MIAMI (AP) — In 22 years at the Miami-Dade Police Department, Lt. Ralph Mata broke up major gangs, supervised an airport canine unit that sniffed out drug smugglers and investigated police wrongdoing. He was also, according to the FBI, known as "The Milk Man" for helping New Jersey cocaine dealers move hundreds of thousands of dollars around.
The FBI says Mata escorted traffickers carrying the cash so they could bypass security at airports in New York and Miami. He also smuggled weapons to them and even cooked up a potential hit on a rival gang, authorities say.
Mata will likely travel to New Jersey next week to make his first appearance on drug trafficking and illegal money transaction charges, said his attorney Bruce Fleisher. Mata will be released on $500,000 bail in an agreement with prosecutors, Fleisher said Monday.
"They took into consideration his 22 years and commendations as a police officer and his good family," Fleisher said of the bail.
Mata has been relieved of his police duties. He had been assigned to the department's internal affairs office since 2010 and before that to the canine unit at Miami International Airport.
About two years ago, he came under the FBI's radar during an investigation into a New Jersey-based drug gang that has been smuggling cocaine from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador in shipments of bananas and other produce. Investigators have intercepted at least 350 pounds of cocaine in the probe.
Three men have pleaded guilty in New Jersey and are awaiting sentencing, facing between 10 years and life behind bars. Their cooperation with prosecutors, which would likely include testimony against Mata, could net them lighter prison terms. It's not clear how Mata and the traffickers were introduced.
Much of Mata's alleged assistance involved moving the drug money undetected by using his contacts at the airports, according to an FBI affidavit. In one case, Mata was paid $5,000 for accompanying a drug gang member carrying $150,000 on a flight from New York to the Dominican Republic, authorities say. He later received a $10,000 Rolex watch.
Mata, the FBI says, contacted an unnamed person at John F. Kennedy International Airport to make certain the gang member with the cash "passed through security without being stopped by law enforcement."
But it wasn't just money. Mata also used contacts at Miami International Airport to transport at least six guns to drug traffickers in carry-on luggage and even plotted to have members of a rival gang killed, the FBI affidavit says.
The killers, according to the FBI, "would wear uniforms and badges to make it appear as though the targets of the murder plot were lawfully being pulled over by law enforcement, after which the targets would be shot and killed."
The price was supposedly $150,000 for each killing, the FBI says, and Mata had given the assassins a box of cigars and a $5,000 down payment. Ultimately, the New Jersey gang decided not to follow through on the plot.
On another occasion, about $419,000 in drug profits was seized by the Drug Enforcement Administration from a home used by the traffickers in Bergen County, N.J. Even though the DEA left a receipt, the gang thought the money may have been stolen by rivals. Mata was able to confirm it was the DEA because he recognized an agent's name on the receipt, according to the FBI.
Mata has not yet entered a plea to the New Jersey charges. Fleisher said he will vigorously defend Mata, who faces a minimum of 10 years in prison and a maximum of life on each of two drug charges. The illegal money transaction charge carries a potential 10-year prison term.
No other Miami-Dade police officers have been implicated so far in the case.
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