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.

On the Monday after Paul Silverio-Benet's attack, two men dumping trash in the field northwest of Helene's Rendezvous saw a human body lying in the tall grass. Metro-Dade police arrived shortly after 8:00 p.m. to find the decomposing body of a man, face-down with his torso turned a bit on its right side, legs together and bent. He was wearing a blue-and-white striped shirt and jeans but carried no identification. Maggots and flies swarmed. Death seemed to have resulted from a single bullet wound just above the heart. The morning after, long after the medical examiner's van had taken away the body, an anonymous caller dialed 911 to report a dead man in a field at SW 37th Street and 69th Avenue.

By that time police knew who the victim was. The corpse's fingerprints matched those of twenty-year-old Onay Barrera, who had been arrested for trespassing earlier that year, and for public intoxication in 1993. He had died where he was found, the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office concluded, early on Saturday, August 26 -- some twenty hours before Paul Silverio-Benet was attacked.

News of Barrera's death ignited rumors, speculation, and some anxiety. He had lived with his mother and one of his brothers in a house several blocks south of Bird Road and was among the gay men who socialized at the bar, bookstore, and parking lot; like many others, he was still a boy in his early teens when he first began frequenting the spot. It was no secret that the neighborhood wasn't particularly safe; men had previously returned from trysts badly beaten and/or without valuables, victims of young strangers they'd picked up. The incidents were rarely reported to police, according to the men who mention them, because many of the victims were married or had other reasons for not wanting their families to know where they'd been.

In general, the practice of going to strangers for fleeting sexual companionship may be more widespread than ever. Much has been made in the past several years of a backlash against safe sex among young gay men, who were barely out of diapers when AIDS gained public awareness and who are embracing the unchecked promiscuity that was commonplace among their elders before AIDS.

"It's not unusual for gay men to pick somebody up they don't know -- it's a not-infrequent way people meet," says Richard Isay, a New York City psychiatrist and professor at Cornell University Medical College who has published two books about homosexuals' personal development. "But it's also true that younger gays aren't appropriately cautious. They don't have appropriate role models. They look around them and see only sickness and death, and they're terribly dispirited about their capacity to live long and gratifying lives. So what is the sense, they feel, in being circumspect about who they pick up?"

Indeed, research presented earlier this summer at the eleventh International Conference on AIDS in Vancouver -- including a study of young homosexual men in South Beach -- indicates that gays in their teens and twenties are exercising little restraint in sexual behavior. "It seems to have more to do with adolescence and rebellion," says pioneering AIDS researcher William Darrow, who recently took a professorship at the Florida International University College of Health and who wrote the South Beach study. "They have to take risks to find out who they are, and a lot go out to take risks. They want to have fun, but sometimes, unfortunately, it leads to tragic consequences."

An ongoing nationwide Centers for Disease Control study of 15- to 22-year-old men who frequent gay social gathering spots shows "shocking" preliminary results in Miami, according to medical anthropologist Al Bay of Health Crisis Network. Bay coordinates the local part of the study, which is being conducted in five other U.S. cities. At the rate his study subjects are being infected with HIV from unprotected sex with other men, Bay says, more than 30 percent will have the virus by the time they're 30; the number threatens to reach 50 percent by age 40.

While heterosexual kids also succumb to sexual carelessness because of a youthful sense of invincibility, Bay believes it's worse for adolescent homosexuals and bisexuals, who have few social guidelines to moderate their behavior. "The community doesn't create a supportive atmosphere for young men who have sex with men. There are really very few alternatives for these kids, and gay culture centers around bars," he observes. "They may look old, but they're kids. We expect them to be able to negotiate like adults, but they may not have the skills to say no."

Onay Barrera's family and friends may never know for sure what happened to him. Most assume what police investigators have concluded -- that he was lured to the field by his killer with the promise of sex, but instead was robbed and shot. And with the storm of rumors that spread through the gay bookstore crowd immediately after Barrera died, though, even his friends weren't sure how it happened -- stabbed, raped, castrated? Everyone purported to know some horrible detail about the murder.

Sensationalizing the incident was, in a way, a defense against the truth many didn't wish to confront: Cruising can kill. Anyone might have taken the risks that Barrera and Silverio-Benet did and might have died alone, from nothing more lurid than a single gunshot wound to the aorta.

"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.

Abreu and Raul Jimenez, another former South Miami High student who works as an insurance underwriter, gave sworn statements as well, in which they portrayed Rivera as almost obsessive about informing anyone who would listen that he had shot someone, but they weren't very helpful when it came to when, how, or why. It was apparently no secret, however, that Rivera and Shoemaker were hard-pressed to support their child: They were at least a month behind on the rent on their SW 78th Court apartment, according to records prosecutors later obtained. (None of the witnesses made more than a passing mention of Shoemaker in their sworn statements, and none implied she had anything to do with the murder.)

Rivera allegedly told his three friends that Barrera had provoked him into a fight, that they had walked to the field together, and that he drew his gun after Barrera pulled a knife on him (though no knife was found at the scene). Other details varied according to the witness. Abreu recalled Rivera saying he ordered the victim to his knees and warned him, while robbing him, not to look at his face (this, presumably, after several minutes of face-to-face conversation). When Barrera looked, Abreu said, Rivera shot.

The statements also detailed Rivera's elaborate tattoos, including a devil that covered almost his entire back, a pentagram on one of his palms, and a hanged priest on one of his calves. But none mentioned what police subsequently concluded: that Rivera was a "Satanic worshipper," in the words of McManus's October 2 petition for an arrest warrant. By then Rivera was in New York, where many of his relatives live.

It had been Chubby Ormaza, McManus learned, who had called 911 the morning after the body, unbeknownst to him, was found. "I felt as if they weren't going to find it," he explained in his statement. "Poor guy, I guess. He has family going crazy looking for him."

The youngest of six children born in Cuba to parents who emigrated in the Mariel boatlift, Onay Barrera was a waiter. He kept his tips but gave all his paychecks to his mother to help pay for groceries and the rent on their house on SW 42nd Street. Since his mid-teens, Barrera had worked at least one job, sometimes two or three. He dropped out of Coral Gables High in the tenth grade. "Onay always had a job," recalls his friend Coleman Bell. "Such a young man, to work so hard."

His friends say Barrera didn't have lofty ambitions, that he was content to be a waiter and proud of his competence. Snapshots taken a month before his death show him at work at the Chez Vendome Restaurant in the David William Hotel on Miracle Mile. Tall and thin, his black hair cut short, Barrera looked elegant in his black tie and vest.

"Onay was one of the best [waiters]," says Ana Maria Martinez, a former Chez Vendome bartender with whom Barrera shared what was probably his last meal. "He was always so neat, so clean, so handsome. Let me tell you, he was always happy, dancing. Onay was in love with life. Sometimes I would come to work, I had a lot of things on my mind -- I'm a single mother -- and Onay, he would say, 'Anita, I don't like to see you like this. Come on, let's dance.'"

On Friday evening, August 25, Barrera visited Martinez at the hotel. He'd been laid off a few weeks earlier but quickly found another job at an International House of Pancakes near his house. He told Martinez with a marked lack of enthusiasm that he had to be at work the next morning at 7:30.

While Martinez worked, Barrera sat at the end of the elegant bar, wearing an oversize striped jersey, jeans, and sneakers. They talked and ate dinner -- broiled chicken, French fries, and Coke. At about 8:30, he called his boyfriend, seventeen-year-old Orlando Atencia, who was angry because Barrera planned to go out drinking with another friend, Billy Davis.

After talking with Atencia, Martinez recalls, Barrera changed his mind about going out and tried unsuccessfully to beep Davis. He left the David William at about 9:30; Martinez assumes he walked a few blocks east to Le Jeune Road to catch the bus home.

Meanwhile, Davis was trying to phone Barrera from the adult bookstore on Bird, where they'd first met more than five years earlier when Davis was sixteen, Barrera fifteen. At about 9:30, the clerk told him he couldn't use the phone inside any more, and Davis stepped out into the back alley, where he saw a young man in a baseball cap sitting on a black bike and waiting by the pay phone. When he saw Davis, he picked up the receiver and began dialing. "I noticed he didn't put any money in -- something about him just didn't look right," Davis recalls. "The thing I remember about him was his eyes. He was looking at me very intently. I saw tattoos on both arms."

The tattooed man hung up the phone and started off on his bike, and Davis headed across the street to catch a bus to O'Zone, the South Miami club where he and Onay had planned to meet up with friends. The group stayed at the club into the early morning hours, but Barrera never showed up.

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."

And Shoemaker apparently demonstrated a tendency to do just that from the moment of her arrest: "She was coming out of the bathroom as we were coming in the door [of her apartment]," recounts Det. John Hansen of the Greenwood Lake (New York) Police Department, who took her into custody. "Basically she wasn't all that shocked. She stated it was her boyfriend, not her, who did it."

Rivera's attorney is dismayed by the prosecution's tactics. "They're bringing up bogus charges against her, twisting her arm to make some sort of incriminating statement," asserts Orlando Buch. "It really seems like an exercise in hobnail-boot tactics that prosecutors sometimes use when they don't have a lot of evidence."

By the time a jury ponders matters of evidence and tactics, Onay Barrera will have been dead for more than a year. But within the demimonde he inhabited, the murder remains something of a shared experience, if only in the abstract. "It happened right back there," confides a young clerk at Bird Road Book and Video. "He was stabbed, like, 30 times. The guy who did it, he's killed a couple of people before. He makes them, you know, give him oral sex, and then he stabs them."

For some, though, such grisly hyperbole hasn't precluded a reckless lifestyle. Metro-Dade police say they haven't found Bird Road Book and Video troublesome from a law enforcement perspective ever since Metro's Nuisance Abatement Board temporarily shut down the bookstore in March 1994 and forced its owner to dismantle the video viewing booths. But gay men who continue to frequent the block say the cruising goes on. (Bookstore owner Rafael Ajami was out of town and unreachable for comment for this story, according to a man who answered the phone at the establishment.)

And every day at other adult bookstores in the area, a silent ritual repeatedly plays out: A man enters the shop and heads to an isolated section, often a hallway at the back where tiny viewing rooms are flimsily partitioned, often with walls that don't reach the ceiling, so that anyone can look from one room into the next from above. The group of customers nonchalantly lined up facing the row of cubicle doors might comprise businessmen, handymen, young bodybuilders, high school students, computer nerds. To radio music pumped through the store's speakers, the businessman enters one of the cubicles and shuts the door. Moments later the bodybuilder silently opens the same door and goes in. A red bulb atop the door lights up. The handyman slips into an adjacent room. Two other men emerge from a third room and quietly leave together. Similar rites take place in parking lots and in public parks; for the ultimate in anonymity, encounters are arranged and consummated in minutes through so-called telephone date lines.

"The vast majority of the straight world has no idea what's going on right under their noses," says Onay Barrera's friend Coleman Bell, who freely admits his promiscuous past. Bell tells of quickies behind the Dumpster in the Bird Road bookstore parking lot, as well as a few less-enjoyable experiences in other settings: beatings and a robbery, a sexual assault -- all at the hands of strangers he picked up. "Part of the attractiveness is it's taboo and nobody knows. But they also don't know that people actually get killed.

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