TAMPA — The curtain fell Friday on what one Tampa detective called an "Oscar-worthy performance" by cop killer Carlos Bello, 58, whose persuasive displays of mental illness have helped him avoid a death sentence for more than two decades.
For the first time in 15 competency hearings since the 1980s, a judge ruled that Bello was a malingerer who faked mental illness.
Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Ron Ficarrotta, who had presided over many of the previous hearings, based his ruling on the opinions of a psychologist who observed Bello almost daily for eight months last year at the South Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center near Miami.
When doctors weren't close by, psychologist Marla Rodriguez said, Bello would remind his visiting kids about Father's Day, keep himself groomed and his living space tidy, watch TV, eat heartily and even filch food from fellow patients — all evidence, she said, of normal behavior.
Only when being evaluated by doctors, she said, did he turn incoherent.
"He has played the system like no one has played the system before," said Assistant State Attorney Darrell Dirks. "I'll give him kudos."
Bello was sentenced to death for the 1981 murder of Tampa police Detective Gerald A. Rauft, 38, during a drug sting gone awry. Bello, a Cuban refugee who had arrived in the United States a year earlier, was selling 50 pounds of marijuana to an undercover detective for $13,500 when police broke in to make an arrest. Bello first shot Detective Robert Ulriksen in the elbow, arm and stomach, before turning his gun on Rauft.
In custody, Bello tried to commit suicide. He became catatonic. Doctors diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia and medicated him at a hospital, only to find he would stop taking his medications in jail and deteriorate.
In the 1980s, he was examined at least three times and found incompetent to stand trial. Doctors didn't deny he was mentally ill, but said he took advantage of his illness by exaggerating symptoms.
Six years after his arrest, a jury convicted him of murdering one detective and attempting to murder another. A judge sentenced him to die in the electric chair.
But in 1989, the Florida Supreme Court threw out the sentence, partly because Bello was made to wear leg shackles in court, which could have prejudiced the jury. The court ordered that Bello be resentenced.
Each time prosecutors tried, Bello had to be re-evaluated by mental health experts. The evaluations typically involved an interview with Bello and the administering of a battery of mental health tests. Every time, he was declared incompetent.
On Friday, the defense offered more evidence. A psychologist and a psychiatrist each testified that Bello remained incompetent.
Psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Estevez said Bello was "clearly psychotic" when they met for 15 minutes in jail last year. "He was mumbling, lying on a mat. He was speaking a 'word salad' — Spanish words strung together with no meaning."
Estevez said he has evaluated thousands of patients and knows when someone is faking:
"When you see thousands of horses, you're able to pick out a zebra."
The prosecutor said Bello had 30 years to perfect his act.
Ultimately, Judge Ficarrotta ruled that Rodriguez's observations over eight months were more reliable. She testified that Bello had done well day to day, even without psychotropic medications.
"My common sense tells me that eight months gives a better picture," Ficarrotta said. The judge also noted that Bello sat calmly through the two-hour court hearing. "I believe he has malingered."
Assistant Public Defender Charles Traina said he hasn't decided yet whether to appeal the decision. Prosecutors haven't decided whether to seek the death penalty again.
The judge did not set a date for resentencing.
Kimberly Rauft, who was just 12 when her detective father was killed, said the family has never given up hope of a final sentence. "We're very relieved."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this story. John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or [email protected]