On a mild March afternoon, during a week when throngs of spring breakers invaded Miami Beach, photographer Luis Fernandez tried to wake up 21-year-old Julia Sumnicht, a student at University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. Sumnicht, Fernandez’s guest that week, had gone out late the previous night with another photographer to a club in South Beach.
But when Fernandez, then 43, pushed Sumnicht’s long dark locks from her face, he saw that her lips had turned blue, he told police later. She didn’t have a pulse.
Miami Beach Detective Kenny Matthews and his supervisor, Sgt. Greg Baldwin, arrived at the airy Bay Road condo to begin their investigation that evening. Her body, discovered at 5 p.m., showed no visible signs of trauma and the only pills found were a bottle of Midol and another of antidepressants in Sumnicht’s purse, according to a police report obtained by the Miami Herald. But an autopsy several months later would conclude that she had overdosed on GHB, a date rape drug.
It’s now been more than five years since state police knocked on the door of the Sumnicht residence in Green Bay to tell them their daughter had died. Matthews called that night too to offer his condolences.
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“It was like a bomb had been blasted in my house and in my life,” recalled Marie Sumnicht, Julia’s mother and a schoolteacher.
Julia Sumnicht had no history of drug use or heavy drinking, according to interviews. She liked to go out one or two times a week and had visited Miami before, but rarely had more than a couple of drinks, said childhood and college friends. Craig Smith, a man she dated in Miami, said she had never done drugs and only drank a little with him.
When Marie Sumnicht later learned the cause of her daughter’s death and that no alcohol had been in her system, she suspected foul play, she said. Discouraged by the progress of the police investigation and searching for answers, Sumnicht hired private investigators at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars over the years, buoyed by fund-raising and extra tutoring work. But while Julia Sumnicht’s last night has slowly come into focus, the police investigation has stalled. And Marie Sumnicht’s grief has turned to indignation.
“I’ve been very angry in the last couple of months, paying for someone else to investigate it, when the police are supposed to do their job,” she said. “It’s tiring and it’s frustrating.”
Records related to the investigation as well as interviews with homicide experts and others familiar with the incident raise questions about how the case was conducted. For instance, key witnesses who were with Sumnicht hours before she died have never been interviewed — a result, some say, of early misjudgments by police investigators.
Dan Oates, whose tenure as police chief began after Sumnicht’s death in 2010, said the case is getting the proper attention under his leadership.
Not long after the Herald interviewed Oates about the investigation, a police department spokesman sent an email to the Herald saying Oates had just that day met with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s special agent in charge, Troy Walker, to seek the assistance of FDLE’s cold case squad.
“The FDLE will assist our department in the case from this point forward,” said the email. “And it is Chief Oates’ hope that the participation of an outside agency will also provide some comfort to the Sumnicht family that we are doing all we can to resolve this matter.”
A tragic night
On March 15, 2010, at 12:30 a.m., another South Beach photographer, Zoltan Prepszent, then 35, sent Julia Sumnicht a text message. “So where are you? Where are you staying? How long are you staying?”
Sumnicht, who had begun modeling for fun, was hoping to shoot more photos to build her portfolio that week and paid for the plane ticket from her job waiting tables. In her dorm room at La Crosse, Sumnicht had pointed out Prepszent to her roommate on Facebook before she left. She had met him on a previous trip to Miami and thought the tall Hungarian who photographed the club scene was attractive. Sumnicht punched the keys of her pink flip phone, and replied, “Right down the street, the yellow and blue building, I will stand outside.”
They headed to Club SET, a few blocks from where Lincoln Road meets the ocean. It is a fixture on the South Beach club circuit, a place where house music pulses until 5 a.m. most nights and purple and fuchsia strobe lights create a glittery, blinding dance scene.
Prepszent and Sumnicht returned to his condo at 4:03 a.m., surveillance footage showed. Also home was Prepszent’s roommate, Jason Itzler, then 43, a self-described “megalomaniac” who pleaded guilty in 2006 and 2012 to prostitution charges related to escort services that he ran in New York. Itzler, who had “King Pimp” tattooed on his arm, also faced a slew of charges in Florida in the past two decades, including stalking, burglary and aggravated assault with a weapon.
The three were at Prepszent’s place for two hours, police reports indicate, but it remains unclear what happened inside. Sumnicht texted her name to Itzler at 5:31 a.m., as if to give him her contact information. Security camera footage showed that Prepszent and Sumnicht then left at 6:06 a.m. and Sumnicht appeared to walk normally.
But minutes later, outside of Fernandez’s apartment building, she snapped a picture of herself with her eyes shut and her head tilted forward and another with her tongue sticking out, according to the police report. When her sister Johanna later saw the photos, she was disturbed.
“Mom, Julia would never take a picture of herself like this,” she said, sitting in the Miami Beach Police Department when Sumnicht’s family flew down to Florida weeks after her death. Julia Sumnicht, who aspired to a career in sports broadcasting or entertainment, had her goofy side — she once showed up at her younger brother’s swim meet in a bathing suit over her clothes and wearing goggles to cheer him on with a friend. But she was particular about her appearance and deleted pictures immediately if she didn’t like them, friends said in interviews.
Shortly after she took the photos, Sumnicht undressed and got into bed, but would never wake up.
Short for gamma-Hydroxybutyric acid, GHB is a colorless, odorless liquid that is very powerful and may be used recreationally, but is also classified as a date rape drug. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to feel the effects. Often a few drops or a capful are diluted in water. At a low dose, it can feel similar to having a couple of alcoholic drinks. An overdose can cause a person’s heart to slow down or cause seizures or death. It’s not a common means of overdose: Including Sumnicht, only four people have died with GHB in their system in the past five years in Miami-Dade, according to county medical examiner records.
Incidents of sexual assault amid drug use in Miami Beach’s party scene are not unheard of, especially during the revelry of spring break. Yet the detectives seemed dismissive from the beginning, said Joe Matthews, a former Miami Beach police homicide detective and expert in cold cases who was hired by the mother to review the files.
“They didn’t follow any of the standards. It’s really embarrassing,” said Matthews, no relation to the Miami Beach detective who investigated Sumnicht’s death.
The day after Sumnicht died, Kenny Matthews called Prepszent around noon after seeing their texts in her phone. He left a voicemail asking him to get in touch. Prepszent then called Fernandez to ask him what happened, and shortly after, a lawyer returned the detective’s call, saying Prepszent would only speak under a grant of immunity, the police report said.
Matthews tried Itzler’s cellphone the next day. After the detective identified himself, Itzler hung up, the police report said. A lawyer returned Matthews’ call a few hours later and said Itzler would be invoking his right to remain silent.
Joe Matthews said a better strategy by the detective would have been to visit the two men right away after the body was found and talk to them about the night’s events, perhaps not letting on that Sumnicht was dead. An independent homicide expert agreed.
“You don’t give them a phone call if they could be suspects. It’s like tipping them off,” said Vernon Geberth, the author of a widely used textbook on homicide procedure and a former New York Police Department lieutenant commander who reviewed a supplemental police report of the incident for the Herald.
“I don’t know why they just didn’t confront them face-to-face,” he said, referring to Itzler and Prepszent.
In an analysis of the case, Joe Matthews said Kenny Matthews also erred by not attending the autopsy, which could have provided early clues about her death. Critical evidence was not taken from the scene where Sumnicht was found, like water bottles and bed sheets that could have been tested for GHB or semen, he said. A rape kit later showed no foreign DNA in Sumnicht, but according to experts such evidence isn’t conclusive. Physical evidence from the scene could have made the circumstances of the tragic night clearer, Joe Matthews said.
Kenny Matthews was already a 20-year veteran of the force by the time of Sumnicht’s death, though most of his career was spent in patrol. When he was hired in 1989 after serving in the Army, he said in his job interview that “the drug situation” was one of the most serious problems facing society, his personnel records indicate. He moved to the violent crimes unit of the criminal investigation division in 2006 and his annual evaluations were positive.
Detective Matthews did not respond to phone calls for comment on the early investigative work of the case.
Miami Beach police later told Marie Sumnicht that they had no evidence of wrongdoing until the autopsy report came back six months later, but Mark Overton, a former Miami Beach deputy chief who now runs the Bal Harbour department, said the proper protocol is to assume homicide and follow procedures.
“If you don’t do everything by the numbers, it’s very hard to go back,” he said.
Oates, the current Miami Beach police chief who joined the department last year, declined to comment directly, citing an open investigation. He said he had asked for the case to be reopened last November after Joe Matthews brought it to his attention.
“The case was dormant before my arrival, I became aware of it, and now we’re working on it,” he said.
In September 2011, Itzler was back in jail in New York on charges related to providing cocaine and prostitutes for $19,500 to a man at a New York hotel. As he awaited trial in the Manhattan Detention Complex, also known as “The Tombs,” he made phone calls to friends, to journalists and to a movie studio producing a script about his life, recordings made by the jail and obtained by the Herald reveal. The salve for his loneliness was to hear about his press coverage in the New York tabloids ( “Is the picture of me good or bad?”), ponder which actor should play him (“Is Johnny Depp too old to play me?”), and at one point, he declared his two great loves as “pot and pussy.”
He also talked about Sumnicht. In calls that Joe Matthews believes were staged for the benefit of authorities listening in, Itzler accused Prepszent of having a bottle of GHB in his apartment and giving the substance to Sumnicht. Itzler also said he vomited after drinking the drug, which is usually diluted, straight from the bottle. Building maintenance records show that Prepszent requested the carpet be cleaned at 2:20 p.m. the day that Sumnicht died.
A few months after Sumnicht’s death, Itzler and Prepszent would have a falling out. In June 2010, at the condo that Prepszent was renting, Miami Beach police arrested Itzler for trespassing with a deadly weapon, and days later Prepszent was evicted from the apartment.
In 2011, Marie Sumnicht hired Chris Catania, the first of two private investigators. She had researched Itzler and texted Prepszent’s friends, hoping to compel them to talk. The state attorney’s office had suspicions about both men and was not ready to offer immunity to either one, she was told.
Catania flew to New York to meet with Myles Mahady, the detective who had arrested Itzler in the prostitution case, hoping that could push things forward. The office of New York prosecutor Eugene Hurley sent the jailhouse recordings to Miami Beach police, according to the police report, but with Itzler and Prepszent refusing to speak to detectives, the investigation remained stalled. (Hurley declined to comment for this story.)
In November 2011, Matthews moved from the criminal investigations division back to patrol, according to personnel records, but would continue to work the case part time. The following March, Matthews and Betty Capote, the assistant state attorney on the case at the time, subpoenaed and interviewed a Miami club DJ who knew Itzler. But Lisa Kensington did not have knowledge of where the GHB came from, the transcript shows, and a few months later, in July, the investigation was classified as inactive.
“Evidence has not been revealed to investigators that explains the circumstances of how Julia Sumnicht ingested GHB, which caused her death,” said the police report. “As any new leads develop, Miami Beach police detectives will investigate.”
Capote, now a judge, declined to comment on the case.
Former Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Eric Matheny said a case like this is difficult to prosecute, although there would have been options, such as giving Prepszent a polygraph and verifying his statements against other evidence before granting him immunity.
“Unless you have a confession, these cases are tough to prove, especially when you have two potential subjects,” he said
Joe Matthews, who became private investigator No. 2, was unsatisfied with the conclusion when he reviewed the case files after Marie Sumnicht contacted him about her daughter in 2013.
“This case wasn’t solved because it wasn’t investigated,” he said. “They never followed the leads they had in the first place.”
On Jan. 9 of this year, the Miami Herald asked for a copy of the case files, but the request was denied by police, citing an open investigation. Shortly after, on Jan. 28, Marie Sumnicht received a call from Capt. Richard Clements, commander of the Miami Beach criminal investigations division, and Detective John Buhrmaster, she said. They were reopening her daughter’s case, they told her. Buhrmaster began speaking with Sumnicht regularly about developments, but then left the department in May.
Contacted by phone, Buhrmaster said he did not want to speak about an ongoing investigation. The matter was passed to Detective Orlando Sosa in July, who has said in emails to Marie Sumnicht as recently as Aug. 7 that he is working the case.
But after five years, her faith in their ability to solve the case has diminished.
“I just don’t believe them anymore,” said Marie Sumnicht.
In April, Prepszent, one of the last people to see Sumnicht alive, was photographed with Oates at a charity event for Miami Beach K-9 Knights, a nonprofit that purchases K-9 dogs for the department. Prepszent, dressed in a gray polo shirt, is wearing a Miami Beach Police Department cap, and smiles alongside another attendee and the chief, who is in full uniform.
The police department said Oates did not have any knowledge of who the man in the photo was and how he was related to the case, until it was brought to his attention by the Herald.
Reached by telephone, Prepszent did not respond to questions from the Herald and hung up. Itzler who was released in February, also did not respond to requests for comment through Facebook and friends.
Marie Sumnicht has continued to push for justice in her daughter’s death. She has written letters to Chief Oates urging more action. She has also contacted Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, among others.
“I disagree with the criticisms and assumptions you have made about the Miami Beach Police Department,” Oates said in an Aug. 17 email to Marie Sumnicht. “My Department will continue to work on the case, which you may recall was reopened under my instructions as the new chief in 2014.”
Johanna Sumnicht, one of Julia’s four siblings, doesn’t think her mother will back down.
“She’s a woman who won’t give up,” she said. “I don’t think we’ve gotten the attention that we deserve,” She added that the most reasonable answers her family has received have been from the private investigators rather than the police.
The state attorney’s case has remained open since Sumnicht’s death, but communications suggest progress is stalled. “While we feel that there may not be any other leads to pursue, if Miami Beach Police Department considers to go forward with new avenues, we will of course assist them,” Fernández Rundle wrote to Sumnicht’s mother, also on Aug. 17.
The email didn’t surprise Geberth. “State attorneys like to play safe ball,” he said. “The police need to do more to convince them there’s a case here.”
Both Geberth, the textbook author, and Joe Matthews, the former cop, said the case is still solvable.
Chief Oates said “only time will tell” whether the case would be solved. “I have good people working on it,” he added.
On Aug. 13, Sumnicht would have turned 27. Marie and Julia’s father, Daniel, an engineer, escaped Wisconsin that day to go hiking in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. They stuck hand-held mylar birthday balloons and chocolate cupcakes with strawberries in their backpacks. When they reached the summit of the Devil’s Causeway in the Flat Tops area with two of their friends, the group sang happy birthday to Julia.
“It was a good day,” said her mother. “It would have been better of course if she were still here.”