By Tristram Korten
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
This story was republished in the Miami Herald.
On a chilly winter night in downtown Miami Nidia Diaz, the owner of Best Bail Bonds, and her team of four bail recovery agents drive south in two pickup trucks.
The agents, Hector Pelaez , Brian Rodrigues, Oscar Recinos and a fourth man who doesn’t want his name used, wear bulletproof vests with Surety Agent in bold white letters across the front and back. They carry handguns, Taser guns, pepper spray and handcuffs. Diaz, a petite Cuban-American, wears a turtleneck, leather jacket, Louis Vuitton heels, and a .38 in a holster color-coordinated with her belt.
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They are headed to the South Miami home of Yenisleidys Fernandez, whose 57-year-old father Jose and 36-year-old sister Maria are fugitives Diaz is hunting.
On Jan. 26, 2008, police in rural Marion County charged the two with running a marijuana grow-house operation. A judge set bail at more than $100,000 each. They paid Diaz 10 percent of that as a fee, and she agreed to pay the full amount if they fled — which is exactly what they did.
By March 2009 Diaz had tracked them to Mexico, where she photographed Maria leaving her waitressing job and confirmed that Jose was working as a Santeria counselor.
“We’re trying to gather information just to update the file of their whereabouts, whether they’re still in Mexico or back here,” Diaz says as they speed south on I-95.
Diaz has a total of seven clients on the lam, worth $827,500 in all, the most she has ever owed in her 30-year career in bail bonds. They are wanted in Okeechobee, Marion, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties. All are charged with first-degree felonies, six with trafficking marijuana, one with fraud and selling illegal prescription drugs online. They have all fled to Latin America — Uruguay, Panama, Mexico and Ecuador. All the cases are from 2008.
Diaz tracked them down and verified their addresses. Then she asked state prosecutors to extradite them, agreeing to pay all the costs of extradition. Not one has been brought back.
Diaz says she’s on her own in his hunt, and she’s not getting the help she needs.
No Tracking System
No government agency tracks the number of fugitives state prosecutors try to recover from abroad. The U.S. Justice Department, State Department and individual state attorneys all responded to record requests by saying they do not keep those figures.
As a result, the best available information comes from agents like Diaz.
“Extraditions are not happening,” she says. “I’m talking on the state level; it’s just not getting done. And I’ve got cases in Miami-Dade County, Marion County, Okeechobee County. And it’s just not getting done. And it’s frustrating as heck.”
The half-dozen bail bond agents interviewed for this story express rising frustration with official inaction. “The state does not pursue people who flee to foreign countries. Period.” says one who, like the others, asked not to be named because he did not want to antagonize the prosecutors who make the decision to extradite.
Requests to state attorney’s offices covering 12 counties found only one — Broward — that could point to any successful extraditions from a foreign country in the past five years. The two people Broward extradited were wanted for murder. (Six years ago, Broward extradited two others wanted for cocaine trafficking).
It’s unclear how many defendants flee the country, and whether their numbers are rising. Alias capias warrants, issued when someone doesn’t show up in court, fell 36 percent over three years in Miami-Dade, to about 4,800 last year from 7,600 in 2007. That decline is consistent with an overall reduction in crime, which in some categories fell by as much as 10 percent a year.
But those statistics may not mean fewer suspects are fleeing abroad. A spokeswoman for the South Florida U.S. Attorney’s Office says its fugitive rate “spiked” in the past five years, largely because of a crackdown on non-violent crimes like health care fraud.
Diaz says it’s no accident that all her cases date from 2008, when the financial crash collapsed the real-estate market and deprived state government of property tax revenue. State attorney’s offices statewide had their budgets slashed. Many laid off prosecutors. That meant fewer people to work the time-consuming extradition cases.
Meanwhile, as property values plunged, bail bond agents, who often require defendants to pledge property as security, were left holding worthless deeds. Savvy criminals saw an opportunity in this: If they could bond out, and their properties were under water, they had little incentive to stay around.
Sometimes prosecutors do try. In the 19th Judicial Circuit, which comprises the four-county Treasure Coast north of Palm Beach, they were trying to extradite Diaz’s client from Ecuador. But, as one prosecutor put it, “The process is a nightmare” — the paperwork extensive and delays numerous. Since 2008, the 19th circuit has tried to extradite at least eight fugitives, none successfully.
Most prosecutors won’t talk about their efforts. Elizabeth Gibson, the assistant state attorney in the Fifth Judicial Circuit who is prosecuting the Fernandezes, declined to be interviewed after acknowledging her office was not trying to extradite the two.
Diaz also has three cases in Miami-Dade, where prosecutors recently dropped one extradition effort after the Mexican government demanded an affidavit from a confidential informant who could not be immediately located. The extradition request was channeled through the Justice Department. Barbara Piniero, chief of Miami-Dade’s extradition unit, says that Justice told her “we could not proceed in Mexico without” the affidavit. (Diaz says she offered to locate the witness.)
Piniero says her office does try to get fugitives back. “We never have a time when we don’t have petitions, formal and informal, pending all over the world,” she says. But Piniero would not say how many extraditions the office executed in the past five years, or how many the office is currently working on. When asked for an example of a defendant brought back recently, Piniero declined.
Prosecutors don’t want to discuss their extradition figures publicly because they don’t want to advertise the limit of their reach, suggests Michael Band, Miami-Dade’s former chief assistant state attorney for major crimes.
“I don’t think any prosecutor will say, ’If you leave the jurisdiction, if you flee, we are not going to come after you.’ Bad public policy,” says Band, who is now in private practice. “Economic decisions are made, though, every day. The state will make an economic decision how much will it cost to get this guy back and is it worthwhile to do that.”
But if the extradition costs are covered by bail bond agents?
“It makes no sense to me why the state would allow somebody to live their life out after committing a crime here in Dade County,” Band says.
It’s midnight when Diaz and her team arrive at the home of Yenisleidys Fernandez, the daughter of fugitive Jose Fernandez.
En route they placed a courtesy call to keep local police informed.
An agent pounds loudly on the door. After a short wait, it cracks open.
“Good evening, we’re looking for Jose Fernandez and Maria Fernandez Leon,” Diaz says in Spanish.
Yenisleidys, peering from behind the door, says she doesn’t know where her father and sister are. Diaz’s tone changes. “Are they still in Mexico or what?” she snaps. “If you tell us you don’t know, we’re going to keep coming back here.”
“I don’t care, you can keep coming, because I don’t know,” Yenisleidys says.
Diaz confers briefly with her team about whether to search the house. “I can’t listen to this bull**** all night,” she says. “Come on, let’s go.”
With that, the team pushes past Yenisleidys into the home.
“But you have to have a warrant,” protests Yenisleidys, sounding angry and scared.
“I have the warrant,” Diaz shoots back. “And you know I do. You know who I am. I’m Nidia Diaz. I’m the stupid idiot who bonded all these people out.”
Yenisleidys runs upstairs to grab her sleeping baby.
Because fugitives are technically still in the custody of the bond agents they contracted with, the agents have standing warrants to search residences linked to defendants.
This search pays off. Agents quickly find a room in the back with a Santeria shrine (Fernandez is a Santeria priest) and a closet full of men’s clothes. Diaz is excited. She sniffs the clothes in the closet. Yenisleidys calls the police.
“Check out the scent,” Diaz says holding up a shirt. “I don’t have to be a hound dog. It has cologne. If they’ve been hanging here for two years it’s impossible they could have this strong scent of cologne. Where’s your father? Where’s your father?”
“He’s not here, I’m just telling you,” Yenisleidys says.
And that’s when two cops arrive. Diaz introduces herself and her team, shows the warrant, and explains why she’s there. The officers ask to speak to Yenisleidys alone.
Diaz and her team wait outside in the cold. Fifteen minutes later an officer emerges with news: Yenisleidys is tired and scared. She knows she could be in trouble and might lose her housing subsidy. She gives them directions to her father’s location, which turns out to be an apartment three blocks from Diaz’s office in downtown Miami. Diaz and another agent stay with Yenisleidys to make sure she doesn’t warn her father.
The three other agents jump into a truck and speed north. It’s nearly 3 a.m.
They arrive at the door of a sixth-floor apartment. Oscar Recinos bangs on the door. “Abre la puerta, por favor!” he barks. A middle-aged woman opens the door, and the agents ask if Jose Fernandez is there. When she says no, they push past her into the apartment. In a bedroom they find a man in bed wearing a brown t-shirt and boxers. He shouts that his name is Luis Gutierrez, but one of the agents pulls out a photo of Fernandez and holds it up.
“That’s him,” one agent shouts, as another yells, “Voltéate! Voltéate! (turn around).”
The agents pounce; one holds a Taser to Fernandez’s back, another twists Fernandez’s arms behind him and cuffs him.
After two years, Fernandez is back in custody, and Diaz is about to recover a large chunk of her $100,500 bond. Of course, this only happened because the fugitive sneaked back into the country, apparently confident that no one was looking for him. Diaz can’t count on that happening again anytime soon.
Her excitement about the capture is short-lived. A few days later, a $300,000 bond in Broward for a man charged with fraud and illegally selling prescription drugs online came due. Diaz located him in Panama and requested an extradition. But it didn’t happen, and Best Bail Bonds had to pay.
Shortly after that her insurance company dropped her as a client.
Sitting inside her office on Northwest 17th Avenue, Diaz says she is confident she’ll find another insurer. (That takes her two weeks.) More disturbing, she says, is that despite her efforts the fugitive is getting away with his crime. “We put ourselves at risk going after these guys,” she says. “We spend day and night working on these cases. It becomes part of our being.”
Then she asks, “Now that I’m no longer going after him, do you think anyone else will do it?”
She swivels in her chair back to her computer, not waiting for an answer.