When Raonel Valdez Valhuerdis, a felon charged with planning a $2.8 million armed gold heist in Coral Gables, asked for release on bail, prosecutors thought it was a bad idea — and told the judge so.
Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel wasn’t buying it.
“I call it the way I see it,” Firtel told prosecutors in December. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. OK.”
“He vaporized,” said his defense attorney, Alex Michaels. “I obviously don’t know where he is. I wish he was around so we could go to trial and win this case.”
Miami-Dade jailers last week lost the signal on the GPS ankle monitor that was supposed to keep him on their radar. To boot: at the time of gold heist, Valdez was already outfitted with a satellite tracking ankle monitor owing to a previous arrest.
“By the way, a monitor ... didn’t work the first time,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Brian McCormack told the judge at the December bail hearing.
Valdez, 34, is now a fugitive, on the lam for that gold heist, one of the most brazen robbery cases in recent Coral Gables history. Also missing: the gold Valdez is accused of stealing.
The plan to steal the gold was hatched last year, investigators say, when Valdez and two other men began casing George Villegas, 51, a courier for the Bolivian-based export company, Quri Wasi.
The company buys gold from small businesses in La Paz, then melts it down and sells it to South Florida refineries.
Exactly how the men knew precise details of the shipments is still under investigation, although Villegas — who belongs to the family that runs the company — is not suspected of wrong-doing.
Jail records show Valdez, who had been wearing a GPS ankle monitor while he was awaiting trial on charges of attacking his ex-girlfriend, had been monitoring the gold shipments for at least three months, said Coral Gables private investigator David Bolton, hired by the company to find the precious metal.
On Oct. 12, 2012, Villegas walked out his elevator and was rushed by the three men, yelling “We’re here for the gold’’ in Spanish, according to Coral Gables police.
The men shoved Villegas to the wall, stealing two rolling suitcases filled with 110 pounds of gold flakes bound for Republic Metals in Opa-locka. The 79 percent pure gold was slated to be melted down and then resold for jewelry or electronic parts.
The men escaped with their loot. But a tip led Coral Gables police detectives to Valdez, who Villegas immediately identified in a photo lineup. And the GPS records placed Valdez at the scene of the robbery, police said.
At a December bond hearing, Villegas testified that he grappled with Valdez over a gun the robber was holding.
But Michaels, the defense lawyer, insisted police had not recovered the pistol and that other than Villegas’ word, there was no proof that a firearm was used in the robbery.
Judge Firtel agreed, saying there was strong enough evidence for a “strong-armed” robbery, but not an armed robbery. He allowed Valdez to be outfitted with a GPS ankle monitor and released until his trial.
McCormack, the Miami-Dade prosecutor, protested at the time, saying he feared Valdez would commit another robbery and perhaps kill someone.
“I have a duty to do here and I call it the way I see it,” Firtel replied. “If I’m wrong, I’m wrong. OK. At that point in time when that unfortunately happens, I will have the State Attorney’s Office come down and tell me, ‘I told you so.’ ”
McCormack apologized. “I’m not trying to be disrespectful. I really am in fear for the safety of the community with this person out.”
Like McCormack, Bolton, the private investigator, is worried about Valdez’s escape.
“He is dangerous to the public. He has a history of violence,” Bolton said.
Valdez was first arrested in June 2007 for marijuana possession. He later received a “withhold of adjudication” — meaning no felony appeared on his criminal history — and probation.
A year later, Hialeah police arrested Valdez after finding a baggie of 85 grams of methamphetamine attached to the lid of his car fuel tank. The case was later dropped.
Then in July 2008, he was arrested for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He later skipped out on his bond and left the country.
In October 2010, according to numerous Mexican news accounts, he was one of several armed suspected Cuban migrant smugglers arrested in Cancun. Exactly what happened to his case in Mexico is unclear, but Miami-Dade police arrested him at Miami International Airport after he flew back in July 2011.
Returned to Miami to face justice for the assault charge, Valdez was convicted. He wound up doing 74 days in jail.
West Miami police arrested Valdez in May 2012 for armed robbery. Police say he held a knife to his ex-girlfriend’s neck, robbing her of her purse. The robbery count was later dropped but a battery charge stuck. That’s when Valdez was ordered to wear the first ankle monitor, which later was used to place him at the scene of the gold robbery.
The suspect’s flight from custody has angered the export company’s namesake owner.
“He stole over $2 million and he had only a bond of $75,000. That’s the part we can’t understand,” said Quri Wasi. “We still hope to recover the material. We’re still hoping for justice.”
The gold was uninsured.
Quri Wasi is offering a $25,000 reward for its return.
Investigators theorize Valdez already sold the gold, making him flush with money to live a very nice lifestyle — wherever he is.