In a rare concession, a veteran Miami-Dade police officer charged with smuggling loads of cocaine, buying weapons for traffickers and directing a murder plot against rival drug dealers was granted a bond Monday as he awaits a federal trial in New Jersey.
Lt. Ralph Mata, 45, was allowed to post a $500,000 bond under an agreement struck between the U.S. attorney’s office in Newark and the officer’s defense attorney — but with heavy strings attached. Mata must make a nonrefundable down payment of $37,500 on one half of the bond, and a refundable payment of $25,000 on a second half to ensure his appearance at trial.
Mata, as part of the terms, must prove that both down payments are clean — not from drug proceeds. He could be released later Monday or Tuesday.
His arrest last Wednesday shocked the law enforcement community because he was known as a strait-laced police officer, who most recently worked in Miami-Dade’s internal affairs unit investigating cops suspected of wrongdoing.
Mata, who was relieved of duty with pay, was charged with conspiring to smuggle more than five kilos of cocaine into the United States. If convicted, the offense carries up to life in prison. Normally, defendants charged with that crime receive no bond before trial.
Mata’s defense attorney, Bruce Fleisher, said after the hearing that federal prosecutors in New Jersey agreed to the bond while “taking into consideration his 22 years of service as a police officer and his good family.” Mata’s wife and other family members attended the bond hearing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Garber accepted the terms and required Mata to be confined to his Pembroke Pines home with an electronic monitor 24 hours a day. He will be allowed to leave his home only for medical, religious or court appearances. He also must surrender his passport and firearms.
Mata, who was cuffed at the wrists, waists and ankles during Monday’s hearing, will make his first appearance in Newark federal court the week of April 21, Fleisher said. An indictment is pending.
Mata's arrest on a criminal complaint stunned the police department, where he has worked since 1992. Among his duties: stints as a canine officer and a lieutenant in Miami Gardens, where he worked on busting drug and prostitution rings.
He has been with internal affairs, known officially as the Professional Compliance Bureau, since March 2010. The unit is dedicated to rooting out misconduct and crimes of fellow officers.
Federal prosecutors say Mata — who went by the nickname “The Milk Man” — helped plan the execution of two rival drug dealers, even proposing that his “contacts” could dress up like cops and pull over the men before killing them. But the plan was eventually scrapped.
He purchased firearms and flew them to the Dominican Republic for the group, according to the FBI, accompanied a suitcase full of drug money to the island, used his position as a cop to give secret intelligence to the group, and suggested ways to smuggle in dope through Miami.
After his arrest, more details emerged about the drug smugglers who apparently worked with the feds in building the case against Mata as their associate in Miami-Dade.
According to federal court records, Juan C. Arias, Martin Nuñez-Lora and Persio Nuñez were arrested in April 2013.
All have since pleaded guilty to conspiring to distribute cocaine, although none has yet been sentenced, according to court records.
The extent of any cooperation with the government against Mata is unclear, although it could help persuade a judge to give the trio lighter sentences.
For years, agents say, the smugglers had been importing drugs in shipping containers containing bananas from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic.
In January 2012, investigators seized $400,000 from the Bergen County, N.J., home of Arias. It was that seizure, according to federal court documents, that led the smugglers to suspect one of their own had robbed them.
But Mata, according to police, checked with his fellow law enforcement officers and confirmed that it was indeed a Drug Enforcement Administration bust, even confirming the name of the agent on the case.
Then, in April 2013, investigators tracked a shipment of bananas and drugs arriving at a “port in Florida” that was later driven by truck to a rented warehouse in Passaic County, N.J.
Investigators covertly listened to phone calls in which the group discussed the shipment.
When the truck arrived in New Jersey three days later, agents swooped in, arresting Nuñez, Nuñez-Lora and Arias at a nearby hotel.
Another shipment bound for New Jersey — 87 kilograms of cocaine alongside the bananas — was seized in Florida the same day.
As word spread about the arrests, the smugglers' associates reached out to Mata, who immediately began checking with local sources within law enforcement to find out what had happened, according to a criminal complaint.
Lawyers for Arias and Nuñez-Lora could not be reached for comment. A lawyer for Nuñez declined to comment.
As part of the federal plea deal, Arias has to give up a condo at the posh Icon Brickell building, land in Opa-locka, a 40-foot yacht and a Bentley luxury car. Nuñez must also give up a unit at Icon.
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.