For more than two decades, the mystery lingered. On Sept. 21, 1990, a well-dressed stranger with a black briefcase knocked on the door of a South Beach apartment, asking for the phone number of the complex’s manager.
Within moments, the man forced his way inside, shot and killed the tenant, 34-year-old Mercedes Perez. Then he forced her friend into a bathroom, raping her at gunpoint before ransacking the apartment.
The horrifying attack, police say, has now been solved thanks to a DNA hit. And the suspected killer has been captured in Jamaica, after having been deported nine years ago after a burglary conviction.
Dale Ewers, 53, a former South Beach resident who lived near the victim’s home in 1990, was put on a plane to Miami on Wednesday, escorted by federal marshals. He’ll face charges of first-degree murder, sexual battery and kidnapping in Miami-Dade circuit court.
He had been arrested in Jamaica in October. Paperwork for extradition to Florida took until this month.
In the long, terrible history of South Florida crime, Perez’s murder has largely been forgotten by the public. But at the time, the seemingly random attack — on a sunny South Beach afternoon — terrified neighbors along Pine Tree Drive near Miami Beach High School.
Ewers had actually come to the attention of police shortly after Perez’s murder. A neighbor of Ewers’ in Miami Beach, just over a mile from the murder site, reported that Ewers — who was then on probation for a weapons charge in Broward County — resembled a police sketch of the killer. But it is unclear why detectives did not follow up on the lead at the time.
The case didn’t break open until decades later, when a Miami Beach cold-case detective submitted for testing DNA samples left behind at the crime scene. Analysts identified Ewers’ DNA in 2012, but his arrest was held up for years by the lengthy and complicated process of seeking extradition from Jamaica. In 2013, a Miami-Dade grand jury indicted him.
The murder took place in an apartment building on the 2300 block of Pine Tree Drive, near the high school and a Hebrew academy. The killer had a thin mustache and was described as sharply dressed, sporting dark slacks, leather shoes and a white pinstriped dress shirt, and carrying the briefcase.
Perez’s apartment did not appear to be the first target. About 40 minutes earlier, a neighbor in the building later reported, the same man knocked on her door, asking for the manager’s contact info. She did not open the door.
Then, around 1 p.m., he knocked on Perez’s door. She answered, then went to her bedroom to retrieve the manager’s phone number, leaving him at the front door.
He walked inside. At that moment, Perez’s childhood friend — who was visiting from New Jersey — emerged from another room.
“Ewers covered her mouth with possibly his left hand to silence her and then he pointed the handgun to the right side of her head,” the case’s latest investigator, Miami Beach Detective Luis Estopinan, wrote in an arrest warrant.
When Perez emerged, Ewers shot her at nearly point-blank range, according to police. The attacker then raped the New Jersey woman while “repeatedly asking for money” before he locked her in a closet and escaped.
Miami Beach police immediately circulated an artist sketch of the killer.
The missed opportunity came in the form of a phone call to police. A resident of an apartment building a little more than a mile away reported that the sketch resembled Ewers, his neighbor. A patrol officer briefly interviewed Ewers, who “was somewhat belligerent and uncooperative.”
The officer notified the homicide detective at the time. And then, nothing. No one followed up with Ewers.
But he had been in trouble before.
Four months before the Perez murder, he was arrested in Hallandale after he was found loitering near an apartment complex, hiding in the bushes. Officers found a hunting knife and a .32-caliber pistol on him. He ultimately pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and was sentenced to three years of probation.
After the murder, Ewers skipped town and his Broward probation, investigators believe. He did not reappear on law enforcement radar until March 2008, when he was arrested in Massachusetts for burglary and dealing in stolen property. He served six months in jail for the conviction.
When he was released in October 2008, instead of returning him to Florida to answer for violating his old probation, immigration authorities deported him to his native Jamaica.
But the Massachusetts arrest was crucial. His DNA was entered into a law enforcement database. When Miami Beach detectives had the crime scene evidence tested in 2012, the match came back to Ewers.
Federal marshals in Jamaica tracked him to Mountainside, more than two hours west of Kingston. But he could not be arrested immediately until Jamaica officials approved the extradition paperwork, a process that lasted years.