DNA privacy keeps Aventura cops from solving the city's only murder
Lea la versión española en Miami New Times.com
Beverly Sicherer lay facedown on the cold floor of the hallway outside her father's Aventura apartment. Enraged, she beat it with her fist and then her forearm. She did it again and again until thousands of tiny blood vessels burst. But Beverly didn't feel the pain.
Just seconds before, she had turned keys in two locks and found her 76-year-old father Al's corpse. His skull was caved in. His neck was broken. Blood was spattered in both bedrooms and on the carpet, tile, walls, and furniture of his tidy 16th-floor apartment. And the murderer had vanished.
DNA, murder, privacy laws
"Horrible," she says. "Really horrible. I grabbed the phone, walked into the hallway, and called 911. I was numb. Whoever did this was a monster."
That was July 25, 2001. Ever since, clues have teased Beverly. A bloody footprint, a fingerprint on the fridge, and a fugitive's capture all seemed likely to lead police to Al Sicherer's killer. None did. Now cops have something that might finally solve the case: a strand of DNA from an inmate who may be the murderer's brother.
Problem is, authorities in Michigan, where the sibling might be jailed, won't cough up the witness's name. DNA has to be a perfect match, the state insists.
Privacy, it seems, trumps justice. It's an issue that plagues law enforcement across the country.
And it stinks.
"I worked that DNA for 15 months to get an answer," says Aventura Police Det. James Cumbie, who has led the investigation into the only unsolved murder in this affluent city's history. "It was an endless circle. [Sicherer's] family deserves better."
Irving "Al" Sicherer was born in Brooklyn and worked as a caterer at fine hotels such as the Belmont Plaza. He married his sweetheart, Lil, who was a widow, in 1955 and adopted her son, Robert. Beverly was born three years later. The small family summered in the Catskills and wintered on Miami Beach, where they moved full-time in 1967. Al became a maitre d' at the swanky Tides Hotel.
The Beach took a turn for the worse in the early '70s, and Al knew he had to find a new place for his family. "There were a lot of riots," Beverly recalls. "They moved pretty much for me." Al found a place for his family in Hollywood's pricey Emerald Hills.
Beverly was exceedingly close to her parents. She lived with them until age 30. Even after moving out, she phoned home several times a day. Son Robert, though, never adjusted to South Florida and moved back North.
When Lil, who was diabetic, died after a heart attack in 1995, Al Sicherer's secret began to creep out. He was gay. He had a penchant for young Hispanic men. He had hidden it from his family.
"He was a good father, and he loved my mother," recalls Beverly, now a doctor who lives in Palm Beach Gardens with a bevy of dogs. "He compromised most of his life, but after my mom died, he tried to make up for 25 years of a life that he hadn't been allowed to live."
Al began prowling the beach in Hollywood and a notorious Sunny Isles Beach club called The Boardwalk. Though he'd had a heart attack that required angioplasty — or perhaps because of it — he lived recklessly, staying out late and pretending he was wealthy beyond his means. In January 1999, a police bicycle patrol arrested Al for performing a lewd act in public. The court file has been destroyed, so it's unclear what transpired that day, but charges were later dropped.
Then came that awful July day. Beverly had tried to phone her dad for two days, but there was no answer. Finally, accompanied by a friend, Lorraine Schlom, she headed over to his place on East Country Club Drive. "He was there in a pool of blood," she says. "I remember standing there and screaming. I leaned down by my father. I wanted to hold him. But I didn't. I couldn't close my eyes for a year without seeing it."
The crime scene was rich fodder for the CSI guys. There were fingerprints all over the place. The killer had left behind a partially smoked cigarette and a half-empty Heineken bottle. A bloody footprint in the kitchen revealed the tread of the killer's shoe and gave an idea of his weight. A knife, a blood-spattered bronze statue, and a heavy rock crystal, which had all been used to bludgeon and stab Al to death, were scattered about.
"The killer had obviously ransacked the place but couldn't find anything," Beverly says. "He was upset, so he went after my father again and again."
Detective Cumbie and others gathered lots of information. "We spent all day and all night at that apartment," Cumbie recalls. "We took fingerprints from all over the place." The cops rolled footprints from Al's shoes, which didn't match the ones left in blood.
Then police discovered two videos. One, taken at a nearby Publix, showed Al buying Heineken with a young man, who police believed was the murderer. His face was clear. He had a tattoo or birth mark on his right arm above the elbow, dark hair, and a dark complexion. In a second video, taken in the apartment's hallway, he walked with a strange gait.
It seemed the case would be closed when, two days after Beverly's horrible discovery, a 19-year-old drifter named Adam Ezerski, who fit the description of Al's companion, murdered a 39-year-old gay man in Fort Lauderdale.
A national APB went out and, after a 16-day manhunt, the cops cornered and captured Ezerski at a sleazy Reno hotel. Headlines from Los Angeles to New York to Miami trumpeted the quick collar of a serial killer. But Ezerski wasn't the one. Though he quickly admitted to the Lauderdale murder, he denied murdering Al — and the denial was confirmed when neither fingerprints nor the bloody footprint matched the drifter's.
"The media convicted that guy, and they were wrong," says Aventura Police Capt. Skip Washa. "We were back to square one."
Nothing much happened for the next few years. Beverly moved on with her life. Aventura detectives reenacted the crime. In 2002, they briefly considered whether a 26-year-old who had strangled an older man seeking sex in Pompano Beach might be the killer.
A dramatic break came a few years later, when the Miami Dade County crime lab received some surprising information: Two fingerprints detectives had discovered on Al's refrigerator and his Lincoln Mark VIII belonged to a 34-year-old who had worked with Al years before. It's unclear why the lab took so long to make the match, but it was probably because the suspect had been arrested for something else. "When you get a latent print like that," says Washa, "you get excited."
The man agreed to come to the station. Police took a DNA sample and interviewed him. He acknowledged going home with Al not long before the murder. And yes, they had a snack. But the man left after Al requested he clean the apartment in his underwear. That was too strange, he told the cops.
Investigators interrogated the man from 4:10 to 9:10 p.m. His story checked out. And his DNA didn't match that found in the apartment.
Next, Aventura cops tried something novel. They posted the surveillance video from Publix on YouTube. Though it received tens of thousands of hits, no good tips came in. They were stumped.
In May 2006, the county crime lab called with DNA information. A prisoner in Michigan was a near match to the killer — perhaps a half-brother, they reported. Cumbie asked if he could meet the inmate. Soon Michigan's attorney general issued an opinion: The prisoner's identification shouldn't be released owing to FBI rules.
Driven by empathy for Beverly Sicherer, Aventura detectives soldiered on. On November 30, 2006, they met with U.S. Attorney Alexander Acosta. "We told him all we wanted to do was talk to the guy," Cumbie says. "He said he understood. He'd try." Nothing came of it.
What the Aventura detectives didn't realize at first is that they were in the midst of an escalating national debate about partial DNA matches and so-called familial searches.
For years, states had been collecting DNA data and inputting it into a national database called CODIS. But in an attempt to stop the information from spreading, the data was kept anonymously. The FBI allowed sharing of people's names if there was a perfect DNA match. But if the correspondence was even slightly off, as in Al's case, the agency effectively forbade sharing.
That rule, which was never codified into law, ran into a hard-charging Denver district attorney named Mitch Morrissey. His office had received information similar to Aventura's in three rape cases. Inmates with DNA similar — but not identical — to that found at crime scenes had turned up first in California in 2005 and then in Oregon and Arizona. "We had three violent rapes, and we were looking for leads," Morrissey says. "So we started working on the FBI to get the policy changed. This sort of search is a long shot at best, but it's worth doing."
California Attorney General Jerry Brown made the first dramatic change. Last May, after considering Morrissey's request and others like it, Brown created a protocol for searching the state's DNA database, the world's third largest, for partial matches in cold cases.
Around the same time, an FBI advisory group agreed states should be able to share information related to imperfect DNA matches in some cases. But the FBI left the final decision up to each state.
That's where the roadblock in Al's murder arose.
Many state DNA database administrators, including the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's chief of forensic services, David Coffman, agree that some sharing should be allowed. So far, a handful of states, including Colorado, Oregon, and Arizona, have come up with policies for sharing. Florida is preparing its own rules, Coffman says. But he points out DNA testing for partial matches is far from perfect. In Al's killing, the Michigan inmate might turn out to be no relation to the killer.
Coffman also points out that a follow-up test of the Michigan DNA would be needed to determine whether it belongs to the murderer's sibling. And even then, it would be inconclusive. "We have always shared information in the state," Coffman says. "The question is between states."
Tufts University professor Sheldon Krimsky, who's writing a book about DNA databanks, adds that many non-police databases include DNA information. Too much sharing of this kind of information could someday allow government or industry to track even innocent people. "Police have a right to talk to people," he says. "The question is whether they have a right to do genetic surveillance on these databases. There's still a lot to be decided by the higher courts."
While these kinds of grand questions are considered in Washington, Tallahassee, and Lansing, Detective Cumbie keeps banging at his investigation. He recently persuaded the office of Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum to contact his counterpart in Michigan. "Maybe they're protecting this guy because he's a snitch," Cumbie says. "We even told them we'd pay for the follow-up test, but they won't give us the information."
Nor has Beverly Sicherer given up. She still has nightmares about her dad's murder. At his funeral, she put clippings of fur from her dogs into Al's hand before burial. His spirit lives in the band of barking canines that fill her house with noise and life, she says.
But she demands an answer. "How is it infringing upon a person's right to privacy to ask if they want to give information?" she says. "Especially not when it was such a violent crime."
Gabriela Stanelis, Idalis Camacho, Yaritza Cordero, and Ada Alvarez contributed to this report.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.