Broward - Central

BEN NOVACK MURDER CASE

A plot to kill, an epic trial, and finally the verdict

 

jbrown@MiamiHerald.com

Narcy Novack will likely spend the rest of her life peeling potatoes in a federal prison.

Novack, who went from lap dancing in strip clubs to jet setting with celebrities, on Wednesday was convicted, along with her brother, Cristobal Veliz, of engineering the 2009 grisly murders of her millionaire husband, Ben Novack, Jr., and his 86-year-old mother, Bernice Novack.

The verdict means the pair faces life in prison, ending Novack’s fairytale existence married to the son of one of Miami’s most flamboyant hoteliers, the late Ben Novack, Sr., founder of the Fontainebleau hotel.

Narcy Novack, 55, was not present in the courtroom when the federal jury in White Plains, N.Y., announced the verdict shortly before noon. Veliz, 58, who was prone to public outbursts, was uncharacteristically stoic. They were convicted on all counts but one: the felony murder of her husband.

Ironically, it was the murder that no one believed was a murder that they were convicted on: the brutal beating of his mother in Fort Lauderdale.

The denouement capped a dizzying family saga that unspooled an array of seedy family secrets, sealing the murder case as one of the most famous in South Florida history.

The wild yarn featured surprise breast implants, extra-marital affairs, a tattooed porn star, sadomasochistic sex, a one-eyed hit man, the worlds’ second-largest Batman collection, an ex-Miami Dolphins linebacker, voodou, baseball-sized balls of cocaine, amputee porn, a long-lost adopted Novack son, a bungled police investigation and a hotel manager who happened to be the grandson of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister.

Narcy Novack, who once was able to stuff cash into the shoeboxes in her closet, will likely lose all rights to her husband’s $10 million fortune, which, under his will, now goes to her grandsons. She will move from their $2 million waterfront Fort Lauderdale compound to a cozy room with steel bars, a bunk bed and a toilet.

Novack, who suffers from a germ phobia and once practiced black magic, will share showers, meals and prison chores like scrubbing bathrooms and peeling potatoes.

“I hope she will never see the light of day. That is such good news. I’m crying, I have been through so much,” said Bernice Novack’s sister, Maxine Fiel.

Terence Wilson, the lead Rye Brook police detective who dogged the case for three years, was ecstatic.

“We are very happy. Bernice can now rest in peace,’’ he said.

The ten-week trial included more than 4,000 pages of testimony, some 50 witnesses, more than 300 exhibits and 100 pages of jury instructions. The indictment had enough elements, acts, conspiracies and criminal counts to make a law professor’s head spin.

The jury of eight men and four women apparently struggled with a robbery charge which was critical to convicting the defendants of the felony murder of Ben Novack. The indictment required proof of aggravated robbery to find them guilty of murder under New York law, which is where the crime happened.

The pair were, however, convicted in the felony murder of Bernice Novack, whose crime was charged under Florida law, and required proof of different aggravated circumstances, including aggravated battery on an elderly person.

Novack’s attorney, Howard Tanner, found some sense of victory in the fact that jurors aquitted his client of the murder of her husband.

“The jury obviously did not believe the prosecution’s contention that he was robbed,” said Tanner.

Jeffrey Sloman, the former U.S. Attorney in Miami, said New York federal prosecutors made too much stew for the jurors. Almost 100 pages of jury instructions can often be a disaster, especially for jurors who have already sat through nine weeks of testimony. But, he said, the bottom line is that they won.

“The truth is, with this kind of case, you’re going to get a conviction even if it was written in Chinese,” said Sloman, who is now in private practice.

One juror, Danielle Daly of Yonkers, told The Journal News of Westchester afterwards that Veliz “dug his own grave” by testifying, with his contradictions and lies. Daly also said jurors would have liked to have heard from Narcy Novack, but the defendant made the “smart move” by not taking the stand.

The sinister plot began in April 2009, when Veliz, a Philadelphia tour bus driver, hired two Miami men to stalk and then attack Bernice Novack, a former model who, as queen of the Fontainebleau, once mingled with U.S. presidents, heads of state and Frank Sinatra. Her husband, Novack Sr., lost the hotel in bankruptcy in 1977 and died in 1985. Despite her years, Bernice Novack was a spry, vigorous woman who lived alone and practiced yoga. But on April 6, 2009, she was found sprawled in a pool of blood in the laundry room of her Fort Lauderdale home.

Fort Lauderdale police and the Broward County medical examiner called her death accidental, saying it probably stemmed from a fall she had taken a week earlier in a bank parking lot. At first, her son thought it was an accident, but he soon feared something more suspicious had happened.

But before he could act on those suspicions, he was bludgeoned to death at the Rye Town Hilton, in Rye Brook, N.Y., about a half hour north of Manhattan. Novack Jr., known a volatile businessman who had stuttered speech, an obsession with Batman toys and kinky sex fetishes, went on to his own success after his father’s hotel empire crumbled. He ran a Fort Lauderdale-based company, Convention Concepts Unlimited, and was overseeing a meeting for one of his most prestigious clients, Amway International, at the time he was slain.

The creepy characters that were part of the Veliz Enterprise -- and the bloody plot they wove together, however, was about as organized as a teenager's closet. Their missteps included using a broken down getaway car, putting each other's phone numbers in their cell phones, getting chased away by a former Miami Dolphins linebacker and using credit cards to buy the murder weapons.

The two killers, Alejandro Garcia and Joel Gonzalez, testified at length during the sometimes tedious trial. Among other things, the thugs told jurors that Narcy Novack let them into their hotel suite on the morning of July 12. Her husband, who was asleep, was attacked in his bed — with the killers pounding him with hand weights, then binding him with duct tape. His wife, meanwhile, urged them to stay quiet and threw them a pillow to muffle her husband’s screams. In a last act of a scorned woman, she ordered them to gouge his eyes with a utility knife. Ultimately, he died of asphyxiation, choking on his own vomit.

At the time of his slaying, Ben Novack Jr. was having an affair with a porn star and stripper, Rebecca Bliss, and his wife feared that her husband would divorce her, leaving her penniless. Months before he was murdered, Narcy Novack called Bliss’ landlord and informed her that her husband would no longer be paying her rent because he was dead.

After her husband was killed, Narcy Novack stole $105,000 from his company and laundered a good deal of it through her family members. She also emptied his bank safe deposit boxes by tricking bank officials into believing her husband was still alive. Some of the money ended up with the killers, who eventually confessed and cooperated with federal prosecutors in hopes of getting a lighter sentence.

Garcia also blew up Fort Lauderdale police’s investigation into Bernice Novack’s death when he admitted that he ambushed Bernice Novack in her garage and beat her with a monkey wrench. A deputy Broward County medical examiner testified during trial that he always believed the Novack matriarch was murdered, but it was never made clear why his concerns fell on deaf ears. The former chief medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, has since retired.

As the killers began talking to investigators, Narcy Novack’s other brother, Carlos Veliz, allegedly hired people to attack Narcy Novack’s daughter, May Abad, and try to frame her for the murders. Carlos Veliz, however, was never charged in the case because prosecutors didn’t believe there was enough evidence to convict him in the conspiracy.

During the trial, lead prosecutor Elliott Jacobson, assisted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Andrew Dember, methodically laid out their case, detailing a trail of bank receipts, cell phone records and even an astonishing ATM video that tracked the killers and their accomplices in the months and weeks before and after the murders. Cristobal Veliz, the point man who did the hiring, had claimed during several courtroom outbursts that the real killer behind the scheme was Abad and that others had been using his credit cards and vehicle at the time of the murders.

Abad, who did not testify, accused her mother and uncle of turning the case into a circus. That so-called circus included testimony from a private detective hired by her mother who poked through Abad’s garbage.

But in the end, the jury didn’t buy theories outlined by defense attorneys Howard Tanner and Larry Sheehan, who argued that the killers were lying to save their own skin and that Abad had framed her mother so that her sons would inherit the Novack estate.

The estate remains tied up as various branches of the Novack family try to rest control of it from Abad, a bartender and waitress who has three sons, one of whom she named Ben, after her step-father.

The story is slated to be made into a Lifetime movie.

Jim Fitzgerald of The Associated Press, Jonathan Bandler and Jorge Fitz-Gibbon of The Journal News and Deena Goldstein of CBS News contributed to this report.

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