Sharply dressed man guilty of murder, rape, kidnapping in Beach cold case solved with DNA

A Miami-Dade County jury needed less than three hours to find Dale Ewers guilty of the first-degree murder of a Miami Beach woman, the rape of her girlfriend and two other felonies, in a 34-year-old cold case that hinged on semen found on a tiny square of a towel.

With the small square of cloth as the only physical evidence tying Ewers to Mercedes Perez’s small South Beach apartment and a heinous crime committed more than three decades ago, jurors were likely swayed by expert testimony that placed the odds of the semen not belonging to Ewers at one in 1.8 quadrillion.

The 60-year-old South Beach resident, who state prosecutors say was deported to Jamaica before his arrest, was also picked out of a photo line-up by Perez’s girlfriend, who took the witness stand during the trial and who the Miami Herald has not named.

During closing arguments Thursday, Miami-Dade assistant state attorney Natalie Snyder detailed the gruesome acts that jurors would attribute to Ewers. They were told he was let into Perez’s apartment, dressed in a suit and carrying a briefcase and after asking for the manager’s phone number.

When Perez went to retrieve it in her bedroom, he struck, Synder told jurors. First, he grabbed Perez’s girlfriend from behind.

“He took her by the mouth. He shot Mercedes, hitting her in the head,” Snyder said. He then forced the woman into a closet where he tied her mouth with a shirt and covered her eyes with a dress. “He proceeded to rape [Perez’s girlfriend]. When he was done, he gave her a towel and told her to wipe herself.”

Ewers was found guilty of first-degree murder, sexual battery with a firearm, kidnapping with a firearm and robbery with a firearm. Though the first-degree murder charge carries a mandatory life sentence, Miami-Dade Circuit Court Judge Marisa Tinkler Mendez will officially sentence Ewers on March 19.

DNA plays pivotal role

The case caught the public’s attention because it was one of only a couple cold homicide investigations —cases that linger because of lack of evidence but that don’t have a statute of limitations — that detectives given a grant to work on, were able to bring to trial.

For decades, detectives said they were stumped by the sharp-dressed man who forced his way into a Miami Beach apartment on Sept. 21, 1990, killed one woman and forever changed the life of another. By 2010, technology had finally evolved enough, police said, to link Ewers to the crime through DNA.

That year a Miami Beach detective reviewing the file sent the towel to Miami-Dade’s police crime lab. The semen was linked to Ewers through evidence retained from a case in 2008, when he was convicted of burglary in Massachusetts. The Miami Beach rape victim then picked Ewers out of a lineup.

“DNA doesn’t forget,” Snyder told jurors.

Ewers was arrested in Hallandale Beach a few months before Perez was murdered. He was found hiding in the bushes near an apartment complex with a hunting knife and a .32-caliber pistol. He pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon and received three years probation. Though Ewers was identified as the Miami Beach attacker in 2010, it took two years to extradite him from Jamaica, where he was deported after the Massachusetts burglary conviction.

Towel was key

In an unusual move, Ewers took the witness stand on Wednesday, mostly rambling on about issues that had little to do with the crime. Though at one point he told jurors if detectives could find anything else that links him to the crimes, jurors should convict him.

During closing arguments Thursday, Ewers’ attorney Harris Gilbert tried to convince jurors that Perez’s girlfriend never really got a good look at his client. He told jurors that Ewers’ fingerprints didn’t show up on any of the 97 taken from the apartment after the murder.

As for the towel with the semen, Gilbert said Ewers only lived about a mile from Perez and since neither had a washer or dryer in their home, they might have mixed up towels at a common laundromat. He also noted that none of he rape victim’s DNA was found on the towel.

“We’re not disputing crimes occurred,” said Gilbert. “But it’s an identity issue. Ultimately, this case is about a very small piece of towel.”