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Dancing on Her Grave: The Murder of a Las Vegas Showgirl Paperback – April 7, 2015
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About the Author
Diana Montané is a reporter, editor, and published author. She was Arts & Entertainment writer, as well as art theatre and film critic for The Miami News. She has co-written six true crime books, including I Would Find a Girl Walking. She holds a B.A., M.A., and M.F.A. in Theatre and Communications, from the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida.
Carolina Sarassa is an anchor/correspondent for MundoFOX National Network News in Los Angeles. She has been nominated for thirteen Emmys and has won three, including "Best Crime Reporter.” She has also been awarded four Gabriel Awards for excellence in television and a Los Angeles Press Club Award for excellence as a talk show host. She is a former member of the Board of Governors as well as an active member of the National Television Academy of the Arts and Sciences, and a board member for the Los Angeles Press Club.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
As an Emmy Award–winning journalist for more than thirty years with Univision, the Spanish-language television network, and its respected news magazine show, Aquí y Ahora, I’ve seen my share of horrific crimes and covered more than I’d like to remember. One assignment in particular became a ten-year labor of love and a bestselling book I cowrote with Diana Montané, The Daughters of Juárez: A True Story of Serial Murder South of the Border, in which I investigated and exposed how poor young women and girls in the Mexican border town of Juárez were being abducted and murdered, their bodies left to rot in the barren desert that surrounds the city. Despite the hundreds of cases that were never resolved or bodies that were never found, I remember the most difficult aspect of reporting these stories was talking to the families. I spoke to the mothers who kept their daughters’ bedrooms as they’d left them when they disappeared, and who, years later, were still waiting for their daughters to return. Those assignments allowed me to report dozens of human rights violations including political and police corruption. Covering so many crimes in Mexico made me realize how little a life could be worth if one happened to be poor and a female. At this point, I thought there were few crimes that could leave me dumbfounded and shocked. That was until I saw Debora Flores-Narvaez’s story. It was 2010 and the Christmas holidays were around the corner when this beautiful, educated young woman disappeared in Las Vegas. She was at the pinnacle of her career and moments away from starring in her dream role in a very popular show. Perhaps it was the time of year that her story made headlines, or perhaps it was the gruesome facts that emerged shortly thereafter, that haunted me.
Carolina Sarassa, the reporter who filed the story for our show, was no stranger to me. She was a talented, hardworking, inquisitive young woman who’d trained with us before she joined our Las Vegas affiliate. I remember the times she would come into my office and ask me about the stories we were working on and, in particular, about the art of interviewing and the importance of credibility and impartiality.
She was a woman on a mission, and I had no doubt she was blossoming into an accomplished reporter. To see her investigation on the air made me proud, especially when I found out how persistent she had been in staying in touch with those connected to Debora’s case.
I’ve always been one to believe that there are no coincidences in life, and when Diana Montané, the coauthor of my book, who also happened to be the cowriter of this book with Carolina, approached me to write the foreword, I knew that for some reason, I had to be a part, albeit small, of this story. Fate had once again knocked on my door to write about a Latina whose life ended all too soon and in the cruelest and most barbaric manner possible. This time, however, unlike the dozens of cases documented in my book, justice had been done; there was an accused murderer who would pay for his crime.
Carolina’s dedication not only in pursuing this story until the perpetrator was brought to justice but also in making sure that it didn’t just become another number in a growing log of cold cases was key. By securing interviews with Debora’s family and close friends, she kept the case very much alive. It was her ability to develop a trust with those closest to Debora in life that would unveil the facts behind those closest to her in death.
Like any young woman pursuing her dream away from home, Debora’s story of love and death could unfortunately happen to anyone’s child. This was not a young lady whose parents were absent in her life; she wasn’t a dropout, an alcoholic, a junkie, or a fanatic. She was a well-educated woman with a caring and nurturing family, and she had left the nest in order to succeed but inadvertently fell prey to a chain of events that no one ever suspected could end so tragically and morbidly.
The story of Debbie Flores-Narvaez needs to be told. It’s very simple: no woman deserves to be killed the way she was. She was a young woman full of life, love, accomplishments, and health. Yes, she was an extremist; yes, she had a temper; yes, she got involved with the wrong person; yes, she was a Vegas showgirl. But she was also highly educated, a loving daughter, sister, and aunt, and all she wanted to do was dance.
Ever since I was a child I’ve noticed that nothing happens to me merely by coincidence or luck. I have always lived by the motto “My life is written.” Countless times I have noticed, as a situation unfolds, that I was given a sign about it beforehand. It can be anything from a simple coincidence to a life-changing circumstance.
On April 29, 2014, I received a very interesting e-mail to my personal account from Diana Montané.
The content of the e-mail was intense, an overview of a book she and her writing partner, MundoFox anchor Carolina Sarassa, were writing, titled Dancing on Her Grave. I read the e-mail many times, appreciating the kind words from Diana regarding my work as an actress and becoming rapidly obsessed with the case at hand. The case immediately grabbed me for many reasons. I love dancing, and in this case, just like me, the girl from the book was also Puerto Rican. I’m a girl with a dream of becoming a successful performer as well. I also left what I had in Puerto Rico to pursue a dream that my parents thought was out of reach. I also moved to a new city with great ambition to become somebody and be really good at my craft.
While I continue to work as an actress, which is my passion, I have wanted to find projects I could produce. I envision and pray every night for God to guide my steps both in my personal life as well as in my career. The possibility of helping to share Debbie Flores-Narvaez’s tragic story with the world by bringing this outstanding woman’s life to the screen and having the world see her kind soul truly melts my heart.
I believe one can have a connection with the souls of those who have passed away. I would love to think that Debbie chose me to represent her life. My immediate interest as soon as I read Diana’s e-mail and the way everything is falling into place makes me believe I have Debbie’s blessing to portray her life in a television movie. I promise to take this responsibility seriously and give her the tribute she deserves.
I know in my heart I was meant to get close to Debbie. I also know for a fact my life story has one more dancing chapter. What a privilege to do it while somebody is guiding me from heaven.
Rest in peace once and for all, Debbie. Your killer was found guilty, justice has been served, and now the world will know and remember your name.
by Diana Montané
Crime writers pursue stories as relentlessly as detectives pursue killers, and the chase is very similar.
It was sort of serendipitous, how I came across this story. Carolina Sarassa’s and my investigation into Debora Flores-Narvaez’s murder ran almost parallel to the real thing. She was then a reporter for the Univision Network in Las Vegas. I had previously worked with a young man, Diego Arias, at Telemundo in Miami. Diego shared on Facebook a story being covered by another colleague, Carolina Sarassa, about the search for a beautiful dancer in Las Vegas. Her name was Debora Flores-Narvaez, and she had gone missing on the evening an important rehearsal had been scheduled at the Luxor Hotel. Her sister, Celeste, had flown to Vegas from Atlanta in a fruitless effort to find her. It was a story that I, as a true crime writer and advocate for victims, could not resist.
I was instantly drawn to the story and messaged Diego: “Would Carolina Sarassa be interested in writing a book with me about that case?” What were my chances of getting a reply? Diego was not a close friend; he was someone with whom I had worked. And here I was, messaging him out of left field, to relay a request to someone I didn’t know.
I waited and waited, and supposed Carolina was either busy or simply not interested. But my fishing expedition paid off, and I reeled in my story, our story. Diego came back and said, very enthusiastically, that Carolina would love to.
Carolina was in Las Vegas, Nevada, and I reside in Daytona Beach, Florida, so Caro (as she is known to friends and colleagues) and I began to e-mail, and then talk on the phone. We felt like old friends and talked long into the night. I found her delightful, hardworking, and curious. We shared the same intensity and curiosity about cases; this would be a match made in crime-writing heaven. But frivolity aside, we both deeply cared about the victims in all of our cases. And there had been quite a few throughout the course of our careers.
In this instance, it all started out with the victim’s sister, Celeste Flores-Narvaez, and her first visits to the station where Carolina worked. Caro described her anguish to me, and I, in turn, tried to capture it in words. We both really felt for her. Celeste had been relentless in the pursuit of an answer, anything that might lead to information on her little sister’s whereabouts. So we both began talking with Celeste.
I had had experience in this area. The long, arduous road along the obstacle-ridden path of investigative reporting had been paved for me by firsthand experience. A nineteen-year-old college student from Miami named Shannon Melendi had vanished from the Atlanta softball field where she worked part-time as a scorekeeper on March 26, 1994. Shannon was an exemplary student, and had received a four-year grant to Emory University in Atlanta. I was then the entertainment editor for a weekly published by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune, covering television among many other assignments. I was covering the television coverage of the Melendi case. What a roundabout way of covering a case, I thought, covering the coverage! So I decided to do my own coverage. I became friends with Shannon’s desperate parents, Luis and Yvonne, and her beloved and lovable grandparents, Luis Sr. and Delia.
For fourteen anguished years, the Melendis did not know what had happened to their daughter, until the umpire at the softball country club confessed to kidnapping and murdering her on the very same day she’d vanished from the softball field. He had invited her out to lunch, and she felt comfortable with him because she knew him. They were in her car, and he then pulled out a knife and told her to drive to his house. There, he tied her up, raped her repeatedly, and finally strangled her.
Even after they were made privy to their daughter’s premature and violent demise, I remained close friends with the Melendis; they lived quite near me. Yvonne, Shannon’s mother, could be very funny, and sometimes she bravely tried to put on a face of normalcy. One night she called me up to ask if I wanted to come over. I did, and the two of us sat out by the swimming pool and had a glass of wine. Then we went inside, where Yvonne showed me a printer I was considering buying from them. She turned it on, and out came one of Shannon’s college essays, one calling for stricter criminal laws, since she aspired to become an attorney and eventually hoped to sit on the Supreme Court. Yvonne began to read her daughter’s essay out loud, sobbing softly and once in a while wailing, “Oh my baby girl, oh my baby girl.” It was a guttural sound, from deep inside, and I didn’t know what to say to her, so I just hugged her. And that was my first and not last encounter with a mother’s, or a sister’s, or a family member’s grief.
Both Carolina and I felt anguish for Celeste Flores-Narvaez after she flew to Las Vegas from Atlanta to look for her little sister, just like the Melendis flew from Miami to Atlanta after Shannon was first reported missing. Carolina and I could not feel what Celeste felt, of course, but we had been through the process of interviewing bereaved families. I knew how Yvonne Melendi’s body had felt, shaken and racked with unbearable grief, when I had hugged her that day.
Caro, too, had been through her share of heartaches and reporting at gruesome crime sites as a rookie reporter. She was a seasoned reporter and television anchor now, and she knew how to conduct an interview. For that matter, so did I, and so we set out together on the chase, to assemble the bits and pieces of Debora Flores-Narvaez’s murder at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.
First came Celeste, of course, and her input was invaluable, but then we sorted through a long cast of characters of investigators, friends, and, eventually, prosecutors and defense attorneys. Some wanted to talk and were most helpful. A few were reticent and others were unwilling to talk, and yet we had to wait patiently for everyone to return our calls, to set a time to talk, and then write down what they told us.
Some people might think writing a true crime book is a much swifter and easier process than it is. We sort of churn it out in one sitting, they might believe, like they solve complex crimes within an hour television slot. But in fact this process took us three long years while the trial of Jason Griffith kept getting postponed time and time again, and during which a lot happened both in our personal and professional lives; and, of course, in everyone else’s lives as well. Even Celeste had to move on, as she has two children to care for. And Jason Griffith languished in jail awaiting his day in court that never seemed to come.
As the case wore on for weeks, then months, then years, through a series of events I would hesitate to call mere coincidence, I was able to connect with the actress Roselyn Sanchez, who played Detective Elena Delgado on the TV show Without a Trace. A friend of mine told me that one of her daughters had been pals with Roselyn at university. Caro and I had always thought Roselyn—who bore a striking resemblance to Debbie—would be perfect to play the part if Debbie’s story was ever made into a movie, but that was sort of a castle in the air idea. But after another friend and cowriter of mine, psychic Gale St. John, told me about this project that “there is a woman by the name of Rosalie or Rosalind, who is involved in it,” I knew I had to pursue the actress. I tracked down Roselyn’s personal e-mail address and wrote to her about Debbie’s story. Roselyn—and her husband, Eric Winter—immediately connected with the story and came on board as producers.
Carolina calls Roselyn “our angel.” I think she is Debbie’s angel.
When the trial finally took place, it was all a matter of covering it every step of the way, and obtaining court records, as well as additional testimonies from people who testified. There were also the attorneys, and we interviewed both the prosecution and the defense. Fortunately, they were all very forthcoming, albeit sometimes hard to reach. This goes with the territory, and they were already busy with other cases.
So at the end of our thorough investigation, there only remained one thing, one question: Why? Why had Jason Griffith murdered and dismembered his beautiful ex-lover, Debora Flores-Narvaez?
I often wonder at some men’s sense of entitlement that leads them to think of women as property, as something to do with, and then dispose of, as they wish. Fortunately, detectives and prosecutors feel the same sense of entitlement when such crimes become their own property.
Now that we are finally finished writing this book, we are hoping not only that it will honor Debbie Flores-Narvaez, and a promising life that ended all too soon, but that it will serve as a cautionary tale to other young women.
Debora Flores-Narvaez was a thirty-one-year-old Hispanic woman who had moved to Las Vegas in search of a dream.
I, Carolina Sarassa, grew up in Miami, but I was born in Medellín, Colombia. My parents relocated to the United States so that we could live in peace, away from the war-torn city and the guerrillas threatening our family, and gave me the opportunity to pursue the career I have always wanted in journalism. Just like Debbie, my life has been full of dreams.
“If you want to make it in this career, you’ve got to move to a very small city.” I can still hear the echo of Professor Dan Sneed’s words during one of my Journalism classes at Florida International University (FIU) in Miami.
He was right, as I would find out.
When we first got to the United States from Colombia, my parents decided to make Miami, Florida, our new home. It seemed like the perfect choice, since most people spoke Spanish and the Latino community is predominant. I guess it was easier to assimilate after such a drastic change. We’d had to escape Colombia with only a few hundred dollars in our pockets, but Miami welcomed us and became our home.
As an immigrant you always hear the cliché that “America is the land of opportunity.” Well, the cliché was true for me; America has been the land of many opportunities, in fact. Still, while many people back in our countries might think, “You move to the U.S. and you can have it all,” nothing comes for free. Yes, you can have it all and everything else you dream about, but only if you work hard, study hard, and do not forget to pay your taxes.
After graduating from high school, I was able to get scholarships from the Miami Herald newspaper, the FIU Honors College, and the Kiwanis Club of Little Havana to continue my higher education.
As I learned more and more about Debora’s passion for school, it reminded me of my years in college. I am not embarrassed to admit that I was a nerd. I was a straight A student, always making it to the dean’s list. Since English is not my first language, I still have a slight Colombian accent when I speak, and it was more pronounced in college. It used to embarrass me, but now I don’t care. I actually think it makes me who I am.
I always knew I wanted to be a journalist. I enjoy reading, writing, and especially hearing and telling stories. When it finally came time to pick a major, I chose Mass Communications and Journalism with an emphasis in Print, meaning I wanted to become a writer for a newspaper or a magazine. I never imagined myself in front of a TV camera.
It was not until I met Professor Ana Ponte, a funny, smart, well-educated, and persuasive woman who convinced me to switch my emphasis to broadcasting, that I changed my mind. She also repeated similar words to those Professor Sneed had said: “You will need to move to a small market.”
After knocking on many doors, and after completing internships, I was able to get a job as an associate producer for Aquí y Ahora, an investigative news magazine show based in Miami and the Spanish-language equivalent to 60 Minutes. That’s where I got to meet the talented, professional, and generous Teresa Rodríguez, one of the hosts (who also generously wrote the foreword for this book).
I worked behind the camera for about two years, then applied for a job in a smaller market, but within the company, in Corpus Christi, Texas. The news director, Angel Covarrubias, believed in me, and he gave me a chance to fulfill my dreams. He guided me, and he also became one of my mentors.
So, that’s how I ended up in Texas after living in Miami for eight years. Miami is a huge market for Spanish TV, but just as my professors had anticipated, the TV stations in Miami were not going to hire a young recent grad to be an on-air reporter. I had better luck in a smaller market.
Every time I had to move to a new city, it was difficult to leave friends, homes, and a whole life behind. But I had it very clear in my mind that I wanted to grow as a journalist, and that meant moving. That meant going to a bigger market. The bigger the city, the bigger the audience, and the bigger the market for TV. Many years had to pass for this to happen.
I still remember my first assignment as a local TV reporter in Corpus Christi.
A four-year-old child had fallen from the balcony of a fifth-floor apartment. His mother did not realize one of the bedroom’s sliding doors to a balcony was semi-open. In a matter of seconds, so she said afterward, she realized her baby was no longer safe. When she couldn’t find her son, she saw the door open. She was hoping she wouldn’t see what she felt had happened: it was already too late.
The four-year-old boy was smashed against the concrete.
As a local TV reporter, the assignment desk is always in contact with you and your photographer. Mary, our assignment desk editor at the time, called us and gave us some minor details of the 911 call she had heard through the station’s scanner. She sent us to the apartment complex where the child had been found minutes earlier.
Corpus Christi is a small city, so we—the photographer and I—arrived pretty fast. I will never forget the face of the horrified mother, the neighbors, and especially the victim. His small body, covered in blood, was still on the ground.
I was only twenty years old. I’m a very sensitive woman, and back then, it was even more difficult to hold back the tears and hide my emotions.
It was a very poor neighborhood. The mother was in shock, while all of us had to try and do our jobs. We had to get videos and interviews and hope to obtain a statement from her; yes, from the mother who had just lost her child.
I remember telling my photographer how distressed I was by what I had just witnessed. It even made me question whether I really wanted to spend my career on horrible stories such as the ones I was covering every day. I went to the car, trying to hide from the rest of the media, and I cried. I finally was able to gain my composure and went back to the scene wearing my sunglasses, so no one could see how my mascara and makeup had smeared all over my face from the tears.
It all made sense a couple of days later when I realized there was a reason why I was sent there to cover that assignment. I had given my business card to one of the neighbors, and she called me. The mother of the child who’d died needed money to bury her son. We, and most of the other local media outlets, were able to do a story, and the woman received the funds she needed for the burial expenses.
I felt as if I somehow needed to be there, so I could help her.
Many journalists enter the industry for different reasons. I didn’t look forward to becoming a war correspondent in the line of fire, or the reporter who broke the next political scandal. I wanted to help my community. I wanted to be the voice for the ones who cannot speak, or who are afraid to do so.
My next move would be to Las Vegas, Nevada.
After nearly three years in Corpus Christi, an opportunity opened up at a local TV station in Las Vegas. I could not resist it, so I did it again. I packed all my stuff and drove for nearly twenty-three hours to Sin City.
One of the things that soon struck me about Las Vegas was the high rate of domestic violence cases, especially murders. One would imagine most of the stories happen in or around “the Strip,” the large street strewn with hotels and casinos, but this is not true. Most of the stories, at least the ones we covered, happened in residential areas.
I covered the most horrific stories in that city. I still remember Maria, a woman whose boyfriend threatened that he was going to come back with a machete to kill her if she called the police and accused him of domestic violence. She did . . . and he did.
Maria was walking out of her job at a gasoline station when the man, as he had promised, was waiting for her outside with a corroded machete. He cut her fingers and her hands and struck her many times on her head.
She was still alive when the paramedics arrived, and the boyfriend was still standing there looking at the pond of blood he had created. He was arrested on the spot, but although she fought valiantly, she never recovered from her injuries and died a few months later.
Maria was only one of the many gut-wrenching cases I got to cover in the city.
But despite sad stories like Maria’s and Debbie’s, I actually enjoyed my five years working in Nevada, and it was very gratifying to be recognized for my work during those years with three Emmy Awards.
My first Emmy was for best crime coverage, for a story I did about an undocumented mother whose husband had abused her, kidnapped their child, and took him to Mexico. Our efforts at the station were able to help this mother with a humanitarian visa, and her child was returned safely to the United States.
My second Emmy was for a story that really touched some personal fibers. It was a series about the elderly who are abandoned by their loved ones at so-called homes. It was about people who are in the last stages of their lives and who rarely even get a phone call from a relative. Fortunately, in some of these places, the elderly are able to find a new family, sometimes even get married and begin a new phase of their lives. This series won the Best Historical/Cultural Program or Special.
My third Emmy was for a story I did about one of my passions: saving animals. When the Las Vegas economy started to fall, a lot of people simply abandoned their homes after losing them for a lack of payment. To this day, I cannot believe what these people were also doing—they would abandon their pets as well, simply leaving them inside their abandoned homes without food or water. Many animals died, and others were taken to local shelters where, sadly, due to overpopulation, many had to be euthanized. I tried to do my part, so I rescued four of them: Pippa, Coco, Mocha, and Marley (two cats, a pit bull, and a cocker spaniel, respectively). Mocha the pit bull recently ate all our sprinklers, but hey, she is a sweetheart; even the cats walk all over her!
The Las Vegas community is very welcoming to their news anchors and reporters. It’s a community where people watch the news every day, and depend on us, and I think I was able to gain their trust. This was how I found out about Debora’s disappearance—through a Facebook message from one of her friends who apparently trusted me, too.
From the beginning, reporting on Debora’s murder felt different. It did not feel like the other cases I had covered, and to this day I don’t know why.
But I knew hers was a story that I had to tell.
Her name was Debora. She was a showgirl.
When I first heard about the case of the missing Las Vegas dancer, the old Barry Manilow song from the seventies, “Copacabana,” kept playing in my head. The tune tells the tale of Lola, a showgirl, whose lover, Tony, a bartender, is murdered by a gangster out of jealousy.
Would the story of Debora Flores-Narvaez’s missing case turn out to be as ill-fated as the one in those lyrics? I wondered. After all, this was Sin City, and Debora’s friend had sure sounded desperate.
Mia Guerrero, a friend of Debbie’s, had reached out to me on Facebook. I had met the young dancer more than a year ago at a station event where she was modeling. Mia had come up to introduce herself and to tell me she was also from Colombia, like me. I was then the anchor for the Univision Network in Las Vegas. I covered the beat. I’d seen, and knew, the seedier side of the Strip.
Mia’s message had arrived on December 16, 2010, at 8:59 P.M. She told me a friend of hers, another dancer by the name of Debbie Flores-Narvaez, had disappeared. Mia mentioned that her friends were also very worried about Debbie’s whereabouts. She wanted my help as “a very special favor” to please try to air news about her disappearance in our newscast. Her message was kind, and ended with a “God bless you.”
I was not going to sit on this story, and Mia did not have to wait long.
Debora had gone missing four days earlier, on December 12. It was sudden and unexpected, and, like most disappearances, her absence was what her family and friends referred to as oddly “out of character” for Debora Flores-Narvaez, whom everyone called Debbie. We began to cover her disappearance, even though the police were still treating it as a missing person’s case.
Her name was Debora. She was a showgirl. But she also had a bachelor’s degree in international business, a master’s degree in international finance, and a degree in law. Her diplomas were hung proudly on one of the walls in her condo, in a building located across the street from the famed Luxor Hotel, the one with the Sphinx in front. It was called the Onyx Apartments.
But despite her academic degrees, Debora wanted to be a dancer. It was her passion. And she’d moved from Baltimore to Las Vegas in order to pursue that passion.
On the day just after her disappearance, her dream would’ve become a reality. Debora Flores-Narvaez had been only one day short of realizing her lifelong dream of becoming the lead dancer in a Las Vegas show, when she disappeared without a trace.
She had been slated to star as the lead in what was dubbed by the show’s producers as “the Strip’s most seductive, sensual show,” the spectacle FANTASY at the Luxor. There had been two rehearsals scheduled on Sunday, December 12, 2010, one in the morning and one in the evening. Debora had attended the first one, in the morning, but she was surprisingly, conspicuously absent from the evening rehearsal.
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Leaves you wondering how that last time together really went down. But there's always the ability to walk away, get protective injunctions, not give mixed messages. Killing someone not one of those options. So, I think it's a pretty good book.