Armando Botell sat in a Hialeah police interview room. He confessed to gunning down his girlfriend as she cooked steaks in their kitchen, believing she had cheated on him.
“I turned around with the revolver and I’m going to kill her, so that she will not do that to me anymore,” Botell told detectives in December 1980.
Thirty-five years later, and long out of prison for that murder, Botell again sat in a South Florida police interview room, accused of murdering another young woman in jealous rage. But this time, Botell confessed to nothing — even when confronted with cellphone records that seemingly placed 17-year-old Romina Fernandez at his home around the time of her death.
“No,” Botell insisted. “She’s never been to my house.”
“She’s in your house, 100 percent,” replied Miami-Dade Detective Juan Segovia, who also showed Botell surveillance photos of his Mercedes SUV driving to and from the Sweetwater trash bin where Romina was found murdered, her body torched. “You’ve driven that car a million times.”
Botell dug in his heels. “I didn’t kill Romina Fernandez,” he said.
The videotaped exchanges are among an array of evidence in the case against Botell, 66, who is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder after his arrest in May. The documents reveal a circumstantial case that remains steeped in mystery but chronicles the troubled backgrounds of both defendant and victim.
Botell has pleaded not guilty. “He has maintained his innocence throughout,” said Miami defense attorney Robert Finlay.
Romina had hoped to one day become a cosmetologist. But she was a high-school dropout who often ran away from home, struggled with drug abuse and suffered from Type I diabetes, a condition that required her to take insulin after every meal.
On Oct. 10, her mother received a text message from the girl’s phone. Romina claimed she was bound for New York, and then the Dominican Republic.
But Romina never again called her mother, Andrea Perez, who filed a missing-persons report with Sweetwater Police on Oct. 10. One day later, her daughter’s body was found inside a trash bin behind a shopping center on the 11400 block of West Flagler Street. The body was “bound and burned beyond recognition,” according to a police report. Romina was identified through dental records.
Days after the body was found, a letter arrived at Perez’s home. Whether she wrote the letter under pressure is unknown, but in it she admitted to prostitution and said she was moving to New York City “with a friend from Homestead.”
Police reports show Miami-Dade homicide detectives cast a wide net, looking at several men.They included a 21-year-old who had been caught with Romina inside her bedroom at her family’s Sweetwater trailer home, a 31-year-old ex-boyfriend who claimed an alibi the night she disappeared and another ex-boyfriend who was imprisoned in New York at the time.
By January, detectives had honed in on Botell, who served less than 10 years in prison for murdering his girlfriend, Dilia Padron, in December 1980.
Investigators believe the burly, bearded Botell sold drugs. After Romina disappeared, he admitted to police in an early interview that he hung out with the girl.
Investigators believe that Botell for at least two years plied the teen — nearly 50 years younger than he was — with drugs, had sex with her, kept nude photos of her in his phone and grew fixated on her life.
“He was obsessed. He was sick. It was an obsession he had with her,” Botell’s friend, Hasan Lopez, told detectives.
Lopez told police that Botell, at one point, paid him $100 to follow the girl to see where she was going. He also confided in Lopez that he had beaten the girl.
“He was capable of doing anything to her,” Lopez said.
It was a detailed analysis of cellphone records that led police to arrest Botell, who called her the day before she went missing. Botell claimed he had not seen Romina since about a month before she disappeared. But police say the cell records showed that the day before the murder, Romina and Botell met in downtown Miami, then eventually traveled to his Sweetwater home.
Her phone remained in the area of his home until 5 p.m. the next day, when it was shut off. Three hours later, video surveillance showed the Mercedes ML350 believed driven by Botell arriving and departing from the trash bin.
Botell’s use of the car will certainly be a point of contention. Finlay, his defense attorney, noted that the car didn’t belong to his client.
On paper, the SUV was in Lopez’s name. He told police that he allowed Botell to put the Mercedes in his name because the older man did not have a driver’s license. Botell was the one who always drove the SUV, police said, and the vehicle was spotted by police parked at his house.
Detectives noted other curiosities.
After the homicide, Lopez helped Botell move to a new apartment. While they moved boxes, a pair of pants fell from a box. “This is a memento from ‘the girl,’ ” Botell told him, according to Lopez. Detectives also found two newspaper articles about Romina’s murder inside his apartment. And investigators also believe that Romina may have used an envelope from Botell’s home to mail the goodbye letter she sent to her mother.
Lopez also told investigators that Botell, after his first interview with police in February, was “anxious and nervous” and requested his help leaving the country for South America.
When Botell was arrested in May, detectives allowed Lopez in the interview room as secret cameras recorded. Lopez angrily confronted Botell. “You deserve the electric chair,” Lopez said sternly. “I know you did it.”
“I haven’t done anything,” Botell shouted over and over. “Where is the evidence it was me?!”
The confrontation erupted into an intense shouting match before detectives escorted Lopez out.