Dark end to a hunt for love
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.
IN THE February edition of a Brazilian skin-care magazine, an advertisement hypes the wonders of “dermopigmentation,” a process of medical tattooing in which freckles or other skin alterations are created for aesthetic effect. Accompanying the text is a gauzy photo of a buxom Rachid in a low-cut rose dress that Merrill used as a computer screen saver. Despite her cultured ways and upper-middle-class lifestyle, Brazilian authorities say, Rachid had no license to perform medical tattooing or any other surgical procedure.
“Regina aspired to be something she wasn’t,” one Brazilian investigator said.
Rachid, according to police and her e-mail conversations with Merrill, was a woman bristling with resentments -- about her lack of means to care for Ana Paula and her son, Joao; her inability to practice legally what she regarded as her craft; her bitter estrangement from her father, a successful Lebanese immigrant merchant. She seemed to feel that life had dealt her a low blow.
Even as Rachid wooed Merrill with steamy glamour photos -- including one of her topless, her arms embracing her breasts, the top button on her jeans opened -- she also liked to present herself as an upholder of traditional values.
“If we are going to be together, we have to get married,” Rachid wrote to Merrill.
MERRILL first ventured to Brazil to meet Rachid in November 2005, a 12-day jaunt that left him smitten.
“When he came back from the first visit, he was very happy with the woman,” recounted Eva Quinones, a longtime friend and neighbor.
But already there were some sour notes.
On one stop at his home after the first trip, Quinones recalls finding Merrill struggling with bills and paper on his desk.
“What’s all this?” she asked.
“Someone charged almost $8,000 on my credit card in Brazil,” he said.
That didn’t deter Merrill from going back Jan. 17. For slightly more than two weeks, he stayed mostly in a hotel, telling one friend that he didn’t feel comfortable in Rachid’s home. He later confided to the friend that Rachid hinted at a romantic complication. Known to his friends as frugal, Merrill lavished gifts upon Rachid, including a $20,000 SUV, a vehicle she later sold to pay her legal bills, police said.
Upon returning to the United States, Merrill found that as much as $20,000 more had been falsely charged to his Citibank credit card.
The fake charges deeply troubled Merrill, but he refused to blame his beloved.
“I’m very tired of banks, cards, Master, Visa, Debit, accounts, payments, reales, dollars, swifts, pin numbers, online banking, managers, ATMs, withdrawals, transfers.... Enough!” Merrill wrote to Rachid on Feb. 21. “I would prefer to think of candies ... and of you, Regina.”
Quinones urged him to abandon his Brazilian reverie, but she said Merrill became defensive, responding, “You have to fight for what you love.”
On March 21, Merrill left for Brazil. He told friends that his agenda included marriage -- he had bought a $5,000 engagement ring -- and a little “detective” work on the bogus credit card charges.
“Bill,” Merrill told his oldest friend, Bill Rauch, as he left for Brazil, “it’s showtime.”
MERRILL didn’t return to California as scheduled on April 4.
He had also extended his previous Brazilian trips. But both times, he had alerted Rauch.
Merrill’s sister was soon frantic. Their father, who had recently reconciled with his son after a lifetime of differences, was near death. Benjamin Eugene Merrill, 86, a Pearl Harbor survivor, died May 2.
On May 8, the sister and Rauch finally reported Merrill missing to the San Bruno Police Department, which notified the FBI. The U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo made inquiries.
Backed-up mail showed tens of thousands of dollars streaming from Merrill’s accounts. Unpaid bills were piling up, and the house was nearing foreclosure.
Prodded by U.S. authorities, Brazilian police interviewed Rachid in late May. She said Merrill had left in early April to visit a woman friend in the Brazilian coastal city of Paraty. The friend told police that Merrill never arrived.
Between Feb. 2 and May 12, authorities say, about $132,000 was removed from a UBS bank account that Merrill maintained in Las Vegas.
Eventually, UBS officials blocked further transfers. On May 24, branch officials received a grammatically suspect e-mail purporting to be from Merrill -- using a Hotmail account in his name -- seeking $50,000. The note demanded “respect” because Merrill was in mourning over his father’s death.
“I ask you to reactive my card RIGHT AWAY,” the e-mail insisted. “I am remaking my life in Brazil.”
Investigators would later conclude that Merrill had been dead for almost two months by then.
Although strongly suspecting foul play, police had no body and no physical evidence of wrongdoing, just reports of a missing American whose savings were hemorrhaging.
EVEN as Merrill’s loved ones worried that they would never know what happened, fate intervened in the unlikely guise of a botched robbery in an upscale shopping mall here in San Jose dos Campos.
A black-market currency dealer reported on June 2 that a man and a woman had assaulted him in his car in a parking lot. The woman had supposedly wanted to buy dollars and euros, he told police, but it turned out to be a setup. The money dealer said he managed to escape and that the man and woman fled in another car.
Inside the dealer’s vehicle, police discovered a handbag. It belonged to Rachid; along with her identification, the bag contained Merrill’s Citibank ATM card.
Rachid was arrested that day and has been in custody since on a robbery charge. Police think she is the woman who accosted the currency dealer.
A subsequent search of Rachid’s home, police said, revealed that the house had recently had a complete makeover: new paint, furniture, appliances. An extensive handwritten “to-buy” list noted new televisions, DVDs, a refrigerator, a dryer, bedclothes, patio furniture, artwork, rocks for the front pond and an outdoor grill.
The buying spree, police said, included a new Peugeot, valued at $19,000, for Rachid’s daughter.
Among the evidence seized at Rachid’s house, authorities said, were packages of the date-rape drug Rohypnol and another sedative, Rivotril, both purchased with forged prescriptions. Authorities think Merrill passed his final days sedated while Rachid and an accomplice coerced him into providing passwords for the accounts that held his life savings.
In statements to police, Rachid denied wrongdoing. She said Merrill had given her everything -- including his bank card.
THE investigation led to Nelson Siqueira Neves, Rachid’s apparent boyfriend and a small-time grifter with a history of fraud, officials said. He was suspected as Rachid’s collaborator in the alleged takedown of the currency dealer. But Siqueira couldn’t be found.
Investigators checked the Internet, wondering whether Siqueira might have represented himself on orkut, a website where thousands of Brazilians post personal histories. The hunch panned out.
Siqueira introduced himself on the Internet as a rock ‘n’ roll bon vivant who loved women, booze and the good life. Several photos showed him living it up at a beach resort in the weeks after Merrill’s disappearance.
Police presented the photos of Siqueira to the currency dealer. “That’s him,” the victim said, pointing to an undated photo of Siqueira partying with friends.
But he wasn’t referring to Siqueira; he fingered a pock-faced man at the side of the frame. That man was Evandro Celso Augusto Ribeiro.
EVANDRO, as police here call him, was a small-time loser with a long history of drug use and petty crime, authorities said. His connection to Rachid and her boyfriend possibly linked him to the disappearance of Merrill. But like Siqueira, Evandro had dropped out of sight. The case stalled.
But Evandro had a tendency to shoot his mouth off -- and a weakness for draft beer.
“I killed a gringo,” he bragged at a chopperia, or bar, in the beach town of Cabo Frio.
A tipster called police about Evandro’s boasts. Authorities swooped in. With the help of cellphone records, Evandro was arrested Sept. 23 at his beachside shack.
“You know me, and I know you,” a police officer warned Evandro, according to one investigator. “The woman is talking, and she’s blaming everything on you.”
Evandro opened up like a faucet, authorities said.
A TEARFUL Evandro led police to the dirt road where, he said, the body had been dumped.
He told police that his longtime friend Siqueira had promised him about $6,000 to help dispose of the corpse. Police suspect Evandro may have been involved in the slaying, though he denies it.
According to Evandro, he and Siqueira helped carry the already dead Merrill from Rachid’s house to a rented car on the evening of April 1. Siqueira found the April Fools’ Day date auspicious.
“No one will believe it!” Siqueira joked, according to Evandro.
Rachid drove about 25 miles outside town to an isolated dirt road, with Merrill’s body in the front passenger seat, a seat belt holding the American in place and Evandro and Siqueira sharing the rear, Evandro told police.
The body was dragged from the car, Evandro said, doused with diesel and set ablaze.
Authorities checked records. A charred body, copper wire around its neck, had been found April 2 at the site. A grisly photo of the corpse even ran in the local newspaper. Officials had buried the remains as an unknown indigent in the cemetery of the nearest town, Cacapava.
With the mission accomplished, Evandro demanded his payout, he told authorities.
The ill-fated assault on the currency dealer, police said, was meant to obtain the cash owed to Evandro.
BASED on Evandro’s statement, authorities here exhumed the body and took DNA and dental samples. Dental records conclusively confirmed the body was Merrill’s, police said last month. Police said Merrill had been strangled.
Rachid and Evandro remain in custody on the robbery allegation and will be charged with murder, along with Siqueira, who is still a fugitive, said Ana Paula Medeiros Monteiro de Barros, deputy police chief here.
The investigation, which includes six volumes of e-mails, cellphone records, photos, declarations and other evidence, should be completed this week and presented to prosecutors, Medeiros said.
“We have the elements to prosecute the three suspects for Merrill’s murder,” Medeiros said.
Merrill’s family and friends are planning memorial services in California and Buenos Aires. Cortez, his former girlfriend, paints a portrait of a man whose flight from the anguish of solitude blinded him.
“Raymond believed in a dream, and I think that’s why he met his demise,” Cortez said. “He didn’t see the warning signs, didn’t pay attention. He just believed in his dream.”
McDonnell was recently on assignment in Brazil. Special correspondent Marcelo Soares in San Jose dos Campos and Sao Paulo and Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires Bureau contributed to this report.