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Fatal Errors

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.

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.

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.

Between 8:30 and 9 p.m. Melendez returned with another man, whom Christina didn't know, and handed over the miniature baggie holding the heroin, saying it was worth $5 but the girls could have it for free. Christina passed the drugs to Sherry, who tucked them into her bra.

The two girls walked to a vacant mobile home nearby. The room was dark, so the girls lit a candle. Sherry took a razor blade from her purse and dumped the heroin onto a small mirror they kept in the unoccupied dwelling. They inspected it, then used the razor blade to chop it into a fine, yellowish powder. They divided it into two small lines and, using Sherry's $20 bill, snorted it.

Then they decided they wanted more. Melendez and Robles bicycled by, and after the girls and young men spotted one another, said he would come back shortly. Both men returned, and the girls told Melendez they wanted to buy more heroin. He told the girls he didn't have it on him. Sherry then left with Melendez while Christina waited with the other man. Sherry and Melendez returned quickly. Sherry had two miniature baggies, each holding $10 worth of heroin. The girls finished the drugs during two more trips into the vacant residence.

Casey and Derek had left the trailer park earlier in the evening and returned not long after the girls finished the heroin. The girls joined them on the front porch of the Delarosa-Mulhall home, where Christina shared a joint with the two young men. Then the four drove to Derek's house, where the girls ended up sitting by the pool. Christina lit a joint, but Sherry again declined to join her. The girls wet their hair in the pool, took some photos, and chatted before going inside. It was some time around midnight that the two men went to bed, "and that's when Sherry went to the bathroom, and she threw up," Christina recalls.

Christina went into the bedroom where Casey was sleeping and asked him for his shirt. After he handed over the white tank top, Christina gave it to Sherry, who changed. They went into the living room, where Sherry stretched out on the terrazzo floor, Christina on the couch. Sherry wanted to take a short nap, so she asked Christina to wake her soon. Later they planned to ask Derek for a ride back to Silver Oaks.

During the second questioning, Detective Peluso asked Christina:

Q: Did there ever come a time when she was sitting on that couch?

A: I don't, I don't know. She could have. When I left the room, I said, "Sherry, wake up." And she was, "Umm hmm." I said, "Get on the couch. I'm gonna go in the room." She could have got on the couch, but I didn't see her get on the couch.

After Sherry fell asleep, Christina went to awaken Casey and tell him of the girls' plan to return to Silver Oaks. She couldn't rouse her stepbrother, though, so she stretched out beside him.

Christina awoke about 6 a.m. needing to get a drink of water and use the bathroom. Sherry was still on the living room floor and looked a little pale. "I said, "Sherry,' and she just, you know, nudged a little bit, moved her head. So I figured, Well, she's sleeping." Christina was tired, so she returned to the bedroom and went back to sleep.

The next thing she knew, Derek came into the bedroom, yelling that Sherry might be dead. It was sometime after 11 a.m. but probably closer to noon. At first she didn't believe Derek, but then she and Casey got up and followed him into the living room.

Derek Robinson gave his formal statement February 20, the day after Sherry's death. He had slept at the Delarosa-Mulhall home that Saturday. While he was sleeping, Christina took the keys to his car, a 1988 Cadillac Eldorado. When she returned she told him a patrol officer had given her a ticket and that the Caddy was still on Davie Road. As the young man told the story, Detective Peluso perused the citation, which was issued at 6:30 a.m. for driving without a license. Peluso noted Christina had given a false name to the patrol officer.

When Peluso asked about drugs, Derek offered little specific information except to say that a five-minute drive through Silver Oaks would yield your drug of choice, including cocaine, various pills, and marijuana. Derek then began his account of the Sunday evening before Sherry's death.

He said he and Casey had left Silver Oaks earlier Sunday evening but returned and settled in at the Delarosa-Mulhall home. The girls were coming and going, but he paid little notice. Eventually the four headed for his family's home in Miramar, where they ended up around the pool "just talking, you know, smoking [cigarettes] or whatnot."

Sherry started feeling ill, and Christina accompanied her to the bathroom, where Sherry vomited. When they returned to the pool area, the girls assured Derek they had cleaned up the bathroom. Sherry appeared to be sweating but said she was OK. Derek then went to his bedroom. (In his statement, Casey said he was the first to go to bed. He described a "boring, real boring" evening. Sherry didn't look "messed up" when he last saw her. He knew she became ill because Christina woke him and asked for his shirt.)

Christina followed Derek to his bedroom and sat in a chair doing her nails while chatting with him. He dozed off sometime after midnight and slept until Sherry's pager went off on his dresser. It was between 11 and 11:30 Monday morning.

Derek walked into the living room to find Sherry on the floor near the couch, a pillow beneath her head. Derek told her it was time to get up, but she didn't respond. He looked closer. "White stuff" and blood were coming from her mouth, and the bottom sides of her arms were blue. "I mean, I -- I knew what happened, obviously."

Derek roused Christina and Casey, who initially thought he was joking. They followed him into the living room. Christina "took off screaming, throwing up, and I went into the kitchen and threw up and called the ambulance." He believed Casey also threw up yet seemed detached. He "just, like, stood there. And the only words that he told me was, "That's life.'"

After paramedics and police left later that afternoon, the three headed back to Silver Oaks in Derek's Caddy. During the interview Peluso asked Derek what had been said.

A: When we got in the car, Casey asked where his other shirt was, OK? And Chris -- Christina... said, "Remember last night when Sherry threw up on you? She got blood on you." And he said,... "That's when I got up"... -- 'cause she was laying on top of him, like on his chest. So when she threw up, he had to, like, lift her up... so he could get up and go change his shirt.

Q: Uhm, hmm.

A: And he was like, "Yeah," and that's when I dropped her back down on the couch.... When he said that, I like stopped, and it like all went through my head... So you guys were right there when she's throwing up blood and you guys didn't say nothing.

Then Peluso asked him if he knew where the shirt was.

A: I looked around for it today, and I couldn't find it. Because... Sherry threw up on Casey sometime after I had went to bed. Now to me I think she threw up right there on the couch where the blood was on the couch.

Q: Now you're talking about the blood on the portion of the couch by the door?

A: Right -- right by where she was on the ground, yes. Because there was blood up on the couch.

Q. It wasn't a heavy concentration, though.

A: It was... when I opened up the, the cushions, it was all running down, stuck together. There was a good [amount] of blood on the couch. But the thing is when -- the way they were saying it was like they were laying there... Right, but right then they should have -- they should have done something.

Q. Oh, without a doubt -- without a doubt. It's not normal for someone to spit up blood.

A: No, it's not.

Q: Especially a 13-year-old.

A: And Christina and Casey both saw that there was blood on his shirt. And he even got up to change it. And they left her there. Which also brings me back to Christina's calling me today.

Early that afternoon Christina called Derek and said detectives were at her home. She and Casey were going to get a lawyer, Derek told police, "because you guys were coming down on [Christina and Casey] hard." Christina said she had something to tell Derek, something she had not told him before, but he replied he didn't want to hear any more. He eventually hung up on her.

But an hour and a half after giving his statement, Derek dialed the Delarosa-Mulhall home. Police were taping as Derek and Christina agreed to meet. Christina was guarded. "I don't want to say it on -- on your phone or mine...." Christina made several vague references, enough that Derek understood they were to get together at a place near her home in Silver Oaks.

About 15 minutes later, they met, and Christina began probing Derek, unaware that he was wearing a police wire. "Well, you -- did you tell them everything -- every little thing that you remember?" Four more times Christina pressed for Derek's recollection of events.

The detectives were skeptical, accusing her of lying, Christina told Derek. "They act like, like we knew, like it was all our fault. Like, oh, we watched, sat there and watched her, you know," she said. Christina wondered why detectives had not taken Sherry's beeper or purse when they left Derek's house Monday afternoon. She also noted a marijuana roach "was right out there" but had been overlooked by police.

Christina told Derek she knew nothing about Sherry using drugs the Sunday before her death. However Christina said she had steered detectives to a home where Sherry might have gone to purchase drugs. It was the mobile home where Melendez and Robles were staying.

The investigation took some odd turns as investigators tried to zero in on the source of the drugs that killed Sherry. They initially focused on Melendez, then shifted their sights to Robles, but in the end Robles walked and Melendez was charged.

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.

Memories of Darlene Robinson's daughter are everywhere in her home: Photos of Sherry as a toddler with older brother Michael, of Sherry and her mom, of a smiling Sherry posing between Tigger and Winnie-the-Pooh in Orlando a little more than a month before her death. Her last report card shows A's and B's and glowing comments from her teachers. "She's a delight!" wrote one.

Robinson remembers her last conversation with Sherry. "I called her [at Christina's] Sunday about seven. I always picked her up sometime around 8 or 9 on Sundays. She asked to stay longer. I got irritated because she had asked for more time there already, and she had had enough." Robinson pauses, then resumes. She told Sherry she wanted her to spend more time in North Lauderdale and less at Silver Oaks. "But I felt like she'd never gotten into trouble. She'd done very good at school; I'd always trusted her. I felt she deserved to do the fun things she wanted to do. I left it as a yes, but I was mad."

Robinson hung up but a few minutes later redialed Christina's home.

"I called her back because I didn't want to leave it like that. I called her back, and she was crying. She said she'd start spending more time at home. She told me she loved me. And that's the last time I talked to her." Only later, thinking back on those final words, did Robinson begin to wonder why her daughter was so upset. Perhaps, the mother has come to believe, it was because Sherry sensed events were getting out of control.

"I thought about it, the crying. I just don't know. I just don't know."

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