Trial begins for man accused of killing Miami police officer in 1988

02/14/2013 9:17 AM

02/14/2013 9:48 PM

As Miami Police Officer Victor Estefan chatted with a tow truck driver in Little Havana after a traffic stop, something caught his eye. A mysterious car with no headlights glided past.

Estefan hopped in his police car and followed. Not long afterward, gunshots pierced the night.

“It will turn out to be the last call he ever responds to,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Kat Cortes told jurors Thursday.

Officers soon found Estefan, gaping wounds to his body, shot by a .357-caliber revolver. He asked for a priest. Twelve hours later, Estefan died. The description he gave of his attacker: a short Hispanic man, a passenger in a small gray car.

That man, prosecutors allege, was Dennis Escobar — who faced a jury Thursday in the start of his second trial for Estefan’s March 1988 murder. The long-awaited trial comes 16 years after the Florida Supreme Court tossed out his first conviction and death sentence.

Prosecutors on Thursday laid out their case against Escobar, the heart of which is his confession to Miami homicide detectives. They interviewed Escobar as he lay in a California jail hospital bed, wounded after a confrontation there with highway patrol troopers.

Based on his information, detectives tracked down the stolen silver-gray Mazda 626 allegedly used by the Escobars — the fingerprint of Douglas Escobar, his brother, was found on the sunroof visor.

In Dennis Escobar’s apartment, a stolen car registration slip swiped from a mailbox matched the sticker placed on the Mazda. And damage to the rear of the Mazda “fit like a puzzle” to the front bumper of Estefan’s patrol car, which had been hit by the killer’s vehicle, Cortes said.

But Escobar’s attorneys say no witnesses can place Dennis Escobar in the stolen Mazda that night or at the scene of the tragic shooting on Southwest Eighth Street.

Defense lawyer Phil Reizenstein suggested that detectives, tasked with a whodunit, high-pressure case, overlooked key evidence and fed Escobar details of what was a bogus confession.

“Garbage in, garbage out,” Reizenstein said. “No confession, no case. This case boils down to that simple proposition.”

Estefan, 49, was a veteran Miami traffic officer at the time of his death. On Thursday, his teary family watched in court. Widow Delia Estefan, 73, on Valentine’s Day, recalled her husband “was crazy about her.”

Also watching: grandson Isaias Estefan, 20, now a rookie Sweetwater police officer who was not even born when his grandfather died.

. He carries his grandfather’s department medal of honor in his wallet.

“It means a lot to me to be here,” he said. “If I were to get killed in the line of duty, I would like to know that justice happens. I took the same oath as him.”

Escobar, 52, is again facing the death penalty if convicted.

His brother, Douglas Escobar, 53, the driver who allegedly told his brother to shoot, is awaiting trial. At the time Estefan was shot, Douglas Escobar was wanted for armed robbery.

The brothers already have been sentenced to life in prison in California on attempted murder charges after a shoot-out there with highway patrol troopers.

For the Estefan murder, jurors convicted the Escobars in 1991. The Florida Supreme Court tossed out the convictions in 1997, saying the trial judge should have allowed the brothers to be tried separately.

The high court did not throw out the brothers’ confessions, but warned detectives who made “various misrepresentations of fact” when interviewing Dennis Escobar.

The Escobar trial is expected to last several weeks in front of Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel.

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