Nine months ago, Ron Vinci, a wealthy former car dealer, moved into a $4 million house at 101 Coconut Drive in Fort Lauderdale. Less than two weeks later, his body was found in the guest bedroom, mutilated and stuffed into a bag.
Today, the scene of his death is clean, tranquil even. A large window looks out onto a first-floor portico where electric fans turn slowly; light streams into the room through a pleated fabric window shade and illuminates the walls, the comforter, an empty patch of carpet alongside the bed.
Just outside the bedroom, through the powder room under the marble staircase, there's a secret door to a computer system that controls the lighting, the shades, and the music that's playing softly in another room. Beyond that is the bright, two-story foyer that opens onto a backyard framed by the wings of the U-shaped house. There's a pool and a hot tub off to the left.
Past the backyard is the New River, glittering, where Vinci kept his boats.
"Ron passed." That's what Vinci's gardener and handyman, Reynaldo Silva, was saying over and over. "Ron passed." His Brazilian accent, twisted by emotion, was harder than usual to understand over the phone.
Whatever, thought Spencer Gordon, a 64-year-old helicopter pilot who hung out with Vinci nearly every day. Ron passed out? That's what he's telling me? The man sure could drink; that was no secret. In fact, Gordon had been over on Coconut the previous night, watching TV with Vinci and another friend, 64-year-old Terry Leipsig. Vinci — who at 70 was wealthy enough that no one expected him to be healthy or wise — had been slinging back some Chinese food and his usual parade of drinks: gin with a splash of tonic. Leipsig later told police Vinci complained that the food, which Vinci's live-in girlfriend, Catherine Pileggi, had reheated, tasted bitter. Gordon and Leipsig left at 7:30 because Vinci was falling asleep on the couch. That was rare for him. Usually, drinking made him livelier.
After receiving Silva's call, Gordon headed over to meet the panicked gardener at Vinci's recently vacated house on Las Olas Isles that was in the process of being sold. It was late morning on June 28, 2011. Vinci had moved into the house on Coconut two weeks prior, and Silva was still taking care of both dwellings, doing maintenance and landscaping work. Leipsig joined them.
Silva was upset. They drove together in Gordon's car to Coconut Drive. Gordon punched in the code to open the gate and stopped behind a couple of workmen's trucks parked outside.
Pileggi answered the front door. She was 16 years younger than Vinci and a former Delta Airlines flight attendant. Ninety-odd pounds, with long, brown hair, she was the recluse to Vinci's extrovert, a shorts-and-sneakers woman who reportedly loved to watch true-crime dramas and was scared of the ocean.
According to a statement he later gave police, Gordon asked Pileggi, "Where's Ron?"
"He went out with a friend," she replied.
In the marble foyer, an electrician and a contractor were trying to fix the Crestron home-automation system hidden behind the powder room. The Crestron guy had been there every day for a week working on it, and Vinci usually hovered. Gordon's suspicions were raised. "He wouldn't have let the guy work on it without him," Gordon later explained.
And if Vinci were out seeing a friend, chances are Gordon — a constant presence in Vinci's life — would have known who it was. When he pressed Pileggi, she said Vinci was with "a friend from out of town," Gordon recalled.
As Pileggi alternately talked to the workers and made small talk with Gordon and Leipsig, Silva moved toward the back bedroom and frantically gestured toward it.
"There's a bag," he whispered when Pileggi's back was turned. "Ron's in the bag."
Gordon excused himself to use the toilet. Then he ventured farther down the hallway, into the bedroom, but didn't see anything and came back. "Behind the bed," Silva said.
Gordon went back and found a large, zipped duffel lying next to the window. Near it was an empty blue-gray plastic storage tub. He unzipped the bag quickly and felt... something human.
Shaken, he returned to the foyer. He told Silva and Leipsig to go back to the old house while he talked to Pileggi.
When they were alone, he confronted her, admitting he had felt something in the bag. She started to cry then.
"He's dead," Gordon recalled her saying. "He went down the stairs," she said five times. "I messed him up. I messed him up and put him in the bed."
Leipsig returned, and the three of them went into the bedroom, and Gordon opened the bag again. Inside were scrunched-up plastic bags and sheets surrounding something heavy swaddled in a sleeping bag. The whole mess was covered with what looked like damp dirt. Smelling it, Gordon realized it was coffee grounds. Neither Vinci nor Pileggi drank coffee, as far as he knew. Then he thought he saw a hand and closed the bag.