The grisly murder of an attorney turned showgirl was one of the many crimes TV reporter Carolina Sarassa covered while working in Las Vegas. It was also a story that touched her deeply, so much so that she stayed with it for almost four years and ended up co-authoring a book about how a young woman with a promising future met such a violent end.
“I really identified with Debbie [Flores-Narvaez] in a way,” said Sarassa, a South Miami High and Florida International University graduate. “She was very determined to pursue her dream, and I admired that about her. For her life to end the way it did was beyond sad. She had so much potential. “
Sarassa, a three-time Emmy Award-winning journalist now working as a news anchor and correspondent for MundoFOX National Network News in Los Angeles, knew there was much more to the 2010 crime than the eight minutes she had been granted by Aqui y Ahora, a Univision newsmagazine show. She had pages and hours of interviews and a good working relationship with the showgirl’s family, particularly her devoted sister Celeste.
What’s more, the protagonists led fascinating lives. Flores-Narvaez had chucked a career in finance to hit the stage. She was both brilliant and obsessive. The ex-boyfriend who would later be convicted of the murder and sentenced to life was a fellow Las Vegas dancer, a man so violent that the medical examiner would testify that Flores-Narvaez’s autopsy was the worst he had completed.
Sarassa was initially contacted by one of Flores-Narvaez’s friends who was worried about her inexplicable disappearance, and she would continue reporting on the story long after.
A series of emails and long-distance calls with Diana Montane, the Daytona Beach-based true crime writer, would eventually put the two seasoned reporters on track to collaborate.
The result: Dancing on her Grave: The Murder of a Las Vegas Showgirl ($9.99, Berkley Publishing), released earlier this month. It’s the gripping and often poignant tale of a young woman who fell in love with the wrong man. The authors hope, however, that readers see it as more than just a crime story.
In a foreword, Montane writes that the story should “serve as a cautionary tale to other young woman.” Sarassa readily agrees.
“Domestic violence can happen to anyone,” says Sarassa, 30. “It’s not just something that happens to others. Debbie’s story proves that.”
Debbie Flores-Narvaez was born in Puerto Rico but grew up mostly in Baltimore. Popular and smart, she ultimately earned three degrees, marketing, international business and law. But Flores-Narvaez also loved to dance and often sought the limelight. A cheerleader at Old Mill High School in Millersville, she tried out and made the Washington Redskins cheerleading squad.
Away from the stage, she worked as a senior financial analyst with various investment companies, but her heart “hadn’t been in the nine-to-five upward mobility grind,” Sarassa and Montane write.
So off she went to pursue her passion in Las Vegas, eventually becoming a cast member of the long-running hit stage show “Fantasy” at the Luxor resort-casino. It was in Sin City that she met Cirque du Soleil performer Jason Griffith. Their relationship proved tumultuous, even after it broke off.
After morning rehearsals one December morning in 2010, Debbie never returned home. Reported missing two days later, her remains were eventually found and Griffith was arrested in January. When an autopsy revealed she had been strangled and then dismembered, the coverage of the story reached, as the authors describe it, “seismic proportions.”
Sarassa, who was the first to break the story, said they awaited publication as Griffith’s trial was postponed seven times. “The book was pretty much done, but we had to wait for the trial,” Sarassa recalls. “It was hard for us, but imagine what it was like for her family.”
During the 2014 trial, Griffith’s attorneys would paint the showgirl as a crazy, jealous stalker. And though Sarassa admits Debbie’s behavior was not always angelic, she sighs when she recounts this part of the story. Flores-Narvaez, she adds, was one of those women who knew “this man was not good for her, but she thought, I’m going to make him love me. It just shows that anyone can fall in love with the wrong guy.”
Though Sarassa sees many parallels with her subject, the 30-year-old news anchor is happily married. Recently in Miami to visit friends and do media interviews, she recalls being an aspiring writer who initially didn’t qualify for college scholarships as a Miami high schooler because she was undocumented. The family’s status was eventually legalized and Sarassa went on to major in journalism at FIU, funded by scholarships from a Kiwanis club, the Miami Herald and the university’s Honors College.
She tries to come east as often as she can. “L.A. is beautiful, but when I land in Miami, it’s like I’m going home,” she says.
Sarassa has about 20 folders on her laptop with potential ideas for other books, but she admits this particular story will always be special because of the close relationship she developed with Flores-Narvaez’s family.
“If Debbie were alive today,” she says, “I think we would be good friends. I admire her persistence, the way she wouldn’t take no for an answer.”