Wrapped in black tape, the Tropicana orange juice bottle appeared to have been used as a homemade gun silencer. It was discovered at a Miami River marina, next to the bullet-riddled body of retired Miami Police Capt. Robert Yee.
Who wielded the bottle is now the central question unfolding before Miami-Dade jurors.
For prosecutors, forensic evidence found on the bottle identified a a New Jersey man, Rafael Toirac-Aguilera, whom they believe drove a rented silver Toyota Corolla to Miami to assassinate Yee.
“He couldn’t conceal his DNA and fingerprints on his homemade silencer,” Miami-Dade prosecutor Chris Flanagan told jurors during the opening day of Toirac-Aguilera’s trial for first-degree murder.
Defense lawyers acknowledged Toirac-Aguilera was visiting Miami that day in July 2009 – but only for a quick weekend getaway to look for work. They said no witnesses placed the bottle in Toirac-Aguilera’s hands, and suggested the real killer must have unwittingly picked up the discarded Tropicana product.
“A piece of plastic, a piece of garbage perhaps, but nothing more than proof that Rafael likes orange juice,” Miami-Dade Assistant Public Defender Stacy Marczak told jurors.
She added: “The reason he is charged is not because there is any other evidence. It all boils down to this bottle.”
The trial of Toirac-Aguilera comes nearly seven years after a mysterious gunman gunned down Yee at the Hurricane Cove Marina on the Miami River, a crime that received widespread headlines at the time.
Toirac-Aguilera, 39, is charged with first-degree murder.
Yee spent 25 years as a Miami cop, retiring in the mid-1990s after a decorated career that included leading the department’s horse mounted patrol. Back in 2009, he had returned to work, overseeing daily operations at the self-service marina of Northwest North River Drive.
The 61-year-old was shot dead while riding in the golf cart he used to patrol the grounds.
Prosecutors did not specify who would have dispatched Toirac-Aguilera, but suggested it might have come as retaliation. Yee frequently informed federal law enforcement about possible drug and human-smuggling operations at the marina.
“Once a cop, always a cop,” Flanagan said. “He was just doing his job. And he paid the ultimate price.”
The case remained unsolved for several months until DNA from the lip of the bottle matched Toirac-Aguilera, 39, who after the crime was later jailed in a domestic-violence case in New Jersey.
Miami homicide detectives flew to New Jersey to interview the jailed Toirac-Aguilera, who insisted that he had not visited South Florida since around 2000.
But his girlfriend, Tania Montero, 45, testified Tuesday that the two drove to Miami in July 2009 in a rented silver Toyota Corolla. “He said he had been offered a job in Miami,” Montero said.
In a cooler in the car for the road trip: orange juice.
“Who liked orange juice?” prosecutor Gail Levine said.
“Rafael,” Montero replied.
She testified that two stayed with his friend in Miami. The morning of the shooting, Toirac-Aguilera took the rental car and left her behind for hours on end. He claimed he was looking for work.
The next day, Toirac-Aguilera and Montero hurriedly left Miami to return to New Jersey in the silver Corolla, she said.
During testimony Tuesday, that rented silver Corolla emerged as a key detail for prosecutors.
One boat repairman, working on a boat called “Pastability” because the owner owned an Italian food-service company, testified he saw a silver Toyota Corolla drive up to Yee seconds in the marina before the shots rang out.
“I was too far to see the face of the person” in the car, the repairman testified.
A hot-dog vendor from outside marina also testified she saw a silver Corolla strangely parked outside the marina, then cruise by as she sold Yee a chicken sandwich for lunch.
“He said he had also seen it and it was strange to him to,” the vendor, Maria Medranos, told jurors.
The car later went into the marina. Shots rang out. The Corolla immediately left the marina, the vendor said.
The trial is expected to last several weeks before Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez.