Crime

His mother’s murderer: In a Miami courtroom, a son tries to reclaim lost memories

Luisa Moya, 63, comforts, Rene Azcarreta, 35, as he breaks down in court while the details of his mother's 1987 murder are discussed last week in Miami-Dade Court. Azcarreta was just seven years old when he found his mother, Linda Azcarreta, 32, stabbed to death in her Miami home. Linda was killed by her friend, Rafael Andres. The death penalty phase for a second murder committed by Rafael Andres, who is convicted of murdering waitress, Yvette Fariñas, in 2005 is taking place in Judge Dava Tunis' courtroom. Luisa Moya is the mother of Yvette, Andres second murder victim.
Luisa Moya, 63, comforts, Rene Azcarreta, 35, as he breaks down in court while the details of his mother's 1987 murder are discussed last week in Miami-Dade Court. Azcarreta was just seven years old when he found his mother, Linda Azcarreta, 32, stabbed to death in her Miami home. Linda was killed by her friend, Rafael Andres. The death penalty phase for a second murder committed by Rafael Andres, who is convicted of murdering waitress, Yvette Fariñas, in 2005 is taking place in Judge Dava Tunis' courtroom. Luisa Moya is the mother of Yvette, Andres second murder victim. Miami Herald Staff

As much as Rene Azcarreta scours his brain, memories of his mother exist mostly as ethereal flashes from long ago.

She wore a white sweater once on a magical trip to Disney World. She was angry the time he ripped up her magazine. During a sunset, or maybe it was a sunrise, she burst into tears for reasons he could not fathom.

“Everything else I don’t remember,” he said. “As much as I try to think, nothing pops up. All I can remember is the image that haunts me every day.”

He was just 7 years old in March 1987 when he hopped off the school bus to walk home and found the apartment door open. Inside, Linda Azcarreta, a 32-year-old single mother, lay dead on the couch, stabbed 16 times with a wood-handled kitchen knife. Every detail of his last moment with her remains remain sharp and searing, a cut that will never heal.

Hoping to find some measure of closure, Azcarreta last week walked into a Miami-Dade courtroom to face his mother’s killer: Rafael Andres, a hulking 50-year-old handyman. Andres was not in court to face justice for Linda’s slaying. He long ago walked out of prison for that crime.

Instead, Andres was on trial for a second killing, the murder of waitress Yvette Fariñas, 31, who was found beaten, stabbed and strangled inside a West Miami-Dade efficiency in January 2005.

As lawyers began to detail both murder cases, Azcarreta sat in the first row of the court gallery, tears streaming down his face. Fariñas’ mother scooted over, draped an arm around him and gently placed her cheek on his shoulder.

They clasped hands, two families united through tragedy wrought by one man.

Difficult life

Now 35, Azcarreta is a tall bearded business consultant with a booming voice and an encyclopedic knowledge of Disney — a passion forged by those fleeting trips to the Magic Kingdom with his mother.

For most of his life, Azcarreta knew little about his own mother and nothing about her killer. His beloved grandparents, Ada and Rene, took him in, showering him with love and avoiding talk of the tragedy. “They did it to protect me,” Azcarreta said.

Life was not easy. His estranged father, an ex-Miami police officer, drifted into his life only a couple times over the years. They never clicked. Relatives refused to say much about Linda. She had married at least twice and ran a travel agency.

“I wish I could have gotten to get to know her,” Azcarreta said. “I’ve begged and pleaded with God, just give me five minutes with her. Just to hear her voice.”

Then in 2008, a window into her life finally opened. He got a surprise message on Facebook. “Are you Linda’s son?” a man named Carlos Ortega asked.

Ortega had worked alongside Linda during the early 1980s arranging passenger airline tickets for the Miami office of the French cruise line Paquet. The two were extremely close.

“It was really a touching situation,” said Ortega, 48, today an executive with Oceania Cruises. “He had no idea his mom had worked at a cruise line.”

Months later, Ortega invited him to a reunion of employees from the now-defunct cruise line. Tears flowed. Many remembered Linda taking her son — his nickname “Xavi” — on cruises to the Bahamas.

“Linda’s life was Xavi,” Ortega said. “Linda did anything she could to give him a good life.”

Not long after the reunion, Azcarreta, who lives in West Miami-Dade, landed a job at the county’s help call center, a job that taught him to navigate public records online.

Through searches, he discovered the name of his mother’s convicted killer and something that left him chilled. Rafael Andres had served less than two years for the brutal murder and now sat in jail, awaiting trial for a new killing.

The revelation came during a time of intense personal turmoil. His grandmother died of complications of a heart disease in February 2009. His grandfather, with memory and health slipping away from Alzheimer’s Disease, died months later.

Cleaning his grandparent’s apartment after their deaths, he discovered his mother’s school class ring, her résumé and a slew of old photos, which he scanned and stored on his iPhone.

He soon found himself on a consuming quest to rediscover his lost mother. He reached out to prosecutors trying to convict Andres in the murder of a waitress, a woman almost the same age as his own mother. He needed to know more.

“I felt like this could be the start of letting it all go.”

Court files

Linda Azcarreta’s final days are laid out in the files of court case F87-9657.

She worked as a Miami police dispatcher and later at a travel agency earning $400 a week. Her romantic relationships, including with Azcarreta’s father, fizzled but she counted a close group of friends. On one trip to a Marco Island resort, with her son in tow, she drank margaritas and relaxed poolside, her longtime friend Francisco “Pancho” Garcia recalled.

“She was so jolly, just an outgoing person,’’ Garcia told lawyers in a 1987 deposition. “That woman would give you the plate off the table to feed you, you know.”

Linda and her friends also dabbled in cocaine, which in 1987 Miami was not unusual. “An occasional user,” Garcia said. She also sold cocaine, not on some grand scale, but to her friends.

That March, just before the murder, relatives told police she had grown depressed. She was in debt. Two days before the murder, Linda nervously told Garcia she wanted cocaine but had no cash.

Garcia cut her a check for $100, money he owed her anyway. For Miami homicide detectives, the document became crucial evidence. Ten days after Linda’s death, detectives learned the check had indeed been cashed — not by Linda, but by somebody signing their name Rafael Andres.

Detectives discovered Andres and his pregnant wife were Linda’s friends.

Andres admitted he’d fixed a dishwasher for her weeks before the murder, which might explain his fingerprints inside the home. But he denied being inside Linda’s apartment that day. The story changed during a follow-up interrogation. Andres nervously admitted he’d been doing drugs with Linda.

His story shifted several times. Ultimately, Andres confessed that during a rock-cocaine binge, he’d stabbed her in a frenzy. “He did not know why he did it, because he loved Linda and she was a dear friend,” a detective wrote.

Andres insisted he cashed the check with her permission. Robbery or not, his trip to the bank would prove an eerie detail for investigators working another killing decades later.

Andres was charged with Linda’s murder. Within eight months, he pleaded guilty, agreeing to serve nine years in prison. But under prison rules for good behavior, he walked free after just 18 months — lenient punishment not unusual in a then-overcrowded prison system.

Linda’s son wouldn’t know about any of it until nearly a quarter century later.

Meeting a killer

Azcarreta saw his mother’s killer, in person, for the first time in October. Jail officers walked Andres into court for the opening day of testimony for the Fariñas murder.

“My eyes were like if I had laser beams, I would have drilled a hole in his head. Just looking,” Azcarreta said. “Emotional. Angry. Rage, but sad and sorrow. Horrified. He did it once, and he did it again.”

As Azcarreta listened, prosecutors detailed the evidence in the second homicide: While renovating a home, Andres broke into the attached efficiency of Fariñas. He stabbed her, then strangled her with the cord of a rice cooker and set fire to the small home.

But the attempt to destroy the crime scene failed. His DNA was discovered on a bloody wash cloth found next to Fariñas’ body. A neighbor identified Andres leaving the home, holding a gas can.

And again, as in 1987, the money nailed Andres. In the hours after the killing, surveillance footage and financial records showed Andres using Fariñas’ ATM card to withdraw cash, buy goods at The Home Depot, fuel up his van and pay for a stay at the Miccosukee Resort and Casino.

Over three agonizing days, Azcarreta and the Fariñas family waited side by side as jurors deliberated. Finally, after 16 hours, the verdict came: Guilty of first-degree murder.

“We felt very good he was there with us, someone else who suffered the same that we did because of this man,” said Yvette’s father, Rene Fariñas.

The emotional gauntlet was not over.

Last week, prosecutors asked the same jury to recommend a death sentence, citing the two brutal murders. The defense countered: spare the life of a man who rediscovered Christianity behind bars and taught fellow inmates to read.

During the five-day penalty phase, jurors got to know Fariñas. She’d recently moved from Cuba with her family. She toiled as a waitress at Miami International Airport. She and boyfriend Alberto Ruiz planned to have children and open a laundromat. She never met her newborn nephew.

“I was always talk to him about his aunt who is in heaven,” said sister Lisbet Fariñas. His green eyes ringed red, her father told jurors how deeply he misses his “little princess.” The family, Rene Fariñas said, has never canceled her cell phone “only to be able to call and hear her voice on the recording.”

One juror slumped in his chair. Another bowed her head, cheeks trembling, wiping away tears.

Azcarreta did not speak but his presence was impossible to miss.

As prosecutors Gail Levine and Deisy Hernandez presented side-by-side photos of the deep bruises and knife wounds inflicted on both women, Azcarreta wept, his face streaked and wet. Fariñas family members and State Attorney’s victim counselor Diane Santana took turns gently patting his back.

Azcarreta pulled out his iPhone as they detailed his mother’s death, scrolling through photo after photo of her vibrantly alive.

And yet, through the dark images, some little, long-forgotten details of life with Linda flickered. The tiny kitchen depicted in the crime-scene snapshot. The wooden table carved in the shape of a snail — he suddenly remembered running his fingers over the curve of the shell.

Like an old VCR tape on pause, an image of his murdered mother had been frozen in his head for 27 years. Now, new and brighter memories rolled through his mind.

Ultimately, jurors on Friday recommended the death penalty by a vote of 9-3. But days before the decision came down, somebody asked to speak to him.

In the hallway, Azcarreta spoke with Miami Detective Marva Preston, the case’s lead detective who is now an ordained minister near Tallahassee.

He didn’t remember their brief interview in 1987 after Linda’s body was discovered. But Preston recalled an insightful boy who recounted every detail of what he saw — and mentioned a strange premonition that something bad would happen that day as he went off to school.

They embraced.

“Hugging her was like being able to push the play button on my life,” Azcarreta said. “It was extremely hard, but I’m able to snap out of it. I didn’t want to be stuck in time. I didn’t want to be that kid anymore.”

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