Fire and Water

In addition, a week earlier, Maria had taken out a separate, supplemental life-insurance policy through a local Metropolitan Life office on Biscayne Boulevard, and arranged to automatically deduct monthly premiums of $65.50 from her private checking account. Metropolitan Life records confirm that Maria again named John Hernandez as beneficiary of the new $50,000 policy, and that a death benefit is currently being processed. The first and only checking-account deduction for premiums on the policy occurred June 13, one month after the policy went into effect.

Bessie Demos remembers the day an insurance agent delivered the policy to Maria at the Biscayne Park home and asked Maria's mother to witness the signing. "Maria says, `Look ma, just sign this. I'll explain later,'" Demos recalls. "She acted like she didn't want to sign it."

Demos says John also took out a new supplemental life-insurance policy and made Maria his beneficiary. Personnel records show that John Hernandez's county life-insurance benefits match Maria's, and that she was named the beneficiary of those benefits.

In interviews with investigators after his wife's death, John Hernandez explained that the changes in the couple's insurance plans were designed to guarantee that the land they bought in February and the Cutler Ridge bungalow he had begun payments on in 1980 could be taken care of in any eventuality. Homicide detectives say they know of no other private insurance policies covering Maria Hernandez's life.

Though there are many things Metro homicide investigators will not talk about, they have emphasized one point: Fifteen-year veteran police officer John Hernandez is not a suspect in a murder investigation. Asked in mid-August why the inquiry into Maria Hernandez's death was still not closed, Det. Doug Stephens said: "The investigation is still open because we are looking at the serviceability of the [diving] equipment, not because we think there was a criminal act by anybody."

Part Four
Homicide detectives also say they are not drawing a connection between the ongoing arson investigation and their scrutiny of the drowning. David Ranck, a prosecutor in the Dade state attorney's organized-crime unit, will likely be the first person to formally examine both cases together once they are sent to him for review. That process could last as long as six months.

Ranck is currently monitoring the arson investigation, and has refused to comment about it. The final stage of the probe will occur when John Hernandez is asked to make a formal statement to investigators responding to his in-laws' sworn allegations. Ranck says that should occur within the next week.

"Technically we have enough probable cause to make an arrest," says internal affairs Sgt. Lee Michaud, referring to the arson investigation. "But that doesn't mean we have proof of anything. We are trying to find someone [besides Maria Hernandez's parents] who she supposedly told about the fire. And we haven't found that person, if that person exists."

Speaking of Maria Hernandez's drowning, Michaud says he is skeptical that Charles Fairfax and John Hernandez cooked up a murder conspiracy. On the balance, it just seems too far-fetched, and Michaud says he doesn't see a strong motive. "There may be things that look suspicious. There may be things that look sinister," he says, "but again, it comes down to evidence. And there's just no evidence there."

Homicide Commander Wayne McCarthy, who has kept a close eye on the investigation of Maria Hernandez's drowning, echoes the sentiment. "For one to say that something we don't know about absolutely did not occur would be a ridiculous statement," says McCarthy. "But there are just too many details in this case that, if you wanted to commit a murder, would have been done differently.

"I can see where the life insurance might look suspicious," McCarthy continues, "but a lot of people don't change their insurance for a long time after getting married. Had [Maria] had no insurance, or only the standard insurance, we wouldn't have looked as hard. And obviously, because there became this other [arson] investigation, we had to look a little harder still. But at no time was there finger pointing at John in this office. And that's not because he's a cop. It's because we didn't find a reason for finger pointing."

McCarthy says he and his detectives have made every effort to conduct a thorough investigation, in part because they expected the case to draw public attention. While emphasizing that John Hernandez received no benefit of the doubt because he is a cop, McCarthy and other investigators say they now sometimes worry that a grieving and innocent man may be unfairly accused by the public's suspicions. "The public might say, `Look, they covered it up,'" McCarthy explains. "Other people may say, `Look, maybe he did do it but they never got enough on him.' I'll tell you that there probably are going to be people who don't like John, who will say he committed the perfect crime. And that's a shame."

At the Church of the Annunciation, where Philemon Payaitis performed both marriage and funeral services for Maria Hernandez, the aging priest says he prefers to remember her as he saw her in life. The Demoses' allegations of conspiracy and suspicions of murder must be the product of overweening grief, he believes. "I can't even fantasize her being involved in something like that," Payaitis says of Maria Hernandez's alleged role in an arson conspiracy. "In my book she was an angel. I can't say that she was very bright, but she was a truly innocent heart, a helper, never a destroyer. She was the same Maria always, always with a smile.

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