In a dark, grainy police video, Eric Rivera spoke softly. But he was nevertheless clear about the intentions of the crew of Fort Myers youths who drove across Alligator Alley to burglarize the home of football star Sean Taylor.
“We wanted to get the money,” Rivera told a detective.
The young man’s confession, played for jurors Thursday during Rivera’s trial for Taylor’s murder, was the first time the video has been aired in a public setting.
The group believed Taylor kept a stash of $100,000 in his house but did not think he was home. After rummaging through Taylor’s Palmetto Bay home, they were briefly spooked by a noise, Rivera said in the video. But when they went back inside, Rivera — a pistol in his hand — delivered one powerful kick to knock down the master bedroom door. Somebody rushed at him.
“He was like two feet away with something in his hand and that’s when I shot it,” Rivera admitted in the video.
Taylor, a former University of Miami star who had become a standout safety for the Washington Redskins, dropped immediately without saying a word. “I just turned around and ran,” Rivera, then 17, told Miami-Dade Police Detective Juan Segovia.
The highly anticipated playing of the confession came on the fourth day of trial for Rivera, 23, who is charged with first-degree murder and armed burglary in the November 2007 slaying.
Afterward, the burglars ran off. To hasten their escape, Rivera shot out the back sliding glass door.
On their way back to Fort Myers in their rented SUV, Rivera wrapped the gun in one of his socks and hurled it into the Everglades along Alligator Alley. Then, they torched their clothes in a field, Rivera told police.
Three of Rivera’s cohorts are awaiting trial, while a fifth defendant has already pleaded guilty. Prosecutors say cell phone and toll records also tracked the group’s trip to the area around Taylor’s house.
In an interview with Segovia before his video confession, Rivera first claimed he’d gone to the movies near his home in Fort Myers around the time Taylor was killed in South Miami-Dade. He also claimed he hadn’t been to Miami in several weeks.
“At that moment, he said he really couldn’t remember much, that the weekend was kind of fuzzy or hazy and he had a bad memory,” Segovia told jurors.
But Rivera broke down after he realized another suspect was also talking to detectives just down the hall at state police headquarters in Fort Myers. Then a fellow detective, Larry Belyeu, pointed out to the suspect that “Sean Taylor was a hero to the youth all across America.”
Rivera, himself an avid football fan, hung his head low. His eyes grew watery, Segovia testified.
The detectives asked him again if he was involved in Taylor’s death. “He nodded,” Segovia said, and then Rivera spilled his secrets.
Through police testimony, Miami-Dade prosecutors have taken much effort to show Rivera spoke voluntarily and was treated decently. Officers never handcuffed him, told him he was under arrest or placed him in a cell, according to testimony. They read him his rights, gave pizza and Coca-Cola and he huffily declined an opportunity to call his parents, Segovia said.
But defense attorneys have told jurors that Rivera was a reluctant tag-along on the trip to Miami and confessed falsely, only under pressure from investigators. Rivera was “ambushed” by police as he left home with a friend on his way to school, his lawyers said.
During cross examination, lawyer Chris Brown tried to suggest investigators hid the suspects by spiriting them to the non-descript headquarters of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
“A location Mr. Rivera and the other young men’s family would never think to look for them?” Brown asked.
“Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous,” Segovia said.
Brown noted that Segovia did not record the initial hours of his interaction with Rivera, and accused police of “feeding” him information on the case until “he eventually capitulated” and gave a confession.
Segovia shot back that Rivera revealed to him a slew of details about the crime he never knew, including the description of the black rental SUV used by the burglars.
“I never, ever informed him or gave him any information about the case,” Segovia said. “My ultimate goal was to find who killed Sean Taylor, not to arrest the first poor guy standing on the corner.”
Under Florida law, most evidence in criminal trials can be released to the media and the public. But anything deemed the “substance of the confession” is exempt. Over the last six years, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Dennis Murphy has been strict in allowing the dissemination of information in the Taylor slaying.
Early on, Murphy issued a gag order, preventing lawyers and police from speaking to the media. He also closed the courtroom for certain pre-trial hearings, saying he wanted to limit publicity, avoid tainting a jury and protect Rivera’s right to a fair trial.
Lawyers selected a jury in four days last week.
During trial this week, the Miami Herald, WFOR-CBS4 and the Associated Press also sought access to the exhibits already submitted into evidence. Murphy, saying he was concerned about added publicity before the trials of the remaining defendants, would not allow it.
“You don’t get anything until the trial is over,” Murphy told media lawyer Scott Ponce.
But Murphy could not close the courtroom Thursday, when prosecutors played the tape and Segovia took the stand to detail how police got Rivera to confess.