The Chef and the "Amigo"

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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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab