Fatal Errors

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

In a statement taken Wednesday, February 21, Melendez said Robles had told him he had sold $10 worth of heroin to the girls and also given them a little for free. To support his contention that Robles was a drug dealer, Melendez agreed to cooperate with police. He would buy heroin from his friend while officers monitored the deal.

On Thursday, February 22, Melendez purchased $10 of heroin from Robles as police videotaped and listened in, according to police records. The purchase took place at the mobile home of Melendez's mother, and the deal was transacted entirely in Spanish. Detectives then debriefed Melendez, listening as a Spanish-speaking detective translated the recorded conversation.

As the tape rolled, Robles was heard saying "that Jose Melendez delivered heroin to "the girls,'" according to an arrest affidavit filed by Peluso. Though Melendez alleged the detective had misunderstood, he "eventually admitted to delivering heroin to Christina Delarosa." After the alleged admission, Peluso stopped the debriefing and read Melendez his Miranda rights.

Though in the report Peluso asserts that Melendez acknowledged selling drugs to both girls, that may not be entirely accurate. In his statement Melendez said he sold Christina $5 worth of heroin. He also asserted several times that Sherry was not present at that sale and that it was Robles who later provided more heroin to the girls. It might seem a fine distinction, but Peluso's arrest affidavit, which includes Melendez's supposed admission, states he sold to Christina and Sherry. The flawed affidavit was the basis for arresting Melendez March 7.

During Melendez's statement, Peluso seemed skeptical of the story. He wondered, for example, why Melendez handled the $5 transaction if, as Melendez insisted, the heroin belonged to Robles. Another detective observed that Melendez could not know if Robles later sold heroin to the girls; Melendez had said he was at home when Robles made the sale. "True," Melendez agreed.

On February 23, detectives arrested Robles in connection with the heroin sale to Melendez the day before. They charged him with delivery of heroin and possession of marijuana, but a month later, on March 20, the State Attorney's Office decided not to prosecute, citing Melendez's arrest. "Since [Melendez] is a critical witness to the DEL[IVERY] OF HEROIN and his murder indictment is imminent, the case against Def[endant] Robles is declined," Broward Assistant State Attorney Stan Peacock wrote. (That may have been one of the prosecutors' worst decisions. Assistant State Attorney Howard Scheinberg urged action against Robles because "he was regularly supplying serious drugs including heroin and cocaine to children in his trailer park.")

A Broward grand jury indicted Melendez the next day for first-degree murder and aggravated child abuse. Like Peluso, Scheinberg overstated the case against Melendez. Melendez "confessed in great detail how he sold heroin to the victim and her friend," according to Scheinberg's memo describing the "factual scenario" of the case. Scheinberg asserted that Melendez "corroborated Christina Delarosa concerning the events leading up to the two sales of heroin to the girls."

In an interview with New Times, Peluso said only that he felt good that investigators were able to hold someone accountable in a drug-related death, something, he added, that does not happen often. He also defended Christina. "You've got to remember, she's my witness, and I'm not going to badmouth her."


Scheinberg, it seems, will have a difficult time convicting Melendez of first-degree murder. Christina Delarosa is his key witness -- and her testimony is full of contradictions and apparent lies. Among them:

In her first statement, she told police she knew nothing about Sherry using drugs that Sunday before her death but later admitted she and Sherry had done heroin.

Initially she said no one had used drugs at Derek's house, but she later acknowledged she smoked a joint by the pool.

In her first statement she said Sherry had told her she had bumped into a friend in Silver Oaks that Sunday evening. Christina theorized the person might have given Sherry "some drugs or something." In a later statement, Christina asserted the girls looked for that person Sunday but did not see him all weekend.

In one statement she said Melendez was alone when he provided the $5 heroin sample. In another she asserted he was with someone else, presumably Robles.

In her first statement, Christina said Sherry asked for a beer while at the older girl's house Sunday evening. Later Christina said it was her idea to take the beer.

She first told police that, when she woke up at 6 a.m. Monday and saw Sherry on the living room floor, she wiped some "snot" from Sherry's nose. In another statement she said there was nothing on Sherry's face that morning. (Even Peluso recognized this difference.)

And while Christina consistently maintained there was no cocaine use, the toxicology report indicates Sherry ingested that drug less than 12 hours before her death. None of the other witnesses mentioned anything about cocaine use, nor did they note the Xanax that coroners later found in Sherry's blood.

The case is set for a status conference July 13 with Circuit Judge Ilona Holmes. Ostrow has begun taking depositions from potential witnesses and has requested but not yet received a date for a bond hearing for Melendez.

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