By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Between September and November last year, an anomaly occurred in Miami. For 38 days straight, no one was murdered within city limits. It was one of those rare occurrences that had newspapers around the state buzzing. But while the Magic City enjoyed a small respite from people getting killed, the rest of Miami-Dade was as deadly as ever. In fact, homicides in unincorporated areas of the county rose significantly in 2008. There were 97 people murdered last year compared to 79 in 2007, a 23 percent increase. This year, death has slowed down a bit, but not by much. As of April 3, the medical examiner's office has tagged 58 murder victims, compared to 69 for the same period in 2008.
With so much death around us, New Times embarked on a mission to find out who passed away during one of the deadliest weeks so far this year, February 23 through March 1. As usual, there were demises that made headlines. Former SunPost columnist and Miami Beach mayoral chief of staff A.C. Weinstein died alone in his art deco South Beach apartment February 23. Erstwhile Florida Grand Opera tenor Pablo Josue Amador shocked his Perrine neighborhood February 25 when he killed his 45-year-old wife and their two teenage daughters and then turned the gun on himself. The murder-suicide was the fifth in Miami-Dade since October last year. And finally, there was Michael Davis, a drifter who used multiple aliases and was wanted for murdering a teenage boy in South Beach when police gunned him down in the courtyard of a North Miami apartment building.
While those deaths captured public attention, even if for only a moment, there were dozens more that week that went largely unnoticed. A 73-year-old widower with dementia and Alzheimer's wandered away from a rest home in West Miami and wound up in a canal; his brother-in-law spotted his floating corpse. A 64-year-old who liked his booze died naked inside the bathtub of his dilapidated trailer in Homestead; his body rotted for two days before police found it. A 38-year-old day laborer, depressed about being unemployed and his pending divorce, shot himself in the mouth as he sat on the living room couch in his West Miami apartment; his niece discovered him the next morning.
If you've lived in Miami for any period of time, it's easy to become numb to the violence that surrounds us. In some neighborhoods, there's no getting around it. Walk the halls of Carol City High, which lost six students to murder in 2006, and chances are you'll find someone who has been profoundly affected by death. Visit the corner of NW 70th Street and 15th Avenue in Liberty City — where earlier this year an unknown gunman opened fired on a crowd of people playing dice and killed two teenage boys — and eventually you'll find someone who has experienced the death of a loved one. Gang murders, bodies floating in canals, and shot kids turning up in dumpsters — it's all part of the city's recent history.
For this story, New Times obtained investigation and autopsy reports on 30 of 48 people who died between February 23 and March 1. We could not obtain the remaining 18 files because law enforcement authorities are still investigating those cases. In addition to murders, we tracked suicides, accidental fatalities, and deaths from natural causes reported by the medical examiner, all of which account for only ten percent of deaths in the county. The other 90 percent are usually people who have died of natural causes reported by emergency room doctors who sign the death certificates.
We also spoke to individuals who deal with death every day — from the coordinator of the county's public interment program to funeral directors — to find out how they cope with so much tragedy.
Through this exercise, we learned a few things about death. For starters, people often die alone. No one hears them scream. No one sees them take their last breath. No one is there to immediately call 911. Second, most deaths never make headlines. Even those that do are quickly forgotten. For most of us, when we die, the only ones who will care will be the loved ones we leave behind.
6:34 a.m., Hialeah
Gladys Tabarez, a caretaker at a group home for people with physical and mental disabilities, went into Josue Bellevue's room to check on her 28-year-old charge. He was not breathing. Fire-rescue responded to the scene, but it was too late. Born July 29, 1980, Bellevue stood four feet 11 inches tall, weighed 114 pounds, and had curly black hair and coarse beard stubble. A single young man with Down syndrome, he slept in one of the six bedrooms inside the tan two-story house at 265 W. 63rd St. Every day, he took five prescription meds, including lorazepam and temazepam, two anti-anxiety drugs. From the window of the living room, he had a view of the lone palm tree on the front lawn.
Cause of death: lobar pneumonia
10:10 a.m., Miami Beach
A.C. Weinstein was divorced and lived alone in unit 27 of a cream-colored two-story apartment building at 1050 Pennsylvania Ave. A neighbor became concerned about Weinstein after noticing a growing pile of newspapers in front of the 62-year-old's apartment. The neighbor knocked on the door several times, but Weinstein did not answer. The neighbor got a spare key from the building manager and entered Weinstein's pad. Weinstein was on his living room sofa. He was not breathing. Miami Beach Fire-Rescue pronounced him dead.
In the 1980s, Weinstein moved to Key West, where he produced a weekly show on public access television called Eye on the Keys. He used the show as a bully pulpit to take on the tourism industry. A decade later, the controversial rabble-rouser moved to Miami Beach, where he became a fixture in the city's civic affairs. As a political columnist for the local weekly SunPost, Weinstein fashioned himself as a muckraker exposing the misdeeds of city government. To his enemies, Weinstein used his column to further the agenda of his pals, such as Miami Beach Mayor David Dermer, who gave the ex-TV producer a plum gig as his chief of staff. It was a job Weinstein somehow held on to even when Matti Bower was elected mayor last year. "His death is a big loss," Bower says. "A.C. is irreplaceable. That said, a lot of people feared and loathed him because of his political influence."
On February 26, Weinstein's friends gave him a farewell toast before his memorial service. At 12:15 p.m., they gathered in the parking lot of the Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapel at 1920 Alton Rd. and downed shots of tequila.
Cause of death: hypertensive cardiovascular disease
6:45 p.m., Sweetwater
Juan Ayala arrived in Miami from Cuba seven years ago. The 76-year-old retired mechanic lived with his sister in a single-story beige house at 11251 SW Seventh Ter. Ayala had five children with his ex-wife, smoked cigarettes, and drank alcohol. He suffered from chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and an irregular heartbeat. Ayala was preparing to leave with his sister for a class when family members found him unconscious on the floor. He was dead by the time paramedics showed up.
Cause of death: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
9 p.m., Liberty City
Roosevelt Ivory Jr. was found gunned down just a few blocks from his father's boarding home for ex-cons at 1736 NW 69th Ter. The two-house compound sits in a notoriously violent neighborhood of Miami where earlier this year an unknown assailant armed with an AK-47 opened fire on a group of young black men playing dice and killed two.
Junior's luck ran out too. Miami-Dade Police won't comment about the murder, but Roosevelt Ivory Sr. says the shooting took place on NE 63rd Street at 18th Avenue. "I got a phone call from somebody on the street, saying, 'Your son just got shot,'" Ivory remembers. "My first thought was, Well, OK, they said shot, not killed. He's going to be OK. But I was extremely shocked. My men had to help me get out of the house, because I was running around in circles trying to find my keys."
Ivory has heard on the streets that his son's killers mistook him for someone else. "It's funny, because we were just having a discussion a couple of days before about how crazy these streets are," he says, recalling a conversation he had with Junior. Even though police informed Ivory they have surveillance videos with clear pictures of the shooters, the six-foot-four former boxing promoter is not brimming with confidence that his son's homicide will be solved. "People in the street are too afraid to come forward," he says. "I'm going to leave it to [the police]. I'm going to hope they handle this."
Ivory Sr. once owned Miami Beach boxing haven 5th Street Gym, the onetime training home to Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Rocky Marciano, Sonny Liston, and Mike Tyson. Says Ivory: "Junior worked right along with me." Five years ago, 5th Street closed for good, and his son joined him in the other family business: construction. But while Ivory insists his son had no enemies and "was never involved in anything serious enough to get him murdered," a glance at their rap sheets reveals another father/son similarity: Both were prolific at being charged with, and acquitted of, wheelbarrows full of felonies.
From 1974 through 2002, the elder Ivory was charged with carrying a sawed-off weapon, cocaine possession, felony marijuana possession, battery, and assault. He has somehow avoided a felony conviction every time. His slain son's rap sheet is even longer: two charges of cocaine possession, two illegal weapons charges, aggravated assault, armed robbery, marijuana dealing, and attempted first-degree murder. That's eight felonies, and he was convicted of only one: a 2001 cocaine possession charge, for which he was sentenced to one day in jail.
Cause of death: gunshot wound to the head
— Reporting by Gus Garcia Roberts
9:15 a.m., South Miami
Maria Arias and her boyfriend pounded on the front door of the white three-bedroom corner house at 6941 SW 63rd Ave. She was concerned about her son, Robert Michael Arias, who had not answered phone calls from friends or family for days. Maria's boyfriend forced open the front door and entered. He found Robert's dead body in the bathroom. The shower was running and a blood-soaked shirt lay nearby. According to Miami-Dade Police, the self-employed carpenter had been stabbed to death hours, maybe even days, earlier.
According to neighbor Hugo Hernandez, Robert Arias practically grew up in the white three-bedroom house, a property his grandfather, Domingo Echemendia, purchased for $28,200 in 1973. The home is located in a Norman Rockwell-esque neighborhood where a lush tree canopy shields the sidewalks from the brutal Miami sun, and the rustic residences feature expansive front lawns with white picket fences. Hernandez, who owns a two-bedroom house next door, says Arias was a nice young man: "We said hi to each other every day."
Miami-Dade criminal court records show the 28-year-old South Miami High alum had gotten into some trouble over the past ten years. When he was 20 years old, Arias was arrested December 26, 2001, at Bayside Marketplace for misdemeanor simple battery. On March 31, 2002, he was collared for third-degree felony grand theft auto. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office dropped the case. On July 25, 2007, cops nabbed him for drinking in public. That case was also dismissed.
Hernandez believes Arias was a victim of a botched burglary. "I think they broke in and didn't expect to find someone in there," he says. "It's a shame. He had just celebrated his only daughter's first birthday."
On the steps leading to the home's entrance, the family set up a small memorial with two religious candles, a vase of dried flowers, a 32-ounce bottle of Presidente beer, and a 16-ounce bottle of Corona.
In the back yard, a soft wind moves the two swings on a faded wood playground set.
Cause of death: multiple stab wounds
5:50 a.m., Palmetto Bay
Pablo Josue Amador arrived home sometime around 5:45 that morning. His 16-year-old son, Javier, was in his room, getting ready for school, when he heard gunshots. Amador entered Javier's room, said "I love you," and fired one shot at the boy. The bullet missed. Amador placed the gun to his own head and fired, killing himself. Javier then went to check on his mother, Maria, and his two younger sisters, 14-year-old Priscila and 13-year-old Rosa. He discovered they had all been shot dead. His older sister, Beula Beatriz, a 20-year-old University of Miami student, was not home.
By all accounts, Pablo Josue Amador was a soulful man. The 53-year-old music teacher had been a tenor with Florida Grand Opera and taught piano lessons to the neighborhood children. He was also a musical director, arranger, and vocalist for Los Galileos, a six-member ensemble that included his children. The group had performed in dozens of churches around South Florida since 2001. Maria Amador was education director at the University of Miami's Project to Cure Paralysis. The Amadors' four-bedroom house featured two detached structures that were used as music studios. The residence was filled with multiple musical instruments, including guitars and keyboards.
Hours before being killed, 14-year-old Priscila wrote on her MySpace page: "It's over, I'm free," according to the medical examiner's investigations memo. Days later, the Miami Herald reported allegations by two of Priscila's classmates that her father had been molesting her since she was a young girl. The tenor's daughter had also penned a letter to a friend that allegedly described the abuse. Miami-Dade homicide detectives have not publicly released the contents of the letter and have not confirmed the sex abuse accusations.
This past March 4, hundreds of relatives and friends attended the funeral for the four slain Amador family members. The service was held at Christ Fellowship Church at 8900 SW 168th St. in Palmetto Bay. Javier, the lone survivor in the house that day, sat at a piano and played a tender melody eulogizing his family. When he finished, the young man walked off the stage without saying a word.
Causes of death: gunshot wounds to the head
10:23 a.m., West Miami
Luis Fors came to Miami from Cuba in 1973 and spent his days working as a truck driver. He was married, but the 73-year-old widower never had any children. Recently, Fors had become depressed because of Alzheimer's, dementia, and diabetes. Since July 2008, he had resided at Blessing House One, an assisted living facility at 14350 SW 29th St. Fors had wandered off the property on two previous occasions, but he was always found. However, after he disappeared this past February 22, his nephew, Jorge Pino, filed a missing person's report with Miami-Dade Police. Two days later, Fors's brother-in-law spotted a body floating in a canal near Blessing House. Police divers retrieved the dead male. Pino and a driver's license confirmed it was Fors.
Cause of death: hypertensive cardiovascular disease and terminal submersion
7:52 p.m., Homestead
Robert Chase lived by himself in a trailer at 601 NW Third Ave. that his ex-wife's new husband purchased for him. The 64-year-old Englishman was a U.S. citizen who served in the Army. Chase was retired and living off of his social security check. He smoked a lot of cigarettes and drank a lot of booze. According to a Miami-Dade Police report, Chase talked about smoking marijuana, but no one ever saw him light up a joint. Chase was taking aspirin as well as nine prescription meds. He was last seen alive February 23. Two days later, Homestead Police officers forced their way into his trailer. They found him naked inside the bathtub. He was not breathing. Cigarette butts and empty beer bottles littered the home.
Cause of death: hypertensive cardiovascular disease
5 a.m., North Miami
A woman called 911 to report a dead body inside a one-bedroom apartment in a building in North Miami. Markey Saintil Jr. had been shot once in the head. Fire-rescue and North Miami homicide detectives pronounced Saintil dead at the scene. His mother, Ghislene Richmond, had last seen her 19-year-old son February 25. Sometime after 3 p.m., Richmond was renewing her driver's license at the Department of Motor Vehicles office at 7900 NW 27th Ave. when she received a call from her mother. "She told me that something had happened to Junior," Richmond says.
When Richmond returned home, her mother told her that Junior had been shot. Later that evening, a North Miami homicide detective visited Richmond and broke the tragic news. She says the police believe her son was killed sometime between 10 p.m. February 26 and 5 a.m. February 27. "A woman found Markey's body in an apartment in North Miami," Richmond says. "I don't know who the woman is or how Markey ended up there."
North Miami Police spokesman Lt. Bill Cuevas declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation.
More than a month after Saintil's death, there are still no leads. "When I found out my son had been shot dead, I was shocked," Richmond says. "I've seen stories about other people's children getting killed so many times on the television news, but I never thought I would experience it."
Richmond, a petite, soft-spoken woman with dark brown braids brushing past her shoulders, sits on a beige living room sofa, flanked by her mother, nephew, and niece. They don't say a word as the 38-year-old divorced mom recalls Saintil's life. "My son had a very calm temperament," she says, her eyes welling up with tears. "He was the type of kid who would walk away from a confrontation."
Born June 16, 1989, at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Saintil was the oldest of six siblings. According to Richmond, her son enjoyed downloading music on his computer and playing basketball. Saintil did not graduate from high school, but on March 31, 2008, he earned a GED from Continental Academy, an online school. "He was so happy," Richmond notes. "He had a sense of accomplishment that he could go to college if he wanted to."
She pulls out three notebook-size printouts bearing images of Saintil, a wiry young man who weighed 145 pounds and stood five feet seven inches tall. In one photograph, a beaming Saintil clasps his hands as he sits on a park bench. He sports a pair of baggy jean shorts, a polo shirt, and a fresh pair of red and white Air Jordans. He has a handsome grin, expressive brown eyes, and a pointy, bushy goatee.
This past March 7, Richmond buried her son. "I don't have a reward to give," she says, "but if anyone has information on Markey's murder, I would love if they came forward. My son did not deserve to die the way he did."
Cause of death: gunshot wound to the head
3:28 p.m., Homestead
On the nights she didn't wait tables at the Farmers' Market Restaurant, Jacqueline Folden would indulge in a glass of red wine. The 72-year-old widow came to south Florida from Massachusetts about 60 years ago. She never had any children and lived alone at 15321 SW 297th Ter. According to an unnamed friend, Folden had a hysterectomy, but other than that, she refused to see a doctor — even when she was vomiting and had diarrhea for three days straight. The friend found Folden lying on her bed. Fire-rescue personnel pronounced her dead at the scene. She had been deceased for at least five hours.
Cause of death: hypertensive cardiovascular disease
11:25 p.m., North Miami
A resident of the Portofino apartment complex at 14050 Biscayne Blvd. called 911 to report a shooting after she heard a loud boom. Several police cruisers descended on the parking lot near the entrance of the building. A young black man lay motionless on the ground. His black T-shirt and blue jeans were soaked in blood. He was Brandon Ledford, a 20-year-old waiter from Titusville who was in town visiting friends. According to the police report, pal Caterine Aguilera told homicide detectives that she, Ledford, and six other friends had been hanging out, drinking, and smoking marijuana. She said Ledford was acting weird and she advised him to take a nap. Another friend told the cops Ledford said, "I think I'm gonna kill myself." A few moments later, Ledford jumped from the balcony. The loud boom the resident reported was possibly the sound of the young man striking the pavement.
For his obituary that appeared in Florida Today, his mother wrote, "Brandon was truly the best child any mother could ever hope for. He was honest and thoughtful. He supported his friends and family in every decision they made. He loved everyone in his life openly and full-heartedly. He will be missed more than words can express."
Cause of death: multiple blunt-force injuries
10:28 a.m., West Miami
Rodolfo Lopez was living with his niece, Jeanette Lobo, at her third-floor apartment in a building at 3561 SW 11th7 Ave. when around 5 a.m., they began to argue over his attempt to buy cocaine a few days earlier. The 38-year-old day laborer had just relocated to Miami from Chicago. He was depressed about being unemployed and his pending divorce. It didn't help that he was addicted to cocaine. Lobo went to bed, and when she woke up, she found Lopez on the couch. He had a gun on his chest and a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the mouth. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
New Times recently visited Lobo's apartment, located in a complex of similar-looking eggshell-colored buildings near Florida's Turnpike. Two burly men who spoke only Spanish were removing boxes full of clothes from the unit. They claimed they did not know Lobo or about Lopez's suicide. "The young lady," one said, "she moved out."
Cause of death: intra-oral gunshot wound
A PAUPER'S GRAVE
Dried red and yellow leaves rustle on the tree-lined path that rings the perimeter of a county park on Galloway Road in Southwest Miami-Dade. Sandwiched between a county telecommunications building and the East Kendall Fire Station, the park is virtually empty this past March 30, except for a couple of women walking the gravel trail. It looks like an average park — except for the rows of bricks in the ground. Each of the stones is etched with a number assigned to the unknown dead buried here. The gravel pathway leads to the center of the park, where a granite obelisk reads, "Galloway Cemetery," one of two public spots in Miami-Dade where unknown people and the poor are laid to rest.
The other county cemetery is located next to Kendall Indian Hammocks Park, at SW 79th Street and 113th Avenue. According to Elise Bobbitt, the cemeteries have existed since the 1920s. Bobbitt would know, because for the past 21 years, she has worked as coordinator of the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Public Interment Program, which provides funeral services for unclaimed bodies and for indigent families that cannot afford to pay for a funeral.
About one-third of the 850 cases Bobbitt handled last year were unclaimed bodies, while two-thirds were for poor families cremating a relative. This year, Bobbitt has already buried or cremated 187 bodies. The county, which sets aside $250,000 a year for the public interment program, uses Allen and Shaw Cremations in Opa-locka to cremate the deceased. According to Bobbitt, there is no specific profile of an unclaimed or indigent dead person. "Some either died in a nursing home or a hospital or at home," she says. "Some people are elderly who outlived their family members. Others are single individuals with little or no next-of-kin data."
Bobbitt notes she researches hospital and nursing home records, veterans affairs records, and social security numbers; combs the Internet; and contacts friends and former employers to find an unclaimed deceased person's relatives. It's a job that requires patience, understanding, and empathy. "I enjoy helping others," she says. "When people call our office, they are experiencing a very difficult time. It is comforting for them to know that I don't treat their loved one as just another public interment case."
A sobbing Cuban-American woman walks from the office of the Bernardo Garcia Funeral Home at 865 W. 49th St. in Hialeah. Funeral director Raymond Scott — a tall man with curly black hair and a neatly trimmed goatee, a blue print tie, crisp white shirt, and dark slacks — puts his arm around her and accompanies the woman to her car. It's the morning of April 1, and Scott's day is just beginning. The lady he was escorting had a son who was lost at sea for nine months. "They found him last week," Scott explains.
For Scott, the inspiration to become a funeral director took root while he was living in New York City in 2006. At the time, Scott, whose parents are of Dominican and Spanish descent, was a scientist doing pharmaceutical research for Pfizer. "My grandmother had died," he recollects. "She was from the old country and wanted a viewing in our house. The funeral director I chose treated me and my family with the greatest compassion. I got to see the entire process in my house, even when he embalmed her."
Shortly thereafter, Pfizer offered him and other employees with more than 15 years on the job a buyout. "I had the opportunity to do something else with my life, so I took an aptitude test," Scott says, chuckling. "Three things came up: nurse, pharmacist, and funeral director."
Scott and his family moved to Miami in 2007, and he enrolled in Miami Dade College's funeral service and mortuary science associate's degree program. Although the program usually takes two years to complete, Scott was able to finish in one year because he already had a degree. While attending school, he landed an internship with Bernardo Garcia. "I've been here ever since," he says. "This was the place I wanted to work for." Scott adds that he is still afraid of death even though he sees the harsh reality of it on a daily basis. "No one wants to die," he says. "And every day, I am reminded that there is an end to life."
Among the people the New York City native met in school was Jay Boutwell, who has been a funeral director for the past 14 years. Boutwell, a bald man with a white beard and deep-set blue eyes, also graduated from MDC's funeral service program. "This is something that I was truly meant to do in life," Boutwell says. "It was one of those duck-to-water situations." Boutwell works alongside Scott at Bernardo Garcia helping relatives plan funeral arrangements for loved ones.
When Boutwell was 22 years old, he lost his first wife to leukemia, he says. "The people at the funeral home took such good care of me that if I could give back just a little of what they gave me," he says, "then I would be doing something meaningful." Ten years later, after the retail company he worked for went out of business, Boutwell enrolled in funeral director school and got his degree. He has worked for various funeral homes in South Florida and has seen all manner of deaths.
The worst one he ever dealt with happened ten years ago, Boutwell says. "A three-year-old kid was accidentally shot by his five-year-old brother in the back seat of their parents' car," he remembers. "Dad was a corrections officer who had left his gun under the seat. I had to prepare the baby for the viewing and help the family get through their guilt."
Boutwell says tragic events like that one still have a profound effect on him. "My way of dealing with it is to look at the body as a shell of the person," he says. "Their soul is gone. The essence of the person is no longer there. My main concern is to make what remains resemble what they looked like in life so the family can have an easier time dealing with the fact that their loved one is gone."