Death Row

Barring late stay, Jimmy Ryce’s killer faces execution Wednesday

 
 
FILE--Juan Carlos Chavez looks at the people in the courtroom while entering for a hearing regarding Jimmy Ryce.
FILE--Juan Carlos Chavez looks at the people in the courtroom while entering for a hearing regarding Jimmy Ryce.
C.M. GUERRERO / EL NEUVO HERALD STAFF

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

Barring late-hour legal intervention, a child-sex predator named Juan Carlos Chavez will be executed by lethal injection Wednesday evening for a horrific 1995 murder that left deep, lasting scars on South Florida.

His victim was a 9-year-old Redland boy named Jimmy Ryce. Chavez, a farmhand who lived nearby, kidnapped the child from a school bus stop, raped him, shot him, and disposed of the dismembered remains in planters topped with concrete.

More than 18 years later, the pain remains for so many people who knew the family or worked the gut-wrenching case — an ache that time and a legacy of child-protection laws adopted in Jimmy’s name have never fully eased.

“I have been a priest for 54 years,” said Leonard Brusso, the former rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, who presided over Jimmy’s memorial service. “This is the only thing that I carry with me all the time.”

After the boy’s disappearance, hundreds of volunteers joined investigators in nearly three months of searches across south Miami-Dade County. After Chavez’s arrest and confession during a marathon interrogation and the subsequent discovery of Jimmy’s remains, FBI and Miami-Dade detectives called in Brusso to deliver the worst possible news.

As tough as they were, the investigators sought out the priest to help tell Claudine and Don Ryce that their son Jimmy had been murdered.

“The sadness was unbearable, but it was a relief in some respects,” said Brusso, who retired from St. Andrew’s on Old Cutler Road three years after the boy’s death. “Now we knew.”

Chavez and his attorneys have filed a number of appeals since Gov. Rick Scott signed his death warrant on Jan. 2. So far, they have all been rejected — most recently on Monday by the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

His attorney, Robert Norgard, filed another revised appeal for a stay Tuesday with the Florida Supreme Court. Last week, the state’s high court refused to stop the execution under an earlier appeal, affirming Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Marc Schumacher’s decision but has since ordered a review of another Death Row inmate’s pending execution.

For Chavez, who confessed to the crime and was convicted at trial in 1998, the final word could from the U.S. Supreme Court. But as of Tuesday, the high court still had not decided whether to hear his 11th-hour petition to postpone a scheduled 6 p.m. execution at the Florida State Prison in Starke.

The Death Row inmate’s latest state and on-going federal appeal both revolve around a claim that the sedative in the cocktail of drugs designed to kill the 46-year-old Chavez may not provide enough pain relief and would violate a constitutional protection against “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Don Ryce, now 70, plans to attend the execution of his son’s killer. The boy’s mother, Claudine Ryce, won’t be there. She died of a heart attack at age 66 in 2009.

The disappearance of Jimmy — a bright kid with a passion for baseball and chess — on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 1995, shook South Florida’s sense of security and became a national story. It echoed a notorious child-kidnapping 14 years earlier, when 6-year-old Adam Walsh was abducted from a Hollywood shopping center. Adam’s severed head was the only part of his body ever found.

“It had the same effect as the Adam Walsh [case],” said Miami-based family therapist Olga Hervis, whose two sons were 2 and 4 at the time of Walsh’s death. “You immediately personalize it. You think, ‘My God, that could have been my child.’ It stays with you.”

Jimmy vanished after he exited a school bus a few blocks from his home in the Redland, a rural area with farms, ranches, and large residential properties. His parents, both lawyers, were out of town on business. The Ryces, along with neighbors and volunteers, fellow St. Andrew’s parishioners, the FBI, Miami-Dade police, and other law-enforcement agencies launched a massive search.

The Ryces boosted a reward from $25,000 to $100,000 for any information on the whereabouts of their son. Posters and fliers with his picture were distributed throughout South Florida and beyond. The parents also went on the Oprah Winfrey talk show.

But nearly three months later, there was still no sign of Jimmy.

Then, on Dec. 6, the owner of a horse farm near the Ryce’s home grew suspicious that a handyman living on her property had stolen a gun and some jewelry. Susan Scheinhaus and her son, Eddie, entered the farmhand’s trailer and found her belongings. They also discovered a brown Jansport knapsack with a suede bottom that fit the description of the book bag that belonged to Jimmy. It also contained his school books and papers.

Scheinhaus notified the FBI and Miami-Dade police, and they obtained a warrant to search the trailer for the backpack.

Investigators also began interrogating the farmhand, Chavez, who had fled Cuba aboard a raft and worked as a mechanic in Hialeah before he was hired by the Scheinhaus family. Police questioned him for more than 50 hours, during which investigators say Chavez twice waived his Miranda rights and denied any involvement in Jimmy’s disappearance — until he finally broke down and confessed in a 61-page statement.

Chavez told Miami-Dade homicide investigators that he grabbed Jimmy at gunpoint as he exited the school bus, put him in his pickup truck and took him to his trailer, where he raped him, according to the confession. When Jimmy tried to escape from his camper, Chavez shot him in the back, decapitated him, and dismembered his body, hiding the parts in concrete in three plastic planters buried in an avocado grove on the Scheinhaus’ horse farm.

His defense lawyer, Art Koch, argued the confession was impermissible because it was coerced and involuntary, saying that detectives tricked him into waiving his right to remain silent.

But Chavez’s eventual confession — coupled with the discovery of the boy’s knapsack, the murder weapon, and the bullet that killed him — was permitted as evidence and clinched the case.

Miami-Dade’s lead homicide investigator in the Ryce case, Pat Diaz, said the boy’s murder was among the most “heinous” in his 33-year career.

“Making this case was life and death,” Diaz said. “There was no room for failure.”

In his mind, the critical turning point was finding the boy’s backpack.

“If we had not released information to the media about the details of Jimmy’s book bag, it might never have been found,” said Diaz, who ran the 24/7 probe.

As for Chavez’s controversial confession, Diaz said: “We had strong enough evidence to convict him, but the confession made the case that much stronger.”

As it were, selecting a jury for the trial in Miami proved to be a stumbling block, so the circuit judge, Schumacher, moved the proceeding to Orlando. The September 1998 trial was an emotional ordeal for the Ryce family and everyone else involved. The most jolting moments came when a female juror sobbed as a detective described Jimmy’s body parts in one of the planters, and Chavez denied his confession and blamed Scheinhaus’ son, Eddie, for the boy’s death.

After six-and-a-half hours of deliberations, the 12-person jury convicted Chavez of kidnapping, rape, and murder. The following month, jurors unanimously recommended the death penalty, which was imposed by Schumacher that November.

Michael R. Band, the lead Miami-Dade prosecutor in the case, said the Chavez trial was like no other for him and his colleagues, as they tried to stay focused on their jobs in the courtroom and win some measure of justice for the Ryce family.

“The Ryces were older parents and they built their life around Jimmy,” Band said. “You saw the pain in their eyes every day.”

Asked why this case still scars South Florida all these years later, Band, a father of three daughters, said: “How does anyone go on with the loss of a child in such an unnatural way?”

“It’s your worst nightmare.”

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