By Chuck Strouse
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Allie Conti
By Chris Joseph
By Kyle Swenson
It was 9:45 a.m. on October 11, 2009, when Juan Carlos Portieles parked his beat-up Toyota Camry on a quiet side street in Miami-Dade's Cutler Bay. Tall and heavyset, with close-cropped brown hair and traces of stubble on his jaw, the 30-year-old DJ walked several blocks to a cluster of condominiums with beige walls and red-tiled roofs.
He approached a nondescript door and knocked. Isabelle Congote answered. Twenty-four years old and pretty, with light-brown hair and thin arched eyebrows, she wasn't happy to see Portieles. He had frantically called her house earlier that morning but wouldn't say much, only that he was in trouble, had gotten into a fight the previous night, and wanted to come over. Now he was pacing in the living room. His hazel-green eyes, usually half-closed and sunken into his face, were wide and bloodshot, as if he hadn't slept all night. He wouldn't stop cursing, and every now and then, he would say to no one in particular, "What am I going to do?" She thought he was still high or drunk from the night before.
Initially, he said a bunch of random guys had beaten him up at a gas station near Club Space in downtown Miami. But after a few minutes, Portieles changed his story. There had been no mugging. His fight had been with his 18-year-old girlfriend, Jaclyn Torrealba. They had been dancing at Space but began arguing inside the club and continued as he drove her home to Kendall. Finally, on a lonely stretch of road near Florida's Turnpike, he pulled the car over and began to punch and bite Torrealba. Then he put his hands around her throat and strangled her until she stopped moving. Her body, he said, was in the front seat of the Camry.
At first, Congote doubted he was serious. Then she noticed his hands, bruised and swollen. She saw blood on his pants, scratches on his face, and a cut on his lip. When he asked how to dispose of the body, there was nothing to suggest it was a sick practical joke — only the terrifying realization that the man in her house had killed a teenaged girl only a few hours earlier.
For Miami's nightlife denizens, Jaclyn Torrealba's killer wasn't known as Juan Carlos Portieles. He was Seasunz, a DJ and promoter whose name seemed to be on every club and event flier in the city. He had once been an honors student, but drugs and an inexplicable mental meltdown had transformed him into a perpetually drunk wannabe who would hand out his CDs to people waiting in line at the hottest nightclubs and hype himself as the next big thing. Then, this past July, a jury sent him to prison for life without parole. The man who had ruled the all-ages world had used his influence to seduce and kill a young woman. His arrest and the subsequent publicity dealt a death blow to a scene that once lit up America's best-known party metropolis: Miami, Florida.
At home in Hollywood, Eduardo Portieles paces in his living room and sobs. Shirtless and gaunt, with disheveled gray hair and round-rimmed glasses, he laments the life of Juan Carlos — the eldest of his two children — and the death of Jaclyn. "We miss her as if she were our own. I lost a daughter and a son," he weeps, tears gushing from his green eyes.
At the back of the house, in a room lined with floor-to-ceiling shelves full of vinyl records, stands a five-foot-tall file cabinet. The 54-year-old Portieles opens one of the drawers and pulls out a thick folder of loose-leaf paper. There are 96 sheets — diplomas, honor roll certificates, and elementary school spelling awards — all bearing Juan Carlos' name. Tears flowing, he flips through them, reading out each commendation and bit of praise. "You think this kid," he says, pausing on an award from Flagami Elementary School, "is the monster everyone has shown [on television]?"
Eduardo and his wife, Fidelia, didn't raise a monster, he says, alternating between broken English and rapid-fire Spanish. Their boy was a genius. He was reserved, quiet, and thoughtful. All he wanted to do was play music and bring people joy. Eduardo gestures at the vinyl LPs, some 14,000 in all. "He dedicated his whole life to this."
Juan Carlos was born January 21, 1979, in Sancti Spiritus, the capital city of a province in central Cuba. He was just over a year old when his parents left the country in the Mariel boatlift. They arrived in Miami on June 8, 1980, and moved around the city, finally settling in Hollywood in 2004 in a one-story pink stucco house purchased for $182,000 that Eduardo says Juan Carlos helped buy.
Throughout his childhood, he consistently impressed his teachers, from Flagami Elementary to Glades Middle School and up through Southwest Senior High. His transcript from Southwest is littered with A's, and he graduated in the top 5 percent of his class, 24th out of 515 students. Juan Carlos did so well, Eduardo says, that he could have finished high school early and gone to college at 16.
But there was clearly a side not reflected in Eduardo's description of his son. A psychological evaluation conducted after his arrest for Jaclyn's murder revealed that, at 11 years old, Juan Carlos had been sexually molested by an adult. It happened only once, he told a court-appointed psychologist in March 2011; when the person tried to abuse him again, he stopped it. Juan Carlos said he knew his abuser, an older male, but refused to disclose the identity. For years, he said, he attempted to bury his shame and fear with drugs.
A self-described nerd in high school, Juan Carlos had been a model student, taking honors classes. When he tried marijuana for the first time at 16 years old, he smoked only sporadically at first but by age 18 had quickly ramped up to as many as ten joints per day, occasionally lacing them with cocaine. He claimed to have done crack off and on for four to five years, dropped acid every weekend for three years, and also abused alcohol. In his adolescence and throughout his 20s, he experimented with heroin, crystal meth, ecstasy, and prescription painkillers.
The result was dramatic. One psychological evaluation noted that he "manifested deficits in all domains of cognitive functioning" and that he had "noticeable impairment in social and occupational functioning." But the drugs also numbed him to the sadness he felt after the molestation. He told one of three court-appointed psychologists, Dr. Sanford Jacobson, in March 2011 that "he learned that he could deal with things through drugs... they would obliterate the feelings that he had."
Both parents knew their son was struggling with abuse and begged him to kick his habits, but he refused. "I tried and tried and tried, but I couldn't control him," Eduardo says. "Drugs destroyed his life."
There was also anger in Juan Carlos. It surfaced in 1997, his final year at Southwest. At 18 years old, he was dating a 14-year-old freshman girl, but the relationship was faltering. So he became violent, punching her in the face and arms in January that year. A couple of months later, the girl's mother transferred her to another school. Juan Carlos didn't take the move well. On March 10, he went to her house in Sunset and knocked on her door, but, according to an arrest report, "The victim, not wanting to see or speak to the defendant, refused to answer." Enraged, he forced open her bedroom window. She told him to leave.
"The defendant then struck the victim several times on the face with a closed fist," the report states. "He then grabbed the victim by the sides of the head and with his thumbs pressed on the victim's eyes, causing heavy bruising and swelling. The defendant struck the victim several more times on the face before leaving."
The girl's parents called the police that night, and Juan Carlos was arrested for battery. Despite the attack's viciousness, he was able to enlist character witnesses, including Southwest faculty members. Karen Cohn, head of the gifted education department, wrote in a letter to the court, "Quite frankly, [Juan] is one of the few students that I would trust implicitly." Linda Greenfield, the department chair of language arts, wrote, "He is worth whatever investment we make in him."
Juan Carlos eventually pleaded no contest. Adjudication was withheld, and he was given one year of community control with two years' probation. He was told to have no further contact with the girl and her family and not to consume any alcohol or drugs. The court-ordered psychological report seemed positive about his future. "He appears to be fully oriented as to the seriousness of his past behavior," it reads. "He did not present as a high risk for violence at this time."
Juan Carlos was remorseful. "I realize that I committed a mistake," he said in the report. "I've learned from that mistake, and that'll never happen again."
After high school, Portieles entered Florida International University, where he found a niche as a DJ and program director at the student radio station, Radiate FM (WRGP, 88.1). There, he chose the name that would become his identity in the clubs: Seasunz. He told his father the moniker reflected his spirituality. Water and the sun, he said, were elements that sustained life.
In 1999, Portieles landed an interview with the now-defunct 103.5 the Beat as a program director. When he didn't get the job, he told his father he was going to leave school and be a professional DJ.
"So I said to him: 'What, are you going to work construction with me?' " Eduardo recalls. "He said, 'No, I'm going to be famous.' "
In a city like Miami, finding success behind the decks is no easy task. "DJs in this town are a dime a dozen," says Dan Vidal, who runs a Miami nightlife website and has been a part of the scene for more than a decade. To stand out, Vidal says, you have to hustle constantly and get your name out. In that sense, Portieles was prolific. He networked with everyone in the scene, handing out fliers and CDs and trying to broker deals with printers, club owners, and other DJs.
Portieles also capitalized on an underserved market: all-ages parties. Thanks to a May 2000 ordinance that prohibited clubs in Miami Beach from allowing entry to anyone under age 21, only clubs in Miami could host parties for teenagers. Although all-ages events weren't moneymakers — the inability to sell liquor cut significantly into the profits — most of the big-name Miami clubs staged occasional events geared toward high schoolers and younger college students to develop future clientele. Downtown hot spots such as Space, Nocturnal, Karu & Y, and Allure rented to promoters, who would pay the clubs up-front. It was in this scene — DJing foam parties and overgrown homecoming dances — that Portieles got his start.
Unlike spinning in the neon glow of South Beach, DJing all-ages events provided little glitz and even less glamour. But Portieles was in his 20s, a college dropout, and living at home with no steady job, so the lure of any scene was irresistible. Every week, he would play shows for hundreds or thousands of partiers. As his profile grew, he attracted a circle of fellow DJs and promoters to do his bidding. According to Vidal, he also became popular by procuring alcohol and drugs for his teenaged crowd.
It was during those years that Portieles' substance-abuse problems spiraled out of control. Some weekends, he would drink a bottle of vodka a night and chase it with 30 or 40 hits of ecstasy. Friends remember him drunk to the point of falling over or simply standing motionless in a corner while blankly staring out into space.
"With his general behavior, he had a big sign on his back where any sensible person would be like, Hands off, stay away, do not deal with this person," Vidal says. "I know it's Miami and everyone comes across as a little shady, but Seasunz definitely was more shady than most."
Javier Cadavid, who runs Project X Printing and was a former business partner of Portieles', remembers an incident in 2007 when he and Portieles were pulled over by police in Hialeah. When the cop told Portieles that he looked like he used drugs, the DJ responded, "If you were molested as a kid, you would do drugs too, wouldn't you?" The two weren't arrested.
"He didn't really care what anybody said or about any of the rules," Cadavid says. "He was destined for disaster."
Portieles remained entrenched in the all-ages scene despite the fact that he was approaching 30 years old. "We noticed that he was taking an interest in... the younger girls," Cadavid says. "One thing is to do your business and go home, and [another] is to take an interest."
One particular focus was a girl he had met at G. Holmes Braddock High School while recruiting kids to hand out fliers for his events. Her name was Jaclyn Torrealba. She had a dancer's body, long black hair, and dimpled cheeks. She was an honors student, a cheerleader, and an aspiring lawyer. And when the 28-year-old Seasunz began wooing her in the spring of 2007, she was a month shy of her 16th birthday.
Pablo Torrealba knows why his daughter fell for a man nearly twice her age: the allure of a world she had always wanted to be a part of.
"These are impressionable kids," says the 49-year-old, who teaches biology at Braddock High. "These are kids who want to fit in, be popular, be part of a hip crowd. Imagine you meet somebody who can give you access to clubs, where you'll be next to the most popular person there, be right in the VIP sections, no line, treated like royalty. At that age, what teenager wouldn't fall for that?"
Jaclyn was an only child, and at 2 years old, her parents divorced. But Pablo and his wife, Vilma Castro, remained friendly, and their daughter spent equal time with each of them. Pablo was doting and generous. When Jaclyn was 9, the two wiled away an entire afternoon inside an arcade at the Shops of Sunset Place, playing all the games to collect tickets so they could buy her favorite thing: a Beanie Baby. With Vilma, she would go shopping and talk about the boys she liked and the classes she was taking.
"She didn't rebel or disrespect us," Pablo says. "I couldn't be the least bit disappointed with who Jaclyn was."
Jaclyn also loved to dance. Her parents encouraged her to be social, and with her friends, the 15-year-old began to explore the club world by going to all-ages events and festivals. Then she met Portieles.
The DJ was instantly smitten. Soon after they started dating, he sent her a love letter in which he wrote, "Before I met you, I thought I knew what love was... But it was not until I met [you] that I knew I finally really grasped the concept of the word love and the powers that live within love." He wrote that their relationship was "the greatest love story ever told to mankind."
It was a story that Jaclyn's parents would try to end quickly. After they found out about the relationship, Vilma did a background check on Portieles and discovered the battery charge and a pair of minor drug convictions for pot and ecstasy possession. Then there was the age gap. She and Pablo forbade their daughter from seeing Portieles again, and on August 1, 2007, they sent him a certified cease-and-desist letter through a family attorney. "If you make any attempt to initiate further contact with this minor, we will pursue any and all legal remedies at our disposal to the fullest extent of the law," the letter stated.
"We thought we had dodged a bullet," Pablo says.
But Portieles didn't take the letter to heart, and Jaclyn refused to end the relationship. The two continued to see each other in secret for the next two years. Though she was grounded for three months as punishment for not telling her parents about Portieles, Jaclyn quickly returned to the all-ages scene.
It was a potentially dangerous time to be out and about in Miami. In 2009, the year Jaclyn died, nearly a dozen people were killed in or outside the city's clubs. In March, three people were shot outside Space, a club Portieles regularly played. In September, a young woman was shot in her car in the same area. There was a rash of shootings and stabbings in Miami Beach that summer and a shooting outside a Miami Gardens club in March that wounded five people. That violence has decreased in the years since.
But Jaclyn's parents hoped she would stay safe if they kept an eye on her and trusted her judgment. "She wasn't doing anything a million other kids didn't do," her father says. "One of the most difficult things for any parent is that you teach them the best you can, and then you have to let them go. You can't supervise them every single minute."
Jaclyn never suspected anything was wrong with her boyfriend. She would regularly text him declarations of love, which he would unfailingly return. The two talked constantly. In September 2009, they placed nearly 250 calls to one another, court records show. Jaclyn's friends didn't see anything troubling. To them, Portieles was the gregarious and generous Seasunz, who would drive them around the city and get them into clubs.
But as Portieles' relationship with Jaclyn progressed, his career stalled. After 2006, he struggled to get work because clubs became less interested in all-ages parties. Police and parents, wary of kids being exposed to alcohol and possibly worse, paid more attention to the events.
"Early part of the last decade, it was easy [to do an all-ages party]," says Vidal, the club scene veteran. "But as the legal situation changed, it became more of a risk."
Portieles attempted to break into the 21-and-up crowd, promoting events at Nocturnal in downtown Miami and Voodoo Lounge in Fort Lauderdale, but his efforts frequently went nowhere. "He got himself pigeonholed as the guy who threw all the underage parties," Vidal says. "Some people did give him chances, but he didn't produce for the adult market, so he fell back to what he knew."
Still, Portieles eked out enough work — an opening slot for the Crystal Method, a popular electronic group, in May 2009, or a promoter job with Ultra Music Festival — to keep things going. And he scored a gig in summer 2009 that he believed would make his career: an opening spot for Tiësto, a superstar DJ in the electronic dance music world, for an October 17 show in Fort Lauderdale at the Don Taft University Center Arena at Nova Southeastern University. At 30 years old and known for little else but DJing parties for high schoolers, Portieles must have felt like it was his last chance.
But a week before it was scheduled to go on, the show was canceled due to poor ticket sales. Tiësto was already slated for a second show that night at Liv in South Beach; Portieles wasn't added to the bill for that.
Just as Portieles' life in music was coming to a grinding halt, his relationship with Jaclyn was also deteriorating. After graduating from Braddock in June 2009, she enrolled at FIU. The two were on and off throughout that year. They fought frequently via text message, and friends warned her to be wary. Still, she wanted to spend time with him. Portieles had even asked her to be a choreographer for the Tiësto show. On October 10, the two made plans to see Mark Knight, a DJ, at Space.
That night, Jaclyn dressed for a night out and then told her father she was leaving.
"I was sitting right here," Pablo Torrealba says, leaning back slightly in a beige leather chair in his living room. "We talked. She bent down and hugged me and kissed me. I told her to call me when she got there, to be safe. She said, 'Bye, Papi, and good night.' "
That was the last time he would see his daughter alive.
Around 6:30 p.m. on October 11, Portieles walked into the Miami-Dade Police Department's Midwest District Station in Doral and told the officer on duty, Oscar Perez, that he wanted to turn himself in. When Perez asked why, Portieles' response was simple.
"He says, 'Well, I've been driving around for the past three hours with my girlfriend, dead, in the car, and I don't know what else to do,' " Perez recalls.
A few hours earlier, Pablo Torrealba had contacted police to report his daughter missing. All morning, her friends and family had been trying unsuccessfully to call her. After two Miami-Dade officers met with Pablo, they issued an all-points bulletin for the last person Jaclyn's friends had seen her with: Juan Carlos Portieles.
When the DJ stumbled into the station and told Perez there was a dead girl in his car, the cop asked for his name. He responded, "Juan Carlos." The police had their man.
Police hurried outside to the car and found a girl with curly black hair, dressed in jeans pulled slightly down her hips and a black tank top, face-down on the front seat, kneeling on the floorboard. Bruises covered the left side of her body; bite marks dotted her left arm and shoulder. There were promotional fliers, coins, and blood everywhere — on the passenger seat, rear seats, and the right rear door handle, even on a copy of New Times. They also found pieces of Jaclyn's red acrylic nails, broken off in her fight with Portieles, littering the back seat.
Two hours later, Detectives Rolando de la Osa and Miguel Dominguez of the Miami-Dade homicide squad began an interrogation of their murder suspect. At first, he was cooperative, even agreeing to talk without a lawyer present. But he claimed to be ignorant of almost everything: where he had been that night, whether he had been drinking, even where he'd woken up the day before.
He told detectives that he and Jaclyn had driven around Saturday night, possibly drinking. He had blacked out at some point and woken up in his car Sunday morning in Kendall. After spotting Jaclyn's body, he panicked, drove around aimlessly for a few hours, and then decided to go to the police.
The detectives knew Portieles was lying. They had already received a call from Isabelle Congote about the visit earlier that day. Portieles had also requested help from another friend, Gabriel Molina, who had also contacted police. When the detectives confronted the DJ, he answered, "Well, there's no hiding this now."
Then he told them everything he knew. On October 10, he and Jaclyn had agreed to meet in the parking lot of the Los Perros Restaurant on Bird Road at SW 133rd Avenue, where she left her car. From there, they went to Space. They arrived around 2 a.m. and soon began to argue. She slapped him in the face, he claimed, and he decided the night was over. They left at roughly 3 a.m.
In the car, he asked questions, but she wouldn't respond. "My intentions were honestly to drive her back to her car, but that silent treatment really pissed me the fuck off," Portieles told detectives.
When Portieles reached the parking lot, he didn't stop the car. She asked where they were going. In a rage, he turned and said, "Oh, now you want to talk to me, bitch!" He continued to drive in circles near Florida's Turnpike until he reached a grassy cul-de-sac at SW 107th Avenue and 140th Street, near a canal. There, he told detectives, he pulled the car over, and the fight began.
"Mr. Portieles explained that they began punching each other, over ten times, while they were in the front seat of the vehicle," the detectives' report states. "Mr. Portieles indicated the fight ended up in the back seat of the vehicle, where he was trying to defend himself and, at the same time, not hurt the victim. Mr. Portieles said he attempted to pull down the victim's pants to her knees so that she could not kick him any more... He stated he grabbed her by her hands. Mr. Portieles related, 'I punched her, bit her, pulled her hair. I tried everything. She hit me with everything. I grabbed her by the throat and choked her until she stopped moving.' "
Winded, Portieles sat back in the rear passenger seat and rested. After 30 minutes, he moved her to the front seat and then sat in the car for another hour or two. Once the sun began to rise, he called Isabelle Congote and drove away.
The DJ spent the rest of the morning and afternoon looking for a solution. He drove to Congote's apartment and then to the Southland Mall to talk to an uncle, Rey. Portieles asked whether he should burn the car with Jaclyn's body in it or throw her corpse into the Everglades. Rey advised him to turn himself in. Next he went to Gabriel Molina's apartment in Homestead, where for a third time he confessed to the murder. Then he drove around Miami for three hours, Jaclyn's body still next to him, trying to figure out what to do. At one point, he told detectives, he took off the black button-up shirt he was wearing and covered her with it because "she was looking 'disgustingly gruesome.' "
Portieles finished his confession at 4 a.m. October 12, seven hours after he'd begun. The detectives wanted him to take them to the crime scene, but he asked to nap until morning. They agreed, and for the first time in two days, Portieles slept, lying down on the interview room floor.
Soon after, four Miami-Dade detectives went to the house of Pablo Torrealba, six hours after they'd called him to say they had news about Jaclyn. He already knew what they were going to tell him but still found himself struggling to stay composed as they talked. After the detectives described the confession, Torrealba felt anger, pain, and sadness.
"It's surreal," he says. "This is not supposed to happen. You don't think something like that is ever going to touch you."
Vilma Castro was also waiting for news about Jaclyn. On Sunday, she had made a cold pasta-and-chicken dish, one of the youngster's favorites, for a dinner they were supposed to have. When she learned what had happened to her daughter, she took the food and threw it away. She hasn't been able to cook anything since that day almost three years ago.
The clubs that gave Portieles his fame — Space, Nocturnal, Allure, and others — are either gone or have left the all-ages game. In the immediate wake of the murder, clubs canceled their under-21 events and didn't book any for months. Companies such as Committee Entertainment had already been expanding into the all-ages market with outdoor concerts and events like Dayglow. The industry permanently shifted to them.
"All-ages is no longer a winning game for clubs," Vidal says.
In Pablo Torrealba's house on SW 144th Place, Jaclyn's bedroom remains almost exactly as it was when she lived there. There's a bed, a nightstand, and a cabinet that holds an old, bulky TV set. A dresser and a desk are each covered in family photos and Beanie Babies. On the sea-foam-green walls hang more photos from all stages of Jaclyn's life: childhood, high school, and trips with her father to New York City, Disney World, and Alaska. As he picks up a digital photo frame and watches picture after picture of Jaclyn go by, he wonders whether he could have done more to save her.
"I wish I'd gone to him," Torrealba says of Portieles. "I wish I'd kicked down his door, shown him my face. But I didn't, because I never thought anything like this could happen."
In Vilma Castro's home on SW 147th Path, portraits of Jaclyn adorn every room. The girl's bedroom at this house also has light-green walls, but aside from photos and some trophies on a shelf, it sits empty. Castro didn't buy the place until December 2009; her daughter had helped her pick it out but had never gotten the chance to spend a single night in the room she had chosen.
Almost three years passed between Portieles' confession and his trial, while the State Attorney's Office compiled mountains of text and forensic evidence. The DJ's defense tried to paint Jaclyn as a party girl who drank and did drugs, and alleged the crime had been an accident in the heat of passion. But after three days of testimony and only four hours of deliberation, the jury didn't buy the excuses. It found Portieles guilty of first-degree murder. The next day, he received his sentence: life in prison without parole.
Jaclyn's friends and family rejoiced. But both Pablo and Vilma noticed that, when the verdict was announced, Portieles simply stared straight ahead, eyes empty. During the sentencing, he began to apologize but threw in several long discourses on how true love would conquer all. When Pablo took the stand to address Portieles, he held nothing back.
"I told him that he had destroyed the most wonderful thing I had in my life without remorse or regret," he says. "I told him that I pitied him. I had something good for 18 years, and he is never going to know what it's going to be like to have a child or be a father. He's going to miss out on a love he'll never understand."
Eduardo Portieles believes there is a true life beyond this world for his son. "He told me he was facing two judges," Eduardo says, "one on Earth and one in heaven."
His son has converted in prison and talks every day on the phone with his father about spirituality. To this day, Juan Carlos has never told his parents why he killed Jaclyn or even what happened that night. "There is no justification for what he did," Eduardo says. "He killed a girl I loved like the daughter I never had."
But the two lives he believes were lost have created something more powerful. "This girl's death saved my life," he says. "Jaclyn was the sacrifice of the lamb. Without her death, I would not be a believer." He begins to cry. "She is in my heart, and I know the Lord has her in a safe place."
Then he falls to his knees. "Every night, I pray for her, just like this." He clasps his hands and thrusts them toward the sky. Tears still running down his cheeks, he rises to his feet. "Hopefully this monstrous crime will bring light to the world."