Online suitor defrauded, slain in BrazilBy John Cote
Raymond Merrill bought a $5,000 engagement ring for Regina Filomena Rachid and declared in e-mails, "I have more kisses for you than there are stars in the sky."
Rachid's photos adorned his computer desktop and the walls in the San Bruno home he was fixing up. He had a stack of the Brazilian woman's glamour shots -- one with her topless, her jeans seductively unzipped partway. Wedding plans were discussed, messages on his computer show.
Merrill, a 56-year-old divorced carpenter and musician, thought he had found love online.
Instead, authorities believe Rachid lured Merrill to Brazil and masterminded a plot in which he was drugged for about six days until he disclosed his bank account information, then was strangled and his body set on fire, according to Merrill's sister, a friend and Brazilian news accounts.
"She was trolling for fish," said Marcia Sanchez Loebick of Cleveland, Merrill's sister. "And my brother was the big fish."
Rachid and an alleged accomplice are under arrest in Brazil on suspicion of murdering Merrill, said Jennifer Bullock, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Consulate in Sao Paulo. A third suspect remains at large.
Merrill met Rachid through an international dating site on the Web before November 2005 and visited her three times in Brazil, his sister said. Rachid, who is in her 40s, said she was an aesthetician specializing in Botox treatment. At her request, Merrill gave her $10,000 to get licensed and help set up a clinic, Sanchez Loebick said. He also bought her a sport utility vehicle.
After his first two trips, he told friends and his sister that he had been defrauded out of thousands of dollars in mysterious credit card charges. Sanchez Loebick said the sum she found after viewing credit card statements and talking with her brother's friends was $27,000, which she believes Rachid or her accomplices stole.
Sanchez Loebick said she last heard from her brother in March, shortly before he left for his third trip to meet Rachid in Sao Jose dos Campos, an industrial and technology hub in Brazilian state of Sao Paulo. Sanchez Loebick grew increasingly worried when he didn't respond to e-mails that their father was hospitalized with a heart condition and then had died.
Sometime after early April, a charred body that officials now believe is Merrill's was found in the burnt hulk of a car outside Sao Jose dos Campos, Sanchez Loebick said. The FBI took a blood sample from her this month and is assisting Brazilian authorities in DNA tests to identify the body.
"There's no doubt in my mind," Sanchez Loebick said. "My brother is dead."
A U.S. consular official notified her Sept. 23 that a man had been arrested and confessed to participating in her brother's slaying, Sanchez Loebick said.
Bullock declined to discuss specifics of the investigation, referring questions to Brazilian authorities. The lead Brazilian police investigator on the case could not be reached for comment.
The break in the case came after Rachid was arrested in connection with the robbery of another man, Sanchez Loebick said. Rachid's arrest led to Evandro Celso Augusto Ribeiro, who told police that Rachid had masterminded Merrill's killing and enlisted him to dispose of the body, according to Sanchez Loebick and news accounts.
Ribeiro allegedly told police that Merrill had been drugged, then strangled with wire in April and his body doused with diesel fuel and burned. His bank and investment accounts were subsequently looted of about $170,000, his sister said.
"This is so calculating and evil, it gives me the chills," Sanchez Loebick said.
She pointed to a March 16 instant message exchange found on Merrill's computer between him and Rachid's adult daughter, in which the daughter asked Merrill to send $1,600 for wedding preparations.
Rachid wanted to get married on Merrill's birthday, March 27, the daughter said. Instead, Sanchez Loebick believes Merrill spent his birthday being held captive in drugged haze.
"My brother was very gullible when he liked someone," she said. "He kind of had this blind faith in people."
Merrill was a construction worker, an affable guy who did well for himself selling a few houses and making good investments, but he was lonely, said longtime friend Bill Rauch of San Francisco.
"He never had any trouble meeting women," said Rauch, 54. "But he was looking for one special woman where this immaculate love would blossom. It's almost unrealistic."
Merrill brushed aside warning signs, including Rachid's disappointment that he bought her a $20,000 SUV rather than a $50,000 one, and an incident when Rachid swore at him and denounced "stupid Americans," Rauch said.
"He would tell me, 'Oh, she's just a passionate Latina,' " Rauch said.
Merrill, though, may not have been sure the wedding was going to come off. In the instant-message exchange found on his computer, he told Rachid's daughter: "I wasn't prepared to hear that preparations were actually being made, and to be honest, wasn't really sure, because of how your mother spoke to me the other day, that she wanted to continue to be involved with me."
Copyright ©2006 San Francisco Chronicle. Published 10/25/2006.