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The Broken Case of David Ortiz

Sports Illustrated logo Sports Illustrated 7/23/2019 Danny Gold
a close up of a mans face © Provided by TIME Inc.

Dr. Jose Abel Gonzalez was settling in to watch the Chicago Cubs take on the St. Louis Cardinals on Sunday Night Baseball when he got a call from his clinic. It was 9:33 p.m. on June 9, and a patient had just arrived with a gunshot wound. Gonzalez knew it was serious. His clinic was one of the most expensive in the Dominican Republic, the kind that catered to the rich and powerful. It wasn’t the kind of place gunshot victims in Santo Domingo typically got sent.

A second call followed. The voice on the line told him the name of the victim: David Ortiz. Gonzalez hurried to his car, his mind racing: How could this happen? Who would shoot David Ortiz?

When he pulled up to the clinic, Gonzalez saw the Rolls-Royce SUV that had ferried Ortiz from Santo Domingo’s Dial Bar and Lounge, where the slugger had been shot in the back minutes earlier. Inside the facility, Ortiz was lying on a gurney, being interviewed by the police. He was in pain and kept asking for the surgery to begin. The doctor and his team would operate for 4 1/2 hours, removing his gallbladder, a segment of his liver and large intestine, and repairing his small intestine.

The clinic turned chaotic during the operation. It filled with friends, family, media and well-wishers, all wondering why someone would shoot so beloved a figure. A video would later emerge of a woman getting into a screaming match in the lobby, leading to rumors of a love triangle. There were even concerns that the shooter might show up to finish the job. Gonzalez, though, knew not to ask out loud the questions that had been running through his mind. “I learned really fast that the less you know as a doctor of a patient’s situation, the better,” he said.

In the aftermath of the shooting, no one seemed to know much—and yet stories about what happened proliferated. Rumors flowed, with tales of women, money and assorted improprieties filling social media and then leaking into print. One infamous narcotrafficker would be rumored to be responsible and then suddenly another. Theories were easy to come by, answers less so.

The national police arrested new suspects every few days, but the more progress authorities claimed to make, the murkier the situation became. When they took the alleged gunman into custody three days after the shooting, prosecutors and police practically mocked him for saying he targeted Ortiz in a case of mistaken identity—only for authorities to turn around a week later and try to convince a skeptical nation that this was, in fact, exactly what happened.

I spent 10 days in late June traveling throughout the country, looking for answers. To put it bluntly, I did not crack the case. But I did find something fascinating: Nearly every person I spoke with—from high-ranking newspaper editors to corner drug dealers—expressed a deep skepticism that anyone would, or even could, definitively solve the riddle of why Ortiz was shot. Whatever story the government produced, who would believe it?

Though the Dominican Republic is a country of a wide variety of natural resources, a robust tourism industry, a proud history and a plethora of cultural contributions, two of its exports seem to grab the most headlines: a disproportionate number of extremely talented baseball players, and cocaine. In recent years—as the drug trade has led to government corruption—the country has, to no small extent, been shaped by demand from the United States for both.

Those forces now seemed to have intersected with devastating consequences. As I moved from barrio to barrio, I found that the story of Ortiz is much bigger than simply determining why he was shot. His saga reveals the most consequential fault lines in Dominican society today.

One of my first stops was Ortiz’s childhood neighborhood, Barrio Invi, in the town of Haina just outside Santo Domingo. “We were poor, and our neighborhood was teeming with violence and crime,” he wrote in his 2017 book, Papi: My Story. He told of stabbings, shootings and drugs, of his parents showing him a bag of cocaine at a young age and warning him about it. In a 2015 Players Tribune video, Ortiz detailed how his father would make him practice baseball in the backyard, because it was too dangerous out front. In his autobiography, Ortiz recounted seeing someone killed when he was a child. “I saw things that no one should see, especially a kid,” he wrote. In numerous interviews, Ortiz comes across as scarred, yet proud of where he came from and that he was able to make it out.

On the drive in, nicely paved roads bordered by factories lead to narrower potholed streets, where young men zip by on small 150cc motorcycles and vendors hawk fried pork at small stands. When I arrive at a town square a block away from where Ortiz grew up, the neighborhood looks anything but dangerous. It’s a festive scene, complete with loud Latin trap music booming from a speaker set up on top of a car, children romping in a nearby playground and a crowd seated on folding chairs downing Presidente beer.

The neighborhood’s central base is Colita Peluqueria, a one-seat barbershop that doubles as a bar. Inside Anna Vazquez sits at the counter, sipping from a bottle. “There’s no way to describe David Ortiz. And what happened to him, there’s no words to describe that either,” she says. At this moment, Ortiz is hospitalized in Boston, but his presence in the town is palpable. Vazquez says she lived next door to David when he was growing up, and that she cooked for him and helped sew his clothes. She was there when he signed his first contract. He was never in trouble and was known as a good kid who was friends with everyone.

In the barrio there are mixed opinions on what has become the government’s official story. A day earlier, Attorney General Jean Alain Rodriguez had declared in a press conference that the shooter’s true target was not Ortiz, but his friend David Sixto Fernandez, who happened to be with the slugger that night. The attorney general said that a drug trafficker named Victor Hugo Gomez Vasquez believed that, eight years ago, his cousin Sixto provided information to narcotics investigators about him. That caused Gomez, who maintains his innocence, to assemble a hit team—a ragtag crew of men with nicknames like The Bone, The Surgeon and Carlos Nike. Initially prosecutors said the job cost a mere $7,800, though the number would balloon to $30,000 within a week.

The cause of the mistaken identity, authorities said, was a grainy photo snapped on the night of the shooting by one of the men surveilling Sixto, which made it appear as though Ortiz’s much smaller friend was wearing white pants. When the gunman arrived at the club, he saw Ortiz—dressed in white pants—sitting at a table with Sixto, the reggaeton artist Secreto and Jhoel Lopez, a television host, who hours before the shooting posted a photo with Ortiz captioned, “You know we are from the street.”

As widely shared security footage shows, the shooter, allegedly confused, approached the table and shot the most recognizable man in the Dominican Republic in the back at point-blank range before fleeing. Police say the team that attacked Ortiz included two getaway cars and a motorcycle (an enraged crowd caught the motorcyclist and, in a widely seen video, beat him to a pulp).

a man sitting in a restaurant: David Ortiz and Sixto David Fernandez © Provided by TIME Inc. David Ortiz and Sixto David Fernandez

Inside the bar cum barbershop, Vazquez says she believes the police are telling the truth, because why would anyone want to hurt David? Ortiz’s lawyer had put out a statement declaring his client “innocent in what happened” and denying he had any illicit or unsavory connections—that is good enough for Vazquez. Jose Pinales, the barber and proprietor of the establishment, agrees. He shows off a photo of David in the shop from more than a decade ago. “He’s like an idol here. Not just for the neighborhood, but for the country, as an example to follow,” he says.

Sitting outside the shop in a plastic green lawn chair with a cigarette and beer in hand, Kendy Correa is more skeptical. He says David was a low profile guy who loved to go to parties. In the neighborhood nobody trusts the police, Correa says. He thinks Ortiz was the target, and it was someone who was jealous or hated him. “It felt like a part of the family got shot,” he says. “For the poor kids here, he did so much. So many people who needed help would go to his foundations.”

My fixer, a Dominican journalist, speculates that we’re witnessing an ongoing battle between people’s distrust of the authorities and their wanting to protect Ortiz’s reputation.

Later in the week Nathaniel Perez, a senior sportswriter with the newspaper Diario Libre, will explain the love affair to me. “David Ortiz wasn’t better than Sammy Sosa. He didn’t hit 600 home runs. His games weren’t as popular as Pedro Martinez’s,” Perez says. “He didn’t have a complete career like [Albert] Pujols. But no other Dominican player has been as popular here as David Ortiz.”

Perez tells me how Ortiz was known for being a man of the people, someone who could go to the roughest neighborhoods without a worry, someone who did so without a trace of arrogance. Other players might go visit the barrio they grew up in, but Ortiz would go to all the barrios. He was constantly raising money and, through his foundation, regularly provided life-saving surgeries for needy children. In 2006, he raised $200,000 to start the first pediatric cardiovascular unit in the Dominican Republic. “No other baseball player or athlete has done more for Dominican children,” says Perez.

“He has stolen the hearts of Dominicans, Perez adds. “Dominicans see him as someone who has never forgotten the place he comes from.”

In the end, that might have been what led to him lying on that operating room table.

“The reason that he was attacked in that place is that he has never forgotten about those places,” says Perez. “When he wants to socialize, he goes to the barrios.”

Ortiz has always seemed acutely aware of the thin line between a life of baseball riches and one of poverty. Leaving his old neighborhood, I head to the nearby barrio of Manresa, where my fixer tells me he’s well-connected and I meet someone who ended up on the other side: a drug dealer who appears to be in his early 30s but goes by El Viejo, or The Old Man. When I ask him whether he fears for his own safety in his line of work, he tells me he doesn’t because it’s him that does “bad things” to people. He’s slight, wearing a tank top and flip flops, with a nose ring and a Yankees hat.

Cars are triple parked and music is blasting. Children swim in the dirty beach water, and the sand is littered with plastic bags and bottles. It’s a decidedly rougher area than Haina. El Viejo tells me three major leaguers have come from nearby: Cleveland All-Star Carlos Santana, plus former bit players Eddy Garabito and Rafael Perez.

El Viejo, too, wanted to be a baseball player when he was younger. A buscon—a scout who trains young players in exchange for a slice of future earnings—came to the neighborhood and told all the kids to get into a circle and do some exercises. He chose a few from the group but told El Viejo that he was too small. He eventually turned to drug dealing. “We search for jobs, we look, we look, we look, but drugs? It’s always easy to find someone who has drugs to sell,” he says. “We don’t choose the world we’re living in.” He knows parents who don’t send their children to school because they can’t afford it. “The easiest way out is to sell drugs. That’s the way to get out,” he adds. “Baseball can save kids from having to live this life.”

El Viejo doesn’t know what to believe about the Ortiz shooting, but he definitely doesn’t trust the police. For many Dominicans, the notion that anyone in the country would have trouble recognizing David Ortiz is absurd. Sixto and Ortiz look nothing alike. A photo of the two together is plastered everywhere. Sixto is light-skinned and dwarfed by the darker-skinned Big Papi. Others point to the video of the shooting, noting how one of the members of the alleged seven-person hit team was captured in the background barely reacting after Ortiz gets shot, instead just casually grabbing his beer. If the wrong target was hit, wouldn’t he show some level of surprise?

Even a recent presidential candidate, Luis Abinader, tweets out that no one he spoke to believes the official account, and that an independent investigation needs to be commissioned.

“The lack of institutional trust is a real problem. The people don’t trust in the justice system,” Guillermo Peña, a project coordinator for Participation Ciudadana, a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice and human rights, would later explain to me. Peña says the country is dealing with huge issues of corruption, poor policing and impunity for the powerful. “There’s a vulnerability in the system for the biggest cases.”

That corruption and vulnerability is a consequence of the country’s rising status as a bridge for transnational cocaine smuggling. As authorities have cracked down on the corridor through Central America and Mexico, narcos moving drugs out of Venezuela and Colombia have increasingly used the Dominican Republic as a transit point to Europe and the United States, according to the Latin American crime-focused research and journalism foundation InSight Crime. A high-level Dominican police source told InSight Crime that about 15% of cocaine produced globally passes through the country.

Multiple high-level Dominican officials have been accused of ties to drug trafficking, including a former president who was alleged by a well-known narco-trafficker of refusing to pay him back a $4.5 million loan. A director of the antinarcotics police was sentenced in 2016 to 20 years in prison for stealing nearly 1,000 kilos of cocaine. And a high-level prosecutor told the newspaper El Diario in March 2015 that police and military are involved in 90% of organized crime cases. Last year, the Dominican ranked 129th worst of 180 countries in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index.

With that backdrop, fairly or not, initial rumors of Ortiz running afoul of a notorious capo, as Dominicans call narco-traffickers, were accepted as fact by many, whether over a money laundering dispute or a woman. Corrupt police officials and government officials, tied in with the capos, couldn’t be expected to really reveal the truth.

Peña shares a meme that shows an astronaut in space, and the caption says he’s a new suspect in the David Ortiz shooting. “Dominicans like to make jokes about these kinds of things,” he says. “The smiling is almost a defense mechanism.”

Another meme making the rounds at that time had a photo of Ortiz with the caption, “You’re not a real Dominican unless you’ve been arrested in the David Ortiz shooting.”

As rumors continue to spread about cover-ups and capos, I encountered an almost blasé acceptance that a definitive story may never emerge. When the authorities can’t be trusted, people are free to choose their own truth. As the deputy director of Diario Libre, Ines Aizpùn, tells me, “Everyone here talks a lot, and no one says, ‘I don’t know.’

Despite its frequent media portrayal as an unsafe country—especially in the wake of this summer’s spate of alcohol-related tourist deaths—the Dominican Republic had a murder rate in 2018 of around 10.4 killings per 100,000 people. That’s lower than that of Uruguay and perennial vacation favorite Costa Rica. The murder rate is also substantially lower than dozens of American cities, and it has dropped substantially over the last decade.

Though the economy is also improving—growing at one of the fastest rates in Latin America over the last 20 years—poverty and inequality remain major problems. The World Food Programme estimates that 40% of the country lives below the poverty line, with 10% suffering from extreme poverty. In many neighborhoods, especially those removed from the tourism and agricultural industries, the opportunities can be few.

Guajimia, the neighborhood on the outskirts of Santo Domingo where five of the ultimately 14 suspects arrested hailed from, is like that. I headed there, traveling down narrow streets choked with traffic and litter. Low-slung concrete houses with aluminum roofs and iron bars over the windows dot the roads.

Reynaldo Rodriguez Valenzuela, alias El Chino, was allegedly a go-between who helped coordinate the attack. His family says he runs a small mechanic shop and was always working steady jobs. Outside her house, his grandmother shows me photos of El Chino, one at a bartending school, another when he worked as a dance teacher. The family proclaims his innocence. “It’s a show, they’re capturing everybody so they can say this investigation is working,” his father, Fernando Rodriguez, tells me. “It doesn’t matter who they take.”

Vempati Chinna Satyam et al. posing for the camera: Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images © Provided by TIME Inc. Erika Santelices/AFP/Getty Images

“They’re trying to save David’s reputation,” a neighbor chimes in. The small crowd believes the shooting was over a woman, and the authorities are colluding to save Ortiz’s reputation to ensure his entry into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in 2022.

El Chino’s family say his only mistake was being friends with Joel Rodriguez de la Cruz, known as Calamardo—the name in Spanish-speaking countries of the character Squidward from Spongebob Squarepants. Calamardo has more of a reputation as a small-time hood and has been jailed on drug charges. In the Ortiz case, prosecutors accused him of helping assemble the hit team. I greet his father outside his home. He admits that some of the men arrested proposed a hit to Calamardo, but says that his son turned down the offer.

We’re soon joined by Calamardo’s sister, Carolina Rodriguez, who was arrested and held for three days as the police hunted for her brother. She says she overheard the police talking about how the shooting was over a feud with a capo over a woman. “They’re covering for someone big,” she claims.

The alleged shooter, Rolfi Ferreira-Cruz, captured on the infamous video, grew up in a little barrio outside of Mao, a city three hours north of Santo Domingo known for massive organic banana plantations. The neighborhood there is noticeably poorer than those in Santo Domingo and Haina. Along dirt roads, a young boy shepherds a herd of scrawny cattle. There are few shops and cars. A fetid canal runs along the streets. Many of the residents are Haitians who have fled their country. Some of the houses lack indoor plumbing, others are nothing more than wooden shacks. This is where Rolfi Ferreira-Cruz, now 25, spent the first 20 years of his life, before he went to the United States with his father.

“After he came back, he was a different person,” his cousin, Gabriel Reyes, 20, tells me. I meet him outside a bodega, and he takes us to a small crowd of men and older women lounging in the hot sun under a tree. They say they don’t know why he came back after spending three years in the U.S., but the arrest warrants issued for him in New Jersey offer one explanation. Ferreira-Cruz is wanted by police there for armed robberies committed in 2017. After the Ortiz shooting, officials in the same state would charge him with drug trafficking and possession of a firearm related to a Jan. 22, 2019, incident.

Members of the crowd say Ferreira-Cruz has been back about three months. Some of them deny it’s him in the video. “It’s a lie,” his cousin says. But his mother says she recognized him. “If he did something wrong, he’ll pay for it in front of God,” Lerdy Cruz says.

They were here when the police snatched up Ferreira-Cruz and other members of the group. Reyes remembers thinking that he’d never seen so many police in his entire life. “They came like they were going after El Chapo,” his mother says, and the crowd chuckles. But she’s not laughing. The police haven’t been back since then. She can’t afford to visit him. She’s worried he’s going to get killed, by the police or by other prisoners. “My God, I haven’t eaten, I haven’t slept, I can’t watch TV because news is always on about this,” she says.

“I gave him all he needed,” she adds. “Everybody works here. He liked good clothes and shoes, but had money from work.” He didn’t even drink alcohol, she says. “I don’t know what he was doing in the U.S. He came back and I don’t know what happened.”

Next, I meet Joey Reyes, Ferreira-Cruz’s uncle who is fresh out of jail. He says he was grabbed when the raid happened, held, beaten and then released. The police punched him in the face and stomach, and smashed his ears, he claims, saying he thought he was going to be killed. He shows me the scars on his wrists left from the handcuffs. Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Joey used to work with Ferreira-Cruz in the banana fields. “He was fine with everyone, but when he got to the United States, he got lost,” he says the uncle. That’s where he met Luis Alfredo Rivas Clase, otherwise known as El Cirujano, The Surgeon.

Ferreira-Cruz wouldn’t have been the first young man to fall under El Cirujano’s influence. The Surgeon, 31, was wanted for orchestrating a 2018 shooting in Reading, Pa. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that police considered him a crime boss.

El Cirujano showed up back in the barrio two months ago, according to the uncle. He set up shop across the street from him, he claimed, in a one-story pension house with half a dozen rooms. It served as the gang’s hideout. The uncle says Calamardo was arrested there. El Cirujano escaped the police dragnet and has yet to be caught.

Reyes believes that, whatever his nephew did or didn’t do, the police will not go after the right people. “There are so many high-up guys they don’t investigate,” the uncle says.

The “high-up guys” not being investigated is a common refrain. Generally, it’s understood to be referring to one man: Cesar Emilio Peralta, better known as Cesar El Abusador, or Cesar the Abuser. Dominican media refers to him as one of the top narcotraffickers in the country, and he has somehow remained out of prison, despite multiple arrests for drug trafficking and violence. One set of rumors allege that he targeted Ortiz over a woman, or a money laundering dispute. Those theories became so rampant that they got picked up in local newspapers as well as some tabloids abroad, including the New York Daily News and Post and the UK’s Daily Mail.

Through intermediaries, I’m told Cesar is unwilling to talk. On my second to last night in the Dominican Republic, I send a message to an Instagram account believed to be his, telling him I want to hear his side of the story. He greets me politely, but only offers a brusque answer: “I do not have any problems, everything has already been cleared up.”

As of mid-July, new developments in the case have slowed down. The 14 suspects alleged to be part of the conspiracy have been arrested, while two are still fugitives, including El Cirujano. A trial date has not been set, and the suspects will be detained for at least a year. Ortiz had a third surgery in Boston. His representatives, as well as those from the Dominican Attorney General’s office, did not reply to request for comment.

The story no longer occupies the front page of the papers every day. To many of the Dominicans I spoke with, it seemed like it almost didn’t matter whether or not Ortiz was the intended target, or who he hung out with at nightclubs. What mattered was the pride he inspired in them, the love he had for his country and the work he did with children.

I visited Parque del Este in Santo Domingo, a sprawling complex that hosted the 2003 Pan American Games. On any day with decent weather, you can find a handful of baseball teams practicing there.

It’s a few weeks short of the official start of the signing period, a date so significant it is known simply as July 2, but the kids playing here in mismatched uniforms most likely won’t be gobbled up by any of the MLB-affiliated academies. “They just love playing so much,” says Joel Gomez, who works with the Ministry of Sports and on this day is training 10 kids ranging in age from 12 to 20. Pointing to a skinny 12-year-old, he says, “He cries sometimes when he can’t play. He’d rather not eat than not play, it’s everything for them.”

Gomez says that a lot of his players are at a vulnerable age, and come from tough neighborhoods. Leonardo Daniel Medina, the 12-year-old, is all skin and bones, with fierce eyes and clad in a faded red hat. He plays shortstop and first base and says that instead of toys, his mother buys him baseball equipment.

He lives in the neighborhood of Los Mameyes, where he’s already witnessed a stabbing and has to do his best to avoid the local street gangs. Like the other players, he’s heartbroken by the Ortiz shooting. He idolizes him and wants to be just like him.

“Because he’s from the bottom,” he says. “His mother couldn’t even buy him anything, and look where he is now.”

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