The Chef and the "Amigo"

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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?"

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab