Fatal Errors

A 13-year old girl suffocated after snorting heroin with a friend. Then came the hysteria, lies, and missteps.

He waits alone, a small man made seemingly smaller by the restricting force of this place and the pressing weight of the crime that holds him here. Jose Enrique Melendez leans forward across a small table and extends a hand to a hand offered. His palm is damp, his shake brief and tentative. He recedes again into the chair, arms crossed against the chest of his jail-issue, navy blue garb.

He was born in Philadelphia and raised on the island of Vieques in Puerto Rico until age 15, when he, his mother, and his sister moved to Hollywood. "I went to McArthur High School. I was a good student," Melendez says, telling his story in small bits, coaxed by a visitor and at times by his attorney. An electronic lock sliding open then slamming closed echoes in the stillness.

He dropped out of school to take a job and begin earning money, he says. He and his girlfriend since high school -- he refers to her as his wife -- have two boys, ages five and two. For eight months Melendez worked at Auto Seat Covers in Hollywood making $350 a week. His boss, Vincent Harrison, still speaks highly of Melendez. "Solid. He worked hard. He learned quickly. I can't fathom this," he says of the criminal charges against his former employee. "There is something missing."

The last 19 months haven't been good for Melendez, age 25. He and his family had to split up last fall. He moved in with his mother in Silver Oaks mobile home park in Davie; his wife and two children began living with her mother. And in January 2000 Melendez was arrested for possession of cocaine. But now a much more serious charge is pending -- first-degree murder in the case of Sherry Maresco, who was barely 13 years old when she died February 19. He could face the death penalty.

Melendez has acknowledged he sold $5 worth of heroin to Sherry's friend, Christina Delarosa, on the evening of February 18. But he contends Sherry was not present. And when Christina, who was 16 at the time, wanted more, another man filled the order. "I feel sorry the little girl died, but it's not my fault," says Melendez, whose dark brown eyes and quiet voice convey a mix of wariness, nerves, and at times puzzlement. "To me it's Christina's fault, or whoever gave [Sherry] the drugs."


"I guess I would say that the real truth hasn't come out, that what happened isn't known," says Darlene Robinson, Sherry's mother. Then she falls silent. Her eyes reveal a disconcerting sense of suspicion, perhaps a result of quiet anger.

The silence of Robinson's neatly furnished apartment is broken by sounds emanating from a cassette player, the quivering voices of Sherry's former seventh-grade classmates at Silver Lakes Middle School in North Lauderdale. One after another the small voices praise Sherry as a helpful, cheerful kid. "Sherry was the kind of person that if you were sad, she'd always make you happy," says one of many speakers at Sherry's memorial service. Few maintain their composure. Several break into wrenching sobs.

"As you can see, it's a different Sherry than the newspapers betray," says Robinson, apparently meaning portray, but perhaps not. Robinson is especially angry at the dark picture drawn by media coverage of Sherry's life and death. A story in the Sun-Sentinel reported a "tragic life full of troubles," a child's fate shaped by an abusive, drug-and-alcohol-tainted environment, by a father and then stepfather who had arrest records. "I can't believe they would want to write a story so evil about someone so good," Robinson says.

Yes, both men have records that include DUI and drug-related charges. But Sherry was a happy, responsible, well-behaved child who was doted on, perhaps even spoiled, by those around her, Robinson maintains. And yes, Silver Oaks has a bad reputation, but that's where Sherry's father, Ronald Maresco, lived and still lives. When Maresco and Robinson divorced, mother and five-year-old daughter moved out of Silver Oaks. "Ronnie did a lot of things wrong, but [Sherry] loved him so much," Robinson says. The young girl wanted to visit her dad and also the friends she had made at Silver Oaks.

Another long silence passes. The apartment is well kept and nicely decorated. Often Robinson is silent, seemingly lost in her thoughts. In those moments the only sounds are a clock ticking and Sherry's dog, Snoopy, occasionally yawning, then rolling onto his side.

"She was very responsible for a girl her age who had a lot of things to take care of while I was working," says Robinson, a waitress who often works double shifts. "She would walk the dogs when she got home, and I never had to unpack the dishwasher, I never had to scrub the tub. And she sat here and did her homework every day after school. I think she enjoyed being smart."

Robinson gave her daughter $30 a week for allowance, and Sherry often had money to spend on others. On Sunday just a week before her death, Sherry ate dinner with Christina and another girl, then paid for the meal, including the tip. "The point is, how could she have money if she's using all these drugs?" Robinson asks, anger rising in her voice.

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