Dangerous Liaisons

Police may never know for sure how a young gay man ended up shot to death in a field off Bird Road. But they have a theory: Cruising can kill.

The half-block stretch on the north side of Bird Road beyond 68th Avenue is known as a gathering place for gay men, mostly young gay men. A windowless and signless bar that closed about six months ago is bounded by an adult bookstore on the west and a funeral home on the east. Back during the heyday of the bar-and-bookstore scene, the parking lot on the other side of a narrow alley behind the row of businesses was usually crowded. Men would meet there to talk, share a joint or a sniff of cocaine or heroin, or arrange a private encounter someplace else. The parking lot gives way to a line of trees and thick brush, and past that a neighborhood of modest working-class houses. A hundred yards to the west is a broad overgrown field sliced from north to south by railroad tracks and bordered on the west by an FPL substation. The labyrinth of warehouses and fields on the other side of Bird Road offers numerous options for after-hours privacy, and thus is favored by men who are into cruising -- the lifestyle predicated on picking up strangers.

Although Bird Road Book and Video and the parking lot continue to attract men, especially on weekend nights, regulars say the scene has declined during the past few years; besides the recent closing of the bar -- Helene's Rendezvous -- the bookstore has been the target of neighbors' complaints and police sting operations, and more than a year ago the private viewing booths, which were linked by groin-high "glory holes" in their common walls, were removed. And of course there was the murder late last summer of young, handsome Onay Barrera.

On a Saturday evening in late August of 1995, Paul Silverio-Benet pulled his red Corolla into the Amoco station on SW 24th Street at 67th Avenue, sixteen blocks due south of Helene's Rendezvous. A 34-year-old consultant to doctors on billing and office procedures, Silverio-Benet had just left a client's house and was stopping to buy cigarettes. As he walked back to his car, a young man in a baseball cap, black T-shirt, and black jeans approached him. The man had the look of a gang member: loose, nondescript street clothes, almost-shaved black hair, a trace of a mustache and goatee. He wondered if Silverio-Benet would be interested in doing a little private partying. The idea and the young man appealed to Silverio-Benet, and they sat in his Toyota for several minutes and talked.

"He advised me he was always hanging out at the bookstore and bar, that he always meets nice people there," Silverio-Benet remembers. "He was asking me to follow him, so we both got in our cars. We drove around for a good 45 minutes to an hour looking for the right place. We'd stop somewhere and he'd say, 'What about this place?' But there were always people around." During the drive, Silverio-Benet says, he began to get "sort of a strange feeling" about his date; he caught sight of a tattoo on one of the young man's arms that, although he wasn't sure what it was, looked wrong somehow, like it belonged on a straight guy. And some of the things he said sounded funny. "He told me a couple of times he was a nymphomaniac," Silverio-Benet recounts. "I said, 'Excuse me?' I started memorizing his tag [number]."

But it was too late. Before he knew it, they were pulling into an isolated parking lot. Both got out of their cars. "The next thing I knew, he turned his back to me and he asked if I had a gun," says Silverio-Benet. "I said, 'What?' Then he turns around and he's pointing one at me. He says, 'Motherfucker, prepare to die. Give me all your money and jewelry.' I told him to relax. I took off all my jewelry, gave him my wallet. He told me to get on my hands and knees. That's when I heard the click. I figured the gun didn't fire, so I went after him."

After a long struggle, Silverio-Benet wrested the gun from his assailant, who then pleaded for his life and handed back the jewelry. He even gave Silverio-Benet the extra ammunition he was carrying. "He said he was only doing it to pay his rent and feed his wife and child," Silverio-Benet remembers.

Disoriented and having injured his knee during the struggle, Silverio-Benet didn't want to detain his attacker. He told the man to get back into his car and leave, and the young man drove off in his maroon Honda, leaving Silverio-Benet trembling and panting, and in possession of a Ruger .44 and fourteen bullets. Silverio-Benet noticed a bite on his left forearm. Looking around, he realized he was a few blocks south of a busy street, which he guessed was Coral Way. By then it was about 11:00 p.m. He found a phone booth, dialed 911, and a Metro-Dade squad car arrived within minutes. A detective who showed up at the scene later opened the gun and found two bullets inside.

Four days afterward, Silverio-Benet was summoned to a Metro-Dade police station to pick out his attacker from a photo lineup. He tapped a picture of twenty-year-old Sergio Orlando Alfonso, who had a tattoo of a dragon on his left arm and was on probation after prior convictions for armed robbery and kidnapping. Alfonso lived only blocks from where the attack occurred, and police suspected him of having burglarized a nearby home the month before. He was promptly arrested for the assault on Silverio-Benet and the earlier burglary, both of which charges he denied.

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