Florida is the sunshine state. The dangling participle of the southeast, it is a vacation hotspot, a retirement paradise and a diverse cultural center where the most frightening thing for some people is Disneyworld. The recent school shootings brought the state into the center of the national debate on guns, as its “stand your ground” rule laid bare the dangers of gated communities. Felonious Florida, a podcast series from Wondery, dissects Florida’s strangest crimes. The true crime series premiered on April 3 with an in-depth look at one of the state’s most brutal unsolved crimes.
“Casey’s Nickelodeon Murders” deals with a South Florida triple murder that happened on Sunday, June 26, 1994. Casimir “Butch Casey” Sucharski, who owned the nightclub Casey’s Nickelodeon, and two of his houseguests, Sharon Anderson and Marie Rogers, were beaten and shot to death by two home invaders, one with a Tec-9 machine gun. The entire incident was caught on security tape. Some of the footage was featured on the MSNBC special Murder on Camera: Caught On Tape.
Sharon and Marie were both 25 years old. They were regulars at Casey’s Nickelodeon. Marie was a fashion designer who had a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Sharon was a local celebrity, having appeared in the music video for Heavy D’s song “Gyrlz, They Love Me.”
The investigation was a complicated affair with rumors circulating everywhere. Police found recordings Butch had with his adult son, Bryan Bonn that confirmed stories the club owner owed $50,000 to a mob family. They also found about 200 VHS cassettes of Butch having sex with unsuspecting women.
Miramar Detective Roy Black recognized one of the suspects from the security-camera footage, Pablo Ibar. An East Shore Drive neighbor of Butch’s, Gary Foy, told police he saw two men backing Butch’s Mercedes convertible out of the driveway on the morning of the murder. He confirmed the suspicions.
Pablo Ibar and Seth Penalver went on trial together in 1997. After eight months, jurors spent 27 hours deliberating but couldn’t reach a verdict. A judge decided to separate the cases, and prosecutors won a conviction against Penalver in 1999. Ibar was convicted in 2000 and sentenced to death, but the case has been tied up in appeals ever since.
Despite the two convictions and the two death sentences across seven separate trials, no one has been convicted of the Casey’s Nickelodeon Murders.
Felonious Florida contains one installment that explores Casey’s connection to O.J. Simpson, who he’d known since 1973 when the Buffalo Bills hung out at his Buffalo, N.Y, Bar. Casey and Simpson were still friends on June 12th, 1994, when Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman were murdered in Los Angeles.
The series also explores a crime that happened 10 years later in the Boca Raton, where a mother and her young daughter were found in the back seat of their own SUV after an afternoon of Christmas shopping. They had been shot in their heads, execution style.
Felonious Florida is hosted by Lisa Arthur and Juan Ortega. The veteran Sun Sentinel reporters spoke with Den of Geek about the dark side of the Sunshine State.
Den of Geek: I heard the first two episodes and I did a little bit more digging. I see that the case has come to trial. It’s coming up for its fifth time, you covered this for the Sun, right?
Lisa Arthur: I covered it years ago and I don’t cover it now. We have another courts reporter now, but it’s a story that I covered back in the early 2000s when these guys were getting convicted for the first time.
The second episode ends where you’re veering off from the mob, so let me ask you a little bit about what was the mob scene like in that area at the time?
Lisa Arthur: I don’t know, there’s always been sort of the myth or the lore that there’s mob in South Florida. I don’t know that, I’ve never worked a case where there’s been an arrest of a mobster down here or there’s been a trial or anything like that. It’s just been well known myth that the mob is in Florida. Butch Casey had a reputation of being involved in that kind of scene, but like I said, they’ve never done any busts down here or anything.
Okay, so this isn’t like Meyer Lansky’s Florida?
Lisa Arthur: No, no. I think there’s probably- conventional wisdom is that there’s always been organized crime in Florida and the conventional wisdom on that case, or what some people are claiming on that case, was that this wasn’t just two punks doing a home invasion. It was bigger than that and perhaps Butch Casey owed people money. But the cops will tell you that they checked out all those angles, they checked out Butch’s old girlfriend who was also a suspect for a while and that they didn’t find anything to bring those home.
I saw the footage. It’s brutal. Tell me about how that first played out in court, before it was ruled unusable.
Lisa Arthur: Well they used the footage in court and they’ll use it again in this upcoming trial. It’s their key piece of evidence. The question has always been whether or not the quality of that video is good enough to identify Pablo Ibar and plus now, since Ibar’s last jury in 2012 decided wasn’t and acquitted him. So it’s a good piece of evidence and you see what happens and you realize the people who did this are brutal and juries want to make somebody pay for it, but at least since this last trial they think that it’s not video proved he was the guy.
It also led to a victims of wrongful incarceration compensation for Penalver?
Lisa Arthur: Mm-hmm.
You also spoke with the police during the trials?
Lisa Arthur: Yeah. Nobody would talk to us on the record at the time, but I have spoken to who’s going to be involved in the next trial in past years. They think they have the right people and they think that the legal system has given these guys chance after chance and they think they’re guilty.
Well it’s going to a fifth trial, so have they expressed their frustration on it?
Lisa Arthur: Yeah, when Penalver got acquitted he lead prosecutor was all over TV saying that he though the jury made a mistake and I think Pablo’s convictions getting overturned on his second appeal last year, it got overturned, the lead prosecutor was retired and he’s come out of retirement to do the case again with another prosecutor who’s going to be the lead on it this time, but Chuck Norton is the guy that’s doing it. He’s done all these cases and then he retired maybe two years ago or so and he’s out of retirement to do this again so I think he feels ownership and he feels a responsibility to the victims’ relatives who are just devastated that this is still going on.
Right, yeah, the two women were local celebrities in the area. I know that they appeared in a Heavy D video and now the witnesses are dying because it’s so long, so how does that change what’s going forward?
Lisa Arthur: I don’t think the witnesses are dying. The witnesses have all changed. A good bit of them have changed their stories so that the police manipulated them into an ID and misconstrued and misrepresented. Pablo’s case is a little bit different than Seth’s, though, because there’s one really good witness, this guy name Gary Foy and he has been steady as a rock and has never changed his story. And he identifies Pablo as the guy he saw sitting in the passenger car when the car pulled away from Sucharski’s house the morning of the murders, so Pablo’s got a little bit higher hurdle to clear because Gary Foy is such a strong identification witness and he never identified Seth Penalver, so.
The episode itself that I watched ends where you’re veering off from the mob, so where are you veering to?
Lisa Arthur: So the cops stop running that down that alley when they see Pablo Ibar who’s arrested in the road, another home invasion in Dade County and they say “Well, you know, he looks like the guy”, and then they go after Seth Penalver because somebody identifies him off the photos and that was it. They just decided they had their two people and they’ll tell you it’s because none of the other investigative leanings paid off. And people who don’t believe Seth and Pablo did it will say that they stopped looking before they got to the true story of it.
Butch Casey’s son himself will tell us in an upcoming episode that he doesn’t believe that even if Seth and Pablo were the guys who pulled the triggers, and a jury has already decided that Seth wasn’t, that maybe the case is just that the State’s case is not good enough, but he also beliefs there was somebody directing those two guys who did the actual killings. He thinks it was a hit of somebody.
Okay, so it still goes back to the gangsters, even though the police aren’t following that. Let me also just get back before I do, in the second podcast Butch was bragging that he was going to be bigger news than O.J., who was his friend, so you’re gonna tell me a little bit about how he would’ve been bigger news.
Lisa Arthur: I don’t think anybody knows. I don’t think anybody knows what he meant. The fact that he was acting strange in the months before his death and that he was telling people he was gonna be bigger news than O.J. and telling people that if anything happened to him- There’s a phone call on there with his son where he says “If anything happens to me, you’ll be taken care of in my will.” Police just sort of dismissed all that over the years and say that this was just a random home invasion and it was bad. People who don’t believe that think that Butch knew that somebody was after him and that’s what their interpretation is. That’s what those comments about being bigger news than O.J., telling people he had them taken care of in his will, was suggesting that he knew something was bad and something might happen.
But he knew O.J. since 1973, since his father’s bar in Buffalo. Can you tell me a little bit about what the connection was between O.J. and the mob?
Lisa Arthur: They were friends. That’s the Guardian reported that Butch had visited O.J. just a couple of weeks before he was killed and before Nicole was killed. I don’t know that the police belief that there was an O.J. connection. Clearly they don’t because their belief and their theory of the case is that Pablo and Seth broke into this house and things went bad and they killed the three people who were there so that they wouldn’t leave any witnesses. They think it was just a straight up robbery. Butch was known to carry a lot of cash on him at all times, but people who knew Butch and knew he was friends with O.J. thought maybe it had something to do with the O.J. killings. I don’t think that was ever worn out.
So actually O.J. himself doesn’t have any ties to the mob that has ever come out?
Lisa Arthur: No, no, no. I don’t think there was ever any suggestion that-
Well it’s just that it was the title of the episode, O.J. and the Mob.
Lisa Arthur: People close to Butch were saying maybe this is some kind of conspiracy involving O.J.. It’s just that what the police believe it’s just coincidental that this happened two weeks after the murder of O.J.’s wife and her friend.
In addition to this story we’ve done another one coming up on the podcast too before this one ends its first season. It’s a case about killings at a mall in Boca Raton that really freaked out the area and the guy who did it has never been caught.
The mall murder, murders apparently, can you tell me a little but more about that and what you’re doing to cover it?
Juan Ortega: Yeah, so it’s part of us wanting to start this podcast and it presented an opportunity to look at some of South Florida’s most high profile crimes and one of the ones that immediately stood out was that of the string of cases in 2007 that were known as the Boca Mall Murders. And from that, the one that stood out the most, that drew national attention, happened in December of 2007, just a few weeks before Christmas, when a mom and her seven-year-old daughter were found in the backseat of an SUV, executed with gunshot wounds to their heads and they’d been bound and shot. And it was only close to midnight when the car was still left idling in the parking lot of the town center mall that they had become aware that these killings happened.
As the police began investigating they saw a chilling similarity to a similar kidnapping that happened a few months earlier in August of 2007 and in that case it was also a mom and a child, a two year old boy, who had been kidnapped and in that instance they survive. So unlike the mom and daughter who had been murdered close to the holidays there, these folks survived.
But then, when we started taking a fresh look at this we were able to get a really strong update from the detectives and investigators who’d been connected to these cases and that had spent a decade, if not longer, trying to make some arrests and that’s what we dive into.
So what’s been holding them back from actually charging or arresting and investigating individuals?
Juan Ortega: It’s varied because there’s been several cases, but overall the underlying thread is that there’s just not been enough evidence to make an arrest. In the case of Boca, the police have said that they’ve had, through the years, come up with some theories on who the suspects are, but they still would like to get more information to be confident to proceed with arrests.
I think it was just in recent years they held a news conference where they now increased the reward to up to $400,000 for the arrest and conviction of the killer. And the most that they’ll say is there’s been several cases that have transpired in 2007, but the ones that they’re confident are connected are that of the killings that happened in December and the abduction of the mom and the boy in August.
The other ones they’ve not been able to make any conclusive link. There also was an abduction and killing that happened in March of that year, March 2007 and in that one it’s believed that, that woman also was abducted from the parking lot mall and then her body ends up near a park after she was shot and she had been carjacked in her SUV. So hopefully that answers your question there.
It does. Actually, the Casey Nickelodeon killing made MSNBC the murderer on camera caught on tape episode. Is the Florida mall killing gaining ground on a national level as far as people knowing about it?
Juan Ortega: Yeah, well it gained ground instantly as soon as the killings in December happened and even before then the killing that happened in March 2007, which was a woman called Randi Gorenberg, her case had been mentioned on America’s Most Wanted and then a lot of other news media across the nation had been reporting on the string of cases. But the families have been really proactive in publicizing them, but as with any case, sometimes that publicity seems to slow down as the years progress. Also, the family member and the victims in these cases have also spoken to us for this podcast to give us an update on what they’ve had to deal with through the years and their hope that an arrest is made.
So what’s coming up then on Felonious Florida and is Florida any more felonious than other states do you think?
Lisa Arthur: Well Florida, I would say there’s like the lack of shade trees and people’s brains get baked, but things that happen in Florida seem to happen in more extreme than anywhere else and either it’s just a bunch of high profile crimes like that, that shake you, shake your head and wonder what it is about this place that makes it so bizarre at some times. So we picked two of the most notorious to start out with and we haven’t really talked about what we’re gonna do next. But there’s no shortage of notorious crimes here to pick from.
Is there anything that you are excited that I haven’t quite come up with yet because I’ve only listened to the first two podcasts, so is there anything that is coming up that you want presented?
Juan Ortega: I just think people should keep listening and that Casey’s Nickelodeon story is compelling and we will cover that trial when it happens later this year and update on that and the Boca Mall Murders is also just a really compelling case and Juan’s got very good stuff coming up. He’s gonna be LBR fifth and sixth episode. Casey’s will wrap up in three and four.
I think it will also be a great opportunity to raise awareness for these cases and in particular with the Boca Mall Murders case the authorities have been eager to make an arrest and they’ve been hoping that even though they have been unsuccessful for the past decade, they keep saying that all they need is just that right tip for the case to heat up and for things to happen, so there is an eagerness, so to speak, for that to happen.
Lisa Arthur: Yeah and we do have tip line set up or people can email us if anybody knows anything about either one of these cases, they can get to us. The number and stuff is on our Facebook page, so folks can go there and get the number or send a message to us via Facebook. The Facebook page is just called Felonious Florida.
Okay. Have you actually followed up on any of the tips that have come in to the show itself?
Lisa Arthur: Well we’re only about a week into this, so I don’t even know. I’ve been out of the office, away, so I haven’t even checked to see what’s come in. But we will follow up on anything we get and we’ll pass it along.
Felonious Florida is available on Apple Podcasts, other podcast carriers, and at their website.