Playing With Fire

Only one man is set to stand trial for a grisly murder seven years ago – but if he's guilty, did he really act alone?

He'd come home to get his life together, his mother said. He got the job at Mars Music. Coworkers said he wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band.

Mark Lichtenberg Jr. worked with Collins and occasionally played pool with him, he told police, but he didn't know Collins very well and thought he was flaky.

Lichtenberg said he bought a pool cue from Collins for $350. Then, he said, a few days later, Collins started calling and pestering him, saying he wanted the cue back so he could sell it for more money. Lichtenberg's father told police that his son had not paid Collins for the cue and that Collins had phoned their home several times, upset and asking for the money. Collins' mother said her son had an appointment to settle the disagreement over the cue — set for the day after he was found in the Dumpster.

Candice Moreland, another friend of Collins', told police that some mutual friends were angry with Collins about the pool-cue disagreement and because they suspected Collins had stolen a guitar and some pot from one of them.

After the killing, Lichtenberg moved to Maryland for a spell, where he stayed with Anthony Marcano, who claimed to be a high priest in Stregheria, a form of witchcraft with Italian and pagan roots. Meanwhile, the trail of Collins' killer or killers went cold.

Detective John Curcio took over the Collins murder case in 2004. He reinterviewed Collins' acquaintances, several of whom said that a close friend of Lichtenberg's, Brendan Rao, had talked about killing Collins. In 2000, Rao had failed a lie-detector test when he denied being involved in the killing,

Meanwhile, Lichtenberg had returned to Fort Lauderdale. Curcio suspected that Lichtenberg had a role in Collins' death, despite his denials. So he asked Lichtenberg to phone Rao, while he recorded the call, and to read from this script:

I got a visit from the police yesterday about Matt's murder.

They showed me a fingerprint on the gas can, and they told me they know whose print it is.

They told me that someone told them that I helped you put him in the Dumpster after he was killed.

Who have you told about what happened?

Do you feel bad about what happened to Matt?

But Lichtenberg couldn't reach Rao. So he left him a message and gave him Curcio's cell phone number as the number for Rao to call him back on.

The next day, Curcio was Christmas shopping with his family at Sawgrass Mills, the giant outlet mall in Sunrise, when his phone rang. He saw Rao's home number on caller ID. He answered and told Rao he'd call him right back.

Curcio ran to his car in the mall parking lot and found a tape recorder. He turned it on, put his cell on speakerphone, and called Rao, pretending he was Lichtenberg.

Rao, believing he was speaking to Lichtenberg, told him to leave the state and keep his mouth shut.

"Nobody was there," Rao said, according to a transcript of the call. As long as he, Lichtenberg, and their "Italian friend" kept quiet, he said, all the police could get would be "circumstantial hearsay."

"Pretend that this shit never happened," Rao said.

Several days later, Curcio called Lichtenberg's ex-girlfriend, Janice Arink. She said Lichtenberg had told her that "he was involved in a murder where a male had been killed over money," Curcio reported. According to Curcio, Arink also said that Lichtenberg told her that was why he'd moved to Maryland.

Curcio said he also contacted Lichtenberg's former roommate and childhood friend, Jamal Alexander, who said he'd lent Lichtenberg a red gas can several years ago and never got it back.

According to Curcio's reports, both Arink and Alexander said that Rao and Lichtenberg had become interested in Stegheria in their teens, when Marcano, a school counselor, taught them about the occult.

Curcio reviewed phone records and discovered that on the night of his death, Collins had called Rao 28 times. And that night, Rao called Marcano.

On February 10, 2005, Curcio arrested Rao as Rao was leaving his mother's house. At the Fort Lauderdale police station, Curcio told him he was being charged with murdering Collins, Curcio reported, and Rao responded, "Am I the only person being arrested?"

Rao borrowed Curcio's cell phone and called his mother. He didn't know it, but his call was recorded.

Rao told his mother that if police questioned her, she should say "I don't know" or "I don't remember."

"It is what it is," he told her. "Don't make excuses for me."

Two years later, the case file for Collins' death has grown to tens of thousands of pages. Attorneys have taken depositions from more than 20 people.

Rao is scheduled for trial August 13. His attorney, Craig Esquenazi, says the case against his client is "pure speculation."

It's clear from his extensive reports that Curcio does not believe Rao alone killed Collins.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Lichtenberg was at work at Tattoo Blues, near Sunrise Boulevard and A1A in Fort Lauderdale. The shop is bright inside, with the sun pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and fluorescent lights in the back. A change machine hums, offering customers and beachgoers quarters for the parking meters.

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