How the Murder of a Palm Beach Doctor Brought the United States and Cuba Together

Ronald Schwartz was shot twice, under the right eye and under the right arm.
Ronald Schwartz was shot twice, under the right eye and under the right arm. Courtesy of Kathy Tenenbaum

On July 19, 2015, detectives arrived at Ronald O. Schwartz's secluded Jupiter Farms home and found him lying on his bedroom floor, his head haloed by a pool of blood. Two back doors were open, and the entire house had been ransacked. A .40-caliber shell casing lay near him. The 65-year-old retired gynecologist and multimillionaire was dead.

Within hours, investigators with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office had a suspect — 27-year-old Saul Retana Lopez, who had worked odd jobs for Schwartz until he was fired weeks earlier for stealing jewelry. Investigators later identified a second suspect — a 19-year-old Cuban citizen whom Schwartz had never met.

Now, nearly four years after Schwartz's death, Lopez is set to stand trial May 20 on a charge of first-degree, premeditated murder. He also faces charges of burglary, grand theft, and robbery with a firearm. If convicted, he could get life in prison.

As the trial unfolds, prosecutors are expected to present a wealth of evidence that includes recorded interviews with the defendant and several of his friends, fingerprints and DNA from the crime scene, cell-phone records, and cash and jewelry recovered from Lopez and his acquaintances. But prosecutors will be unable to present any evidence pertaining to the second suspect — Lopez's alleged accomplice, Marcos Yanes Gutierrez, now 22.

In a history-making trial in Havana last year, Yanes was found guilty of murder in Schwartz's death and is serving a 20-year sentence in a Cuban prison. The trial marked the first time a Cuban citizen was tried, in Cuba, for a crime committed in the United States.

"I have truly never heard of this transfer of jurisdiction, where Cuba carried out a trial of someone accused of a crime outside of its territory," says Philip Peters, president of the Virginia-based Cuba Research Center. "It's a very interesting sign that in the middle of strained U.S.-Cuba relations, law enforcement authorities have reason to cooperate on particular cases. This is, hopefully, scaring the daylights out of all scumbags who defrauded the U.S. [in Medicare scams] and are now hiding out in Cuba."

But even though Yanes confessed to Cuban authorities his role in Schwartz's slaying, Palm Beach Assistant State Attorney Aleathea McRoberts is prohibited from mentioning his admission during Lopez's trial. Thanks to the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone accused of a crime has the right to confront a witness against him or her. So while a confessed accomplice to Schwartz's murder sits in a jail cell just 300 miles away from the Palm Beach courthouse where Lopez will be tried, jurors will learn only that police have a second suspect in the homicide — and that suspect has since fled to Cuba.

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Saul Lopez worked on Schwartz's sprawling property.
Courtesy of Kathy Tenenbaum

In 2003, Ronald Schwartz was suffering from allergies and seeking a change in climate. He left his native Atlanta and settled in South Florida. He had quit his gynecology practice in the mid-'80s, when he realized he was making far more money as a stock-market day trader than he was by treating patients. Brokers called Schwartz "Blue Chip" because of his shrewd eye for investing, says Barry Werman, a retired dermatologist who met Schwartz when both studied medicine at Emory University in Atlanta.

Generous and kind-hearted, Schwartz was known as a big tipper and would frequently hand out money to friends and strangers in need. Days before he died, he was in the checkout line at Home Depot when a man ahead of him, shopping with his young daughter, did not have enough to pay for all the items he picked up. Schwartz gave him $1,000, according to Kathy Tenenbaum, a friend of more than 30 years.

Schwartz was also a storyteller. He wrote film scripts, one of which, a low-budget medical comedy called Smooth Operator, was produced in 1995. "He was an extremely smart person," Werman says. "Giftedly smart."

Schwartz was a single divorcé with no children. He used online dating services to meet women from all over the world, and it wasn't unusual for him to fly them in for romantic weekends, Tenenbaum says.

Despite his personal eccentricities and eclectic range of interests, Schwartz was politically conservative. He kept large amounts of cash in his house, often openly displayed on a table in neat stacks. He stashed gold in a PVC pipe disguised to look like part of the plumbing in a cabinet beneath the bathroom sink. The gold, friends say, was his hedge against a societal upheaval he feared could threaten his safety. If the U.S. were ever beset by riots and anarchy, Schwartz planned to flee the country on the larger of his two yachts — the custom-built, 60-foot luxury cruiser he named Blue Diamond. He kept a list of the friends he would take with him.

He owned a second home in Atlanta and, in the years before his death, frequently traveled there to receive treatment for bladder cancer, which he would eventually beat. Schwartz was so grateful to the Atlanta doctor he credited with saving his life that he set up a scholarship fund for his child and gave him a new BMW. Friends say that on more than one occasion, Saul Lopez drove Schwartz to Atlanta in Schwartz's Cadillac Escalade so he could sleep on the drive north.

"He talked about the end of life, and he had plans to do a few of the things he always wanted to do," Tenenbaum says. "He didn't want to die. And he was so excited that he beat cancer."

Says Werman: "It is so ironic to be killed so recently after [beating cancer in 2014]. I was shocked. So sudden, so brutal."

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Saul Lopez is set to stand trial May 20 for the murder of Ronald Schwartz. If convicted, Lopez faces life in prison.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office

Saul Lopez met Schwartz through Lopez's brother David, whom Schwartz had employed for more than a decade. "I washed his cars, his boats, did work in the yard, cleaned," says David Lopez, age 43. Over the years, he and Schwartz grew close. The doctor helped Lopez's mother in Guatemala; he bought her a couple of TV sets. "We were friends," Lopez says of Schwartz.

When Saul Lopez moved to Florida in 2014, he had not seen his older brother in nearly 15 years. David, who came to the U.S. in 2000, says Saul was "eight or nine years old" the last time they'd seen each other. "We were close, but then we grew apart," he says.

Still, when David told Schwartz that his brother was looking for work, Schwartz hired him. Saul Lopez started out making $15 an hour, but Schwartz soon raised it to $20. Schwartz also gave Lopez a car, a 2008 Mazda. The relationship would eventually turn sour after Schwartz accused Lopez of stealing a ring he kept in his home. Lopez would later tell detectives he intended to return the ring but never did. Nevertheless, days before Schwartz was found dead, Lopez was fired.

How Lopez met Marcos Yanes Gutierrez is unclear. Yanes was 10 years old when he came to the U.S. from Cuba in 2007 with his mother, Nereyda Gutierrez Rodriguez, and two older brothers. Yanes' father, Marcos Yanes Rodriguez, a former political prisoner in Cuba, had come to Miami two years earlier.

Yanes' parents say he was a good son but seemed to lack ambition. He attended Miami Central High School but dropped out before graduating. For a while, he worked at the warehouse where his father is employed. In the summer of 2015, he told his parents he was earning money driving for a rideshare service.

They never met or heard their son talk about Saul Lopez.

But on July 17, 2015, Yanes and Lopez traveled to Jupiter in Yanes' black Acura to party with friends. Investigators allege that the next day, Lopez and Yanes drove to Schwartz's home on Mockingbird Trail. They parked on the road and walked up the tree-lined driveway to the house. Lopez told detectives he wanted to talk to Schwartz about getting his job back. Yanes was seeking work as well, he said.

In a statement recorded December 23, 2015, Lopez said after he and Yanes knocked on the front door, Schwartz waved them around to the back. Schwartz was angry that Lopez had brought someone the doctor did not know to his home. Yanes and Schwartz exchanged angry words, Lopez said, before the doctor turned and quickly walked through the kitchen to his bedroom. Lopez said he followed Schwartz to the bedroom, where the doctor grabbed a gun and shot him in the arm.

As the men struggled for control of Schwartz's gun, Lopez pulled a Glock 23 .40-caliber handgun from his waistband and shot Schwartz in the rib cage, Lopez said.

Asked why he shot Schwartz, Lopez replied, "Because he shot me. We had an argument and he shot me."

Schwartz fell to the bedroom floor and was "moaning and groaning in pain," Lopez told detectives. When Yanes walked in, he picked up Schwartz's gun and shot the doctor in the head.

An autopsy by the Palm Beach County Medical Examiner found that Schwartz was shot twice, under the right eye and under the right arm.

Lopez told detectives he then went outside to wait for Yanes at the end of the driveway. About ten minutes later, Yanes came out carrying a wooden jewelry box, watches, a tin box full of cash, and several firearms.

The pair drove back to their friends' house in Jupiter, where Lopez told the others they needed to return to Miami right away. Lopez said he rode back with Jonathan Gomez, a friend from Miami who had driven separately to Jupiter a day earlier.

Deputies went to Schwartz's home the morning of July 19, 2015, after receiving a call from Werman, the dermatologist in Atlanta. He said he normally talked to Schwartz several times a week but had not heard from his friend for days. Deputies arrived to find Schwartz's body. "There was a large amount of blood in the area of the decedent's head and chest," officers reported. Schwartz's white German shepherd, Eddie, was sitting obediently in the kitchen, on a rug where Schwartz had trained him to stay. The dog is now in the care of David Lopez.

Both prosecutor Aleathea McRoberts and Palm Beach Sheriff's Det. John Chapman were on the murder scene the day the body was discovered.

"I knew I would be on this case the day it happened," says McRoberts, who in her 34-year career has tried more than a hundred murder cases and now heads the homicide division for the State Attorney's Office. "This was unusual, not what we see in that neighborhood. From the beginning, this appeared to be an innocent person victimized, someone not on the radar of high risk."

Despite being just 28 years old at the time, Chapman, the lead detective on the case, was also a law enforcement veteran. Born and raised in Palm Beach County, Chapman began working for the department at just 19 and was sworn in as a deputy in 2008, when he was 21. He became a homicide detective in 2014 and last year was promoted to sergeant.

Chapman says he was struck by the scope of the crime scene, so extensive that technicians needed two full days to process it. "That is rare," Chapman says. "But the house and property are so large, the crime scene was spread throughout the house, and there were so many hidden sites. We wanted to be sure we collected every piece of evidence."

Among the evidence collected were two black-and-silver jewelry boxes. One contained $100,000 in $100 bills; the other held $400 in banded $2 bills.

One of the first people investigators talked to was David Lopez. He says he told deputies he went to Schwartz's house the day before the body was discovered to pick up $200 that Schwartz owed him. But when he arrived, the money was not where he had expected to find it and the back door was open. Lopez said he heard the sound of the TV but did not go into the house for fear of disturbing Schwartz.

After interviewing David Lopez, police naturally wanted to talk to Saul. But David said he didn't know where his brother lived, and it took detectives nearly two months to track him down.

Meanwhile, Yanes, who was not yet on investigators' radar, had returned home to Miami. His parents say everything seemed normal. He appeared neither nervous nor anxious. But within days of his overnight in Jupiter, he began talking visiting his elderly grandmother in the Cuban province of Sancti Spiritus. He had some money, he told relatives, and missed his family on the island. Yanes asked his aunt, who lives across the street from his immediate family, about the cost of a flight to Cuba.

On September 16, 2015, PBSO detectives were finally able to locate Saul Lopez at a house on NW 11th Avenue in Miami that he shared with four friends. Officers asked to search his room. In a closet, detectives found a Nike shoebox filled with cash. Under the mattress was a class ring from Emory University — Schwartz's alma mater. At that point, police "decided to back out of the scene and get a warrant to search the rest of the residence to find further evidence of the crime," according to court documents.

In an interview with detectives, Lopez said he had worked for Schwartz and admitted stealing a ring from his home. Then, invoking his right to a lawyer, he stopped talking.

Armed with a search warrant, detectives returned to Lopez's home and eventually found a trove of evidence: class rings engraved with Schwartz's name and initials, a stack of $2 bills, two watches, a set of keys, boxes of ammunition, and three handguns — including a Glock .40-caliber that would later prove to bear Lopez's DNA.

The following day, police were back at the house to interview Lopez's roommates, including Gomez, who had driven Lopez back from Jupiter the day after Schwartz's murder. It was during those interviews that investigators first heard of Marcos Yanes Gutierrez. Yanes had given the roommates money and a Rolex watch to hold because he was going to Cuba, they said. Merlin Betancourt, another resident of the house, told investigators she had received a call from Yanes in July. He told her he was headed to Cuba because he "did something stupid in Jupiter."

That same day, Saul Lopez was arrested on charges of burglary and grand theft. He has been in custody ever since.

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Marcos Yanes Gutierrez fled to Cuba after shooting Ronald Schwartz.
Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office

In their second interview with Saul Lopez, conducted December 23, 2015, investigators began to hear his story of how an attempt to get his job back quickly blew up into bloody homicide on Mockingbird Trail. They also began to fear that one of the chief suspects in the crime had gotten away, maybe forever.

Although the U.S. and Cuba have an extradition agreement, it has not been used since well before Fidel Castro seized control of the government in 1959. Prosecutors figured the only way they would ever get their hands on Yanes was if he traveled to another country or returned to the States. And after speaking to Yanes' parents, they knew he didn't plan to come back.

In September 2015, Yanes' mother Nereyda and his brother Raidel had traveled to Cuba to persuade him to come home. They maintain that they didn't know he was a suspect in a murder and that while they were with him in Cuba, he had behaved as usual.

Nereyda Yanes says she and her husband learned that their son was wanted for murder only when Chapman, PBSO Det. Iris Reyes Campbell, and Miami-Dade Police officers showed up at their house in Miami's West Little River neighborhood December 29, 2015. Nereyda says officers shouted at the family and called Marcos a murderer. "I said, 'Hey, whatever my son has done, you're speaking to his mother,'" she said. "It was torture for me. I was nervous, crying."

Police returned later that day and towed Marcos Yanes' Acura.

With confirmation from the family that Yanes had fled to Cuba, detectives notified the U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI. Interpol issued a Red Alert, but Detective Chapman and Assistant State Attorney McRoberts had little hope.

Then something unexpected happened. In January 2016, Cuban officials notified the U.S. State Department that as a result of the Red Alert, Yanes had been arrested on the island. Even more surprising, the Cuban government offered to work with U.S. prosecutors to bring him to trial — but not in Palm Beach County, where the crime occurred. They would try him in Havana.

Neither McRoberts nor Chapman had ever been to Cuba, and neither speaks Spanish. But when they learned from U.S. Justice Department officials in Washington that the Cuban government would work with them to prosecute Yanes in Havana, they were ready to go.

"My initial thought was, This is a success story where we can prosecute somebody who cannot hide from us," McRoberts says. "It was either this or nothing."

In early 2016, with Yanes in custody in Cuba, a U.S. Justice Department official flew from Washington to West Palm Beach to outline the plan for cooperation with Cuban officials. Then the team waited.

Finally, in November 2016, the Cuban government offered visas to McRoberts, Chapman, and Chief Assistant State Attorney Brian Fernandes to travel to Havana to discuss the Yanes case with their Cuban counterparts.

"We were like three tourists getting off the plane," Chapman recalls of their arrival in January 2017. "We had no idea where to go, how to pay for things. It was an eye-opener for me. I had been to some island countries before, but seeing Cuba for the first time was like seeing the Grand Canyon. It was impossible to take it in. It was a complete shock to see how different their day-to-day lives are."

But both Chapman and McRoberts say they were struck by Cuban authorities' commitment to justice. "They have the same mindset we have," Chapman says. "They want criminals to go to jail."

On the first visit, the Palm Beach County contingent was advised by officials in Washington to leave their computers at home and to take only a limited amount of the evidence they had collected until they had gauged the Cubans' intentions in person. Chapman was told to leave his firearm at home as well. The team delivered a PowerPoint presentation outlining what they knew. "We wanted to give them a rough sketch of the crime," McRoberts says.

In the first meeting, Cuban officials handed their American guests a major surprise: Yanes had confessed to a role in the crime. "That was satisfying," McRoberts says. "Jeez, we thought, we were right on the money on this."

During two days of meetings, the Cubans had plenty of questions about the Schwartz homicide. Through translators, they asked about the blood evidence, fingerprints, DNA traces, and the look of the murder scene. The Americans were briefed on the Cuban criminal code and the court system, and they learned that if Yanes were convicted, the maximum sentence he could receive was 20 years because he was under the age of 21 at the time of the crime.

McRoberts, Chapman, and Fernandes flew home on a Friday afternoon feeling confident the case would proceed. Through the State Department, they sent the additional evidence the Cubans had requested. Then the U.S. team waited again. "They said, 'We'll get back to you. We'll let you know,'" McRoberts says. "But as time dragged on, I was thinking, Oh, man, maybe this didn't work out."

A year passed before they heard anything. Finally, McRoberts says, "out of the clear blue sky," Palm Beach authorities were summoned to Washington in January 2018 to discuss the Yanes case with U.S. and Cuban officials. McRoberts was tied up in trial, but Fernandes and Chapman traveled to D.C. They returned with good news: The Yanes trial was on.

On February 20, 2018, McRoberts and Chapman — minus Fernandes, whose wife was pregnant and due to give birth any day — made a second flight to Havana. After another two days of discussions with Cuban officials, the trial began Thursday, February 22. A panel of five judges, dressed in black robes and seated at a long table at the front of the courtroom, presided over the hearings. Three of the five were trained jurists, and two were laypeople, representatives of the community.

On one side of the room stood a table for the prosecution, and on the other was one for the defense. Yanes was there in civilian clothes. Flanked by guards dressed in olive-green uniforms, he sat apart from his attorney. Spectators, including Yanes' mother Nereyda, sat in pews behind a low wooden gate.

The witnesses stood in the middle of the courtroom facing the judges. Three big-screen monitors on the walls afforded spectators a look at the faces of the witnesses. Just three witnesses were called: a relative of Yanes who declined to speak, a Cuban official who testified Yanes did not indicate a departure date when he arrived in Cuba in 2015, and Chapman. Asked if he wanted to testify, Yanes declined.

McRoberts sat with the spectators; a translator at her side whispered into her ear. Chapman was flanked by a translator and a stenographer, sitting at a desk and typing on a laptop.

Chapman is a tall, square-jawed detective built like football player. He has testified often in trials. But he had never felt the pressure that came with this courtroom appearance. "In meetings with the Cuban people, everyone was telling me: 'This has never been done before.' I said, 'Hey, you can stop telling me that — you're making me nervous,'" he says. "I did not want to anger the judge or cause a mistrial. I wanted to do a better job than I'd ever done before."

In more than two hours on the stand, Chapman felt the pressure heightened because he had to speak about the entire case. He had to discuss evidence that, if he were in Palm Beach County, would be presented by the medical examiner, fingerprint technicians, and experts in DNA and blood. Using photos of the crime scene, he walked the judges through the state's theory of the case.

"Normally, we would have an entourage of 30 people testifying," he says. "When I walked off [the stand], I thought it could go either way."

In the gallery, McRoberts says, she also sensed a mounting anxiety. "John and I worked really hard with [Cuban prosecutors] to see that they understood and grasped all nuances," she says. "We did want it to go well so that we'd be seen as being up to par."

But she had doubts, especially after the impassioned 45-minute closing argument of Yanes' attorney. His lawyer — a woman of about 35 who also wore a black robe — told the judges that Yanes was a teenager at the time of the crime, obviously under the influence of an older, savvier friend.

"Wow, her closing," McRoberts says. "I remember thinking, She is so vehement. And it went on for so long. She put her heart and soul into that closing. I thought, They could start buying this."

When the one-day trial concluded, the Americans were told the verdict would be rendered in six days. Their last night in Havana, McRoberts and Chapman walked the seaside Malecón and the narrow cobblestone streets of Old Havana. They had another good dinner and popped into La Floridita, the Hemingway haunt renowned for its daiquiris. On Friday, they bought souvenirs and Havana Club rum, and flew home.

Six days passed. They heard nothing. Four months went by. Still no word.

Then, in July 2018, the U.S. State Department referred to the case in a media note lauding the "bilateral cooperation that resulted in the conviction of a Cuban national who murdered an American citizen and who had fled persecution in the U.S."

Yanes was found guilty.

Marcos Yanes Gutierrez is now a resident of Combinado del Este, the Cuban state's notorious maximum-security prison about ten miles southeast of Havana. It houses both ordinary inmates, including those convicted of violent crimes and drug offenses, and political prisoners. Unless he gets time off for good behavior, Yanes will be there until he is in his 40s. He is barred from returning to the United States.

His mother saw him during the trial and has visited him once since his sentencing. She was allowed contact during the visit and recalls that when she embraced him, he seemed to have a fever. One of her relatives, who lives hours away, visits when she can and takes supplemental food and medicine for him. Yanes is permitted occasional three-minute phone calls to his family in Miami.

His relatives remain in shock by what has happened to a teenager they saw struggling to find his way. "He was a cool guy," Yanes' 36-year-old cousin Yoanner Martinez says. "This was a complete surprise to me. I never thought he'd be involved in something like that."

Saul Lopez has a wife and 9-year-old son in Guatemala, his brother says. The brothers' mother is also there, and she knows of the charges and the upcoming trial. "It is hard on her because he is her last son," David says.

Since Saul has been in custody, held without bond, he has written two letters to his brother. David says he ignored them. He says he does not know if his brother is guilty of killing Schwartz. "But if somebody does something wrong," he says, "they have to pay."

Saul Lopez is represented by Daniel Eisinger, a Palm Beach County assistant public defender. He did not respond to several requests for comment.

Friends said their goodbyes to Schwartz at a private memorial service in Atlanta. They recalled the pleasure he took in gardening and boating, his creative construction projects on his Jupiter property, his generosity to strangers, and his talents as an investor. He left an estate valued at $52 million, according to longtime friend Kathy Tenenbaum, one of ten people — including Schwartz's father and a sister — named beneficiaries in his will.

"He was fun and funny, always telling jokes," says Tenenbaum, who cared for Schwartz after his cancer surgery. "But I think he was also lonely.

"I miss him so bad — so bad I sometimes cry," she says. "He was one of my best friends."

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Mike Clary