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    Murder or suicide? Only one living person knows for sure

    Edwin Rivera died in his home of a gunshot wound to the chest. But who was holding the gun and who pulled the trigger?

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 6, 2001


    LARGO -- A candle, adorned with a portrait of Jesus and the words "Supreme Power," burned on a table next to where he lay. Nearby was an empty 1.5-liter bottle of Bacardi rum and a small glass.

    A large stereo system along the east wall was on, but the sound was too low for Detective Steve McMullen to hear the music. Though the house was messy, there were no signs of struggle or forced entry. Papers were scattered on the dining room table, including letters written by Edwin Rivera that indicated he was considering suicide.

    But McMullen and his supervisor, Sgt. Kelly Goswick, wanted to make sure. A few things weren't adding up.

    Take the 9mm Smith & Wesson in Rivera's left hand. Most people are right-handed. And the gunshot wound to the chest. Most men bent on killing themselves shoot themselves in the head, not the heart.

    Yet lying on his back, wearing a black Everlast boxing shirt, black undershorts with a gray waistband and white Nike tennis shoes, was Edwin Rivera. The strings were tied. His legs were crossed. The handgun in his left hand partially covered the wound that killed him.

    As forensics investigators snapped pictures, McMullen knew another fact that would move the case beyond the realm of a routine suicide. Two days earlier, McMullen was assigned to investigate claims that a teenage girl had been molested.

    Rivera, 38, was his suspect.

    Someone, McMullen thought, could have wanted Edwin Rivera dead.

    * * *

    One night while her husband slept, Diana Rivera heard Eddie's pager go off. She read the message. It was from another woman.

    Diana Rivera had suspected him of cheating on her. She nagged him about it in the past, prompting occasional fights. During one, Eddie Rivera pushed her around. But this time, the page really got to her. So a week later -- April 27, 2000 -- she was gone. Diana took the couple's five children. She even took the four dogs.

    She drove to New York, where she stayed with her family. She didn't tell anyone where she was going, not even her family members in Florida.

    Rivera could not find her. It wasn't the first time his wife had left him. But this separation devastated him. He became depressed and talked of killing himself.

    Eddie and Diana Rivera had married shortly after Diana turned 18. Eddie was 23 at the time. The couple had moved to Florida from the Bronx, where Eddie grew up. He had trained as a boxer and was tough and street-smart.

    When the family moved into the house on Belleair Road, Eddie Rivera turned the garage into a gym. He spent hours jabbing a bag or tossing a medicine ball with his brother.

    But his tough exterior belied the fact that he was a man of contradictions and insecurities -- the sort of man who could profess love to a woman but lose it and beat her up. And cheat on her.

    Diana Rivera liked to focus on the former, not the latter. Their marriage lasted 15 years.

    Rivera sometimes got rough with Diana early in the marriage, but as the years passed, he mellowed, and the couple formed a solid partnership.

    He had the names of his wife and kids on a ribbon tattoo on his chest. On his right arm was a tattoo of Jesus and a cross that read: "May the Lord bless my precious wife and children."

    He worked as a salesman at Dyco Paints in Largo while his wife cared for their children. He also worked odd jobs on weekends.

    As idyllic as his family could have been, Rivera's contradictions intervened.

    For months, he had carried on an affair with a woman at work. Her name was Shari Renee Jones. That's who Diana Rivera thinks paged her husband. It was part of the reason she packed up the kids and the dogs and left.

    Diana Rivera said she wanted "to slap him up with reality" because of the affair, to make him feel what it would be like to live without her.

    But she intended to return soon, to reunite her family.

    "This was my soulmate," she said. "Of course I would come back."

    * * *

    But Edwin Rivera feared she wouldn't. Jottings he made in his calendar chronicle a life spinning with depression and remorse.

    The day Diana left, he marked, "Very sad day in my life. Learning from this."

    On Mother's Day: "My children are in the best . . . hands possible."

    On May 16: "My baby's 8th birthday. Miss you so much."

    "A full month has passed," he wrote on May 27.

    "Miss my family very much," he wrote two days later.

    On June 1: "New month of hope in regaining my family."

    But according to friends and relatives, hope was something in short supply for Rivera. He talked of suicide, they said. Family members kept close tabs on him.

    His sister, Charo Soto, made rice and sausage for him the night before his death. Later that night, Rivera gave her some of his wife's things, including jewelry.

    He seemed okay that night, but his sister worried. She called him several times and made him promise he wouldn't hurt himself. He promised.

    But one of Rivera's last calendar entries, made in November, would later catch the attention of investigators. In it, he sketched a 9mm handgun. Next to it he wrote: "Lived by the 9, die by the nine."

    * * *

    The morning before Detective McMullen found Edwin Rivera's legs-crossed body atop two mattresses, he was already investigating Rivera for the kind of crime, if true, that could have motivated someone to kill him.

    Rivera allegedly gave alcohol to one of his girlfriend's closest relatives. Then he allegedly molested her as she vomited in his bathroom. McMullen called Shari Renee Jones to the police station Nov. 13 and told her of the accusation against her lover. He wanted her to try to get Rivera to confess in a telephone call. Police would be listening in.

    Jones didn't believe her relative's story and said she would have to think about making the call. McMullen felt the need to investigate because there was evidence of physical contact.

    Jones promised to call McMullen back by 5 p.m.

    She didn't. But as McMullen drove to work the next morning, his beeper chirped. It was Jones. She would make the call. McMullen told her to come to the police station at 4 p.m.

    McMullen asked Jones if she had any contact with Rivera since he talked with her the day before. There was a pause. Jones said she hadn't.

    About 90 minutes later, Jones' sister telephoned the detective. Beth Miller said Jones had told her something he needed to know. Rivera might have killed himself, and she and Jones wanted to speak to McMullen face-to-face. The detective agreed.

    Ninety minutes later, as McMullen reviewed the department's dispatch screen on his computer, a familiar address popped up.

    It was Edwin Rivera's.

    McMullen grabbed his supervisor, Sgt. Goswick.

    "We've got to go," he said.

    They arrived at the scene before patrol officers. Rivera's sister and 22-year old daughter were in the driveway, crying. They had called 911 after discovering him dead.

    McMullen stepped into the home and looked over Rivera's body.

    There were suicide notes, no signs of a struggle and only a single glass on the table near his body. But the gun was in his left hand, the bullet hole was in his chest and there was a reason someone could want him dead.

    Minutes after he arrived at Rivera's house, McMullen got a page. It was his lieutenant, Carla Boudrot. He called her back on his cell phone.

    Jones was in the lobby and wanted to speak to him, Boudrot told him.

    McMullen drove to the station and took Jones, 36, into an interview room. He felt no need to tape-record her. She said she left Rivera's home about 10 p.m., and he was alive. Boudrot pulled McMullen aside and told him an officer heard Jones talking on her cell phone saying she might be arrested for murder.

    Intrigued, McMullen decided to test her hands for gunshot residue. He also began asking standard questions.

    "Have you fired a gun or handled a firearm recently?"

    No, was the reply.

    "Have you handled munitions or bullets recently?"

    No.

    "Have you been inside an enclosed room where a gun was fired recently?"

    Jones paused.

    What did he mean by recently. Within the past two days. Yes, she said. Then her story changed. She was in the room last night when Rivera shot himself, she said.

    On the other side of mirrored glass, two investigators saw McMullen's jaw drop. The veteran investigator of 13 homicides and more than 100 suicides bowed his head, aware that his case had just taken a hairpin turn.

    McMullen told Jones he had to get a tape.

    The interview now needed to be recorded.

    * * *

    When McMullen returned, he asked Jones if she needed an attorney. She said no, and told the investigator what follows:

    She went to Rivera's house about 10 p.m. She and Rivera drank Hawaiian Punch and Bacardi Rum. Rivera lit the Jesus candle and played a song Jones thought was sad. They then watched Legends of the Fall, a film with a series of tragedies, including the suicide of a main character.

    After it was over, Rivera again played the sad song, then played Anita Baker's Power of Love CD as they lay on the bed together for about five minutes.

    Eddie made a reference to Romeo and Juliet. Police never confirmed whether the two ever discussed the molestation investigation, though McMullen says he thinks they did. "He asked me at that point if I was going to kill myself, too," Jones told McMullen. "And I said "No, I cannot kill myself. No way.' "

    Rivera told her that he was going to kill himself and that he wanted her there.

    He gave her specific instructions of what to do after he was dead. He told her to wipe off the gun and to clean out her glass and put it in the cupboard. Rivera said he wanted to shoot himself in the heart because he thought he would die instantly.

    He went into the bedroom and came back with a pink and white house coat, his wife's. He also had his gun. He said to her: "You live by the nine, you die by the nine."

    He then lay down on two mattresses stacked in the living room near the couch. Jones stood at his side as she watched him feel his chest with his right hand until he found his beating heart.

    He placed the barrel of the gun against his chest with his left hand. He pulled his wife's house coat over his head. With his right hand, he placed her right hand on the gun handle. Then he let go.

    She held the gun there. She was shaking and crying. She covered her eyes with her left hand. She told him she could not do it.

    Rivera then reached up to the gun. He placed his thumb in front of the trigger and pushed back.

    "He took his hand, put his hand over my hand and the next thing I know it went off," she said. "I was sitting there going, you know, prior to this, I'm like, "I am not pulling this trigger, I am not pulling this trigger. I cannot. This would be murder. I can't kill anybody.'

    "That's when he put his hand over my hand. The next thing I know, I don't even know that I heard the shot, I can't say that I heard it. I had my eyes closed, but I had to have known it went off."

    She smelled smoke. Rivera moaned once; then there was silence. He was not breathing.

    She kissed him on the forehead.

    Jones said she then carried out her lover's instructions. She wiped off the gun with a blanket and placed it in his left hand. She cleaned her glass, put it in the cupboard and left.

    The next morning she called her sister, then paged McMullen and agreed to see if she could get Rivera to admit to the molestation.

    At this point in the interview, McMullen stopped Jones.

    "Probably knowing full well that he probably wouldn't answer the phone," he said.

    "Probably," Jones replied. "I didn't know. I assumed, yes. Yes, but I didn't know."

    Jones said during the interview that she didn't call authorities that night because she was scared the police or Rivera's family would try to frame her for murder.

    Exasperated, McMullen had an idea.

    "I think what I'm going to do is, let me unload mine and maybe we can do kind of a little short re-enactment," he told her. "But I want to make sure mine is unloaded.

    "I . . . want to do a video re-enactment here and have somebody videotape us doing that," he added. "Because I don't think in my wildest dreams, I could describe that on a piece of paper.

    "Nobody would believe me," the detective said.

    * * *

    As a video camera rolled, McMullen slumped in a chair, told Jones to pretend he was Rivera, handed her his gun and listened again to her story.

    "He puts his hand over mine and the next thing I know I hear a shot and I open my eyes," she tells him.

    "I remember his hand on mine," she says. "I remember his thumb was on mine. I know I didn't pull the trigger."

    If Rivera wanted to die quickly, he got his wish. The bullet tore through his heart and blasted out his back. A tattoo of soot surrounded the bullet hole, proof the gun's muzzle was flush to his chest when fired, as Jones contended. There was no sign he and Jones had struggled before the gun was fired.

    McMullen didn't think he had probable cause to arrest Jones. So he shipped his report to the State Attorney's Office.

    The case was assigned to Cathy McKyton, an assistant prosecutor for four years. She mulled the case for two months, even lost sleep as she toggled over what to do: charge or don't charge.

    She considered charging Jones with assisting in self-murder, which outlaws assisted suicide. She also pondered manslaughter and culpable negligence charges.

    As time progressed, she dreamed about the case. In one nightmare, she was in Edwin Rivera's living room. She awoke just before he was shot.

    "I was going back and forth," McKyton said. "Would he have committed suicide but for her? Would he have pulled the trigger?"

    She couldn't decide. She gave it to her boss, division chief Bill Loughery, a prosecutor for 17 years. He had never seen anything like it.

    But Loughery saw no criminal intent. "She said it was an accident, that she wasn't intending to do it," he said.

    "He had a confirmed history of wanting to commit suicide. And the only information we had was from her herself."

    The case hinged on that. Only one person alive really knew what happened.

    Loughery decided not to charge Jones.

    Her story is "so bizarre," Loughery said, "it has a ring of credibility to it."

    Plus, police did not find any physical evidence undermining Jones' story. There was no sign Rivera struggled with an attacker. And Rivera left suicide notes.

    One piece of evidence, however, still was sitting in a property room, its secret never unlocked. The residue tests, which broke open the case in the first place, never were sent to a lab for analysis.

    What if the tests showed Jones had gunshot residue on her hands and Rivera didn't? Would that show Rivera did not pull the trigger?

    The question never will be answered. McMullen decided to leave the evidence locked up because he thought the lab wouldn't run it. Residue tests aren't done for apparent suicides.

    The evidence likely would have been inconclusive anyway, Loughery said. Gunshot residue can indicate someone fired a gun. But it still is possible to pull a trigger and have no residue. If Rivera's hands were bare, "it wouldn't prove his hand wasn't near the gun," Loughery said.

    McMullen and Loughery agreed Jones could not be prosecuted for homicide.

    But McMullen has a gut suspicion that Jones told Rivera on the night of his death that police suspected him of molesting her relative.

    "Maybe that pushed him over the edge," he said.

    * * *

    A day after finding out that no charges would be filed in connection with her husband's death, Diana Rivera sat in a chair in her brother-in-law's Clearwater home. She was crying.

    She was angry that Jones did not stop the shooting.

    "No sane person allows another person to die," she said. "I loved him and I love him now, and I know I would never let him do that. I'm angry, but I'm more saddened by the fact that she was the last person who saw him and could have stopped him. And she didn't.

    "My husband lost his life because she assisted him."

    Other family members feel the same. Some say they doubt Rivera would take his own life.

    "It's totally unacceptable," said Rivera's brother, Socrates "Jake" Rivera Lopez. "Quite frankly, we're baffled . . . and at a loss for words. Assisted suicide should count as murder."

    As for Jones, she would not grant the Times an extensive interview regarding Rivera's death. The mother of two now works at a Clearwater business.

    "It's rough losing a good friend," she said. "And I really don't have anything else to say."

    A few days after Rivera's death, Diana Rivera found a series of letters in the home where her husband died. Several of them are signed by Jones.

    There was one, type-written, that was among the papers. It was not signed and Jones is not saying whether she wrote it.

    "Here lies a man with a heart full of love," the note begins. "He carried a lot of grief and guilt around which eventually caught up with him. Even to the end, in all his misery, he loved his family.

    "He was willing to fight for the ones he loved. He lies here today because this is the only way he felt he could show his love to his family.

    "Although words cannot express my deepest feelings, I know his pain is finally over. His was a slow, painful, tortured death.

    "Eddie, I will miss you greatly."

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