MIAMI, USA (CMC) — A baseball agent and trainer have been found guilty of smuggling Cuban baseball players into the United States in a fraudulent scheme designed to capitalise on the defectors’ major league contracts.
In court on Wednesday, agent Bart Hernandez and trainer Julio Estrada remained stone-faced when the verdicts were read, while a dozen relatives and supporters gasped and cried.
The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for five hours after the seven-week trial concluded.
US District Judge Kathleen Williams said she would allow Hernandez and Estrada to remain free on bond until sentencing on July 11, but they must wear electronic ankle bracelets in the meantime.
During the trial, prosecutor Ron Davidson asked the judge to put the two South Florida men behind bars, saying they could flee the country.
But defence attorneys convinced Williams that their clients have “close ties” to the community.
It’s reported that Hernandez runs his sports agency and owns a home in Weston; while Estrada, a former catcher on the Cuban national team and ex-coach at Coral Park High, lives in south-west Miami-Dade.
Hernandez was convicted of conspiring with Estrada and others to deceive the US Government into granting visas and other documents to two dozen Cuban ballplayers, including Miami Marlins shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria, so they could sign with Major League Baseball teams.
The offence carries up to five years in prison.
While Hernandez and Estrada claimed they were simply helping players prepare for tryouts and negotiate contracts through a process that was accepted by the US Treasury Department and Major League Baseball, prosecutors said players were “coerced, ripped off and threatened by shady operators”, such as Joan “Nacho” Garcia, an ex-con and smuggling ring chief who was kidnapped and presumably murdered in 2009.
Hernandez was additionally convicted of bringing Leonys Martin — a Seattle Mariners outfielder who signed with Texas for US$15 million in 2011 — into the US after he was smuggled from Cuba to Mexico.The offencee carries a mandatory minimum sentence of three years and up to 10 years in jail.
Estrada was found guilty of three counts of bringing Jose Abreu, Omar Luis and Dalier Hinojosa into the US illegally, and he faces a mandatory minimum of three years and up to 10 on each .
Hernandez’s defence attorneys, Jeffrey Marcus and Daniel Rashbaum, said they were “disappointed and saddened” by the verdict, according to a report in the
Herald. It said they plan to appeal.
“Two of the charges [against Hernandez] were thrown out during the trial for a complete lack of evidence, and we have strong grounds on appeal for the two remaining charges,” said the attorneys in a joint statement. “We will continue to fight to clear Bart’s name.”
Estrada’s lawyer, Sabrina Puglisi, said: “We are obviously disappointed with the verdict and will appeal the decision at the appropriate time.”
Prosecutors Davidson and Sullivan will go after the defendants’ assets — tens of millions of dollars in fees from tainted contracts, along with their suburban homes and luxury cars — in a forfeiture action before Judge Williams.