Love Hurts

When it comes to crimes of passion, Hialeah is Dade's undisputed champ. Unfortunately, the competition never lets up.

In ancient Rome the festival was called Lupercalia. It was held on February 15 and was designed to protect the populace from wolves. This was accomplished by dispatching young men to whack their beloved with animal hides. Women were said to encourage the whipping, which they believed made them more fertile. When the Romans conquered Britain, the ritual was adopted by the natives, toned down considerably, and eventually renamed in honor of a saint named Valentine.

Today, of course, the holiday's violent roots have long been forgotten. We celebrate Valentine's Day as a benign rite of spring, a time for the amorous to trade goofy poems and boxes of chocolate. Given the profitability of the occasion, a revival of Lupercalia appears unlikely. But were traditionalists to call for one, they might consider moving their headquarters to a city whose citizenry is similarly attuned to the intimate link between romantic love and mayhem.

A city, say, like Hialeah.
In the past fourteen months, a dozen women and children have been slain in Dade's second-largest city, killed by once loving ex-husbands, boyfriends, fathers. More murders of passion were committed since the beginning of 1994 in Hialeah than in the rest of Dade's cities combined, if you exclude Miami and, of course, unincorporated Dade (which together accounted for 29 slayings).

The Dade medical examiner's records indicate that 1994 was not an anomaly. Historically Hialeah has contributed a hugely disproportionate number of corpses to the pyre of unrequited love: Since 1956, some 73 residents have died in domestic homicides specifically spurred by love gone wrong.

Behind the figures lies a mystery as cold and unforgiving as the barrel of a gun: Why do men (and sometimes women) kill those they love? And why so darn many in Hialeah?

Jorge Alfonso told his daughter Eliecer that he could hardly wait for December 31, 1993, "because New Year's Eve is a day everyone remembers things." Alfonso, it's fair to assume, was feeling pretty forgotten. His wife of fourteen years, Milagros, had left him two months earlier. He had been fired from his job.

Still, the estranged couple had spent New Year's Eve with their four children at the Hialeah home they once shared, and everyone had seemed happy. At about 10:00 p.m., Alfonso drove his wife to her mother's apartment, where she had moved after leaving him. She wanted to pick up a cassette tape of music. With 90 minutes left in 1993, Alfonso cornered Milagros in a bedroom, pulled out a revolver, and shot her in the head. The next shot orphaned his children. It was the 475th deadly bullet fired in 1993, and the last.

For Hialeahans, it was a gruesome introduction to 1994.
Last February, a few days before Valentine's, Jaime Benitez opened fire on his girlfriend, Josefina Garcia, and the man he believed to be her new boyfriend, Joaquin Salvador. The 33-year-old Benitez killed Salvador and critically injured Garcia in plain view of Garcia's ten-year-old son, who had been dozing on the living-room couch. When police interviewed Benitez's brother, Arnaldo Benitez blamed the incident on Garcia's promiscuity.

In June Hialeah police were called to a modest townhouse by a hysterical woman. In the downstairs bathroom, they found the bodies of 53-year-old Florinda Almirall and her former husband Blaz Drevensek, age 56, slumped side by side in a bathtub. A .357 Magnum lay between Drevensek's legs. According to relatives, Drevensek had hoped to re-establish romantic relations with Almirall and was infuriated by her alleged involvement with other men. Police also found a microcassette tape recorder on which Drevensek had preserved the last minutes of his and his ex-wife's life.

Albert de la Rosa, too, was distraught about a separation from his wife. He left his Hialeah apartment for the last time on July 15. He picked up his daughter Joanne, age fourteen, and drove her to lunch. He then parked his car in front of his estranged wife's home, shot Joanne, and turned the gun on himself.

Less than a week later, Rafael Manuel Pe centsn gunned down his estranged wife Carmen Rosa Rodriguez in the parking lot of Miami-Dade Community College's Hialeah campus, where the two Cuban refugees had met four years earlier in an English class.

In August Rafael Aguila avenged his wife's decision to divorce him by taking his two daughters hostage. He killed the girls, ages eight and ten, then shot himself.

On September 12 at about 8:15 p.m., a Hialeah police dispatcher received a 911 call from a panic-stricken teenager named Jackie Valle.

"Oh my God, oh my God!" the girl cried. "He's going to shoot my mother. Oh my God, I'm scared!"

"Can you see him?" the dispatcher asked.
"I can't see anything."
The dispatcher then heard a flurry of gunfire in the background. "Mami!" Jackie Valle screamed. "Mami, go outside! Go outside, Mami! Wake up, Mami. Wake up!"

Police arrived to find Victoria Valle and her ex-husband Frank dead. Frank had also shot a family friend in the leg before taking his own life. Victoria Valle had filed two restraining orders against Frank.

Fourteen days later, Rene Parra, another down-on-his-luck ex-husband, broke into Carmen Parra's home and fired ten shots. He killed Carmen's boyfriend Jorge Begante and then himself. Carmen Parra and two friends managed to escape.

Angela Hernandez, a gentle 69-year-old grandmother, wasn't so lucky. On November 11, her onetime boyfriend Manuel Jesus Sanchez ambushed her as she drove up to her Hialeah townhouse. Sanchez shot her four times as she sat in the driver's seat of her Mercury Sable. He never noticed Hernandez's two grandsons, ages nine and eleven. They were cowering in the back seat.

So there's the carnage. You may have seen portions of it on WSVN-TV (Channel 7), or in the Miami Herald. The daily media absolutely love these stories of love gone bloody. Especially now, in the O.J. era, domestic violence is chic.

Perhaps the best indication comes from the Dade County Grand Jury, a rotating assembly of do-gooders whose duty it is to study whatever crisis is most fashionable. In November the grand jury issued a workmanlike 39-page report on domestic violence. The primary conclusion jurors reached, after much statistical throat-clearing, was that Dade officials have done a jim-dandy job battling domestic abuse.

They proffered plenty of predictable suggestions, such as increasing shelter space for battered women and toughening laws against domestic crimes. But overall the report touted Dade's proactive advocacy as a "model for all of Florida" and praised local officials for establishing the state's first prosecutorial unit and criminal court devoted exclusively to domestic violence.

As to why hundreds of men (and some women) continue to terrorize their sweethearts, the jurors were more circumspect.

They might have done well to spend an evening with Carmen Caldwell. A longtime political activist and first-term Hialeah city councilwoman, Caldwell works full-time as a police volunteer, heading the force's Community Relations and Crime Prevention Unit from a little office filled with bumper stickers, coloring books, and lollipops urging Hialeahans to Think Safety.

Among other assorted tasks, Caldwell delivers speeches about domestic violence. These talks are filled with all sorts of reasonable admonitions. Abuse victims are instructed to seek legal intervention if their spouses can't control their violent impulses. Abusers are urged to seek counseling. Listeners are reminded that civil rights precede marital rights.

"It's pretty basic stuff," Caldwell says. "But inevitably I get a few of these men who just flame out. They can't handle it. The other night I gave a presentation at a night school and two men started screaming at me: 'The reason this kind of thing is happening is because of people like you!' They dragged their women out of there."

To Caldwell, who has lived in Hialeah for 24 years and is herself Cuban American, there is an obvious cultural component to all this. "Sure, you've got all these Third World cultures where the whole attitude of men is, 'If I can't have you, no one else will.' And a lot of the women fall right into it because they've been brought up to believe that the man is always right. If they get smacked around, it's because they did something wrong."

By "Third World," Caldwell says, she means still-developing Latin American countries. Oddly, however, nearly all the domestic homicides in Hialeah last year were committed by Cuban Americans. In fact, most followed a predictable pattern. The perpetrators were first-generation immigrants, older men accustomed to holding tremendous economic and social power over their spouses or girlfriends. Their crimes generally occurred at the juncture when the killers were most acutely feeling the loss of that power. Most, for instance, had begged their mates to take them back days, or even minutes, before they murdered. A few had lost their jobs.

Lisandro Perez, a sociology professor at Florida International University, grew up in Hialeah and still visits his father there on a weekly basis. He says the city's residents have forged a culture more traditionally Cuban than any other area of Dade. "The link is stronger," Perez notes. "You still see people riding bicycles, for instance. That's a remnant from Cuba. If you need to buy the kind of luggage or battery-charged lamp you take to Cuba, you go to Hialeah. Most of the new [Cuban] arrivals end up in Hialeah, so there's a continual replenishing of the native culture."

At the same time, Perez observes, the economy in Hialeah often requires that women join the labor force, usually at one of the city's many factories. "You could make an argument that this forced adaptation sets up a conflict with the traditional structures." (Several of the men who killed, notably, had attempted to prevent their mates from working.)

Perez, though, rejects the notion that Latins are disproportionately prone to domestic violence: "I don't think there's any empirical basis to that whole argument that we are a more passionate people."

Well, yes and no.
"There has been no definitive study of domestic violence across different ethnic groups that I know of," notes Rita Smith, coordinator of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

About the only research that has probed the issue is a 1993 study released by the Family Violence Prevention Fund, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization established to battle domestic violence. That national survey centered on public attitudes about violence against women. Of the four ethnic groups surveyed (Asian, African American, Latin, and Anglo), Latin men were most likely to downplay the significance of various abusive scenarios.

More than half the Latinos interviewed believed it was no one else's business if a man verbally threatened his wife, and more than half felt that a man who "slaps his wife hard" shouldn't be arrested, and that his woman shouldn't leave him. Nearly one in five male Latin respondents disagreed that a physical assault on a woman was "an attack on her dignity and freedom." Likewise, more than one in four disputed the claim that men who beat their wives "are using physical force to get their way." In each instance, these percentages were higher than the other respondents' (though only slightly higher than some other ethnic groups).

Staffers at Dade's Domestic Violence Court have not compiled any official demographic figures, but Ivon Mesa, the court's acting intake director for those who seek injunctions, did begin her own unofficial tally last year. The reason? "When I would speak to victims, I found that a lot of them were Cubans, and I wanted to know, for instance, what sort of cultural factors might contribute to the violence, not just for Cubans, but all the groups here."

Mesa's figures are difficult to interpret, because they are based on citizenship rather than ethnic background. But they do bear out her initial observation. Among the 230 women who sought injunctions from abusive boyfriends or husbands last year at the Dade County Justice Building, for example, 107 identified themselves as Cuban. (Of the 138 who identified themselves as American, Mesa says, she does not know how many were Cuban Americans.)

Mesa, who lived in Cuba for nearly half of her 25 years, says the numbers are partly a byproduct of culture shock. "Domestic violence is still a taboo subject in Cuba. You just don't hear anyone talking about it. Not in the media or on the street. They don't even know that it's a crime. So you have people coming here with this mentality, applying the same rules as in Cuba, and all of a sudden what they've been doing for the past 30 years is a crime."

Robert Schroeder, director of Miami's Safespace Shelter, estimates his clientele at 40 percent Latin, 40 percent African American, and 20 percent Anglo. But like most other advocates, Schroeder warns that it is dangerous to discuss domestic abuse as an ethnic or cultural phenomenon. "From what we know, violence can happen to anyone, of any color, in any circumstance. To say it's more prevalent among one group obscures that reality," he asserts. Not surprisingly, the recent grand jury report made no mention of ethnicity.

Carmen Caldwell says there are other, more basic factors that contribute to Hialeah's grim notoriety. For one, the city is dense and overcrowded, especially since Hurricane Andrew blew away much of South Dade in 1992. Though 1990 census figures place the city's population at under 200,000, Caldwell figures the actual number today is closer to 250,000. Yet the Hialeah police department has only twenty patrol cars on the street at any given time, a figure Caldwell characterizes as "the absolute bare minimum."

Sergeant Mike Fernandez heads the squad's homicide unit, which consists of exactly six detectives plus himself, and which is responsible for all violent crimes, such as aggravated assaults, sexual batteries, and kidnappings. "The thing you have to understand is that domestic homicides are only the extreme cases," says Fernandez, a tense man who bites his nails down to the quick. "The lesser complaints run in the hundreds, thousands. And that's everything from a shouting argument to an aggravated battery."

Domestic calls, or 34s, as they are known in police parlance, constitute the largest volume of calls to the Hialeah police.

Still, the department has no domestic violence unit. Last fall, in the midst of the city's well-publicized spate of domestic slayings, Chief Rolando Bolanos pledged to establish a unit. Through a spokesman, Bolanos says that is still one of his top priorities, though it hasn't happened yet.

He won't have to look far to find a model. In 1992, in neighboring Opa-locka, a city barely one-tenth the size of Hialeah, Det. Therese Homer established Dade's only domestic violence police unit. Homer, who also chairs the Dade County Alliance Against Domestic Violence, moved from the Atlanta police department to Palm Beach in 1985, where she was that city's first black officer. She accepted a position in Opa-locka five years later as a patrol officer.

"It was obvious there was a problem," recalls Homer, who had worked on a domestic violence unit in Atlanta. "We'd get to the site of a domestic battery and the other officers would say things like, 'Oh no. Not this place again. We've been here before.' But there was no mechanism for flagging high-risk families."

Homer called around to see what other Dade police departments had in the way of domestic violence units. She found nothing. Within a few months, she had drawn up a proposal. Today she heads the Opa-locka unit, assisted by two social workers, two interns, and any part-time help she can finagle from injured officers. She screens all domestic complaints and makes personal contact with many, hoping to intervene before a serious crime occurs. "Some people call what I do social work more than police work, but you have to get involved when the crimes are happening in people's homes," Homer stresses. "I don't even call it domestic violence any more. I call it domestic terrorism, because that's what it is."

The one point reinforced by all the domestic violence experts A a point sometimes lost amid the alarmist bleatings of O.J.-fueled reports A is that brutality in the home is a timeworn tradition, an ugly component of virtually all cultures. Think back, for instance, to the roots of Valentine's Day, the sanctioned flogging of women the Romans called Lupercalia.

Or reconsider Hialeah, where the penchant for domestic slayings undeniably predates the city's metamorphosis from Anglo suburb to bustling Latin city. In 1963 spurned Hialeahans took six lives. An equal number were murdered in 1967, 1982, and 1993. Until the Seventies, nearly all the victims and their murderers were non-Hispanic whites.

In 1957 the city was agog over the case of Phyllis Pratt, a pretty, redhaired mother who shot to death her abusive husband. The defendant's plucky twelve-year-old son became a media darling after it was learned that he was contributing his salary as a paperboy to his mother's defense. Defense lawyers vilified Edward Pratt, the dead man, as a bullying behemoth and a bigamist who battered Phyllis relentlessly. She was acquitted.

Tongues were wagging a few years later when Stanley Miller murdered his ex-wife and her new boyfriend as they were leaving the Hialeah Lanes bowling alley. Warren Rinehart perpetrated his own multiple slaughter in 1970, when he marched into his ex-wife's Hialeah home and began blasting away with a rifle. By the time the air cleared, four people were dead: his daughter, his ex-wife, her new husband, and Rinehart, who had turned the rifle on himself.

Later that year, police responded to a home where they found Gaye Myers dead of a gunshot wound. The killer was her husband Pete, a five-year veteran on the Hialeah force. "You only want to know two things," Myers told his stunned colleagues. "Did I kill her and why. Yes I did, but I'm not going to tell you why."

All of which brings us back to sociologist Lisandro Perez. What Hialeah has always had, Perez argues, is a firmly working-class socioeconomic structure. "It's the kind of place where you have two parents working, and a couple of kids living in a small home."

Perez says this pattern may actually predict domestic violence. In more prosperous areas, he reasons, the economic pressures are not as great. In poorer areas, there are simply fewer two-parent households. This, in conjunction with a lower level of police protection, may account for the phenomenon.

Then again, there is always the chance something darker may be at work. A curse, perhaps, unleashed by the angry Seminoles who lived there before the incursion of greedy developers. Certainly this would help explain Hialeah's reputation for political rancor, which began back in 1925 when inaugural mayor J.H. Wendler was shot and killed by one of his rivals, and has yet to subside.

It would also help explain the fate of Isabelle Maria Gee, a Venezuelan beauty who fell prey to the curse in 1960. Gee had come to Miami from her native country to seek polio treatments for her four-year-old daughter. Unbeknownst to Gee, her erstwhile lover Fabio Henau followed her to the Hialeah home of her sister, where he shot and killed her. Neighbors found Gee's disconsolate daughter Jennifer outside the room where her mother lay. "I told her not to go to Hialeah," one of Gee's friends told reporters later. "I tried to warn her."

Undoubtedly the saddest case in the city's long and bruising history of dangerous love took place that same year. The bodies of Rosalba Sanchez G centsmez and her boyfriend, both Hialeahans, were discovered in a room at a local motel. Two bullet casings lay on the bloody rug. "A note was found inside G centsmez's Bible stating that she and her boyfriend could not be together," reads the autopsy report. "Not wanting to be apart, it appears they entered in a suicide-murder pact."

Anyone who is a victim of domestic violence or knows someone who is a victim should call the Safespace North Shelter (758-2546) or Safespace South Shelter (247-4249). The Dade Domestic Violence Court also has a 24 hour emergency hotline: 547-3170.

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