To see more photos of Casey DiStefano, click here.
To see more photos of Brianna Negron, click here.
From the top floors of the White Egret, a luxury condo building in north Fort Lauderdale, you can look out over A1A, over the palm trees and the sunbathers, over the foamy waves crashing on the beach — you can see all the way to the thin line on the horizon where the sparkling blue ocean meets the sky.
It was in this building, in apartment 12F, that 20-year-old Casey DiStefano spent her last night alive.
In high school in Union, New Jersey, she was a cheerleader, asked to prom by at least four boys. Like so many girls, Casey liked listening to Britney Spears and Lady Gaga. She liked shopping and watching MTV and riding horses. She was energetic and petite, with smooth, sun-kissed skin; flowing, platinum-blond hair; a wide, bright smile; and dark-brown eyes as deep as the ocean outside her window.
But when paramedics arrived at the apartment just before 8 a.m. on May 27 of this year, they found Casey lying on the floor, still and unresponsive. Her skin was pale. Her lips were an unsettling shade of blue. She wasn't breathing.
The EMTs wrapped her in blankets, took her on a stretcher to the ambulance, and rushed her three and a half miles north to Holy Cross Hospital, performing CPR on the way. In the emergency room, doctors and nurses took over the efforts to resuscitate. But nothing worked. At 8:12 a.m., they pronounced Casey Marie DiStefano dead.
Fort Lauderdale police officers showed up at the White Egret not long after the ambulance left. They found Casey's boyfriend, 38-year-old Richard Lippner, calmly mopping the bathroom floor. The small apartment was a cluttered mess, with rotting food and dirty dishes on every countertop and trash stacked high against the bright-yellow walls.
"The place was a total pigsty," remembers lead detective William DeJesus. "Really disgusting."
Rich told the police that he had awakened that morning to Casey calling his name. He found her in the bathroom, vomiting violently. She was struggling to breathe. Then, he said, she collapsed. He dialed 911.
There was no crying or panicked screaming as the boyfriend told his story. He said Casey had a history of seizures. He said he'd tried performing CPR on her before calling an ambulance. "I'm not sure what's wrong with her," he told the investigators in his apartment. "We went to bed around midnight and she was fine."
"Was she on any kind of medications?" the detective asked. "Any kind of drugs?"
"She takes a multivitamin," the boyfriend said. "That's all I know of."
Thinking back on the conversation, the detective says that what he found most disturbing was how calm and collected Rich seemed.
"He was completely unemotional," DeJesus says. "It was like this was business as usual."
When word of Casey's death reached New Jersey, her family and friends were stunned. It felt like a bad dream. She couldn't be dead. Not Casey. She'd moved down to Miami less than a year earlier with her best friend, hoping to start a modeling career. She spoke to both her mother and stepmother the night before she died, and she seemed so normal.
But if news of her passing seemed like a nightmare, what came next seemed like a twist straight out of CSI: Miami: Casey was not the first girl to die in that apartment. In fact, this was the second time this had happened in four months.
The women had a lot in common too: Both were young, beautiful, bottle blonds, active in the local nightlife scene. Both had an eye for designer purses and a taste for tony restaurants. Both died under similar circumstances, with similar chemical combinations found in their bodies. And both girls dated Richard Lippner.
His attorney says this is all a big coincidence. But friends and family members of both girls, and now the Fort Lauderdale police, think it might be something much more sinister.
Brianna Negron exuded an incredible confidence. She would invite a girlfriend or two out for drinks at her favorite bar, Blue Martini, and bet them that before they left, she'd have a guy offering to pay the tab. They'd order drinks and food — and more drinks, often racking up a bill totaling hundreds of dollars. And by the end of the night, sure enough, she always had some flirtatious stranger willing to throw down his credit card for her entire group.
Lots of older men asked Brianna out: a lawyer, a doctor, more than one club manager. In early 2007, not long after her 20th birthday, Brianna met Rich.
For their first date, they went to a bar on the water, sat outside beneath the glowing space heaters, and drank for hours. Bright-eyed and grinning coyly, Brianna leaned on the wooden bar, sipping a yellow drink from a clear plastic cup. She wore a tight red top with a deep neckline that accentuated her surgically enhanced chest. Her blond hair rested softly on her shoulders, and her blue eyes twinkled in the light of a candle flickering nearby. Rich, 15 years her senior, wore a crisp, white designer shirt unbuttoned to his sternum and a set of silver cuff links. It was an unusually chilly evening in early 2007. In a photo from that night, she's smiling uncomfortably as Rich puts both arms around her, interlocking his fingers behind her back.
Brianna could walk into a room and stop the conversation midsentence. "She was like this light that just drew people around her," remembers friend Jesse James Olinger. "She had the total South Florida mentality — loving the sunshine, having a good time, having a smile on her face all the time." She liked sushi and expensive purses, and she couldn't resist singing along to the Britney Spears song "Womanizer" any time it came on.
By the time she was a seventh-grader at Eagles Landing Middle School in Boca Raton, she was already the center of the microcosmic social scene. "As soon as the boys discovered they liked girls, they liked Brianna," recalls Jena Azzata, a childhood friend.
While she always seemed to be smiling with her friends in the hallways at school, Brianna was rebellious. Because she was a juvenile, records of her crimes and the results are not public, but her rap sheet includes an arrest at 15 years old for battery with a weapon in Parkland. In 2004, when she was 17, she was arrested in Hillsborough County for burglary and grand theft of a motor vehicle. Later that summer, she was picked up in Orange County for another burglary.
Brianna left Olympic Heights Community High School early in favor of a GED and the chance to move to Miami and go out more. "She was all about living in the moment," says Azzata. "It was part of what made her so fun to be around. But it also got her into trouble a lot."
Soon after she met Rich, he was taking her to some of the most exclusive restaurants in South Florida. One afternoon not long after they started dating, Rich took Brianna to a late lunch at the superswanky Bova Prime; then the couple strolled down Las Olas hand in hand. Brianna was admiring the expensive designer dresses in the boutique windows when Rich coolly pulled out a few hundred dollars cash.
He told people he had made good investments and retired young. His acquaintances refer to him as a "trust-fund kid." His father owns a high-end real estate firm in Fort Lauderdale. His older sister, Peggy, committed suicide — an overdose of prescription pills — when Rich was 27. In the late '90s, he worked as a DJ at raves in Broward County and Miami. For a few years, Rich owned a strip-mall karate dojo. He also owns a boat, and of course, the apartment at the White Egret, valued by the tax collector at about $200,000.
"He would take her shopping all the time, and Rich would get her anything she wanted," remembers Erica Fine, who dated a friend of Rich's and became close with Brianna. "She wanted a Gucci purse and a Sky dress? He'd buy them. He was very, very good to her that way."
Dating Rich meant she got to go out all the time. She got to drink. And she got to travel and shop like the women of her favorite show, Sex and the City. Her friends remember the expensive gifts Rich showered upon Brianna: On top of the dresses and purses, he bought her a necklace with a diamond-covered peace symbol. He got her Manolo Blahnik shoes. He paid for her hair and nail appointments. At one point, he gave her a black 2006 PT Cruiser. She moved in with him.
"She believed she deserved the best of everything, the most expensive things in life," remembers an ex-roommate of Brianna's. "She was high-maintenance and proud of it."
Rich got her into the VIP sections of the most popular new nightspots in South Florida: They went to Nikki Marina in Hollywood, to Liv in Miami Beach, to Feelgoods in West Palm Beach, to Pangaea at the Hard Rock. These are the places carrying the mantle for glamorous South Florida nightlife, where the wealthy can rip through their $14 drinks and dance beneath flashing neon strobes. In the spinning lights, plush VIP couches, and intoxicating chemical indulgences, Brianna could forget about her troubles — at least until morning.
From early in the relationship, Brianna's friends remember the couple fighting often and making up. "It wasn't a healthy relationship," Erica Fine remembers. "He was jealous a lot, and she knew how to push his buttons." He'd make a joke she didn't like. She'd text another guy to get back at him. One minute, they'd be screaming back and forth; the next, he'd be proposing to her, telling her he wanted her to have his baby.
In a three-year span, Brianna was arrested twice for domestic violence and twice more for DUI. After the second, she spent 30 days in jail in 2009. Fort Lauderdale police were called to Rich's apartment at least two other times during their relationship.
Her friends remember her drinking as young as eighth grade, but it didn't seem abnormal at the time. She just liked to have a good time. But now the people closest to her began to worry. Though she rarely discussed it, Brianna had begun carrying a small brown prescription bottle with the label torn off.
"I knew she was taking pills," Fine says. "I just didn't know what."
Rich was always a hard partier. Brianna's friends say that when the nightclubs closed, sometimes at 4 a.m., Rich often invited a large group of men and women to Scarlett's Cabaret, a strip club in Fort Lauderdale, or back to his place for an "after hours."
"He was really into powder and Xanax," says David Faltz, a friend of Brianna's who lived with her in 2009 and knows Rich from the nightlife scene. "Rich is the kind of guy who can get you things. He'd come up to you in the back of a club and whisper, 'Hey man, you need anything?' "
Police say he was also into the powerful prescription painkiller Roxicodone. "Lippner definitely has a reputation as a guy who likes the 'blues,' " says Detective DeJesus. Roxicodone, a small blue pill in the same family as OxyContin, is perhaps the most popular and deadly new club drug in South Florida. The heavy sedative effects are similar to those of morphine or heroin, and when mixed with alcohol or cocaine, the combination can be lethal.
Her friends say Brianna didn't mess with painkillers. "She mostly liked to drink, and she liked her Xanax," Faltz says. "Once in a while, she'd smoke weed — it wasn't her thing. She would do some blow once every blue moon if someone offered it to her."
In spring 2009, she told her friends she was leaving Rich. She said she could do better. She said his drug use — particularly his affinity for "Roxies" — had become too much for her. "He's a loser," she'd say. "And I hate, hate Roxies."
In June of last year, a few weeks after Brianna got her second DUI, she moved out of Rich's apartment by the sea and into Faltz's Fort Lauderdale townhouse.
She was excited to be single. Faltz remembers her nightly ritual: She'd text her friends and send a series of Facebook messages, trying to figure out where everyone was meeting up. She'd spend two hours getting ready: washing her hair, doing her makeup, laying out the evening's outfit, coordinating accessories.
Next, she'd preparty, sipping stiff mixed drinks from plastic cups as friends gathered. Then it was off to the club of the night. When she got home, she'd turn up the stereo to full blast and dance all over the house, occasionally putting on brief lingerie fashion shows for her friends. When she woke up, the place would be trashed — broken glass, dirty dishes, furniture knocked over — and she wouldn't remember a thing.
She dated a steady stream of mostly tall, older men, many with defined abs and thick wallets. "She could be dating four guys at the same time and make all of them feel like they were the most special thing in the world," Faltz says.
But she really fell hard for one guy in particular: a personal-injury lawyer living in Boca. He could afford her lifestyle, and he had ambition. She moved in with him and stopped talking to Rich.
"She very much was in love with the lawyer," remembers Erica Fine, "but she was constantly catching him in lies." Brianna told her friends she'd caught him cheating several times. "She was so sad," Fine says. "It really took a toll on her."
After he broke up with her, her friends noticed her drinking more, seeming more intoxicated more often. "It was like she was in a downward spiral," one friend says. "She wanted to hold on to something in her life, but everything was spinning so fast."
On Facebook, her relationship status went to "It's Complicated" and she updated her status often, going from "Hating life right now..." to "Luvin Life!!!" to the curious "?????"
She started calling Rich again. She was sharing a house in Miramar with friends, but once or twice a week, she would go over to Rich's apartment. "Rich and Brianna just always landed back together," Fine says. "No matter what happened between them, she always knew if she needed something, she could ask Rich." Brianna told her friends that Rich was giving her money to start going to school and to help with rent. She also mentioned that someone was getting her big bags of Xanax.
One night, about a month before she died, Brianna was with some girlfriends, eating sushi, drinking wine, watching the Sex and the City movie. She told her friends she wasn't feeling well and went to bed early. When she woke up, she was crying. She said she had the worst dream. She said she dreamed that she stopped breathing and that she died.
"The dream really scared her," recalls a friend who was there that night. "She was shaking and talking about it for hours."
At 10:30 p.m. January 23 of this year, Richard Lippner dialed 911. He told the operator that the woman in his apartment had stopped breathing. The operator guided him through the steps of CPR. Paramedics took over when they arrived a few minutes later and rushed Brianna to Holy Cross Hospital.
The lead detective assigned to investigate the suspicious deaths was a wide-shouldered, musclebound former Marine with a tightly groomed beard and tattoos of shields and a Puerto Rican flag on his wide biceps. William DeJesus grew up in Philadelphia, and upon completing his service, he worked his way up the ranks in Fort Lauderdale solving tough homicide cases. He can crack wise in Spanish or English, but most of the time, he speaks in a thick legalese.
"The first time, the person of interest simply reported the deceased as a sick person," DeJesus says. The police didn't even save the 911 tape. "It wasn't so suspicious until it happened again within four months."
Still, officers examined the scene. They found Rich's apartment cluttered, but they didn't see any sign of a struggle. Rich explained that Brianna had a problem with alcohol and sometimes abused Xanax but that he hadn't seen her take anything while they were together. Then he showed police an empty brown pill bottle in her purse.
Rich said Brianna had come over the day before and they'd gone to Dave & Buster's for dinner and drinks. He said they came home and went to bed at midnight, but both woke up around 5 a.m. throwing up. He said that they stayed at home all day Saturday and that he started feeling better. But Brianna stayed in bed, complaining alternately between feeling too warm and too cold.
He explained that when he checked on her at 9:30, Brianna was awake and coherent. He ordered some food. But when he went back at 10:30, she was pale and her lips were blue. He noticed she wasn't breathing and had a clear liquid coming from her mouth.
Brianna never regained consciousness. She died four days later.
Investigators ordered an autopsy and a toxicology report. The official cause of death is listed as multisystem organ failure brought on by pneumonia and complicated by the acute administration of Xanax. But the autopsy report doesn't say what caused the pneumonia.
"Healthy young women don't just catch pneumonia in South Florida," DeJesus says. "It's brought on by other factors."
In addition to the Xanax in her system, the medical examiner found cocaine, marijuana, and oxycodone — which could be either Roxies or OxyContin.
At Brianna's funeral a few days later, Rich wore a black suit and dark sunglasses and sat near Brianna's mom. Friends noticed Rich was there with a new girl he'd started seeing recently: a 19-year-old blond named Casey DiStefano.
For Valentine's Day — less than three weeks after Brianna died — Rich bought Casey a pink miniskirt and a silver necklace with a heart-shaped silver pendant. Casey told friends that Rich took her to expensive restaurants and bought her designer dresses and handbags.
It was like Casey was living out the fairy tales she loved as a little girl. Back then, she wanted to see any movie with a princess. Her mom and dad divorced when she was young, and each married someone new within a few years. Casey liked making jewelry and kayaking. She started dancing anytime she heard Britney Spears' "Toxic." Though she grew up in New York Giants country, she fantasized about being a Miami Dolphins cheerleader.
"She said she knew she wanted to be a trophy wife and marry a football player," says Emily Calefati, one of Casey's best friends since kindergarten. "She was always attracted to a more expensive lifestyle. She was the type of girl who tanned and always had her nails and hair done."
Joking around with her friends, she made up two playful catch phrases for herself. If she wanted to acknowledge a particularly glamorous or hilarious moment in real time, she'd purse her lips together and say with a thick Jersey brogue, "Casey-D — it's not just a name; it's a lifestyle!" or " 'Cause I'm a princess, bitch! Heyyyy!"
In New Jersey, Casey drank with her friends. Once in a while, she smoked weed. Every so often, she snorted a line of coke. "She always knew her limits," her friend Kaitlyn McCabe recalls. "She was never one to be reckless or stupid."
After graduating high school, she worked at a Hooters in New Jersey and talked about maybe one day becoming a Playboy model. When a close friend, Charley Bellantoni, enrolled at the University of Miami, his father rented him a penthouse in Miami. He invited Casey to come live with him and pursue her modeling career.
"We wanted her to feel free to go after her dreams while she was young," says Casey's mother, Eileen Warnock.
John Kaczmarski dated Casey for nearly three years in New Jersey. They broke up right before she moved to Florida. "I told her I thought she should do it," he says. "I told her I was holding her back."
In fall 2009, Casey moved in with Bellantoni in Miami and transferred to a Hooters on Biscayne Boulevard. Bellantoni, who worked as a nightlife promoter for a chain of tanning salons, soon introduced his friend to the Magic City lifestyle made famous in so many pop songs and movies. In October, they ventured to the Living Room, a chic Fort Lauderdale nightclub with the motto "Art. Life. Sex. Love. Music." Casey loved it.
Though she was just 19, Casey was offered a job as a bottle waitress in the VIP section of the club, which features Tempur-Pedic mattresses, chocolate-covered fruit, and individual plasma-screen TVs — all enclosed in a wall of bulletproof glass in the back of the club.
"You worry because she's young," says Brittany Robbins, Casey's cousin. "But it was something she wanted to do."
It was there that she met a VIP-room regular, Richard Lippner. And though at the time she had a boyfriend — a bouncer — Rich made his intentions known. "He told me one day he wanted to marry her and make her his," Bellantoni remembers.
As soon as her relationship with the bouncer was over, Rich started showing up at her apartment. They were together nearly every day after that. At the end of January, she accompanied Rich to Brianna's funeral.
Casey sat through the memorial, just feet from Brianna's crying family. She couldn't have known at the time, but she was looking at her own future.
Rich got her a fake ID and took her to a lot of the same places he had taken Brianna. He'd buy her shots and encourage her to make out with other women. He'd pose for pictures with his arm around her throat.
A few weeks into the relationship, she told her friends that Rich bought her a big bag of expensive, high-quality weed. "She said he got her mad pot," says Kaczmarski.
Then it was more than just pot. "Rich would buy massive amounts of cocaine and pills," remembers Bellantoni, who would occasionally join Casey and Rich at the club. "He supplied drugs every time I was out with him."
In March, Casey flew home for her 20th birthday. When her stepmother, Amy DiStefano, saw her bleached-out hair, she shook her head. She liked Casey as a natural brunet.
"Casey, you're killing your hair," she said. "Why?"
"Rich likes it," Casey said.
By April, her friends noticed a change in Casey. She was drinking more, throwing up more at clubs, missing shifts at work. Her roommate barely saw her unless he was partying at the Living Room.
"Something had definitely changed in her," remembers Mark Lowe, owner of the Living Room. "When she came to work, she was looking like a zombie."
At the end of the spring semester, Bellantoni announced that the lease would be up soon and that he was moving back to New Jersey. In May, Casey moved in with Rich.
Two weeks later, after missing a shift at the club, she confided to friends that she'd accidentally overdosed. She said Rich performed CPR and brought her back. She missed a week of work.
On the night of May 26, Casey called her mom around 10:30 p.m.
"She said she and Rich were staying at the apartment that night with some wine," her mother remembers.
Casey called her stepmother before she went to bed.
"We had just been talking about cancer, so I just reminded her that life is so precious," Amy DiStefano says. "I told her she should treasure every day and that we loved her very much."
Nine hours later, a doctor pronounced Casey dead.
Again police requested an autopsy and a toxicology report. In Casey's urine, the medical examiner found alcohol, cocaine, marijuana, benzodiazepines (a tranquilizer such as Valium) and oxycodone.
"When you hear about what she had in her system, it's like she was a different person down there," her ex-boyfriend says. "She wasn't ready for Miami."
In June, Fort Lauderdale police did something rare: They went public with the investigation into the deaths of Casey and Brianna. They released the initial incident reports and the medical examiner's conclusions. Detective DeJesus posted several times to the memorial Facebook pages of both girls, asking for leads. Sgt. Frank Sousa, spokesman for the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, told WSVN-TV (Channel 7) that they were investigating the suspicious circumstances. "We are not per se saying that Richard is a suspect," Sousa said. "However, he is a person of interest in this case."
DeJesus says he hoped going public would inspire other witnesses to come forward. He says he won't rest until he has "turned over every leaf and looked into every lead."
If police find evidence that Rich slipped something into one of the girls' drinks — a possibility DeJesus says they haven't ruled out — then he could be charged with murder. If there's proof he provided the girls the drugs that killed them, police could charge him with manslaughter.
At the least, DeJesus says he could charge Rich with obstruction for telling investigators that he didn't know Casey and Brianna had taken drugs. "He straight-up lied to me, and that really bothers me," DeJesus says. "We have several eyewitnesses who can testify to his drug use."
Rich's attorney, Melody Ridgley Fortunato, is a former Hollywood cop with bleached-blond hair and tan skin. She says Rich did not give drugs to either woman. "My client is absolutely devastated," she says. "He loved those girls. He treated them very well."
Fortunato says Rich wasn't dating Brianna; he was trying to help her. "He knew she was driving around on a suspended license after two DUIs," she says. "She had a bad drug problem, and Rich isn't the type of person to turn his back on someone who needs help. So he offered her a place to stay for a night or two."
She says that her firm performed an investigation and that she believes Casey was getting her drugs from the Living Room. Fortunato provided photos of cocaine use involving Casey in the VIP lounge at the nightclub. When asked if her client took the photos, she couldn't comment.
"Was there ever cocaine use at the club? Possibly," Lowe says, "but I never saw it at all. I'm normally out in the front, greeting guests. I don't make judgments, but I personally don't do any kind of drugs at all."
Fortunato also says Casey didn't have an overdose two weeks before her death. "That was just what she said to get out of working," Fortunato says.
This is all a coincidence blown out of proportion, the attorney contends. "The entire situation is a tragedy," Fortunato says. "But the truth is, they were party girls, and they went too far. My client had nothing to do with their deaths whatsoever."
Detective DeJesus says Rich has another petite blond whom he dated in the fall, before Brianna died. He says she's now in rehab. Fortunato says her client doesn't have any ex-girlfriends in rehab.
"This guy is a predator," DeJesus says. "He's like the candyman out there preying on vulnerable, young blond girls. We're not saying these girls were angels, but Richard was the enabler, the supplier. He needs to take responsibility for his part in their deaths. And I want to get him off the streets before this happens again."
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The girls' families use words like murderer and serial killer to describe Rich. For some of the girls' friends, however, there is little mystery to what took place.
"Anyone who's been in this scene long enough has seen that happen," says David Faltz. "Everyone's had that 'Oh shit, I fucked up!' moment. They've had a girl on the floor, or they've been at a party where someone ended up on the floor. The smart people don't make the same mistake twice."
Friends from the club scene say Rich spends more time at home these days. He still goes out, but he's been banned from a lot of clubs, including the Living Room. "It would just be too painful to see him here," says Lowe, the club owner.
On Rich's Facebook page — his chosen URL is "NotRichieRich" — he has a photo of himself in a tank top, sunglasses, and a bejeweled baseball cap, drinking on a boat. It appears a young woman has been cropped out.