South Florida

Charged in a heist of 23,000 iPhones, a Miami Uber driver walks free

A jury accepted an Uber driver’s argument that he thought he was simply helping a friend and did not know he was engaged in criminal activity.
A jury accepted an Uber driver’s argument that he thought he was simply helping a friend and did not know he was engaged in criminal activity. Miami Herald

In the aftermath of their arrests, seven Miami-Dade men pleaded guilty to carrying out a bold cargo-truck heist of 23,000 Apple iPhones worth nearly $7 million that were shipped from China to Miami International Airport.

But an eighth suspect, an Uber driver named Eloy Garcia who had arrived from Cuba in recent years, refused to get in line with the other co-defendants cutting plea deals.

Garcia, 43, opted for trial. And he was acquitted in Miami federal court of conspiring with others to fence the stolen mobile phones.

“He was absolutely and totally clueless” about the criminal activity, defense attorney Douglas Williams said Wednesday.

After about four hours of deliberations last Friday, a 12-person jury found Garcia not guilty of conspiring to receive the stolen iPhones and possessing hundreds that he was accused of trying to sell on three occasions to a confidential informant working for the FBI during the summer of 2016.

Williams said the U.S. attorney’s office case fell apart because he was able to show that his client, who testified, was only taking orders from a Cuban boyhood friend who was implicated in the caper and pleaded guilty. Rasiel Perez testified for the defense that Garcia “did anything and everything” he asked him to do with the iPhones because of their close relationship but that his friend had no idea about the MIA cargo heist or that the valuable merchandise was stolen.

In addition to Perez, 46, who was sentenced to a year in prison, the defense also called Garcia’s sister, a Miami-Dade public school teacher, as a witness.

As a result of his acquittal, Garcia will now try to recover about $30,000 that federal agents seized from his home during his arrest in October 2016. Williams said the money was from his work and savings, and that he kept it in envelopes rather than put it in a bank. He said his client had never used a bank when he lived in Cuba.

Garcia became entangled in the MIA iPhones caper months after the plot was hatched in 2015, according to authorities.

According to an indictment, one of the suspects used a fake ID, doctored a tractor-trailer truck to look like it came from a legitimate business and drove off the LAN Cargo lot with $6.7 million of Apple iPhones in early April 2016. The thieves stored the stolen mobile devices — which were supposed to be shipped from China via Miami International to Latin America — in rental storage units.

They waited and sold off the phones slowly. In late May 2016, the men sold 100 of the phones for $12,500. A month later, another 80. They picked up the pace afterward, unloading 90 a week later, then 50 more days later.

In total, they managed to sell 600 cellphones before they were caught in late October 2016, according to prosecutor Cary Aronovitz. The eight defendants faced counts of conspiracy to steal goods from an interstate or foreign shipment, theft, possession and conspiracy to receive the stolen merchandise.

Last year, seven defendants pleaded guilty to different counts: Yoan Perez, 34; Leonel Padron Bello, 36; Emilio Herrera, 42; Ricardo Gonzalez, 53; Rasiel Perez, 46; Misael Cabrera Ruiz, 38; and Rodolfo Urra, 37. They received prison sentences ranging from a half year to more than three years.