Jimmy Ryce’s day on September 11, 1995 started off like almost any other day. He was dropped off by his school bus in deep south Miami-Dade County. For Jimmy, his family, and all of South Florida, what happened next gave a face to evil.
Almost 20 years later, there will finally be justice for the little boy whose smile and spirit touched everyone’s hearts.
Jimmy Goes Missing
Jimmy loved baseball, fishing, and his family. When he vanished, seemingly into thin air on that September day, his parents Don and Claudine Ryce were hopeful that maybe Jimmy had just run away. They continued to tell him they loved him and begged for him to come back.
But Jimmy didn’t come back. Search helicopters filled the skies above South Florida in the next few days while strangers offered up prayers for the little boy. Search parties fanned out through the area hacking their way through dozens of square miles looking for any trace of the boy.
Police went through thousands of leads from all across the country. Jimmy’s photo was all over the news and a missing person flier was being put up everywhere across the area. All the while, his family had hope that things would work out and Jimmy would be brought home.
Three months would pass from that warm September day when Jimmy vanished before police would catch a break in the case.
“Most Heinous Homicide I’ve Ever Handled”
But just as quickly as Jimmy had vanished, police received the break they were looking for and the Ryce family was hoping they’d never have to face.
Ranch owner Susan Scheinhaus thought her ranch hand was stealing from her and went into his trailer on the property. Once inside, she discovered a gun that belonged to her and found little Jimmy’s backpack filled with his school books and homework.
The ranch hand, Juan Carlos Chavez, would tell detectives a series of stories before lifting the veil on what happened to Jimmy in what one of the detectives called “one of the most heinous homicides I’ve ever handled.”
Chavez admitted to forcing Jimmy into his truck at gunpoint just after the boy got off his school bus. He took the terrified boy to a remote trailer where he raped the child. When Jimmy heard helicopters overhead Chavez shot him to death as Jimmy tried to run from the mobile home trailer.
While Jimmy was dead, the crime got worse. Chavez told police he took Jimmy’s body to the Scheinhaus Ranch, dismembered the body and put the pieces in planters before filling them with concrete. Police found the planters exactly where Chavez said they would be.
“The day we walked him out of the door. The perp walk. I don’t like perp walks, but that day was the day that all of Dade County saw a monster,” said Detective Pat Diaz, who walked alongside of Chavez.
As the community continued to struggle with the heinous crime, Don and Claudine Ryce had closure on what happened to their son who Don called, “a gift from God.”
It would take three long years before Chavez would come to trial in Orlando. The trial was moved from South Florida due to the intense publicity the crime had generated. The prosecution showed the jury the bush hook used to dismember Jimmy’s body in court.
“We had to excavate those planters, we had to dig through the concrete to find poor little Jimmy Ryce’s body that had been dismembered,” said Catherine Vogel, lead prosecutor of Juan Carlos Chavez.
The defense dropped a bombshell in court as Chavez recanted his confession and accused his employer’s son of the crime. But detectives who took the stand and other experts quickly took apart Chavez’s defense and he was convicted of the murder of Jimmy Ryce.
“You, Juan Carlos Chavez, are hereby sentenced to death,” ruled Judge Marc Schumacher in November 1998.
As appeals dragged on for years, things were never the same for the Ryce family. In 2009, Claudine Ryce died from coronary disease, a broken heart, and didn’t live to see Chavez put to death. Jimmy’s sister Martha took her own life last year at the age of 35.
When Governor Rick Scott signed the death warrant in January, Don Ryce wept with his son Ted, the only remaining family he has left.
Justice For Jimmy
The execution date for Juan Carlos Chavez was scheduled for February 12, 2014. Don Ryce gave a brief statement on January 2, 2014 when they found out about the scheduled execution.
“I just received the news that justice will finally be done in the murder of my son, Jimmy, on September 11, 1995. I feel a combination of sadness and relief. I hope this sends a message to predators that this behavior will not go unpunished,” Don Ryce wrote.
“This is not about seeking revenge, there’s a big difference between seeking revenge and seeking justice. This is one of the few times where even our society says your crime was so great, so evil, so heinous, that you have lost the right to live.”
Still, as with any death penalty case, multiple appeals still remained before the planned execution.
On January 16, 2014, a Miami-Dade judge rejected an appeal by Chavez. The killer had asked the judge to stay the execution due to a pending appeal in federal court.
A second appeal was filed and rejected on January 31. Chavez tried to challenge the constitutionality of the lethal injection in Florida and claimed he was denied due process during the clemency proceedings.
The execution was on schedule with only a federal appeals court or a last minute appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court as Chavez’s final options.
Though Jimmy was gone, his family fought to make sure another family wouldn’t have to suffer through the same pain they had been dealt. The family convinced the legislature to pass the Jimmy Ryce Act in 1998 and the bill was signed into law by Governor Lawton Chiles and took effect in January 1999.
The law requires the state to evaluate sexual offenders before they’re released from jail and keeping the most dangerous confined at a treatment center. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) then reviews the cases and decides which once to recommend to stay in state custody.
To be committed, a judge or jury must find that the inmate is a sexually violent predator, meaning they have at least one conviction for a violent sex crime and a mental condition. Once a person is committed, they will remain in treatment indefinitely, or until they are released by the courts if their mental condition improves.
In addition, Don and Claudine Ryce started the non-profit Jimmy Ryce foundation in 1996 to start donating bloodhounds to law enforcement agencies. The family believed that Jimmy would have been found sooner and possibly survived if police in 1995 had access to a bloodhound. Since the foundation was started, more than 400 certified bloodhounds have been donated to law enforcement agencies including multiple ones across South Florida.
Ted Ryce, Jimmy’s brother, is now 37-years-old and works as a personal trainer. He still remembers trying to be a role model to Jimmy and has no doubt Chavez killed Jimmy. Ted’s workouts are strenuous and they help him deal with all of the loss in his life from Jimmy, to his mom Claudine, to his sister Martha. He said he’s proud of his parents for starting the foundation and plans to increase the work he does to help Jimmy’s legacy.
“My sister is gone. My mother is gone, and I don’t know how much longer my dad will be able to keep the Bloodhound program and all the other things he’s done and I want to make sure that stays in place and keeps going,” Ted told CBS4.
And perhaps that is the ultimate legacy for the Rice family after the tragic loss of Jimmy; an unending quest to make sure that no family will ever have to suffer the pain they did.
More Stories On Jimmy Ryce, His Death, His Legacy, And The Execution Of Chavez
- CBS4’s Gary Nelson Witnesses Execution Of Ryce’s Killer
- Jimmy Ryce’s Father Warns Other Child Predators Following Chavez’s Execution
- Jimmy Ryce’s Killer Executed
- How Jimmy Ryce’s Killer Spent His Final Hours
- Miami Archdiocese Prays For All Involved In Chavez Execution
- More Last Minute Appeals Possible Ahead Of Chavez Execution
- Justice For Jimmy: A Look Back At The Chavez Trial
- ‘Strength’ Defines Jimmy Ryce’s Father & Brother
- Jimmy Ryce’s Killer Again Denied Stay Of Execution
- Justice For Jimmy Ryce Just Days Away