On the night of April 1, 2006, a young chef dropped by her coworker's dorm room at the Everglades Club in Palm Beach to pass the warm hours with wine and music.
Melissa, whose last name New Times is withholding to protect her privacy, was a 20-year-old white woman with dark hair, a firm jaw, and a slender, willowy frame. She grew up in Maine and carried the confidence that comes from being at home in the wilderness. "I never saw a woman that could handle a kitchen the way she did," one former coworker remembers.
She worked a day shift in the club's kitchen, earning $13 an hour preparing sandwiches for the millionaires who dined in the terrace restaurant. Sometimes, early in the mornings, she'd make sandwiches for the dishwashers who worked alongside her or whip up bacon and eggs for the men in the locker room who arrived early for a game of golf.
That evening in her friend's room, Melissa watched Finding Nemo, sipping Chardonnay and singing while another friend played the guitar. After a couple of hours, she left and went back to her own dorm on Worth Avenue. She stopped by the room down the hall where her boyfriend, Ryan Jones (also white), lived, to give him a kiss good night, according to her testimony in a court deposition. Then she went to her own room and fell sound asleep.
Around 4 a.m., Melissa later said, she awoke in the darkness to find a man on top of her. Terrified but groggy, she tried to push him away. He pinned her arms behind her head and kept pressing himself inside her.
She kicked and squirmed, finally escaping his grasp and reaching for the light switch so she could see his face. He flipped the light off. Melissa started yelling.
"I was calling him a sick fuck and... asking him why he was doing this," she would later recall.
Finally, Melissa said, she was able to push her attacker into the bedside table. As he scrambled to pull his shorts on, she grabbed his hair and pulled his head back so she could see his face. He had dark hair, mocha skin. She recognized him from the kitchen and would later identify him as Esdras Cardona, a 31-year-old Guatemalan immigrant.
He ran out the door. She started after him, then realized she was bleeding and naked from the waist down.
She raced back to her room to cover herself. When she emerged again, her neighbor opened his door and saw Melissa's disarray.
"What happened?" she remembered him asking in her court deposition.
"One of the amigos had been in my room and raped me," she blurted out.
The Everglades Club was not prepared for such a crime. As the oldest and most exclusive country club on an island renowned for wealth and privacy, it thrives on a policy of genteel secrecy that would make Dick Cheney proud.
All employees must sign confidentiality agreements. Current members fear getting kicked out if they criticize club leadership. If the police show up at the club's Worth Avenue campus, it usually doesn't make headlines.
On that hot night three years ago, neither Melissa nor her attacker could know how badly the crime would shatter the club's pristine image. A small tear in the blue-blood fabric was all it took, and suddenly, the world was allowed a peek inside the club's strange universe of racial tensions, religious discrimination, and illegal laborers. Soon, the old guard was forced to defend traditions that had gone unquestioned for decades. And no amount of money could make the problem disappear.
Some say membership at the Everglades Club buys you the most expensive parking space on Palm Beach's main drag, Worth Avenue. For about $10,000 a year, members gain access to the 18-hole golf course, tennis and croquet courts, and the dining areas where a live band plays nearly every night. From the street, the club's cream-colored Mediterranean buildings, complete with Spanish-tile roofs, turrets, and bell tower, look stately and historic. The public is not allowed past the carefully guarded driveway, but old black-and-white photos show interior rooms with vaulted ceilings and crystal chandeliers. Nestled on the Intracoastal Waterway, the club is a coveted spot for holding lavish weddings and events.
But the physical amenities have never been the real draw. Membership at the Everglades Club is about prestige. People pay to join an elite social circle steeped in glamorous history.
The Everglades' roots reach back nearly a century. Paris Singer, whose father, Isaac, made millions off the sewing machine that bore his name, hired architect Addison Mizner to build a hospital on Worth Avenue for returning World War I veterans. But the hospital never opened, and in 1919, Singer turned the sprawling estate into the island's first private club. Over the years, the Everglades' reputation and membership roster would become legendary — and not always for complimentary reasons. It was known just as much for whom it excluded as for whom it welcomed to red carpet events.
Joseph Kennedy, father of the slain president, was a member, but he resigned in the early '60s to avoid scrutiny for belonging to a club known for excluding blacks and Jewish people. Renowned socialite C.Z. Guest once told a reporter that she and her husband were temporarily suspended from the club after they brought Jewish guests — Estee Lauder and her husband — to a party there in 1972. And Kleenex heir James Kimberly talked of how he and Sammy Davis Jr. once showed up together at the club only to have a doorman escort them back to the parking lot.
In 1959, wealthy Jewish people on the island founded their own club, the Palm Beach Country Club, and the social circles of the super-rich remained segregated for decades.
Today, Everglades members insist they're more welcoming to wealthy people of all stripes. Rush Limbaugh is a member, as is Palm Beach Town Council President David Rosow, who attends a Catholic church but had Russian Jewish grandparents. Still, because of the club's aura of secrecy, it's tough to know how far the Everglades has evolved. A list of the all-male board of directors is publicly available, but a full membership roster — which in 2008 included 953 people — is not.
To join the Everglades Club, a prospective member must be sponsored by two existing members. Then the nominee's name is posted inside so that if anyone objects, he can protest his or her membership by writing to the admissions committee. There's an application form that asks the prospective member's occupation and what other clubs he belongs to. On top of that, there are interviews and a trial membership period before a person can be admitted as a regular member.
One longtime club member, who did not want his name printed, says that "there are a lot" of Jewish members but that they don't tout their religious affiliation. He says it's akin to U.S. military policy toward homosexual soldiers: Don't ask, don't tell.
"As far as the majority of the members are concerned, it's not an issue," he says.
The member says he doesn't recall any black people expressing interest in joining. (The island's population is only 2.4 percent black, according to U.S. Census data from 2000.) But if they ever did, "I would hope they'd be treated like anybody else," he says.
William Pannill, president of the Everglades Club, confirmed that no black person has ever been put up for membership. But he says he's brought black guests to the club. "In the last 16 to 17 years I've been involved, there hasn't been one incident of any Jewish guest or black guest being turned away from the club," Pannill says. "We have nothing against blacks; we have nothing against Jews."
Daily life on the club's campus, however, doesn't conjure visions of a charming melting pot. One former employee, who left the club this year, says the only time he saw a black person on the golf course was during the one day a year when employees were allowed to play. Another former employee explains that black workers are given jobs that do not require them to interact much with members, such as trimming trees.
Racial divisions are reinforced by the housing arrangements. During the tourist season, the club has 300 employees on its payroll, and about half of them live in free housing across Worth Avenue from the main campus. The dorms, by many accounts, are cramped and hot, with no central air conditioning. Communal bathrooms serve 30 or 40 people.
Employees are divided into the three buildings according to their job assignments, club human resources director Tami Hubbard explained in a court deposition. Their jobs also tend to divide them along racial and ethnic lines.
During Melissa's tenure at the club, chefs such as she were housed in one dorm. Waiters and waitresses, including a sizable population of young Romanian servers, lived in another building. A third building was occupied by all men — dishwashers, busboys, and valets — most of whom were Latino.
This division of labor isn't particularly strange for the restaurant business, but the hierarchy did have some peculiar manifestations at the Everglades Club. Melissa came from the world of private clubs and pedigreed training. She earned an associate's degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University and, after working as a pantry chef (responsible for cold dishes like salads) at the tony Fishers Island Club in New York, was recommended for a job at the Everglades. Meanwhile, Cardona was an undocumented immigrant whose job application didn't mention previous education or employment.
Melissa and her friends in the kitchen had to wear nametags on their uniforms, but the dishwashers, busboys, and valets did not. Hubbard explained in her deposition that this was because they didn't have much contact with members. But it also meant that, if the men didn't speak English, some of their coworkers in the kitchen never learned their names. Melissa and Jones both testified that they simply called the Latino workers "amigos."
"All the illegals, we would call them amigos," Jones said in a court deposition.
Melissa had experienced some awkward moments with her Latino coworkers. One afternoon, when she was getting dressed in her room after showering, she noticed a group of men sitting on a wall across the street looking up through her open window. "It made me uncomfortable," she later testified. (Responding to a phone message left at her parents' home, Melissa declined to be interviewed for this article.)
It happened a few times, Melissa said, so once, she waved to be sure the men were targeting her. When they waved back, she reported the problem to the head of housekeeping. After that, "I didn't see them out there anymore," Melissa testified.
Jones, who worked as a broiler cook, had a friendlier relationship with some of the dishwashers. One short, mustached man seemed to know that Jones and Melissa were a couple. "Where Melissa?" Jones said the man sometimes asked in his limited English. "She beautiful."
One afternoon, the man saw Jones walking toward his truck with his fishing gear. "Where Melissa?" the man asked, and when Jones explained that she was working, the man asked to be Jones' fishing partner. "I come?" Jones remembered him saying.
They got in Jones' truck and dropped lines off the center bridge to the island. Jones testified that he showed the man how to fish, but then the conversation died. "The language barrier," Jones explained. They fished silently for about 20 minutes before returning to the club. Nothing was biting.
The whole afternoon, Jones testified, he never bothered to ask the man's name. It would be months before he learned it was Esdras Cardona.
For Cardona, the Everglades Club was a foreign universe. He grew up in Guatemala as one of nine siblings and immigrated to the United States several years ago to work in a jewelry factory near his sister's home in Rhode Island. He was a quiet, humble guy who was shy around women and didn't drink or smoke, according to his sister Amalia Pineda and other friends. The season before Melissa arrived, he took a job at the Everglades Club because three of his brothers worked there.
Cardona enjoyed the work, dutifully sending a slice of his $7-an-hour paycheck back home to Guatemala to help his sick mother. Free time was spent riding his bike, relaxing at the beach, or going to church. He was dedicated to his faith, often showing up at Iglesia Cristiana Fuente de Poder in West Palm Beach three times a week — prayer night on Tuesdays, youth night on Fridays, and of course Sundays — said a friend from church, Nilsa Arias.
Arias and her husband would give Cardona rides to church and invite him to their family events. Cardona was timid and polite, Arias says. "He never talks; he never says anything," Arias remembers her teenaged daughter saying. "Unless you approached him, he would never approach you."
Later, his bondswoman, Alma Mariles, would remember that Cardona never looked her in the eye, keeping his gaze down in what she took as a sign of respect.
It's unclear exactly how well Cardona knew Melissa. At his criminal trial, he first testified that he knew her from working at the club. Then he said he had never seen her around campus until the night before the attack, when he saw her drinking with a friend in one of the dorms. Later, he said, "I would see her going into different buildings. I did not know where she lived."
He did, however, know who she was dating. He testified that when the police told him she was friends with Ryan Jones, he "told the police that she was not a friend of Ryan's, that she was his girlfriend."
The night before Melissa was attacked, Cardona said he got off work around 11:30 p.m. After that, his account of events is confusing. His lawyer, Michael Amezaga, posed questions that were translated into Spanish, but Cardona either didn't understand them or gave conflicting answers.
"What did you do after you got out of work?" Amezaga asked.
"I went to my room," Cardona replied.
"And what did you do in your room?
"I was about 50 minutes. I was about half an hour."
"What did you do during that half an hour?"
"I was watching wrestling with my brothers," Cardona said.
"What did you do after that half an hour?"
"I went to my room," Cardona replied.
"Weren't you in your room already?" Amezaga asked.
"No, I was in my brother's room watching TV."
After he left his brother's room, Cardona said, he went back to his own room for a while, then up to a friend's room to listen to music and help the friend pack some boxes, for "approximately an hour and a half."
Then, "I told my friend it was late and I was going to my room," Cardona testified.
He fell asleep. The next thing he knew, he was awakened by a knock on his door. It was his boss and a swarm of police officers telling him "that I was suspected of raping a woman underage."
The morning of the assault, Melissa's boyfriend, Jones, woke to find her outside his door, screaming. "There was no calming her down," he later testified. "I mean, she was shaking and crying, and she didn't want to be touched. You know, I'd never seen her like this. She was a mess."
He called 911 and waited for police to arrive. They found Melissa huddled in the fetal position on the dorm floor.
"I just remember being curled up in a ball and just staying there and crying. And I remember the police trying to talk to me, and I just couldn't stop crying," Melissa testified in a deposition.
She told the cops that her attacker was a Latino man about five foot four inches tall, very thin, wearing dark-blue shorts. She recognized him as a dishwasher from work, according to a probable-cause affidavit. The police showed her pictures, provided by the club, of 16 men who worked as dishwashers. Melissa swiftly picked Cardona's photo.
Police officers escorted her to Columbia Hospital, where she was swabbed to provide evidence for a rape kit. They also collected a white men's Hanes T-shirt left on her bed.
Soon, her parents flew down from Maine, and she was allowed to take a few days off. She also received permission to move into her boyfriend Jones' room for the rest of the season.
Melissa testified in a deposition that the day before she was planning to return to work, she met with Scott Lese, general manager of the club, in his office. She said he was concerned by the publicity her attack had received. "You know this was in two newspapers?" he told her.
He reminded her that she had signed a confidentiality agreement, "that the club did not want any [further] media attention regarding this incident and that I should not discuss matters relating to the club with anyone," she later testified. "If I did, I would lose my job."
In court, Lese denied talking to Melissa about the newspaper coverage of her attack. "That's not the way I recall it happening," he testified. Instead, he says, he met with Melissa and her parents to "let them know whatever we could do to help Melissa through this difficult time, we would do." He told them that she could stay and work if she wanted or leave and that he would understand either way.
"I'm very sorry that this happened," he claimed he said. "I try to look at our employees as if they were my own family."
Regardless of how the conversation played out, Melissa kept her job for the rest of the season. But her boyfriend lost his. Jones testified that soon after the assault, he told James Masterson, executive chef at the club, that he was going to alert immigration officials about the illegal immigrants working at the Everglades Club.
Jones claimed Masterson replied, "Do what you have to do at the end of the season, but don't do it now, because we'll all be washing dishes."
Dutifully, Jones kept his mouth shut and thought his job was secure until he got a phone call from Masterson just after the season ended, while he was driving home to Maine for a break. Masterson had promised Jones a summer job alongside him as a sous chef at the Wianno Club, a historic country club in Osterville, Massachusetts. The position would be a promotion for Jones and guaranteed him a better job next year at the Everglades. Or at least, he thought it did.
"I have some bad news," Jones remembered Masterson saying when he called. "I can't have you come to Wianno this summer."
"Why not?" Jones asked.
"Because of recent events," Jones said he was told.
The only event Jones could think of was the assault on his girlfriend.
Meanwhile, in the months leading up to Cardona's June 2007 trial, the details of the case grew cloudy. Cardona's lawyers began to question whether Melissa had identified the wrong man as her attacker.
Forensic analysts at the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office did not find any useful DNA evidence in Melissa's rape kit — no semen, no male skin underneath her fingernails. As for the T-shirt found at the crime scene, it was the same style and brand as one the police found in Cardona's room. But Cardona testified that most dishwashers at the Everglades wore white T-shirts — how could they know which one was his?
"A lot of this stuff didn't make sense," his bondswoman Mariles said.
The strongest evidence linking Cardona to the scene came from an unlikely source: a toothbrush left on a table near the bed that Melissa said didn't belong to her. DNA samples from the brush provided an exact match to Cardona's.
Jones later testified that Cardona had a habit of carrying his toothbrush in his back pocket, which Cardona denied. Amezaga suggested that it may have been planted and that some of Cardona's property had disappeared from his room after he was arrested.
Other evidence against Cardona was more compelling. When police arrested him the morning of the attack, a detective noticed "what appeared to be fresh scratch marks" on his neck, according to a probable-cause affidavit. Cops took pictures of the marks, which showed up on his neck and back. Cardona explained that they were due to a nervous habit.
"My neck, I have a habit of scratching myself," he said at the trial. Marks on his back were from working out at the gym, he said. "I do exercises and wear a belt," he testified.
Yet at trial, the prosecutor had Cardona unbutton his shirt and pointed out that there didn't appear to be any scratches on his neck on that most nerve-wracking of days.
Still, Cardona insisted he was innocent. His family cobbled together $30,000 for a private lawyer, and Cardona said he wanted additional DNA testing administered. But even after a judge approved Cardona's request for more tests, his lawyer said they were too expensive, Pineda says. They were never done.
Through it all, Cardona seemed certain that he would be cleared of all charges. He could have easily tried to flee, bondswoman Mariles points out, yet he chose to stay. He didn't even waste time insulting his accuser.
"I never heard him say one thing bad about that girl," says Mariles, who, after posting Cardona's $50,000 bond, became a fierce advocate for him. "He was always like, 'I'm close to God; God is gonna take care of me.' "
But jurors didn't see the man Mariles knew. They saw a man accused of sexual battery who had been swiftly and clearly identified by his victim. A man who kept his eyes down and made conflicting statements on the witness stand. Had he seen Melissa around the club campus? Yes. No. Yes. Was he watching TV in his room or his brother's room? And what about the toothbrush?
On the day he was convicted, Cardona finally showed fear. "He just vomited his guts out," Mariles says. Soon afterward, he was sentenced to 20 years in a state prison, where he sits today.
In February 2008, months after Cardona was convicted, Melissa was still looking for justice. She filed a civil suit in Palm Beach County Circuit Court accusing the Everglades Club of negligence. Her complaint alleged that the Everglades hired illegal immigrants without checking their criminal backgrounds, did not provide proper security, and had segregation policies that bred "hostility among races" that "leads to hatred; this hatred, in turn, leads to violence."
Suddenly, the club and its exalted reputation were on trial. Melissa's lawyer, Ted Babbitt, made sure to unearth every scandal he could find at the Everglades.
Six years before Melissa was attacked, a woman who worked in the club's tennis shop filed suit alleging that she was harassed by her boss. He left magazines laying around with "obscene" pictures of women, club president Pannill explains now. That suit was dismissed, but the court records have since been destroyed. Both the woman and her boss left the club.
Then in 2002, Jose Manuel Pedraza-Caban, a dishwasher who lived in the Everglades' employee housing, was arrested at the club on murder charges stemming from an incident in Puerto Rico. In response, the club began doing criminal background checks on prospective employees.
That same year, a former plumber at the club, Robert Rorick, filed a whistleblower complaint. He alleged that his supervisor, George Collins, was demanding kickbacks from vendors who sold supplies to the club. Rorick said he was fired for reporting the coercion scheme to a manager.
The club's lawyers fought hard — although unsuccessfully — to keep such dirty laundry from being aired at Melissa's trial. Knowing that her case had already prompted an onslaught of unwanted publicity, general manager Lese warned his employees not to talk to the media, according to an employee who recently left the club. Workers attended a seminar about sexual harassment and racial slurs. The club even started offering an English class for Spanish-speaking employees.
Meanwhile, club president Pannill faced the difficult task of defending the traditions of his increasingly archaic kingdom. He denied knowing that Cardona was illegal when he was hired — even though the club's human resources department had received a letter from the Social Security Administration saying that the worker's social security number didn't match his name. "We do not hire illegal immigrants knowingly," Pannill says.
In a deposition, human resources director Hubbard testified that the club had received about 40 "no-match" letters about employees from 2004 to 2006, but she never questioned or fired the people with suspicious numbers because she was worried about being sued. (After he was accused of assaulting Melissa, Cardona was fired.)
Since then, however, she's begun checking potential employees' social security numbers in an online government database, Hubbard testified. She tells people with nonmatching numbers that they have 60 days to correct the problem. Often, those people don't return to work.
"If we have an employee that we cannot prove is legal, we let 'em go," Pannill said.
And why don't the Latino employees, legal or not, wear nametags? "Two people working side by side wouldn't need a nametag," Pannill says. He's never heard anyone call the men "amigos," he says, but he's not offended by the term. "I've always thought amigo meant friend."
He said the club also hires about 30 Romanian servers each season. "It's good for them and good for us, because they are excellent employees, they work hard, they smile and are cheerful."
Pannill doesn't understand why the lawsuit caused such an uproar about sexual harassment at the club. "It's gotten so if you say good morning the wrong way... anybody can claim sexual harassment at any time," he says.
Nor did he consider the men who looked into Melissa's dorm window to be peeping Toms. "All she had to do was pull the shades," Pannill says now. "I feel like it's my responsibility to pull the shades or whatever... if I'm in a room naked and don't want people to see me."
Mostly, Pannill is eager to put Melissa's lawsuit and the ensuing publicity behind him. He's relieved that the suit was settled this April, before it went to trial.
"It happened, and we're sorry, and it's been settled," he said. But when it comes to management at the club, "I don't think things could be any better than they are right now at the Everglades."
For Cardona, the ordeal is far from settled. His plight attracted the attention of attorneys from the Innocence Project of Florida, a group that advocates for people who may be wrongfully incarcerated. Lawyers read a newspaper article about his inability to get further DNA testing and agreed to help appeal his case and pay for the tests.
Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project, said he's not questioning whether Melissa was raped, just whether Cardona committed the crime. "We want to do the DNA testing because it will give us the answer," Miller says.
In June, he won a victory — sort of. Judge Jonathan Gerber approved Cardona's request to have more-advanced DNA testing done on some of the evidence, such as swabs, Melissa's fingernail scrapings, and the T-shirt found at the scene. But because of the judge's specifications as to how testing must be carried out, expenses could top $40,000 — more than the Innocence Project can afford. "It's going to potentially prevent Mr. Cardona from getting the DNA testing," Miller says.
Cardona did not respond to a letter New Times sent him in prison seeking comment. But his bondswoman Mariles says he still writes to her and has held on to his unshakable religious faith. Recently, he sent her a Bible.
"Every day that that kid lives, he thanks God," Mariles says. "He's just patiently waiting... I will believe in his innocence until the day that I die."
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Back in Maine, hundreds of miles from the cramped dorms on Worth Avenue, Jones and Melissa have left their country-club careers behind. Jones, who worked as a seasonal chef for ten years, is now a truck driver, he said in a court deposition in April.
This spring, Melissa was working at a cell phone company and debating whether to keep a seasonal job at a restaurant. Cooking for people used to be her passion, Jones said, but now she's retreated inside herself. The girl who once partied on Clematis Street is now afraid to walk her dogs at night.
"She doesn't get out much," Jones said. "She's like a lost soul right now. She's not the same person I met three years ago."
Three years after the attack, she's still forced to relive that one painful morning at Palm Beach's most exclusive club, over and over again.