Four Miami Detectives Recall the Unsolved Murders That Haunt Them

Retired Miami-Dade Police Det. Greg Smith spent 31 years investigating some of Miami's most brutal crimes, from drug-fueled shootouts to heartbreaking family disputes turned violent. But ask him which killing he can't get out of his mind, and he'll answer without a moment's hesitation: the 1967 murder of Coral Gables Police Officer Walter Stathers.

"It's one of two unsolved murders of police officers in Dade County," says Smith, a friendly, engaging ex-cop who — standing six-foot-three, weighing 250 pounds, and sporting a bushy beard — looks more like an outlaw biker these days. "He was just a cop doing his job."

Every detective has one: the case that, even years after they leave the force, keeps them awake at night. Richard Price calls them "The Whites" in his bestselling new novel by the same name, a reference to Captain Ahab's elusive quarry. Others just call them cold cases.

New Times asked four veteran cops to describe the unsolved Miami crimes that have stuck with them. Most of the victims have been dead for decades, the leads and witnesses long since vanished, but the detectives involved still long for justice.

Walter Stathers

In 1982, the Miami-Dade Police Department formed a small unit of three detectives to look into unsolved murder cases. Officially, they called them "pending cases," but Pulitzer-winning Miami Herald crime writer Edna Buchanan came up with a catchier title for the group: the "Cold Case Squad." "They breathe life into dead murder cases," she wrote.

Smith — then a nine-year veteran — was among the charter members of the newly formed unit. He worked on the Cold Case Squad until his retirement in 2004. But of the hundreds of old cases he worked on, Stathers' murder lodged itself deepest into his brain.

The killing happened 15 years before Smith's unit was formed, early in the morning of December 19, 1967. Stathers had been on his regular patrol until 2:59 a.m., when he checked out a disturbance at 5740 San Vicente St. in an affluent Coral Gables neighborhood. "Talked to the Hughes boy and another couple and asked them to keep it a little lower," he wrote, according to a Herald report.

About two hours later, Stathers asked for a K9 unit: "Get me a dog car."

Although the cop never mentioned his location, fellow patrolmen could guess: He usually guarded a home on Alhambra Circle with a huge Christmas light display. Jim Harley, another cop, was the first to arrive on the scene, where he found Stathers' car running with the driver's door open. The cruiser had crashed into the patio of a house across the street. And inside lay the burly 45-year-old cop with a gunshot wound in the back of his head.

"It came out through his forehead. He was dead. No life in his body," Harley said, according to the Herald.

There were clues: Stathers' gun, a .357 Colt Trooper, was missing. A housekeeper in the home his car crashed into also offered a tantalizing piece of info. She told police she'd seen a "think black man" in black pants pedal away on a "28-inch English-model bicycle with a chrome fender."

Even with that highly specific lead, police never found the cyclist or the bullet that killed Stathers. In the days following his murder, police received more than 100 other tips — but none led to his killer.

Smith says he still thinks about Stathers. "He didn't deserve to die like that."

Richard "Ricky" Wing Merrill

John Buhrmaster retired from the Miami Police Department in 2012, where he'd been a cop since 1974. He spent 25 years as a detective in Miami PD's homicide unit and eight of those as its commander.

But it was a crime early in his tenure that he most regrets never closing.

The victim, Richard Merrill, was mildly famous. He was the 41-year-old son of aviation pioneer Dick Merrill, who had made the first round-trip transatlantic flight, and Hollywood actress Toby Wing. The younger Merrill soon became infamous for his bloody death.

On Saturday, August 15, 1982, he was found face-down in a pool of blood on the floor of his home on NE 69th Street off Biscayne Boulevard. Wrapped around his wrists were plastic flex-cuffs. He'd been stabbed to death.

The Herald's Buchanan described the scene: "The body was clad in boots, blue jeans, and shirt, the same attire he wore when last seen by neighbors on Thursday night. His new chocolate-brown four-wheel-drive Jeep pickup is missing, Miami police said. A shiny, restored 1965 Cadillac with California license tags was still in the carport."

Merrill wasn't a lily-white character, though. Buchanan reported he'd been set free on bond several months earlier after being convicted in New Orleans for marijuana smuggling. He "looked like an actor. He was a movie star type," one neighbor told Buchanan, while another tellingly described Merrill as "a playboy type. There was a lot of traffic... attractive women in and out of there."

And Buchanan included this intriguing detail in her story: "Although he had a telephone in the house, he was seen almost nightly, about two blocks away, using a pay telephone outside a store."

So what was Merrill wrapped up in? Buhrmaster and an army of other officers spent months following up on leads. He traveled to prison to interview inmates and called numerous supposed informants. But Merrill's killer was never caught.

Thirty-four years later, the retired detective still wonders what they missed. The famous murder victim's killer is still free out there somewhere, he knows.

"You constantly ask yourself: Is there something I could have done differently?" Buhrmaster says. "It bothers you that the solution is so hard."

Carlos Valladares

These days, Miami Police Department Det. Delrish Moss is a national news figure. Last month, the veteran city cop, who's been on the force since 1984, accepted arguably the toughest police job in America: chief of the Ferguson, Missouri force, where racial tensions have boiled since a police shooting in 2014.

But when he packs up his desk and heads to the Midwest, Moss says, he'll carry some cases with him — especially the death of Carlos Valladares.

In the heart of Little Havana, Valladares owned a small jewelry store and pawnshop tucked into a strip mall. In May 1992, around noon, he and an unidentified man met for coffee at a cafeteria next door to his shop near SW First Street and Tenth Avenue. It was the last time he was seen alive.

Later that afternoon, a co-worker and another man arrived at the shop and pressed the buzzer to gain entry. When they got no response, they knocked on the glass door. When that didn't work, they went next door and called him from a phone. When he didn't answer, they contacted a locksmith. And that's how they found Valladares' body, covered in blood in a back room. He had been fatally shot.

Here's the thing about Valladares' murder: It should have been caught on camera. A sign in the window of Valladares' store warned, "Notice. You are being videotaped by a 24-hour surveillance camera." But early in their investigation, cops learned the videotaping equipment had been sent out for repairs.

Moss was one of the first homicide detectives on the scene. The then-27-year-old cop had eight years on the force, but Valladares' death was one of the toughest cases he'd landed on.

"When you work a homicide case, part of the job is notifying the victim's family," Moss says. "There's an automatic connection, and you feel a responsibility to bring closure."

But closure never came. Through witness descriptions, cops immediately zeroed in on the man Valladares was seen getting coffee with before his murder. They found the man but couldn't conclusively prove he had anything to do with the crime.

Yiannis Antoniadis

In 1986, the Cocaine Cowboys-era drug wars were still raging and exacting a bloody toll on the city. By year's end, 327 unfortunate souls would be victims of homicide. Yiannis Byron Antoniadis was Dade County's 111th entry on that morbid list.

But Antoniadis was no drug kingpin or underworld smuggler. He was a well-known Coconut Grove architect and bon vivant. And for former homicide Sgt. David Rivero, who spent 26 years with Miami PD, Antoniadis' unsolved murder is an itch he can never scratch.

Early on April 8, 1986, Antoniadis' housekeeper arrived for work at his penthouse apartment on Mary Street in the Grove. She found her boss dead in the living room.

When Miami homicide detectives responded, they found Antoniadis sitting "on his living room floor, arms thrown back on the sofa cushions, with a half-full glass of white wine between his legs," according to a Herald story. A dentist in his building who examined the body before police arrived told the Herald that "there appeared to be bullet holes over his navel and in his left arm and lower left chest."

As police began looking for evidence, Rivero decided break the tension by pranking his team members. Walking up to a squawking pet parrot that Antoniadis kept in the living room, the detective took out his pen and notebook - and as his colleagues looked on with puzzled expressions - Rivero jokingly asked the parrot, "Okay, you saw it all ... tell me who did this."

Antoniadis' case was especially frustrating because detectives quickly thought they had a break.

While checking Antoniadis' answering machine, they heard a message from an elderly woman saying she had found a plastic baggie containing the architect's wallet and credit cards while rummaging through a trash bin near Biscayne Boulevard and NE 125th Street. Police met with the woman, who turned over the baggie. Also inside were three shell casings from a Colt .357 — the murder weapon.

But the baggie led nowhere. Neither did appeals for help. And Antoniadis' murder was big news. In the months after his killing, the Herald followed up with no fewer than six stories. By December 1987, with no solution in sight, detectives were calling his murder "a classic whodunit."

Detectives doubted robbery was the motive. The house hadn't been looted, and although Antoniadis' car was taken, it was later found nearby. In fact, there may have been too many leads. "He had a lot of girls," Rivero told the Herald at the time. "He went out with married women. He went out with single women. He went out with very high-class girls, opera singers, lawyers... And he also had a lot of business problems with people. He sued the City of Miami four times. He sued builders. He had a lot of enemies in the construction business. Any time he had a problem, he'd sue."

Today Rivero says, "In a case like this, when you don't have a suspect, everybody is a suspect."

The way Antoniadis was killed — shot while seemingly relaxing with a glass of wine — hinted that he "probably had known and, more important, trusted whoever shot him to death," the Herald reported.

Thirty years after his murder, cops are no closer to finding that trusted killer than they were the day they discovered Antoniadis' body.

Rivero, who was appointed University of Miami Police chief in 2006, says the case is the one he remembers to this day. It was difficult to close, he says, because it had "so many different moving parts."

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