VERO BEACH -- The years have not healed Don Ryce’s pain, only prolonged it.
It was 1995 when his son, a gap-toothed 9-year-old named Jimmy, was snatched from a Redland school bus stop, raped and killed.
As Ryce counts the last few days until Wednesday’s scheduled execution of his son’s murderer, his anger burns as hot as it did more than 18 years ago. And his sorrow has only been compounded by two more deaths he traces back to that first, monstrous act of a pedophile named Juan Carlos Chavez: the heart attack that killed his wife, Claudine, in 2009 — a “broken heart,” he says — and the suicide last year of his daughter, Jimmy’s half-sister, Martha.
“In both cases, Jimmy’s memory, I can tell you, was very much weighing on them at the time of their death,” Ryce said, talking about the tragedy during a 90-minute interview in his Vero Beach home. “So forgive me if I don’t shed many tears for Juan Carlos Chavez.”
The losses of his wife and daughter blindsided him, just as Jimmy’s did all those years ago when it seemed as though everyone in South Florida showed up to help with the three-month search for a boy grabbed yards from his doorstep. The abduction and horrifying details that emerged later — Chavez had raped the boy, shot him when he tried to escape, dismembered the boy’s body but kept his book bag, all at a trailer less than a mile from the Ryces’ home — marked the sad beginning of a new and disquieting vigilance that reached far beyond South Florida. Parents clutched their children closer. Authorities scrambled to create better, faster ways to hunt for missing children.
And always the Ryce family was there, front and center, holding each other up, in a national crusade to protect children from predators. Eventually, their son’s legacy would include the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction; the Jimmy Ryce Law Enforcement Training Center; a program to raise money to give bloodhounds to police departments and the Jimmy Ryce Act, a state law legislators are pushing to toughen, designed to keep sexual predators in custody even after their sentences end if they are still deemed dangerous.
Through it all, Chavez — who sowed the seed of so much pain — has remained alive on Death Row, courtesy of Florida taxpayers. If Chavez is executed Wednesday as scheduled under the death warrant signed by Gov. Rick Scott, Ryce will be there to watch the man he characterized as “a reptilian mutant” draw his last breath.
It’s a promise he and Claudine, both lawyers, made to each other after Chavez was sentenced to death. Don Ryce was the one with health problems at the time, hypertension he developed during the trial, a hellish three weeks of graphic testimony held in Orlando after an impartial jury couldn’t be seated in Miami-Dade County. To make their case, prosecutors used Chavez’s confession in which he told police he pointed a gun at Jimmy and asked him: “Do you want to die?”
One juror burst into loud sobs after a detective displayed three plastic pots that had held Jimmy’s remains. Three others broke down after rendering the guilty verdict.
Afterward, the Ryces pledged to each other that they would witness the execution and “if one of us wasn’t going to be there, the other would, for both,” Ryce said.
If the execution is delayed — legal appeals have been filed, largely based on questions about the mix of chemicals used to render killers unconscious before the lethal injection — Ryce said it will be one more instance in which the predator is given more consideration than the victim or victim’s family.
The prospect infuriates him, he said. “Most of us would only wish we could have that painless a death, as he will have… Talk about cruel and unusual, it would have been cruel and unusual to let him try and escape and shoot him in the back and have his last memory be someone standing over him and gloating over his pain. That happened to my son.”
That last sentence comes out choked with anguish, his voice breaking on the final word.
He struggled for control, steeling himself to return to the point: He has no doubt that Chavez is guilty. Police testified in the trial that Chavez himself begged police for the death penalty, writing in a note before giving the confession led them to Jimmy’s body: “My only wish and objective is to die.”
Chavez would later take the stand to deny his own confession, pointing the finger at someone else.
But the evidence, Ryce said, is overwhelming. “No one that has an ounce of intelligence and looks at the evidence in this case can come to any other conclusion. He’s the guy. He did it. He enjoyed doing it, and he’s about to pay the price that he ought to pay for having killed my son.”
Strong words, reflective of how the Ryces faced tragedy from the start, without sparing themselves and without blaming each other. Private people at heart, they went public after Jimmy’s death, harnessing their pain for prevention work. On the family’s website, jimmyryce.org, they have posted dozens of pictures of their boy’s South Florida childhood from infancy to fifth grade — on the beach, posing by a fallen palm tree, running in shorts with the dog — while also discussing in unflinching terms what they could have done differently as parents.
In today’s world of Amber Alerts, it’s hard to remember how few parents had any real awareness of sexual predators, Ryce says. “I remember how horrified we were when we first found out what the probable motivation was for Jimmy’s abduction. We were convinced he was abducted — we knew right away that he was not a runaway — and these people were trying to break the news to us of what likely was the reason. That was rough to learn.”
It hasn’t gotten easier, not really. The pain is a part of him now, as it was for Claudine up to the day she died.
“You can’t imagine the strain you feel,” he says, his hand straying to his chest. “You hear someone died of a broken heart — and honestly, you feel something going on inside. I mean, that’s as close to a broken heart as I ever want to happen. I think finally it just got her.”
They never saw a grief counselor, serving that role for each other, “which was far more meaningful. There are very few grief counselors that can help in a situation like that.’’
The years and anguish have taken a physical toll. He uses a cane now, a remnant of complications following knee replacement surgery. His constant companion since Claudine’s death is a small white Havanese dog named Ginger who wedges in next to him on his customary chair in his living room. At 70, he is working as an arbitrator on financial cases, basing himself in the Vero Beach home he and Claudine bought in the years after Jimmy went missing, with orange, fig, lemon and pistachio trees in the back yard. At the front door, a large oil portrait of a smiling Jimmy presides. It is Ryce’s favorite portrait of his son, a gift from a Brazilian artist they didn’t even know.
“The grief is going to be there, the anger is certainly part of it, and that includes watching our criminal justice system in its ugliest form. You see people working so hard to protect the person who took away the one that you love,’’ he said. “I’m not angry with everyone who’s against the death penalty — and some of them for ethical reasons — I just respectfully disagree with them.”
He has no interest in hearing from Chavez — “none” — but he wonders whether Chavez would have killed Jimmy “if he had known that he was going to end up where he is now, because he’s fighting hard as he can to stay alive. It matters to him now. I’d love to hear an honest answer as to whether he wishes he hadn’t killed our son. He reveled in it.’’
He’ll go to the execution with his son from his first marriage, Ted, 37, who had mostly stayed in the background, but helped his father through physical rehabilitation after his knee surgery complications.
“I’m very proud of my oldest son. I keep saying, look how he turned out, and I’m sure Jimmy would have turned out well, also. Tall — a lot more active and athletic than I am, I guarantee you. I don’t know where that came from.”
Ryce hopes the execution will offer some feeling of conclusion, maybe more for the South Florida community than for him. “There was sort of a sense of relief after the trial but it will really be over when the execution takes place.”
And then he will try to go on, he says, being an ordinary person forced into circumstances no one would ever want. He’ll keep trying to raise money for the bloodhound program and has just been re-elected as chairman of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Missing Endangered Persons Information Clearing House.
If he could ask one thing, he’d like people to think of his son — who would be 28 by now — as “just a wonderful little boy, 9 years old, wanting to live his life, and to remember him not as a victim but as a symbol of hope to kids everywhere, a reminder to everyone that if someone tries to take you we will look until we find you ... People are going to forget the name Don Ryce and they may even forget the name Claudine Ryce but I don’t think they’ll forget Jimmy Ryce.”