A prominent attorney. A briefcase full of cash. A scheming girlfriend. And a severely manipulated legal system. They all come together in the bizarre tale of The Missing Briefcase

This was not going to be a particularly pleasant holiday season for Simon Steckel. Just two days before Christmas 1992, the prominent Coral Gables attorney had injured his back badly enough that he would later need surgery. Adding to his discomfort was the sorry state of his marriage, which appeared to be heading for divorce. He had been separated from his wife for nearly a year, and the thought of spending the holidays alone at his Kendall home was unbearable.

To ease his suffering, Steckel had checked into a suite at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami. He had been residing there since December 16. A hotel room may not have provided the most festive atmosphere, but at least the 37-year-old lawyer did not lack for companionship.

Simon Steckel, after all, was a powerful man, and powerful men have needs. Melissa DeLeon could appreciate that. A bleached blonde with bright sapphire eyes and an alluring figure, Melissa was experienced beyond her 24 years. She had already been married and divorced twice. She'd never held a job and instead lived off a trust fund left by her deceased father, Larry Tritsch, one of the great Opa-locka flea-market barons.

Over the years Melissa's relationship with her mother had become strained. "Her mother keeps telling me to forget her, but how can I? She doesn't have anyone else," her grandmother Roberta would say. "Melissa has always run with the wrong people. Hasn't had much luck with men, either. When she was younger, we hoped she might go to college, but..." The thought would trail off with a shrug, followed by: "But she's a good girl."

Good girl that she was, Melissa was dismayed to learn that her Yuletide lover was still married during the time they were together. "I didn't know," she would say later. "He always referred to her as his ex-wife."

Simon Steckel and Melissa DeLeon were an odd-looking pair. She of the dangerous curves, he rail-thin and quite tall. At six-foot-seven-inches, he towered over her by more than a foot, though given her penchant for high heels, she was often able to meet him halfway. Except for his taste in fine jewelry and gold watches, he was a black-and-white photograph next to her Kodachrome radiance.

Heading into the holidays emotionally hobbled and physically injured, Steckel nonetheless was at the peak of his professional life. As a successful prosecutor he had moved quickly up the ladder at the Dade State Attorney's Office. Over four short years he had risen from intern to supervisor, then division chief. In 1983 he left the office and "flipped," as they say, opening a practice as a criminal defense attorney, representing the sort of people he had once put in jail and facing off against prosecutors who had been his colleagues.

His most celebrated case was one he initially lost. In 1988 Derrick Robinson was charged with killing a Dade man. Despite steadfastly proclaiming his client's innocence, the best Steckel could do was to cut a deal in which Robinson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years in prison. If Robinson had gambled and gone to trial, he could have faced the death penalty.

But Steckel continued to believe Robinson was innocent and hired his own detectives to reinvestigate. Eventually they uncovered the evidence needed to exonerate Robinson, who walked out of prison in 1991.

Perhaps if he had told Melissa that revealing story of persistence and determination, she might have realized that Simon Steckel was not a man to cross. And perhaps she would have reconsidered what she was about to do.

By Christmas Melissa had been dating Steckel for two months. During that time, one thing about him struck her as odd: his perverse attachment to his briefcase. Wherever they went, the attache accompanied him. Even when they went to a movie, Steckel would carry his black leather briefcase with him into the theater.

Though she didn't dare ask, Melissa wondered what could be so important that her boyfriend would never let it out of his sight. Her curiosity was heightened when, on Christmas Eve, she met him and he was bearing not one but two briefcases. In addition to his usual black leather case, Steckel was toting a second one made of metal and clearly locked. Her inquisitiveness was only sharpened when Steckel, citing his sore back, asked her to carry them.

That evening the two drove around town attending to last-minute errands. Steckel had suddenly remembered a 60 Minutes segment that had aired some months earlier and which featured a Miami doctor who had adopted a number of retarded children. Touched by the spirit of Christmas, he decided to play Santa and rushed with Melissa to a Toys R Us store just before closing time, where he filled several shopping carts with presents for the kids -- "even though I could barely walk," Steckel would later recall. "This will give you an idea of the kind of person I am." He anonymously dropped off the toys at the doctor's home, and then he and Melissa enjoyed a late dinner and a couple of bottles of wine at a Thai restaurant in South Miami.

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