For years, he’s lived among us. Long gone is the clean-shaven face and head of thick black hair. He now sports the more weathered look of a goatee and short thinning gray hair.
Though his looks have been altered, police on Tuesday said there was one thing Anibal Mustelier couldn’t change: A life of crime worthy of a movie.
Mustelier, 66, wanted for the failed murder attempts of a Bay of Pigs veteran nearly three decades ago and the alleged mastermind of a daring Brickell bank heist that netted more than $5 million, was arrested Sunday as the crew chief of a violent ring of jewelry thieves.
The 1996 heist of SunTrust Bank on Brickell in which Mustelier and partners are accused of stealing jewelry from safety deposit boxes locked in a vault is still believed to be the largest in Florida history.
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Mustelier, a diminutive five feet two inches tall and only 130 pounds is also a suspected hit-man-for-hire who made the FBI’s Most Wanted list more than two decades ago. Federal agents also believe he has killed several times in his native Cuba and was a hired contract killer for the notorious Medellin drug cartel in Colombia.
Rumors have swirled for decades that Mustelier had returned to Cuba or was hiding in Venezuela. But official sightings had been few, if real at all. Then in 2001 he was spotted visiting family in Kendall. Then, he was gone.
His nickname: The Ghost.
“He was hiding in plain sight. An international fugitive hiding in plain sight,” said Hialeah Police Lt. Carl Zogby. “He’s thought to have connections with Fidel Castro. He’s thought to have connections with Cuban assassinations. After 26 years we caught up with him. Mr. Mustelier is now retired.”
Hialeah police say they nabbed Mustelier and two others after a string of jewelry store robberies in which they wore masks and dark clothing, broke into stores through walls of adjacent business and often threw people to the ground while pointing weapons at them.
The first robbery was in May 2015 at Luany Jewelry, 1738 W. 49th St. Then the group is suspected of robbing Ariel Jewelry at 2476 w. 60th St. in September. Finally last week, the crew is believed to have set up an attempt at Real Deal Jewelry at 1548 W. 49th St. But it stalled after a wire was accidentally cut that caused a power outage.
By then, Hialeah police said, they had infiltrated the ring and Mustelier admitted to a confidential informant that he had partnered with Jose Pineda-Castro, 25 and his girlfriend Yamile Diaz Bernal, 27. The three were captured at different locations and arrested without a fight on Sunday, police said.
Police continue to search for Etiam Regalado Salup, 24, who they believe is a fourth member of Mustelier’s crew.
Mustelier and Pineda-Castro were charged with numerous counts of armed robbery with a deadly firearm, false imprisonment and grand theft and were denied bond. Diaz Bernal was charged with armed burglary and attempted armed burglary and also denied bond.
“This was a dangerous robbery crew,” Zogby said. “People would get guns to their faces, they’d be thrown to the ground. They’re what we consider professional thieves. They study their targets.”
Zogby said Mustelier has been sharing a small, single-story detached beige home at 256 NE 21st St. with his girlfriend for at least the past 18 months. She hasn’t been named or implicated in a crime. Zogby said as far as police know Mustelier wasn’t working, but probably didn’t need any income. The first two Hialeah jewelry hauls netted the group more than $250,000, and they’re suspected of several other heists.
“The man has made millions of dollars through the years,” Zogby said.
Mustelier may have been in Hialeah since 2007 when the television show “America’s Most Wanted” ran a feature about law enforcement believing he had returned to recoup the loot hauled from the 1996 SunTrust Bank heist.
But Mustelier popped up on the international radar screen long before that. His name first surfaced in 1989 when someone wielding a machine gun caught up with Miami businessman Francisco Condom-Gil, a Bay of Pigs veteran who spent 23 months in a Cuban prison before emigrating to Miami.
Eight months later, Condom-Gil’s car was blown to smithereens in a bombing in Coral Gables that missed the target but injured five others, including his wife. Federal law enforcement believed at the time Mustelier engineered both attacks.
By the time the FBI went looking for Mustelier, ‘The Ghost’ was long gone. The FBI on Tuesday declined to comment on his arrest or history.
But it was the 1996 bank heist — still the most infamous haul in Florida history — that catapulted Mustelier into the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
According to a federal grand jury indictment, Mustelier was one of the masterminds of the $5 million theft that still hasn’t been recovered. The indictment claims that Mustelier and partner Harry Irizarry “coerced” Irizarry’s girlfriend Yanit Martinez to gain employment at the bank.
The indictment says they forced her into getting a position that gave her access to safety deposit boxes and the vault, then visited the bank several times to study the locks and replicate keys. Then they returned and picked open three boxes containing the jewelry, tossed the haul into duffel bags and escaped through the back door of the bank.
In August 1997 Mustelier was declared a fugitive by a federal judge, but for a different case two years earlier. In that incident, Mustelier was charged with making threats and extortion, a court filing shows. Court records of the actual incident, however, could not be obtained by the Miami Herald on Tuesday.
While on the run, Mustelier is said to have used several aliases, including Emilio Suarez and Mario Cotelo.
Then in 2001, his named popped up once again, this time at Miami-Dade Crime Stoppers, after he was spotted visiting his children at a Kendall home. Even Interpol had been looking for him.
Still, his wife at the time and two kids weren’t cooperating with police. Neither were his brothers in Hialeah and West Palm Beach. Even Condom-Gil — who went into hiding immediately after the failed attempts on his life — refused to speak to law enforcement at the time.
Now, finally, ‘The Ghost’ has been exorcised.
“He was a braggart. He liked to talk,” Zogby said of Mustelier after his capture. “Mustelier had assembled a crew. He came back to Miami, to Hialeah, to hide. He’s not going to see the light of day for a very long time.”