Ex-Phil Urbina awaits attempted-murder trial
Pitcher awaits Venezuelan trial in brutal attack.
By Andrew Maykuth
Inquirer Staff Writer
OCUMARE DEL TUY, Venezuela - Former Phillies pitcher Ugueth Urbina developed his glowering stare in this small city near Caracas, where he grew up poor and tough enough to break into the major leagues.
Urbina's menacing reputation served him well in baseball, where the two-time all-star intimidated hitters with an unpredictable fastball. But his hot temper may handicap him next month when he is scheduled to go on trial, accused of the attempted murder of several workmen during a savage attack at his ranch last fall, just weeks after the Phillies' season ended.
Urbina and three friends are accused of beating, hacking and torturing six workers in a dispute allegedly about the disappearance of a pistol from Urbina's ranch. The workers said Urbina directed his friends to repeatedly splash paint thinner and gasoline on them before setting them afire.
"Urbina was the one commanding the whole thing," said Bernardo Navarros, 24, whose upper body is covered with thick scar tissue seven months after the incident.
Urbina's lawyers say that there was indeed a fight Oct. 15 but that it was between rival groups of workers at his farm and did not involve a gun - or Urbina. They say the workers fabricated the story to get their hands on Urbina's wealth - the relief pitcher has earned more than $25 million in his 11-year career, including $4 million last year.
"It's all about money," said one of Urbina's lawyers, Jose Antonio Baez, who said his client was the victim of "indirect extortion." Urbina declined to be interviewed.
The Urbina case is more than a story of a man with a gifted right arm whose career may be finished - he faces a minimum sentence of 12 years in prison if convicted of attempted murder.
And it's more than a tale of a man to whom wealth brought not only great benefits but also great pain. Urbina's father was slain in the early '90s by robbers trying to steal a truck Urbina had bought him. And Urbina's mother was held last year by kidnappers who wanted millions to release her.
In Venezuela, where President Hugo Chavez promises more power to the poor, Urbina is a rare example of a rich man being held to account. "There's a lot of talk in the country about fighting impunity," said Baez, Urbina's lawyer.
"The police at first did not want to process this case," said Antonio Molino, the attorney for four men who accused Urbina. "A lot of people in Venezuela think they can get away with things like this."
Urbina's friends are familiar with what they call his "intensity." He was involved in an altercation at a disco when he played for the Montreal Expos. He fought with Detroit Tigers teammates before he was traded to the Phillies last year. He was arrested for firing a gun in Caracas two years ago; charges were dropped.
"If you told me Ugueth came across somebody, and there was a punch thrown, fine, that's Ugueth," said Ariel Prat, president of the Caracas Lions, Urbina's Venezuelan team.
"However, what he's accused of doing here just doesn't make sense to me."
Urbina has spent six months in jail, in vain seeking bail. In an interview shortly after he was imprisoned in November, he maintained his innocence.
"I'm trying to find a solution to this problem and clear my name," he told ESPN.
In September, Urbina hired an old friend, Luisa Carolina Diaz, to manage the repairs of his ranch outside his hometown.
The ranch, a vacation home, really, had fallen into disuse since Urbina's mother was kidnapped there in late 2004. Five months later, national police found his mother, Maura Villareal, at a remote camp and rescued her.
To repair the rundown ranch, Diaz hired laborers she knew in Ocumare del Tuy. The tradesmen were eager to work for Urbina, the hometown hero.
"We were hoping to meet him," said Ricardo Osal, 21.
The new workers' arrival caused tension with the ranch's two caretakers, Osal said.
The caretakers were responsible for the safekeeping of several firearms Urbina kept for security. In October, the caretakers reported a gun missing.
Urbina arrived at the ranch with his son at midday Oct. 15. Beers were shared, and the new workers asked Urbina to sign caps of the Florida Marlins, the team Urbina helped win the 2003 World Series.
In the afternoon, Urbina left with his son and the caretakers. At 6 p.m., he telephoned Diaz to tell her not to let the new workers leave, according to police.
Urbina returned about 11 p.m. with the two caretakers and some other friends. According to Urbina's lawyers, he found about 10 workers drunk and fighting. They said he helped break up the fight and turned in for the night.
The lawyers said that after midnight a second, more violent fight broke out, of which they say Urbina learned the next morning when police were interviewing some of the injured.
The workers tell a different story. They say Urbina, enraged, and his friends forced the workers to kneel beside the swimming pool. They beat the workers, the victims contend, and demanded to know where the missing pistol went.
"They had guns, so what could we do?" Navarros said.
In interviews, three victims said Urbina wielded the machete. Osal said that he caught a blow with his left hand and that his fingers were cut. As he clutched his wounded hand, he said, another blow hacked his left shoulder, leaving an eight-inch gash that required 300 stitches.
"He's psychotic, sadistic," Osal said through a translator.
Tony Rodriguez, 35, who suffered stab wounds, machete cuts, burns and broken bones, said he shouted to Urbina: "Why don't you ask your own employees about the guns?"
Then Urbina confronted the two older employees, he said, beating them first with a flat side and then with the sharp edge of the machete. One suffered a deep wrist wound.
Later in the night, Urbina allegedly ordered his friends to douse the employees with fuel and set them afire. The burning men jumped into the swimming pool, but they said they were forced at gunpoint to get out and then were set on fire again.
Osal and Rodriguez, bleeding badly, were allowed to leave in a car. Navarros, who was severely burned, said the wives and girlfriends of the workers pleaded for another hour for Urbina to end the assault.
When it finally ended - the witnesses say the incident went on for more than four hours - Navarros said Urbina warned the witnesses not to speak to police. "He said: 'Nothing happened here. Walk away, because nothing has happened.' "
The victims said the local police pressed charges against the pitcher only after the wounded men appealed to human-rights lawyers, and the news media picked up on the accusations. Urbina was not jailed for three weeks.
The lawyers said that several witnesses who have known Urbina for many years would testify on his behalf, including the two older employees who were injured, as well as Carolina Diaz.
As Urbina's appeals for release have failed - prosecutors argue he would flee the jurisdiction - his professional prospects wane.
"I got two or three calls from major-league clubs during the winter," said Prat, the president of the Caracas Lions. "As time passes, I get fewer calls."
Prat said Urbina could still play ball.
"He can always pitch for us - we wouldn't hesitate a bit," Prat said. "Ugueth raises a lot of passion. He's a role model for intensity."