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"The rodeo's started," cracked silver-haired, bulldog attorney Mike Ramsey shortly after his client Ben Reyes finally began his testimony last Thursday. The former councilman is the heart and dark soul of the Hotel Six case, and after the melancholy demolition of Castillo and the near comic pummeling of Yarbrough by the prosecution, he brought a presence and charisma to the stand that had been absent most of the trial.
Stripped of his Council seat by term limits and with much of his dignity damaged by a string of FBI audio- and videotapes filled with his own obscenities, Reyes came across as a lion in winter, with no outward acknowledgment that his power had diminished. When Attanasio objected that Ramsey was putting words in Reyes's mouth, Reyes coolly replied, "I can speak for myself."
Ramsey chose to begin Reyes's defense with one of his strongest pieces of evidence, a fragmented FBI videotape taken at a west Florida resort in September of 1995 in which Reyes repeatedly states he didn't plan to profit from the downtown hotel project. Reyes and his son, Peter, and brother, Tony, flew to Florida in September of 1995 for a meeting with other members of the Cayman Group, which was ostensibly seeking a role in the Duddlesten downtown hotel project, backed by Ben Reyes.
The prosecution had claimed that the tape of the Florida meeting was unintelligible, but defense experts had reconstructed much of the dialogue.
In banter with an FBI agent going by the alias Len Davis, Reyes talked about his two stints of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine. "I got shot," the then-councilman told a group that included Molineiro and agent Bob Dogium, who was playing the role of Cayman Group president Marcos Correa. Son, Peter, added: "Got his lung shot out."
In his political career in Houston, Reyes has never been shy about playing up the war injury. During one speech before the downtown Kiwanis club in the '70s, Reyes emoted so sincerely about it that a retired Marine general rose from the audience and came forward to embrace him.
Upon Reyes's retirement from City Council, state Senator Rodney Ellis issued a congratulatory proclamation in 1995, citing Reyes's "two Purple Hearts."
In his campaign literature for the 1994 congressional race and runoff against eventual winner Gene Green, Reyes also claimed that he was awarded numerous combat decorations, "including those that would mark the end of his military career -- two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in the loss of a lung."
In a Press interview for that race, Reyes had this account of the shooting that led to the removal of a lung: "Every time after that, I felt I was on borrowed time and somebody let me live an extra few years to do something."
Pressed for details about his wounding, Reyes declined. "Too many people died in that war needlessly, without any kind of fanfare, and their bodies came home and they were buried and nobody gave a damn. We ain't going to play war hero."
It turns out there were more reasons than simple humility for Reyes not going into the details, and Ramsey was quick to draw it out of his client in court last week. With the example of Yarbrough's humiliation over the disclosure of his failure to file tax returns still fresh, and knowing that prosecutors had access to Reyes's war record, Ramsey decided to defuse an inevitable revelation and minimize the damage to Reyes's credibility.
"In fact, did you get shot in Vietnam?" Ramsey asked Reyes, who answered "No, sir." In fact, Reyes testified, he had suffered an infection known as black lung disease, and the lung was removed at a stateside military hospital after an attempt to do the surgery on a Navy ship was canceled because of bad weather. As it turns out, Purple Hearts are awarded for injuries in combat, and Reyes's Marine records don't include mention of the prestigious military honor, a source told the Press.
Another one of those ugly little Hotel Six horned toads had just hopped out of the bag.
As Reyes continued to testify, the shape of Ramsey's defense strategy came into focus. Early on, the defense had hammered at informant Molineiro's credibility and ability to selectively tape the targets of the investigation. In his examination, Ramsey now led Reyes through a series of recordings that document the defendant repeatedly refusing offers of money from Dogium and disclaiming any intent to profit from the hotel deal.
The prosecution countered that Reyes was very selective about whom he revealed his true intent to, and excluded Dogium from that circle of confidence.
On the other hand, Molineiro clearly had the councilman's complete trust. Asked by Ramsey to compare Molineiro to other con men he had met, Reyes paused. "Few like Julio. He was the best."
Ramsey's explanation for Reyes's filmed acceptance of a bag containing $50,000 in December of 1995 at a westside apartment is that it was a legal loan set up by the agents to trick Reyes into incriminating himself. Reyes contends the government repeatedly tried to get him to take cash, but he refused. By this account, Molineiro then set out to entrap Reyes by luring him into an alleged joint venture to purchase distressed city properties at a county auction.