By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
September 8, 2009. Just before 2 a.m., Charlene Zatroch parallel-parks her beat-up gold Saturn a block from White Room nightclub in Overtown. It's a muggy night in hipster central, where boys with creative facial hair meet girls on $800 bicycles. Once a drug-blasted slum, the neighborhood is still rough with graffiti and flickering streetlamps. And tonight it's a little too quiet.
Charlene, age 19, is gabbing with a friend to the hum of the car radio when she notices something strange: A man in a white Escalade pulls up next to them and then backs up. His face is shadowy as he pins the front wheel of his SUV into the back of her Saturn, trapping them. She frantically tries to floor it, but she's stuck.
Without a word, the driver gets out of the car and cocks a .22-caliber handgun. He strolls over casually, as if walking through the park. Charlene scrambles to roll up the window — oh my God, oh my God — but it's too late. He fires three shots.
April 14, 2008. Vender Davis, a 43-year-old Miami-Dade Transit driver with a short ponytail, wakes to the sound of her cell phone at 3:15 a.m. She doesn't recognize the frantic female voice on the line. "Your son's been shot," the caller wails. "Darnell's been hit."
A sinking feeling hits her gut, draining the air from her lungs. She stands up, puts on shoes, and drives her weatherworn pickup to Jackson Memorial Hospital. But her son is not there, so she heads to the nightclub where he was last seen. There's a whirl of red ambulance lights as she pulls onto NE 11th Street, and several cop cars are parked outside Studio A. She hops out of the truck, straining to see her 22-year-old boy.
One of the paramedics blocks her from getting too close and then gives her the news: "Ma'am, your son has expired."
October 18, 2008. Elena Sebekos can't sleep, so she sits in bed reading a thick statistics book. The 24-year-old Florida International University student has a waterfall of brown curly hair and wears a cross around her neck. It's 4 a.m. inside her small North Miami home when she hears wheels screech and a loud thump outside.
Then it happens: A Cadillac Escalade — riddled with bullets — slams into her chainlink fence and bursts through her bedroom wall. Inside the car, a rapper named Toro sits slouched in the passenger seat, bleeding from his head. He had just left Coco's nightclub.
The cops arrive and take note: There's a nickel-size bullet hole in his skull.
This past January, when a Michigan model named Paula Sladewski was found burned and dead in a North Miami trash bin, worldwide media, from Times London to America's Most Wanted, descended on the Magic City to cover the story. Her case had all the elements of a gripping mystery — a beautiful victim, a heinous murder, and a glitzy backdrop. Had it happened almost anywhere else, at any other time, it might have made only local headlines. But this was Miami, on New Year's Eve weekend, and the city was doing what it does best: partying.
Reporters are still knocking on the door of Club Space, the epicenter of downtown nightlife, where Paula disappeared. But while her tragic tale continues to snag coverage, other late-night murders and shootings have gone untold. They haunt families, bruise businesses, and baffle law enforcement.
In the past two years, 12 people have been murdered inside or while leaving nightclubs in Miami-Dade, according to medical records and police reports. Most victims were young with bright futures and no criminal history. They range from an 18-year-old security guard who was a shot to a 21-year-old immigrant found hacked to pieces.
Like Paula, their nights began with plans to let loose, hear music, and have some fun. But for Charlene, Darnell, and Toro, everything would change before the sun came up.
Some six hours before a mysterious driver would open fire on her car near White Room, Charlene Zatroch is inside her quiet Cutler Bay home prepping for a dinner date. Then her cell phone rings.
It's her friend Chelsea in tears over a nasty breakup. "Can we have a girls' night?" she wants to know.
Charlene is a Miami Dade College student with green eyes and a smart, self-deprecating sense of humor. With her skinny arms and long brown hair, she looks plucked from an American Apparel ad. But then she smiles and there's something wholesome about her.
Charlene grew up in Cutler Bay with a dad who taught high school computer classes and a Dominican mom who dragged her to church every Sunday. She'd been working at an SAT call center for the summer, spending free time with a boy who had straw-colored hair to his chin. But on this night, she calls the boy to cancel.
The girls make another plan: Head to White Room and dance until Chelsea feels better. Charlene puts on her favorite necklace and a pair of liquid leggings and picks up her friend around the corner. She scores gas money from Chelsea's dad and then rolls toward the ghetto with five bucks in her purse.
Vender Davis irons her son's Dickies pants, sets them neatly on a chair, and goes to bed around 8 p.m. As he leaves, Darnell grabs the clothes and puts them in his backpack. He whispers, "Night, Mom," and locks the front door behind him.
At a neighbor's house, a few younger girls are lounging, smoking weed, and sipping soda from plastic bottles when he shows up. Darnell is blessed with big dark eyes, a muscular frame, and a quiet confidence. He has a way of playfully teasing that makes you drop your guard.
When he was 5, his family nicknamed him "21" because he acted like a grownup. His dad wasn't in the picture, and his stepfather was in and out of jail, so Vender worked long hours to pay the mortgage on the family's modest Allapattah home. By the time he was a teenager, Darnell had taken on the role of protector in the neighborhood.
"He was like a big brother to us," says a 17-year-old neighbor who asked not to be named. "But some people was hating on him because, you know, he dressed good and had money."
After taking a few hits from a joint and laughing about neighborhood gossip, Darnell checks his bright-blue square-faced wristwatch. It's about 11 p.m. "Man, I don't even feel like going out tonight," he tells the girls. But there's a birthday party, and he promised to go to Studio A. "I'll be back in a couple hours," he says.
Toro finishes recording a new track called "We Do This" and takes off his headphones. The sun is going down at Underworld Studio near the Venetian Causeway, and tonight he's on a mission: He burns 20 copies, slides them into demo cases, and tells his boss at Iconz Music he's headed to the clubs to promote. "I'm gonna make you rich!" he beams, high on the song. "I'm about to take over the world!" He gives the record label owner a fist-bump and swaggers out the door.
Toro has an image to keep up. You could say he looks intimidating: The rapper has an inch-long cross tattooed next to his eye, the build of a linebacker, and a gold grill in his mouth. Even his MySpace page boasts he's "ya baby mama's favorite hood nigga." But his close friends know it's an act, partly for his own protection, partly for his record label image. The façade fades behind closed doors.
Despite growing up with no mother in the slums of Opa-locka, the private-schooled 33-year-old has never been in trouble. He is too smart for the gangs and too driven for the drugs. He's the kind of guy who takes his grandmother to the grocery store.
Before hitting the clubs, he first swings home to change. The small blue house has a sun-bleached lawn and a single white plastic chair sitting on the porch. Around the corner is a boarded-up building with a sign that reads, "Section 8 Housing." "I'm gonna get you away from here," he tells his grandma, Addie. "Once I got money, I'm gonna take you someplace beautiful."
He changes into a new pair of designer jeans and climbs into an Escalade. Inside are a neighbor named Travell and his girlfriend Venis. Addie thinks they're bad news. Travell has been convicted for possession of cocaine and carrying a concealed weapon, according to court records, and was recently released from prison. (Both friends declined to comment.)
As the SUV pulls away, Toro's lyrics seem to echo behind him: "See all these killers 'round me?/Lotta drug dealing 'round me/Going down in Dade County."
When Charlene and Chelsea arrive at White Room around 11 p.m., the club is empty. They show their IDs for the underage event and stroll past the bamboo-lined front entrance. On Mondays, the place usually thumps gritty, indie glam beats while a powwow of artsy college kids suck on cigarettes in the outdoor courtyard. But tonight there's nobody lounging under the white canopy tents.
Inside, where bands sometimes wail next to oval-shaped mirrors, the dance floor is vacant, aside from a 20-something gay boy who has come alone. The DJ is a no-show, and even the manager looks bored. "Come back in a couple hours," he tells the girls.
The lone gay customer offers to escort them to their car. It's a rough hood, he warns. With a couple of hours to burn, Charlene and Chelsea offer to give him a ride to South Beach, where they drop him off and grab a pair of plastic chairs in front of a luxury Ocean Drive hotel. Charlene listens to her pal vent about the breakup as they people-watch under a nearly full moon. With the palm trees etched in the distance, it seems a world away from the neighborhood where they plan to return. "It was just like any other night out," Charlene remembers. "Nobody expects to get shot."
By the time Darnell gets to Studio A — an industrial-chic warehouse with chandeliers — the crowd is rowdy. The speakers are the size of refrigerators, and they send the clack of Southern hip-hop through club. These walls are shaking.
Women in tight dresses drink pink concoctions from plastic cups as men throw elbows on the dance floor. But Darnell isn't into drinking and fighting. If he's still feeling a little stoned, he doesn't show it as he hangs to the side, chatting with a few friends. Then a short but fierce-looking man in a black skull cap notices him from across the club.
Club 112 glows with green light. As Toro enters the multistage live-music venue and strip club, he clutches a stack of CDs. He gives copies to a few choice DJs and fellow rappers.
More than a few fistfights have erupted here, where men wear sports jerseys and carry wads of cash while curvy dancers strut around in tiny shorts. Toro doesn't seem interested in the women. He's in a strange mood, standing alone and sipping a glass of Hennessy.
Toro has always been a bit of a loner. His mom died when he was 11, and his dad pinched pennies to send him to Northwest Christian Academy. Older kids from the neighborhood made fun of his private school uniform — it made him look rich — so he'd rush home to take it off.
In his 20s, he began selling music for a dollar at the Carol City Flea Market. He got props on the street for his freestyle skills and the fact that he could draw a crowd. His song "Ride," featuring Miami hip-hip legend Rick Ross, has gotten airplay. Says Iconz Music owner Jay Fentz, who signed Toro: "He had a work ethic like none other."
Adds industry friend Dizzy: "He just kept grindin'. He was destined to make it."
But on this particular night, Toro tells friends, the place has bad vibes. "They were playing his song and he wasn't even dancing," says his friend Cuzo, who was with him that night. "It was almost like he knew something was going to happen."
It's around 1:30 a.m. when Charlene and Chelsea head back to Overtown and park facing south. As the shooter drives up, his shiny Escalade looks hulking next to Charlene's Saturn. His face is shadowy, and he's moving his lips — Asking directions? Trying to snag the parking spot? — so they give him a confused look.
Charlene rolls down her window. "What's up?" she asks. He doesn't answer. That's when he pins the front wheel of his SUV to the back of her Saturn, trapping them.
A homeless man across the street is folding palm tree leaves into grasshoppers. He's the only one who notices.
Then come the shots. The girls scream. Glass shatters. It sounds like a car backfiring and smells like the Fourth of July. One of the bullets feels warm as it tears diagonally through Charlene's shoulder, piercing her lung and lodging under her esophagus. A pool of blood spills onto her leopard-print seat cover, and it takes a second to register: Somebody just shot me. I could die right here.
As he speeds away, nobody catches a good look at him or a license plate number. Charlene rolls the car a few feet to the entrance of the club, opens the door, and collapses onto the cold sidewalk. "She was moaning, and her friend was totally flipped out," says White Room owner Luis Fonseca, who called the police.
TV news crews rush to interview witnesses but find only the homeless man, who guesses — incorrectly — is was a fight about parking.
At 3 a.m. inside Studio A, a man with no shirt and a black scull cap chest-bumps Darnell. The guy is only five-foot-two, but he wears an intense facial expression. One female friend overhears him say, "Don't worry about it — I got something for you," according to police reports. Then he pulls out a black handgun. From the center of the club, gunshots pepper the smoky air — crack-crack — and the crowd scatters.
A female bartender ducks for cover under the bar and then faints. Girls drop their purses and run outside. Clubbers leave behind high heels, crack rocks, and bags of weed, according to cops on the scene. Darnell's lifeless body is left behind on the floor.
Outside, Officer T. Jones sees customers fleeing and reports there's "a male down inside" the club.
The club closes two weeks later.
Says Officer Jeffrey Glasko: "The promoter had a history of violence." He had hired a private security company and did not use surveillance cameras. (Club owner Dave Slifkin did not respond to several calls for comment.)
Two years later, Darnell's mother replays the scene in her mind: "I felt like he was reaching out to me," Vender says. "And I couldn't get there in time."
Toro pulls up to a North Miami street corner lit with a neon yellow Coco's sign against a slick tile wall. Tonight the strip club is hosting "Freaky Friday." It's the kind of place men eat chicken wings while girls jiggle their thighs.
Toro is in a foul mood when he enters the strip club with his friends Travell and Venis. According to Coco's club manager, Michael Benable, Toro had gotten into an argument earlier that night at Club 112. But why — and with whom — was a mystery.
Toro visits the DJ booth to chat up his new album. People here know his name. "He was always dressed up fresh, shaking hands," says fellow rapper Willie Goldy Green. By 4 a.m., Toro is tired, so he and his friends head to the parking lot, climb back into the Escalade, and drive west toward home.
They make it a block before the pop-pop-pop of gunshots blasts into the predawn air. The shots come from a speeding silver Impala. One bullet strikes Toro in the head; another hits Venis, who loses control of the wheel and slams into the home of Elena Sebekos, the FIU student who's reading in bed.
Travell and Venis survive. But Toro dies instantly.
THE MORNING AFTER
Charlene awakes in the hospital with tubes down her throat and a TV newscast blaring. A well-groomed anchor is talking about "the White Room shooting" — two teenage girls have been attacked. She quickly turns it off.
Doctors enter and explain that her shoulder is fractured and that they might need to crack her ribs and remove her esophagus. So she spends days in ICU, doped up on morphine, alone at night with her thoughts. Doctors would dub her case "the miracle of the year" — the bullet somehow missed every vital organ — but her story doesn't have a fairy-tale ending. She will live with the hunk of metal lodged in her gut, like a constant intruder, for the rest of her life.
There will be physical therapy and months of nightmares. There will be trips to the ER, counseling sessions, and chronic chest pains.
Although cops have no leads, Charlene thinks the random act was a form of gang initiation. "We weren't these crazy club girls," she says. "We were sober, just talking." She hasn't been back since.
The fact that her shooter is walking free makes Charlene feel uneasy, and she guesses her chest pains are partly psychological. "It's weird," she says. "I keep thinking I'm going to see him again, that he's going to come find me... It's like we have a relationship: He will always be my shooter, and I will always be his victim."
A family friend is waiting for Darnell's mom in the parking lot outside Jackson Memorial Hospital. "Here's his stuff," she tells Vender, handing over her son's blue wristwatch. It's splattered with blood.
The friend doesn't say why she has it, and Vender is too shocked to ask. Right then, her cell phone rings. Darnell is not at the hospital, the caller tells her; he's at Studio A.
She rushes to the nightclub to find an ambulance, curtained off with white bed sheets, on a cigarette-dotted street. That's when she is told her son has "expired."
The next morning, she drives to the coroner's office, a towering concrete building, northwest of downtown Miami. A medical examiner slides open a metal refrigerator drawer and unzips a plastic body bag to reveal her oldest son, eyes closed. "I couldn't cope," she says. "I felt like I was going to lose my mind."
Today a seven-foot adhesive photo of Darnell is emblazoned on the front door of her Allapattah home. It reads, "RIP Darnell. You will never be forgotten." Inside, Vender speaks with poise and is dressed in a dark Miami-Dade Transit uniform. A big-screen TV flickers images of a sitcom as she rolls Darnell's wristwatch between her soft hands. It's still unclear why his friend was carrying it.
After her son's murder, Vender couldn't muster the strength to go to work for days. Letting go is still tough; she keeps his clothes in bags and a large photo of him on the living room table. One thing that might help her with closure: Cops have since charged a 24-year-old named Wilton Jackson with the murder. (The case is open.)
"I want him punished," she says matter-of-factly. "You killed my son and you can't even tell me why." She sighs and her voice softens. "I am still not registering that my baby is dead."
In front of her, on a short coffee table, rests the leaflet her family distributed at the funeral. There's a photo of Darnell, age 8, with a big toothy grin. It reads, "Sadness is a vein that runs through my heart/Pain remains while we're apart."
A week after Toro is gunned down, hundreds of mourners flock to Wright Funeral Home in Opa-locka. Friends wear custom-made "RIP Toro" T-shirts and drink from flasks in the parking lot, trading stories about the fabled MC. Toro's corpse is dressed head to toe in red as it lies in a casket.
"From the sheer number of people who showed up," record-label head Fentz says, "you would have thought he was a state representative. He was just hitting his stride."
Two years later, cops have no leads. Even close friends have no idea why he was killed.
On a recent Thursday, his grandma, Addie, is still in her pajamas at 3 p.m. The 76-year-old sits in her sparse living room, clutching a pencil-drawn portrait of the boy she raised. Her health has gone downhill since his murder; her hair is thinning, and one of the buttons is missing on her nightgown. Her words come out like maple syrup when she says, "I am still broken from it."
A sweet sadness wells up in her as she remembers the sound of Toro composing music in his bedroom. Now there is a constant, nagging quietness in the house.
Without Toro to help around the home, Addie's yard has become brown and overgrown. There is nobody to tell her things will get better, nobody to take her to the grocery store. "I miss him asking how I feel," she says, looking out the window as if he might come strolling up. "He gave me hope."