Fire and Water

The report of the late-night fire on Island Road contains no narrative describing the human events leading up to the neighbor's emergency call. More than eight months later, in the days after Maria Hernandez's death, the owner of the Cutler Ridge bungalow supplied a brief explanation of the fire to officials investigating his wife's drowning. John Hernandez said he had been home, cooking in the kitchen, when he realized Maria's pet rottweiler, Abigail, had escaped from the house. Running out the door, he failed to see the dog and decided to search the neighborhood in his truck. When he came back, with Abigail in tow, the street in front of his house was crowded with fire engines.

In the first week of September 1991, ten months after the fire, James and Bessie Demos drove to a nondescript office building off the Dolphin Expressway in West Dade. There they offered Metro-Dade police's internal affairs investigators a rather different account of how the house fire had started.

According to the Demoses' sworn statement, John and Maria began moving documents and a few valuable possessions from their Cutler Ridge bungalow to the Demos household in late October 1990. When Bessie Demos asked her daughter what she was doing, Maria refused to say. James Demos says he confronted John, and the officer eventually acknowledged that he and Maria were contemplating arson. The Demoses say they were at first dismayed by the revelation, but after hearing the couple's argument, they came to believe the plan made a certain amount of sense.

According to James Demos, who passed a lie-detector test administered by Metro-Dade internal affairs investigators, the younger couple was convinced their neighborhood was going downhill. They wanted to buy a piece of land and build a new home, says Demos, but their existing house had not appreciated significantly in value, and they were a long way from paying off the mortgage. Demos says John believed it would be much more profitable to destroy the house than try to sell it. The two couples agreed to proceed with the plan, with the understanding that John and Maria would move into the Demoses' Biscayne Park home while waiting to collect the insurance money.

Maria, according to her mother, was willing to keep a secret but unwilling to become an active participant in the scheme. She was in Tampa visiting relatives the night of the fire.

The Demoses say the insurance scam backfired when the Cutler Ridge bungalow failed to burn to the ground. "John didn't expect the neighbor to wake up and see the flames," Bessie Demos explains.

In offering their three-hour statements to internal affairs investigators, the Demoses were warned by police that they could face felony conspiracy charges if their allegations proved to be true. "They're coming to us admitting to a crime, and calling their dead daughter a crook," says one police official. "And they know that."

The elderly couple says that doesn't matter to them. They say they have no reason any more to protect their dead daughter. And they believe their account of the fire sheds new light on the investigation of the drowning. If John was capable of arson, they claim, he might well have been capable of murder. Though he has no evidence to support his speculation, James Demos theorizes that in the months after the house fire, Maria threatened to expose John's involvement in the alleged arson unless her husband stopped seeing other women.

On September 6, the Metro-Dade Police Department issued a press release announcing that John Hernandez had been relieved of active duty with pay pending the outcome of an arson investigation. "It's not a normal thing," says an internal affairs investigator, referring to the press release. "But [Metro-Dade Police Department Director Fred Taylor] felt he didn't want to relieve this guy without some explanation of what happened, so people wouldn't think it's a murder investigation." Hernandez has been reassigned to administrative duties at Metro's Cutler Ridge station. He says he is still very distraught over losing his wife and refuses to comment about his in-laws' arson allegations or their suspicions regarding Maria's death.

Charles Fairfax also declines to discuss the drowning. "I think at this juncture I really don't want to answer any questions about the tragic accident involving Maria," he says. "Please understand that I don't want to be thrust into what's going on down there."

The home-owners' coverage on Maria and John Hernandez's $59,000 Cutler Ridge home was not the only insurance policy the couple possessed. Since 1979, when she joined the Metro-Dade Police Department as a records clerk earning $158.22 per week, Maria Hernandez had named her mother as primary beneficiary on a variety of life-insurance policies and benefits to which she was entitled as a county employee.

Personnel records show that on May 22, 1991, seven weeks before her death, Maria Hernandez signed five documents that for the first time named her husband as the principal recipient of various payments in the event of her death. These include a county group life-insurance policy that, according to plan administrators, would pay twice Maria Hernandez's $35,000 annual salary to a beneficiary in the event of accidental death; a Florida Retirement System plan by which survivors obtain accrued retirement benefits from a worker who dies before reaching the end of his or her career; and an additional $100,000 accidental-death policy offered by the Dade County Police Benevolent Association through Maria Hernandez's bargaining unit.

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