Fire and Water

Maria Hernandez never missed a day of work in ten years until the hot summer morning she was autopsied and released for burial in section eleven, lot 93-A, of Southern Memorial Park cemetery in North Miami Beach.

The drowning of the 35-year-old Metro-Dade police dispatcher three months ago in the calm, blue-green waters of Biscayne National Park sent uneasy ripples through the lives of those who knew her well. And from the beginning, the circumstances of her death puzzled medical experts and stirred a haze of suspicion around the dead woman's husband, veteran Metro-Dade police officer John Hernandez. For months the case continued to preoccupy a team of homicide detectives, and still feeds the rage and rancor of an accusing family.

In the last minutes of her life, Maria Hernandez suddenly began struggling for air and sank below the surface of the ocean during a snorkeling trip off Elliott Key, according to her husband and an out-of-town friend, the only witnesses. An examination of the body confirmed Hernandez had drowned, but ruled out such factors as heart attack, stroke, blood clot in the brain, intoxication, animal bites, or natural disease that are typical contributors in many accidental drownings.

Though the death was quickly ruled an accident by the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, pathologists kept hunting for a more precise explanation of what killed Maria Hernandez. Joe Davis, Dade's renowned chief medical examiner and an expert on diving fatalities and

the pathology of drowning victims, didnot perform the July 15 autopsy, but soon after he took an active interest in the case.

"It is not clear to me what factors resulted in her death," Davis wrote to Metro homicide commander Wayne McCarthy on July 29. "I think it well to review this in detail in regard to human, equipment, and environmental factors of causation." In scheduling an August 15 conference with five other doctors,

three homicide detectives, and seven police scuba experts, Davis wrote that he hoped the meeting would result in "the removal, or confirmation, of suspicion about the case."

It didn't. In an interview October 2, six weeks after the conference, Davis acknowledged that the specific causes of Hernandez's drowning were still a mystery. "Where are we now in terms of understanding what happened to her? I don't really know," Davis said. "Are we being hoodwinked? I've thought of that. We've all thought of that. Homicide is going way out of its way to cover all the angles. These guys do not like to be hosed, especially by one of their own." By last week Metro police had finished covering all the angles. Satisfied there was no indication that the drowning of Maria Hernandez was anything but an accident, detectives now are in the process of closing their investigation.

But all the police work, and the forensic experts' best explanation of Hernandez's death -- that the plump, chain-smoking dispatcher simply inhaled some salt water and panicked, with calamitous results -- never satisfied her parents. They came forward last month with explosive information about their daughter and son-in-law, weaving a tale of alleged conspiracy and insurance fraud that ultimately led them to suspect John Hernandez of foul play in Maria's death. On September 6, their story became the basis of an additional police internal affairs investigation of the 43-year-old husband Maria Hernandez left behind.

"I know in my heart this was no accident," says Bessie Demos, standing in her Biscayne Park living room near a candlelit shrine to her dead daughter. Says her husband James Demos: "I didn't fall off a potato truck yesterday morning. Something happened out there we don't know about, and we are not going to rest until we find out what it is."

Sunday, July 14, dawned clear and bright, and Maria Hernandez was awake to see the day begin. Soft light filtered through curtains in the east bedroom of her parents' comfortable home on NE 116th Street.

The bedroom where she awoke was familiar to her in every detail. It had been a quiet sanctuary ever since the Demos family moved south from New Jersey in 1972. The room had been hers while she attended North Miami High School in her teens, and it remained hers throughout the Seventies when she worked as a bakery salesgirl at a nearby Publix supermarket and earned degrees in business and psychology at Miami-Dade Community College's north campus and Florida International University in North Dade.

The neatly kept house in Biscayne Park was the center of a close family and community life. Maria's parents, Greek immigrants who had prospered over the years through a busy interior-decoration business, were their daughter's best friends. Bessie Demos, in particular, had long been Maria's most intimate confidante. And a mile to the west, at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Maria took confession and attended vespers and Sunday services in Greek and English with 150 other immigrant families, a tightly knit social group with decades-old roots in the area.

The church, her parents' house, and the east bedroom of her youth became sanctuary again during difficult periods in Maria's adult life with John Hernandez. Before the couple's 1985 marriage and again in 1987, Maria moved out of John's Cutler Ridge bungalow and back into her parents' home. Both times, according to Bessie Demos, Maria complained that John was seeing other women behind her back. "She said he wanted an open marriage," Bessie Demos recalls. The Demoses, married for 40 years, listened to their daughter's problems, and reminded her that marriage is typically a trying affair. Philemon Payaitis, the priest who married John and Maria, also says he counseled her for marital problems on several occasions, most recently in April.

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