FindAGrave.com Rebeca Pena
Authorities have charged a Florida man in the killing of his ex-girlfriend, who was found floating inside a suitcase in a Miami canal almost 20 years ago.
Berkley Calvin Curtis Jr., 45, was charged Tuesday with second-degree murder in connection with the death of 26-year-old Rebeca Pena.
“An unsolved homicide gnaws at the heart every parent and every family member left behind,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “Each survivor waits for the day that the killer of their loved one is brought to justice. For the Pena family, we believe that day has finally arrived.”
Rebeca’s father Rafael said, “the arrest of this person -- the pain will be less, because justice has been served.”
“But the emptiness is still there and won’t go away,” he told CBS4. “Every day we don’t see her here, we cry a little,” he continued. “But we’re satisfied with the life we gave her. I tell everyone, enjoy life with your children, and forgive them, because you don’t know what may happen one day.”
Three boaters found Pena’s body inside her own suitcase in Florida’s Biscayne River Canal on April 16, 2001 -- six days after she disappeared. Also inside the suitcase were two 25-pound Weider weight lifting plates used to keep the suitcase underwater, and a magazine with Pena’s address in Silver Spring, Maryland, where she had once lived with Curtis and their child.
“Inside one of the pockets of that suitcase was a magazine addressed to the Pena family and the address that was on that magazine was where Berkley and Rebeca had lived together,” says Miami-Dade Detective David Denmark. “There was no doubt the suitcase came from her house.”
An autopsy could not determine how she died.
Prior to her disappearance, Pena was working as an extra on the movie, Ali, about the life of Muhammad Ali starring Will Smith. She was last seen leaving the set in her white Honda Civic around 2:15 a.m.
“We know she made it home from the set because her car was found at her apartment complex and we know she made it to her apartment,” says Denmark.
At the time she went missing, Pena had a restraining order against Curtis. Her father allegedly told police that Pena was afraid of Curtis, a physician’s assistant, and feared he would harm her, according to the arrest warrant affidavit. He had been allegedly abusive to her in the past, her family said in the affidavit.
Police served a search warrant on Curtis’ home and found a weight lifting bench, barbell and 25 pound weight plates “which matched the weight plates found inside the suitcase with the victim’s body,” according to an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by PEOPLE.
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During the initial investigation, Curtis’ girlfriend claimed Curtis was at home with her that night, in their Miami apartment, and had left for only about 20 minutes to go to the store. She was interviewed again in 2014 and changed her story, allegedly telling detectives that Curtis was gone for a few hours.
“She was interviewed several times and provided to [a detective] that she had changed the 20 minutes story to a few hours,” says Denmark. “So that put it at the perfect time.”
“We worked that alibi that crumbled and we worked the circumstantial above and beyond with the whole new technology and the ways of looking at things and that is when we decided we had enough,” he adds.
“The case has always been a very large collection of circumstantial evidence,” says Denmark. “We looked at the items of circumstantial evidence and started to really dig deep at what they meant and what they were and just applied it to the actual case.”
Curtis will be pleading not guilty, says Curtis’ attorney Jeffrey Feiler.
“I initially represented him in 2001,” he says. “And there was insufficient evidence to charge him with anything at that time. There is no direct evidence like an eyewitness or a confession or anything like that that I know of.”
About the weights that were found in the suitcase and in Curtis’ apartment, Feiler claims those type of weights are “everywhere.”
“That is totally circumstantial,” he says. “There are probably millions of them.”