The gangster, the lawyer, his wife and her hit man

SPAIN has a taste for bloodthirsty gangster movies laced with black humour, but the case of the beautiful young woman who hired a hit squad to gun her lawyer husband down for his fortune would be rejected at most script conferences as crude and implausible.

Few would add the twist that the lawyer had once acted for his would- be killers, that he would miraculously survive the drive-by hail of bullets and that - his lovely wife in detention, charged with his attempted murder - he would swear undying love and offer her covert legal advice, though perhaps just to keep her quiet.

Laura Fernandez Navarro, 29, of good family, met the bald and overweight lawyer Jose Emilio Rodriguez Menendez, 52, by answering an advertisement he had placed in El Pais newspaper seeking an economist in 1998. The couple married three months later, and settled in a smart Madrid suburb.

But Laura developed a taste for gambling on the stock market, and became "annoyed" when her husband uncharacteristically refused her request for some money. She allegedly hired a gang of killers to shoot Jose, so that she could inherit his fortune. But he survived and Laura weeps in prison awaiting trial. So far, so chilling.

But the bizarre steps towards this denouement are pure film noir. Laura made contact with her hitman in the course of inquiring about buying a Mercedes. The young man who dealt with her request, Jose Ignacio ("Nacho") Rocha, offered her a little deal: if she helped convince her husband to buy the car, she would earn a million pesetas (pounds 4,000) commission. But Mr Menendez refused, sending Nacho away with a flea in his ear.

Undaunted, Nacho then contacted a friend, Angel Suarez Flores, alias "Casper", sought by Belgian authorities in connection with drug-trafficking, for whom Mr Menendez had acted in the past. Knowing their previous connection, Nacho arranged for the two men to get together over dinner with their wives, so that Mr Suarez Flores could persuade the lawyer to buy the car.

Mr Menendez still wouldn't budge, but Nacho told Laura not to worry, they would get the money somehow. They met at least twice to plan their next step, and their friendship became more intimate. One idea was for Nacho to feign an attack on Laura and plunder the couple's strongbox, which she assured him contained up to 50m pesetas in cash. She promised Nacho 15 per cent.

But Laura got cold feet, whereupon - according to her confession to the judge - the car salesman turned killer. "He became aggressive. He said he would not tell me the day or the time, that we wouldn't speak again and that I would see what would happen." Shortly afterwards, as Mr Menendez drove home late one night, two men drove by on a motorcycle and shot him, wounding him badly in the chest. His driver and bodyguard fired back, hitting Nacho in the buttocks.

The incident enabled police to complete a year-long investigation into a racket of extortion, bank robberies and money laundering carried out by a gang allegedly orchestrated by Angel Suarez Flores. Within hours of the attack on the lawyer, 22 gang members were rounded up and police seized 1bn pesetas in cash, arms, luxury cars, properties, and jewels. It was, said Madrid's police chief, "the most sophisticated, best-funded and best-equipped criminal organisation in the whole of Spain". The group owned countless properties and various companies, including a car dealership - run by "Nacho" Rocha.

Rodriguez Menendez, now recovering at home, is himself a controversial character, who started acting as a lawyer before qualifying in 1981, and has a track record of defending Galician drug barons as well as security officials involved in police mafias and government-sponsored terror gangs. In one case, of Civil Guardsmen accused of drug trafficking with informers, he began by defending one of the accused, then spectacularly joined his accusers.

The lawyer has been attacked before, in 1995, by Wilfredo Munoz, brother of the second of his three wives, Viviana. Munoz allegedly knifed him in his office after demanding 800,000 pesetas owed for work in a brothel on Mr Menendez's property, according to Munoz's lawyers. Mr Menendez is also accused of bigamy, since he was still married to his first wife when he wed Viviana.

In 1997 he allegedly distributed a scandalous video of the editor of El Mundo newspaper, Pedro J Ramirez, who was secretly filmed wearing a scarlet corset while cavorting with an African prostitute named Exuberencia. The lawyer is accused of printing images of the video in a rival newspaper Ya, which he edited at the time.

Despite enjoying daily visits from his ex-wife, Viviana, Mr Menendez insists Laura is the love of his life. But some say he is reluctant to press charges, in case his current wife tells what she knows about his own murky past. For real-life drama, screenwriters need look no further.

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