On the night of April 1, 2006, a young chef dropped by her coworker's dorm room at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach to pass the warm hours with wine and music.
Melissa, whose last name New Times is withholding to protect her privacy, was a 20-year-old white woman with dark hair, a firm jaw, and a slender, willowy frame. She grew up in Maine and carried the confidence that comes from being at home in the wilderness. "I never saw a woman that could handle a kitchen the way she did," one former coworker remembers.
She worked a day shift in the club's kitchen, earning $13 an hour preparing sandwiches for the millionaires who dined in the terrace restaurant. Sometimes, early in the mornings, she'd make sandwiches for the dishwashers who worked alongside her or whip up bacon and eggs for the men in the locker room who arrived early for a game of golf.
That evening in her friend's room, Melissa watched Finding Nemo, sipping Chardonnay and singing while another friend played the guitar. After a couple of hours, she left and went back to her own dorm on Worth Avenue. She stopped by the room down the hall where her boyfriend, Ryan Jones (also white), lived, to give him a kiss good night, according to her testimony in a court deposition. Then she went to her own room and fell sound asleep.
Around 4 a.m., Melissa later said, she awoke in the darkness to find a man on top of her. Terrified but groggy, she tried to push him away. He pinned her arms behind her head and kept pressing himself inside her.
She kicked and squirmed, finally escaping his grasp and reaching for the light switch so she could see his face. He flipped the light off. Melissa started yelling.
"I was calling him a sick fuck and... asking him why he was doing this," she would later recall.
Finally, Melissa said, she was able to push her attacker into the bedside table. As he scrambled to pull his shorts on, she grabbed his hair and pulled his head back so she could see his face. He had dark hair, mocha skin. She recognized him from the kitchen and would later identify him as Esdras Cardona, a 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant.
He ran out the door. She started after him, then realized she was bleeding and naked from the waist down.
She raced back to her room to cover herself. When she emerged again, her neighbor opened his door and saw Melissa's disarray.
"What happened?" she remembered him asking in her court deposition.
"One of the amigos had been in my room and raped me," she blurted out.
The Everglades Club was not prepared for such a crime. As the oldest and most exclusive country club on an island renowned for wealth and privacy, it thrives on a policy of genteel secrecy that would make Dick Cheney proud.
All employees must sign confidentiality agreements. Current members fear getting kicked out if they criticize club leadership. If the police show up at the club's Worth Avenue campus, it usually doesn't make headlines.
On that hot night three years ago, neither Melissa nor her attacker could know how badly the crime would shatter the club's pristine image. A small tear in the blue-blood fabric was all it took, and suddenly, the world was allowed a peek inside the club's strange universe of racial tensions, religious discrimination, and illegal laborers. Soon, the old guard was forced to defend traditions that had gone unquestioned for decades. And no amount of money could make the problem disappear.
Some say membership at the Everglades Club buys you the most expensive parking space on Palm Beach's main drag, Worth Avenue. For about $10,000 a year, members gain access to the 18-hole golf course, tennis and croquet courts, and the dining areas where a live band plays nearly every night. From the street, the club's cream-colored Mediterranean buildings, complete with Spanish-tile roofs, turrets, and bell tower, look stately and historic. The public is not allowed past the carefully guarded driveway, but old black-and-white photos show interior rooms with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Nestled on the Intracoastal Waterway, the club is a coveted spot for holding lavish weddings and events.
But the physical amenities have never been the real draw. Membership at the Everglades Club is about prestige. People pay to join an elite social circle steeped in glamorous history.
The Everglades' roots reach back nearly a century. Paris Singer, whose father, Isaac, made millions off the sewing machine that bore his name, hired architect Addison Mizner to build a hospital on Worth Avenue for returning World War I veterans. But the hospital never opened, and in 1919, Singer turned the sprawling estate into the island's first private club. Over the years, the Everglades' reputation and membership roster would become legendary — and not always for complimentary reasons. It was known just as much for whom it excluded as for whom it welcomed to red carpet events.