A Single Hair

Sitting behind steel and glass in a cramped room on Florida's Death Row, Michael Rivera is unable to answer this question to save his life: What can he do to prove he's innocent of killing a little girl? "If I could do that I would have done it already," says the 38-year-old Rivera, who has spent the last 14 years locked in maximum security awaiting death in the electric chair. "That's like me trying to prove to you that God exists."

Rivera, wearing his prison-issue orange jumpsuit and a yarmulke, smiles almost demurely. His soft brown eyes, good humor, and gentle demeanor can be disarming -- even if you're armed with the knowledge that in 1986 he was convicted in Broward County of plucking 11-year-old Staci Jazvac off her bicycle and killing her. Rivera's appearance has surprised people who expected to see a cold-blooded, dirty beast. Court records indicate a potential juror in his 1987 trial said he looked at the accused and thought only, That can't be him.

Any illusion Rivera really doesn't belong behind bars disappears when he describes his life before prison. He speaks of his addiction to crack cocaine, of exposing himself to strangers, of his lust for little girls. His candor can be chilling -- as when he calmly demonstrates the chokehold he used on unsuspecting victims he intended to rape. No wonder he's confined to a six-by-nine-foot cell at Union Correctional Institution in rural Central Florida. No wonder authorities have put steel bars, fences, rolls of razor wire, and armed tower guards between him and the populace.

But he might not belong on Death Row. He swears he didn't kill Staci. And he could be telling the truth.

Rivera has insisted all along that he's a victim of his own fantasies, that confessions during obscene phone calls were a product of his twisted, sexually charged dream life. It's a bizarre explanation, but an analysis of the exceedingly murky case shows the state never proved his guilt. A jury, with no conclusive physical evidence tying Rivera to the murder, convicted him based on a mountain of hearsay, some of it from the mouths of hardened criminals. The trial was a highly publicized, emotional affair, marked by the presence of John Walsh, star of America's Most Wanted, and a courtroom full of children about the victim's age. The judge, who had made damning statements about Rivera before the trial, ruled against the defense at every turn.

Though his appeals have failed, Rivera now has new hope for vindication from a most unlikely place: the Broward Sheriff's Office, which investigated his role in the murder. BSO has come under intense public scrutiny since new DNA analysis showed that the agency helped send an innocent man, Frank Lee Smith, to Death Row, and cajoled false murder confessions from Jerry Frank Townsend, who was freed last month after serving 22 years in prison for a string of killings he didn't commit. For Smith the DNA test came too late -- he died of cancer in prison.

The same investigators -- Richard Scheff, Phil Amabile, and Tom Carney -- who pinned the murder of an eight-year-old girl on Smith in 1985 made the case against Rivera a year later. The state is investigating whether Scheff, who led both investigations and is now the commander of BSO's countywide operations, lied in court to help keep Smith behind bars.

In light of these findings, BSO is reviewing four other Death Row cases in which deputies have determined that new DNA tests can be conducted to determine if the convicted are indeed guilty. Sheriff's officials say they want to make sure no other life-or-death mistake was made. At the top of the list, they say, is Rivera's case, in which a single hair could make all the difference.

Found in a van that Rivera allegedly drove at the time of the murder, the strand was the only piece of physical evidence that tied him to the crime; under a microscope it matched Staci's own sandy blond hair. But that "match" was far from conclusive, as the hair could have come from any number of people.

What the jury never heard is that the van's owner, Mark Peters, swears Rivera didn't have his vehicle at the time of Staci's disappearance. Peters, who has never before spoken to the media about the murder, says he fled town before the trial because he was scared of the BSO detectives.

Peters's contention adds more doubt to what essentially remains a murder mystery that began on January 30, 1986, when Staci disappeared. Rivera calls it his "day of infamy" and insists he's scheduled to be executed by the people of Florida for a crime he didn't commit.

Staci Jazvac was overjoyed on her last day of life, a Thursday. She loved to run and had just learned that she had made the Lauderdale Lakes Middle School track team. But when the pretty, blue-eyed sixth grader came home from tryouts after 5 p.m., there was little time for celebration. An A student, she had homework to do and needed some poster board for a reading project. So she asked her mother, Nancy, if she could run to a store just a few blocks from her house. Nancy assented, and before Staci left, they taped a flashlight to the girl's ten-speed bicycle because it was getting dark. At roughly 6:15 p.m. she set off with $3 in her pocket.

After taking a shortcut through a field, Staci, who weighed a scant 60 pounds, arrived at the Super X drugstore near the corner of State Road 7 and Oakland Park Boulevard. She paid for the poster board and started home. At about 6:30 a man named Rickey Mudd noticed a red pickup truck leaving the field through which Staci had ridden. The truck left a cloud of dust as it sped away, Mudd later told police. He also noticed the red glint of a reflector about 100 feet from the road. Mudd investigated and found a ten-speed bicycle on the ground with a still-shining flashlight fastened with duct tape to the handlebars. Although he considered the scene peculiar, he went on his way.

By 7 p.m. Nancy was beginning to panic. It wasn't like Staci to be late. So she headed for Super X and looked around the field, calling for her daughter. Distraught, she reported the missing girl to BSO, which soon began a massive search of the area. Staci was gone.

The disappearance was the talk of South Florida. Volunteers working with the Adam Walsh Foundation (named for John Walsh's son, who had been abducted and killed in 1981) distributed pictures of Staci everywhere they could. Numerous psychics surfaced with improbable theories. BSO took calls from tipsters, hearing about dozens of would-be child killers and Staci sightings. None of the tips seemed promising until a puzzling figure entered the picture.

On the night of February 7, a woman named Star Peck called deputies saying she had just received an obscene call from a man who told her he had killed Staci. Peck said the man called himself Tony and had phoned her numerous times in the preceding months. Tony, who had a whiny and begging voice, always began by telling Peck he was wearing pantyhose and a body suit. "Talk to me," he'd plead while masturbating. This time, however, he didn't beg for conversation. He told her he had accidentally killed Staci, the girl on the news. When he saw Staci on her bike, wearing "silky shorts," he couldn't resist. Tony told Peck that he placed an ether-soaked rag over Staci's face to knock her out and then dragged her into a van. The ether somehow killed Staci, he said, but he "put it in her" anyway, apparently meaning he had intercourse with the girl. Peck told deputies Tony kept repeating, "I didn't mean to kill her" and sounded very sorry for what he'd done. When Peck asked the caller where he had put the body, he first told her it was where nobody would ever find it, then admitted he'd dumped it in Lake Okeechobee.

Peck told detectives Scheff and Amabile that she believed Tony was a former employee of a company she owned that sold pots and pans door-to-door. On this lead they tracked down Rivera, who had worked briefly for Peck. A criminal-records check revealed a long history of sex offenses. It was time, the investigators decided, to talk with Michael T. Rivera.

Rivera admits he was a very sick man at the time of his arrest. He was addicted to drugs and spent hours at a time exposing himself to women and children, and his fantasies were becoming increasingly violent. On a few occasions, he'd even used a chokehold. His story, which follows, is culled from court records, psychological evaluations, and an hourlong interview with New Times.

Rivera was born in the Bronx on June 25, 1962, to parents he describes as "really restrictive and very overprotective." His father, a Puerto Rican immigrant, owned a gas station, and his mother raised their four children in an apartment in Westchester County, New York. Rivera, the second-born son, went to Catholic schools but was often absent because of illness. He was close to his mother but alienated from his dad, who was emotionally distant and drank heavily. Rivera once told a psychologist that his father "was God and mother was Jesus. You had to go through Mom to get to my dad." Rivera says this distance led him, at the age of nine, secretly to look through his father's bedroom dresser, where he found a book of pornographic stories. Rivera took the book and, while reading it, masturbated for the first time. Soon he was doing it several times a day and now considers it his first addiction. "It was like a drug," Rivera says.

When Rivera was 13 years old, the family moved to the Treehouse Apartments in Tamarac, where he was allowed to roam the complex. "Unbeknownst to my parents, it was drug-infested," he says. "Within three months of living in Florida, I smoked my first joint and I was drinking."

It wasn't long before he was taking every drug he could find, from LSD to transmission sealant. He attended public school, and his grades, which had been A's and B's in New York, dropped to D's and F's. Around the same time an adult neighbor named Robert Donovan supplied him with beer and let him ride his off-road Kawasaki motorcycle. Then Donovan, who has since died, allegedly took the boy into his bedroom and performed oral sex on him, according to court records. "I knew it wasn't right, but it felt good," Rivera later told a psychologist. The sexual abuse by Donovan, Rivera says now, led him into a "tailspin, some serious identity-crisis action."

Soon he began prowling apartment complexes in central Broward, peeping into windows, and stealing one-piece women's bathing suits from clothes dryers. Putting them on, he says, sexually aroused him and made him feel "closer" to women. He then began exposing his genitals in public while wearing the bathing suits. He'd expose himself for hours at a time to as many females as he could until he reached orgasm -- preferably while one of his victims was watching. Rivera was attracted not only to women but to little girls as young as ten years of age. At age 16 he dropped out of Boyd Anderson High School, and during the next four years, he was charged several times with exposing himself and indecent assaults on children. (He admits he sometimes would touch, but not physically hurt or rape, his victims.)

At age 20 Rivera was sentenced to five years in prison. Inside Brevard Correctional Institution, he became a self-described "Butch Queen," dressing effeminately and allowing at least two men to have sex with him. Rivera says he doesn't consider himself gay. "I don't think I ever was," he says. "I'm not physically attracted to men. I attribute it to some type of emotional attachment I was looking for, you know, loneliness that I was experiencing."

He says a sex-offender program he attended while in prison backfired terribly. In the meetings Rivera heard stories from men who attacked and raped women and children. Admittedly "weak-hearted and weak-minded," he soon began fantasizing about violence and rape. He nevertheless informed a defense attorney that he was cured. "I had all kinds of feelings bottled up..., [and] the way I relieved myself is by exposure for a temporary good feeling," he wrote from jail on New Year's Day 1983. "I tried making these women feel as bad as I do. I have corrected that part of me."

Rivera resumed exposing himself soon after his July 1984 release. He added a new vice as well: crack cocaine, a drug he says dramatically escalated his problems. He couldn't hold down a job, he asserts, and began stealing to support his habit. Around this time Rivera created an alter ego named Tony. "While Michael is a friendly and kind person, Tony is an angry, violent man," wrote former Rivera attorney Harun Shabazz in a 1995 appeal. Psychiatrists determined that Tony served as a defense mechanism, an escape from Rivera's drug-filled, sexually out-of-control existence. Without Tony, Shabazz wrote, Rivera would have killed himself.

Not long after he was freed, Rivera acted upon his rape fantasies. In a dark apartment complex in Pompano Beach, he walked up behind a woman in a parking lot and put her in a chokehold, knocking her out. "It was chaos," he says of that attempted rape. "It was like there was no order in the world." In a frenzy he took off her pants but ran away before he could sexually assault her.

He soon followed this with an attack on an 11-year-old girl at Green Glades Apartments in Coral Springs. On July 10, 1985, he crept up behind the youngster and employed the chokehold to render her unconscious. "I was really tense, shaky, and kind of oblivious to what was going on around me," he told Patsy Ceros-Livingston, a clinical psychologist who evaluated him in 1986 before his murder trial. Again he fled before assaulting his victim. Feeling remorse he went to a nearby pay phone and called several Green Glades residents, telling them the girl needed help. She recovered, but a medical examiner determined that, had the girl been choked for three more seconds, she would have died. Rivera read of his attack in the next day's newspaper. "It gave me a shitty feeling," he told Ceros-Livingston, adding that he never tried to grab anyone again.

Rivera did, however, continue exposing himself, and on November 4, 1985, Coral Springs police arrested him for indecent exposure at the Green Glades complex. During police questioning, investigators asked him about the attack on the 11-year-old, but he denied doing it and was let go.

A few months later, news broke of Staci's disappearance.

Another of Rivera's perversions was obscene phone calls -- and he was prolific. He had lists of hundreds of phone numbers and dozens of female regulars, including Peck. Rivera admits he told Peck that he killed Staci but contends the "confession" was a fantasy. He says it sexually excited him to pretend he had abducted, raped, and killed the girl he'd read about in the news. "You have to understand; I was in a state of mind and in a state of behavior and a fantasy life that was just spiraling downward," he says. "The more obscene or the more morally reprehensible something would sound, it was like a harder and harder drug to get a certain effect. Fantasizing about stuff like that... was just the next step. Another part of it was that it kept them on the phone."

The call to Peck was clearly the most damning piece of evidence against him. Yet the call was full of details inconsistent with the crime. Staci, for instance, was wearing blue jeans, not silky shorts. Investigators couldn't prove that ether was used and never even tested for it. The body had been discovered in a field in Coral Springs (roughly a 20-minute drive from where Staci was abducted), not in Lake Okeechobee. As for Rivera's claim he had intercourse with Staci, there was no evidence of rape, and then-Broward County medical examiner Ronald Wright said in a sworn deposition that he "doubted" she had been sexually assaulted. She had been found with her pants unzipped and her panties torn at the seam, but Wright testified that postmortem bloating could have caused that.

The detectives needed more than just Peck's testimony -- and they managed to get it.

If Rivera was free-falling at the time, detectives Scheff and Amabile were on the ascent. After making their names -- and winning the honor of "Deputies of the Month" -- by arresting Frank Lee Smith for the rape and murder of eight-year-old Shandra Whitehead, they were on the fast track to earning their brass.

Numerous problems, of course, complicated the BSO case against Smith, some of them outrageous. But Scheff's testimony about an unrecorded conversation with the accused now seems very suspicious. Trying to draw a reaction, Scheff alleged that a boy had witnessed Smith killing Shandra. After Smith heard that allegation, he became "very agitated," Scheff testified. "[Smith] told me, "No way that kid could have seen me. It was too dark!... The lights were out.'"

Bolstering Scheff's testimony was then-sergeant Tom Carney, who told the court he used the same ploy on Smith and got exactly the same reaction (only this time he became "hostile," Carney testified). If the deputies are to be believed, Smith made a damning partial confession to a crime he had not committed. (None of the detectives is permitted to comment publicly on these cases until the BSO review is complete, says sheriff's spokeswoman Cheryl Stopnick.)

On February 13, 1986, detectives led Rivera to the same eight-by-eight-foot interrogation room where they had questioned Smith. That day Rivera was interrogated off and on for 13 hours, the first of several grueling sessions during a six-day period. Although Rivera denied the murder from beginning to end, several detectives would later testify he had made numerous damning statements, and all of them were used in court against him.

None of the statements was recorded, but Rivera acknowledges making most of them. However, he claims they were taken out of context and made to look like admissions when they weren't.

Sheriff's officials testified Rivera had told them, "If I talk to you guys, I'll be in jail for the next 20 years." They said he remarked that "describing the killer would be like describing myself," and that he offered to detectives the belief that the murderer probably wouldn't really have dumped the body in Lake Okeechobee because he wouldn't have enough gas to get there. Scheff told the jury it seemed Rivera was talking from "personal experience."

During a series of lie-detector tests administered by Det. Thomas Eastwood, the BSO polygrapher at the time, Rivera broke down crying and admitted to the attack on the girl at Green Glades. "I don't want to do these terrible things," Rivera told Eastwood. "I don't want to go back to jail. They will kill me for the things I've done." After that interrogation police charged Rivera with attempted murder and kidnapping, for which he was later sentenced to life in prison without parole. But Rivera wasn't done talking.

The following afternoon, on Valentine's Day, deputies questioned Rivera again after an exterminator happened upon Staci's body in Coral Springs. Sergeant Carney sprang into action. He entered the interrogation room and told Rivera that BSO had the technology to find fingerprints on the body. As in Smith's case, it was a ploy to draw a reaction, and the detective got one. Rivera became "noticeably nervous," Carney later testified, and said, "I bet you guys do have fingerprints."

The BSO detectives also told jurors that at one point Rivera told them he blacked out and didn't "remember killing Staci."

While prosecutor Kelly Hancock used each of these alleged partial confessions in his closing argument, Rivera's side of the story never came out. On the advice of his trial attorney, Edward Malavenda, the accused didn't testify.

To New Times Rivera explained that he believed if he spoke with Scheff and Amabile he would indeed wind up serving a 20-year prison sentence. Not because he'd killed anyone but because any new conviction -- be it for exposure, assault, drugs, or burglary -- would likely put him away for that long.

Rivera also contends the deputies duped him into pretending he was the killer. During that game he made the damaging statements about the killer being short on gas. "I was sick already all right? I mean, I'm fantasizing about this crazy stuff, and I'm thinking, You know, maybe it's not a far step to put myself in the place of this other person and maybe give them some kind of clue," he explains. "Come to find out it was just a whole ploy on their part. I screwed myself."

Rivera contends Carney's testimony was also misleading. "I said sarcastically, sarcastically, that, "Yeah, I bet you do have fingerprints,'" he recalls. "They turned it around like I said it as an admission. Yeah, I got irritable -- I started thinking they were trying to set me up. I thought they were going to get fingerprints of mine, from a glass or something, and say they were on the body."

And Rivera denies saying he didn't remember killing Staci, though he acknowledges telling deputies he might have blacked out that Thursday night while on crack. "When we go to trial, it's, "I don't remember killing Staci.' I never said that," he states. "Jeez, if I killed somebody, I'm going to remember it. It was their suggestion, and I would reject that."

Attorney Marty McClain, who represents Rivera and several other Death Row inmates, says he's often seen police use similar offhand remarks to paint suspects as guilty. "It's the hallmark of police conduct that I find questionable," remarks McClain, who also represented Smith. "These loose comments are taken as evidence of guilt, and it always works out that they're never recorded."

None of these statements would have been made had Rivera invoked his right to counsel. And he claims he asked for a lawyer that first day but was denied by the detectives. "They said, "You don't have enough time to get an attorney. By the time you get an attorney, you're going to be charged with this, so you might as well try to help yourself now,'" he recalls. (The account of another sheriff's investigator, Robert Rios, seems to bolster Rivera's complaint. During an interview with Rivera February 18, Rios recalls, the suspect complained he'd repeatedly been denied an attorney.)

He says he kept talking because it allowed him to leave his jail cell and eat pizza and drink sodas with the detectives. "What we were talking about was like my past, my childhood, my high-school years, past girlfriends, their past girlfriends," he says, a touch wistful. "I guess they were trying to be chummy, you know, buddy-buddy. But I'm almost paying with my life for those few slices of pizza and sodas now."

The trial judge in Rivera's case, John Ferris, is retired, but remembers the case well -- it was the most highly publicized case of his career. Now 79 years old, Ferris says Rivera's admissions to Peck convinced him the defendant was guilty. "I don't remember any particular thing that proved he was guilty, but I had great confidence in the prosecutor, Kelly Hancock." (Hancock, incidentally, had prosecuted Townsend -- who was recently cleared -- prior to the Rivera case. The former prosecutor, now in private practice, was on a long vacation and couldn't be contacted by New Times.)

Ferris exhibited his admiration of Hancock during the trial: He almost uniformly ruled against the defense. The judge allowed not only the hearsay evidence of the BSO homicide squad but also testimony of a trio of criminal snitches who claimed Rivera had confessed to them in jail. One of the inmate informants was Frank Zuccarello, then a 22-year-old, smooth-talking criminal incarcerated for committing a series of burglaries, armed kidnapping, and other offenses. After his 1986 arrest, Zuccarello cooperated with numerous law-enforcement agencies, hoping for lenient sentencing. In court Zuccarello swore that prosecutors had promised him nothing in return for testifying against Rivera, but court records tell a different story: He struck an undated plea deal with the Broward State Attorney's Office that included a clause he would cooperate fully with Sergeant Carney on several criminal cases. Also, Hancock wrote a letter on Zuccarello's behalf to the Florida Department of Corrections just a few months after Rivera's trial. Zuccarello ultimately spent just 26 months behind bars for crimes that could have put him away for life.

Since testifying against Rivera, Zuccarello has admitted he intentionally fingered the wrong man in the 1984 murder of a Hollywood man named Charles Hodek. He's also been the subject of considerable controversy -- and media publicity -- in recent years for his dubious involvement in the 1989 conviction of Joyce Cohen for the murder of her husband, Stanley. Zuccarello claimed Joyce Cohen hired him for the murder, but his failures of three lie-detector tests about his testimony in the case have recently come to light. A former TV newswoman has also come forward, claiming that the lead police investigator admitted to her that Zuccarello wasn't really involved.

Ferris says he allowed the jailhouse testimony of Zuccarello and two other inmates -- prolific burglar Peter Salerno and child molester William Moyer -- because he felt the jury had a right to hear it. Ferris also made other rulings that Rivera's attorneys say tipped the scales against the defendant. The judge: permitted the prosecution to arrange for classrooms full of children to attend the courtroom as observers. Ferris says he wanted to educate the kids about the legal process;

allowed foreman Robert Thornton to remain on the jury after an investigator for defense counsel Malavenda discovered that Thornton was a member of a special club of BSO boosters who had contributed large amounts of money to then-sheriff Nick Navarro's campaign (Navarro had been quoted extensively in newspapers saying Rivera was guilty and testified against him);

allowed the 11-year-old victim in the Green Glades attack to testify in the murder trial, against Malavenda's argument that her presence would prejudice the jury; and

denied Malavenda's motion to admit information about the February 20, 1986, abduction and murder of 29-year-old Linda Kalitan into the record. The body of Kalitan, who was also on a bicycle, was discovered in the same field where Staci was found. That still-unsolved crime occurred while Rivera was in jail.

McClain contends Ferris's very presence was a conflict -- he'd presided over Rivera's trial for the Green Glades attack and had already sentenced Rivera to life in prison for that crime. Before the murder trial, Ferris opined in the Sun-Sentinel that Rivera was an incorrigible criminal who should never be allowed to "visit this conduct on anyone else." In an appeal following Rivera's murder conviction, the Florida Supreme Court ruled Ferris's statement wasn't grounds for a new trial. Two of the nine justices dissented, saying Ferris's remarks were improper and the case should be retried.

McClain also says the high emotion and publicity swirling around the courtroom assured his client was doomed. "The case is a product of the hysteria that frequently occurred during that time period," McClain says. "The anger and passion over those cases would cloud logic. You almost have a mob hysteria develop around it."

Ferris denies that. "I don't think there was a charged atmosphere at all," he counters. "I wanted the defendant to get a fair trial at all costs, although my personal beliefs might not have been the same."

The prosecution's case may have been weak, but Rivera's defense was even worse. His alibi was suspicious and full of holes, he and almost everyone with whom he associated during that time had crack habits, and much to his dismay, his best witness was nowhere to be found when the trial began.

Rivera says he spent the day Staci disappeared at his parents' Lauderdale Lakes home, where he was living. At about 6 p.m., he says, his brother, Peter Rivera, drove him to a pawn shop called Bob's Coins in the Lauderdale Lakes Mall. He says they spent an hour there selling coins he had stolen. "Ironically, at the exact time we were at the pawn shop, it was occurring across the street," Michael Rivera comments. "It," of course, is Staci's abduction. His alibi, then, puts him a stone's throw from the scene of the crime. He swears he never saw Staci that night.

After selling the coins, Michael Rivera says, he and his brother went to a nearby carnival. Bob's Coins manager Allan Krassner told deputies he was "98 percent" sure Michael Rivera and another man were in his store at around 6 p.m. on the fateful Thursday. But Krassner also testified Rivera might have come into his store Wednesday or Friday. Peter Rivera told investigators he didn't remember being with his brother that Thursday, though he "might" have been. With that statement Rivera's brother effectively destroyed his alibi. "I don't know what he was thinking about," says the convict.

Kelly Hancock told the jury Michael Rivera had committed the murder in Mark Peters's powder blue 1971 Ford van. Rivera swears he didn't have his friend's van that day. Peters also discounts Hancock's argument. In his first statement to BSO, Peters said Rivera had borrowed his van that Wednesday, not Thursday. Later he said Rivera had taken the vehicle on Thursday after all but had returned it by 6 p.m. Peters concedes his memory was shaky back then -- he, too, was addicted to crack. While questionable, both versions of Peters's story exclude Rivera from having the van at the time of the abduction. Had Peters not left town before the trial, he would have testified Rivera didn't have his vehicle.

Now living in Orlando with his wife and children, Peters says he fled because he felt Scheff and Amabile wanted him to change his story. "They coerce and they push you," Peters says. "You sit there answering the same questions over and over and over, day after day after day. Somebody else... would have told them what they wanted to hear."

He also says he feared the detectives would somehow implicate him in the murder. "I remember one of them came in there and said, "We found the body -- so you better start telling the truth,'" Peters recalls. "I had been telling the truth. I was like, "Get me a lawyer.' They tried the good cop/bad cop on me. They tried the whole nine yards. They tried to get me to admit things about a murder I didn't know anything about."

Today Peters, who has since testified at two postconviction hearings on Rivera's behalf, says he wishes he would have been at the trial. But he says he doesn't have an opinion on Rivera's guilt or innocence. He's just convinced it didn't happen in the van. "It just doesn't make sense," he concludes.

The BSO investigation focused on a blond hair and a can of lacquer thinner found in the van. Detectives hypothesized Rivera had used the highly toxic liquid to subdue Staci, a theory that was never proved. Although Staci's fat tissue tested positive for some chemicals in the thinner, the same chemicals were found in tissue samples taken from corpses of people who died of natural causes.

BSO also examined dark hairs found on Staci's corpse. The detectives suspected they were from Rivera, who has black hair, but a test showed they didn't match. Those hairs remain a mystery.

Today the only evidence that ties the van to the crime is the single strand of sandy blond hair. If there is no DNA match, Rivera's claims of innocence will be bolstered. If there is a match, it will virtually prove his guilt. Rivera says he knows Staci's hair couldn't have been found in the van, but he's concerned that Carney, who interrogated him and testified against him, is overseeing the entire review. Carney is now a $135,000-a-year BSO colonel, the undersheriff who serves as Sheriff Ken Jenne's right-hand man.

"I'd say [Carney] has a stake in the outcome of this," says Rivera, adding that he doesn't trust any of the detectives who investigated him. "It's kind of odd that only one hair was found in the van. How do I know that they didn't plant that?" But he's also hopeful that BSO will vindicate him: "I welcome any kind of DNA test. I pray, I've been praying that maybe they'll find some DNA on her clothes, on her underwear, that is testable."

Even if Rivera beats the odds and his death sentence is overturned, he has a life sentence to carry out for the attempted murder of the girl at Green Glades. But Rivera now contends he is innocent of that crime, too. If he were to somehow go free, would he return to his sexually deviant and dangerous ways? "I would be OK now," he answers. "I still fantasize but not about what I used to fantasize about. Now it's females on television or a female that I correspond with."

In prison Rivera says he's developed a routine of reading (mostly the Bible), writing letters, exercising, and watching his 13-inch black-and-white TV. He's converted to Judaism (hence the yarmulke) and has unofficially changed the spelling of his first name to "Michayl," which is the name he uses in an ad on a Website called prisonpenpals.com. "I'm not into games," he writes in the ad, "because life is too short and has gotten much shorter since being convicted unjustly and being placed here on Death Row in 1987. I need help because these people are serious about taking my life. I'm not all gloomy mind you. I enjoy a great joke and I do smile a lot, although not as much as I used to, it seems."

The ad sparked a relationship with a Dutch citizen, his new fantasy woman. "She's very nonjudgmental," he says. "She believes me when I say I didn't do it."

Rivera hopes the BSO review will provide a few more believers. "I prayed for it all these years, all these years, that the truth would come out," he says. Now it's up to science to determine if the truth is really on the side of Rivera, whose life may depend upon a single hair.

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Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman