On June 26, 1994, a Palm Beach County police officer discovered a Mercedes SL convertible on fire near South Bay, Florida. The car was registered to 48-year-old Casmir Sucharski, a resident of Miramar, Florida and owner of Casey’s Nickelodeon, a restaurant in Pembroke Park, Florida.
Miramar police were notified and an officer went to Sucharski’s home. When no one answered the door, he left his business card and left.
In the early morning hours of June 27, the mother of 25-year-old Marie Rogers reported her daughter missing. She said Rogers had gone to Casey’s on the night of June 25 with a friend, 25-year-old Sharon Anderson. A police officer went to the restaurant and learned that Sucharski, Rogers and Anderson had left the restaurant together shortly after midnight. The officer went to Sucharski’s home, where Anderson’s car was parked. When no one answered the door, he looked through a window and saw the bodies of Anderson, Rogers and Sucharski. All had been fatally shot.
Police discovered that eight days earlier, Sucharski had a video surveillance system installed in his home. The tape revealed that at 7:18 a.m. on June 26, two men, one wearing a shirt over his head and the other wearing a cap and sunglasses, entered through a sliding glass door and confronted the victims. After Sucharski was beaten for more than 20 minutes, the man with the shirt over his head shot all three victims in the head. The man with the sunglasses shot Anderson and Rogers in the back. Before the men left, the man wearing the shirt was seen uncovering his face.
Still photographs were created of the two men from the video and were circulated among police departments in South Florida. Three weeks later, the Metro-Dade police department notified Miramar detectives that they had arrested three men in a home invasion there—22-year-old Pablo Ibar, Alberto Rincon and Alex Hernandez. Ibar, police said, resembled the man who had uncovered his face during the murders in Miramar.
Ibar told Miramar detectives that he spent the night of the murders with two friends, one named Jean Klimeczko, whom police then interviewed. Klimeczko, who lived with Ibar, Rincon and Hernandez, told police the man with the uncovered face was Ibar. He said the man with the cap and sunglasses looked like a man he knew as Seth Pentlover.
Police determined that Klimeczko was referring to 21-year-old Seth Penalver of Fort Lauderdale. Police said they obtained a photograph of Penalver and that Klimeczko identified him as the second gunman.
On August 5, 1994, Penalver learned there was a warrant out for his arrest and he voluntarily surrendered. Shortly after, he and Ibar were indicted on charges first-degree murder, robbery, burglary and attempted robbery.
Penalver and Ibar went on trial in Broward County Circuit Court in June 1997.
By the time of the trial, police had found three other witnesses who they said identified Penalver from the surveillance photo – Melissa Munroe, Ian Milman, and Kimberly San. San did not come forward until nearly three years after the murder.
At trial, Munroe, a former girlfriend of Penalver, said she had not identified Penalver, but rather had signed her name to his photograph only to show that she had seen his picture. She maintained that police pressured her to sign her name and that she never intended it to mean she had identified him as the second gunman.
Klimeczko testified that he could not identify the second gunman as Penalver and that he was under the influence of narcotics and alcohol when he made his earlier identification.
Milman testified that he had not made any identification, but that he had signed his name to photographs of Ibar and Penalver because police told him to do so.
Two facial reconstruction experts testified—one for the defense and one for the prosecution. Neither could link the video image of the man with sunglasses and hat to Penalver because the video was of poor quality. However, the defense expert said he believed that the shape of Penalver’s chin was different than the chin of the man on the video.
A bloody shoeprint was found at the scene of the murders. Police confiscated shoes from the residence where Klimeczko, Ibar, Hernandez and Rincon lived and said one of the shoes matched the bloody print. Shoes taken from Penalver did not match any other shoe prints found.
A shirt found outside the murder scene contained some human hair, but it did not resemble the hair of either Penalver or Ibar. Penalver’s car and clothing were examined, but no blood or other incriminating evidence was found.
Dozens of fingerprints were found in Sucharski’s house and more than 30 were unidentified. None were linked to Ibar or Penalver.
Kimberly San, who had formerly lived with Penalver, testified that although she could not recognize the face of the man with the cap and glasses on the video, she believed it was Penalver because she recognized the way he walked. San said she went to Penalver’s house the day after the murders to move out. She saw the washing machine was overflowing and that the bubbles were pink – suggesting that Penalver was washing bloody clothes. She said Penalver was driving a black Mercedes convertible that resembled Sucharski’s car.
She said she had not come forward earlier because she was afraid of Penalver, although she had visited him while he was in jail awaiting trial. She admitted she offered her testimony in exchange for leniency for her then-boyfriend, who was facing a charge of aggravated battery on a pregnant woman.
A defense witness testified that she saw Hernandez and Ibar in Sucharski’s restaurant a few days before the murders and they were arguing with Sucharski over a bill.
San’s mother testified she was there on the day her daughter allegedly saw pink bubbles overflowing from the washing machine. She testified there were no bubbles at all.
Experts for the prosecution and defense tried to recreate pink bubbles overflowing a washing machine, but were unable to do so. Police looked for traces of blood in the house, but found none.
A former inmate at the Broward County jail testified that he was in a cell with Ibar and Penalver and other inmates prior to the trial when he heard Penalver say, “My lawyer says I got a shot because I didn’t take my mask off, you did.” He admitted that when he was interviewed prior to trial he didn’t mention Penalver referring to a mask.
Gary Foy, Sucharski’s neighbor, testified that as he was leaving his home on the morning of the murders, a car with two men left Sucharski’s house and drove behind him for about 10 minutes. Foy identified the passenger as Ibar. He could not identify the driver.
The prosecution presented evidence that Munroe had met with Penalver’s attorney on several occasions and argued that Penalver’s attorney had convinced her to change her testimony about her identification of Penalver.
The prosecution also presented evidence that when Penalver first surrendered, he refused a police demand to hand over his shoes and the shoes had to be forcibly removed. At the time, Penalver allegedly said, “I might as well be dead.” The prosecution argued Penalver’s comment and resistance were evidence of consciousness of guilt.
Paul Manzella, the lead detective on the case, testified that no witnesses had been rewarded for their testimony.
On January 25, 1998, after seven months of trial and 27 hours of deliberation, a mistrial was declared when jurors deadlocked 10-to-2 in favor of conviction.
The cases of Penalver and Ibar were then severed and Penalver was tried again in the summer of 1999. After a six-month trial, he was convicted and sentenced to death.
In 2000, Ibar was convicted by a jury and sentenced to death.
In February 2006, the Florida Supreme Court reversed Penalver’s conviction and death sentence. The court ruled that the trial judge had allowed improper hearsay testimony that Hernandez—considered a possible suspect—was out of town on the weekend of the murders. The court said there was no proof Hernandez was out of town at all.
In reaching their decision, the court said the justices had reviewed the videotape and concluded for themselves it was “difficult to determine whether Penalver is the individual with the hat and sunglasses.”
The court said that because the tape was inconclusive and there was no physical evidence linking Penalver to the murders, the testimony of the eyewitnesses was critical.
The court ruled that the testimony about Penalver’s comment that he “might as well be dead” was improperly admitted because it was not evidence of consciousness of guilt. The court also said the testimony about Munroe’s meetings with Penalver’s attorney should have been barred because of the suggestion that the defense had tampered with a witness.
At the time of the reversal, Ibar was pressing a motion for a new trial based on inadequate legal assistance of his trial attorney. Ibar’s new lawyer had obtained evidence through public records act requests that had never been disclosed to Penalver’s trial attorney.
These records included raw notes of detective interviews with witnesses, including Klimeczko, showing that the witnesses had been unable to identify Penalver at first. According to the notes, only after considerable pressure did the witnesses allegedly identify Penalver, though at trial they denied doing so at all.
Among the documents were reports from Manzella, the lead detective, about his interview with Klimeczko showing that Klimeczko had given the name of Seth Pentlover on July 29, 1994. The following day, a representative from Crime Stoppers notified Manzella of an anonymous tip that one of the participants in the murder was Seth Pentlover. On August 5—the day Penalver was arrested—Manzella told Crime Stoppers to pay the reward money to the tipster, who was Klimeczko.
Penalver went on trial for the third time in the spring of 2012. During the trial, Manzella was confronted with the reports about the reward and reminded that he had testified previously that no witnesses got any reward. He said he had forgotten.
The witnesses were questioned about the detective notes showing that they had initially been unable to identify Penalver and maintained—as some did at the previous trials—that they had been pressured by police to sign the photograph of Penalver and that their signatures did not mean they identified Penalver.
On December 21, 2012, after an eight-month trial, the jury acquitted Penalver. Ibar’s conviction was upheld by the Florida Supreme Court and he remains on Florida’s death row.
– Maurice Possley