Like any Santo Domingo hotspot in the gritty eastern section of the Dominican Republic capital, the Dial Bar & Lounge was packed last Sunday night, its patrons engaged in lively banter, sipping cocktails and looking at their cell phones. One of the most famous former Major League Baseball stars and a three-time World Series champ, David Ortiz, was among them, seated front and center alongside a friend.
Then a thin, baseball cap-wearing male hopped off the back of a motor scooter, walked up to the 43-year-old Ortiz, known as Big Papi by legions of fans, and fired a single bullet into Ortiz’s back, sending the ex-slugger to the floor. Initial reports described the incident as a robbery, which video quickly disputed. Once the shock of the brazen attack gave way, a troubling question took its place: Why?
Answers may lie in the cracks that are developing in Ortiz’s carefully crafted persona.
On one hand, there is the Boston baseball icon who has hosted his own charitable golf event in the D.R. each year, drawing sports world VIPs and raising millions for Dominican and New England disadvantaged children with pediatric heart care needs.
On the other hand, there are shady links to the slugger going as far back as his early Red Sox days. Behind his megawatt smile and baseball fame across two countries lie complicated issues and confounding lifestyle choices that include ties to an accused gambler, an alleged affair and an unreported car chase and subsequent coverup of the crash. Interviews with Dominican and American sources familiar with the case suggest the shooting was not simply a matter of Ortiz being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his life may have been in danger even if he’d been in the U.S.
Six days after Ortiz was shot, he remains in a Boston hospital, while Dominican authorities have implicated no fewer than 12 people in connection with the attack, including the alleged gunman, 25-year-old Rolfi Ferreira-Cruz, and two jailed suspects who are accused of somehow masterminding the hit from the prison cells where they are currently serving time. A Dominican source was incredulous that such a sophisticated operation could be orchestrated from prison, in a country where the poverty level is crippling.
“They coordinated this from jail?” says the Dominican source, who has knowledge of the Ortiz case. The source asked not to be identified for fear of reprisal against himself or others. “These guys haven’t seen $5,000 in their lives. There might be three levels of what’s going on here: No.1, funding and planning; No. 2, execution (of the plan); and No. 3, guys being blamed. They probably have one cell phone between them. One is 24 years old. He’s been in prison for five years.”
The Dominican source also is one of three people who described an alleged incident involving Ortiz in the D.R. that took place months before the shooting. The sources claim Ortiz’s white Lexus was chased and cut off by a black Mercedes SUV before crashing in front of a firehouse. Firefighters came to his assistance, according to the sources, but an official report is not believed to have been made. The incident did not appear in the media.
While current reports say there could be additional arrests in the shooting case, the Daily News has learned that U.S. law enforcement agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration, are actively involved in the probe, and that a powerfully connected drug kingpin believed to be nicknamed “The Abuser” may be one person of interest to authorities.
“The DEA can’t comment on an ongoing investigation,” said a DEA spokeswoman.
Two law enforcement sources, however, confirmed that the DEA is investigating the Ortiz shooting, and it is possible the U.S. State Department and other agencies are assisting, too. Multiple messages left with the State Department and the Dominican National Police were not returned.
At least two of the suspects have criminal ties in the U.S. The Associated Press reported that Ferreira-Cruz, the alleged gunman, was indicted in a 2017 Clifton, N.J., armed robbery case but never apprehended. The AP cited a news release from the Passaic County prosecutor’s office. Another suspect, Luis Rivas-Clase, is being sought by authorities and may be the same person wanted in a 2018 Reading, Pa., shooting, according to the AP. Sources told the Daily News that the Northeast United States is the prime market for drugs coming from the Dominican Republic. “Everybody wants to sell to the U.S.,” said one source. “That hit could have easily happened in the U.S.”
Theories on the motive for the Ortiz shooting have varied wildly in the hours and days after the shot was fired. The main theory, reported by the Daily Mail on Monday, is that police in the D.R. believe Ortiz was shot by two cops “hired by a Dominican Republic drug lord who thought the baseball player was having an affair with his wife.” An Ortiz representative, Leo Lopez, denied that the shooting had anything to do with a woman, but said it was the act of “hired killers.” Ortiz is married and has three children. His wife, Tiffany, provided statements on Ortiz’s medical condition last week.
Videos taken moments after the shooting show clubgoers violently attacking Eddy Feliz Garcia, the driver of the scooter. Another video, taken at Dr. Abel Gonzalez Medical Center, the Dominican hospital where Ortiz was taken for surgery, shows a brawl involving a woman, not his wife, who was purportedly involved with Ortiz.
And on Friday, the gunman, Ferreira-Cruz, shouted to reporters from a holding cell that he had mistaken Ortiz for another intended target and mistakenly shot the slugger. “It wasn’t David,” Ferreira-Cruz said. “I got confused by his clothing.”
A prosecution spokesman, Erick Montilla, disputed that account, saying that he doubted any Dominican would not recognize David Ortiz and that Ferreira-Cruz was making up a story to avoid being attacked in jail. “He can say whatever he wants in an interview,” Montilla said. “What matters is the investigation and what he said in the interrogation.”
In addition to the federal glare and the ongoing probe in the D.R., Eddie Dominguez, a former Resident Security Agent for the Red Sox when Ortiz was on the team, revealed some troubling elements of Ortiz’s off-the-field life in the book “Baseball Cop,” published last year.
Dominguez wrote how in 2005, while he was an RSA and still an active Boston Police Department detective and a member of an FBI task force, allegations arose about a member of Ortiz’s entourage betting on baseball games, prompting Dominguez to open a BPD/FBI investigation. Felix Leopoldo Marquez Galice, nicknamed “Monga,” had assumed a false identity in the U.S., and was identified by one of Dominguez’s informants as having frequented a barbershop in Boston to place wagers on baseball games, including a July 2005 game between Ortiz’s Red Sox and the Chicago White Sox in the Windy City. According to the book, Monga placed two $1,000 bets that day — one on the White Sox to win, and another on the over-under — and won both bets.
Dominguez, who became a founding member of baseball’s Department of Investigations in 2008, wrote that he later met with Ortiz, former Boston manager Terry Francona and former MLB security chief Kevin Hallinan at Fenway in 2006 to discuss Monga and the gambling evidence. Ortiz, according to Dominguez, denied knowing anything about the allegations. But no sooner had the Fenway meeting adjourned than Dominguez wrote that he got a call from his informant telling him that the barber running the gambling parlor Monga had frequented had just shut down the operation.
Dominguez wrote that he turned over his information on the Monga investigation to an FBI task force, and that in 2007, multiple law enforcement agencies carried out the wide-ranging case known as “Operation Barbershop.” Monga was later arrested by immigration authorities at Ortiz’s home; he was eventually charged with nine counts of making false claims of U.S. citizenship and deported. Ortiz, who wasn’t disciplined by baseball in relation to the Monga case, fired back at “Baseball Cop” after its release, taking to social media to defend his character:
“I wasn’t gonna comment on this episode but someone outta nowhere once again try to diminish my image just to sell a couple books...jus (sic) for some $$ in his pocket. MLB do a hell of a job letting us know as a player the importance of NOT betting on baseball...especially after pete rose,” Ortiz wrote on his official Instagram account on August 30, 2018. “I have been a player that has been extremely blessed… not only with the love of the fans, but also with lots of $$$. And im SMART ENOUGH to not get caught in some BS like that…trust me!!!”
Despite his celebrity, sources say Ortiz seems to have invited trouble in his home country. One Dominican source called the neighborhood around Dial Bar & Lounge “not a safe area” and described the bars in that part of the city as “well-known for being full of people with unjustified money, new rich guys with attitude and unjust wealth, driving Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out how (they have the money). David has a terrace (in his home) with a better view than the one he was at. It’s unconscionable what happened.”
“Everything is fishy in the D.R.,” adds the Cuban-born Dominguez, who spent six years investigating corruption in baseball as a DOI member and lived on the island off and on during that period. “What you see is not what you get. Everything is Three-card Monte.”
Whether the Ortiz investigation in the D.R. eventually reaches a powerful drug lord is up for debate, certainly among skeptics. According to two sources, one of them a law enforcement official, it is unlikely that a person of a certain stature would be prosecuted.
“No way that guy would be touched,” said the official. “He knows people everywhere. The only way would be if American agents — the FBI or DEA — get involved.”
(Editor’s note: Teri Thompson and Christian Red are co-authors with former Boston detective and MLB investigator Eddie Dominguez of “Baseball Cop: The Dark Side of America’s National Pastime.)