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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Who Murdered Florentino Martinez?

Date: August 14, 1928
Time: Shortly after 9 p.m.
Place: Outside El Dorado Café, Eighth Avenue and 14th Street in Ybor City
Surely someone had to have seen something.
Two men shouted violently at one another in a popular Ybor City café bustling with business. One of the men stormed from the room. The other soon followed.
A gunshot echoed throughout the establishment.
Moments later, a man lay on the sidewalk in front of the café bleeding to death from a gunshot to the abdomen.
Dozens of the café’s patrons filed from the establishment, surrounding and gawking at the dying man, yet they swore that they had not seen a thing. Some even swore that they had not heard a gunshot and that the wounded man had not stepped foot inside the café that night!
It all sounded impossible. Surely, someone knew what happened.
Perhaps the old drunk man who was being held up by the bar saw something? Perhaps between sips he noticed the soon-to-be-victim enter the café and sidle up to one of its illegal gambling table games.
Perhaps the young male cigar roller knew what happened? Perhaps after he slid his wedding ring from his tobacco stained finger and smiled at the pretty lady across the room, he witnessed the argument that took place between the soon-to-be-victim and another man.
Perhaps the police officer who was in the café moments before the gunshot was heard saw something? Perhaps after he helped the booze smugglers carry that night’s supply into the café and collected his payoff, he got a good look at the face of the man whom the soon-to-be-victim pursued out of the room.
Or perhaps one of the soon-to-be-victims numerous acquaintances were privy to that night’s horrific event. Maybe the brunette wearing the risqué above-the-knee-skirt with whom his wife regularly had coffee saw what happened. Maybe the devil crab vendor with yellow teeth and sun cracked eyes who had been selling him lunch for half a decade had some information. Maybe the street car conductor puffing on the cigar who’d chauffeured him around town since he was a boy could fill someone in on that evening’s events. Maybe one of them saw whose finger pressed on the trigger of the gun.
Despite all the potential witnesses, no one would step up and say what happened. Everyone swore that they had not seen a thing. And there was nothing shocking about the lack of witnesses. This was how Ybor City operated back then.
America was in the midst of Prohibition. A café would serve coffee and food by day, and alcohol, games of chance, women, and drugs by night. Many police were on the take and so allowed the illegal establishments to operate as long as they received their weekly payments. But, no amount of money could justify an officer ignoring a murder. It would be bad PR if word got out that an officer did not investigate a shooting and would tip off honorable officials to whom the officer truly pledges his allegiance.
If someone was shot inside a “café,” the police would have had to enter it and investigate–and when they saw the booze, illegal gambling, and more, they would have had to shut the place down. If the patrons wanted their favorite establishments to remain open, it was in their best interests to keep their mouths shut. The Ybor City café where the man was shot on August 14, 1928 was not just any speakeasy; it was the most popular in town–El Dorado, which was known for the best liquor, the best music, the best table games, the best dope, and the best women. No one wanted to be blamed for El Dorado being shut down.
More importantly, however, that this was also the time period in Ybor City when numerous gang factions violently fought over control of the city’s underworld. It was almost as common to hear a gunshot at night as it was to hear dominoes clickety-clacking in the cafés in the morning. No matter how many people were wounded or murdered, few people were ever convicted of a crime. To testify against a shooter meant testifying against a member of a blood-thirsty gang. Even if someone saw their best friend murdered, it was in their best interest to keep their mouth shut unless they wanted to join their friend in the after-life soon after.
When someone was shot, there was a certain protocol that was followed. First, the body was immediately dragged out of the establishment and left in the street. Everyone inside the establishment was then told in no uncertain terms that they had not seen or heard a thing. They were even instructed to deny seeing the victim at the establishment at all on the night of the shooting. Police were not called for one hour, giving the establishment time to clear all the illegal activities from the establishment in case the police had to enter. With no evidence or witnesses, the crime could not be solved. The establishment remained open and no innocent bystanders had to be dealt with down the line for ratting to the police. Ybor City was a well-oiled machine when it came to covering up gang crimes.
However, on August 14, 1928, a monkey wrench was thrown into the machine.
The victim, the devilishly handsome and always well-dressed 35-year-old Florentino Martinez, somehow made his way to his feet and, while holding his hand over his wound to stop the bleeding, was able to muster the strength to stumble half a block to a medical facility, El Bien Publico Clinic.
Doctors could not save Martinez’ life. The wound was too severe for medicine in 1928.
BUT, he did live long enough to give a statement to a law enforcement officer who was not owned by one of the Ybor City gangs. According to Martinez, he was shot by a former deputy of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office–Roy Velasco.
It made sense. One of the best known rivalries in all of Ybor City was the one between Velasco and Martinez and it apparently finally came to a bloody end.
The rift between the two men began over one year before the murder, when Velasco was straddling both sides of the law enforcement fence. By day he was a deputy. By night he was working for the very gangsters he was hired to arrest, specifically Salvatore “Red” Italiano, one of the most notorious Tampa gangsters of that era.
Velasco worked as a “peephole man” for Italiano’s numerous gambling houses. Whenever there was a knock on the door, it was Velasco’s job to make sure it was not an uninvited guest, AKA law enforcement officer not on the take. If it was, he had to stall them long enough to allow all evidence to be hidden or cleared from the building. Some gambling establishments had a man on the outside as well. When law enforcement approached, the outside man, known as a “keyhole man” would stick a wooden match inside the keyhole. When the peephole man saw the match poke through the keyhole, he then led the charge to clear all evidence from the house.
Because Velasco worked in law enforcement, he had further value to Italiano. He could shut down any illegal establishment that was not paying protection money to Italiano. One such establishment was the Yellow Shack Café, a popular café on the corner of Sixth Avenue and 10th Street that doubled as a casino when the sun went down. The café’s proprietor was Florentino Martinez.
Martinez was a well-beloved Ybor City resident known for his green eyes, well-cropped black hair, collection of fedoras and sharp suits, love for games of chance and for surviving a 1912 attempt on his life at the hands of Robert Anderson, an African-American serial killer who was terrorizing Ybor City that year. He was most beloved, though, for being a true Ybor City rags-to-riches story.
Martinez’ mother was from Havana, Cuba. His father was born in the Canary Islands and later made his way to Cuba where he met and married his wife. They then immigrated to Ybor City to work in the cigar factories.
Martinez was born in 1893. Five years later his father died at the Port of Tampa of food poisoning from tainted meat while waiting to embark to Cuba to fight for Cuba’s freedom in the Spanish-American War. Over half his unit met the same fate.
Being raised by a single parent meant Martinez became the man of the house and he entered the workforce while still a boy. His careers included cigar maker, carpenter, mechanic, chauffeur and hat salesman. He was a hustler, always working multiple jobs in order to support his mother and later both his mother and his wife and child. He was able to save a great deal of money as well and used it to open the Yellow Shack Café at some point in the 1920s. It was an instant success. His looks and outgoing personality were enough of a reason for people to flock to the café. When he added the nightlife component of alcohol and gambling, it turned him from an Ybor City everyman to a member of Ybor City’s elite; he was raking in the cash. It also landed him smack dab in the middle of the budding Ybor City gang wars. Which crime boss backed him is unknown, but it was obviously not Red Italiano, as proven by the fact that Velasco made the Yellow Shack one of his primary targets for raids.
The raids were not successful in terms of law enforcement; Martinez was never charged with a heavy enough crime to warrant significant jail time. However, in terms of Tampa’s underworld, the raids did their job. Patrons tired of the constant law enforcement harassment and decided to stay away from the café. The Yellow Shack went out of business and, overnight, Martinez went from wealthy to down on his luck. He returned to the mechanics trade and he returned to life as an everyman, as another face in the crowd.
Angry, Martinez swore revenge on Velasco. Unfortunately, revenge could have paid a BIG price. Velasco, after all, was a law enforcement official. As remains the case today, touching an officer of the law was followed by a long jail sentence.
Then, a few months after the Yellow Shack was shut down, Velasco was let go by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office. It is undocumented why he was fired, but it would not be a stretch to guess that his ties to the underworld were the cause. Velasco was no longer untouchable. He was open territory.
Martinez did not hide his glee. Whenever he saw Velasco about town, he would hurl insults at him, rubbing it in that he too was out of steady work. “You’re in the same fix as I now,” he was frequently heard yelling at Velasco.
Their animosity came to blows in the Imperial Café in Ybor City with Velasco coming out of the altercation badly beaten. A short time later, Velasco got his revenge by paying a former police officer to beat Martinez with a blackjack.
Finally, it all came to a head on August 14, 1928.
Martinez had been in an ornery mood all day, challenging anyone in Ybor City who thought they could take him to a fight. Slightly after sundown, a patron at a café into which Martinez staggered took him up on the offer. Angry words were shouted. Chests were poked. And, before any fists were thrown, Martinez’ opponent realized he was overmatched. Hoping to scare Martinez, he fired a gun. It worked. Martinez backed away. Law enforcement must have been in the vicinity because both men were arrested almost immediately after the gunshot rung throughout Ybor City. Martinez was charged with disturbing the peace. His opponent was charged with disturbing the peace and discharging a firearm. They were then both released back into the wild Ybor City night.
Martinez arrived at El Dorado Café slightly before 9 p.m. with his friends Armado Cordoso, Jose Gomez, and Gomez’ two daughters. Martinez sat at a table game but before he could make a bet Velasco entered the café. Angry words were immediately exchanged. Velasco decided to leave the gambling room and walked through a door leading to the front room. A few minutes later Martinez wanted to leave. Fearing that Velasco was still in the front room and another altercation would begin, a friend escorted Martinez from the room, through the same door Martinez had exited minutes earlier.
BOOM! A lone gunshot was fired.
Moments later, a wounded Martinez was dragged from the building and laid on the sidewalk. As the crowd formed around him, Velasco slipped out the backdoor of the café and nonchalantly walked to Pote’s Café around the corner. Martinez made his way to the clinic. An hour later the police were called and they began interviewing potential witnesses. Everyone followed protocol and said they had not seen a thing. Everyone … but one man. Someone broke protocol and said they witnessed the entire event. Armado Cordoso actually stood up for his friend and told investigators that Velasco shot Martinez in cold blood.
Velasco was arrested at his home at 4 a.m. He never denied shooting Martinez, but claimed he did so in self-defense. He showed investigators a rip in the chest area of the shirt he’d worn to the café and said it was a result of Martinez trying to stab him in the heart.
Two hours later, Martinez died on the operating table.
On August 16, 1928, Martinez was buried in Tampa’s Rose Hill Cemetery.
Following the burial, skeletons of the murder began to creep out of the closet. Some of the patrons who were at the café on the night of the murder began anonymously whispering that Martinez did not have a weapon on him that night. Others questioned how Velasco’s shirt did not have any blood on it if Martinez attacked him with a knife. He did not even have a scratch on his chest. Velasco was not wearing a baggy shirt that night. It did not seem possible to cut the shirt and not hit skin.
Then, on August 17, 1928, investigators announced that after they completed an autopsy of Martinez’ body they believed that a second man held Martinez while he was shot in the abdomen. Who was the other man? Was it the same man who led Martinez from the gambling room? Perhaps Cordoso would expose this second man in court, people wondered.
A preliminary hearing was held on August 18 and a number of witnesses testified that Velasco was at El Dorado and left after the gunshot was heard but no one testified that they saw Velasco fire the gun or that the gun was fired at the café. The court could force people to appear in court as witnesses but they could not force them to admit that they saw anything. It didn’t matter, though. As long as Cordoso told the court what he told investigators, Velasco would be convicted. Unfortunately, Cordoso never showed for court. The hearing had to be suspended until the state attorney’s lead witness was found.
On August 21, Velasco was released on a $10,000 bond.
On August 24, Cordoso was found in Jacksonville. He was arrested and charged with contempt for ignoring a summons to appear in court. Law enforcement officials brought him back to Tampa and placed him in county jail. When asked why he skipped town, he told investigators that on the morning of the preliminary hearing he was picked up by four men who threatened him, demanding that he leave Tampa and not to testify.
The preliminary hearing was rescheduled for September 28, 1928. Velasco’s attorney was C. Jay Hardee and he was “coached” by George “Saturday” Zarate, a well known gambling head honcho in Tampa, whose rap sheet would later include ballot box stuffing and drug trafficking. He was a bit of a chameleon in Tampa’s underworld, affiliated with both the Italian mafia led by the Italiano and Trafficante families as well the Anglo faction led by the “Dean of the Underworld,” Charlie Wall, otherwise known as “The White Shadow.” Zarate was also the owner of Pote’s Café.
Zarate interrupted the proceedings on one occasion to correct Cordoso’s interpreter and was warned by the judge to “tell Mr. Hardee about it and let him make the objection.”
Zarate was obviously not present to coach Velasco. He was there to further intimidate Cordoso from telling the court what he saw. It worked. Though on the night of the murder Cordoso told investigators he saw Velasco shoot Martinez, he told the court that investigators misunderstood him. He testified that he never saw a thing. He said he only heard that Velasco shot Martinez from others in El Dorado in the moments following the gunshot. When the state attorney asked Cordoso about his claim of being threatened to leave Tampa on the morning he was supposed to testify in August, Cordoso stated that he only told investigators that because he thought it would keep him out of jail. He said that he was never told to leave town.
Without a witness who could testify that Velasco shot Martinez in cold blood and not self-defense, the judge was forced to discharge Velasco because of insufficient evidence.
Years later, Velasco’s brother, Jimmy, became one of the most powerful men in Tampa’s underworld by rigging elections to help his candidates win. Once his candidate was in office, those illegal establishments that paid protection money to the Velasco brothers–Jimmy, Johnny, Arturo and Roy–would be allowed to operate without trouble from law enforcement. In the late 1940s, the Velasco brothers were involved in a failed attempt to assassinate Santo Trafficante Sr., Red Italiano and a host of public officials. This was their move to become the head family in Tampa’s underworld. Following the failure, Roy fled to Puerto Rico and became a successful bar owner.
Today, the murder of Florentino Martinez is still considered unsolved, as are a host of other murders that took place during this bloody period in Ybor City’s history.
Standard protocol.
No one ever saw a thing.



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