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Hauling a fishing rod and bait, Orlando Maytin and his 12-year-old son trudged through a vacant parking lot just past Mile Marker 31 on Alligator Alley. It was 7:45 a.m. March 21, 1999, when they came to a quaint public fishing nook on the edge of a vast, swampy stretch. As Maytin cast a line into the oily canal water, he noticed a mysterious blue-and-brown duct-taped package bumping against the shoreline. It was about three feet long and two feet tall, with makeshift handles on the sides.
It didn't look right.
Maytin, a chunky 34-year-old with short brown locks slicked straight back, cast another line and, with the tender tug of a comb through hair, reeled it in some. He kept one eye on his boy and the other on the box. Then curiosity got the best of him. Setting down his fishing gear, he walked past an elderly fisherman with a weathered face who sat near the boat docks.
"I wouldn't go over there," the old man warned, nodding toward the package. Maytin gazed at him for a moment and walked on. Crouching down, he touched the damp cardboard. It was soaked but firm. He tried to pick it up "to get a sense of the weight."
Then it happened. The cardboard gave way and he caught a glimpse of long, stringy brown hair. What the hell is that? he thought, noticing something fleshy. In horror, he watched as the stiff, wrinkly corpse of a young woman broke through and splashed into the water.
The thin, tan girl had been bent like a pretzel and bound with shoelaces at the ankles. Her muscular arms were tied behind her back with white cloth, and she wore only a backward gray Calvin Klein sweatshirt. She was dead. Freshly dead. Why? Maytin thought. Why would someone do this?
His confusion quickly turned to fear. The killer must still be here. He must be hiding. Heart pounding, Maytin spun around to check behind him. Then he looked back to find his son, who was playing in the golden sunlight, oblivious.
After propping the body on the grassy shore to keep it from drifting away, Maytin called the cops. For the next three hours, he dutifully baby-sat the cold corpse.
Her features were difficult to ignore. This was a girl who, by anyone's standards, had been beautiful. Big, pouty lips remained pink with life. Eyelashes were still specked with traces of makeup. And on the curve of her delicate ankle rested two silver chains. One of them read, "Jeanette."
The body belonged to 22-year-old Jeanette Smith, a stripper who danced under the stage name Jade at Thee Dollhouse in Sunny Isles Beach. Investigators would soon conclude she had been brutally sodomized, strangled, and dumped.
A week later, authorities arrested brawny 33-year-old former Marine sniper Ariel Hernandez. In April 2002, a jury concluded the Gambino crime family had sent Hernandez to kill Jeanette after she apparently discovered a check-kiting scheme. U.S. District Court Judge Paul C. Huck sentenced him to life in prison.
But the case isn't over. In January, a state court will reconsider Jeanette's murder in a trial that could turn up more details about the mob's South Florida operation and lead to Hernandez's execution by lethal injection. Jeanette's family, the Cooper City community where she grew up, and even workers from the strip club where she danced are still fixated on the case — and its unanswered questions — with obsessive passion. "I want the death penalty," says Jeanette's sister Krissy. "Otherwise what's the point?"
Jeanette Smith was born the youngest of three daughters in an Italian-Catholic family in Queens the day after Christmas 1976. Her mom, Gina, was a short, shaggy-haired special education teacher, and her dad, Ray, was a brainy, reclusive lighting technician. When Jeanette was 18 months old, the Smiths moved to a working-class neighborhood in Cooper City to escape the harshness of urban life. Their new place was modest: a one-story beige house with an arch over the front door and a small back yard.
As a first-grader with dimples, wide chocolate-brown eyes, and an easy laugh, Jeanette wore a short, Dorothy Hamill-style bob. Back then, she wasn't allowed to ride a bike with the neighborhood kids. She was too trusting and naive. "I guess you could say we were overprotective," says Gina, who is now a grandmother. "I always had a premonition I was going to lose her."
Neighbor Joanne Sedawie, a curly-haired family friend, recalls Jeanette "always had a smile, and [the Smiths] pampered her because she was the baby." Adds her tall, earnest husband Eddie: "Ray wasn't that close with the girls, but he was strict."
By fourth grade, Jeanette drew boys' attention. Returning home from a 10-year-old's birthday party one evening in 1985, she told her mom: "There was a black boy and a redheaded boy at the party. And nobody would dance with them. So I did."
At Pioneer Middle School, nearly all the kids in Jeanette's social circle were guys. "Girls tended to judge her for how she looked and acted," says her best friend, Tina Mendez. "She had a need for attention and started looking in the wrong places for it."