Meet Joe Carrillo, Miami's most notorious private eye
Joe Carrillo’s wide blue eyes hide behind a pair of Oakley sunglasses. Like a Florida Panther hiding in the marsh ready to pounce on a feral hog, Carrillo’s gaze fixes in on his latest prey: Marta Campos, the homeowners association president for an elderly apartment building in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida.
It’s a hot and muggy afternoon in July shortly after the 60-year-old private investigator received a tip that Campos was selling judicial candidates access to her building’s senior residents, presumably to collect mail-in ballots for the August 30th primary election. In Miami, it’s a felony to collect mail-in ballots from individuals unless you are a spouse or close relative.
So Carrillo sent a fellow private eye to meet with Campos by pretending to be a worker for an unnamed candidate. As the undercover investigator met with Campos on a bus bench outside the apartment tower, Carrillo snapped photos of the meeting from across the street. During the undercover operation, Campos turned down an offer of $500 because she had already been paid by another candidate running for the same seat, Carrillo would later allege at a news conference a month later. Campos, who attended the press conference, vehemently denied the accusation. And detectives from the Miami-Dade Police Department complained that Carrillo compromised their investigation after he had given them his evidence against her.
“You think I care?” Carillo says flippantly during a recent lunch. “The cops weren’t going to do shit anyway. I just wanted to let the politicians know I’m still out there hunting.”
A brash and boisterous investigator, Carrillo has been ruining the lives of Miami bad guys for more than two decades. Along the way, he has solved some of the city’s most challenging cases. Like the time he figured out the identity of a notorious rapist in 2003. Or nine years later, when Carrillo uncovered a mail-in ballot racket tied to the current county mayor and state attorney. And in his spare time, Carillo runs an organization that has rescued 72 runaways and victims of human trafficking in the past two years.
“Joe is really one of the few true good guys in this town,” says his longtime friend and Miami lawyer Rick Yabor. “Joe puts 100 percent into everything he does. It’s really impressive to see him work.”
In person, Carrillo looks like he could star in his own television P.I. series. He’s a tall man with a bald head, a grizzly snow white goatee and arms covered in tattoos. “In South Florida, I am known for what I do,” Carrillo says. “Anytime there is a case that doesn’t get solved quickly, it usually comes to me.”
Born an orphan in Quebec in 1955, Carrillo was adopted by a Cuban couple who took him to Havana. Six years later, the family moved to Miami. His parents sent him to St. Brendan Elementary and Christopher Columbus High. His first real job was as an insurance agent for his father’s agency, but his life spiraled out of control following the deaths of his mother and father in 1982 and 1983, respectively. He became addicted to drugs and was in and out of rehabilitation centers during his 20s and early 30s. During that span, he was arrested three times, married, had four children and divorced. He got into the P.I. business in the late 1980s while working as a bodyguard for Latin pop stars including Cuban crooner Willy Chirino and the Latin boy band Menudo.
In September 2003, Carrillo became a household name in Miami. A string of rapes in the neighborhoods of Shenandoah and Kendall led police to offer a $25,000 reward for the capture of the alleged suspects. Soon, Carrillo was on the hunt. A week or so after he canvassed Shenandoah, Carrillo interviewed residents who provided him with an address and a description of a man driving a black car. He turned over his information to police and later that same evening cops arrested Reynaldo Rapalo for sexually assaulting seven women from the Shenandoah area. But Miami Police refused to acknowledge Carrillo’s role for nearly five years, until he finally received a tiny plaque reading: “In recognition for your assistance in the Shenandoah rapist case.”
Carrillo again stirred up controversy in 2012 when he was hired to investigate a group of individuals who were collecting mail-in ballots from dozens of elderly and handicapped voters living in Hialeah, a city neighboring Miami, for the campaigns of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and other candidates for local office. Carrillo’s information led police to arrest two people for breaking Florida election laws, but stopped short of nabbing any politicians.
The same year, Carrillo found a new sense of purpose tracking down runaway teens. A fellow private investigator brought in Carrillo to help find a missing 15-year-old. A two-month search had yielded zero results for the girl, who had left her Miami Beach home with an older Brazilian man. Within hours of being on the case, Carrillo tracked her down to Houston, Texas, using a secretive database the private eye had just acquired. Houston police located the girl and the man, who was arrested on child kidnapping charges. She said he had been held against her will.
The case inspired Carrillo to start his own non-profit organization, The Bringing Home Project, dedicated to finding runaways and victims of human trafficking. “When you bring one home and you see the light go back into their families, the mom, the dad, the grandparents, it is a very addicting thing,” Carrillo says. “I got hooked. I get addicted to things that feel very good.”
The Bringing Home Project has tracked down teens from New Jersey, New York and other northeastern states in Miami through social media, Carrillo says. “If your kid is missing, we go get them,” he says. “When you have nowhere else to go and the cops aren’t helping, you come to us.”
Sometimes, the rescue missions can get scary, Carrillo said. For instance, a month ago, Carrillo had to jump out of his car and draw his gun on a person who was holding a teenage girl against her will in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood. “Most of the time, with the reputation The Bringing Them Home project has built, we get the teens to call us,” he says. “We send them the message that we understand them in ways their parents do not. Nine out of 10 times, the kid will call [us] to come get him or her.”
According to Carrillo, American society is way behind the eight-ball when it comes to dealing with human trafficking of sex victims. “Last year, we rescued 30 runaways,” Carrillo says. “Out of those 30, ten had fallen into human trafficking. The year before, we rescued 42 runaways and we only had one tied to human trafficking.”
Now that he is getting close to retirement age, Carrillo says he hopes to hang up his binoculars soon. “I’ve caught a bunch of bad guys,” he says. “Hopefully that will change soon and we will be able to raise enough funds for The Bringing Home Project. Then the bad guys won’t have to worry about Joe Carrillo anymore.”
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