Miami-Dade cop Ralph Mata, the feds said Tuesday, protected cocaine smugglers, bought them firearms, doled out sensitive law enforcement intelligence and even concocted a detailed plot to murder rivals.
But Mata, 45, is no low-ranking uniformed patrolman – he is a lieutenant with internal affairs, tasked with rooting out corruption within his own department.
Federal authorities arrested Mata in Miami Gardens on Tuesday, stunning fellow officers, who described the longtime policeman as a straight-laced, low-key supervisor who has been with Miami-Dade’s Professional Compliance Bureau since March 2010.
Mata, who joined the department in 1992, will make an appearance in Miami federal court Wednesday morning. It was unknown Tuesday if he had a lawyer; the department’s union was not representing him.
A Miami-Dade police department spokesman declined to comment Tuesday.
The investigation was spearheaded by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Jersey, where Mata is now charged with a slew of federal counts, including aiding a conspiracy to distribute cocaine. He faces up to life in prison if convicted.
In a criminal complaint that reads like a Hollywood script, the FBI portrayed Mata as a key player in a real-life cocaine smuggling ring that specialized in moving dope in produce pallets via countries such as Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. He called himself “The Milk Man.”
So far, authorities have seized at least 160 kilograms of cocaine from the unnamed drug smugglers.
Over two years, agents in the New Jersey field office say they pieced together Mata’s illicit moonlighting by combing through bank, airline and phone records, as well as secretly recording conversations and working with informants and other witnesses. His name was even found in a drug smuggler’s ledger of payoffs, which amounted to tens of thousands of dollars.
According to the complaint, the cocaine smugglers in 2011 asked Mata for help after they received threats from rival dealers. They considered planting drugs on them so police would arrest them. At least four times, Mata suggested “his contacts” could wear uniforms and badges, pull the rivals over as if conducting a traffic stop and shoot them dead.
Mata, the FBI said, even arranged to pay the killers $300,000 for two proposed hits. Though the smugglers decided against the plot, Mata even “traveled to New York to give the assassins a box of cigars” and $5,000 for their “willingness.”
He also purchased several firearms for the drug smugglers, using his contacts at Miami International Airport to send them to the Dominican Republic, according to the complaint. Twice, in October 2012 and January 2013, he flew to the island, carrying weapons and ammunition inside his carry-on suitcase.
The smugglers later reimbursed him for the costs of the weapons, according to the FBI. Agents traced the purchase of the rifles and pistols, which were later seized.
According to the complaint, Mata also used his access to law enforcement intelligence to help the smugglers. In January 2012, the dealers suspected a member of their own group had ripped them off of $419,000 in drug cash in Bergen County, N.J.
In fact, Mata told them, the money had been seized by Drug Enforcement Administration agents. He even provided the name of the DEA agent on the case.
After the seizure – and another DEA bust totaling $311,000 – Mata agreed to help move a future haul of dirty money himself, the complaint said. In July 2012, Mata and a drug smuggler who actually carried the cash flew from New York to the Dominican Republic.
The lieutenant was given $5,000 for the trip, the FBI said.
On another occasion, the drug dealers gave him a Rolex watch, valued at $10,000, for helping move money through JFK Airport in New York. Mata called an acquaintance at the airport “to ensure” the drug smuggler got through security without being stopped.
The escalation of his involvement only grew, according to FBI agents.
In early 2013, he suggested smuggling routes into Miami-Dade ports – he would specify when the U.S. Coast Guard was conducting training exercises and not actively patrolling the waters for illegal cargo. He even suggested he could accompany a shipment along with an ex-police dog.
If Mata were pulled over by fellow cops, he “would show his Miami-Dade Police Department badge and explain that he was traveling with the narcotics-detecting canine for a training course,” the complaint said.