In My Opinion

Fabiola Santiago: Ryce family’s long quest for justice finally over

Don Ryce, father of Jimmy Ryce, talks about the Jimmy Ryce Law from his home in Vero Beach in 2006.
Don Ryce, father of Jimmy Ryce, talks about the Jimmy Ryce Law from his home in Vero Beach in 2006.

On this night, when the predator who kidnapped, raped and shot dead Jimmy Ryce has been executed in Florida, a sentence too-long delayed, our tears are all for the sweet-faced, baseball-loving boy who got off a school bus in the quiet rural Redlands where he lived with his parents and older sister — and never came home.

Samuel James “Jimmy” Ryce: 1985–1995, beloved son of Don and Claudine.

Our son, too, for we in this community came to know and mourn Jimmy as if we were family.

Weep not for Juan Carlos Chavez, the handyman who sailed on a raft from Cuba in 1991 and had every opportunity to make a good life in the community that gave him shelter, but instead chose to unleash his demons on Jimmy, who was days shy of his 10th birthday.

He showed no mercy when he sodomized Jimmy and shot him when the scared boy tried to flee. Yet Chavez fought for his own life all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

He showed no mercy, nor expressed regrets or sorrow to Jimmy’s forever grieving family — not even at the end when he had nothing left to lose.

During his Orlando trial in 1998 and up to the last minute of his nearly two decades on Florida’s Death Row, the only thing the 46-year-old killer sought to do was delay justice, one legal move after another.

His legal team used every tactic available — including a despicable defense during his trial built on lies that he was a Cuban freedom fighter, that police coerced his confession, and that his employer’s son was the real killer.

His last-ditch appeal exhausted, he was finally executed by lethal injection Wednesday night in Starke. He ate his last meal of rib-eye steak and strawberry ice cream and was visited only by a “spiritual adviser.” No one who ever loved him was there.

Pray if you must, forgive if you can, but don’t weep for Chavez.

Weep for Claudine, who died in 2009 of a heart attack, and for Jimmy’s half-sister, Martha, who took her life two years ago — both deaths no doubt set in motion by the grief over Jimmy’s tragic end and its aftermath.

Weep for the admirable Don Ryce, who had the fortitude to witness the execution because he and Claudine promised each other that one of them would see this all the way to the end. Weep for Jimmy’s brother Ted, who was at the execution to accompany his father.

Weep, most of all, for the little boy who would have been 28 if he had been at least allowed to flee by this pedophile, who first lived in East Hialeah, working as a mechanic and starting a new life among friends and generous strangers who gave him shelter because he had no family here.

Friends who later, after seeing the familiar face on television charged with the abduction, sodomy and murder, were horrified that they had such a monster in the company of their own children, a man with whom they shared good times at baseball parks full of children like Jimmy.

Sweet Jimmy, who played left field that last season wearing the No. 11 uniform of his Khoury League team, Kerry’s Bromeliad Nursery, and had the highest batting average.

Sweet Jimmy, who saved his allowance for a $25 photo of Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino that he propped above his bed “like a crucifix,” as his mother described it to a Herald reporter back in 1995.

Claudine’s last memory of her son would be of Jimmy lying on the floor watching a Dolphin game Sunday, the day before he was abducted and taken to a horse farm seven miles from his house, before Chavez dismembered the body and buried it in large cemented plastic plant containers hid in an avocado grove.

For nearly three months, Jimmy’s family, police, and volunteers desperately searched for the missing boy, hoping for a miracle but knowing that with each passing day the chances of finding Jimmy alive dwindled.

“There was so much love in that family,” a friend who knew the Ryces before the abduction told me on the eve of Chavez’s execution.

She remembered Claudine taking her to Jimmy’s nursery after he was born and showing her the beautiful baby, which had come late in life for the couple, lawyers blessed with a second round at love and marriage when they met each other.

“So much suffering,” my friend says, “after that unfathomable tragedy.”

The passage of time never assuaged this family’s pain — nor lessened their admirable commitment to work on behalf of missing children and crime victims. Significant sexual predator legislation passed in Florida thanks to the efforts of Claudine and Don Ryce.

Nothing will bring Jimmy Ryce back, but at least now that his killer no longer lives among us, the agony of a family’s long quest for justice is over.

Read more Fabiola Santiago stories from the Miami Herald

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