The "horrific" face of alleged hit man Juan "Two-Face" Rivera-Velez makes it impossible for him to be mistaken for someone else, defense attorney Harold Shapiro told a federal jury in Camden yesterday.
Two witnesses identified others at the slaying scene of drug dealer Miguel Batista in 1996, Shapiro said yesterday in his opening statements in U.S. District Court. Surely, he said, they would have remembered Rivera-Velez if he was there.
Rivera-Velez, 35, nicknamed Two-Face because of his disfigurement, is standing trial on drug and murder conspiracy charges, accused of killing Batista and trying to kill another man to cover up the Batista slaying.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Diana Carrig told the jury there would be substantial evidence to show that Rivera-Velez carried out two "unspeakable acts, two execution-style shootings" to protect the multimillion-dollar cocaine ring run by Ray Morales, one of the largest in Camden history.
The organization operated from 1992 until 2004, dumping hundreds of kilos of cocaine in the city. Morales was arrested in 2003 and began cooperating with federal authorities, bringing down the organization that he had built. He admitted ordering seven murders to protect the organization. One shooting victim survived.
"You're going to hear he [Rivera-Velez] was a hired gun, a paid enforcer for Ray Morales' drug organization," Carrig said.
Carrig later explained there were two types of enforcers: larger ones who carry out "beatdowns" and trigger men with a willingness to shoot.
Morales and Rivera-Velez, Carrig said, were friends. After a car accident in which the left side of Rivera-Velez's face was seriously disfigured, the two became close and Morales added Rivera-Velez to his weekly payroll of enforcers. He was a trigger man, Carrig said.
"He [Morales] protected his business by whatever means necessary at the time," Carrig said. "He trusted Velez most."
In 1996, Carrig said, Morales ordered the hit on Batista because he was selling drugs to competitors. Morales and Rivera-Velez, she said, lured Batista to his car and Rivera-Velez fatally shot him in the head.
Two witnesses identified two suspects to Camden police, neither of whom was Morales or Rivera-Velez.
Prosecutors allege it was Rivera-Velez and Morales who fled the car and ran to the home of an associate, Rafael Colon-Rodriguez, to get rid of their bloody clothes and the murder weapon. Nearly seven years later, Carrig said, Morales ordered Colon-Rodriguez dead to cover up the Batista murder.
Rivera-Velez lured Colon-Rodriguez from a bar and shot him in the head, Carrig said. He survived, but initially was too fearful to identify his assailant. Colon-Rodriguez and Morales will both testify against Rivera-Velez, Carrig said.
Shapiro said the government's prosecution was based on a "flawed investigation" using convicted felons, confessed killers, and inconsistent witness testimony.
He said that Morales was putting the blame on Rivera-Velez to help himself but that witnesses at the time of the Batista murder contradict Morales.
"One of the keys to this case, I would suggest, lies in the contours in the face of Juan Rivera-Velez," Shapiro said, pointing to his client. "His face is severely disfigured. . . . This is a face that is distinctly recognizable."
The suggestion that Rivera-Velez would kill Colon-Rodriguez six years later to cover up the Batista killing does not make sense, Shapiro said, urging the jury to pay close attention to Morales when he takes the stand. "
Assistant U.S. Attorney Howard Wiener called David McNamara, an agent for the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, as the government's first witness.
Morales was arrested for drunken driving in 2003 and authorities learned through wiretaps that he immediately began collecting money and coordinating a large drug shipment before he had to return to jail for violating parole.
Within weeks, McNamara testified, Morales secured a shipment of 30 kilos of cocaine worth $600,000. But when Morales took possession, federal authorities arrested Morales and five others, including his source from Arizona.
From jail, Morales ordered the hit on Rodriguez-Colon, authorities said. After speaking with federal authorities, Morales realized he could no longer protect his organization.