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But by the summer of 1991, other events had brought Maria back to the east bedroom, this time with John by her side. The couple had taken up residence with the Demoses after a November 1990 fire damaged their own home in South Dade. After the house was repaired, the couple decided to rent it out and stay on with Maria's parents. The arrangement was hard on all four people. John and Maria had to drive farther to their jobs, and the Demoses, both in their sixties, found their house was suddenly crowded. But it was the kind of economic sacrifice that had defined the older couple's life.
In February, three months after the fire, John and Maria had taken out a mortgage and purchased two parcels of land worth $46,000 and situated a mile south of Florida City. They planned to sell or continue renting the 35-year-old, 1082-square-foot bungalow in Cutler Ridge and build a spacious new 4000-square-foot ranch house near the undeveloped intersection of Southwest 376th Street and 270th Avenue. Construction on the new house was scheduled to begin in early 1992, after the couple had paid off the bulk of the debt on the 2.54 acres of land.
"They were a couple that was ready to move on to better things," says Louis Kallinosis, a South Dade architect who knew Maria since her teens and in January discussed a tentative house design with the couple. "I remember Maria saying something to the effect that she was very uncomfortable living at the old house after the fire. She said she never wanted to live there again."
Besides offering their home to Maria and John as a temporary base of operations, the Demoses had helped in another way. Though Maria's and John's combined annual income was close to $100,000, the Demoses' daughter had run into serious financial problems by early 1991. According to her parents, the debt on Maria's several credit cards threatened to keep the couple from getting the loan they needed to purchase their dream homestead. Bessie Demos claims it was John's recreational pursuits that contributed substantially to the couple's debt. "She bought him the boat and she bought him the motorcycle -- both with her credit cards," Demos says, referring to John's twenty-foot open fisherman and vintage-edition Harley-Davidson.
Before the November 1990 house fire, James Demos says he gave Maria a $9000 cash loan. A few months later, without telling his wife, he gave his daughter the key to a Miami bank safe-deposit box. The box contained $10,000 in cash and another $10,000 in gold coins. Demos had originally intended the money as an inheritance, but agreed, with some hesitancy, to put it at the disposal of the younger couple. Within weeks the cash was removed from the box, the credit cards paid off, according to James Demos.
By Independence Day, nerves were somewhat raw in the Biscayne Park home. On the morning of July 12, the Demoses recall, Maria burst out of her bedroom in tears and locked herself in a bathroom for twenty minutes, refusing to say what was wrong. Earlier in the week, Bessie Demos had vetoed a plan to invite another guest into the house for a three-day visit. That decision, the Demoses say, irritated their son-in-law.
Charlie Fairfax was, according to many, John Hernandez's oldest and closest friend. The two men met while working on a drug case in 1974, when Fairfax was a territorial prosecutor in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Brooklyn-born Hernandez was a young narcotics agent with the Puerto Rican police, fresh from a hitch in the U.S. Navy. Over the years, Fairfax and Hernandez were rarely close geographically, but remained fast friends and visited one another often. Fairfax helped Hernandez through several hard times, including the divorces that ended the police officer's first two marriages, the Demoses say.
In 1976 Hernandez, who grew up in Puerto Rico and attended a Catholic high school there, settled in Miami and joined the Metro-Dade Police Department as a patrolman. Despite some early problems adjusting to written English and police procedures in the mainland United States, as noted in his personnel file, Hernandez soon earned a reputation as a generally solid and energetic cop. As a rough-shaven, ponytailed undercover officer with Metro's narcotics bureau, he won commendations for his work on several large drug seizures. Once in 1988 he grabbed a loaded rifle out of the hands of a would-be suicide, and was credited with saving the man's life.
Fairfax left the Caribbean in 1980 to begin an equally sound, if somewhat less exciting, career as a corporate lawyer for General Motors in Detroit. Fairfax's staid new life was made more dramatic at Hernandez's urging. In the mid-Eighties, according to police, Hernandez talked his friend into buying a touring motorcyle, despite the Detroit lawyer's lack of mechanical aptitude. Fairfax would load his new Harley in a van, then rendezvous with Hernandez at various locations to embark on interstate rides. More recently, police say, Hernandez had gotten Fairfax excited about scuba diving. John and Maria Hernandez had pursued the sport with relish since their certification in 1984. Now, after a training course in Detroit, Fairfax was coming to Miami for his first post-certification dive.