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The Chef and the "Amigo"

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"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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab