Saturday marks the 16-year anniversary of the morning that retirees Victor and Olga Lisabet arose early and climbed into a car with fellow parishioners to drive to a sunrise Easter mass in South Miami-Dade.
They did not know that, later that day, their son planned to break big news: He and his wife were finally expecting a child.
But Victor and Olga Lisabet never made it to Easter mass. Nor did they learn about their coming grandchild. Instead, they died when a drunk driver who’d spent the night drinking at a Pinecrest sports bar smashed into their car on South Dixie Highway.
But even though the drunk driver, Henry de la Hoz, was captured at the scene, any hopes for justice seemed dashed. After five years of legal wrangling, de la Hoz pleaded guilty but then promptly fled the United States on the eve of sentencing.
It was not until last month that authorities in Costa Rica captured de la Hoz, who this week was turned over to the custody of U.S. marshals and returned to Miami.
Now, de la Hoz, 46, will be headed to a Florida state prison to begin serving a 12-year prison sentence, meted out in absentia while he was on the lam.
“I didn’t lose hope,” said Victor J. Lisabet, 63, the couple’s son. “I was going to spend the rest of my life looking for him.”
De la Hoz was booked into the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center on Tuesday, and made a brief court appearance on Friday. He’ll return to court on Monday so his fingerprints can be double-checked before he is transferred to the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections.
“Henry would like to tell the family that he is sorry,” said his defense attorney, Sabrina Puglisi. “He knows his leaving was the wrong thing to do. He is here to serve his sentence.”
De la Hoz’s path to prison was long and winding.
The crash happened on April 20, 2003. De la Hoz, then 30, was down from Gainesville visiting family in Miami. He’d been drinking at Hooligan’s, a popular sports bar on South Dixie Highway. He fell asleep in his car, then woke up and drove off — crashing into the car of churchgoers while he was trying to make an illegal left turn at Southwest 62nd Street.
Three other parishioners in the car were seriously injured. Killed were the Lisabets, who grew up in Oriente, Cuba, and came to Miami in the early 1970s. They had three children. Victor Lisabet worked as an accountant at several high-end hotels. Olga Lisabet worked at a hotel too, cleaning rooms.
By 2003, they were retired in Miami, gardening, attending church and doting on their growing number of grandchildren.
“They were very wholesome,” said Victor J. Lisabet, their son. “I couldn’t have asked for better parents.”
Even though de la Hoz’s blood tested conclusively for alcohol, the case became bogged down in court, going through several prosecutors and judges before a plea agreement was finalized in 2008.
On Sept. 8, 2008, de la Hoz pleaded guilty to a slew of DUI charges. Then-Circuit Judge Peter Adrien agreed to give him one week to get his affairs in order before he would decide on a sentence of between eight and 12 years in prison.
On the day of sentencing, prosecutors Suzanne Von Paulus and Lody Jean (now a judge) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving liaison Diane Holmes gathered in the courtroom. The Lisabet children prepared to read statements to the judge, to detail the lives of their parents. His then-defense lawyer, Arturo Alvarez, was there too.
Except de la Hoz never walked through the door.
“We were waiting and waiting and waiting,” Holmes said. “It became very clear he was not going to show up. It was another crushing blow for the family.”
Judge Adrien immediately issued a warrant for his arrest. Since de la Hoz had already pleaded guilty, Adrien sentenced him to the full 12 years behind bars.
De la Hoz’ whereabouts overseas were not immediately clear. Wherever he was, his lawyers filed an appeal on his behalf. A Miami appeals court rejected the appeal in 2009.
Von Paulus, the prosecutor, kept the case alive, checking for years with Miami-Dade warrants detectives and federal marshals. By March 2016, the U.S. Marshals Service had discovered he was living in Costa Rica. They began working with Interpol, the worldwide agency that helps coordinate the capture of suspects.
De la Hoz worked in construction in towns on the Pacific coast and also studied Brazilian jiu-jitsu. He also helped found Pura Vida Fighting for Kids, a foundation that helped low-income children learn about martial arts. He began working as a tattoo artist in Puntarenas, where he was married and had a 10-month-old son.
But his new life came tumbling down when Interpol arrested him in March. He fought extradition but lost. Costa Rica booted him from the country and U.S. Marshals flew to the Central American nation to pick him up.
Back in Miami, the call from the State Attorney’s Office informing them of the capture was bittersweet for the younger Victor Lisabet and his family. He named his daughter, Olga, after his mother. She is now 15. Victor’s son, James, is 13.
“The scars run deep inside and will never heal,” he said. “I think of my parents every day. It hurts like hell that my kids, Olga and James, never got to meet them and grew up without their love and affection.”