It was 1991 and I was in my early twenties, finishing up an undergraduate degree at the University of Miami.  I inhabited a small studio in a dilapidated Mediterranean-style apartment building called The Amsterdam Palace.  It was on 12th Street and Ocean Drive, in South Miami Beach.  Giovanni Versace would buy this piece of real estate a few years later, rename it Casa Casuarina, and turn into a single family home.  He would also purchase the retirement hotel to the south to expand his garden and install a pool.  It was here, on these front steps, that the renowned fashion designer would be murdered. 

I had returned home a bit early from my part-time job at the South Florida Arts Center, then a small start-up nonprofit a few blocks away on Lincoln Road.  I passed through the wide stone archway and used my key to open the iron front gate, entering the expansive three-tiered courtyard.  I noticed that my ground floor apartment door was slightly ajar, with several jalousie window panes missing.  As I peered into the apartment my eyes locked with those of a young man who was riffling through my drawers.  We both stood there for a moment, frozen in time.

Soon the man was running out of my apartment, out of the building.  The sound of me yelling, ‘Help, thief, call the police!’ in rapid succession echoed through the courtyard in his wake.  I was so overcome with anger that I gave chase, pursuing him up Ocean Drive and even into a back alleyway before stopping, realizing the ridiculousness of my actions.  I turned and breathlessly walked back to the Amsterdam Palace.

Within a few minutes, one of my neighbors entered the courtyard carrying a set of clothes:  black shirt, black trousers.  She handed them to me, informing me she had seen the thief drop them in the alley.  In the pockets I found a few pieces of my jewelry, along with the thief’s wallet, complete with his driver’s license, probation papers, and photos of his kids.  His name was named Fidel Israel Hernandez.  Soon several more neighbors had assembled outside of my apartment, drawn by the commotion.  One of them noticed a small sack, inconspicuously tucked under my courtyard dining table.  Inside it we found a set of white clothes.  

Not long afterwards two police officers arrived and we surveyed the evidence together.  The police deduced that what had likely transpired is that Mr. Hernandez wore a black outfit to rob me but planned to slip into a white one later on, thwarting potential eye witnesses.  As he made his getaway, he remembered his plan to disrobe.  In his panic, he had forgotten his change of clothes.  He was soon picked up by the police, running down Ocean Drive, wearing only his underpants.

The police asked me to come down to the station the following day.  Mr. Hernandez was assigned a public defender and insisted on his innocence.  I met with someone from the district attorney’s office who told me they would try to plead out the case.  The evidence was pretty damning, after all.

Eight months later I got a notification in the mail that Fidel Israel Hernandez was being released from jail. At the time I thought it felt right, serving eight months of a two-year sentence for a non-violent robbery. Now, years later, in my mid-fifties with a lifetime in the rearview mirror, I find myself wondering if justice really was served, and whether there may have been a better way to treat a desperate young man with two small children.

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