Courts

Trial begins in gruesome South Beach kidnapping and slaying

 

Joel Lebron faces the death penalty if convicted of the 2002 slaying of South Miami’s Ana Maria Angel, 18.

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

In a hushed courtroom before wide-eyed jurors Wednesday, prosecutors laid out the details of Ana Maria Angel’s death — and they were as appalling now as they were a decade ago.

Five Orlando men, scouring South Beach, abducted her and her boyfriend after a midnight stroll on the sand in April 2002. Inside their truck, the men robbed them, then gang-raped the 18-year-old South Miami High School senior.

After slashing her boyfriend’s throat and leaving him for dead, prosecutor Laura Adams said Wednesday in a powerful and excruciating opening statement, accused triggerman Joel Lebron marched Angel to the side of Interstate 95 in Palm Beach County.

As she fell to her knees, clasped her hands and begged for her life, Lebron lifted a revolver, loaded with a single bullet. Click. Nothing. Second click. Nothing.

“Ana Maria is pleading, ‘Don’t kill me.’ The plea goes unheeded,” Adams said.

The third attempted shot claimed Angel’s life in a case that, in its sheer brutality, shocked South Florida.

“This time he got what he wanted, a bullet in the back of that young woman’s head,” Adams told jurors.

Lebron’s trial on charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery and a list of felonies comes after a decade of legal wrangling.

Lebron’s defense attorney, Jeffrey Fink, did not dispute that his client was involved, but suggested that he was merely along for the ride on a trip organized by a drug-dealing co-defendant. “We’re just asking you to listen carefully and keep an open mind,” Fink told jurors.

Those convicted so far: Cesar Mena, Victor Caraballo and Lebron’s nephew, Jesus Roman. Mena and Roman are serving life in prison.

Caraballo’s brother, Hector Caraballo, is awaiting trial.

In 2010, the Florida Supreme Court upheld Victor Caraballo’s conviction, but threw out his death sentence, saying a mental health expert was wrongly allowed to testify. He is awaiting a new sentencing, which could again send him to Death Row.

Lebron’s case also was delayed in part because in August 2006 Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas threw out his confession, saying police had not properly read him his Miranda rights. An appeals court overturned that decision, and details of his confession will be allowed as evidence in the trial.

Jurors, however, will not hear Lebron’s words for themselves. When police questioned Lebron, a detective put a tape recorder on the wrong setting, and it failed to record. Investigators who were present will recount their conversation with Lebron.

Wednesday’s opening statements was dominated by a blown-up senior high school photo of Angel, a popular South Miami teen who was scheduled to graduate a few weeks after she was killed.

On the night of April 27, 2002, Angel was on a date with her boyfriend, Nelson Portobanco, 17, to celebrate their four months together.

“I gave her permission to go because she had studied a lot and was tired,” her mother, Margarita Osorio, told prosecutor Christine Zahralban during testimony. “I ironed her clothes so she could go. I helped her put on her makeup.”

When Portobanco arrived, Osorio said, “I had a habit of blessing her, and she gave me her blessing. She gave me a kiss on the temple and said, ‘I love you.’ ”

Osorio never again saw her alive.

The couple dined at Los Ranchos at Bayside Marketplace. Then they headed to South Beach, where the couple parked, strolled out and sat in the sand behind the Nikki Beach nightclub.

As the night chilled, Angel and Portobanco were walking back when a masked gunman popped out of the brush and forced them into a white, extended-cab Ford F-150.

The truck drove away. Inside, the men stole Angel’s purse and cellphone and Portobanco’s wallet. They stopped at an ATM and forced her to withdraw money. The gunman, who prosecutors say is Lebron, called himself “El Diablo,” or “the Devil.”

“Then the horror show began,” Adams told jurors.

As they drove, the men demanded that the teens kiss. “I refused at first,” Portobanco testified Wednesday. “They struck me with a closed fist until I complied. They wanted us to have sex.”

The men then draped Portobanco’s head in a shirt and took turns raping Angel over her cries and pleas. Portobanco admitted he could not identify any of the men in the dark cab — but he heard it all.

In Broward County, the truck pulled over on Interstate 95. Lebron and Caraballo marched Portobanco out to a dark area, and demanded that he drop to his knees, prosecutors said.

“They proceeded to stab me, multiple times, in the face, back, arm, back of my head,” said Portobanco, now 28. “At that point, I fell to the ground laying in the fetal position, and played dead.”

The truck sped away. Portobanco staggered to his feet and flagged down a motorist, who called police. Investigators launched a manhunt that included the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Miami Beach police and the FBI.

Their break came because one of the attackers used Portobanco’s cellphone to call an Orlando number registered to Hector Caraballo. Agents found him at his brother’s apartment. They also found Angel’s purse, her bank cards, driver’s license and Portobanco’s wallet.

They soon detained Lebron, who had kept Angel’s sandals.

On Wednesday, Osorio identified the purse and sandals as having belonged to her daughter.

After Lebron spilled his secrets, an FDLE agent found Angel’s body along I-95 in Palm Beach County, her hands still clasped in prayer.

The state’s case will also rely on forensic evidence. Lebron’s DNA was found inside the slain teen, and Portobanco’s blood was found on his shoes, Adams told the jury.

His fingerprint was on the revolver used to kill Angel, and her DNA was found inside the rented truck.

If convicted, Lebron faces the death penalty.

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