The Chef and the "Amigo"

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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."

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.

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Lisa Rab
Contact: Lisa Rab