Chicago White Sox star Jose Abreu testified Thursday that he had an extremely close relationship with a Florida baseball trainer on trial along with a sports agent for allegedly smuggling Cuban ballplayers off the island.
Abreu acknowledged giving trainer Julio Estrada $25,000 a month last summer after Estrada's assets were frozen by the government following his indictment in the smuggling case - $10,000 more than Estrada had requested. He did so, Abreu testified, "because of the high esteem I have for him."
Abreu also paid Estrada's wife an undisclosed amount to help decorate the player's South Florida home, even though she has no professional experience doing that work. He bought a separate $500,000 house in the Florida Keys for Estrada to live in rent-free, and Estrada was best man at Abreu's wedding.
"These were people who had helped me a lot in getting into this country, so I had a lot of trust in them," Abreu told a jury.
Estrada and sports agent Bartolo Hernandez are charged with conspiracy and alien smuggling for allegedly overseeing a network that brought Abreu and other ballplayers out of Cuba by boat to third countries, such as Mexico and Haiti, where they could establish residency and seek lucrative free-agent contracts with Major League Baseball teams.
In return, Estrada and Hernandez got a percentage of those player contracts. In Abreu's case, Estrada's Total Baseball company was to be paid 20 percent of his $68 million White Sox contract, with Hernandez and two partners getting 5 percent.
Abreu testified that he has kept his end of the bargain, paying Estrada's firm more than $7 million since he signed the Chicago deal in 2013. He still owes about $5 million but is not sure if he will pay Estrada any more, especially considering the trainer is facing significant prison time if convicted.
"Things have changed," Abreu testified. "They are different now."
Abreu, who was American League Rookie of the Year in 2014 and is a top MLB power hitter, also said he now thinks the terms he agreed to with Estrada were unfair to him.
"Do you feel like you were taken advantage of by Julio's company?" asked Estrada attorney Sabrina Puglisi.
"Yes," Abreu replied.
Abreu testified Wednesday he used a fake Haitian passport to fly to Miami in October 2013, eating part of the document while in the air to cover it up. As a Cuban, he was permitted to remain in the U.S. under immigration rules at the time, despite having no visa or other valid travel papers.
Neither Estrada nor Hernandez had advance knowledge of his clandestine trip, Abreu testified.
"Would you say Julio always urged you to do things the right way?" Puglisi asked.
"Yes," the player responded.
After coming to the U.S., Abreu said he sought to get several family members out of Cuba. He enlisted the help of Amin Latouff, described as a part of the smuggling network in Haiti who could get fake documents and provide other services necessary for the players' relocation. He paid Latouff $115,000 for the service, with some of the money delivered in cash by human "mules" who traveled to Haiti from Miami, Abreu said.
"I would bring my family to the United States no matter at what cost," he testified.
Latouff was indicted in the U.S. smuggling case but has remained at large.
Abreu finished his second day of testimony Thursday morning and was free to return to White Sox spring training in Arizona. The prosecution part of the case is nearing an end after about a month, to be followed by testimony from defense witnesses. It's not clear if either Hernandez or Estrada will testify.