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Miami Boy's Slaying Strikes Raw Nerve : Crime: Because suspect in mutilation killing is Cuban, recent immigrants fear taint to their image. Police conduct in case has been called into question.


MIAMI — When the killer was identified and the mutilated body recovered, the family of 9-year-old Jimmy Ryce, and all of South Florida, hoped that a three-month torment over the boy's fate soon would end. The fourth-grader's parents had turned the search for their son into a national crusade for all abducted children.

But the identity of the man charged Dec. 8 with the child's murder, a 28-year-old Cuban who arrived here on a raft four years ago, and the conduct of police detectives who obtained his confession have caused a new wave of community anguish.

Callers to Spanish-language talk-radio programs voiced fears that the atrocity of the crime allegedly committed by Juan Carlos Chavez would taint the image of thousands of Cuban balseros who have settled into productive lives here in the last few years.

At the same time, the lawyer named to represent Chavez questioned whether his signed confession would hold up in court.

"He was held for about 50 hours in clandestine interrogation and denied an opportunity to see a lawyer on two occasions," said Art Koch, a Dade County assistant public defender. "Obviously, this was a very atrocious and tragic homicide. That's why police feel free to cut corners--because of the political reality of the situation."

The political reality, Koch said, is that few judges are likely to throw out Chavez's confession--and the evidence gathered as a result--knowing that they would face the wrath of outraged voters come election time. But Koch said that after Chavez is arraigned Dec. 29, he will ask a judge to do just that.

Circuit Court Judge Juan Ramirez Jr., who last week denied Chavez bond, said: "In general, I'd like to think we do what's right, not what's politically expedient."

In the meantime, many callers to the public defender's office--and to English- and Spanish-language radio stations--are suggesting that Chavez does not deserve any constitutional rights. "People want to send him to the electric chair right now," said Tomas Garcia Fuste, a radio talk-show host on Spanish-language WCMQ.

The details of the crime, according to Metro-Dade police, are shocking.

Chavez, a tall man with long dark hair and a neatly trimmed beard, told police that he forced Jimmy Ryce into his car at gunpoint on Sept. 11, minutes after the child got off his school bus and began the four-block walk home in a rural, residential section southwest of Miami.

Police said Chavez admitted taking the boy to an abandoned trailer in an avocado grove and sexually assaulting him. He then forced the boy back into the car and drove to the area of the bus stop, about a mile away. But instead of releasing Jimmy, Chavez returned to the trailer. There he shot the boy, dismembered his body and encased his remains in concrete before burying the pieces, police said.


For months, neighbors and volunteers from across South Florida searched fields, farms and canals for clues to the boy's whereabouts while his parents and two older siblings circulated Jimmy's picture in an ever-widening gyre.

Chavez was identified as a suspect this month after an area rancher who had hired him as a handyman entered the camper in which he lived and spotted the boy's school backpack. In the backpack, police said, Chavez had stashed a "missing person" poster picturing Jimmy in his baseball uniform.

In the months after the boy's disappearance, his parents, Claudine and Don Ryce, both attorneys, won widespread community respect for their composure and insistent faith that their son would be found alive.

They began a petition campaign that last week resulted in a bipartisan group of Florida legislators introducing a bill to require government buildings to post pictures and descriptions of children believed to have been abducted.

The couple also met here recently with U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno, a Miami native.

"When people think of Jimmy in the future, we want them not to remember the horrible way he died, but that he started a movement that is going to turn things around for kids in this country," said Don Ryce, 51. "A society can't prevent evil, but it can sure do a better job of trying to prevent it--and to identify these predators."

Since Chavez's arrest, the case has preoccupied many South Floridians, dominating the local news and launching an untold number of conversations about the nature of evil and the innocence of childhood. "A Horrible Ending," was the banner headline in a recent edition of the Miami Herald.

The Ryce home has become something of a shrine to the slain boy, a spot for public grieving. Hundreds of flower arrangements, stuffed animals and notes from schoolchildren have been left at the fence surrounding the house, and the stream of cars slowly driving past is constant. At a recent Miami Dolphins-Kansas City Chiefs football game, a basket of flowers filled the upper-deck seat usually occupied by Jimmy, a Dolphins season ticket holder.

After rafting to Miami in 1991, Chavez, an auto mechanic in Cuba, worked at odd jobs in Hialeah, where he earned a reputation for courtesy and helpfulness, according to acquaintances. He moved to south Dade County several months ago.


Garcia Fuste has said on the air that many Cuban Americans have expressed prejudice against recent arrivals from Cuba, as if to say "these people from the Castro regime don't have the same morals we have."

"The same thing happened [in 1980] after Mariel," the boat lift in which some hard-core criminals arrived with 120,000 other refugees. "We Cubans always have to fight that attitude," he said.

In the immediate aftermath of Chavez's arrest, Don Ryce spoke of the concern that the ethnicity of the accused might be a community issue. "Some people have come to the family to say that they are ashamed of being Cuban and Hispanic," Ryce said. "I just want to make clear that evil comes in many ways. There is nothing to apologize for. Our fight is with predators."

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