The Question That Won't Die

A mild-mannered U.S. Customs inspector is shot to death. Police call it suicide. Friends and family say thatís inconceivable.

The strange death of U.S. Customs inspector David Berkofsky almost sounds like a riddle, the kind of thing crime writers or medical examiners would bandy about: Two men with a history of personal animosity walk into a room. No one else is present or within earshot. Only one man comes out of the room alive. How do you figure out what happened?

When it comes down to one person's unverifiable account of an event, as in the Berkofsky case, all police detectives can do is examine forensic evidence and commit themselves to a thorough reconstruction of both men's lives and the events leading up to the death. While there was an examination of forensic evidence following Berkofsky's death, the lead detective apparently needed less than twelve hours of investigation to reach a conclusion. He told Berkofsky's widow that her husband had killed himself.

Once a death is assigned a classification -- in this case, classified as a suicide -- it becomes difficult to reopen an investigation. But five years after Miami-Dade Police closed the case, Berkofsky's family and friends remain perplexed and troubled; they still wonder what really happened in the room he never left.

Sam Weber
Sam Weber

"It all comes down to evidence," says Ed Griffith, spokesman for the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office. "In a case like that, maybe if someone came forward and said, 'Hey, I was standing at the doorway, I overheard everything,' then maybe you could get it reopened."

If this particular case were to be reopened, the story would begin at 7:05 a.m. on January 7, 1999. That's when David Berkofsky walked into his office at the Miami Free Zone on NW 107th Avenue just north of Miami International Mall. Berkofsky, a senior customs inspector, was the resident den mother, a kindly, doughy 48-year-old who regularly arrived early to brew coffee for the five or six inspectors who worked in the office on any given day. Sometimes he brought bagels for everyone.

Lately the familial atmosphere in the small office, where inspectors oversee the flow of duty-free products passing through Miami on their way to and from other countries, had been strained by a feud centered on inspector José Marrero-Colon and Ruth Casal, a senior inspector. Casal took a relaxed approach to office etiquette, and Marrero-Colon, though her junior in rank, had been complaining bitterly about her performance. At a January 6 office meeting, Berkofsky, acting as Casal's protector, told Marrero-Colon to lay off and stop behaving as if he were a supervisor. Insults were traded and Marrero-Colon told Berkofsky he didn't work hard enough to merit his own salary. The normally placid Berkofsky became incensed, cursing at Marrero-Colon. But soon he calmed down and resolved to end the animosity. After the meeting he spoke with a co-worker about his intention to make peace with Marrero-Colon.

A retired U.S. Army master sergeant, Marrero-Colon always arrived at the office promptly at 6:00 a.m. In fact he put in so many hours on the job that at one point he received an official reprimand for working overtime without pay. He was there the morning after the confrontational meeting when Berkofsky greeted him in the coffee room and began to address the disagreement. Marrero-Colon suggested they go somewhere private. The two men walked into the office's conference room at about 7:15 a.m.

By 7:30 David Berkofsky was dead of a gunshot wound.

The weapon used was his own gun, which he hadn't worn to work in the office for more than two years. That morning he'd mentioned to his wife that he might wear the weapon because he was intimidated by Marrero-Colon, who always wore his sidearm.

There were no fingerprints on the gun.

Inchoate ideas like "getting past" and "working through" may be the stock phrases that sell self-help books and fill daytime talk shows, but they lose all meaning in the face of real tragedy. Despite the passage of time, David Berkofsky's death could not be more real for his widow Susan. "I am not and would never accuse someone of murder," she says. Nonetheless even today she alternates between zealous anger at police and customs officials she believes performed a lackluster investigation, and resignation in the knowledge that the death of her husband will always be shrouded in ambiguity.

The 51-year-old schoolteacher agonizes over the uncertainty. She talks about how David would never have killed himself -- he was excited about the prospect of retiring, and he loved their two teenage daughters. Then, just as quickly, she says that anyone is capable of anything. "José Marrero-Colon," she adds, "is the only person who knows what happened in that room."

She will insist she's finished talking about it, done with all the lingering questions. But then, in a voice rife with all the pain and anger she denies bearing, she asks why the police reports read the way they do, citing various inconsistencies and an utter absence of any detectable suicidal tendencies in her husband. Of the overall investigation, she says, "I think it was handled poorly. I want to know why."

Susan Berkofsky points to a report filed by Det. Ken Ottley, the lead investigator. It contains Marrero-Colon's initial description of the minutes leading up to the shooting and includes Marrero-Colon's statement that when he stood up to leave the conference room, his gun butt snagged on the arm of his chair. It was at that point, according to the report, that Marrero-Colon says he heard a sound and looked over to see David Berkofsky holding his own weapon. But in the transcript of the official interview with Marrero-Colon, taken at Miami-Dade Police headquarters the afternoon of the shooting, there is no mention of Marrero-Colon's gun butt snagging on the chair arm.

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