Longform

A Single Hair

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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."


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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