Rivera v. State of Georgia

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Attorney Jacque Hawk has dealt with many heartbreaking cases and has lived out the phrase “down to the wire” throughout his career in the courtroom. Some of these high-profile cases have attracted the attention of national television networks such as the Investigation Discovery Channel. This is one of those cases.

Savannah Morning News

“A chill hangs in the air.

Mariea Stubbs has felt it. It’s keeping neighbors indoors. Sidewalks are deserted after dark. Late-night diners aren’t as busy as they used to be.

But the chill has nothing to do with the coming winter, and everything to do with one man. Tales of Reinaldo “Ray” Javier Rivera – charged in a series of slayings in the Augusta area – have some residents of the quiet community of Clearwater, S.C., on edge.

“It’s like nobody trusts anyone anymore,” said Stubbs, 23. “Everybody’s just real skittish. Everybody’s just real freaked out.”

One of dozens of women claiming to have been approached by Mr. Rivera, Stubbs was shaken by the news of his capture.

“I haven’t been out since. Once the reality sets in, it’s hard to go back to the old way, because you’re afraid if you slip up, you’re going to be another victim,” she said. “It’s just sad that so many people had to die before he was caught.”

Before his capture in October, Rivera, 37, was a man with a double life, police say. One was that of a blue-collar family man: a devoted wife, two children and a steady job. The other was that of a homicidal sexual predator, luring young women from parking lots to their deaths.

Melissa Dingess, 17-year-old alleged victim of Rivera.

Now his family is devastated and he’s charged in the brutal rapes and killings of four young women.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The future looked bright on Valentine’s Day 1993 when Rivera, then 29, exchanged wedding vows with Tammy Bonnette, 30, in the campus chapel at the University of South Carolina.

It was a big wedding. His entire Naval ROTC unit was invited.

The newlyweds were beaming as they embarked on a life together as the all-American husband and wife, according to Marine Col. Richard Slack, Rivera’s commanding officer in the Reserve Officer Training Corps.

Tabatha Bosdell, 17-year-old alleged victim of Rivera.

There was much to be happy about. Their first child, a son, was already on the way, the colonel said. Yeoman Rivera was wrapping up his final year at the university and was months away from his commission as an officer.

He had come a long way from his childhood in Puerto Rico, where as a doctor’s son he was educated in prestigious Catholic schools and at the University of Puerto Rico before signing on with the armed forces.

He became a decorated sailor, gunning for a career as a pilot. The Navy sponsored his studies at South Carolina after an impressive 4 1/2 years in an administrative post at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. He was hand-picked for the stiffly competitive Enlisted Commissioning Program, for which only 400 sailors from the entire Navy make the grade each year.

“When the Navy sends you to college to give you a degree and make an officer of you, you have to be doing something right,” Col. Slack said.

Chrisilee Barton, 18-year-old alleged victim of Rivera.

But during the next seven years, things went horribly wrong. Rivera’s long, hard fall would end in a blood-covered Clearwater motel room early Oct. 12, when police from two states following leads in the rape of a teen-ager found him with his wrists slashed.

Nobody saw it coming.

Not the Washington, D.C., court authorities who dismissed his case after he allegedly sliced a prostitute’s hand in 1989.

Not the Navy disciplinarians who let him off with an other-than-honorable discharge when a bust for soliciting a minor in a Texas suburb turned up a stack of lurid, homemade videos – at least one involving an underage girl – and a duffel bag filled with condoms, a 35 mm camera and a large knife.

Not the South Carolina police who questioned and released him after reports he was harassing young girls in Aiken.

Not his wife, who stuck by him through the messy collapse of his military career, his sporadic employment as a used-car salesman and even a bankruptcy claim in 1997.

And certainly not his friends, co-workers and fellow sailors, who saw him as harmless and, in retrospect, almost too ordinary.

“Back then, I couldn’t say a bad thing about the guy,” said Stephen L. McManus of Indianapolis, who was a midshipman in Rivera’s ROTC unit. “He wanted to become a pilot. He wanted to do his time in the Navy, then retire. I have no idea what happened.”

A plush life

Reinaldo Javier Rivera-Martinez was born Sept. 13, 1963, in Madrid, Spain, the second son of Rodo Edwin Rivera, a physician.

Dr. Rivera was a native of San Isabel, Puerto Rico, and the family returned to the island in 1970, when Reinaldo was 7.

As a child, he apparently lived a plush life on the Caribbean island. From 1977 to 1980, he attended Colegio San Antonio Abad in Humacao, a village nestled in the foothills near the eastern coast.

At the time, the Catholic school was for boys only. Rivera maintained a 3.53 grade-point average, according to a teacher. Adelina Rodriguez Inostrosa, a retired health educator, worked with Dr. Rivera at Jabucoa Hospital in the 1970s. She said he was a “great doctor,” and she remembers his son as a small boy playing in his front yard with his older brother and little sister.

“They were a happy family” living in a middle-class neighborhood near the University of Puerto Rico in Humacao, she said.

Rivera’s final year of high school was spent in San Juan, a port city whose scenic beauty and economic prosperity eclipse the nearby poverty of shantytowns and squatter villages. In 1981, he received his diploma from Colegio San Jose, another distinguished Catholic boys school.

Rivera went on to attend the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras. He wasn’t there long. Taking the lead of his father, a military veteran, he enlisted at age 19 and reported for basic training April 18, 1983.

The journey would never take him far from palm trees and saltwater. Boot camp was in Orlando, Fla., with technical training in Meridian, Miss. By August, he was stationed in San Diego aboard the USS Ajax, a World War II-era repair ship servicing the Pacific fleet.

Rivera was with the Ajax for more than three years. For its final overseas assignment, the Ajax sailed as far as Al Masirah off the coast of Oman, with stop-offs in Guam, Thailand and the Philippines. The month after it was decommissioned in December 1986, he went to Washington.

Fall from grace

As he was earning accolades in the nation’s capital, Rivera’s run-ins with police began. He was picked up for an alleged attack with a knife on a 19-year-old prostitute. But he was never prosecuted on the charges of assault with a dangerous weapon likely because the victim was a prostitute, said Washington Metropolitan Police Detective Jim Trainum.

The sailor emerged with a clean record, allowing him to pursue his military goals. His fall from grace was still years away.

At the end of the Reagan years and during most of the Bush administration, Rivera was an office worker for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the president’s top military advisers.

He was named the 1990 Sailor of the Year in the logistics section and rose to petty officer first class, according to his military file. He also received two Joint Service Commendation Medals, two Joint Service Achievement Medals and a Joint Meritorious Unit Commendation.

After his strong performance in Washington, he was sent to the University of South Carolina’s Naval ROTC program. Three years later, on May 14, 1993, he was commissioned as an ensign.

He spent a year in flight school in Pensacola, Fla. By December 1994, he had been assigned to more advanced fixed-wing aircraft training at the Naval Air Station in Corpus Christi, Texas.

According to Nueces County Constable’s Precinct 2, it wasn’t long before he tried to pick up two teen-age girls. The approach he allegedly used in January 1995 is chillingly similar to the one reported in the attacks in Augusta and Aiken County years later.

When Rivera encountered one of the 16-year-olds while she was walking alone, he claimed to be a photographer seeking swimsuit models and offered $150 an hour for a photo session, a constable said, reading from a police report.

The teen and a friend alerted police, who were waiting for him when he arrived at the rendezvous. Rivera was charged with soliciting a minor, but the case was turned over to the Navy.

When they searched his Chevrolet Camaro, Nueces County police found a vinyl duffel bag containing a bottle of baby oil, a tube of lubricant, a camera, prophylactics and a sheathed knife, according to a Navy criminal investigation report. They also found a video recorder and a videotape.

The tape showed Rivera having sex with a 16-year-old girl, the report states, and he admitted to having other sexually explicit videos at home. Another search turned up three tapes whose content the report does not explain.

However, Navy investigators dug up much about what was found in the car, leading to a charge of conduct unbecoming an officer. The Navy document contains the following account:

On Jan. 22, 1995, four days before his arrest, Rivera approached the teen and her 17-year-old cousin as they left a 7-11 store. He offered them as much as $200 to model for him. The girl told investigators she agreed because she needed the money.

He took them to the Ranch Motel in Corpus Christi and registered under the name Carlos Estrada. He instructed the 17-year-old to hold the video camera while he and her cousin had sexual intercourse. He coached the 16-year-old on how to answer his questions about her sexual preferences and sexual history. Eventually, he told the older girl to use a still camera.

The 16-year-old explained: “(I’d) gotten myself into something I couldn’t get out of,” the report says.

The investigation revealed a pattern by Rivera: The previous year he also had approached the daughter of a fellow officer in a mall while he was in Pensacola for flight school. In August 1994, he met her while she was working and offered her a fee to pose in a swimsuit, she said in the report. He told her the pay would be higher if she posed in lingerie, topless or nude.

The girl told Navy investigators he had also approached one of her friends while she was working at Sunglass Hut in the same mall, asking whether she thought sunglasses would spice up a bathing suit video.

Rivera underwent a counseling session after the Pensacola incident, the report says.

But the Corpus Christi affair was more serious. Four months after the arrest, the two-year anniversary of his commissioning came and went without a promotion to lieutenant junior grade.

Four months later – in September 1995 – his Navy career was over. As part of a plea agreement, he accepted the discharge to avoid a court-martial.

Thick and Thin

Rivera’s son was a toddler when he and his wife left Texas for Fayetteville, N.C. They lived with his brother before moving to their own home north of downtown. During their time in the city, Rivera took a job at Pizza Hut, then at Rick Hendrick Toyota.

At the car lot he found a new career. It wasn’t as steady as working for the U.S. government, but it paid the bills.

For a while, anyway.

By the start of 1997, Rivera had taken a job selling used cars for The Toyota Center in Columbia, earning about $2,200 a month. It still was not enough for the family, which now included a baby daughter. The couple was paying $580 a month for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment off Interstate 26.

The family finances were a wreck. The Riveras began filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in Columbia U.S. District Court while he was still at The Toyota Center.

Together, the couple owed $67,439 in credit card debts and loans and had $15,758 in assets.

By the time the papers were completed in August 1997, Rivera had been selling used cars at Galeana Chrysler Plymouth Jeep for about three months. He quit a week into January 1998.

Galeana General Manager Scott Rhodes said he didn’t think twice when Rivera departed less than a year after being hired. It’s common in the business, and he considered Rivera just another floating salesman.

From Columbia, Rivera drifted to Augusta, this time selling used cars at the Gerald Jones Select dealership on Washington Road. He moved his family to Bettis Academy Road in Graniteville, shortly after he took the Gerald Jones job in February 1998.

After three months, he switched jobs again, to Bourne Auto Center on Washington Road.

Apparently growing weary of the precarious auto sales business, by midyear he had applied for a position at the new Bridgestone/Firestone tire plant in Aiken County. He was hired and trained as a tire inspector and attended the grand opening.

Rivera worked rotating 12-hour shifts – 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., or vice versa. Sometimes he got four days off in a row. He was earning nearly $50,000 a year. He and his family attended Fellowship Baptist Church in Graniteville.

He was well thought of at the plant and in the neighborhood. But there were things family and friends didn’t know.

Talent Scout

Around Augusta, police began documenting reports of a Hispanic male trying to entice women. At the University of South Carolina Aiken, campus police spent two semesters in 1998 on the lookout for a cleancut man in a yellow car. The man approached white females on three occasions, asking for directions to Augusta, claimed to be opening an escort service and offered them a chance to apply for work, according to USC Aiken Public Safety Director Mike Findley.

Women who turned down the talent-scout scheme describe similar pickup lines that some say should have alerted authorities that the man had a problem.

Stubbs said she had her first run-in with Rivera in January 1999. For several months, she said, she was continually harassed by a man who identified himself as “Ralph.” He first approached her in the parking lot of the Bi-Lo shopping center in Clearwater, telling her about his photography studio and offering a chance to have her picture in a portfolio. She gave him a phone number.

“He kept calling and calling. My stepfather totally freaked. He said this man could be some murderer and you can’t be doing that,” Stubbs said.

After receiving one call, her stepfather said he had a tap on the phone and planned to call police. The man got nervous.

“(The caller) was just like, ‘Why do you want to get the cops involved? I haven’t done anything! I haven’t done anything!’ ” Ms. Stubbs said. “He was just really unnerved about it. He never called back.

“I had to contact police once or twice, and nothing was ever done about it. I believe if they would have listened to me, a few more lives could have been saved.”

Last summer, after Melissa Dingess, Tiffaney Wilson and Tabatha Bosdell – all 17 – were already dead, Aiken police questioned Rivera about his lurking in a Blockbuster video parking lot. When asked why he was trying to pick up girls, he reportedly responded, “My hormones are going crazy.”

He apologized, and no charges were filed. Six weeks later, Fort Gordon Army Sgt. Marni Glista, 21, was fatally attacked in her west Augusta home.

Not until Chrisilee Barton, 18, survived a rape, strangulation and stabbing Oct. 10 did the nightmare come to an end.

Shattered Lives

According to a warrant application in the Barton case, one of Rivera’s relatives let him know police were on his trail the night before his capture.

He fled his home on Sudlow Ridge Road in North Augusta, the document states, leaving behind a note saying he was sorry for what he had done and asking his wife to take care of the children.

About a week after his arrest, Rivera’s wife penned her own letter to news media.

“My life is shattered and I just ask that the community have compassion not so much for me but for my two small children who are victims also,” she wrote. “We have asked God over and over, Why? How could this have happened? We just do not have the answers and probably never will.”

She declined to participate in this article, as did other relatives and the pastor of Rivera’s church.

Attorney Jacque Hawk, who is helping defend Rivera, is piecing together his client’s life story, interviewing family members and pulling records. He said he hopes some good can come from it, perhaps learning how such tragedies can be prevented.

Rivera’s main concern now is protecting his children “from knowing anything about his situation, that he’s even alive right now. He misses very much being able to see them,” Hawk said. “This is a situation where a young man had an opportunity to do great things with his life. This was a man who had done a lot and achieved a lot.

“How this would happen is beyond me.”

‘I Pray For Him’

The arrest brought answers for four families who lost daughters, sisters and wives. It shed light on two unsolved homicides and the tragic ending to a missing-person case.

Within days, the news of the arrest was rippling from state to state and across the Caribbean Sea.

Inostrosa, from Jabucoa Hospital, had lost touch with the Rivera family after she left Humacao. Her memories were stirred when she saw the face of a grown-up Reinaldo in the pages of El Nuevo Dia, a daily Puerto Rican newspaper.

Even if I don’t know him or her, or if he is guilty or innocent, I pray for him because they have to be suffering so much,” she said.

Word also spread quickly to other places Rivera had lived. Those law enforcement agencies wanted in on the act.

Soon after he was appointed to defend Rivera, attorney Peter Johnson was inundated with calls from investigators. He refused access on the grounds of protecting his client’s interests.

The lawmen aren’t giving up. The FBI already has entered details about the patterns in the killings into a database, allowing police across the country to compare notes.

Sgt. Wayne Bunton, Richmond County Sheriff’s Department’s lead investigator in the case, said his department will assist other agencies and hopes eventually to compile a DNA profile.

Mark Brewington, a criminal specialist with North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and part of a multi-agency task force looking into a string of unsolved prostitute deaths, said he’s optimistic a crucial lead could be found in the Rivera case.

During his statement to police, Rivera claimed he once raped a woman in Fayetteville, Richmond County investigators said.

“I don’t care if it’s from 1963, we’re going to do everything we can,” Brewington said. “Maybe we can clear some things up.

“At least we’ll know we’ve done our jobs.””

Posted: Monday, November 20, 2000 by the Savannah Morning News. Chronicle staff writers Greg Rickabaugh and Chasiti Kirkland contributed to this article.