Feds charge trio with kidnapping, extorting Cuban ballplayer with Texas Rangers

Leonys Martin Tapanes seemed like yet another Cuban baseball player with tremendous promise when he signed a $15.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers in 2011.

But there apparently is a darker story behind Martin’s climb from poverty to Major League Baseball success.

The U.S. attorney’s office in Miami on Wednesday charged three people — Eliezer Lazo, 40, formerly of Miami Lakes, Joel Martinez Hernandez, 37, formerly of Miami-Dade, and Yilian Hernandez, 30, of Hialeah — with conspiring to smuggle, kidnap and extort the 25-year-old Rangers outfielder.

The trio are also charged with smuggling 13 other Cuban baseball prospects to the United States — all of them going from Cuba into Mexico and then into the United States.

Yilian Hernandez, arrested Wednesday by Homeland Security and FBI agents, will have her first appearance in Miami federal court Thursday. Lazo and Martinez are currently serving respective prison sentences of five and seven years for 2012 money-laundering convictions related to Medicare fraud.

In announcing the case in a news release, prosecutors cited a civil lawsuit filed by Estrellas del Beisbol, but provided few details.

The Mexican company, in which Lazo and Martinez had a stake, claims it became Martin’s management agency after he was smuggled into Mexico. But last year, Estrellas del Beisbol filed a lawsuit against Martin in Broward Circuit Court, accusing him of violating his contract for failing to pay their company up to 30 percent of his salary from his multiyear deal with the Texas Rangers.

In a countersuit, Martin accused Lazo, Martinez and others of an “illegal scheme” involving smuggling him and his family out of Cuba into Mexico in 2010 and holding all of them “hostage” until Martin obtained a Major League contract and could pay them a “ransom.”

The following year, Martin said in his counterclaim that he wired $1,350,000 to Estrellas but that “the payment was made out of fear for himself and his family, not with any intention of validating” his management agreement with the Mexican company.

Martin’s lawyer, Paul H. Minoff, declined to comment about the litigation or the indictment filed by Assistant U.S. Attorneys H. Ron Davidson and Evelyn B. Sheehan.

Martin, born in Villa Clara Province, played for the Cuban national baseball team in international competitions, including the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

According to Estrellas’ breach-of-contract suit, Martin was signed the following year by the Mexican company, but the complaint makes no mention of how the Cuban ballplayer got to Mexico.

The suit describes Estrellas as a “baseball academy that cultivates and trains amateur baseball players who desire to play professional baseball in the United States and, specifically, sign a contract with a team affiliated with Major League Baseball.”

Under Estrellas’ Nov. 11, 2010, agreement with Martin, the company agreed to provide training, food, housing and sports clothing, the suit says. In exchange, the ballplayer agreed to pay 35 percent of any future professional baseball contract to Estrella — a figure it says was later reduced by 5 percent as a side fee to Martin’s agent, Bartolo Hernandez, the suit says. He was not charged in the Miami indictment.

On May 4, 2011, Martin signed his $15.5 million contract with the Texas Rangers, which came with an additional $5 million signing bonus, for the 2011-15 seasons.

Estrellas said in its suit that Martin paid the Mexican company $1,200,000, but claims he still owes $450,000 for 2011 and an additional $375,000 for 2012.

Martin’s lawyer, in the counterclaim, offered a strikingly differently account, saying he signed Estrellas’ management agreement under duress.

The ballplayer’s counterclaim describes Estrellas as a “nonexistent entity that serves as a front for illegal activity, such as human smuggling and trafficking, kidnapping and extortion.”

Martin admits that while he was in the “involuntary custody of his kidnappers,” specifically naming Lazo and Martinez, he was provided with food, clothing and shelter as well as “intermittent opportunities to practice baseball.” He also said his family was provided similar support.

But Martin claims Estrellas’ operators held him “against his will” in Mexico while his family “remained hostages” at Lazo’s home in Miami-Dade.

Lastly, Martin says that “Bart” Hernandez was introduced to him as a baseball agent who could assist him in obtaining a potential Major League contract.

“However, at no time was there any negotiation with anyone, and Martin did not voluntarily agree to have [Bart] Hernandez represent him or sign any agreement of any nature with [him],” the counterclaim says.

Martin’s Major League career got off to a slow start. But after spotty play in 2011-12, the outfielder batted .260 with 49 RBIs and eight homeruns in 147 games with the Rangers last year.