Fatal Errors

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

Yes, her daughter had tried marijuana, Robinson says, but Sherry said she didn't like it. She appeared alert and happy, never stoned. Sherry had been to the doctor for bronchitis in January, and Robinson had recently told her she might have to return if her cough persisted.

Then Robinson sags beneath a crushing thought that hovers constantly: "If it was happening in that house that night, I was here sleeping. I feel just horrible that she was sick and dying and I wasn't there to help her." The words are spoken in a near whisper.

Jose Melendez could face the death penalty for selling a few bucks' worth of heroin
Jose Melendez could face the death penalty for selling a few bucks' worth of heroin
Sherry's trip to Orlando just a bit more than a month before her death brought out the little girl in her
Darlene Robinson
Sherry's trip to Orlando just a bit more than a month before her death brought out the little girl in her

You might remember the story. Sherry, Christina, Christina's stepbrother Casey Mulhall, age 19, and Derek Robinson (no relation to Darlene), 20, got together on a Sunday evening in Silver Oaks, a tightly packed maze of mobile homes fronting narrow streets on 300 acres just off Davie Road in Fort Lauderdale. After a while they ended up at Derek's home in Miramar. The next day at 12:15 p.m., paramedics arrived to find Sherry in the living room, lying dead on the terrazzo floor, a pillow beneath her head.

A surge of media attention followed because of Sherry's age and because cocaine, the popular tranquilizer Xanax, marijuana, and heroin were found in her system. The Broward County Medical Examiner's Office concluded Sherry died from hemorrhagic bronchopneumonia due to cocaine toxicity. The heroin and Xanax contributed by depressing her ability to breathe.

What happened in the hours before and weeks following Sherry's death is a tangle of swirling rumor, shifting recollection, conflicting accounts, lies under oath, and overreaching statements by cops and prosecutors.

Questions linger. What about the cocaine? Who supplied that? Those with Sherry in the hours before her death say they know nothing about it. And did Christina and Casey propose dumping Sherry's body in the Everglades? Two of Sherry's friends, in sworn statements to detectives, say Derek told them Christina and Casey wanted to put Sherry's body in the trunk of his Cadillac and dump it. To detectives, Christina denied the accusation, dismissing it as a "rumor."

Christina declined to discuss the case with New Times, saying, "No, sorry, have a nice day." Neither Casey nor Derek could be reached for comment.

Gary Ostrow, an experienced trial lawyer, describes the case against Melendez as an "outrage." After conferring with the Broward County Public Defender's Office and talking with Melendez several times, Ostrow took the case pro bono. "Law enforcement utterly failed to complete their investigation, which resulted in the arrest of the one person, the only person, who cooperated in this investigation," Ostrow says. "Generally I'd say [Melendez] is on the receiving end of getting sucker-punched by the system."

Questioned about the weaknesses in the state's case, Ostrow asks, "Witnesses?" No, he is corrected, weaknesses. "They're synonymous," he says, chuckling. "At best they have questionable witnesses in terms of their credibility, their prior statements and perjuries," most notably Christina, who may have lied in her initial statement to police.

And, Ostrow contends, Christina and Casey should have summoned help for Sherry but did not. "As far as any statements [Melendez] made, I have yet to explore the voluntariness of those statements."

Melendez told detectives he and Eric Manuel Robles, age 26, were riding bicycles together through Silver Oaks the evening before Sherry died. Melendez had known Robles for about a year and late last year had invited his friend to stay at his mother's mobile home there.

As the two pedaled through the mobile home park that Sunday evening, they saw Christina outside her family's home. She was alone and asked Melendez if he could get some drugs. She gave him $5. The young men bicycled to Melendez's mother's mobile home, where Robles gave him the heroin.

Around 7 p.m. the men returned to Christina's place, and Melendez handed Christina the drug. Sherry was not present for the exchange, although she might have been inside or around somewhere "because [Sherry and Christina were] always together," Melendez says.

Melendez and Robles then bicycled back to Melendez's mother's place. Later that evening, perhaps 9:30 or 10 p.m., Robles left, telling Melendez he was going to sell Christina and Sherry more heroin. The girls must have paged Robles, Melendez believes. Robles later told Melendez that he sold the girls a dime -- $10 worth -- of heroin and gave them a little extra for free. Robles talked of hugging Sherry and walking around with the two girls.

In her first sworn statement, given less than two hours after paramedics arrived at Derek Robinson's house, Christina said she was not aware of anyone doing drugs in the hours before Sherry's death. However, in her second sworn statement, given one week later, Christina told Miramar detective Ronald Peluso, the lead investigator, that she and Sherry had done heroin.

In the second statement, Christina said Sherry was in the front yard of the older girl's family home Sunday evening when Melendez rode up on a bicycle. He first told her he had some Ecstasy and asked her to get Christina, who was inside. Melendez then admitted he didn't have any of that drug but said he had some heroin. The girls told him they wanted to buy some. He promised to let them test a bit first, and then left.

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