Claims that a Coral Springs firefighter/paramedic may have been involved in the murders and beheadings of a South Florida couple in the 1990s — a notorious case featured in a major movie being released in April — are overshadowing his arrest on unrelated drug and weapons charges.
Santiago Gonzalez, 49, of Davie was arrested last week in an undercover sting. Federal agents said he was an armed escort for what he thought was a drug trafficker delivering more than 67 pounds of cocaine in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Gonzalez told an informant, whose identity has not been made public, that Gonzalez was "involved in the robbery and murder of a Hungarian couple in Miami in the 1990s and the subsequent disposal of the bodies," federal agents wrote in court papers.
The 1995 murders of Frank Griga and Krisztina Furton are featured in "Pain & Gain," an action-packed drama starring Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The movie was filmed in South Florida and is scheduled for release on April 26.
Two men are on Death Row for the murders of the wealthy couple, whose dismembered bodies were found stuffed into 55-gallon oil drums and dumped in a canal at the edge of the Everglades in Miami-Dade County. Their severed heads — with their teeth pulled out to make identification difficult — were later found off Interstate 75 in Broward County. A third man was convicted and imprisoned for his role.
Gonzalez hasn't been charged with anything related to the murders and DEA agents and Assistant U.S. Attorney Courtney Coker wouldn't say if they think there is any factual basis to the informant's claim — though it was included in an agent's sworn complaint filed a week ago in federal court in Fort Lauderdale.
Gonzalez's lawyer had a blunt assessment of what he and his client made of the informant's allegation.
"That's total nonsense," said Assistant Federal Public Defender Robert Berube. "It's total garbage."
The jailed Gonzalez resigned from his city job in a letter dated Wednesday as Coral Springs officials were preparing to fire him "due to job abandonment," Deputy City Manager Susan Grant wrote in an email.
Gonzalez has not yet indicated if he will fight the drug and weapons charges or not. He will remain at the Broward County Main Jail indefinitely and cannot be released without first proving that any money he uses to secure a $250,000 bond did not come from criminal proceeds, U.S. Magistrate Judge Barry Seltzer ordered at a brief court hearing on Thursday.
Gonzalez, who wore beige jail scrubs and was shackled and handcuffed in court, barely spoke during the hearing. "No, sir," he said when the judge asked if he had any questions.
According to court records, the informant told North Miami Beach police officers and an agent from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in August that Gonzalez had told him that "he had participated in numerous armed kidnappings and robberies in the past."
At the agents' request, the informant then recruited Gonzalez to act as an armed guard while the informant picked up and delivered what Gonzalez thought was more than 67 pounds of cocaine between September and January 24 when Gonzalez was arrested. Gonzalez was secretly recorded having several conversations with the informant about the cocaine, weapons and security concerns, according to court records.
Gonzalez was recorded calling himself "a wolf" and saying he could ram any attackers with his truck and shoot them, without them seeing him coming, agents wrote in court records.
"Gonzalez stated that having extra ammunition and magazines saved his and his associate's lives in a past shootout. Gonzalez said that during the incident his associate was shot and he later took him to a veterinarian to get treated and sewn up," agents wrote.
Gonzalez gave the informant a knife to protect himself during one delivery in January, investigators said. When Gonzalez was arrested he had a 9mm handgun with several magazines in his truck, records show.
During a September meeting in Parkland when he was paid $500 per kilo, agents said, Gonzalez told the informant it was important to have "heavy artillery."
City personnel records show Gonzalez was demoted from rescue lieutenant to firefighter/paramedic in April 2010 after he was disciplined for stopping to pick up lunch instead of immediately returning to his coverage zone in the city after taking a patient to University Hospital in Tamarac. His pay was cut 8.5 percent to $62,279. He was being paid $65,430 at the time of his resignation this week.
He was suspended for one shift in December 2007 after city officials said he sent a lengthy email with inappropriate comments about several employees.
Supervisors wrote a 2005 memo detailing problems with his "response time" to some calls.
In answer, Gonzalez wrote that he was delayed "due to the unfortunate fact I was on the toilet having a bowel movement, I will try to improve ... as long as I'm not indisposed in bathroom!!!?"
Before he was hired by the city in 2003, Gonzalez disclosed that he received an "adjudication withheld" for possession of cocaine in 1987 and had another battery case dismissed after paying $300 restitution around that time, city records show.
Margate Fire Battalion Chief Ty Vassil, a paramedic instructor who trained Gonzalez and was a job reference for him, said he knew Gonzelez as a "considerate, kind, courteous, cordial" and humble man.
"He's a very caring and conscientious paramedic, that's the way he came across — all the things opposite what he's suspected of," said Vassil.
One resident wrote in 2011 to say that he was "impressed with the response time, kindness and consideration" shown to his mother after she suffered a heart attack. Gonzalez acted in a "comforting" manner, the man said.