Private eye who blew open Hialeah ballot case had been there before

When private eye Joe Carrillo followed Deisy Cabrera around Hialeah two weeks ago, he never imagined how politically explosive his findings would turn out to be.

08/11/2012 12:00 AM

08/11/2012 11:13 PM

The private investigator who broke open the Hialeah absentee-ballot case that has vexed Miami-Dade’s two highest-profile elections is so paranoid, he won’t part with his keys because someone might break into his car and steal his computer.

“My computers have been hacked. You know they want to get into my car. They might be listening to my phone calls and they have my GPS,” said an animated Jose “Joe” Carrillo. “Ever since that day, my life has been hell.”

Who would have enough interest to spy on him? “I don’t know.”

What is known is that since Carrillo informed Miami-Dade Police in mid-July about the actions of a Hialeah woman he was hired to follow, the county’s mayor and state attorney have been fending off questions about improper absentee-ballot collections, political operatives have been fired, and a 56-year-old woman known as a boletera has been charged with ballot fraud.

In short, what had been a relatively calm election cycle with somewhat intriguing mayoral and state attorney races has spun into a telenovela filled with intrigue playing out in Hialeah, a city that has long been recognized as the Rubik’s Cube of politics. The election for mayor, state attorney, and several other local and state posts is Tuesday.

Carrillo — bald and goateed, covered in tattoos, repeatedly arrested but never convicted — won’t reveal the answer to one of the mysteries surrounding the ballot-fraud scandal: Who hired him?

“The state attorney asked who my client was under oath, and I didn’t give it up,” Carillo said. He added that he doesn’t know if the person who hired him “does or doesn’t have a political agenda.”

John Rivera, who heads up the county’s Police Benevolent Association and has no love for county Mayor Carlos Gimenez or State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, denied hiring Carrillo but called whoever did hire him “brilliant.”

Carrillo said he was contacted in mid-July by a man who handed him Deisy Cabrera’s business card and hired him to follow her. The red-white-and-blue card had Cabrera’s name on the front and a hand-written note on the back that read in Spanish: “When your ballot gets to you, call me, I work all elections.”

Carrillo contacted Miami-Dade police. On July 24, Carrillo and police, acting separately, followed Cabrera first into the building housing Gimenez’s Hialeah campaign office, then into some residential apartments, eventually to Miami-Dade elections headquarters, and finally to a post office, where she is believed to have mailed 19 absentee ballots. Carrillo and police video-recorded and photographed some of Cabrera’s travels.

Police took Cabrera’s lead seriously because some tips of his have panned out in the past, said one law-enforcement officer. Cabrera was arrested nine days later. (Late Friday, another Hialeah man, Sergio “Tio” Robaina, was charged with two counts of absentee-ballot fraud, though authorities don’t think the two cases are related.)

And all this because of a 57-year-old repo-man-turned-private-eye who contacted police over an absentee ballot issue he’s quite familiar with.

Born in Quebec in 1955, Carrillo said he was orphaned and adopted four months later by a couple who took him to their home in Havana. The family moved to Miami in 1961. Dad sold insurance while Carrillo sauntered through St. Brendan Elementary and Christopher Columbus High. He briefly attended Miami Dade College before going to work for his father as an insurance agent.

His parents died in 1982 and 1983, events that Carrillo says spun him toward substance abuse and a number of rehabilitations. He’s been clean since February 2003, he says, but the drug abuse left an indelible mark on his life.

From about 1980 until 2000, Carrillo owned All County Research and Recovery, a company in which research was key when it came to repossessing vehicles, and, for him, a natural transition into private-detective work. Along the way, he married, had four children and divorced.

Carrillo has been arrested three times, once almost 20 years ago on charges of trying to swindle an employer. More recently, he was charged with owing SunPass more than $3,000 and for carrying a stolen weapon. Charges were dropped all three times; the gun charge was dismissed after prosecutors learned the weapon belonged a friend of Carrillo’s son, whose mother had asked Carrillo to remove the weapon.

James Bond he’s not. No shiny suits or fancy cars for Carrillo, who’s more prone to wear jeans and T-shirts. He did splurge recently, buying a 1989 Mustang GT, but that was more for his son. Carrillo drives rentals.

Since 2010, he’s been employed by Leverage Investigations, a local private-investigation firm that boasts: “No matter where you hide, we’re going to find you.” The company’s website says it focuses on criminal defense, infidelity, missing persons (“especially children”), and surveillance. For a decade before that, Carrillo had his own detective firm; he joined up with Ana Lanuza, a former intern in his office, with thoughts of retirement in his head.

“He loves what he does,” said Lanuza. “Sometimes he goes a bit overboard, but that’s only because he loves his work.”

His hard work paid off this past June 10, a day Rigoberto Garcia will never forget.

Jorge Del Rio, a fellow private detective, had spent almost two months searching for 15-year-old Brygette Garcia, who had left her South Beach home with an older Brazilian man. Carrillo was asked by a Spanish-language television reporter covering the case if he could help. So he contacted Del Rio. Within hours, using a secretive database Carrillo had recently acquired, they located Brygette Garcia in Texas and notified Houston police, who made an arrest and took the girl into custody. The girl later said she had been held against her will.

“They found her, they found her,” Rigoberto Garcia said of his daughter. “I’m so happy she’s with me right now. They did real good.”

The case made headlines in Miami and Texas. Since then, Del Rio, who gave Carrillo a lot of credit for helping him solve the mystery, has teamed up with him on occasion. Carrillo has made headlines before.

In 2003, he tried to claim the $25,000 reward for the capture of the so-called Shenandoah rapist, Reynaldo Rapalo. Carrillo claims that the day before Rapalo’s capture, he notified police and Crimestoppers of the rapist’s likely whereabouts. When Carrillo’s claim was ignored after Rapalo’s capture, he filed a lawsuit. Five years later, he received a tiny plaque inscribed with, “In recognition for your assistance in the Shenandoah rapist case,” with the caveat that he not display it publicly. Miami police declined to talk to a Miami Herald reporter about Carrillo’s role. And Carrillo is also familiar with Hialeah’s absentee-ballot machine.

In 2004, he was hired by Miami Lakes Mayor Michael Pizzi to look into possible absentee-ballot fraud in Hialeah after a November 2003 Hialeah election. Carrillo spent almost two years gathering information that he said proved Hialeah’s Housing Authority was in cahoots with a slate of incumbents who flooded senior centers with “ boleteras,” women who collected bundles of absentee votes.

Carrillo said he turned the evidence over to the state attorney’s office, but the case went nowhere. Pizzi later sued Hialeah’s canvassing board, the housing authority, and its director, Alex Morales, arguing that his client, Adriana Narvaez, one of the challengers on the ballot, had won the general vote convincingly but lost the election because of lopsided absentee-ballot returns. The costly lawsuit died when funds ran out.

In a letter to then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004, Fernandez Rundle explained that her office had to conflict out because it was already investigating several Hialeah officials for possible campaign-finance violations. She was concerned that targets in any new investigation would likely be witnesses in the case that was under way. The matter was passed along to Broward County, which eventually found no wrongdoing.

There was also no law at the time against collecting large numbers of ballots. That changed July 1 after county commissioners made it illegal for anyone to carry more than two ballots at once.

Pizzi says now the peek into 2004 Hialeah politics was an eye-opener.

“We demonstrated that what happened now is not an aberration, it’s not a surprise,” he said. “What’s happening now is part of a well organized machine that’s been around for a long time.”

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