The Imperfect Murder

Stanley Cohen's wife went to prison for arranging to have him killed. Years later a Miami journalist reveals a secret. Now the entire case may be unraveling.

I was that writer whose name she couldn't remember. As we visited the Aronow crime scene, we chatted about other Miami murder mysteries. It was I who broached the Cohen case. The Broward prosecutor, Brian Cavanagh (about whom I'd written earlier), had suggested to the Broward Sheriff's Office in 1996 that I meet with Anthony Caracciolo and Tommy Joslin before they testified to a grand jury investigating the 1984 murder of a man named Charles Hodek. Cavanagh thought I'd be interested in writing about that case and how it intersected with Cohen's. I spent a couple of hours over two days talking with them about the developer's murder. I told this to Bright, who nodded but said nothing.

About a month later, Joyce Cohen wrote to Bright from the Broward Correctional Institution, again denying she'd killed her husband, denying any connection with the alleged hit men, and pleading for help. They hadn't communicated since Bright's 1993 story. Bright didn't respond to the letter, but she did finally tell the station's vice president and general manager, John Garwood, about her lingering doubts. Garwood suggested she might face criminal prosecution for having withheld potential evidence. In fact, she told Ross, she felt Garwood was "advising [me] not to go forward with the information." Garwood, through his assistant, said he would not comment on the record about the story.

By late June, according to Bright's statement, she finally confessed her concerns to Dade Assistant State Attorney David Waksman, who suggested she write to Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. (In fact, Waksman tells New Times he told Bright to phone Rundle or he'd make the call himself. He called Rundle the following day to confirm Bright had done so.)

Bright now went to her current news director, Bill Pohovey, who agreed that she should come forward. The reporter called Rundle, and the two women met. Later that day, after Rundle consulted with the attorney assigned to previous Cohen case appeals, she told the reporter she should feel free to tell Alan Ross anything.

At 5:25 a.m. on March 7, 1986, Joyce Cohen dialed 911, sobbing hysterically that her husband had been shot. Police arrived minutes later at the Cohens' coral-rock mansion on South Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove. In the master bedroom they found Stanley Cohen nude, face down in the couple's four-poster brass bed, a sheet covering his lower body. A blood-soaked towel over the back of his head covered three bullet wounds; a fourth bullet had grazed his scalp. Joyce told the officers she'd been downstairs in the back of the house, had heard a noise, and seen two shadowy figures leave through the front door.

Stanley was 52 years old, heavy set, nearly seventeen years older than his pretty, fourth wife of eleven years, who had been a secretary with his firm. He was a self-made man who had delivered newspapers and washed dishes as a teenager growing up in Miami. His company, SAC Construction, was responsible for building more than twenty Dade public schools, South Shore Hospital in Miami Beach, the Third District Court of Appeal building, and various stripmalls. Joyce, born in a small Illinois town, had been left at an orphanage by her mother. When she was twelve years old, she was taken in as a foster child by a wealthy family. But when that family left Illinois two years later, the state forced them to relinquish custody of Joyce, and a poor aunt and uncle took over her care.

In the Eighties Stanley and Joyce Cohen had lived the high life, spent and consumed and entertained conspicuously, according to Carol Soret Cope's book, and partied with cocaine in the Grove and in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, where they owned a 600-acre ranch. A confidential informant told Miami police before Joyce's trial that Stanley had kept a large supply of cocaine in the cellar of his Coconut Grove home, implying that he was a drug dealer; that he had used cocaine three or four times per week until a heart attack forced him to stop; and that his wife used it constantly.

Cohen left assets totaling $13 million, but after debts and obligations, his net worth was probably less than $2 million. He had willed Joyce most of his fortune. But his two children from a previous marriage suspected she was involved in his death. Five days after the murder, Gerri Cohen Helfman, an anchor at WTVJ-TV (Channel 6), and Gary Cohen, a local tax attorney, successfully petitioned Dade County Circuit Court to freeze their father's estate.

Detectives had their suspicions, too. Joyce had appeared to be high the morning of the murder, according to officers who'd responded to her 911 call. Though she claimed she'd been awake all night -- folding clothes for a garage sale, she said -- she could account for only about half an hour. (Her psychiatrist, Dr. Lawrence Cohn, said at the trial that Joyce had once attempted suicide with an overdose of Halcion, a then commonly prescribed sleeping pill since shown to cause amnesia and paranoia, especially when mixed with alcohol or stimulants like cocaine. He added that Joyce told him she had continued taking Halcion for her sleep problems, even after the overdose, drank four or five drinks a day, and used cocaine.)

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