San Jose dos Campos, Brazil — IT WAS a dream of love, and a dread of loneliness, that drew Raymond James Merrill from his comfortable home in suburban San Francisco to this industrial city in southern Brazil.
Dumped by his girlfriend and approaching his 56th birthday, Merrill was aching for companionship. A "Latin singles" website led him to his new passion: Regina Filomena Crasovich Rachid, a 40ish divorcee with a seductive smile and some rough friends.
Merrill, a musician and carpenter with some money in the bank, jumped on a plane and was soon bestowing lavish gifts on Rachid, including $10,000 for the Botox clinic she ran out of her home here. He was besotted, even as her financial demands intensified and fraudulent charges mounted on his credit cards. Merrill made plans to sell his house, move to Brazil and marry Rachid.
Less than two weeks after arriving on his wedding trip to Brazil, police say, he was dead.
His charred corpse lay unidentified in a pauper's grave for months, his fate an excruciating mystery for distraught loved ones. Finally, a misplaced handbag and a barroom boast helped break the case of Raymond James Merrill.
THAT Merrill was infatuated with Rachid seems beyond doubt.
The couple's voluminous e-mail conversations, in an eclectic, if often ungrammatical, jumble of English, Spanish and Portuguese, provide a chronicle of midlife romantic obsession -- with a deep financial undercurrent. Mutual longing leaps from the screen in five months of greeting-card-style texts now being scrutinized by investigators.
"With each breath that I take, I love you more and more," Merrill wrote to Rachid on March 6, as he was preparing for his third, and final, trip to Brazil. "I have more kisses for you that there are stars in the sky."
Rachid appeared to reciprocate.
"I have more kisses and affection to give you than all the little drops of rain that stay on your window for an entire dark night," she replied. "And when day breaks, the little drops have the sunlight's most beautiful color. That's how my love is for you."
But the correspondence was not all sunlight and kisses.
Rachid and her English-speaking daughter, Ana Paula, 22, repeatedly sought cash from Merrill. Money woes were driving her mother to a heart attack, the daughter warned.
"Love doesn't pay my bills, doesn't pay the supermarket," Rachid wrote to Merrill late last year. "Love like this doesn't give me peace!"
Authorities also found an e-mail from Rachid to a photographer acquaintance, asking for fresh snapshots for two boyfriends -- an American and a Brazilian.
"Don't worry about the money," she wrote. "The American will pay for all of them."
EVEN in his mid-50s, Raymond James Merrill cut a striking figure with his chiseled features, lean physique and bushy mustache.
"A combination of the Marlboro Man and John Lennon" is how an old friend once described Merrill, an accomplished guitarist who composed rock and blues numbers. To his regret, however, he was never able to break into the recording business.
Merrill spent almost a decade playing with rock bands in Buenos Aires, where he lived with his then-wife, a vivacious Argentine flamenco artist whom he met in 1979 in San Francisco. The couple parted amicably in 1998. Merrill returned to the United States and moved to Las Vegas with a new girlfriend, Barbara Cortez.
Though Merrill had an arrogant streak, Cortez recalled his moments of contentment, his bouts of generosity, his sharp sense of humor. "We laughed quite a bit," Cortez said.
Still, Merrill's demons were never far off. He had overcome alcohol and drug abuse, Cortez noted, and attended occasional Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Those close to him worried about his solitary, broody inclinations.
"My brother had a lot of things going for him, but like a lot of people with all those blessings, he had a lot of insecurities," said his sister, Marcia Sanchez Loebick, four years his senior. "He could be a bit of a recluse. He was a loner."
After breaking up with Cortez, Merrill sold his Nevada house and returned to his longtime home in San Bruno, south of San Francisco. But he regularly made the 10-hour commute to Vegas to woo a new girlfriend, whom he showered with gifts. He was distressed when she ended the relationship.
Merrill confided to some a dream of returning to Latin America, retiring on his investment income and finding the right mate.
"He was very intoxicated with the idea of love," said Loebick, his only sibling. "And feeling loved."
Merrill turned to the Internet. Deep in cyberspace, Regina Rachid was waiting.