The Corpse Had a Familiar Face

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  • Edition: Reprint
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  • Copyright: 2009-07-14
  • Publisher: Gallery Books

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This classic by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author is her nonfiction masterpiece--a tale of life and death on Miami's streets, which she covered for 18 years for "The Miami Herald." Reissue.

Author Biography

Edna Buchanan
has covered more crimes than most cops. A Pulitzer Prize–winning Miami Herald police reporter and winner of the prestigious George Polk Career Award, she brings a dynamic and steamy Miami to vivid life in all of her novels. The author of seventeen books and numerous short stories, she lives in Miami, Florida, with one dog, too many cats, and Bunjamin, a small brown rabbit.


ONEMiami, It's Murder

The crime that inevitably intrigues me most is murder. It's so final.

At a fresh murder scene you can smell the blood and hear the screams; years later, they still echo in my mind. Unsolved murders are unfinished stories. The scenes of the crimes may change over the years; highways are built over them, buildings are torn down, houses are sold. I drive by and wonder if the new occupants, as they go about their daily lives, ever sense what happened there. Do they know, or am I the only one who still remembers?

The face of Miami changes so quickly, but the dead stay that way. I feel haunted by the restless souls of those whose killers walk free.

Somebody owes them.

And nobody is trying to collect. Detectives divert their energies to new cases with hot leads. It is only natural.

But I can't forget.

The first homicide victim I ever wrote about was sixty-seven years old and from New Jersey, a retired dealer in religious books. Somebody beat him to death with a strange object resembling an elephant-sized Q-Tip. The killer dropped the weapon. Police found it, but they could never figure out what it was, much less who used it.

His last night on earth began pleasantly for Edward Becher; he escorted his wife to the theater. The vacationing couple returned afterward to their oceanfront hotel. He left his wife at the front door and drove off alone to park the car in a lot two blocks away.

He failed to return and his wife became concerned. Eventually she went to look for him. In the parking lot, she found the police with a shaken motorist who had discovered her husband unconscious on the pavement. He had already been taken to a hospital, where he died.

The murder weapon was the only clue: an iron pipe, thirty inches long, swaddled at each end with burlap. Everyone who saw it said the same thing: It looks like a giant Q-Tip. Baffled police created duplicates and displayed them to the public hoping for a link to the killer.

The weapon was not, as some citizens suggested, a tool to lubricate machinery or a torch used by fire dancers at a local nightspot.

The circus was in town at the time of the attack; it moved on a day or so later. I always suspected that perhaps the weapon was a tool used in some way by roustabouts or animal tenders. We will never know. Like most whodunits in Dade County, the case remains unsolved. The detectives who investigated it have all since retired or quit. Five police chiefs have come and gone since somebody smashed the skull of the man who dealt in religious books. I doubt that anybody now connected with the department even remembers that homicide.

But I do.

What the heck was that thing? It is still a perplexing and troubling question, nagging along with all the others. I am uncomfortable with unsolved mysteries -- and with the fact that whoever did it is still out there.


The unsolved slaying of Edward Becher was the first of more than three thousand murders I have reported. Every crime, every victim is different. Some remain more vivid in memory than others, but none can really be forgotten. Each time, I want to know it all, everything. If I could just somehow piece it all together, perhaps the things that people do to each other might make some sense.

Years ago, murder was rare and unusual, and almost every killing was front-page news. Then homicide became more and more common and less and less newsworthy. When Miami broke all prior records for violence in the years 1980-81 and its murder rate skyrocketed to number one in the nation, I was often forced to squeeze six, seven, even a dozen slayings into a single story. City-desk editors listed it on their daily budget as the "Murder Round-up." Combining the most outrageous cases in the lead, I would report them in a reverse chronology with the most recent first. Each victim's last story had to be limited to just a paragraph or two.

Despite the constraints of space, I still felt a need to learn all I could about each case. I rushed from one murder scene to another and another, engaged in a daily struggle to cram as much detail as possible into those too-brief paragraphs.

Speeding back to the Herald on deadline one night, with my notes on several homicides, I heard the unmistakable echo of gunfire as I roared beneath a highway overpass near a housing project. Suddenly I felt crazed, uncertain whether to continue on back to the paper, or stop and investigate, perhaps finding another story there would be no room to print. The hesitation was just for an instant. The U-turn left rubber in the road behind me.

Looking back, I see now that for the better part of those two years, I was numb, shell-shocked, and operating strictly on instinct. I remember little of my personal life during that time, only the stories I wrote and the sense of being caught up in something totally out of control. The only reality was what I had to do. That paragraph or two devoted to each homicide was painstakingly put together.

I felt obliged. Often it was the first and last time the victim's name ever appeared in a newspaper. Even at that, I felt a sense of guilt for such a cursory send-off.

The woman left dead by the side of a desolate road in her yellow nightgown wanted to live just as much as you or I do. So did the illegal alien whose charred body was found in a cheap trunk in The Everglades. How dehumanizing to be regarded merely as numbers in the mounting statistics of death.

They deserved better.

Often assistant city editors, short on space and patience, would insist that I select and report only the "major murder" of the day. I knew what they meant, but I fought the premise. How can you choose?

Every murder is major to the victim.

Sure, it's simpler to write about only one case and go home. But some strange sense of obligation would not let me do it. The Miami Herald is South Florida's newspaper of record, and I felt compelled to report every murder, every death on its pages -- names, dates, facts -- to preserve them in our newspaper, in our files, in our consciousness, on record forever, in black and white. On my days off, or when I worked on other stories or projects, some murders went totally unreported. So I would carefully resurrect them, slipping them into the local section in round-ups, wrap-ups, and trend stories about possibly related cases. There was always a way, you could always find an angle. For instance: Victim number 141 in 1980 proved to be the widower of victim number 330 in 1979.

A bright young reporter I talked to recently casually referred to what he called dirt-bag murders: the cases and the victims not worth reporting. There is no dirt-bag murder. The story is always there waiting to be found if you just dig deep enough.

There are many misconceptions about murder in Miami. No one should jump to conclusions. Visitors should fear no harm. A reasonably prudent, law-abiding citizen is in no greater danger here than in his or her own hometown; perhaps less, depending on that hometown.

Innocent victims do get murdered in Miami: a woman on a bus bench, caught in the crossfire between warring Rastafarians; a lovely young career woman who unwittingly moved into a trailer park managed by a paroled sex criminal. They are tragic, but they are rare.

The vast majority of victims contribute to their own demise. They deal drugs, steal, rob, or stray with somebody else's mate until a stop is put to them. They quarrel in traffic or skirmish over parking spaces with other motorists -- who happen to be armed and short-tempered. Or they brawl in bars, fight with neighbors, or batter their own spouses, who one day retaliate with deadly force. The average murder victim is not an average citizen. Most Miami murder victims have arrest records; most have drugs, alcohol, or both aboard when somebody sinks their ship.

The crime of murder itself has changed a great deal in Miami. When I was new here, a sex murder usually meant heterosexual rape, a woman assaulted and slain. Now a sex killing more likely involves a homosexual encounter and is characterized by rage and overkill, with the victim stabbed or beaten even after death by a young street hustler, already violent, criminal, and full of rage.

In simpler times, the bulk of cases were robbery-murders and old-fashioned domestic battles. They still take place of course, but by and large murder has become a far more difficult and complex crime to solve. Instead of asking "Whodunit?" Miami police now face the question of who was it? How can you ever hope to identify the killer if you can't identify the corpse?

Many victims come without names. Somebody who flew to Florida to consummate a drug deal most likely did not announce his itinerary to friends and family. If an illegal alien or a resident of Seattle or Montreal gets ripped off and dumped dead in Florida's Everglades, how do you identify him -- if you find him. If his fingerprints are still intact, there may be a chance, but if he has no police record to match them to -- it is not a simple matter. And the world is full of amateurs trying to break into the drug business.

Good homicide detectives go first to the victim's family, friends, and neighbors to learn who he was, who his associates were, and why somebody wanted him dead. But when a corpse has no name, who do you talk to? Where do you start?

A newspaper story can help. Some detectives are too secretive or too paranoid to talk to a reporter. To avoid releasing the wrong information, they won't release any. Those detectives solve the fewest cases.

I want to write those stories, and I want as many answers and details as possible. What about scars, tattoos, birthmarks, dental work, or jewelry? A distinctive Indian-style bracelet on the wrist of a skeleton was recognized when his former sweetheart, who gave it to him, read my story in the newspaper. Once the victim was identified, so was the suspect, the roommate who had never reported him missing.

Did the remains, often just bones, reveal any old fractures or deformities? A crooked little finger identified one murdered man, a long-healed broken ankle another.

What is most precious seems cheap in Miami. The system makes life cheap. Drugs make it cheaper. So does attitude and perspective: A young city, Miami lacks the history, the roots, and the traditions of other major metropolitan areas. Everybody here is from someplace else.

Miami is nobody's hometown. Ask people here for thirty years where they are from, they don't say Miami. They name the place they left. That is where their loyalty still lies. We are a city of strangers without community spirit or a sense of belonging. When bad things happen, there is no sense of outrage, no attitude of "This is my city. I'm not going to let this happen here."

When the Boston Strangler stalked the women of that city, the horror was national. The attorney general stepped in. Money, manpower, and all the resources of the state were committed to solving the crimes.

The Boston Strangler killed thirteen. He might have operated unnoticed in Miami.

I once wrote a magazine story about more than a dozen unsolved murders and the possibility that they were the work of one man. One young Miami housewife was washing dishes in her kitchen when someone crept up behind her with a knife and cut her throat so savagely that her head was nearly severed. The cases were so terrifying that I felt compelled to rearrange the furniture in my study -- so I could work on the story with my back to the wall.

Though well read, the piece inspired no action or indignation. The lone outcry came from the Miami Chamber of Commerce, directed not at the maniac or maniacs who were killing women, but at the magazine editor who printed the story. That was some time ago; awareness is a bit better now -- but not a whole lot.

Consider the murder of a man killed at a Miami cafeteria: The employees dragged the corpse out to the curb with the trash and went home. It was the second such incident at the same cafeteria in as many months.

Or the local nightclub where patrons were shot to death on six different occasions: Nobody ever saw a thing. Victims number five and six were carried outside and dumped in the parking lot before police arrived.

The sixth time, police got there fast and rounded up half a dozen fleeing patrons, but to little avail. "They all went blind when the shooting started," a detective said.

At least fifty people claimed they saw nothing because they were visiting the rest room when the killing took place. For all to use the four-foot-by-four-foot rest room at the same time, they would have to stand on each other's shoulders.

Absence of conscience also makes life cheap. Some kids have not yet developed one; some never will. No monster out of a nightmare is more frightening or dangerous than a kid with no conscience. There are fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds on the street who, if given a gun, would kill you as easily as they would sip a soft drink. You look into their eyes and see vacant space: nobody home. There is nothing in there yet, not a glimmer. You wonder if there ever will be.

But the worst of all, the most ruthless killers ever encountered in Miami, arrived among the Mariel refugees. Some men who would have, should have died in Cuban prisons or mental wards will open fire on strangers in crowded bars or cafeterias to simply prove quién es mas macho. They consider killing an accomplishment. An arrest enhances their reputation. To charge them with murder is a compliment; they are flattered.

Murder in Miami covers every conceivable scenario. Alfred Hitchcock would have loved the predicament of the killer surprised when a locked iron security door trapped him inside a small South Beach apartment with the corpse of his victim, and the irony of the man murdered while on his way to consult a spiritualist about his future.

Take Terrance Beecham. Both of them.

Their father liked the name so well that he named both his sons Terrance. They were more imaginative. Terrance, twenty-two, and his brother Terrance, nineteen, cut up old newspaper, police say, put a fifty-dollar bill on top, and tried to buy a ten-thousand-dollar bale of marijuana. Somebody got killed in the ensuing gunfight.

Terrance and his brother, Terrance, fled, leaving behind the fake money, the marijuana, and the getaway car, which was registered to Terrance Beecham. The Miami homicide detective on their trail faced double trouble. Everywhere he went in search of the suspects, people asked, "What's the other one's name?" He would tell them, and they would cry, "No, the other one!"

He obtained murder warrants for the brothers, but alert clerks kept insisting there had been a mistake, the same man's name was printed twice. The detective printed and distributed a flier to alert other cops to the fugitives and was quickly flooded with calls from sharp-eyed officers who were eager, not to help with the case, but to point out his "error."

Terrance Beecham -- one of them -- was arrested, but the witnesses backed off, and the prosecutors never could make a case.

And imagine the chagrin of the disco patrons who all stepped outside to watch a 2:05 a.m. eclipse of the moon over Miami and saw a gas-station murder across the street instead? Or the cop who casually stopped a van to write a routine traffic ticket and was startled when the four men inside tossed five guns out the windows, raised their hands, and surrendered.

Or the Miami man who devised a foolproof plot to murder his wife: He filled the house with propane gas from a fiftygallon tank, waited until she came home, then struck a match. The explosion did the job, but it also killed the would-be widower. He struck the match just inside the front door, apparently thinking he could escape. Nothing escaped. The walls flew out ten feet in each direction. Police arrived and found a vacant lot.

Hitchcock himself could not have devised a more curious beginning to 1982. In Hialeah, a municipality just west of Miami, fishermen reported a body in a canal -- the first murder of the new year. Homicide detectives and patrolmen found it, but to their great relief, it was a butchered cow. As they stood on the canal bank, slapping each other on the back and congratulating themselves that it was not a murder case after all, two excited men drove up to report a body in a field half a mile away. It was the real thing.

And what of the plight of Richard Higgins, a man who spent his life's savings to buy a secluded home on five acres, so he could operate a plant nursery? Soon after he finished expensive improvements and renovations, police arrived asking to dig in his front yard. They unearthed two bodies: the real owners of the house. Higgins had unwittingly bought the house from the killer, who had posed as the dead owner.

The little things in life sometimes trigger the urge to kill: a stereo too loud, a game of checkers. One man killed his neighbor over the clippings from a Florida cherry hedge. Temperatures in the nineties sparked a fatal family fight over a fan. A man shot to death a lifelong friend who sat in his chair; he had warned him not to sit there. "It wasn't even any kind of a special chair," a detective said, "just a plain old ordinary chair."

A man making his way to a vacant seat in a darkeneddowntown movie theater stepped on a stranger's toes and said, "Excuse me." The irate moviegoer killed him anyway.

Gary Robinson died hungry.

He wanted fried chicken, the three-piece box for $2.19. Drunk, loud, and obnoxious, he pushed ahead of seven customers on line at a fast-food chicken outlet. The counter girl told him that his behavior was impolite. She calmed him down with sweet talk, and he agreed to step to the end of the line. His turn came just before closing time, just after the fried chicken ran out.

He punched the counter girl so hard her ears rang, and a security guard shot him -- three times.

Miami's most dangerous profession is not police work or fire fighting, it is driving a cab. For taxi drivers, many of them poor immigrants, murder is an occupational hazard. All-night gas station attendants and convenience store clerks used to be at high risk, but steps were taken to protect them. Gas pumps now switch to self-serve after dark, with exact change only, and the attendants are locked in bullet-proof booths. Convenience stores were redesigned and drop safes were installed, leaving little cash available.

But the life of a taxi driver is just as risky as it was twenty years ago when I covered my first killing of a cabbie. Bulletproof glass could be placed between the driver and passengers, but most owners say it is too expensive, and besides, there is no foolproof way to protect yourself totally from somebody riding in the same car.

It is one-on-one, you against them, terror in the night. Cabbies live at the mercy of whoever sits down behind them. They are instructed not to refuse a fare or a destination, which sometimes turns a crosstown trip into a suicide mission -- kamikaze cabbie.

I set out one day to find the family of a Haitian-born cabbie so determined to save the seventy-nine dollars in his pocket that he never gave it up, even after he was shot four times. Hospitalized, his condition was critical, but he was expected to survive.

It was a stunning day as I drove along in the sunshine, music playing on the radio of my silver-blue Cougar. Then I found the poor and pitiful place where the wounded cabbie and a dozen or so of his relatives lived. Serious and polite, they all poured out of the tiny, crowded apartment to talk to me. We stood on the pavement in the shadow of downtown Miami's skyscrapers, shimmering and silvery like a postcard-dream, in the late-afternoon light.

The injured man's brother-in-law also drove a taxi. His eyes were wide and wet. "The people you pick up are the enemy," he said softly. "Always the enemy. It's dangerous. You have to fight to make a living." He held the hand of his eight-year-old daughter.

He had been so afraid that one recent fare intended to rob him that he flashed his high beams in desperation at a passing patrol car. The officer made a U-turn. The driver said he would take his menacing fare to his destination only if the police car would follow. The cop said he was too busy. So the frightened driver asked the passenger to step out and lost the eleven dollars already on the meter.

I asked if his wounded brother-in-law had medical insurance. He did not understand what I meant, which gave me my answer. As we talked, it grew swiftly dark, as it often does with the approach of an afternoon storm. The temperature suddenly dropped ten degrees, and a chilly rain began to fall. The edges of the silver skyline blurred into fairy-tale castles. The day took on an eerie, otherworldly quality. I moved toward my car in the pelting rain, and the cluster of sad-faced Haitians moved with me, disregarding the downpour, wanting to tell me more of whatever it was I needed to know.

I unlocked the door and stopped. How could I slip into my car and continue our conversation, leaving them to stand in the rain? There were too many of them to fit inside. It seemed only right that we be wet and miserable together. We all stood outside the car and talked as the rain continued to fall.

The little girl was the only one who ever smiled, and that was when I admired her and asked her about school.

"People always think cab drivers have money," her father was saying. "Sometimes I drive seventeen or eighteen hours for sixty dollars."

Even unarmed passengers try to rob them. "They curse at you. When the meter reads ten dollars, they offer to settle for six."

Out of fear and despair, he admitted, he often agrees. "It's too dangerous to fight." He spoke quietly so as not to alarm the child who still clung to him.

His fears are not exaggerated. Five cabbies had been shot in the past two months. One careened into the parking lot of a crowded shopping center, shouting in panic for somebody to call the police. Before anybody did, his passenger shot him in the head.

The Herald has questioned the cost of taxi trips on my expense accounts. I cannot blame them. Sometimes the tips exceed the fare. I confess: I grossly overtip cab drivers.

I don't take a lot of cabs. When I deal with taxi drivers it is usually to cover their murders. When I do meet a cabbie who is alive and unhurt, I am always so relieved, so glad he is not dead that I want to give him money, lots of money. Cab drivers don't receive a cop's benefits, combat pay, or high hazard allowance. They don't ever get a Purple Heart.

August is Miami's hottest month, and in August 1980, Miami was hot, breaking all murder records and on the way to becoming number one in violence. There had been a sharp increase in multiple killings. Newly arrived Cuban refugees were figuring prominently in crime statistics. Law-abiding citizens, arming themselves as never before, were mowing down their assailants in droves, taking no prisoners, killing more criminals than the police were.

A grandmother shot down a stocking-masked bandit after several robberies at the convenience store where she worked. The young manager of a fast-food chicken outlet shot it out with robbers -- three times. A thirty-seven-year-old woman blasted a would-be rapist with a 20-gauge shotgun kept beside her bed.

A robber dressed as a woman, wearing a long wig, makeup, and false eyelashes, was deliberately run down and dragged half a block by the balding and diminutive middle-aged administrator of a heart-attack prevention program. The incident was witnessed by a weary homicide detective returning from a murder scene. He nearly had a heart attack himself when the robber's wig flew off and landed in the street. The detective thought it was her head and she had been killed. He leaped from his own car and raced alongside, screaming, "Stop! Stop your car! There's a woman underneath!"

"I know, I know," the driver calmly assured him. "I meant to hit her."

The cop rushed to aid the woman and discovered it was a man. "It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life," said the unnerved detective, who has seen a great many weird things.

Crime-weary Miamians began to treat corpses as though they were not there, even those that were difficult to ignore. Like the dead man in punk-rock regalia: Dressed in black and wearing scores of safety pins, medallions, chains, and rockconcert buttons, he lay sprawled in front of an abandoned house for hours one sunny Saturday. There were four earrings in his left ear and several bullet holes in his body. The neighbors went about their business as though he wasn't there.

I wanted to write about a day in the life of a homicide detective, working around the clock, exhausted and barely able to keep up with the body count. I would go where he did, see what he saw. That was how I met Rosa Smith.

Early that morning en route to interview a rape victim, a retarded twenty-seven-year-old man, Miami Homicide Detective Richard Bohan and I were diverted to Jackson Memorial Hospital. An assault victim was in the emergency room.

It was Rosa Smith. "The husband hit her with a steel box and tried to cut off her head -- with a weed cutter," a patrolman told us. The woman's skinny son, age twelve, had snatched away the steel box and slammed it over his father's head, knocking him out cold.

An eight-year-old daughter ran for help, pounding so frantically on a neighbor's door that her hand shattered the glass. She was badly cut. A seven-year-old fled in terror, fell, and severely gashed her left knee.

Rosa Smith, a round, soft-looking woman, was seated in a chair awaiting treatment. A blood-drenched bandage was wrapped around her head. The tear-stained little girls sat quietly beside her.

Detective Bohan said he was there to talk about what had happened with her husband.

"Is he dead?" she asked.

"No," the detective said. "He's alive."

"A pity," she said, sighing.

The two little girls stared at the floor.

Rosa had married young. He always beat her. "I thought that if we had three or four kids, he would change," she told us. They had four children, and her husband did change. "He got worse," she said. When he left them and went back to New York, she was glad. Free at last, she arranged to take the children and go home to her mother in Costa Rica. Her husband learned of her plans and returned to Miami in a fury.

"He broke a window and came in..." She and the children tried to run. "He hit me and I fell down the stairs...He started choking me."

She looked pleadingly at the detective. "Please let me take that plane home Monday."

Rosa Smith and her children still had their plane tickets, but no money. Her husband had taken it all, $120. We went to see Edwin Smith, now conscious in an emergency-room cubicle. The detective suggested that Smith return his wife's money. Smith, forty-eight, was surly and refused. The detective relayed the refusal to Rosa. There was nothing more he could do; it would trouble him all day.

Hours later, back at headquarters, we heard that Edwin Smith had made a speedy recovery. Released from the hospital and booked into the jail on assault charges, he immediately posted bond. Rosa, with no telephone, was unaware of his release. It was a busy day, but we speeded miles north to her small duplex apartment. Resting on a couch, a fresh and clean bandage around her head, she smiled at the detective.

"Have you seen your husband?"

The smile faded fast. She jerked to a sitting position. "He's not in jail?"

"He posted bond."

The look on her face was one of panic. "Why? Why did you let him go?"

"It was just a matter of posting one hundred and fifty dollars."

No money, no place to hide, and the flight to Costa Rica was two days away. One of the little girls began to cry. The detective, halfway out the door, turned back into the room. "Pack a few things," he told Rosa Smith. "Stay here. I'll be right back. I'll take you to a safe place."

From headquarters he telephoned Safe Space, a shelter for battered wives. The address is kept secret so violent husbands cannot find it. The person who answered was suspicious, called back to confirm the detective's identity, then left him on hold, interminably. "This," Bohan grumbled, "never happens to Kojak."

He was still on hold when his walkie-talkie began to broadcast a staccato series of signals. A homicide had just occurred, in a crowded restaurant. Bohan, his partner, and I dashed for the door. "That woman is gonna sit in that house and wait until I get back there, and now...I won't," the detective agonized.

On the way out, he asked a patrolman to take Rosa and her children to Safe Space. The busy officer said he would try.

The crime scene, a Cuban restaurant, was chaos. The killers, reportedly Colombians, were gone. The victim, a onelegged Venezuelan clergyman, remained grotesquely suspended atop two orange counter stools, still dripping blood from two bullet wounds.

Investigating were Bohan -- an Irish cop from Brooklyn -- and his partner -- an Italian from New Jersey. In the midst of the confusion, with excited witnesses shouting in several different languages, none of them English, the detective's radio interrupted. The patrolman could not find Rosa Smith's house. Closing his eyes to the tumult around him Bohan repeated the address and carefully described the building.

Later, en route to the station with a carload of Cuban and Chilean murder witnesses, Detective Bohan received a message from the patrolman: Rosa Smith and her children had been delivered to Safe Space.

We heaved a collective sigh of relief.

The day that began at 7:00 a.m. stretched to 11:00 p.m., ending with the killers of the Venezuelan and the rapist of the retarded man still at large -- but, at least, Rosa Smith and her children were safe. Two days later they took off for Costa Rica. Thank God for small favors, I said to myself.

It was almost a happy ending.

If only it had been the end.

The following May, nearly nine months later, a double murder went undiscovered for days, until neighbors reported the odor. Somebody had broken a window to get in, then attacked a man and a woman inside, hacking them to death with a machete. The man lay in a hallway. The woman made it to the living room. She was nearly cut in half.

It was Rosa Smith. She was thirty-five.

I was devastated. The detectives investigating the murder case were unaware of the family history. To them it was a whodunit, but I knew who did it. Detective Bohan was off. I called him at home, nearly in tears. He too was stunned. We had no idea that Rosa had returned to Miami.

Somehow Edwin knew.

He was found in New York, the children with him. A detective had to explain to them that their mother was dead and their father the killer. He got ninety-nine years.

The saddest, yet most resilient witnesses to violence are children. Perhaps what they see on television prepares them for anything. They seem to take shooting, murder, and death in their stride. It's the small things that disturb them.

A four-year-old blonde with a Dutch-bob haircut was asleep in her own tiny bed in her parents' room, when Uncle David broke in at midnight. He leaped onto her parents' bed, kicked her father in the face, and pumped eight bullets into the couple.

Solemnly, the new orphan told me what she had seen. She knew her parents were dead. She had seen death lots of times on TV. What troubled her, however, was something else that Uncle David did.

"He broke the window," she said, looking shocked, "kicked it right out. He broke it, on purpose," she emphasized, her little face puckered with disapproval. "He'll have to pay for it."

Extracting anything, especially justice, from Uncle David was no easy matter. His niece was nearly six when she testified, like a trouper, at his trial. Adjudicated incompetent, he was sent to a mental hospital. He wasn't so incompetent that he could not escape, frequently. I covered three of his escapes myself. He overpowered guards, forced aides to open doors, leaped from rooftops and scaled fences. Each time he beelined back to Miami, where he had threatened to kill more people.

His escapes so embarrassed hospital officials that they were delighted to oblige the killer's forgiving mother, who requested his transfer to a state mental hospital in Missouri so she could visit him more easily. But there was a slipup in official communications. Shortly after he arrived in Missouri, someone in charge at the new hospital gave him a pass to go visit his mother. He did not return.

She told authorities he had stopped by briefly, then departed, on his way to Miami.

Kids are more matter-of-fact than most of us. A bright and pretty six-year-old who reads newspapers described to me how she ran out to play with her puppies early one Sunday morning and found a murder victim.

"Mommy, there's a dead man out there."

It was 7:30 a.m. The mother groaned and told her to go back to bed. The little girl persisted. "I knew he was dead," she explained to me later. "I thought it was sickening."

She went on to describe in detail to her dozing mother how the man was lying there, eyes half-open and red stuff all over him. Finally the mother climbed slowly out of bed. It must be a wino who went to sleep, she said and padded to her kitchen window.

"My God!" she screamed and dove for the telephone. "He was bloody from head to foot."

Some children witness terrible crimes, others commit them. A great deal of violence is done by people who are still children in the eyes of the law. I mingled with dissident inmates during a Dade County Jail disturbance. One of the prisoners was a slightly built young boy who said he was fifteen. He looked even younger. You don't lock fifteen-year-olds behind barred doors with adult criminals. This must be a mistake, I thought, a bit indignantly. When I asked what crime he was charged with, he shrugged and seemed unsure. He grinned; he had found a champion. Then I asked his name.

Charles Cobb. He did not belong in the jail with the adult criminals. He belonged on death row. He was one of a gang of fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds led by a stick-thin teenager named Nathaniel Pressley. In a twenty-one-day Christmas-season robbery-murder rampage, they had widowed five women and left twenty-one children fatherless. The gang stampeded into small family grocery stores and markets, shouting, leaping atop counters, guns blazing. They were like a bunch of kids playing cowboys and Indians, but their weapons and bullets were real.

At Danny's Market, they killed the owner, shot his wife five times, wounded a customer, then shot the butcher in the back until he fell dead.

He had eleven children.

The owner's widow survived. She sat and described to me how she handed out lollipops to the boys when they were preschoolers, the same boys who had come back, killed her husband, and left her for dead. Their small neighborhood business would never reopen.

The gang left another small supermarket so littered with the dead and wounded -- both employees and customers -- that it looked like a battlefield when Miami Homicide Sergeant Mike Gonzalez arrived.

The young robbers had so much fun, shouting and shooting, they forgot to take the money. Mike did not sleep for days during the manhunt for Pressley. He and his partner missed him once by ten minutes. Those minutes cost two more lives, victims killed the next day. The detectives finally found the gang leader hiding in a closet at a friend's apartment. The kid was nonchalant; he had escaped punishment for shooting a man in a robbery when he was only fifteen. He had been released just a month before the murder spree began.

Still a child under the law, that is how Nathaniel Pressley was always treated. He expected no less this time. He mouthed off, spouted jive-talk at the detectives and never lost his cool -- until a secretary began to type the card necessary to book him into Dade County Jail. "Hey!" he cried, showing his first concern. "You can't put me in jail. I'm only sixteen. I go to Youth Hall!"

Surprise. Prosecutors had already agreed to treat the perpetrators in the cases as adults, no matter what their age.

His jailers considered the boy so dangerous that he was issued a special pink uniform. They wanted to keep him in sight among the other inmates. After he was sentenced twice to die and three times to life terms, prosecutors dropped the other murder charges. It was not worth it, they said. He was too dangerous to take back and forth to court.

I sat next to Pressley on a bench in the jail, under the watchful eyes of guards, and we talked.

"I consider myself an average teenager," he said. His first arrest, at age ten, was for robbery. He could not remember the last time he cried. He slept well, he said, and felt no remorse. He did not feel sorry for his victims. In fact the very question seemed to puzzle him.

His death sentences did not scare him. "I'm not going to the electric chair," he boasted belligerently, "and that's a fact. I know I will be free someday."

He was right about the electric chair. The U.S. Supreme Court abolished existing death-penalty statutes a few months later. The sentences of Pressley, Cobb, and two other gang members were commuted to life. Whether they will all be free someday remains to be seen.

A year or so after his death penalties were commuted, Pressley sharpened a screwdriver in a prison shop, fashioning it into a weapon. He plunged it into the spine of a young social worker who was trying to rehabilitate convicts by teaching them trades. The victim was left crippled, but Pressley was never tried for the crime. It was another freebie. Again, authorities decided it was simply too dangerous to escort the gang leader back and forth to court.

And Charles Cobb, the "child" I met at Dade County Jail, also sentenced to die twice, was transferred from the prison to a hospital for an eye operation. The surgery was so successful that while recuperating the patient managed to climb out a window and disappear. Three years later he was recaptured in Los Angeles.

When arrested, he was carrying a gun.

Murder gives you a glimpse into lifestyles that would otherwise remain private. If nothing else, the insight demonstrates again and again that strange things are happening in suburbia -- I mean plain old Twilight Zone weirdness.

What are they doing out there? And why?

The double murder of a Coast Guard lieutenant and his wife, bludgeoned to death in their handsome, well-landscaped home, has never been solved. But a bigger mystery to me is why the couple had eighty-one neglected, dirty, and unkempt poodles caged in the garage of their expensively furnished home.


What about the highly respected art teacher? Police found him dead in his small apartment with more than one hundred multicolored finches. The tiny bodies of six more birds were found in the freezer, carefully wrapped in aluminum foil. Homicide detectives who arrived to investigate the murder were dive-bombed by some of the small, short-beaked songbirds, who then soared over their heads to freedom. The body and the birds were a complete surprise to the landlord.

A murder in the family provides a slice-of-life look at that family and those surviving. A man named John Wooden, shot at a weekend party, died at Jackson Memorial Hospital. An arrest was made. That was the contents of a terse police press release.

I wanted to know more about the party, what it was all about. Sergeant Mike Gonzalez said he thought it was a birthday party. It was -- a surprise party for the dead man. During the festivities, a stranger shot the guest of honor through the heart. Mike told me the victim was part of a large and affectionate family and that their grief had created quite a stir at the hospital.

A daughter answered my call. Trying routinely to learn more about her dad, I asked how many children he had. She hesitated, seemed to be ticking off names. Finally she said, uncertainly, "Thirty-one, or thirty-two."

"No, no," I said, "how many children?"

"Thirty-one, or thirty-two," she said, and began conferring with other relatives present, debating the number.

Obviously crazed by grief, she did not know what she was saying. I expressed my condolences, thanked her, and redialed a few minutes later. A son answered. This time, I asked how many brothers and sisters he had. "Thirty," he said firmly.

It was true. John Bell Wooden, a construction superintendent, had fathered seventeen sons and fourteen daughters, ranging in age from three to thirty-one.

They had arranged the surprise party in honor of his fifty-third birthday. A brother took him out to dinner so the family could decorate his apartment. They brought refreshments and a gigantic cake. One hundred people shouted "Surprise!" when he opened the door at 9:30 p.m.

At about a quarter to three one of Wooden's daughters refused to pose for a Polaroid picture with a party crasher, age nineteen. He felt insulted and showed her a gun. She told her dad. He was a nice guy. He took the young gunman aside to speak to him in a fatherly fashion. The guests heard five shots.

A son wrestled the gun away. He and a brother bundled their injured father into a car for a wild ride to the hospital. At one point he stopped breathing. Frantically, they pounded on his chest, and he again began to gasp.

They carried him into the emergency room, where he died.

The rest of the birthday celebrants attacked the shooter. They fractured his skull and were still battering him when police arrived. Officers and paramedics rescued the teenager from the infuriated crowd and saved his life.

The partygoers all ran for their cars, headed for the hospital. As they got the bad news, the gunman was wheeled by, unconscious. They all charged him.

Bewildered officials reported a riot at the emergency room. It was no riot, it was just the immediate family.

Sergeant Mike Gonzalez, his partner, Detective Louise Vasquez, several patrolmen, and hospital security tried to hold back the crowd, including a Wooden son who had won a college football scholarship.

"My father was a good man," the husky football star told me. "Everybody loved him."

Murder exposes the uncommon in people's lives; sometimes one detail will reflect the motive or the warped dreams of a killer.

Christopher Wilder's favorite novel was The Collector by John Fowles. It fueled his dark fantasies. The book's central character, an inhibited young man, tired of collecting butterflies, stalks and kidnaps a lovely young woman. He holds her captive in a secret room at his home. There he photographs and torments her and when she dies, he buries her body on the grounds. The chilling book concludes with his plans to capture another specimen for his collection.

Wilder liked to photograph beautiful women and race expensive sports cars. A wealthy, Australian-born contractor, he was also a serial sex-killer, or about to become one, when I first telephoned him. It was shortly before he embarked upon an eight-thousand-mile, coast-to-coast odyssey of rape, torture, and murder.

All I knew was that two Miami women were missing. Each was a stunning part-time model. Neither had any reason to disappear. Rosario Gonzalez, age twenty, was deeply in love and planning a June wedding with her college sweetheart. Beth Kenyon, age twenty-three, a former University of Miami cheerleader and Orange Bowl princess, had close family ties and a teaching career.

Suddenly they were gone.

Rosario Gonzalez vanished amid the roar of engines at the Miami Grand Prix, on February 26, 1984. She was one of ten identically dressed models -- in red shorts and white T-shirts -- hired to distribute aspirin samples. Wilder, age thirty-nine, blue-eyed and bearded, had competed in the race, driving his black Porsche.

Beth disappeared a week later, on March 5. Her parents learned she was last seen with Wilder.

Coincidence? Bad luck? Two police departments were investigating: Rosario had vanished in Miami, so city detectives were looking for her. Metro-Dade, the county police, took a missing-persons report on Beth. I first suggested to Miami investigators that there might be a connection, but they doubted that the cases were linked.

Beth's wealthy parents retraced their daughter's steps to where she was last seen, in a service station talking to Christopher Wilder. No one has ever been found who saw her again. When police showed little initial interest in the disappearance, the frantic couple hired private investigators.

One of their detectives spoke to Wilder by phone on Saturday the tenth. The following day, he checked Wilder's home and usual haunts but was unable to find him. On Monday, Beth's father and brother and their private eye met with Wilder at his office. He lied to them. He said he had not seen Beth for weeks.

But he gave himself away when he said he understood that they had found Beth's car parked at Miami International Airport. They had, but no one had ever told Wilder.

Beth's brother wanted to force information out of him at gunpoint, but the private detective restrained him. He said it was a matter for the authorities to handle and turned all the information over to Metro-Dade police. "I think Wilder's your man," he told them.

They would have to start from square one, they said, to see if they reached the same conclusion. The police did not want to jeopardize Mr. Wilder's rights. They began by interviewing a number of pretty cheerleaders Beth had coached at the high school where she taught.

I called Wilder's home to ask him about the disappearances. The cops on the cases never went to see him, never spoke to him. Wilder lived north of Miami, in Palm Beach, across two county lines, and that complicated matters. Detectives would need special permission to leave their own jurisdictions and go there.

They did not have sufficient reason to do so, they said. "We had no proof he was a maniac," a Metro detective said later. Wilder was on probation for a Palm Beach rape. He was also free on $350,000 bond for a rape in Australia.

Wilder's machine answered my call. "This is Chris," the recording said affably, inviting me to leave a message. I did, asking him to call me. He did not.

The first news story referring to Wilder appeared in The Miami Herald the next day, on March 16. I did not use his name. The story said "a thin thread may link" the two missing women to a Boynton Beach man who drove in the Grand Prix. A detective investigating the disappearance of Beth Kenyon was quoted. He still considered "everybody a suspect."

Her parents had only one: Christopher Wilder. They knew the man. Once they had dined on crêpes with him at a fancy restaurant. He had even proposed to their daughter. He told Beth he would take her back to Australia and make her a princess. She hardly knew him; she did not take him seriously.

The day after the story appeared, Christopher Wilder was gone.

The families of the two missing girls had feared he might leave town, or the country, before they found their daughters. Both had offered to pay private detectives to watch Wilder night and day. But police told them not to worry; Wilder was not going anywhere. The distraught parents were convinced that he was under constant police surveillance, that his every move was monitored.

But it was not. Anyone watching would have seen Wilder deliver his three English setters to a boarding kennel and load a suitcase into his car. They would have seen him drive to his office to say goodbye to his business partner. But no one did. No one investigating the cases even realized he was gone until a week later. A hysterical college girl brought it to their attention. She escaped from a kidnapper in Georgia after a harrowing ordeal. A man had abducted her from a North Florida shopping center. Bound and gagged and zipped up in a sleeping bag, she was raped and tortured. The attacker had poured Super Glue in her eyes, but she could still identify him. It was Christopher B. Wilder.

Then the brutalized body of a twenty-one-year-old aspiring model, reported missing days earlier, was discovered facedown in Florida's Green Swamp. She was the daughter of a policeman.

As Christopher Wilder traveled across the nation, beautiful girls continued to vanish. A seventeen-year-old contestant disappeared after a beauty pageant in Las Vegas. A nursing student was reported missing by her husband in Beaumont, Texas. A young woman never returned from a shopping mall in Grand Junction, Colorado.

Bodies began to appear, in deserts, in woods, and along country roadsides. The FBI -- always a day late -- followed his trail of credit-card receipts, never knowing where Wilder would surface next.

During that monthlong travelogue of terror, I wrote the stories, week after week. The FBI joined the case and an agent confided to me that he would go home at night and cry, out of rage and frustration, knowing that somewhere out there, somebody else's daughter was next.

His cross-country rampage catapulted Wilder to the top of the FBI's Most Wanted list.

The FBI advised Miss America officials to warn the organizers of their fifty-one preliminary pageants to be on the alert. The publicity was national and intense, yet the most-wanted murderer in the nation still had no problem attracting lovely women. He had learned something since the 1981 Miami dating service videotape on which he said softly that he wanted to meet more members of the opposite sex. He had found the perfect ploy, the irresistible lure. It worked better than big bucks, which he had, better than flashy cars, which he drove.

It was a camera -- and a promise of cover-girl fame.

Beautiful girls, especially star-struck teenagers, are fond of posing for pictures. It thrills them to be told that they should be top models. Every girl nourishes a secret dream: her face on magazine covers and billboards, put there by somebody who will make her a star. Those dreams became nightmares at the hands of a twisted and sadistic killer. Eleven women were caught up in the terror; eight are dead or missing. One survived being left for dead, another escaped, and Wilder gave the last one safe passage home. A Torrance, California, girl, her name was Tina Marie, age seventeen.

It was his final gesture.

I think he let her live, not because he suddenly developed a conscience, but because she was not a ten. Unlike the others, Tina Marie was no model, no beauty queen. She was a somewhat-pudgy teenager who had problems with school, with her parents, and with her boyfriend. She was not perfect. It saved her life. Christopher Wilder felt no need to destroy her.

And he knew the chase was nearly ended. At a Boston airport, he gave her a fistful of cash and put her on a plane bound for California. Tired of running, he told her he "felt they were going to catch up with him real soon."

He was right.

He drove north, toward the Canadian border. At Colebrook, New Hampshire, a resort town of twenty-five hundred, just nine miles south of the border, he stopped at a Main Street filling station. In Los Angeles, twenty-five hundred miles away, Tina Marie's plane was about to touch down. An attendant pumped gas into his car as Wilder struck up a conversation with an old gentleman. He asked directions to the border and appeared curious about the documents he would need to cross.

As he asked questions, two passing state highway patrolmen saw him and stopped. As one walked toward him, Wilder suddenly ran for his car and the gun stashed in the glove compartment. The passenger's door was locked. He scrambled around to the driver's side and dove for the weapon, but the 240-pound trooper was upon him. They grappled for control of the gun. Two shots rang out.

Wilder was killed, a hole blown through his heart, the trooper wounded. It was April, Friday the thirteenth.

Word of Wilder's death brought mixed emotions.

Jubilant South Florida police offered the two New Hampshire state policemen a free trip to Miami Beach for ending Wilder's rampage. The parents of the two missing Miami women broke down and sobbed. How would they find their daughters now?

They never have.

Whatever happened to Rosario Gonzalez and Beth Kenyon took place at a time when Wilder hoped to go on living his double life undetected. He hid them well. Once he had become the nation's most-wanted fugitive, it no longer mattered. He just dumped dead women by the side of the road.

For the two families, the nightmare will not end until their daughters are found. I even sent the FBI photocopied pages from my copy of The Collector. I hoped they would study the original building plans of Wilder's lake-front home, seeking any unaccounted-for space. He was a contractor; he had remodeled the house.

The FBI did not reply.

But police did arrest somebody in this tragic case -- the heartbroken parents of Rosario Gonzalez. Unable to restrain themselves any longer, they went to Wilder's home on Mother's Day, seeking some trace of their daughter, missing then for two and a half months. Officers collared them. The charge: trespassing. Prosecutors later dropped the case.

On the day in June that Rosario Gonzalez was to marry her college sweetheart, he kept the appointment. The young man prayed alone in an empty church.

The parents of Beth Kenyon have searched as far as Mexico and South America for their daughter, grasping at straws, hopeful that Wilder's white-slavery fantasies might mean that she is alive, smuggled into Mexico and sold into prostitution.

At least the other families each got back a body.

If only Christopher Wilder had been kept alive long enough to talk. His friends and business associates, shocked and disbelieving, could offer little information about his secret life. It is difficult to keep in mind that the people who commit monstrous acts may look normal, even personable. It is always a surprise to me. Swallowing my own sense of outrage and indignation, I go off to the jail, or to his or her home, or some neutral turf, to talk to a killer. No matter how despicable, the killer always proves to be human, somebody you can identify with in some way.

That is the problem with judges and juries and parole commissions: All they see is a human being. The victim is history, old news, a name on a piece of paper, not like the flesh-andblood human being standing before them, alive and breathing and even shedding a tear or two at the propitious moment.

A man who had spent half his life in prison and his buddy, an ex-Philadelphia cop, both junkies, wanted the few dollars in the cash register at the convenience store where Annie Ruth Oliver worked. They hit the store at midday. Annie Ruth Oliver was nibbling her lunch between customers. She had been robbed seven times in the past, and she knew the procedure. She passively handed over the money without argument. But one of the strung-out robbers was shaky, the one with the sawed-off shotgun.

He didn't mean to squeeze the trigger, he said later. He was as surprised as anyone when the blast cut her in two. She was dead behind the blood-soaked counter when I got there.

The moment you dread most at a murder scene is the arrival of next of kin; in this case it was Annie Ruth Oliver's two teenage sons. The oldest, his face tear-streaked, told me, "She just worked, came home, and went back to work. She never even went anywhere."

I never forgave the men who killed her. Captured and convicted, they were sent to prison. The ex-cop was a terrific talker with a high I.Q., a smart man, but not smart enough to stay off drugs. He attended college in prison and hosted his own radio show. Hailed as a glorious example of successful rehabilitation, he organized a group to counsel troubled convicts, so they would be able to return to the community with an education and a better attitude -- and less chance of going back to jail.

Then he split. One day he just failed to come back from his college classes. A year later, he was arrested in San Francisco. As soon as he was back behind bars, his professors and social workers were clamoring that he deserved a break on the escape charge. The "Cinderella" syndrome made him do it, they said: The fact that he had to go back to prison each night, or turn into a pumpkin, was too stressful for the man.

Maybe I am unkind, but what about the "sudden orphan" syndrome? Were any social workers or college professors clamoring to assist the children of Annie Ruth Oliver? She chose to work and support her family. He chose drugs and crime.

Maybe I have just seen too many victims.

I would not have given him a break. But nobody asked me, and he got one.

Sometimes the only justice is street justice. Some slayings seem, if not poetic, to be logical conclusions that were inevitable and only a matter of time. Take Jessie Lee Stuckey, an unpleasant fellow whose brief and violent life ended at age twenty-seven in a littered field near a rock pit. He died of unnatural causes.

His killers kidnapped Stuckey at gunpoint in front of witnesses. But they all knew the abducted man and his lifestyle and did not think it unusual, so nobody called the cops.

His sweetheart, with whom Stuckey had been living for a year, also saw him kidnapped. They had been quarreling lately, she said. And she "was kind of glad to see him leave," no matter what the circumstances. In addition, she said, she had no phone, so it would have been inconvenient to report the crime.

So police never knew that Stuckey was in trouble until a woman looking for firewood discovered his scarred, tattooed, and bullet-torn body. She did call the police, probably because she didn't know him.

His face was a familiar one to the cops. They had shot him once themselves, while trying to arrest him on assault charges. A nickel-and-dime dope dealer and thief, Stuckey had a history of resisting arrest and shooting into people's houses, and he had killed a man in a fistfight three months earlier. There was no lack of motives for his murder. When solemn-faced detectives arrived to break the bad news to his nearest and dearest, they all said, oh yeah, he was kidnapped by guys with guns.

They had been meaning to call.

Finally, consider the case of Karate Al: That's what they called him, and they stayed out of his way on downtown Miami's steamy sidewalks. He was tough. Known as the Bully of Northeast Fifth Street, he claimed to be a martial-arts expert. He posed and postured in karate stances -- and if that didn't work he used broken bottles and two-by-fours.

A violent bully, he had the crowd at Abe's Rooming House cowed -- until it was discovered one morning that Karate Al had picked his last fight. Somebody had pounded in his head with a pipe or hammerlike weapon as he dozed in a peaceful wine-induced slumber.

He was asleep and never knew what hit him.

Oddly enough, none of the other tenants at Abe's -- where the manager was nursing a split lip and a tenant still hobbled on crutches, both after encounters with Al -- could tell police how he happened to be killed there.

It was a mystery.

The tenants all discussed Al freely. They told me he could render people unconscious just by pressing their necks with his fingers and that he did not hesitate to demonstrate the talent. They said he had busted the manager's mouth the night before for no reason at all. A week earlier, he had kicked a boy in the stomach so many times they thought he would kill him. They said he had a knife in his back pocket and a big mouth. They said that whoever did it must have known that sneaking up on him as he slept was the only way to get rid of Al. All said they didn't have the faintest idea who could have done it.

"You die like you live," said one of the tenants, as morgue attendants carried Al's muscular body out of the rooming house.

They all nodded wisely. And nobody cried.

Copyright © 1987 by Edna Buchanan

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