Saturday, April 14, 2007

Man found guilty in rape-murder


Victor Caraballo's best hope is to live to be an old man in prison, because he will definitely die there.

Caraballo, 39, was convicted Friday of kidnapping a teenage couple, robbing both of them, trying to kill the boy and raping and killing the girl.

Each of the charges carries a minimum life prison sentence, and the first-degree murder conviction means he will never be eligible for parole. It will be up to the jury and the judge to decide whether he should be put to death.

Jurors are set to return to court on Monday to consider whether Caraballo should receive the death penalty for the brutal crimes against Ana Maria Angel and Nelson Portobanco. Circuit Judge William Thomas ultimately will issue the sentence, but the jurors' recommendation carries great weight.

Caraballo leaned close to a translator to hear the guilty verdicts, showing no emotion as each of the seven was read. In the audience, Angel's and Portobanco's mothers also listened to the verdicts through translators. They were equally composed.

Angel and Portobanco, both seniors at South Miami High, were taking a romantic walk on the beach on April 28, 2002, when they were forced into a pickup truck by five men. Caraballo and the four other men took their wallets and her purse, got money from her bank account and then drove the couple north on Interstate 95, police say.

Angel was gang-raped during the trip while Portobanco crouched on the floor of the extended-cab pickup, fearing for his life.

In Broward County, the men pushed Portobanco out of the car, took him behind some bushes and stabbed him repeatedly. When he lay on the ground, pretending to be dead, they kicked him and stomped on his head before finally driving off.

Badly injured, he was able to make it up to the highway and flag down a passing car.

Authorities searched frantically for Angel, only to find her body by the side of a Palm Beach County highway. She had been shot in the back of the head as she knelt on the ground, her hands clasped as if in prayer.

Caraballo was arrested the next day in Orlando where he and the other four accused men lived. Caraballo admitted to detectives that he was in the pickup truck. But he claimed his brother, Hector Carabello, and the other three men were the true criminals. He said he had no idea the other men were planning to kidnap the couple and insisted that he didn't participate.

He claimed he never raped Angel because he feared doing so after his brother had already assaulted her. His brother has AIDS.

And he said he didn't stab Portobanco or shoot Angel.

He had little defense to the robbery charge, however. He admitted in a letter to Assistant State Attorney Abe Laeser that he had taken Angel's ATM card to get money, and investigators found her purse and Portobanco's wallet in his apartment when he was arrested.

Laeser argued that Florida's felony murder statute held Caraballo responsible for the murder and the attempted murder because he was an active participant in the robbery.

Caraballo's attorneys, Gary Rosenberg and Joel Denaro, declined comment because next week they have to return to court to argue the penalty phase.

Laeser and Angel's mother also declined comment until the case is concluded.

Also charged in the crimes: Cesar Antonio Mena, Jesus Torres Roman, Caraballo's brother Hector M. Caraballo, and Joel G. Lebron, who police say was the ringleader. All have pleaded not guilty.

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