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." [page]
Taylor's obvious bias aside, many in the legal world share his view. "Prosecutors should not shy away from this case because she lied," says Sam Rabin, a prominent criminal-defense attorney who recently won a client's release from prison after another man confessed to the crime. Rabin is also a former assistant state attorney who spent three years prosecuting capital murder cases (he is not involved in the Lola case). "It is not uncommon for there to be problematic witnesses in murder cases. They have bad backgrounds or are involved in illegality themselves. This case is prosecutable. There is independent corroboration of the murder -- that's why this case is prosecutable. If they only had her, I could understand. But they do have more than her, and they should proceed."
Kellie Greene, a rape victims advocate who has worked with trauma sufferers, does not find Lola's reticence unusual. In fact, according to a 2000 Justice Department report, as many as 84 percent of rape victims do not call police. It is considered one of the most underreported crimes in America. In Lola's case, Greene posits, she may have been in shock; she may have felt shame and humiliation about the violation, especially if there was sexual abuse in her past (Lola told detectives she had been molested previously). Greene, a rape survivor herself, started the advocacy program Speaking Out About Rape (SOAR) in Tampa, and has consulted with the U.S. Department of Justice; the Criminal Justice Institute in Little Rock, Arkansas; and the Florida Attorney General's office on sensitivity training for law-enforcement personnel who work with victims of sexual assault.
"I'm totally appalled they would drop the murder charges," Greene says. "And I think it's appalling to go after someone who, if she was the victim of a sexual crime, probably reacted as best as she knew how in a stressful situation."
Petite and pretty, 31-year-old Celia Lola seems an unlikely actor in the drama that has consumed her life. On the day she meets New Times in her lawyer's Coconut Grove office, she is dressed in a conservative dark top and slacks, her hair pulled back. She has no prior arrest record. In the two years since the attack, she has married and is pregnant. But as she recounts her life, it is also clear that forces beyond her control had perched her on the edge of an abyss for a long time. She just needed a push.
Her father is a former U.S. Air Force pilot who met Lola's mother while he was stationed in Nicaragua, where Lola was born. The family moved to air bases in Louisiana and Texas until the father lost most of the sight in one eye following a plane crash. He retired, received disability, and moved his family to Miami, where Lola was raised in Kendall's Winston Park and attended Miami Sunset Senior High School. She liked roller-skating and going to football games. After graduation she worked in doctors' offices as a receptionist and toyed with the idea of becoming a nurse or doctor. "I liked helping people," she says.
But by her midtwenties, it was apparent that future employment would be difficult. Throughout Lola's life, she was hobbled by severe depression and anxiety attacks that left her hospitalized, often for weeks at a time. At the age of 25 she was diagnosed as a bipolar schizophrenic. That coincided with becoming pregnant from a long-term relationship that eventually ended. At the age of 27, as a single mother, she was legally classified as disabled. She began taking medication to combat her condition while living with her parents in their modest three-bedroom house in the green and quiet suburbs.
Frank Pacheco lived at home with his parents on the same street. Lola would see him while she was outside in the yard with her child. He was a single parent too. When they met, his son was three years old.
"Frankie never really told me what he did for a living," Lola says during a supervised interview in Taylor's law office. "I know he was home a lot and that he wasn't doing steady work. He was working for a temp agency, and I know he worked for his dad. I don't know what they did. That's how I met him. He was home during the day like me, and he would see me in the yard." (Newspaper accounts stated that Pacheco worked full-time selling machines that read credit and debit cards.) [page]
They had other things in common besides parenting. Both had trouble sleeping and would talk for hours on the phone late at night. "Frank was very tall, very handsome, and very, very kind and understanding," she recalls. "He made me feel that despite all my depression and problems that he would protect me."
Pacheco had his own troubles, though. He had a score of minor arrests -- petty theft, marijuana possession, and one charge for breaking into a car -- and did not hide the fact that he smoked crack with friends.
Lola says the two had been friends for more than a year before she began dating him about two months before his death. She claims she was wary of getting too involved because of his drug use. While it concerned her, she didn't question it: "He just told me that's what he and his buddies did. I accepted it. He was a nice guy, in a good neighborhood, from a good family. And that's what he does to have fun. As long as I didn't become addicted, I didn't think there was a problem."
Before going out with Pacheco, Lola asserts, she had never used crack. "Don't get me wrong," she says. "I went to clubs and drank and stuff, but as far as that, I had never done it." She was already taking prescription drugs for her mental condition. But with Pacheco she began experimenting. Although she declines to go into further detail, investigators say she eventually admitted she had at least once traded sexual favors to acquire cocaine for Pacheco.
On the evening in question, Lola and Pacheco, who earlier that day had been working with his father in the yard, left their children with their respective grandparents and rented a motel room on SW Eighth Street in Miami. "We just went there to be intimate," she recounts. "I was taking Ativan [an antianxiety medication], and I was overdoing it. It was making me high. He wanted to try some. We were both feeling buzzed."
The Ativan high evidently sparked in Pacheco a desire for crack. The two may have bought drugs earlier, but if so, Lola won't discuss it. It is known, however, that sometime after midnight they set off for West Perrine. "That's always where he would go," she says.
They drove Lola's 1994 red Mazda MX-6 to the corner of SW 102nd Avenue and 173rd Terrace, where Pacheco got out to make his deal. Before exiting the car, he asked for her watch in order to sell it. When he came back to the car, a black man was with him.
"I just remember him coming back to the car with the guy, and he told me they couldn't do anything with the watch," she says quietly. "Frank didn't want to take no for an answer. I couldn't hear what they were talking about. They argued. I saw him push Frank to the ground. Then the others came over. They started to kick him. They didn't use their fists. I got out of the car while they were beating him. They told me: öYou come near him and we're going to kick your ass, too, bitch!'"
"Yes, I was petrified," she says in response to a question. And then she breaks into tears.
Witnesses described Lola as emotionally frantic when she arrived at Baptist Hospital about 3:30 a.m. An off-duty Miami-Dade cop visiting relatives happened to be present and saw her jump out of the Mazda screaming, "Help Frankie! Help Frankie! They beat him up!" The officer could see inside the car the slumped body of an unconscious man sprawled across the back seat with his head resting on the floor.
When he asked what happened, according to a report he later wrote, Lola explained that she and Pacheco "were driving around and became lost." She described how "three unknown black males approached their vehicle and said something" and that Pacheco, referred to as Victim One, "exited the vehicle from the driver's side to approach the subjects" and that "the three unknown black males struck Victim One in the face with closed fist, causing him to fall to the ground," at which point "the three unknown black males began to kick him. The three unknown black males then threw Victim One into the back seat of listed vehicle. Victim Two [Lola] stated that the three unknown black males told her öto leave or they would kill her!'" [page]
The officer called in the emergency to police dispatch. Meanwhile hospital staff rushed Pacheco to an examination room, where he was pronounced dead at 3:33 a.m. A member of the police team that descended on the hospital, which included four homicide detectives and a crime-scene analyst, described Lola as "hysterical after being informed that Victim One/Pacheco, had expired. This unit was unable to calm Victim Two/Lola down."
Lola was admitted to the hospital for a fractured left ankle, which she said she injured when one of the attackers pushed her down. The crime-scene specialists took her car to the Medical Examiner's Office to be combed for evidence.
From her hospital bed she told homicide detectives the same story of becoming lost and being attacked by a group of strangers who, after beating Pacheco and stuffing him into the back seat, warned her to leave or they'd kill her, whereupon she drove to Baptist Hospital. By 8:00 a.m. Lola had recovered enough, though she was on crutches, to accompany two detectives, Manny Blanco and Thomas Romagni, to the scene of the assault. Apparently the story about getting lost in that part of West Perrine made the detectives suspicious. By the time Lola returned to the police station and gave a formal statement under oath, she conceded that Pacheco was trying to buy crack.
From there the investigation moved rapidly.
A well-sourced beat cop from West Perrine, Ofcr. Ron Tookes of the neighborhood-policing unit, began reeling in tips from the street, relaying the information to homicide detectives. Tookes heard that the drug dealer who normally worked the corner where Pacheco was attacked was a 22-year-old named Cornell Clay. Police contacted Clay, who said that although he usually does work that corner, on the night in question he was home with his wife by 10:00 p.m. His wife corroborated the alibi. Clay admitted he'd heard about the incident and that the only other drug dealer who worked that spot went by the nickname "Peabody."
A few hours later Tookes called with a new lead. Another informant had helped identify two potential suspects: Luis Leon, a nineteen-year-old with a record that included arrests for burglary and grand theft, but no convictions; and a man who went by the nickname "Lagan." An hour later Tookes had detained "Lagan," a.k.a. 45-year-old Lyvonne Jackson, who agreed to meet with the homicide cops at the Hibiscus Police Station. Jackson, an admitted crack addict, explained that he was sleeping in the bed of his stepfather's truck the night Pacheco died. He allowed police to take his photograph, a DNA sample, and his fingerprints while detectives checked his story. When asked by police, his stepfather said he did catch Jackson sleeping in his truck early that morning.
The next day, February 19, detectives showed Lola three photographic lineups containing the pictures of Clay, Jackson, and Leon. She tentatively identified Jackson and Leon as two of the attackers.
By Thursday, February 20, two full days after the attack, identification specialists pulled a fingerprint from inside the Mazda and matched it to Leon. Another person's palm print was also found, which did not match Pacheco, Lola, or, as it would turn out, Jackson.
Lola also directed detectives to a friend of Pacheco's, Bruce Wilmbey, who lives on SW 138th Street. Wilmbey told them that Lola arrived at his house in tears about 2:00 a.m. February 18. She said Pacheco was in the car unconscious and not breathing, and she asked "what should she do," according to a summary of what he told police. He suggested she get Pacheco to the hospital, "at which time she asked him for a cigarette and then left the scene."
Now investigators had to try to understand why Lola told them she drove directly to the hospital when she didn't. Wilmbey lives about six and a half miles from Baptist, along SR 874. It's uncertain whether she knew the way, or if her panicked mind contributed to the delay.
It took the Medical Examiner's Office a month to conclude its report. March 19 Pacheco's death was officially determined to be homicide by blunt trauma, with a contributing cause of "positional asphyxia," meaning that an unconscious Pacheco had suffocated as a result of the way he was stuffed into the car. The medical examiner will not release the time of death, so it's unknown if Pacheco suffocated within minutes or hours after he was beaten.
Armed with Lola's lineup identification and the fingerprint from the Mazda, Detectives Blanco and Romagni asked Assistant State Attorney Daniel Bernstein for a warrant to arrest Leon on second-degree murder charges. Bernstein, a ten-year veteran of the State Attorney's Office who has prosecuted numerous homicide cases, described in a deposition how he prides himself on his intense involvement in murder investigations. "My practice was, if it was based on a number of witnesses, or however many witnesses, I would like to personally speak to the witnesses myself," he said. "As I recall, Detective Blanco or maybe it was Romagni ... called me and said that [Lola] would not come to the State Attorney's Office without a subpoena." [page]
By then Lola had talked to her attorney, Neil Taylor, who told Bernstein there was concern about her liability for manslaughter, given the medical examiner's report. After thinking it over, Bernstein concurred. He consulted his supervisor, chief Assistant State Attorney Kathleen Hogue in the felony division, and they decided to grant Lola immunity. "We made a decision that clearly the person who beat Mr. Pacheco to his death was more culpable than the person who drove him around," Bernstein said.
March 25 Lola gave a statement under subpoena for the arrest warrant of Luis Leon. In preparation for that statement, Bernstein asked other questions, and that's when she admitted performing sex acts to help Pacheco get cocaine, a revelation that shocked Bernstein.
Hours after getting a warrant, police went to the apartment of Leon's grandmother on SW 107th Avenue and 178th Street, where he was known to be living. He wasn't there that night or the next. It would be a month before detectives caught up with him.
The night of April 26, Homestead police tried to stop a car speeding out of the M & M Market. After a brief but serpentine chase in which the driver zigzagged through the streets and at one point switched off his headlights, only to crash into a fence, police arrested the driver, who turned out to be Leon. A computer check quickly revealed he was wanted for second-degree murder.
For someone so eager to elude police, Leon proved surprisingly talkative when Detectives Romagni and Clarence Poitier interviewed him. "Luis Leon informed detectives that he had been present during the beating of the victim and that he assisted in placing him into the back seat of the vehicle; however, he denied any involvement in the actual beating," according to police notes of the interview. And then Leon offered something the police had not heard before: He told them that after putting Pacheco into the car, "he along with the victim's girlfriend responded to his grandmother's ... where she engaged in sexual intercourse with him for the promise of cocaine. Luis Leon further advised that at a certain point, his family arrived home, at which time Ms. Lola jumped out the second story window to avoid being detected." Leon added that he went downstairs and helped her into the car.
Detectives made a point of telling prosecutor Bernstein that Leon seemed truthful. "I was called by the police and told about the arrest of Mr. Leon and the statements that he had made and the fact that at that time ... the police put some credibility on what he had said," Bernstein said at his deposition.
Detectives immediately summoned Lola to the homicide bureau. "Upon arrival Celia Lola was confronted with Luis Leon's allegation," Detective Blanco stated in his report, "at which time she immediately informed the detectives that she had been raped."
A detective from the sexual-battery unit was brought in to interview her. According to a summary of Lola's description of the rape, after beating Pacheco unconscious, "the subject [Leon] then told the victim [Lola] to get into the car and drive to his house, so that öwe can take care of business.' [Lola] told the subject öI have to get Frankie to the hospital.' [Leon] tells the victim öFrankie will be all right, he's just sleeping.' [Leon] gives the victim directions to this residence and they leave the homicide scene. Upon arrival at the subject's residence, [Lola] tells the subject that Frankie doesn't look good. [Leon] tells the victim öHe'll be all right, come on in the house so we can get this over with.'"
Inside the apartment, Lola said, Leon ordered her to strip naked. She protested, telling him: "öNo, I have to take care of Frankie.' [Leon] tells the victim öI told you to take off your clothes. Frankie will be all right, he's just sleeping.'" Lola did as she was commanded. After the rape, Leon went to the bathroom. "At this point the victim gets dressed, opens the window, and jumps out," the interview summary states. Leon, she said, came running outside. "You shouldn't have done that," he told her. Lola "then asked [Leon] if she can leave now and take care of Frankie. The subject tells the victim öYeah, you can go. It's been taken care of.'" [page]
At the end of the interview, Lola declined to press charges. "I didn't want to have to go and see this man again," she tells New Times resolutely, gazing at the floor.
Officers returned to Leon and asked if he would take a polygraph. He refused. Records don't indicate if police also asked Lola to take a polygraph. Her lawyer says he would have no objections. "She would not decline one," Neil Taylor says.
When prosecutor Bernstein was told about this new information, it changed everything for him. His main witness had lost all credibility as far as he was concerned. "This case had to be nolle prossed [dropped] because of serious credibility problems which developed during the course of the investigation," Bernstein wrote in his close-out memo. He noted that the wounds Pacheco suffered from the beating were not life-threatening, but they became so after he was shoved into the car and not taken directly to the hospital. The prosecutor cited the fact that Lola broke her ankle jumping out a window and not from being pushed down at the crime scene, as she told police. He noted that she told him she had "prostituted herself for crack," which contradicted her assertion that she did not tell police she was raped because she was "embarrassed." He wrote that the detectives who questioned Leon "felt that he was being credible and they had serious doubts about the credibility of Ms. Lola." (Attempts to reach Leon at his grandmother's apartment were unsuccessful.)
Four days after police arrested Luis Leon, Bernstein dropped all charges against him. Even the Homestead arrest for fleeing police, a felony case handled by another prosecutor, was eventually dropped.
The physical evidence in the case had not changed, but the investigators' feelings about Lola did. Which raises a question: How thoroughly did authorities wrestle with those feelings? After all, a potential murderer and sexual predator was set free.
Bernstein, in a phone interview with New Times, says he struggled plenty with this investigation. "This is one of the saddest murder cases I have ever handled," he says. "Every problem we could have had, we seemed to have in this -- from the cause of death to the fact that we had to immunize someone. Every single decision we made in this case, everything seemed to go wrong. I feel terrible for the family."
The detectives and Bernstein were clearly angry with Lola for omitting the rape from her statement and altering the rest of her story to cover for the omission. Her betrayal was absolute in their eyes, making everything she said suspect. They had trouble believing that a rape victim would not report this crime to police or not want to press charges. And if police didn't believe she was raped, they were most likely repelled by the idea she had sex with Leon after Pacheco was beaten. They certainly couldn't comprehend why she would drive to a friend's house first and not go straight to the hospital, or better yet, call 911, with a dying Pacheco in the back seat.
Some of the police reports are subtly shaded with this bias. Detective Blanco wrote that Lola told detectives she went "voluntarily" with Leon to his home, when she in fact is claiming the opposite. Bernstein's close-out memo notes that after Lola jumped from the window, Leon came outside "and helped her up and into her car, behavior that seems totally inconsistent with the defendant having raped her."
But Kellie Greene, the rape-victim advocate, says if police had kept an open mind, they might have viewed Lola's actions as consistent with those of a trauma victim, especially one already suffering mental illness.
In that context, it follows that Lola viewed herself as a hostage after the beating. "She's seen what they could do; she's probably in fear for her life and the life of her boyfriend," Greene surmises. "You become numb and do whatever they tell you in order to survive." That would be why Lola went with Leon when he ordered her to. And given that she was having sex against her will, it follows that her leap from the window was an attempt to escape. Afterward she may have been traumatized, in a state of shock and disbelief complicated no doubt by her schizophrenia. "Driving around could be seen as a normal reaction to an abnormal situation because of the high stress she had been in," Greene says. [page]
And not reporting a rape is nothing new, Greene notes. Many victims are awash in shame, guilt, or denial. During his deposition, Detective Romagni conceded that point when he was asked if he'd ever heard of a woman not telling police she had been raped. "From what I hear, it's not unusual for some to conceal that," he said.
Statistics bear him out. Studies ranging from a 1994 National Crime Victimization survey to the Department of Justice's 2000 statistics estimate that between 70 and 80 percent of rapes go unreported. "The criminal justice system does not work well for rape victims," says Susan Lewis, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. "It is so hard for victims to report because of the propensity to blame the victim and the fear they won't be believed."
If authorities had allowed for this factor in their equation, they might have found Lola more credible and might have been more willing to prosecute the alleged attackers. Even Bernstein concedes that the "lie" (really an omission) alone did not kill the case.
"Lying is an interesting thing, legally," says defense attorney Sam Rabin. "In some contexts, it's completely understandable why someone would lie. Here you've got a witness with a reasonable explanation why she lied -- she was involved in illegal activity. Presented properly and in context, a jury would understand it. A good prosecutor could make a jury believe it. It makes the case more challenging, but to let a murderer go free is just the wrong result." (Rabin's analysis doesn't bode well for the state's case against Lola, which is being handled by another assistant state attorney, Deisy Rodriguez.)
In the end, it wasn't the potential effect of Lola's untruthfulness on a jury that sank the case against Leon; it was the effect on the prosecutor. "I felt there was no way to ask a jury to convict Mr. Leon of murder when I was so unsure of the credibility of the lone eyewitness against him," Bernstein wrote in the last line of his close-out memo.
Celia Lola, of course, was not the lone witness. Pacheco's death resulted from a group beating, and police strongly suspect there were onlookers. But prying the secrets from West Perrine's streets has proven difficult.
A year after the murder, police staged a re-enactment of the crime for the media, hoping to stir up new leads in the case. It did no good.
Today people in the neighborhood cautiously remember the episode. "I ain't heard nothing about that in a long while," says one young man standing across the street from the crime-scene corner on a recent weekday.
As he speaks a tall lanky man on a bicycle pedals over, a pair of women's shoes dangling from the handlebars. "Oh, yeah, I remember that," the cyclist says when asked about Pacheco's death. This man, it turns out, is Lyvonne Jackson, who Lola picked from a lineup and police questioned. "I don't know why they grabbed me. I didn't do nothing. And I told 'em that. I got nothing to hide," Jackson says. No, he responds when asked, he doesn't know what happened that night, nor does he know the two other men questioned about the murder. He doesn't know much of anything, he shrugs, except how to hustle to stay alive. "Right now I'm trying to sell these ladies' shoes," he says. "You know anybody who wants to buy 'em?"
As Jackson pedals off, the young man on the corner, who won't give his name, notes that Pacheco isn't exactly forgotten. "I seen his kinfolk come by and lay flowers a couple of times," he says.
Pacheco's parents, Dominador and Pastora, who declined to comment for this story for fear it might hinder the prosecution of Lola, have indeed stopped by with flowers, as well as business cards with a confidential police tip-line printed on them -- anything, it seems, to keep the memory of their son's murder from fading into oblivion.
Lola's trial next month will briefly resurrect the family's tragedy, but it's difficult to imagine how her conviction could offer even scant solace for their grief.