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.

"They think it's a game," observes Silverio-Benet, who says he knows several other men who have been assaulted in the neighborhood. He admits he just "wasn't thinking" about the risks the night he was attacked. "Unfortunately that is a very bad area for cruising. Young kids go to these locations -- a lot are too young to get in a bar. It's their way of confronting or dealing with problems when they're just coming out. Maybe they're afraid to tell their mother and father, and these are places where they can be accepted. But anyone who goes out there is at double risk: AIDS, and you're putting your life in danger. I count my blessings every day that I'm still alive. But an innocent person lost his life. There's a very sad story to this whole thing."

Two people have been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Onay Barrera. Next month the Dade State Attorney's Office is scheduled to seek the death penalty against 23-year-old Jose Nelson Rivera and his girlfriend, 20-year-old Brandi Shoemaker. The trial is likely to be delayed, however, because Shoemaker has only recently been charged and arrested and is in New York fighting extradition. Rivera was arrested this past October, also in New York. He has pleaded not guilty and is at the Metro-West Detention Center awaiting trial; in June Judge Jeri B. Cohen denied a motion to release him on bond.

Rivera, described by friends as a tattoo artist by trade, was not originally the prime suspect. It was his friend Sergio Alfonso -- the man picked out of a photo lineup last August by Paul Silverio-Benet.

Metro-Dade Police homicide detective Chris McManus was assigned to find Barrera's killer. But for the first month or so, the fair-haired thirteen-year veteran wasn't making much headway, nor was he very optimistic about his chances of solving the case. McManus had learned from talking to people at Helene's Rendezvous that Barrera had stopped in Friday night, but the detective couldn't find anyone who saw him after he'd left the bar early on the morning he was killed.

Then McManus got a break -- a call in late September from the forensic expert who'd been analyzing the bullet that was removed from Barrera's chest. Using a new computerized system that compares bullets from unsolved murders with all impounded guns, the criminalist had matched the Barrera bullet to the revolver that had jammed during the Silverio-Benet assault. (No useful fingerprints had been lifted from the gun, which investigators traced to a burglary in Texas.)

Alfonso was brought in from jail for an interview with McManus and other detectives. He denied shooting Barrera, as he'd denied assaulting Silverio-Benet, and he agreed to take a polygraph test. "He did what I'd call a poor job on the lie-detector test," McManus says, "which is common for people who've been arrested as many times as he has. But on the way back to the jail, Sergio says, 'Look, I know I can't convince you, but give me the benefit of the doubt -- I did not do it. There's another guy, I don't know if he did it or not, but he has the same dragon [tattoo], only his has a different tail.'"

The other guy was Jose Nelson Rivera, known to his friends as Joey or Nelson. The pretty-faced, tough-talking Rivera ran with the same crowd as Alfonso -- mostly former South Miami Senior High students -- and lived in the same neighborhood. In fact, it was Rivera who etched the dragon on Alfonso's left arm. But in contrast to Alfonso, who had spent a year in prison for robbing a lingerie modeling studio in 1993, Rivera had no criminal record. He lived with his girlfriend Brandi Shoemaker and was the father of her three-year-old son. But McManus couldn't find him; Rivera apparently had taken a bus by himself to New York City about a week after Barrera's death. So the detective went to visit several of Rivera's friends, whose names Alfonso supplied.

Lazaro Abreu, a towering, black-haired 24-year-old who was friendly with both Rivera and Alfonso, owned the Honda that was used in the attack on Silverio-Benet. He admitted to McManus that he had loaned Rivera his car on a few occasions, and that Rivera used to talk about wanting to "do a robbery" because he needed money. The month before, Abreu added, Rivera had actually claimed to have shot someone in a field, and he'd even invited him to see the body.

McManus heard similar stories from other friends. One, Arturo "Chubby" Ormaza, said he took Rivera up on his macabre offer. Ormaza, 24 years old and moderately chunky, had played junior varsity baseball at South Miami High, and was arrested in 1995 for marijuana possession (charges were dropped). He told police he was on his way to Wendy's one day for lunch when he spotted Rivera on foot and offered him a ride. As they neared the vacant lot off Bird, he said, Rivera asked him if he wanted to see the body. "We drove to the shopping center on 67th and Bird, parked my car, and we walked down the railroad tracks," Ormaza recounted in a sworn statement. "It was in the grass off 69th and Bird....There was a big tree and some junk....He was, like, facing down. Kind of tilted sideways." Responding to questions from his police interviewer, Ormaza further described the body, recalling "the flies and maggots. And from what it looked like, his skin looked, like, ripped open." When the interviewer asked whether he and Rivera had spoken after that about the victim, Ormaza said no.

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