Baseball agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada were found guilty Wednesdayof smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States in a fraudulent scheme designed to capitalize on the defectors’ major league contracts.
The two defendants remained stone-faced when the verdicts were read while a dozen relatives and supporters gasped and cried. The jury of nine women and three men deliberated only five hours after the seven-week trial concluded.
U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams said she would allow Hernandez and Estrada to remain free on bond until sentencing on July 11, but they must wear electronic ankle bracelets in the meantime.
Prosecutor Ron Davidson asked the judge to put the two South Florida men behind bars, saying they could flee the country. But defense attorneys convinced Williams that their clients have “close ties” to the community. Hernandez runs his sports agency and owns a home in Weston. Estrada, a former catcher on the Cuban national team and ex-coach at Coral Park High, lives in southwest Miami-Dade.
Hernandez was convicted of conspiring with Estrada and others to deceive the U.S.government into granting visas and other documents to two dozen Cuban ballplayers – including Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria – so they could sign with Major League Baseball teams. The conspiracy offense carries up to five years in prison.
Prosecutors portrayed Hernandez and Estrada as mastermind and engineer behind “The Plan,” in which Cuban ballplayers moved through an underground pipeline via third-country way stations and onward across the U.S. border. Fraud was integral to the plot because the U.S. embargo of Cuba and immigration laws had to be circumvented to convert the Cubans into free agents eligible to negotiate with teams.
Hernandez and Estrada paid off boat captains and falsified documents to bring players into the U.S. illegally from Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The two men made millions by cornering the defector market for a time. Estrada charged exorbitant fees, up to 30 percent of a player’s contract.
While Hernandez and Estrada claimed they were simply helping players prepare for tryouts and negotiate contracts through a process that was accepted by the U.S. Treasury Department and Major League Baseball, prosecutors said players were coerced, ripped off and threatened by shady operators such as Joan “Nacho” Garcia, an ex-con and smuggling ring chief who was kidnapped and presumably murdered in 2009. One player’s wife testified she was told he’d be chopped up and sent to her in a box if he fled Cancun and signed with somebody else. One invoice showed a player billed $715,000 for “coaching and consulting services.”
“Legitimate businessmen don’t make cash payments in paper bags,” prosecutor Pat Sullivan said of Hernandez’s exchanges of $25,000 payments. “Once again he’s trying to hide his fingerprints.”
Hernandez was additionally convicted of bringing Leonys Martin – a Seattle Mariners outfielder who signed with Texas for $15 million in 2011 – into the U.S. after he was smuggled from Cuba to Mexico. That offense carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three years and up to 10 years.
Estrada was found guilty of three counts of bringing Jose Abreu, Omar Luis and Dalier Hinojosa into the U.S. illegally, and he faces a mandatory minimum of three years and up to 10 on each count. Abreu signed a $68-million deal with the Chicago White Sox in 2013.
Hernandez’s defense attorneys, Jeffrey Marcus and Daniel Rashbaum, said they were “disappointed and saddened” by the verdict. They plan to appeal.
“Two of the charges [against Hernandez] were thrown out during the trial for a complete lack of evidence, and we have strong grounds on appeal for the two remaining charges,” the attorneys said in a statement. “We will continue to fight to clear Bart's name.”
Estrada’s lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, said: “We are obviously disappointed with the verdict and will appeal the decision at the appropriate time.”
Prosecutors Davidson and Sullivan will go after the defendants’ assets – tens of millions of dollars in fees from tainted contracts, along with their suburban homes and luxury cars – in a forfeiture action before Judge Williams. Moreover, future fees from clients, including $5 million Abreu still owes Estrada after paying him $8 million in an agreement to pay 20 percent of his contract, are in doubt.
Abreu testified that he chewed and washed down with Heineken a page of his fake Haitian passport on a flight from Port-au-Prince to Miami. When federal agents caught up with him at spring training, they asked him what it tasted like. “Freedom,” Abreu said.
Abreu became such good friends with Estrada that he was best man at Estrada’s wedding and bought a house next to Estrada’s in the Keys.
“The only thing Julio Estrada has done is to care for and train these players,” Puglisi said in closing arguments. “The U.S. government agencies have said nothing was done wrong. None of the visas or licenses have been revoked.”
Marcus said prosecutors tried to paint a “sinister” picture of a well-known system that enables Cuban players – paid $20 per month in Cuba – to realize their baseball ambitions in the U.S. Hernandez was not involved in their escape from the island and told them to obtain legitimate visas so there would be no problems when they signed, he said.
“The government, in desperation, tried to get you to take your eyes off the ball,” Rashbaum told jurors. “The government tried every which way to show violence and shock you and incite you. Not one act of violence was tied to Bart. Not one player said Bart took advantage of them or that they paid him too much or that he told them to lie.
“The U.S. wanted Cuban baseball players. Major League Baseball wanted Cuban players. Americans want these players.”
But Davidson said it was no coincidence that players “magically ended up on the right side of the border” after “magically” connecting with the right people to shepherd them through Mexico, Haiti or the Dominican Republic and obtain the necessary paperwork.
“They blamed the State Department, the Treasury Department, Haitians and Dominicans; they blamed the American people for liking baseball, and they blamed the players,” Davidson said in closing. “You can’t lie to the government and use that visa to get in. That’s not how it works. Judge them by the lies they have made.”