Two decades after Lynne Friend vanished from South Florida, jurors in court heard a tale steeped in cinematic mystery.
Friend, a 35-year-old divorced mother, wanted to rebuild her life with a new husband in Tennessee. Her ex-husband, Clifford Friend, became enraged when a judge allowed his 5-year-old son to accompany her in leaving town.
And on her last known night alive, Lynne Friend told her new lover by phone that she was headed to her ex-husband’s North Miami Beach house to pick up a child-support check.
Hours later, federal agents on a patrol boat seven miles east of Government Cut spotted a 31-foot boat with two men aboard — Friend and his pal, Alan Gold. They were dumping something over the edge into the deep, black water.
Friend’s body has never been found. But Miami-Dade prosecutor Marie Mato told jurors on the first day of Clifford Friend’s trial for first-degree murder that it was his ex-wife that went over the side that night — strangled and stuffed in a weighted duffel bag.
The case “sounds like a Spanish telenovela, a soap opera, but unfortunately, it’s not,” Mato said. “It’s the real story of the death of Lynne Friend.”
Clifford Friend, 58, of Lighthouse Point, was not arrested until March 2012. He is facing up to life in prison if convicted of first-degree murder.
The object of that custody dispute, son Christian Friend, now 25, sat in the court gallery on Monday — supporting his father along with other relatives.
Monday’s trial may be the final chapter of a mystery that first riveted South Florida in August 1994. A massive police investigation and underwater search that even included the U.S. Navy and University of Miami oceanographers failed to find any trace of Lynne Friend.
During opening statements on Monday, Friend’s defense attorney was quick to point out that prosecutors can’t even prove that Lynne Friend is dead — let alone how she even died.
“There is no evidence that she is dead,” lawyer Peter Heller told jurors.
He also blasted the state’s key witness: Gold, who says he helped Friend dispose of the body as customs agents closed in on the high seas. Heller suggested that Gold was trying to cover up a drug smuggling run, not a body dumping.
“This case reeks of reasonable doubt,” Heller said.
The Friend murder trial won’t be the first in Miami-Dade without a body.
During the 1970s, prosecutors convicted two men of fatally beating South Dade businessman Burt DeWitt, then dumping his weighted corpse off a boat off the coast.
More recently, two men were convicted in connection with the murder of four people aboard the charter yacht “Joe Cool” as it crossed between Miami and Cuba in 2007. The bodies were dumped and never found.
In 2008, jurors convicted Jesus N. Rodriguez of murdering his wife in South Miami-Dade; her body was believed to have been cremated to hide the evidence.
Two years later, a jury convicted Christopher Phillips of murdering his girlfriend, Trinity Robinson, in the early 1990s, near Homestead. She was believed to have been dumped in the Everglades.
In 2012, a jury deadlocked in a murder count, by one vote, against a woman accused of murdering foster child Rilya Wilson and dumping her body in a body of water in South Miami-Dade. Prosecutors chose not to retry the case because jurors convicted her of kidnapping and aggravated abuse.
In Lynne Friend’s case, she and Clifford Friend divorced in 1991 after just three years of marriage.
A hospital administrator, Lynne Friend soon began a relationship with a Tennessee man named Ed O’Dell, who frequently did work in Miami. She soon planned to move to Nashville.
“It seemed like a fresh start,” prosecutor Mato told jurors.
But Clifford Friend refused to allow her to leave with their 5-year-old son Christian. She took him to court — and a judge eventually announced she could go to Tennessee with the boy.
The ruling prompted a furious courtroom outburst by Clifford Friend.
“He was angry, yelling at his lawyer, ‘Nobody will take my child away from me,’ ” Lynne’s attorney, Greg Anderson, testified Monday.
Days later, as she was packing for the move, Lynne Friend was on the phone with O’Dell, still in Tennessee. On the other line, Clifford Friend called to say his child support check was ready to be picked up.
She clicked over and told O’Dell she was going to pick up the check at her ex-husband’s North Miami Beach home.
But when she arrived, Mato charged, Clifford Friend choked her to death, and even had a big duffel bag waiting. “He had her casket ready for her,” Mato said. “He put her in that bag.”
About an hour later, a witness saw a man parking the woman’s 1989 Mercury in a Northeast Miami-Dade field, before hopping into a black SUV similar to one owned by Friend. Police later found Lynne Friend’s Mercury, the right front tire cut as though it had been stabbed with a knife.
Later that night, the agents spotted Friend and Gold on the water on a 30-foot Chapparal boat they owned together. After the men heaved the bag — which contained an anchor — over the side, the agents gave chase for over a mile.
Friend and Gold were detained, but both men refused to talk to investigators. The Navy, the U.S. Coast Guard and oceanographers at the University of Miami helped in the effort to find the body at the bottom of the Gulf Stream, to no avail.
Gold finally agreed to speak to prosecutors last year. He was not charged and is expected to be the star witness during the trial.
Defense attorney Heller called Gold a “convicted felon.”
“They had to bring him in to bolster a weak case,” he told jurors.
Prosecutor Mato admitted that Gold is “no hero,” but he said the evidence as a whole is enough to convict Clifford Friend, even without a body.
“Yes, it’s 20 years later,” Mato said. “Sometimes the wheels of justice move very, very slowly. But they do move.”