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A Single Hair

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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."

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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