MIAMI (Reuters) - After a 14-month manhunt in four countries, a Cuban man accused of a $2.8 million Miami gold heist is in custody in Belize and could be headed back to the United States to face charges, authorities and a private investigator said on Thursday.
Raonel Valdez Valhuerdis was found last week hiding in bushes near the Guatemalan border outside the small Belize town of Benque Viejo, according to David Bolton, a private investigator contracted to find Valdez by the owner of the gold, Bolivian-based export company Quri Wasi.
“Immigration (authorities) there apprehended him because of his passport, but he was acting suspicious, so they Googled his name,” said Bolton.
Upon finding Valdez’s wanted poster online, the Belizean authorities contacted Bolton, who put them in touch with the U.S. Marshals Service.
“He has been arrested. I can confirm that we are working there (Belize),” said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Marshals Service. Valdez could face charges of armed robbery and fleeing prosecution.
On the morning of October 12, 2012, authorities say Valdez robbed a courier at gunpoint in the wealthy Miami suburb of Coral Gables, stealing two suitcases carrying $2.8 million worth of gold nuggets bound for a nearby refinery.
During the time of the robbery, Valdez was wearing a court-mandated ankle-monitoring device. Valdez was later apprehended and charged, but Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Leon Firtel allowed him to be released with another ankle monitor after posting a $75,000 bond.
Days later, Valdez stole a speedboat in the Florida Keys after jettisoning the latest ankle monitor, Bolton said. At the time, Valdez is alleged to have been a member of a ring of Cuban criminals who operated marijuana grow-houses and stole speedboats to transport immigrants from the island nation to Florida, he added.
Valdez came to Miami from Cuba in 2005. Law enforcement records show he was convicted in 2007 of marijuana possession and released on parole. In 2008, he was arrested on separate occasions for possessing 85 grams of methamphetamine hidden in his car and assaulting security guards at a Home Depot while trying to steal an $18 pair of garden shears.
While on bond in 2008, Valdez fled to Mexico, Bolton said.
Bolton also provided Reuters an image of a passport purportedly held by Valdes at the time of his arrest in Belize. The passport raised suspicions with Belize law enforcement because there was no entry stamp to the Central American country, he said.
To date, the gold has not been recovered. “We still don’t understand how a person with such a record and after robbing more than $2 million benefited with such a low bond,” said Guy Vargas, the president of Quri Wasi, the export company, in an email.
However, prosecutors will not have the benefit of testimony from the only witness to the caper. George Villegas, the gold courier, died of a heart attack in July 2012.
Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker