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Baez v. State

Florida Court of Appeals, Second District

January 5, 2018

ALEX CARLOS BAEZ, Appellant,
v.
STATE OF FLORIDA, Appellee.

         NOT FINAL UNTIL TIME EXPIRES TO FILE REHEARING MOTION AND, IF FILED, DETERMINED

         Appeal from the Circuit Court for Polk County; Donald G. Jacobsen, Judge.

          John M. Weinberg of John M. Weinberg, P.A., Fort Lauderdale, for Appellant.

          Pamela Jo Bondi, Attorney General, Tallahassee, and Darla Dooley, Assistant Attorney General, Tampa, for Appellee.

          KHOUZAM, JUDGE.

         Alex C. Baez appeals his conviction and sentence for first-degree murder. Because the court erred in excluding portions of jailhouse informant Rico Cielo's testimony and we cannot say that the error was harmless, we reverse and remand for a new trial.

         Baez was found guilty of the murder of Jose Santos, also known as "Sugarbaby." Santos disappeared on the night of November 6, 2012. At the time, he had been staying with his girlfriend, Barbara Pandolfo, and her family-which included her brother, Charles Pandolfo. Santos left the residence after getting into an argument with Barbara, and he never returned. Several days later, on November 11, Santos' body was discovered buried in a nearby orange grove. He had been shot in the back of the head. The murder weapon was never found. The debris in the grove was checked for fingerprints, but none were found.

         The State's theory of the case was that Baez had committed the murder with Charles Pandolfo's help. The defense's theory, on the other hand, was that Charles had committed the murder alone and met up with Baez afterwards to go on a drive and smoke marijuana. Much evidence was presented that could have been interpreted to support either of these theories. A surveillance video of the entrance of the neighborhood from the night of the crime was introduced. The video showed someone-identified by Santos' cousins as Charles Pandolfo-wearing a hoodie, holding a bag, and walking around the neighborhood shortly after 2:00 a.m. on November 7. The video then showed what appeared to be Charles' car make a U-turn in front of the gate and after that what appeared to be Baez's car driving toward the Pandolfo residence. Santos' cousins were particularly concerned by the surveillance video because members of the Pandolfo family repeatedly told them that they had all been in bed by 1:00 a.m. that night.

         Santos' cousins testified that they searched the orange grove with Barbara and Charles Pandolfo, looking for the victim. They indicated that Charles' behavior was suspicious because he did not appear to be seriously looking and he shooed them away from a specific area. According to Santos' cousins, the Pandolfos did not approve of the relationship between Santos and Barbara. The cousins described the relationship as toxic and violent.

         A neighbor of the Pandolfos testified that he was outside smoking a cigarette between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. on November 7 when he saw Santos and another man walking down the street. They walked between two houses toward the orange grove. The neighbor-who did not know Charles Pandolfo but was familiar with Baez from around the neighborhood-did not recognize the man walking with Santos but believed the man was wearing a hoodie. At about 10:30 a.m. the next morning, the neighbor walked through the orange grove on his way to work. He noticed a big patch of fresh dirt marked like a grave with a wooden cross. He thought a dog may have been buried there. The patch of dirt had not been there the day before.

         Another neighbor testified that she saw Charles Pandolfo physically attack Santos in September 2012, approximately two months before the murder. Santos had walked to the neighbor's house from the Pandolfo residence. The Pandolfos suddenly pulled up in a car. Charles ran at Santos, attacking him and stabbing him with a screwdriver. Barbara held Santos to the ground, and Charles was on top of him. When the neighbor tried to break up the fight, Charles and Barbara's mother pulled her back by the hair.

         Baez's sister testified that on the night of the murder she was hanging out with Baez at his apartment. Between 12:00 a.m. and 1:00 a.m., Charles-who was a friend of hers-began texting her that he was at a breaking point, that he felt like he was going crazy, and that he was involved in a situation he could not control. She later became aware that Baez was on the phone with Charles. Baez appeared a little bothered, but it was nothing out of the ordinary. She believed his change in demeanor may have been because he and Charles had previously had a falling out. After they hung up, she texted Charles, telling him not to do anything stupid. She was concerned because she knew that Charles and Santos had at one point gotten into a physical fight; however, she never suspected that Charles would commit murder. At around 2:00 a.m., Baez drove his sister home.

         Baez's sister also testified that her brother sold marijuana with Wilfredo Diaz and Mark Rodriguez. Baez would often take Charles Pandolfo on "J-rides"-a term for driving around and smoking marijuana. Similarly, Mark Rodriguez testified that he, Baez, and Diaz had formed a business partnership to sell marijuana. They had a meeting after Santos went missing and resolved to stay away from the Pandolfos' neighborhood because of the increased police presence. None of the partners made any kind of admission that they were involved in Santos' disappearance-they decided to stay away from the area only because they were involved in the sale of illegal drugs.

         After Baez was arrested, he called Rodriguez from jail and asked him to "clean up." According to Rodriguez, this was a request for him to take care of the group's marijuana plants and business dealings. Immediately after Baez made this request, Rodriguez and Diaz went to their marijuana patch and "cleaned up." Baez contacted ...


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