As the storm of ballot-fraud allegations swirls in Hialeah, a public housing complex that was the stomping grounds of a man charged in the case was the site of a possible turf war last year between competing ballot-brokers.
Cops, cameras and screams of bloody murder all converged at the buildings at 1470 and 1480 W. 38th Pl., a city-owned complex for elderly residents, prior to the November 2011 municipal elections.
It was also there that Sergio “El Tío” Robaina, 74, collected at least a dozen ballots in the weeks prior to last month’s elections. Robaina, charged with two felony counts of ballot-tampering, was a beloved visitor who often could be found playing dominoes on the back patio. He is held in such esteem by residents that some said they would toss him their absentee ballots from the second story so he wouldn’t have to strain his knees to get up the stairs.
“He’s such a sweet person,” said Lesbia Lloga, 74.
But residents say another woman they identified as a ballot-broker began to make the rounds in the Robaina-friendly territory last year.
Emelina Llanes, also 74, would visit often to talk politics, according to Margarita Peña, 80, and her daughter María, 52. On one occasion, they said, Llanes asked to hide in a bedroom in their apartment after she saw Robaina’s car pull into the parking lot.
“She didn’t want el Tío to know she was in the complex,” said María Peña.
But Llanes, who refused to speak with El Nuevo Herald, is most remembered in the complex for a strange episode last year in which she was followed into the building by critics of Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez and a cameraman they had hired.
Former Police Chief Rolando Bolaños and then-police Detective Ricky García claimed Llanes was collecting ballots from voters that fateful November day. At the time, a county ordinance that penalizes those who are found in possession of three or more absentee ballots was not on the books. Bolaños and García supported Hernandez’s opponent, former Mayor Raúl Martinez.
Llanes is a loyal Hernandez supporter who drives a Nissan Xterra that she bought from him last fall. She told police she had stopped by the building to visit Dora Pulido, a distant relative.
Pulido, 88, says Llanes came by to ask whether she could leave a bag of steaks in her fridge for a half hour while she spoke with neighbors.
Whether they were ballots or steaks, what is certain is that Llanes screamed bloody murder when she discovered she was being filmed inside the building by a man with a camera.
“They want to kill me! They want to kill me!” she screamed as she banged on the doors of several apartments. No one opened.
“I was so scared,” said Trinidad Romero, 89.
Someone called police, who interviewed a few residents. They found no ballots.
García, who was off-duty at the time, was later reassigned from his detective duties and placed back on patrol. He eventually resigned from the department.
Hernandez criticized Bolaños and García “for following the poor woman around,” and said no ballots were ever found.
Last week, he maintained that city policy prohibits all political solicitation at public housing buildings owned by the city, including the complex on West 38th Street.
“Anybody who enters a public building to sell something or do political solicitation is breaking the rules, whether it’s Emelina [Llanes] or Raúl Martinez,” he said.
He added that he has no idea what Robaina or Llanes did inside the complex, but said Robaina did not work for his campaign. Robaina is the uncle of another former Hialeah mayor, Julio Robaina, who nurtured Hernandez’s political rise.
In recent weeks, Miami-Dade police detectives have been interviewing residents of the 32-unit public housing complex in connection with a bundle of 164 absentee ballots dropped off together a post office in late July. Fourteen of those ballots belong to residents there. A dozen of these voters, including Romero and the Peñas, told reporters they gave their ballots to Sergio Robaina.
A former aide to County Commissioner Esteban Bovo told authorities that Robaina and several other individuals gave her the ballots in Bovo’s Hialeah office. Anamary Pedrosa, the former aide, then drove them to the post office.
Sources familiar with the investigation say Llanes’ name was not mentioned as one of the individuals who gave Pedrosa the ballots. However, the women appear to have been friends and attended a City Council meeting together in May.
As detectives interviewed her neighbors one recent afternoon, Pulido told reporters she was sick of hearing about absentee ballots in her building. She even told Llanes, her distant relative, to stop coming by if her motive was political.
“I told her, ‘Don’t come around anymore to look for ballots or anything else,’ ” she said. “I don’t want any problems here.”