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.

Fort Lauderdale detectives got Collins' military records. He was given a general discharge by the Navy, they learned, after he'd become despondent and suicidal while serving aboard the USS Stennis, where he shut down one of the ship's nuclear reactors while the ship was under way.

He'd come home to get his life together, his mother said. He got the job at Mars Music. Coworkers said he wanted to be a guitarist in a rock band.

Mark Lichtenberg Jr. worked with Collins and occasionally played pool with him, he told police, but he didn't know Collins very well and thought he was flaky.

Lichtenberg said he bought a pool cue from Collins for $350. Then, he said, a few days later, Collins started calling and pestering him, saying he wanted the cue back so he could sell it for more money. Lichtenberg's father told police that his son had not paid Collins for the cue and that Collins had phoned their home several times, upset and asking for the money. Collins' mother said her son had an appointment to settle the disagreement over the cue — set for the day after he was found in the Dumpster.

Candice Moreland, another friend of Collins', told police that some mutual friends were angry with Collins about the pool-cue disagreement and because they suspected Collins had stolen a guitar and some pot from one of them.

After the killing, Lichtenberg moved to Maryland for a spell, where he stayed with Anthony Marcano, who claimed to be a high priest in Stregheria, a form of witchcraft with Italian and pagan roots. Meanwhile, the trail of Collins' killer or killers went cold.

Detective John Curcio took over the Collins murder case in 2004. He reinterviewed Collins' acquaintances, several of whom said that a close friend of Lichtenberg's, Brendan Rao, had talked about killing Collins. In 2000, Rao had failed a lie-detector test when he denied being involved in the killing,

Meanwhile, Lichtenberg had returned to Fort Lauderdale. Curcio suspected that Lichtenberg had a role in Collins' death, despite his denials. So he asked Lichtenberg to phone Rao, while he recorded the call, and to read from this script:

I got a visit from the police yesterday about Matt's murder.

They showed me a fingerprint on the gas can, and they told me they know whose print it is.

They told me that someone told them that I helped you put him in the Dumpster after he was killed.

Who have you told about what happened?

Do you feel bad about what happened to Matt?

But Lichtenberg couldn't reach Rao. So he left him a message and gave him Curcio's cell phone number as the number for Rao to call him back on.

The next day, Curcio was Christmas shopping with his family at Sawgrass Mills, the giant outlet mall in Sunrise, when his phone rang. He saw Rao's home number on caller ID. He answered and told Rao he'd call him right back.

Curcio ran to his car in the mall parking lot and found a tape recorder. He turned it on, put his cell on speakerphone, and called Rao, pretending he was Lichtenberg.

Rao, believing he was speaking to Lichtenberg, told him to leave the state and keep his mouth shut.

"Nobody was there," Rao said, according to a transcript of the call. As long as he, Lichtenberg, and their "Italian friend" kept quiet, he said, all the police could get would be "circumstantial hearsay."

"Pretend that this shit never happened," Rao said.

Several days later, Curcio called Lichtenberg's ex-girlfriend, Janice Arink. She said Lichtenberg had told her that "he was involved in a murder where a male had been killed over money," Curcio reported. According to Curcio, Arink also said that Lichtenberg told her that was why he'd moved to Maryland.

Curcio said he also contacted Lichtenberg's former roommate and childhood friend, Jamal Alexander, who said he'd lent Lichtenberg a red gas can several years ago and never got it back.

According to Curcio's reports, both Arink and Alexander said that Rao and Lichtenberg had become interested in Stegheria in their teens, when Marcano, a school counselor, taught them about the occult.

Curcio reviewed phone records and discovered that on the night of his death, Collins had called Rao 28 times. And that night, Rao called Marcano.

On February 10, 2005, Curcio arrested Rao as Rao was leaving his mother's house. At the Fort Lauderdale police station, Curcio told him he was being charged with murdering Collins, Curcio reported, and Rao responded, "Am I the only person being arrested?"

Rao borrowed Curcio's cell phone and called his mother. He didn't know it, but his call was recorded.

Rao told his mother that if police questioned her, she should say "I don't know" or "I don't remember."

"It is what it is," he told her. "Don't make excuses for me."

Two years later, the case file for Collins' death has grown to tens of thousands of pages. Attorneys have taken depositions from more than 20 people.

Rao is scheduled for trial August 13. His attorney, Craig Esquenazi, says the case against his client is "pure speculation."

It's clear from his extensive reports that Curcio does not believe Rao alone killed Collins.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Lichtenberg was at work at Tattoo Blues, near Sunrise Boulevard and A1A in Fort Lauderdale. The shop is bright inside, with the sun pouring in through the floor-to-ceiling windows and fluorescent lights in the back. A change machine hums, offering customers and beachgoers quarters for the parking meters.

Lichtenberg's medium is ink on skin. He also does custom body piercing, such as putting holes in women's backs so they can thread leather or lace through their skin corset-style.

Lichtenberg, about five-foot-eight, has an intricate red rose on his left hand flanked by delicate green leaves, with Mom written in swirly script inside the flower. His knuckles spell out Side Show. He likes the circus, he says. But the first thing you might notice about this 26-year-old is his forehead. He has horns. Implants allow him to swap out the horns when he feels like wearing little studs there instead, and on this day, he'd chosen a beige pair of studs. In both ears, he wore inch-wide silver hoops that stretched his lower lobes.

"The first time I met him, he immediately put me off," says Shelly Hall, who works at New Times and has been good friends with Lichtenberg for four years. "He has horns; he has tattoos. But after the second, third time I met him, I felt so badly that I had gotten that impression, because he's the nicest, kindest, most generous guy I know."

He is not, however, especially talkative at Tattoo Blues, at least not about Collins' death, although he is on the witness list for both the prosecution and the defense in Rao's upcoming trial.

"Somebody I was friends with maybe got caught up in something bad," he says. "I tried to help the police. And every time I tried to help them, they pointed it further in my direction. So I stopped helping them."

Hall says Lichtenberg has talked to her about Collins' killing, though not at any real length or depth. "He's just said that he knew somebody that he worked with when he was 19 who got killed and that he knew the guy who got arrested for it. Everybody in our group of friends knows about it. It's not a secret, but it's not something we ever really talk about."

At a recent pretrial deposition, Lichtenberg asserted his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer any questions under oath about Collins' death. But at Tattoo Blues, amid the inks and drills, he does offer this insight:

"If I had something to do with it, I'd be in jail right now."

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