Accused gun ringleader stands trial for murder of government witness

08/25/2014 5:49 PM

08/25/2014 5:50 PM

In the middle of a May night, Miami-Dade Fire Rescue found a body burned beyond recognition after putting out a brush fire in the rural Redland area.

Police soon discovered that the body, tied up with an extension cord and wrapped in plastic, had two bullet wounds and had been butchered with a machete. What they didn't immediately know on that late May 2011 night was that the murder victim was a cooperating witness in a federal probe of a gun-distribution ring stretching from South Florida to Colombia.

On Monday, the ringleader, Andres Campo, 26, stood trial on gun charges and for the murder of one of his former associates, Erik Comesana. The associate met his grisly fate after he had agreed to testify for the government against Campo more than three years ago.

“Erik spent the last minutes of his life with this man drowning in his own blood,” federal prosecutor Anthony Lacosta told jurors during opening statements in Miami federal court.

“Erik never got a chance to tell anybody anything,” the prosecutor said. “The defendant took that from him.”

Campo’s defense attorney, Allen Kaufman, kept his statement brief, saying the federal investigation was “sloppy” and that the prosecution would be largely based on the testimony of convicted co-defendants who were hoping to reduce their prison sentences.

“Andres Campo pleaded not guilty and has maintained his innocence from day one,” Kaufman told the 12-member jury.

The 25-year-old Comesana, whose charred body was found at Southwest 196th Avenue and 176th Street, had been set to plead guilty in a federal firearms case three days after his death. Federal agents had accused Comesana of recruiting another man to act as a “straw buyer” to avoid suspicion in purchases of firearms and rifle parts for “other persons” in South Florida, according to court records.

The probe unfolded in October 2009, when an agent from the from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives was at the Florida Gun Exchange in Port Orange on an “unrelated matter.” He noticed a man, later identified as co-defendant Michael Romero, buying seven receivers for AR-15 rifles.

The agent donned a work shirt from the store and borrowed an iPhone to secretly record his conversation with Romero, a Miami-Dade college student, in which the suspect claimed he was buying the guns for an FBI agent uncle.

The agent eventually confronted Romero, who confessed Comesana paid him to buy weapons for a third person named “Campos,” records show. Comesana, waiting outside in a car, also confessed.

After a 1-1/2 year investigation, agents arrested Comesana and Romero on gun charges. Comesana had just been on a cruise with his girlfriend.

“Erik folded,” Lacosta told jurors. “He gave Andres Campo up.”

When Campo learned that Comesana was cooperating with investigators and planned to plead guilty, he viewed him as a dangerous snitch and hatched a plot to kill him, Lacosta said.

On May 27, 2011, Campo made arrangements to have Comesana stop by a Southwest Miami-Dade warehouse, where he was suspected of keeping his firearm shipments, so that the associate could pick up some money for his legal fees.

It was a ruse, the prosecutor said. Campo and another associate, Carlos Rios, waited for Comesana that day to kill him.

After an argument, Campo grabbed a semi-automatic pistol with a silencer and shot Comesana twice, according to the prosecutor and a statement filed with Rios’ plea agreement. Campo then ordered Rios to hit Comesana in the head with a wrench, the prosecutor said. Campo also chopped up his legs with a machete.

“The warehouse was a charnel house,” Lacosta told jurors.

Both Campo and Rios tied Comesana’s naked body with an extension cord and wrapped plastic around it, the prosecutor said; the two men drove the body in Campo’s Range Rover to an open field in the Redland area, where they doused it with gasoline and torched it.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue and police quickly discovered the gruesome scene. Investigators gathered critical evidence, including two pairs of gloves that both men wore when they allegedly killed Comesana. The prosecutor said the DNA of the two men and Comesana were on the gloves.

Meanwhile, Campo and his girlfriend fled to New York, relocated to Jacksonville and Orlando, and eventually returned to Miami-Dade. Campo, who started up his gun-distribution business again, was arrested in July 2012.

His convicted associate, Rios, who was sentenced to life in prison, is expected to testify against him.

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