Savage and Stacy argued in the park as the last light slipped from the sky, but there was no heat in the fight. He was just goofing around. That was Savage, his madhouse giggle always bursting from a wide grin, his jokes helping everyone pass the long, hollow hours on Young Circle.
Although it sits dead center in condo- and bistro-heavy downtown Hollywood, the circle is a way station for the young, homeless, and destitute. They show up near noon, plunk down on the grass near paths packed with dog walkers and strollers, then leave at night.
Savage, among the youngest of the regulars, never expected to end up here. The 25-year-old mixed martial arts wannabe fighter had survived the hard knocks of a bad childhood and made a fast break from Jersey City's gangland to South Florida. And for a while, the Sunshine State had been just the second act he'd wanted. He'd found a good woman and a job, had a kid, and chased his cage-match glory on the side. But by June 2013, he'd tripped up hard, just like everyone else in Young Circle.
When darkness settled around 8:30 on June 10 that year, Savage stood, hiking his jean shorts over green Sesame Street boxers. "Got to take my girl back to her crib," he announced.
Savage's lean body was a storm of tattoos, from his close-cut dark hair to the quick hands little-league coaches back in Jersey were still talking about. The ink was a peek into two decades of struggle. "Mr. Ambition" was written over his right eyebrow. Teardrops fell on his cheeks. "All I Know Is Pain," "Greed Kills Slowly," and "Nothing Lasts Forever" were burned into his back. And there on his neck, simple script spelled her name: "Stacy."
She got up too, her dark hair held back in a ponytail. Under jeans and black tank top, her curvy 18-year-old frame was also a coloring book of ink: stars and winged hearts crawling up one leg, an elaborate naked woman on the other, weed plants on her hands. Some of the work she'd done herself, and she'd taught Savage the basics. More than anything, tattoos were their strongest link.
As they left the park that night, the couple looked happy enough. For months, Stacy and Savage had been on-again and off-again, waging a war of words, then cuddling later on the couch at her place. The week before, she'd fired off ugly texts warning him to steer clear. But here they were tonight, back together.
They walked west on Hollywood, then hooked north on Dixie Highway. Stacy seemed nervous, stealing glances at her phone. At Taft Street, they headed east again into a neighborhood of sagging bungalows and shaggy lawns. Just before reaching Stacy's house on North 22nd Avenue after an hour of walking, the couple detoured into an alley stained orange from the high-watt glare of a streetlight.
That's when the gunshots rang out, four in quick succession from just behind Savage. Two bullets punched through his left arm. Two more pierced his skull. He hit the ground, and Stacy sprinted north. After a pause, his prone body violently shook again as two final rounds slammed into his chest. Savage — Duran Michael Rivera, born in Jersey, killed in a South Florida alley — quickly bled out. By the time police arrived at 9:45, he was already dead.
For detectives, the killing at first glance must have seemed an all-too-common crime: another dead thug, likely felled by the same drug culture that had left him homeless and broke. Yet Savage's life and death — as told through hundreds of pages of police records, text messages, and interviews with his family and itinerant friends — were far more complex.
To his tight-knit clan back in Jersey, the killing was just the latest episode in a saga of pain and loss, violence and drugs. Determined to understand his death, his hard-nosed older sister Adelia Rivera began following a trail of online bread crumbs through Facebook. Soon, the clues she found pointed toward a darker, more twisted reason for murder than a simple drug beef: a love triangle that had boxed Michael between two troubled, violent teens.
Her improbable sleuthing eventually helped crack the case, but it still hasn't helped solve the larger question of how did her little brother's life ended up so far adrift from her dreams for him.
"I try to be angry about it, just to go through the motions and steps of grieving, but I just feel incredibly sad all the time," she says. "I want to understand — I need to understand — why this happened."
Every Sunday, he tapped his inner MJ. The little boy elbowed his way through his great-grandmother's second-floor apartment on Montgomery Street that was crammed with great-aunts and second cousins. At the stereo, Michael Rivera hit play on "Billy Jean." As the music flowed, he broke out the King of Pop's famous move, grabbing his crotch and wiggling around to the delighted squeals of family. "Do it again, Michael," they cheered. Eventually somebody made him a little glove for his act.