headed south a few blocks, then turned a corner and blacked out, spinning across a median into oncoming traffic and crashing into a tree next to a Burger King.
Professional bodyguard Antonio Vera Palestrina rolled down his window and pulled out a powerful shotgun and shot Hector twice.
The impact of the first shot threw Hector off his seat to the other side of the car, where his head bounced off the door as a second shot pierced his ribs, ripped his arm and almost tore it away. His body was left slumped under the dashboard, his gray “Members Only” jacket shredded, smelling of gunpowder, and soaked in blood and flesh.
In Tijuana, there were daily demonstrations. The public and independent newspapers across Mexico expressed skepticism of the investigation into Hector’s murder, and called for justice. “Unless politics or publicity interferes, money can buy innocence and freedom,” explained a journalist in Mexico City.
Authorities in Mexico soon arrested the two Jorge Hank Rhon bodyguards, Medina from the TransAm, and Vera from the Toyota pick-up truck, who they also identified as the shooter.
Despite persuasive evidence to the contrary, prosecutors theorized Vera’s motive for murdering the journalist was rage over something Hector had written about him. This mystified Hector’s co-workers at the newspaper, who could find no evidence that Hector had ever even mentioned him in his column.
Jorge Hank Rhon was known to have been incensed about Hector’s last columns, in which Hector had ridiculed him as a spoiled rich kid. Yet the relationship between Hector and Rhon went unexplored. The bodyguards' boss, Jorge Hank Rhon, was never even questioned.
And, most tellingly, on the day of the murder Vera—who was Jorge Hank Rhon’s head of security as well as his personal bodyguard—had cashed a $10,000 check from Rhon at Rhon’s Aqua Caliente racetrack.
Despite these major loose ends, authorities began to act as if the crime had been solved. There was an inexplicably long delay before the trial began, during which it was continually postponed. Slowly, the story began to disappear from newspapers. People no longer demonstrated. Journalists stopped showing up at noon every day outside the prosecutors office demanding justice.
When the trial finally commenced, witnesses had become considerably less certain of their facts than before.
After Greek tycoon Gus Boulis was gunned down in his BMW, Fort Lauderdale police immediately began scrutinizing SunCruz Casinos. Suspicion focused on the recent sale of his casino fleet, for a very good reason: Boulis, Jack Abramoff, and Adam Kidan had been carrying on a very public feud.
“We certainly aren't lacking in suspects,” said a Fort Lauderdale homicide detective with admirable understatement.
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