Derrick and Yadira Santiesteban were busy packaging a load of marijuana at their southwest Miami-Dade home to transport to New York, authorities say. After the husband left to pick up more bags for the pot, several gunmen posing as police officers barged into the couple’s home and stole about 40 pounds of the drug.
Reviewing the June 2009 home-invasion on the family’s video surveillance system, Derrick Santiesteban recognized one of the robbers as a man named Fidel Ruz Moreno.
So Santiesteban hatched a plan, according to an associate-turned-snitch, “to detain, intimidate and basically beat [Ruz] up until the marijuana’’ was returned.
Three days later, Ruz’s body was found lying on the side of a road.
The alleged conspiracy to kidnap and kill Ruz would prove to be the Santiesteban clan’s undoing. Until then, the father and his four sons, all with criminal histories, had enjoyed an outsized share of luck in South Florida’s growing underworld of “hydroponic” marijuana.
The Santiestebans — headed by the patriarch, Mariel boatlift refugee Gilberto Sr., and joined by sons Derrick, Gilberto Jr., Alexander and Darvis — were charged last month with operating 20 hydroponic marijuana growhouses since 2004. The operation yielded at least 1,146 potent pot plants that produced millions in profits, authorities say.
With the exception of Darvis, who is a fugitive, the Santiestebans have been ordered held without bail at the Miami Federal Detention Center. Derrick’s wife, Yadira, also is being detained before trial.
“They operated under the radar for a long time,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Athas said in Miami federal court, asserting that the family harvested the indoor pot in Miami-Dade and sold it in New York for up to $9,000 a pound.
The Ruz kidnapping and slaying — along with the possibility of a second, unrelated homicide, as well as suspicions that a Miami-Dade police officer was working with the Santiesteban clan — elevated the case beyond any routine pot-trafficking investigation.
At a detention hearing, Athas and fellow prosecutor Pat Sullivan described Derrick Santiesteban, the lead defendant in the case, as the “mastermind behind the [Ruz] kidnapping.”
Also charged with being involved: Gilberto Jr., Yadira, and relative Juan Felipe Castaneda, who remains a fugitive. A fifth defendant, Norge Manduley, is accused of pulling the trigger.
The Justice Department is considering pursuing the death penalty against the five.
Investigators also are zeroing in on a Miami-Dade officer who is suspected of playing a role in the family’s alleged drug syndicate.
The officer, Roderick Silva, worked patrol in the Hammocks area of West Kendall. He was suspended with pay in June 2009, records show. He is the brother of one of the Santiestebans’ accused growhouse caretakers, David Silva.
Homicide detectives are also trying to determine whether an unsolved April 2006 slaying of a teenager in West Kendall is linked to an alleged Santiesteban growhouse in the area.
After going to visit a girlfriend near Southwest 172nd Terrace and 153rd Place, Angelo Lopera, 17, was attacked and shot multiple times. Investigators believe Lopera may have been killed because he was mistakenly suspected of visiting the neighborhood to steal harvested marijuana plants from the Santiestebans’ house at 17231 SW 153rd Pl., according to sources familiar with the probe.
The Santiesteban indictment was built around a dozen cooperating witnesses, most of whom were involved in the family’s alleged drug organization and have been or will be separately charged, court records show.
The case was spearheaded by Miami-Dade police homicide detective Rich Raphael and FBI agent Michael Gualtieiri, working as part of a federal drug task force. Court records show the task force cultivated the witnesses, including two who were present during the Ruz kidnapping and eventually identified Manduley as the shooter.
Earlier this month, Manduley was sentenced to 10 years in state prison after pleading guilty to weapons charges involving a domestic dispute with his ex-girlfriend in 2010. Manduley shot a .357 revolver twice into the air while threatening the ex-girlfriend and three other people.
According to an FBI affidavit and the indictment, the Ruz kidnapping/murder plot unfolded after Derrick Santiesteban, Castaneda and Manduley stopped Ruz in his 2005 white Chevrolet van at the intersection of Southwest 127th Avenue and 187th Street. The trio, with help from Gilberto Santiesteban Jr., carjacked the vehicle and then “accosted and assaulted [Ruz] and forcibly removed him from the driver’s seat of the van and forced him to the rear cargo area of the van,” the FBI affidavit says.
One of the witnesses who is now cooperating told law officers that Manduley was carrying a gun during the kidnapping and assault.
Derrick Santiesteban’s plan was to hold and question Ruz at a rural growhouse in the area until his stolen marijuana was retrieved, according to the affidavit. He left the others with Ruz and went to prepare for the interrogation.
Shortly afterward, Manduley allegedly shot Ruz multiple times in the back of the van at the intersection of Southwest 135th Avenue and 200th Street. Ruz “jumped or was pushed out,” according to the witness, who saw him lying on the road.
“The van then stopped and made a U-turn to come back to where [Ruz] was lying,” the FBI affidavit says. Derrick Santiesteban later told the witness that Manduley had said he “beat” Ruz “to make sure the job was done, because he ran out of bullets.”
A few days later, Derrick Santiesteban, the witness and other co-conspirators “stripped [Ruz’s] van of the interior padding and liner and then took the van to a rural location near the Tamiami Airport, where it was set on fire and completely destroyed,” the FBI affidavit says.
The kidnapping plot became the linchpin for the indictment against the Santiesteban clan. Until then, the Santiestebans — jokingly described by one observer as “the family that grows together, stays together” — had dodged authorities for years.
Miami-Dade police had a shot at cracking the family enterprise in 2004, when they went to a home at 3200 SW 103rd Ct. after getting a tip. Derrick Santiesteban let the cops in, but they left empty handed. The reason: They missed a hidden “grow room” that was only accessible from the outside.
In 2008, Gilberto Santiesteban Jr. was returning from New York after delivering a marijuana load when he was stopped by Osceola County Sheriff’s deputies for a traffic infraction. Inside the vehicle: $155,824 and four electric money counters.
Deputies returned the counters but seized the cash. Santiesteban, who was not charged, didn’t contest the seizure.
After that, the ring’s runners began tucking the drug money inside spare tires to avoid getting caught.
The gang’s members even nicknamed Gilberto Jr. “Lucky 95,” because he managed to drive so many trips from Miami to New York on Interstate 95 without being caught while carrying hundreds of thousands in drug money, according to the affidavit.
Most customers paid for the pot in cash, but in some cases, they were directed to deposit the money in bank accounts in New York and New Jersey. One account was labeled “Grow-Tek, LLC,’’ named after Derrick Santiesteban’s hydroponic business in Miami-Dade.
Most of the family’s court-appointed defense attorneys did not returns calls or emails for comment. But one lawyer said the government’s case is a classic drug investigation that will rise or fall on the word of “snitches” seeking lower sentences for their insider testimony.
“As far as I can see, there is not going to be any hard evidence against my client and many of the other defendants,” said Glenn Kritzer, a veteran defense attorney representing Alexander Santiesteban.
“The prosecution is going to bring a bunch of informants and snitches into court to make their case,” said Kritzer, a former federal prosecutor in Miami and New York. “And we know how unreliable that testimony can be, because those witnesses are paid or rewarded with lower sentences to say what conforms with the government’s case.”