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.