Alejandro Guttierez-Garcia spent his boyhood years wandering the streets of Nicaragua before coming to Miami on a worker’s visa in 2005. With a dragon tattoo on his arm and a drooping right eye, Gutierrez-Garcia’s menacing face blended into South Florida’s criminal underworld. Within two years, he ran up a daunting rap sheet, from theft to violent crime.
In 2009, authorities say, Gutierrez-Garcia, 33, was recruited to kill Ben Novack, a Fort Lauderdale millionaire whose flamboyant father, Ben Sr., built the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach. Court records allege Gutierrez-Garcia was also commissioned to attack Novack’s 87-year-old mother, Bernice Novack, who was bludgeoned to death with a monkey wrench.
Ben Jr.’s wife, Narcy Veliz Novack, 54, fearing a divorce, allegedly engineered the murder-for-hire plot, so she could inherit the family’s fortune.
Authorities say Gutierrez-Garcia was part of “The Veliz Enterprise,” a family-run criminal syndicate consisting of Narcy, a former stripper; her brother, Cristobal Veliz, 57, and other characters accused of murder, robbery, money laundering and blackmail. Much like the mob, ruthlessness was their hallmark — even if it meant slicing out Ben Novack’s eyes or plotting to knock off one of their own when he snitched to police.
Through court records and transcripts, police reports and interviews, The Miami Herald has pieced together how the killings were planned and executed — and how the scheme ultimately unraveled.
Howard Tanner, Narcy Novack’s attorney, said his client had nothing to do with the slayings and that prosecutors are bereft of any evidence to the contrary.
“The puzzling thing is that prosecutors are making deals with people who are admittedly involved in the murder of Ben Novack, and they are going after Narcy, who had nothing to do with the murder . . . They are making deals with a variety of devils.’’
Lawyers for others implicated in the crimes either declined to talk or could not be reached.
DIRTY DEEDS AT
Multiple law enforcement sources said the plot began at, of all places, a Miami carwash. The main players, in addition to Narcy and Gutierrez-Garcia:
Cristobal Veliz, who emigrated from Ecuador as a child. He allegedly hired Gutierrez-Garcia and Joel Gonzalez at the carwash in February 2009. Veliz, who lived in Philadelphia and drove a bus between Chinatown and Brooklyn, became a U.S. citizen in 2008. Authorities tracked him down through cellphone calls made at the time Novack was killed.
Joel Gonzalez, 26, born and raised in Miami. He worked odd jobs in the years before the murders and had a record of petty crimes. The paycheck for his participation apparently didn’t go far: In April 2010, eight months after Ben Novack’s death, he was arrested for peddling clothes on a Miami street corner without a license. He surrendered when the indictments were unsealed in July 2010, and immediately confessed.
Denis Ramirez, 37, the father of one of Veliz’s grandchildren. Authorities say he was enlisted by Veliz as a wheelman. Born in Nicaragua, Ramirez entered the United States in May 1988 under a temporary student visa. It expired when his studies were over, but he stayed. Ramirez pleaded guilty in February, admitting that he drove Gutierrez-Garcia and Gonzalez to the Hilton Rye Town Hotel, in Westchester County, N.Y., where Novack was killed.
The motive for the crimes was money. For over two decades, the Novack family acquired millions through the iconic hotel. Later, after the hotel was sold in bankruptcy, Ben Jr. branched off into conventions. His company, Convention Concepts Unlimited, was earning $50 million a year at the time of his death.
While on paper the estate is worth $8 million to $10 million, authorities believe there is much more in off-shore savings accounts. Novack, who had no children, left his entire estate to his wife.
The killings were “nothing short of a diabolical plan by a woman intent on eliminating her husband and taking his family fortune for her own,’’ Westchester District Attorney Janet DiFiore said after Narcy’s arrest in July 2010. If she’s convicted, her grandsons get everything.
The plan began to take shape in late 2008 after Narcy learned that her husband, a notorious womanizer, had been having an affair. During their 19-year marriage, Ben Jr. carried on endless trysts, keeping a black book with the names of women, mostly prostitutes, in almost every city where he held a convention, according to employees.
Narcy Novack tolerated his infidelities, and allegedly even participated in some of his sexual exploits. The couple would argue, sometimes viciously, then reconcile.
Narcy practiced a form of Vodou, and sometimes following a particularly ugly fight, one of her rituals was to light candles. May Abad, Narcy’s daughter, said her mother also made Vodou dolls.
In one particularly bizarre marital episode, in 2002, Narcy Novack hired several men to tie up her husband in their home and threaten to kill him. They emptied his safe, stealing business documents, cash and other belongings. She later claimed the incident was part of a sex game and showed police her husband’s pornography stash, which included photos of women without limbs. Ben declined to prosecute, and the couple stayed together.
But by 2008, Ben had grown tired of Narcy. He took on a mistress, set her up in an apartment and bought her furniture. Abad, who, like her mother, worked for the company, came across some of the bills from Ben’s dalliance. She questioned him. He told her that he was going to ask for a divorce, but assured Abad that she, her mother, and her sons would be provided for.
“He wanted my mother to be taken care of,” Abad said. “He didn’t want to leave her out in the cold. But at the same time, he was tired of the kind of life she insisted upon. He didn’t want to wear suits and go out to fancy restaurants all the time. He wanted a more simple life.”
Abad and her mother had a rocky relationship, but after Abad gave birth to her two sons, now 18 and 19, they ironed out their differences. Ben Jr. and Narcy adored the grandchildren, and Abad moved into a cottage on the Novack property on Del Mar Place in Fort Lauderdale.
Years passed. Despite frequent turbulence, the couple managed to stay together while enjoying the spoils of a rich life. That included travel, boats, fine food, cars and one of Ben’s stranger indulgences — spending tens of thousands of dollars to acquire a massive collection of Batman memorabilia, the second-largest in the world.
Prosecutors, however, say that once Narcy learned of Ben’s plan to leave her, she set about making sure that neither he, nor his mother, would stand in the way of her getting his fortune.
First on her checklist: Bernice Novack, Ben’s mother. A woman with deep red hair and regal bearing, Bernice lived alone in a home along Coral Ridge Country Club in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by relics from her storybook past as the queen of the Fontainebleau. Despite her age, Bernice was in good health, exercised regularly and socialized with neighbors and friends. She and Narcy did not get along, and she might well have tried to thwart any effort by Narcy to gain a stranglehold on Ben’s estate.
In February 2009, court records show Veliz hired Gutierrez-Garcia and another man to begin staking out Bernice’s home. According to the indictment, Narcy provided them with key details about the house and Bernice’s habits. Gutierrez-Garcia’s accomplice, a lookout, has not been identified and may have fled the country.
A MONKEY WRENCH
On the evening of April 4, 2009, Guttierez-Garcia was dropped off by the accomplice, and waited outside her open garage. As was her habit, Bernice had parked in the driveway.
Gutierrez-Garcia told investigators that he ambushed the family matriarch and slammed her about the head with a monkey wrench. Then, believing she was incapacitated or dead, he fled.
Bernice was made of hardy stock, however. She somehow hobbled back into her house, tried to clean up at the kitchen sink, then stumbled into a bathroom to use the toilet before collapsing, face down, in the laundry room in a pool of blood. Her injuries were massive: several blunt force injuries to her head, a broken finger, broken jaw and broken teeth.
Her body was discovered the next morning by a neighbor, who called Ben, a reserve police officer. He was very emotional, witnesses later told The Miami Herald, and thought his mother’s bloody death might have stemmed from a spill a week earlier at a bank. Fort Lauderdale police and the Broward County Medical Examiner concluded that she died after falling a number of times in her home.
Detectives now acknowledge mistakes were made in the probe.
An anonymous letter, sent to police shortly after Ben was killed, might have raised some doubts. Written in Spanish, the letter claimed that Bernice was stalked and terrorized before she was killed, and that Narcy was behind both killings. Fort Lauderdale police dismissed its significance.
If Ben Novack began to have misgivings about how his mother died — and his lawyer, Robert Switches, says he did — he did not get a chance to voice them to police. It was a busy time. He was in the midst of planning two large conventions for his most important client, Amway International. One of them was in Rye Brook, N.Y., and the other, in the Bahamas. An obsessive planner, he was brutal and demanding with hotel managers. Ben was a stickler to details, and kept everyone involved in the conventions on a very short leash. Mistakes, however small, were unforgiveable.
According to court documents, the preparations for Ben’s murder were well underway weeks before he arrived for the New York convention on July 10. Ramirez said he drove Veliz, Gonzalez and Gutierrez-Garcia from South Florida to Brooklyn early that month. Ramirez bought a cellphone and borrowed a friend’s Lincoln Town Car. At about 3 a.m. July 12, Ramirez followed Veliz to a Queens motel, where they picked up Guttierez-Garcia and Gonzalez. Veliz instructed them to drive to the Westchester County hotel, where Ramirez dropped off the two Florida men. Assistant U.S. Attorney Elliott Jacobson declared in court that cellphone records show that Narcy called Veliz from the Hilton at 6:39 a.m. and shortly thereafter, she let the killers into her and Ben’s fourth-floor suite.
During the attack, Ben’s hands were tied behind his back with duct tape and his legs were bound together below his knees. The men then began to batter him with dumbbells, according to the indictment. Narcy, allegedly present as her husband was savaged, asked one of the attackers to muffle his screams with a pillow and then, in Spanish, ordered Gutierrez-Garcia to gouge out his eyes.
She tossed one of them her husband’s diamond bracelet and snatched $100,000 of the company’s cash from the room, authorities allege. After about 10 or 15 minutes, the men left and Ramirez drove them back to Brooklyn, where, according to Ramirez, Veliz was waiting.
A key piece of evidence was left behind: During the attack, Gutierrez-Garcia’s glasses were broken and a piece settled on the bed where Ben had been sleeping. Narcy claimed it was from a pair of her sunglasses, but Gutierrez-Garcia told investigators it was from his eyewear.
After the struggle, Narcy left the room to attend to breakfast for their guests, some 1,800 Amway employees. That was something she rarely, if ever, did, Abad said. Narcy excused herself about 20 minutes later, saying she was returning to her room to use the bathroom.
It was only then, Narcy said, that she found her husband’s body, at about 8 a.m.
“It was a blood bath,’’ Abad recalled.
Narcy was questioned by police without a lawyer for most of the day and later submitted to a polygraph. Abad was outside the room when the test was administered. Authorities announced that the test showed “signs of deception.’’
Her daughter was more blunt: “She failed it five times.’’
Lie-detector tests are very unreliable, Tanner said.
“They are not admitted as evidence for a reason. You have to look at the surroundings, the manner, the time it was given and the intent of the test. It’s called voodoo science for a reason. I don’t put any significance in what police claim were signs of deception.’’
In the days and weeks after Ben’s murder, authorities say Narcy attempted to sell her husband’s boat, emptied three storage units full of Batman collectibles and managed to get into her husband’s and mother-in-law’s safe-deposit boxes, even though she had no authority to do so. An employee at Bank of America in Fort Lauderdale stated in a deposition that Narcy bamboozled the bank’s staff by claiming her husband would return that day to vouch for her. Unbeknownst to them, he was in a drawer in the Westchester County morgue.
Ben wasn’t interred in his family’s mausoleum until 52 days after his death as family members bickered over the cost of his crypt. The delay was a violation of his Jewish faith.
PRICE OF A
As conspirators flipped and the plot began to unravel, the behind-the-scenes machinations were fast and furious.
In the fall of 2009, Veliz allegedly hired an associate to kill Gutierrez-Garcia to prevent him from testifying for the prosecution, the indictment shows. On Dec. 16, 2010, with the feds closing in, Narcy allegedly offered to bribe Gonzalez into falsely testifying. Then, on Jan. 13, 2011, Veliz offered to pay Gonzalez to pin Ben’s murder on Abad, according to the indictment.
By then, authorities feared for Abad’s safety, and relocated her twice to protect her and her sons.Jacobson said in court in February that Ramirez had admitted being the wheelman to a “violent robbery.” He later pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for his cooperation. The payment for his role: $100.
“The sad and horrific reality in homicide cases,” said Broward prosecutor Brian Cavanaugh, “is how cheap human life can be for some people.’’
Read more: http://www.miamiherald.com/2011/06/16/v-print/2317513/the-novack-murders-a-tale-of-greed.html#ixzz1SUFP0FSE