A Single Hair

After a severely flawed trial, Michael Rivera was convicted of killing a little girl. New DNA evidence may help him.

After taking a shortcut through a field, Staci, who weighed a scant 60 pounds, arrived at the Super X drugstore near the corner of State Road 7 and Oakland Park Boulevard. She paid for the poster board and started home. At about 6:30 a man named Rickey Mudd noticed a red pickup truck leaving the field through which Staci had ridden. The truck left a cloud of dust as it sped away, Mudd later told police. He also noticed the red glint of a reflector about 100 feet from the road. Mudd investigated and found a ten-speed bicycle on the ground with a still-shining flashlight fastened with duct tape to the handlebars. Although he considered the scene peculiar, he went on his way.

By 7 p.m. Nancy was beginning to panic. It wasn't like Staci to be late. So she headed for Super X and looked around the field, calling for her daughter. Distraught, she reported the missing girl to BSO, which soon began a massive search of the area. Staci was gone.

The disappearance was the talk of South Florida. Volunteers working with the Adam Walsh Foundation (named for John Walsh's son, who had been abducted and killed in 1981) distributed pictures of Staci everywhere they could. Numerous psychics surfaced with improbable theories. BSO took calls from tipsters, hearing about dozens of would-be child killers and Staci sightings. None of the tips seemed promising until a puzzling figure entered the picture.

On the night of February 7, a woman named Star Peck called deputies saying she had just received an obscene call from a man who told her he had killed Staci. Peck said the man called himself Tony and had phoned her numerous times in the preceding months. Tony, who had a whiny and begging voice, always began by telling Peck he was wearing pantyhose and a body suit. "Talk to me," he'd plead while masturbating. This time, however, he didn't beg for conversation. He told her he had accidentally killed Staci, the girl on the news. When he saw Staci on her bike, wearing "silky shorts," he couldn't resist. Tony told Peck that he placed an ether-soaked rag over Staci's face to knock her out and then dragged her into a van. The ether somehow killed Staci, he said, but he "put it in her" anyway, apparently meaning he had intercourse with the girl. Peck told deputies Tony kept repeating, "I didn't mean to kill her" and sounded very sorry for what he'd done. When Peck asked the caller where he had put the body, he first told her it was where nobody would ever find it, then admitted he'd dumped it in Lake Okeechobee.

Peck told detectives Scheff and Amabile that she believed Tony was a former employee of a company she owned that sold pots and pans door-to-door. On this lead they tracked down Rivera, who had worked briefly for Peck. A criminal-records check revealed a long history of sex offenses. It was time, the investigators decided, to talk with Michael T. Rivera.


Rivera admits he was a very sick man at the time of his arrest. He was addicted to drugs and spent hours at a time exposing himself to women and children, and his fantasies were becoming increasingly violent. On a few occasions, he'd even used a chokehold. His story, which follows, is culled from court records, psychological evaluations, and an hourlong interview with New Times.

Rivera was born in the Bronx on June 25, 1962, to parents he describes as "really restrictive and very overprotective." His father, a Puerto Rican immigrant, owned a gas station, and his mother raised their four children in an apartment in Westchester County, New York. Rivera, the second-born son, went to Catholic schools but was often absent because of illness. He was close to his mother but alienated from his dad, who was emotionally distant and drank heavily. Rivera once told a psychologist that his father "was God and mother was Jesus. You had to go through Mom to get to my dad." Rivera says this distance led him, at the age of nine, secretly to look through his father's bedroom dresser, where he found a book of pornographic stories. Rivera took the book and, while reading it, masturbated for the first time. Soon he was doing it several times a day and now considers it his first addiction. "It was like a drug," Rivera says.

When Rivera was 13 years old, the family moved to the Treehouse Apartments in Tamarac, where he was allowed to roam the complex. "Unbeknownst to my parents, it was drug-infested," he says. "Within three months of living in Florida, I smoked my first joint and I was drinking."

It wasn't long before he was taking every drug he could find, from LSD to transmission sealant. He attended public school, and his grades, which had been A's and B's in New York, dropped to D's and F's. Around the same time an adult neighbor named Robert Donovan supplied him with beer and let him ride his off-road Kawasaki motorcycle. Then Donovan, who has since died, allegedly took the boy into his bedroom and performed oral sex on him, according to court records. "I knew it wasn't right, but it felt good," Rivera later told a psychologist. The sexual abuse by Donovan, Rivera says now, led him into a "tailspin, some serious identity-crisis action."

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2 comments
vicdevore
vicdevore

I lived on that field in Lauderdale Lakes from birth, 1979 until 1987.  I remember a time when I was riding my bike with my old brother through the field, the same field Staci rode her bike through, and I can remember making it to the rear parking/truck loading area behind Winn Dixie.  I remember a huge puddle in the middle of the parking lot, and I remember a van with two men, and I remember my brother being alarmed or scared, the van seemed to be stuck in the water, and the men in the van seemed unusually and suspiciously interested in us, and my brother re-routed us towards Oakland Park Blvd so we could make it back home safely.  I don't know if this was before or after Staci was murded, but I would assume it was before.  This is a memory that somewhat haunting because I know what happened to Staci... very creepy.


vicdevore
vicdevore

I lived on that field in Lauderdale Lakes from birth, 1979 until 1987.  I remember a time when I was riding my bike with my old brother through the field, the same field Staci rode her bike through, and I can remember making it to the rear parking/truck loading area behind Winn Dixie.  I remember a huge puddle in the middle of the parking lot, and I remember a van with two men, and I remember my brother being alarmed or scared, the van seemed to be stuck in the water, and the men in the van seemed unusually and suspiciously interested in us, and my brother re-routed us towards Oakland Park Blvd so we could make it back home safely.  I don't know if this was before or after Staci was murded, but I would assume it was before.  This is a memory that somewhat haunting because I know what happened to Staci... very creepy.


 
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