Editor's Note: Because the semester is over and the Alligator staff won't be monitoring this article during the break, comments for this story have been disabled to avoid the potential for harming the victims of sexual assault. Those who wish to respond to the story can submit a signed letter to the editor of the Alligator staff for consideration when the newspaper resumes publication at the start of the spring semester.
Sitting on a bed, Danielle Ruiz watched Luis Pereira and his roommate in the kitchen. They stood with their backs to Ruiz and filled a milk jug with alcohol and another mysterious substance.
“Crystal Light,” Pereira said.
Ruiz met with Pereira earlier that night in October 2010 outside Spannk, a Southwest Second Street club, after she left a costume party. Pereira invited Ruiz — and others, he said — to his place. Ruiz always enjoyed his parties, so she went, still wearing a black sequin jacket and a pink tutu. When she arrived, though, the apartment was empty.
Ruiz felt uncomfortable, so they went to another party. When they returned to his place, she planned to call a friend to pick her up and gently told Pereira she didn’t want to stay.
“How about a game of cards?” Ruiz remembers him asking.
“Sure,” she said.
They’d played cards before. One game wouldn’t hurt. She had no idea that the next morning she would wake up in Pereira’s bed, and for the next two years, she would recount her last memories of the card game to law enforcement and lawyers in a sexual battery case.
That night, Ruiz would testify, Pereira handed her the light pink drink in a clear cup. Ruiz studied it, then sipped.
The liquid ran down her throat.
No, she said. It’s too strong.
Pereira retreated to the kitchen.
As a recent transplant from Baton Rouge, La., looking for a fresh start, Ruiz met Pereira in the summer of 2009. She planned to see a couple of her new friends downtown. There, Pereira introduced himself. He played the part of the affable club promoter, as he always did.
He asked for her phone number, and for the next year he texted Ruiz to promote different events. Sometimes she went.
Back in his bedroom, Pereira handed Ruiz the drink again. This time it tasted better. Pereira and his roommate sat on the bed with her and played cards. Ruiz can’t remember what game they played. She just remembers winning and the guys teasing her, feigning anger. She thought they were drinking the pink liquid, too.
As she played, Ruiz felt the same way she did 12 years earlier at band camp the summer before her sophomore year at Central High School, where she marched with her piccolo in the heat of a Louisiana summer. Her team practiced the “Batman” theme song, and when she emerged out of a sunburst formation, she felt light-headed, and her vision faltered.
As she sat on Pereira’s bed, the feeling returned.
“You can see,” says Ruiz, now 29, “and it slowly goes black.”
* * *
Experts say rapists are elusive, slipping through a porous system that can’t account for crimes that often leave behind little physical evidence. Each case, of course, has two sides. On one end are the words of the victims and the law enforcement officials who chase any lead they can find. On the other end are the words of the perpetrators and the lawyers who defend them.
In Gainesville, 82 women reported rape in 2011, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report. That represents a rate more than twice as high as the national average.
But the statistics tell only a fraction of the story. Instead of reporting the crime, many victims keep the act where it started: in the bedroom.
Some women think male police officers won’t believe them, will call them worse things than promiscuous and send them on their way. Other victims blame themselves and think they deserved to get raped. Still more women just don’t want to talk about what happened, especially with detectives, lawyers and judges.
Nicole Drummond, a family, youth and community sciences graduate student, didn’t tell police that a man raped her as a 20-year-old sophomore in December 2007. The offender was her friend, and she didn’t want to see him in trouble. Another UF student, then 21 years old, told Gainesville Police in August 2011 that she didn’t want to press charges because she would rather pretend it didn’t happen.
Getting victims in Gainesville, or anywhere else, to report is particularly difficult when those victims realize how few offenders actually get prosecuted. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network estimates that 20 percent of rapists reported to cops get prosecuted and 7 percent spend a day in prison.
Since 2009, 24 of the 107 sexual battery cases that police sent to the Alachua County State Attorney’s Office are still open. Of the remaining 83, the court convicted 13 defendants and dropped 46 cases — some because the victim didn’t participate, some because the prosecutor determined that the police failed to collect significant evidence.
In another 19 cases, the defendants were found guilty on different charges, some of them taking plea deals to avoid sexual battery trials.
State Attorney’s Office spokesman Spencer Mann says the prosecution rate is low because rape cases are difficult to prove. Victims contradict themselves in testimonies, and sometimes they consume illegal drugs before the rape, damaging their credibility to a jury. And even if those issues don’t arise, how do you show, beyond a doubt, that sex was not consensual?
In September 2008 — more than two years before Ruiz would stay the night at Pereira’s apartment — two UF students accused Pereira of rape. The case ended without a trial. Instead, Pereira pled no contest to three counts of aggravated assault. He received one year of probation and a 60-day jail sentence, to be served Sundays through Tuesdays.
As part of the deal, Pereira was free for the rest of the week so he could keep his job as a club promoter. That’s how he met Ruiz.
“How can you look at this and let him walk?” Ruiz said when she learned of the case. “How do you believe in the system if it doesn’t work?”
* * *
When she awoke, Ruiz didn’t know where she was, or how she fell asleep on that particular bed in Pereira’s apartment at Jefferson 2nd Avenue, now 2nd Avenue Centre. It was sometime between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m., but it felt like evening. Someone closed the blinds tightly. She couldn’t remember the night before — why her body ached and why she lay next to Pereira.
Ruiz staggered into the bathroom, where she felt a sticky substance against her hand, like glue. She washed it off and noticed her underwear was twisted. Someone yanked the front part to the side. A Calvin Klein emblem was supposed to be on one hip, but it was upside down on the other hip. That couldn’t happen, she thought, unless someone first pulled them off.
She nudged Pereira until he woke up.
“What happened?” Ruiz asked.
“What do you mean?” Pereira responded, according to Ruiz.
“Nothing,” he said. “I don’t know. I have a headache.”
Ruiz asked again, panicked now.
Pereira said she tugged the shower curtain off and threw up in the bathroom. Ruiz didn’t believe him. She cried.
In the ensuing weeks, Ruiz said she almost never left her apartment. She hurried each day to the mailbox. What if he was in the complex? Her toy-sized poodle, Star, yapped every time someone strolled by the window, and Ruiz peeked outside looking for him. Even when she groomed dogs at PetSmart, she couldn’t focus. She feared Pereira would come in and accost her, and her co-workers would ask questions.
So she moved back to Baton Rouge, where Sunday afternoons with gumbo, jambalaya and biscuits seemed so inviting. She told her family she returned to care for her grandfather, Henry, whose wife had just died.
But her family members knew something troubled Ruiz. She was too quiet and private, and she didn’t seem interested in dating. Finally, she told her mother. She asked her stepmother to break the news to her dad.
“It’s hard for me to tell him, to talk to him about anything like that because — ” Ruiz exhaled, crying as her voice cracked. “I see how much it hurts him to know that something like that happened, and he couldn’t do anything.”
* * *
Most rapes don’t occur as they often do on TV and in the movies. The rapist isn’t some mysterious man who pulls a woman into the woods and holds her down while she screams. In two out of three rapes, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the victim and offender knew each other. And 60 percent of rapes happen in a home, whether it’s the victim’s, the rapist’s or a mutual friend’s. So, unlike in other crimes, police officers don’t have a common problem area they can patrol or a list of informants who can tip them off ahead of time.
“I don’t know if there’s a lot we can do,” GPD Sgt. John Nabet says.
Captain Lynne Benck, the head of GPD investigations, has worked at Gainesville Police for 24 years. She wants the rape rate to decrease, but she doesn’t know how. Maybe if famous men spoke out against the crime, she has thought.
“If there was anything we could do, believe me, I would have the chief and the major riled up,” she says. “We’d have 40 to 50 people going after this problem right now. But it’s not that kind of crime. It’s not going to happen. I don’t know what we’d do with 40 or 50 people.”
* * *
Joseph Mayo sat at his desk at the police department two years ago when another detective asked for his help. See, there’s this case, Chuck Dale said. You know the defendant and seem to have a rapport with him. His name is Luis Pereira and —
“Son of a bitch,” Mayo said. “He did it again.”
Mayo met Pereira on a Saturday morning in September 2008, about two hours before sunrise. Another officer called Mayo out to the parking lot of Arlington Square Apartments, downtown on Southeast Second Place. Mayo just happened to be the detective on call that night.
About half an hour earlier, a UF student woke up in bed with two people — a woman to her left, Pereira to her right.
|*To protect the victim's identity, the pseudonym 'Susan' is used.|
Susan*, at first, did not know where she was. The room was dark, she said, but a little light shined inside. Perhaps it glowed off a computer monitor or seeped from the hallway through a crack in the door. Either way, she said, she saw what happened.
The bottom of her yellow dress was flipped above her waist, and someone had tugged the front of her underwear to the side.She jumped out of bed. Sitting up, Pereira dipped his hand under the tan and maroon bedspread and reached between her legs. Still drowsy, Susan didn’t understand for a couple of seconds. Then, Pereira slid his hand down again, forcing his fingers inside her once more.
Calm down, Pereira urged her.
But she wouldn’t. She shook the other woman in bed, her friend and classmate. No response. Susan shook her again, more violently this time. Again, no response. She grabbed a phone and ran outside, still barefoot.
She scampered around in the dark, crying and calling every number she could think of. She didn’t know where she was. She didn’t remember going to Arlington Square that night. She kept dialing numbers, kept hearing the polite voicemail messages of sleeping friends. Finally, she connected with an ex-boyfriend. He called his father, who called the police.
As officers arrived at the parking lot, the other woman ran outside. She finally stirred awake, she told police, as Pereira had sex with her.
Both women left the parking lot before Mayo arrived. They waited at the Alachua General Hospital for nurses to collect evidence from them. But first, from a police car, Susan pointed to Pereira.
It was him, she told officers.
Mayo brought Pereira and six other men to GPD headquarters for questioning. Pereira denied having sex with either woman. He said he returned home from a club about 3 a.m. and saw Susan sleeping in his bed — drunk, he said. Next thing he knew, he woke up as Susan jumped out of bed and ran away.
During the interview, another officer called Mayo. The women weren’t pressing charges. Case closed.
Fine, Mayo said. But first, he drove to the hospital. He wanted to meet the victims.
* * *
Born and raised in North Florida, Susan said she came to UF ignorant of drinking, drugs and sex. When she went out, she volunteered as the group’s designated driver and victim of friendly ridicule. “Goodie goodie,” her friends called her.
Susan is only 4 feet, 11 inches tall. She is tan with long, silky black hair that runs down her upper back, passing a thin nose and chocolate brown eyes along the way.
That fall, Susan started hanging out with a woman from her psychology classes, and she invited Susan to a Main Street bar called Gothic Grill (now Rockeys Dueling Piano Bar). They could get in for free, the woman said. Her friend was a promoter there.
Susan felt uncomfortable. Pereira stood a foot taller and nine years her senior. But he offered a drink, and she took it. She didn’t want to seem boring.
“And that,” she said four years later, “is all I remember.”
Susan doesn’t know if someone drugged her or if she couldn’t handle alcohol. She weighed less than 100 pounds and rarely drank. And even if she was drugged, finding out is difficult. Some popular date-rape drugs, experts say, leave your system within about four hours — quick enough to go undetected in drug tests.
Regardless, court testimony and public records give the following account of the rest of that night:
Susan drank more at the bar before walking with the rest of the group to Arlington Square. There, the group drank and ordered pizza, but Susan got sick.
The other woman asked Pereira if she and Susan could stay the night before she carried Susan to Pereira’s bed. Later, the woman joined Susan. She had slept over before without a problem. She thought just the two of them would share the bed. She thought Pereira would sleep on the floor.
“When I woke up,” the woman testified in a court hearing this February, “he was having sex with me.”
Later that morning, Susan and her friend waited in a hospital room, each alone. They couldn’t visit each other because it would hurt the police’s case. They got together at the hospital, a defense attorney might argue, because they were cooking up a lie to nab Pereira. So Susan waited hours, she said she thinks, for a nurse to come in and collect evidence, to snap pictures and take swabs and check for DNA on Susan. It was as if she were a human crime scene.
Susan grew impatient, scared and tired. And she felt dirty. She wanted to take a shower. She sneaked out of her hospital room and crept to her friend’s. From the moment she met police that morning, the other woman didn’t want to press charges, and she didn’t want a nurse to see her. She told Susan she knew a rape victim who reported the crime and watched humiliated as the man walked away free, as if nothing happened.
This is a waste of time, the woman said. Let’s get out of here.
Later that day, Susan regretted her decision. Her brother found out what happened through a mutual friend, one of the people Susan called in her 5 a.m. panic. Her brother couldn’t believe Susan wasn’t pressing charges. How can you let someone get away with that?
Susan said she went back to the hospital. She said she met her victim advocate and a police officer there. She told them she wanted nurses to collect evidence, but she said the nurses informed her it was too late, that you can’t collect evidence once a victim leaves the hospital. Leaving the hospital meant contaminating the crime scene: her body.
She still wanted to press charges. She said the other officer at the hospital vowed to relay the message to Detective Mayo.
Mayo disputes this time frame. He says Susan called him two weeks later, unable to sleep and looking for justice. Gainesville Police holds a two-day policy: If a rape victim visits a hospital within 48 hours of the incident, nurses can collect evidence. So, he says, Susan didn’t call him the day of the rape. She couldn’t have.
“You really only have one opportunity to get evidence,” Mayo says. “And that was it: that one night.”
The detective picked up the case. But he didn’t like his odds. At that time, the other woman didn’t want to press charges. Mayo had no evidence and no witnesses. For the most part, the case was dead unless Pereira confessed.
And rapists don’t confess.
* * *
Mayo spread pictures of Susan and the other woman across a table. He looked at them. Then, he looked up, his eyes meeting Pereira’s in a GPD interrogation room.
It was January 2009, about four months after the incident. Mayo still had no evidence besides Susan’s word, and he didn’t think the case was going anywhere. Without a confession from Pereira, Mayo would probably write a sworn complaint, and it would go to the State Attorney’s Office, and it would end there, probably. And Mayo didn’t expect a confession. Why would he? He had no leverage. He looked at the pictures again.
“These girls are beautiful,” he said. “Aren’t they?”
Pereira didn’t respond.
Mayo says he didn’t try to intimidate Pereira. That isn’t his style. He prides himself on building a rapport with everyone — co-workers, victims, defendants, whoever. One time, Mayo says, a man confessed to sexually abusing his own teenage daughters. Then, he thanked the detective for helping lift the burden off his chest.
Mayo has worked at Gainesville Police for 27 years, and he wears a quick smile below his short, silver hair. Curse words are some of his favorite adjectives, nouns and verbs, and he punctuates his sentences with laughter or the word “man.”
For Gainesville’s darkest sinners, he is their foul-mouthed priest, assigning handcuffs instead of Hail Marys for forgiveness.
“I have an innate ability to talk and listen to people, all sorts of people, regardless of their social or economic standing,” Mayo wrote in a 1992 letter requesting a transfer from the patrol unit to the GPD investigations division.
Mayo didn’t always want to be a police officer. Growing up as a Cuban immigrant in southwest Miami, he hated cops. When he was a kid, officers stopped by while he played football on the street. They yelled at Mayo and his friends and threatened to beat them up if the boys talked back. Then the Miami-Dade officers drove away, Mayo’s football in their hands.
He enrolled at UF, but soon needed a job. He signed up to take aptitude tests for the police force and the fire department. The GPD test came first. Mayo scored in the top 3 percent, and he was offered a job. He took it, figuring he would stay a year, save his money and get back to school.
“I ended up liking it,” he says. “The danger, the adrenaline — it was fun. It reminded me of when I was a kid.”
Twenty-four years later, Mayo tapped into his roots. He tried to be Pereira’s friend, tried to pull him in like a fisherman. He spoke with Pereira, a Puerto Rican native, in English and Spanish.
And he lied. He said the State Attorney’s Office was looking at the case. In truth, prosecutors didn’t know about it yet. There had been no arrest. Mayo also told Pereira seven times that nurses found his hand DNA on the women. Hand DNA does not exist.
“These girls are beautiful, aren’t they?” Mayo said again.
Finally, Pereira responded, “Yeah.”
“You know, they’re not just beautiful. They’re gorgeous.”
“Yeah,” Pereira said again. “You’re right.”
“There’s no guy in the world that would resist putting his hands on these girls,” Mayo said.
Pereira sat silent. Mayo said it again, twice more. Pereira obliged.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Pereira said. “Nobody could resist it.”
“Come on, man,” Mayo said. “I know you put your hands on her.”
Pereira, once more, fell silent. And once more, Mayo tried to catch him. You know, he said, investigators can find hand DNA on a victim weeks later. There’s no way Pereira’s DNA would show up, was there?
That’s when Pereira confessed, Mayo recalls. Pereira said he grabbed Susan’s breasts, slid his hands down her passed-out body and reached inside her underwear. Mayo asked about the other woman. Pereira didn’t hesitate.
“I had sex with her,” he said.
Mayo stopped, speechless. He didn’t expect a confession to come so easily. But it wasn’t a confession, at least not the type Mayo wanted. He asked Pereira if the woman was passed out like Susan. No, Pereira said, the sex was consensual.
Still, Mayo was satisfied with the interrogation. The other woman agreed to press charges with Susan, and Mayo arrested Pereira on four counts of sexual battery.
The case went to the State Attorney’s Office, and it fell apart, as sexual battery cases often do. Prosecutor Bill Ezzell faced the burden of proving a he-said, she-said case, as prosecutors often do in rape trials. It didn’t matter that it was two women’s words against one man’s. They still lacked evidence. And Pereira’s defense attorney, Nick Zissimopulos, poked holes in the GPD investigation.
Susan said she felt groggy when she woke up, Zissimopulos argued in a deposition with Mayo. How dependable was her memory of those early morning moments? And even if someone did grope Susan, as she said, who’s to say Pereira was the offender? He and his friends said the other woman in bed that night was bisexual. What if she abused Susan? And sure, Pereira told Mayo he touched Susan. But did he really have any other choice? Mayo lied to Pereira, told him investigators found his hand DNA on Susan. What if Pereira confessed because he knew that was what Mayo wanted? What if Pereira was just scared of Mayo, a police officer? Pereira is a minority living in the United States, after all.
Susan moved out of town in the summer of 2009 to get away from Pereira and the trial. She couldn’t leave her home in Gainesville. She felt nervous that she would run into Pereira. Scared. Sick to her stomach. She saw him once at a bar downtown, she says. He walked up to her, smiling. Her whole body shook.
As she received updates about the case, her hopes of going to trial faded. A victim advocate told her about a plea deal: 60 days in jail, one year of probation. Susan asked if he could be labeled a sex offender as part of the deal. He wasn’t.
“If that doesn’t say, ‘I’m a joke,’ I don’t know what does,” she says. “It was a total slap in the face.”
Months earlier, when Susan first pressed charges, Mayo told her the case wouldn’t have legs without a Pereira confession. But, if he could somehow get Pereira to admit to having sex . . .
“Well, the case goes through the system,” Mayo says, “and they cut him a sweet deal. … I felt bad. Really bad.”
* * *
Pereira makes his money promoting bars and clubs in town. Venues like The Swamp Restaurant, Fat Daddy’s and Envy serve as the background to pictures of him online. Beautiful college women in dresses serve as the foreground.
“Look at his job setup,” Mayo says. “He’s a club promoter, man. He’s in the bars. He’s giving these girls free drinks. He lets them in the bars free and everything. That’s his environment, his honey.”
While Susan’s trial played out, Mayo says he met two other women who accused Pereira of rape. They were at Fat Tuesday after hours, the women told Mayo. But they didn’t want to press charges. They deserved it, they said.
Around town, Pereira, 34, goes by “Luijo.” On his Facebook page, he advertises ticket sales to local events like “Dance of the Dead II” at the Vault NightClub.
After talking with his second defense attorney, Huntley Johnson, Pereira declined to comment for this story. But in a Facebook message, he sent the Alligator a New York Times article about the unofficial practice of prosecutors threatening defendants with harsh sentences if they do not agree to a plea deal. The article focuses on Alachua County.
Even if a defendant thinks he is innocent, the article argues, he or she will likely take a plea deal out of fear. But because these conversations supposedly unfold behind closed doors, there are no official records to prove how often they happen.
Pereira asked a reporter if he had read the Times’ article before. The reporter told him he had not.
“That’s funny,” Pereira wrote, “considering the article is using Gainesville as an example.”
* * *
As she walked out of the courthouse this October, two years after she said Pereira raped her, Ruiz’s brown hair cascaded down her pale face to her shoulders.
She doesn’t wear a set hairstyle, never has. The oldest of seven sisters, Ruiz grew up plucking, pulling and pinning back her naturally curly strands in whichever form or fashion appealed to her that day. But two years ago, that changed.
For months after she woke up next to Pereira, she says she would only twist her hair into a ponytail. She chose outfits that hid her legs. She stopped wearing makeup.
“I was afraid that if I looked nice it would happen to me,” she says. “Somebody would be attracted to me, and it would happen again.”
Ruiz wants to put the case behind her. She has made her peace with it, time healing her wounds as much as they can be healed. She doesn’t blame herself like she used to, like Susan did, too. She doesn’t feel tainted anymore either, as so many victims in Gainesville and elsewhere feel after their identities have become just a number on the ever stretching list of victims.
Ruiz wears her hair down again, and she finally feels comfortable dating. She started a long-distance relationship with the brother of one of her best friends, communicating almost entirely on the phone for about a year.
In April, she moved to Wesley Chapel to live with him. In September they got married on the beach.
All the while, the case sat in the back of her mind. She prepared to go to trial, to take the stand and swear on the Bible and tell a jury what Pereira did to her and then sit back and listen to Susan and Susan’s friend give their testimonies. Like the first case, this one didn’t involve much physical evidence because Ruiz didn’t tell police until more than a week after the incident — too late for nurses to examine her. But a crime lab analyst from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement found Pereira’s DNA on Ruiz’s shorts. And three women were accusing Pereira this time. Maybe this case would be different.
But maybe not.
Zissimopulos questioned Ruiz’s story, just like he did with Susan and her friend in the first case. The day after Pereira allegedly raped Ruiz, he ordered food for her, and she ate it. And they still texted each other afterward. In one message, Zissimopulos pointed out at a pretrial hearing in February, Ruiz ended with a smiley face. Why would a rape victim do that? And Pereira’s friends claimed Ruiz sometimes did drugs around them. Who’s to say she didn’t drug herself that night?
Determining Pereira’s potential punishment is complicated. Because Ruiz said he raped her while still on probation for the previous case, however, Pereira could have faced a minimum prison sentence of 25 years if he were convicted of sexual battery this time.
But Ezzell, who also prosecuted Pereira after his first arrest, again offered a deal, and Pereira pled no contest to aggravated battery.
“It was a weak case,” says Mann, the State Attorney’s Office spokesman. “However, we felt that due to his previous criminal history, it was important to go forward and get sanctions.”
This time, the plea deal was a bit harsher. Pereira received 15 years of probation, which he can serve in Puerto Rico with his probation officer’s permission. He can’t break any laws, drink alcohol or use drugs. He must complete 100 hours of community service within two years and meet 20 times with a therapist who specializes in sexual treatment. He can’t work as a promoter. He can’t stay out past 11 p.m.
But he did not receive any jail time.
Ruiz wanted to see a harsher punishment, as most victims do. She wanted to tell a jury how painful her life was for the last two years. She wanted to point out that the man she said raped her didn’t even put her name in his cellphone. At one hearing, Ruiz says, she saw a screenshot of a message she sent Pereira. At the top of the image, it said the message came from “Blue Eyes.” Her eyes are green.
Looking back, she wishes she were more educated about rape two years ago. She wishes she went to the hospital so that nurses could have taken evidence. And she wishes she knew that the county offers victim advocates who will listen to your struggles and tell you that fear and pain are understandable, that you aren’t going crazy.
Susan and Ruiz have looked at each other’s cases and felt spooked. The crimes seem too similar, both agree. What if they were planned?
“Three girls have reported, and he’s still getting away with it,” Susan says. “What does he have to do? Kill one of us?”
At least the cases are over, Ruiz figures. Maybe she can move on now. Maybe she won’t think about it as much. She isn’t holding her breath.
When she thinks about Pereira, nerves dance in her stomach and twist her insides into knots. She can’t eat. Can’t sleep. The day before the hearing in October, she could only groom three dogs — half her normal pace. She couldn’t steady her hands.
“I don’t know if it will ever go away,” she says of the pain.
Ruiz has looked for outlets. Maybe poetry will help, she thought. So she tried it:
Why does a wretch of a man run free to lurk the shadows?
I feel he should be punished,
But who will do so?
If the law is also wretched, then who to turn to for justice?