MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The kidnapping, rape and murder of Jimmy Ryce, 18-years-ago, shook South Florida to its core but on Wednesday, the man convicted of the horrific crime is set to be executed on Florida’s death row.
The date was September 11th, 1995. Jimmy Ryce was dropped off by his school bus in deep South Miami-Dade and into the grasp of evil incarnate. The 9-year-old boy who loved baseball, and fishing and family simply vanished.
His parents, Don and Claudine Ryce were hopeful. They thought maybe Jimmy, as little boys do, had simply run away.
“As long as we keep looking there’s a chance that we’ll find him,” said Jimmy’s mother Claudine in September of 1995. “And as long as I keep telling Jimmy I love him, we’re here, you can come back anytime, it’s okay.”
But Jimmy did not come back.
Search helicopters filled the sky. Strangers offered up prayers and organized grid searches.
They hiked, and hacked their way through dozens of square miles. Police canvassed the roadways and the case made America’s Most Wanted.
There were possible sightings. Someone said they saw Jimmy in the Keys. His mother was hopeful.
“It makes me smile, even the thought of it,” she said at the time.
The man who led the Jimmy Ryce investigation remembers the case as if it was yesterday.
But from the beginning, homicide detectives were at work.
“We went through thousands of leads. We had leads from psychics; we had leads from all across the country. At one point, we decided we were looking for a killer,” recalled Retired Detective Pat Diaz.
Jimmy’s photo was still being plastered on doors everywhere, online, and a missing person flier which was printed out and mailed to thousands.
But there was still no sign of Jimmy until three months after he vanished.
Redland ranch owner, Susan Scheinhaus, suspected her farm hand Juan Carlos Chavez was stealing from her.
She went into a trailer that Chavez stayed in on the property and inside she found a gun, stolen from her, and Jimmy Ryce’s back pack filled with his school books and homework.
Detectives questioned Chavez. He told a series of tall tales and finally told the awful truth.
“This was one of the most heinous homicides I’ve ever handled,” said Diaz.
Chavez admitted forcing Jimmy into his truck at gunpoint just after he got off the school bus. He took Jimmy to a remote trailer where he raped the child, and shot Jimmy dead as the terrified boy tried to run from the filthy mobile home.
Chavez told police he took Jimmy to the Scheinhaus ranch, dismembered the body and put the pieces in planters, filling them with concrete. Police found the planters just where Chavez said they would.
It was detective Pat Diaz who held Chavez by the arm when he was taken to jail more than 18 years ago. It’s his only good memory of a very sad story.
“The day we walked him out of the door, the perp walk. I don’t like perp walks, but that was the day that all of Dade county saw a monster, that we put away a bad guy.”
Claudine Ryce unwrapped Jimmy’s birthday gifts. New clothes and shoes, and gave them to his friends.
“I know Jimmy would want to give them, because he never got to his tenth birthday,” she cried.
Don Ryce, Jimmy’s father, remembered the child he called a gift from God.
“Well, now we know he’s back in god’s hands,” said Don in December 1995.
Chavez, 46, was convicted in 1998 by a jury in Orlando, where his trial was moved because of the intense media scrutiny in South Florida. He testified in his own defense, claiming his confession was improperly coerced by police and attempting to blame his landlord’s son for the killing.
He was found guilty of murder, sexual battery and kidnapping.
In the 18 years since their son’s death, his father and his mother, before her death, tried to alleviate the pain of their family’s tragedy by working for society’s good. They pushed for new laws regarding confinement of sexual predators and worked to improve police procedures in missing child cases. The Ryces created the Jimmy Ryce Center for Victims of Predatory Abduction, a nonprofit organization based in Vero Beach that works to increase public awareness and education about sexual predators, provides counseling for parents of victims and helps train law enforcement agencies in ways to respond to missing children cases.
With the killer’s scheduled execution set for Wednesday, Don Ryce said the death of Juan Carlos Chavez will finally bring some measure of justice. Barring a successful last-minute appeal, Chavez is scheduled to die by lethal injection at Florida State Prison in Starke.
“People sometimes say that will bring you closure. There is no such thing as closure, hate that word. It doesn’t resolve everything for you. My child will not suddenly come back if Chavez is executed,” said Ryce, now 70. “But it’s important to close that chapter out in my life and to feel like justice has finally been done for my son.”
Ryce said in a recent interview that in the years since Chavez was arrested for Jimmy’s slaying he felt “the universe is a little bit twisted” because he has also lost his wife, Claudine, and daughter Martha while Chavez remained alive.