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.

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.

Part Two
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.

John Hernandez picked up his friend at Miami International Airport the night of July 12. The next day, Saturday, the two men rented four scuba tanks at the Cutler Ridge Diving Center on South Dixie Highway, according to police. They borrowed two more from a fellow police officer who kept Hernandez's boat in his back yard. With the boat in tow, Hernandez dropped off Fairfax at a Holiday Inn in South Dade, then drove back to his in-laws' house. Hernandez would say later that he and Maria turned in sometime after midnight, and fell asleep between 2:00 and 3:00 a.m. Sunday.

Hernandez and Fairfax have both declined to discuss the events of July 14, but notes from detectives' interviews with the men describe the day's activities. After the Hernandezes picked up Fairfax at the motel, the threesome ate breakfast at a diner, and then stopped at T & S Dive Center on Old Cutler Road. Fairfax and John Hernandez had both forgotten their scuba regulators, and decided to rent a unit each. They got back in John's pickup truck and drove to Black Point Marina near where SW 148th Street ends on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Fairfax helped John put the boat in the water and buy fuel for the 140 horsepower Evinrude outboard. Maria walked to a nearby shop to stock up on sodas and chips.

Within minutes after 10:00 a.m., the party was powering across Biscayne Bay and out into the Atlantic, southward along the eastern shore of Elliott Key. They passed the channel markers at Caesar Creek on the starboard side, and dropped anchor near a reef two miles south of the key, where they hoped to find lobsters.

The three donned their scuba gear, applied Dacor defogging solution to their masks, and entered the water. John later told detectives that Maria complained of eye irritation and chose to get back in the boat while the two men dove for approximately half an hour. Sometime in the early afternoon, deciding the particular section of reef was not to their liking, the party headed north to a different location.

At approximately 5:00 p.m. two paramedics from the Dade County Fire Department prepared to enter the water from a chopper hovering over an open boat with an orange-and-white dive flag flying from its stern. The situation did not look hopeful. Below them, where the pilot of the boat had cut his engine, the paramedics saw a woman in a one-piece purple-and-black bathing suit, lying on her left side. A white T-shirt covering the her chest was emblazoned with a friendly "G'Day!" but the woman was motionless behind the forward console. A burly black man and a smaller white man stood on a deck littered with dive tanks and gear.

Once on board, the paramedics told the men in the boat that the woman was dead. They instructed them to continue on to Homestead Bayfront Park.

By 7:00 p.m. officials from the medical examiner's office and Metro's homicide division had arrived on the dock at the marina. An hour later, shortly before the body was taken away in a coroner's van, Dr. Valerie Rao and Det. Douglas Stephens filed the first official description of what had happened to Maria Hernandez: "The victim was snorkeling with her husband and a friend. She experienced problems with her mask, and one diver went to her assistance. A scuba tank mouthpiece was exchanged, and the deceased disappeared. She was subsequently found, and first aid attempted. Expired on the scene."

When John arrived back at the Demoses' at about 9:00 that night, Philemon Payaitis, the family priest who watched Maria grow up, was already there, having come to comfort the family. "The boy was confused," Payaitis recalls. "He was not talking too much, he was silent."

Weeks later, after further interviews with Fairfax and John Hernandez, a more detailed picture of the fatality emerged. Notes by homicide detectives contained in the medical examiner's case file offer this story: According to the two men, Maria Hernandez again complained of eye irritation when the party arrived at their second dive site, a mile north of the first one. Maria and John decided to go snorkeling while Fairfax dove alone on the reef in eighteen to twenty feet of water. The couple swam on the surface of the ocean, John several yards in front of Maria.

Twenty minutes into his dive, Fairfax says he looked up and saw Maria flailing her arms in a panic ten to fifteen yards away from him, just beneath the surface. Swimming toward her, he noticed her face mask and snorkel lying on the ocean floor. Approaching the struggling woman, Fairfax tried to give her his secondary respirator, but could not remove the apparatus from its pocket.

Maria Hernandez continued to struggle underwater. In desperation Fairfax stuck his own respirator in her mouth. But then he began to panic when the drowning woman refused to return his only source of oxygen. Fairfax says he tore the stem of the respirator from Maria's mouth, leaving a rubber mouthpiece attachment clenched between her teeth. He kicked away from her to the surface just above him, attempting to breathe through the stem of the respirator.

Fairfax told detectives that he shouted and waved at John Hernandez, who was snorkeling several yards away, oblivious to the developing disaster. As John began swimming toward his friend, Fairfax saw Maria suddenly stop struggling and appear unconscious. The two men said they dragged her to the surface, where John attempted mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. In the next minutes, the men said they hauled Maria through the water to the edge of the boat and, with difficulty, got her on board.

While Fairfax tried to start the engine, John again attempted mouth-to-mouth and cardiopulmonary resuscitation, causing Maria to throw up. John succeeded in starting the boat motor, but found his marine radio would not transmit. Heading toward land, John fired one emergency flare from a flare gun. Minutes later, he spotted another vessel, brought his boat alongside, and made a 911 call on a cellular telephone.

The July 15 autopsy of Maria Hernandez's body did nothing to either discount the witnesses' explanation of what took place or elucidate what, specifically, caused the drowning. Other physical evidence was similarly unenlightening. Every item of scuba equipment the party had used earlier in the day was examined and tested by a local consultant and found to be in good working order. A compressed-air analysis of the contents of the dive tanks was performed in a state Department of Health and Human Services lab. The air was normal. The mask-defogging solution all three divers had used was analyzed and found to contain nothing but water and rubbing alcohol. Maria's mask and snorkel, and the rubber mouthpiece she had torn from Fairfax's respirator in the last moments of her life, were never recovered.

The half-dozen small cuts and bruises on Maria Hernandez's body and face were considered to be consistent with postmortem swelling, and with the witnesses' description of how they dragged the unconscious woman over the gunwales of John Hernandez's boat. What looked like teeth marks on the stem of Fairfax's diving respirator were pondered by Dr. Richard Souviron, a highly regarded forensic dentist. His conclusion: It's impossible to say what the marks mean to the case, or even if they are teeth marks.

Notes from the case file in the medical examiner's office indicate that investigators were somewhat puzzled that both Fairfax and Maria Hernandez had failed to ditch the weight belts they were believed to be wearing during their last encounter. Both had been trained to do precisely that in an emergency situation. If Maria had been wearing a weighted dive belt, as investigators assumed, that would help explain why her buoyant body was able to sink below the surface of the water. And the presence of the belt seemed to indicate to investigators that she intended to do some intermittent free diving as she snorkeled -- an activity that could have contributed to an accidental drowning.

Through July and August, detectives' notes show they thought Maria was wearing her pink-and-black weight belt when she died, and that Fairfax and John Hernandez had been too panicked to remove it while Maria was in the water. But in the first week of September, when Det. Doug Stephens flew to Detroit to interview Fairfax once again, the lawyer stated that the weight belt had not, in fact, been used by Maria while she was snorkeling. In a telephone conversation with chief medical examiner Davis in mid-September, John Hernandez agreed that was the case. The absence of the weight belt explained why Maria Hernandez never ditched it. But the absence also made it less clear why the overweight swimmer, buoyant and wearing kick fins, found herself below the surface of the ocean, losing a fight for her life.

Part Three
Victor Pidermann, lead detective in the homicide division's investigation of the death, says the discrepancy in the story about the belt was a simple misunderstanding. "Nobody ever really said that she was wearing a weight belt," Pidermann explains. "It was an asssumption we made until it was clarified by Fairfax and John Hernandez. It was an assumption we made initially because we saw the weight belt lying next to her on the boat when they brought her in."

Pidermann, who is in the process of closing out the investigation of the drowning and classifying it as an accident, says he feels confident the inquiry has been thorough and complete. He has no lingering doubts. "There's no information to lead us to the conclusion that this is anything other than an accidental drowning," Pidermann explains. "There was nothing that indicated any foul play. It pretty much is closed as an accidental drowning, with the angle that if something comes up, it can be reopened."

Sometime after 2:00 a.m. on November 5, 1990, a roiling bank of flame roared from the kitchen to the dining room in an empty three-bedroom bungalow on Island Road. The fire started in a pan of cooking oil on the burner of an electric stove and ended with a damage estimate of $30,000. At 2:21 a.m. an alarmed neighbor called 911 to report flames pouring from the rear of the house in Cutler Ridge.

Within minutes a team of four firefighters pulling a one-and-three-quarter-inch fire hose had entered through the open back door of the one-story home and poured 100 gallons of water on the flames. Two other fire trucks arrived to help out. Though the entire house was damaged by smoke, the quick efforts of the fire team saved the roof and concrete-block walls. The fire, after a routine examination by an arson investigator, was ruled an accident.

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.

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.

"A time of grief, a death like that, it creates imagination," Payaitis says. "Why they want to destroy Johnny by accusing Maria, I don't know."

Joe Davis, Dade's chief medical examiner, says he is comfortable sticking by his office's present opinion that the drowning was an accident -- at least for the time being. "We realize that often times the answers we get, the conclusions we make, have a sliding degree of certainty," Davis says. "The sum total of any investigation is a combination of the police and the ME's office. Hopefully what will emerge out of it will be unequivocal and clear. But that's a relative thing. I'm not a staunch defender of opinions coming out of this office. An opinion is only good as the data base that creates it. Opinions can change.

"If it is a homicide, it is very cleverly contrived, to the point where you have details like a mouthpiece being torn off a respirator," the medical examiner muses. "To be that devious, to be that smart...." Davis's voice trails off into uncharacteristic silence, and then begins again. "I think there's legitimate reason for concern. But I've seen six people arrested for murder who weren't murderers. My greatest fear is to be an active participant in an accusation of murder where no murder took place. That gives me nightmares.

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