For almost two decades police have suspected that Berkley Calvin Curtis Jr. killed his ex-girlfriend, stuffed her body into a suitcase, tied weights to it and dumped it into a North Miami-Dade canal.
But for 13 years, his alibi stuck. A woman living in Georgia whose child Curtis fathered, said she was with him the night Rebeca Peña was killed. His alibi imploded in 2014 when the woman admitted to police that Curtis actually left the home for several hours the night Peña was murdered. It was more than enough time, police concluded, for him to have committed the crime and returned home.
Still, something gnawed at the detectives as the case sat for six more years. On Monday, Curtis was finally taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder for the April 10, 2001, murder of Peña, 26, who he also fathered a child with. What exactly detectives found recently that led to the arrest of Curtis they aren’t sharing.
“There was new information obtained from the old information,” said Miami-Dade Detective David Denmark, who picked up the cold case in 2016. “There was a foundation left for us to follow that made it very easy for us.”
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a statement. “Each survivor waits for the day that the killer of their loved one is brought to justice.” And for the Peña family, she said, “we believe that day has finally arrived.”
By late Tuesday afternoon, after a phone call from a family member, Curtis had retained an attorney who worked for him shortly after Peña’s murder. Attorney Jeff Feiler said he needed to get up to date on the case before commenting on specifics.
But back then, “My guy had an alibi,” he said. “There wasn’t anything connecting him.”
The Miami Herald also reached out to the Peña family Tuesday afternoon for an interview and had not received a response by late afternoon. Curtis, who lives in Coral Springs, was transported to Broward County Jail by police. He was expected to be transferred to a jail in Miami-Dade soon.
It was 2:15 a.m. on April 10, 2001, when Peña left a good gig. She was working as an extra on the set of “Ali” the biopic Muhammad Ali movie starring Will Smith that was being filmed in Miami’s Brownsville neighborhood. Friends followed Peña all the way to I-95 as she headed home, Curtis’ arrest warrant says.
She was never seen alive again.
Though she was reported missing to Miami police the next day, her body wasn’t discovered until six days later when three young men found a floating suitcase on the Biscayne Canal at Northeast 153rd Street underneath the I-95 overpass. They pulled it onto the bank, noticed blood and waived down a police officer.
Also in the suitcase: A magazine addressed to Peña at the Silver Springs, Maryland, home where she once lived with Curtis.
During the week Peña had been reported missing, Miami-Dade police visited the Miramar home she once shared with Curtis and noticed weights on the patio. Police said after obtaining a search warrant that a pair of 25-pound Weider weight plates found tied to the suitcase in the canal matched the weights at the home. The warrant said family members had also told police that though Peña had a new boyfriend, Curtis would often stop by their home and the two continued to fight frequently.
Peña’s parents told police she was afraid he’d harm her, according to the warrant. A Broward County court handed Curtis a stay-away order. Peña’s sister told police he was so abusive that one time in 1998 he choked her and police were called. Later, when police spoke with Curtis’ girlfriend at the time, Wavedo-Jo Wynter, her story made it impossible for Curtis to have committed the murder.
The case went cold for a dozen years, until police reached out to Wynter, again. This time she admitted that Curtis had left the apartment for a few hours, more than enough time for Curtis to have gone to Pena’s apartment to get her and the weights, drive to the canal and return home, police deduced.
“After determining that the subject no longer had an alibi,” Miami-Dade Detective Jonathan Grossman wrote in the arrest warrant, “distance measurements were done to determine relative distance markers…”
A Miami Herald story from 2004 said Peña’s parents hadn’t seen their 5-year-old granddaughter Nabilah since the murder. At the time, she was living with her father. It wasn’t clear Tuesday where Nabilah, who would now be 21, was living.