By Trevor Bach
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By Michael E. Miller
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During the day, the banyan-shaded streets of West Perrine, a South Miami-Dade neighborhood settled by black farmers and farmhands, offers a leafy contrast to the strip malls and auto dealerships lining U.S. 1 to the east and the stark landscape of new housing complexes along SW 107th Avenue to the west. And while the farms are gone, the lush foliage and dirt driveways maintain the small-town feel.
But at sunset, when young men emerge to stake out the street corners, rural languor transforms into something more menacing. What was merely secluded seems forsaken, a lonely stretch of darkness in a poor part of the county.
This would be an unlikely place for a white couple from the suburbs to end up at night. But Monday, February 17, 2003, 31-year-old Frank Pacheco, a single father from Kendall working as a salesman, rolled through with his girlfriend, Celia Lola, two years his junior and a stay-at-home single mom who struggled with a bipolar disorder. The two were on a date. They'd left their respective children with family and were now in search of crack cocaine to enliven their evening. In Lola's car Pacheco drove to a spot he was apparently familiar with, the corner of SW 102nd Avenue and 173rd Terrace, where he met a drug dealer and his associates.
Negotiations didn't go well. After an argument, the dealer and his friends beat Pacheco until he lay dying on the blood-smeared sidewalk. Lola watched helplessly. Then one of the men ordered her to help lift Pacheco off the ground and heave him into the back seat of her car.
Police know that Luis Domingo Leon was one of those men. Not only did they take his fingerprint from inside the car, but also he admitted he was present during the attack and helped load the bloodied victim into the vehicle's rear seat.
Although Leon denied beating Pacheco, Lola picked him out of a photographic lineup as one of the attackers.
But as events unfolded, police and prosecutors ended up with a startlingly different conclusion from the one they started with -- not about what happened, but about the outcome. They dropped murder charges against Leon and instead arrested Lola.
Her crime was not telling police that Leon got into her car and ordered her to drive to his home, where he raped her before she was finally able to escape by jumping out a second-story window, breaking an ankle in the process. But police chose to believe Leon, who after his arrest claimed he'd had consensual sex with her in exchange for crack and then, out of embarrassment, she'd fled via the window. Only after police confronted her with Leon's story did Lola reveal that she'd been forcibly raped. She had wanted to forget all about the violation, she explained, and didn't want to press charges.
To date, more than two years after the murder, no one other than Lola has been arrested in connection with the homicide. Police say the case is still open but admit they have no fresh leads.
Lola's omission didn't alter the facts of the case: Pacheco is dead and his killers are free. And her cooperation did help police identify one of the men at the scene.
The turn of events that freed Leon has left many questioning law enforcement's priorities. How does prosecuting Lola advance the cause of bringing Pacheco's murderers to justice? And what does society gain from prosecuting a woman who witnessed a brutal assault, who may have been sexually attacked, and who suffers mental-health problems?
Although those questions remain unanswered, records make one thing abundantly clear: Detectives and prosecutors blame Celia Lola for their failed homicide investigation.
The Miami-Dade Police Department, the county's largest with 4000 officers, has 1500 cold-case homicides -- murders whose initial investigative thrusts have ended -- dating back to 1951. The most common reasons for a case to falter are lack of physical evidence and witnesses. Rarely do police have physical evidence, a subject's confession that he was present at the crime scene, and a witness -- and then decide to drop the charges.
Lola is scheduled to stand trial April 26, charged with three counts of "false report of a crime to law enforcement," all misdemeanors with sentences of up to a year in jail. (The case will be heard by Judge Shirlyon McWhorter.) Her lawyer, Neil Taylor, was so stunned by the facts in this case that he waived his usual fee and agreed to represent her for a reduced flat rate. "When I heard this story, my heart dropped," he says. "I think the authorities have made a terrible mistake."
Taylor has been a state prosecutor and public defender. He also worked as an assistant U.S. Attorney. And he's been a defendant, accused of accepting drug money as payment from a client. (After two mistrials, he took a plea bargain for a misdemeanor charge. The Florida Bar is reviewing his license to practice law.) So he knows the system from most every angle. "I question the wisdom of prosecuting a woman who has gone through the trauma of seeing her boyfriend beaten to death in front of her and then raped," he says. "Even if you charge her, I can't imagine you would forgo the murder case. With crimes such as murder, I think you have an obligation to put it to trial, even if you lose it. Otherwise you send the wrong message -- that you can literally get away with murder."