A Dade jury Wednesday ordered a Brickell Avenue Bank to pay $4.4 million to the owners of a now defunct import business, saying the bank allowed a company official to improperly withdraw millions of dollars from the company’s accounts.

The three companies that made up the coffee and seafood import business – Agronomics Finance, Venture Planners Management and Venture Planners Investments – all claimed that Bank Espirito Santo allowed Alvaro Montealegre, the companies’ former financial officer, to withdraw more than $3 million as part of a massive embezzling scheme.

Montealegre’s whereabouts are unknown. Now believed to be living in Texas, he has never faced criminal charges over the withdrawals.

But in separate lawsuits filed in 1988, the companies claimed that the bank was negligent in approving the withdrawals. No money should have been released to Montealegre, the lawsuits said, without a second signature from another company executive.

The firms, run by Albert Griffith and Ari Guerrero, both natives of Nicaragua, were based at 7544 SW 112 Ct. They traded currency to help fund their operations in Central America, said the attorneys, Peter and Paul Kneski.

According to court papers, Griffith first learned that money was missing when more than $1 million in checks he had written started to bounce. Griffin quickly became the subject to criminal and civil proceedings, and he agreed to make good on the worthless checks.

In a separate case brought against Montealegre in late 1989, Dade Circuit Judge Amy Steele Donner ordered Montealegre to repay Griffith. But Griffith never received any money.

During a trial this week before Dade Circuit Judge Murray Goldman, bank attorneys Lewis Kanner and Vincent Damian denied any negligence. They said that all of the withdrawals by Montealegre were authorized, and that it possessed written confirmation orders to prove it.

But the bank could not locate the documents. And a former secretary to the bank officer who handled the accounts testified that 60 percent of the transactions initiated by Montealegre were never confirmed by the companies.

The jury awarded $1 to Venture Planners Management, which as a holding company. $1.5 million to Venture Planners Investments and $2.9 million to Agronomics Finances.

Kanner, one of the bank’s lawyers, refused to discuss the case.

Last week the Miami City Commission named a stretch of Southeast 14th Street between Brickell Avenue and South Bayshore Drive after the Espirito Santo Group, the financial conglomerate that owns the bank.