Playing With Fire

On a sunny, 70-degree Saturday morning, on April 5, 2000, Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue Lt. Ray Cicero pulled into an alley behind Bond Paint Co. and smelled something unforgettable.

Cicero and another investigator had been summoned by a call about a Dumpster fire. But the smell coming from the Dumpster behind NW Fifth Street was an unusually thick, heady odor of sulfur, charcoal, copper, and musk — like "burning flesh or meat of some kind," Cicero later said.

Cicero was the first to see the body inside. It was smoldering, charred beyond recognition. The arms and legs had been tied with electrical wire. Next to the Dumpster was a red gas can an eighth full.

Fort Lauderdale police had the Dumpster towed to the Medical Examiner's Office, where workers snapped photos and began to decipher the human remains.

It was the body of a man, apparently a murder victim — but initially, investigators had little more than that to work from.

Five years would elapse before police made an arrest in the case. Now, more than seven years later, one man is scheduled to stand trial for first-degree murder.

If police have the right man in custody, the bound and burned body was the bizarre handiwork of one or more young men in a circle of friends who never moved out of their parents' homes and spent their time working sporadically, getting high, going to band practice, and dabbling in witchcraft.

If police and the state attorney have caught and charged the right man, the incineration of that body appears to have been intended to cover up a revenge homicide.

Yet the state's case appears far from airtight. No direct evidence links the suspect to the killing. And if the cops are right, two other possible suspects are still walking free — one of whom recently moved back to Fort Lauderdale.

The day the body was found in the Dumpster, Joan Sheinwald was beginning to worry about her son, Matthew Collins. The 21-year-old had moved back home, to the Jacaranda Cove neighborhood in Plantation, six months before. By 8 that evening, Sheinwald had called Plantation Police to file a missing-persons report. She told officers that her son hadn't gone to his job at Mars Music in Oakland Park that day and that she had last seen him the previous afternoon. He told her he had plans for the evening, she said, and drove away in his black Hyundai Accent.

Sheinwald couldn't shake her worries. Her son always came home or called, she said.

Sheinwald said she believed her son had come home briefly at midnight, because that morning, she noticed dirty dishes in the sink that hadn't been there when she and her husband had gone to bed. She said she was worried about him for several reasons: He had been depressed, and he was taking Ritalin.

The next day, there was a photograph in the newspaper of the Dumpster where the burned body had been found. Sheinwald said she saw it and had a bad feeling. Still, she and her husband kept hanging up "missing" fliers with a picture of her son.

On April 7, Sheinwald faxed a letter to Plantation Police. "My son Matthew Collins has been missing for three days," she wrote. "He has not called or been to work or home. None of his personal belongings are missing...

"He has a history of depression. He was recently discharged from the military for this and has been trying to get his life together. Sometimes he gets discouraged and voices thoughts of not wanting to be in this world. Also, his stepbrother committed suicide five years ago on April 3. We are very worried about him. We don't think he ran away. We think he is in some kind of trouble and are asking for your help to locate him."

On April 10, a forensic dentist identified the burned body. It was Matthew Collins. The medical examiner determined that Collins had died from a combination of blunt-force trauma to the head and strangulation.

Detectives discovered that Collins' Hyundai had been ticketed and towed from a city parking lot near Las Olas Boulevard and A1A in Fort Lauderdale. They took it to the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's forensic garage on April 11 and searched it but found little more than signs that Collins was a messy guy: In the trunk, among other things, were balled-up shirts, socks, pants, and a Navy uniform. They found no body fluids and no signs of a struggle.

Matthew Collins ran with a loose group of friends who fantasized about being rock stars. In the meantime, they worked at Mars Music, the Peace Pipe, and Tattoo Blues. Collins hung out in the Himmarshee District at places like the Poor House, Chili Pepper, and Tarpon Bend, which was the last place witnesses saw him alive. Acquaintances told police they just didn't know Collins very well. They were a hard-partying group, police observed, with a taste for pot, acid, Ecstasy, and alcohol. One of Collins' female friends had to leave an interview with detectives to sleep off a coke binge.

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Kelly Cramer