Prosecution Complex

The strange saga of a smooth-talking hit man, jealous secretaries, and a ruined prosecutor

Navarro first spoke with Ayala in October 1997, when she answered Rossbach's phone and accepted the collect call. Then Molina-Abad also started taking the calls. Ayala was soon calling as many as twenty times a day to speak with all three women.

In November, after Marisol Ayala was arrested on drug charges, the SAO secretaries came up with a plan to allow the couple to communicate: Marisol and Jorge would call the office at a prearranged time. The secretaries would then place the receivers together and cover them with a sweater to muffle outside noise.

On Thanksgiving Rossbach cooked a turkey dinner for Jorge Ayala and arranged to have it delivered. In December Ayala started sending money to Navarro. She claims not to know his motivation for this. He first sent $150 "to buy Sherry a cassette player for Christmas," Navarro recalled. Next came a $75 money order. Ayala instructed Navarro to use the cash on Christmas gifts: perfume for Vogel and Molina-Abad, ties for Singleton, and a TV Guide subscription for himself in prison. Navarro knew Vogel wouldn't accept the perfume, so she never purchased it. Everyone else took their gift.

Rossbach contended that the $150 from Ayala was reimbursement for items she had purchased.

Rossbach prepared a special Christmas dinner for Ayala and had it delivered. In January she spoke to him from her home while her family was on vacation in North Carolina. On January 28 she baked Ayala a birthday cake.

By this time, Navarro and Molina-Abad had also befriended the killer. "I guess he had no one else to call, so he would call here all the time. ... And he was a nice guy. ... We spoke about Thanksgiving, I spoke to him about my husband, about my daughter, about my job, about Sherry," Navarro recounted. Navarro also discussed Melrose Place and her parking attendant job. He was always respectful, she said.

In January office decorum broke down. It started when Molina-Abad passed the phone to McMahan. Thinking it was Molina-Abad's husband rather than Ayala, McMahan said a few words as a practical joke: "You're not taking care of your wife, she's depressed. You're not doing your husband [sic] duties."

After that, Rossbach stopped speaking to the others, according to Navarro and Molina-Abad. Navarro believed Rossbach was jealous of McMahan. The two had disliked each other for years.

Marisol Ayala became suspicious. She sometimes had to wait to speak to her husband. Navarro and Molina-Abad explained it was difficult to get the phone from Rossbach. Marisol Ayala believed all three secretaries were in love with her husband -- and jealous of each other.

"I'm not a jealous person," Rossbach said. "I've had a lot of problems in this office from jealousy. I've even been told ... that it's not fair that I have the jewelry that I have and the clothes that I have. People make comments all the time that men always are nice to me. Yes, there is a jealousy problem and it's not me."

Rossbach said she was angry with Navarro and Molina-Abad because they talked dirty to Ayala. She didn't think that was proper. "I overheard [Molina-Abad] several times talking about very nasty sexual things with him, yes. ... And I heard Raquel only on one occasion. I mean, I heard her a couple of times ... talking about sex."

Rossbach claimed Molina-Abad became so aroused talking to Ayala that "on one occasion she told me how wet she was and that she had to go to the bathroom because she couldn't take talking to him." Rossbach asserted she confronted Ayala about the behavior. "I told him this was wrong and had to stop."

Both Navarro and Molina-Abad acknowledge Ayala occasionally brought up sexual themes -- he told Navarro he had slept with two women at once -- but deny having phone sex with him.

Soon the gossip spilled from behind the major-crime unit's locked doors. At one point in mid-February, Circuit Court Judge Leslie Rothenberg even heard a rumor that Rossbach was romantically linked to Ayala.

Band first heard about the situation from his secretary, Mercy Esquivel. She told him there were complaints that Rossbach was spending a lot of time on the phone with Ayala. Band began asking questions. One of the first people he approached was Molina-Abad. "He wanted to know what was going on," Molina-Abad reported. "I said, Who cares if they were talking on the phone late at night? ... He wanted to know if maybe [Rossbach] could be hurt by him [Ayala] and if there was anything he could do. He needed to assess the situation."

Then Band interviewed Navarro. She acknowledged that all three secretaries were talking to Ayala. Then she admitted the killer was sending money. She even gave Band a $100 money order from him.

"As soon as they said there was money involved, I went, Whoa. Now it's a possible crime," Band told New Times. He explained the situation to Rundle and recommended an independent investigation. Rundle agreed. On February 28 Governor Lawton Chiles ordered the Twentieth Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office in Fort Myers to investigate.

Even before the governor's order, Rossbach contacted her lawyer, Rosenblatt, who met with Ayala February 27. The killer signed a statement that exonerated Rossbach. "Although at least two other secretaries in the major-crimes division did use sexually explicit language with me, Sherry Rossbach was not involved," the statement reads.

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