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.

It may have been only minutes after Davis got on the eastbound bus that Friday night that Barrera stepped off the westbound bus in front of Helene's Rendezvous. Though he wouldn't turn 21 till October, Barrera had no trouble being served at the bar and often stopped in for beers, according to his friends and to police investigators, who concluded that Barrera left the bar alone at about 1:00 a.m., and, in the words of an affidavit McManus submitted last October to the Dade Circuit Court, "was not seen again."

The next morning, wondering where Barrera was, Atencia called Davis, who wasn't too concerned: His friend sometimes disappeared for a day or two if he wanted privacy. Laura Barrera, though, was worried that her son hadn't called to check in with her, as he always did. By Monday Laura Barrera was frantic. Her bosses at the Crown Sterling Suites, where she works as a housekeeper, gave her the day off. That night a Metro-Dade detective came to the house with the news that Onay's body had been discovered.

A student at South Miami Senior High who had been hoping to become a paramedic, Atencia was devastated. He dropped out of school and for almost a year alternated between bouts of promiscuity and seclusion. Today he still wears the silver chain with an O that Barrera gave him (an identical chain Barrera wore apparently disappeared the night of his death), but now he's back in the social swing and planning to go to night classes. "Onay was my reason for living and I lost it," says Atencia, who wears his dark hair nearly shaven and sports several earrings in each ear. "He turned my life around and got everything on track."

McManus and his partner Juan Sanchez had a phone number for Rivera in New York, and in early October they flew to the city with a warrant for his arrest. But Rivera didn't cooperate with extradition proceedings, and it wasn't until March that he was transported from jail there back to Miami.

That same month, Paul Silverio-Benet was invited back to view an in-person lineup. This time he picked Rivera. (Rivera hasn't been charged with assaulting Silverio-Benet; police say they don't want to jeopardize their murder prosecution. Alfonso, meanwhile, is serving two and a half years in the Brevard Correctional Institution for burglary and firearm charges in connection with the break-in for which he was charged this past year.)

When they arrested Rivera, police found about twenty handwritten pages from a legal pad on which he described various occurrences in his everyday life. The rambling account includes references to heavy marijuana use by his friends Abreu and Ormaza, Rivera tattooing Alfonso in exchange for a pet snake, a request Abreu made that Rivera hide a sawed-off shotgun that had been used in a robbery, and elliptical tales of talking to strangers outside the "triple x Adult book store." The musings include occasional quasi-poetic reflections on "the stench of dead flesh," "my comitment [sic] to cause death, murder, homicide, man slauter [sic]," and Rivera's feeling that he has been injected with an "evil seed."

Rivera's lawyer, Fort Lauderdale defense attorney Orlando Buch, attributes the satanic references in the letter to pervasive cultural influences such as heavy-metal on MTV, and says the document proves neither murder nor Satanism. "Joey's not a Devil worshiper," Buch insists. "He's an artist. He's a quiet, pacifistic kid who doesn't have a violent past. I've never heard him use violent words or hate words. I'm positive he could not have killed anybody."

Nor does Buch give much credence to Silverio-Benet's ability to identify his attacker. He has pointed out that his client was the only man in the March 1996 lineup with tattoos, and also noted that upon identifying Sergio Alfonso from the photo lineup six months earlier, Silverio-Benet singled out Alfonso's "large ears." Rivera's ears are of normal size. As for Rivera's friends who have testified against him in sworn statements, Buch says, "To quote Cher, they are gypsies, tramps, and thieves" who are lying to protect their relationship with Alfonso. (One witness has changed his version of events: At a June 21 bond hearing, Raul Jimenez contradicted his previous sworn statement and insisted he didn't remember hearing Rivera talk about shooting anyone. Two weeks later Jimenez was arrested and charged with perjury.)

"My son never made any trouble," insists Rivera's mother Maria Gonzalez, a small woman who is prone to tears. Gonzalez is adamant that Arturo Ormaza told her "Sergio did it," not her son, an allegation Ormaza denied in court.

The recent arrest and grand jury indictment of Brandi Shoemaker came as somewhat of a surprise even to Chris McManus, who characterizes her involvement in Barrera's murder as "minuscule." But not insignificant: By law, first-degree murder charges can be brought for planning or encouraging the act, or for destroying or covering up evidence afterward. But the most likely purpose of Shoemaker's arrest is to bolster the case against Rivera by persuading her to testify for the prosecution in exchange for leniency. "She's got a kid to worry about," reasons McManus. "She's going to have to make some decisions about her future. What she's going to need to do is testify against him."

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