By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
By Jeff Balke
Given all the negative material the defense has on Julio, the feds will likely have to retool his character to that of a slimy street person who was utilized by the FBI only because he could bond with Ben. Just as Ramsey "inoculated" client Reyes by voluntarily disclosing how Ben had falsely claimed to be wounded in Vietnam, so the prosecutors will try to disclose all Molineiro's warts at the start of the second trial.
"Attanasio's a bright kid," said attorney Dan Cogdell of his 32-year-old federal opponent. "I think he's got a better case without Molineiro than with him." Cogdell, who represents Peavy, allows that keeping Molineiro off the stand affects some of the government's case, but he figures Attanasio can work around the holes.
In the replay, Molineiro's high-profile role in court will likely go to his supervisor, FBI Special Agent Ron Stern, the man who designed the federal sting. "All they have to do is put Stern on to say I was there, I listened to all the tapes and I've reviewed the recordings, and they're complete, they're accurate and they come in," says Cogdell. "You don't have to have everyone on the tape there."
Cogdell is concerned that if the government uses Stern to introduce the tapes instead of Molineiro, it may make it difficult to present impeachment evidence showing that Molineiro was a known liar and thief who was capable of manipulating the tapes to falsely incriminate his targets. "Without Molineiro, some of that fun stuff may not be there," says Cogdell.
Ramsey, in representing Peavy, feasted on Julio throughout the trial with descriptions like "worm," "snake" and "a rotting mackerel glistening in the moonlight." Ramsey seemed unconcerned at the possibility of losing his favorite federal whipping boy.
"If they don't [use Molineiro], we will," Ramsey laughed as he talked to the post-mistrial media gathering. "Julio will be here again if we go to trial again."
A human chameleon, Molineiro was recruited fresh out of a Paraguay prison in the early 1980s. A DEA mentor brought him to the United States to do drug surveillance work in Houston. On the stand during the first trial, he absorbed like a sponge the mannerisms and jargon of the lawyers who interrogated him. Just as he had masterfully portrayed a corrupt Latin American businessman in winning Reyes's confidence, Molineiro transformed himself into the role of expert witness for the FBI, at least until defense attorneys forced him to admit to theft, drug abuse and official misconduct.
The first time around, Hotel Six played out as a duel of the two master con men, Ben and Julio. Much of that was depicted in the series of FBI audio and video recordings featuring the two with a rotating cast of supporting players. At times during the first proceeding, Molineiro and Reyes almost seemed like reverse sides of the same coin. They were easily the most intriguing personalities to testify -- Molineiro a glib shape-shifter and Reyes a dark, brooding presence.
Both have built careers based on government service, but of very different sorts: Reyes began in the state Legislature in the early '70s representing his Denver Harbor stronghold in East Houston, and progressed to a district position on City Council covering the same area. He tried going national with two campaigns for Congressional District 29, a seat carved by the state Legislature for the express purpose of electing a Hispanic. Incumbent Gene Green defeated Reyes in both contests, largely because Reyes was already burdened with accusations of personal corruption.
Portentous and powerful to the end, Reyes on the stand remained unruffled, and prosecutor Attanasio treated him with far more caution than he had Castillo and Yarbrough. In the end, it seemed to pay off for the prosecutors.
"The way [Reyes] operated, it seemed like he knew how to give bribes and who to influence and who not to influence," says former juror Kevin Ross, a meat cutter at Fiesta. "Just like we said in the jury room, he could B.S. his way out of almost anything."
Still, in the test-screening, Ben scored ahead of Julio.
"I still give a little more credibility to Ben Reyes, because he's done a lot of good for my city, and I love Houston," allows Ross. "Molineiro -- we didn't give his testimony anything. In our deliberations, we just didn't even take him into consideration, because we didn't believe a word he said on the stand."
On the other hand, Ross says the jury took the tapes, despite the defense attacks on their maker, very seriously indeed.
The message from the first jury to the prosecution is clear: Hotel Six: The Sequel should let the tapes do the talking as much as possible, while minimizing the lip from Julio.
Whether the same cast of defendants shows up for trial in September is open to speculation.
Reyes and Yarbrough remain squarely in the sights of the prosecutors. They were captured on videotape taking cash in a manner that made it highly implausible to characterize the money as a campaign contribution. The fact that at times the panel was within one vote of securing a bribery conviction on Reyes will undoubtedly sharpen the prosecution focus even further on his role in the alleged conspiracy.