The mysterious death of Rey Rivera has continued to stoke speculation and controversy, especially after the case received national attention from a Netlfix reboot of Unsolved Mysteries in July, 2020. In Part 1 of their three-part investigation, TRNN reporters Taya Graham and Stephen Janis reviewed the unsettling circumstances surrounding Rivera’s death and the ensuing police investigation. In Part 2, Graham and Janis take a closer look at the homicide case files, which were recently released by the Baltimore police and shed light on new clues and glaring questions about a case that remains unsolved to this day.

This podcast was originally published on Nov. 21, 2020.


Transcript

Stephen Janis:    Anyone who watches crime dramas could reasonably conclude that when someone is murdered, barring bizarre and extenuating circumstances, the case is solved. That is, through high-tech forensics, moral resolve, or simply the near-mythic competence of American law enforcement, killers are ultimately sent to jail. But, as an investigative reporter who has worked in one of the most violent cities in the country for nearly 15 years, I can tell you this is not true.

Taya Graham:        That is the point of this podcast, because unsolved killings represent more than just statistics. It’s a psychic toll of stories untold that infects an entire community. The final violent moments of a victim’s life that remain shrouded in mystery.

Stephen Janis:    I’m Stephen Janis.

Taya Graham:     I’m Taya Graham.

Stephen Janis:      We are investigative reporters who live in Baltimore City.

Taya Graham:     Welcome to The Land of the Unsolved.

Hello. My name is Taya Graham, and welcome to The Land of the Unsolved. Today, we’re going to be taking another look at the mysterious death of Rey Rivera. As the world knows by now, Rey’s case was the subject of the hit reboot of the Unsolved Mysteries TV show on Netflix. The episode, titled Mystery on the Rooftop, recounted how Rey left his Baltimore home in May of [2006] and then mysteriously disappeared. Roughly nine days later, Rey’s partially decomposed body was found in the second-floor conference room of the Belvedere Hotel in Baltimore. A hole in the roof above where his body was found seemed to indicate that Rey had jumped to his death. In fact, police said publicly that he had committed suicide. But Rey’s family was adamant that this was not the case, pointing to myriad of evidence showing that this suicide was all but impossible.

Ray was recently married to the love of his life, Allison. He had just finished a screenplay. He had recently launched his own production company, and he was planning to move back to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of being a filmmaker. Today, the goal of our show will be twofold: First, I will talk to Stephen about new documents released by the Baltimore City Police Department regarding Ray’s death. Second, I will ask Stephen questions sent to him by people who watched the Unsolved Mysteries episode and are still curious about the case. Let’s start.

Stephen, you received what one would call a document dump of files from the Baltimore Police Department. What was in there?

Stephen Janis:       Well, this is really hard to describe because when we first started investigating the case, myself and Jayne Miller back in 2006 and 2007, police would not release the files related to the case, which would be the homicide files, because the case was still under investigation, or considered still open. And according to the Maryland Public Information Act, it’s exempt from having to be made public. But Netflix got ahold of the documents in May of 2020, and they shared them with us.

Really, there’s not a lot in there. One of the big things that they include in these kinds of document dumps are the Lotus Notes, which are basically the progress reports from homicide detectives that show what they do each and every day. These progress reports pretty much stop abruptly in the beginning of June of 2006. So when you’re reading them and it seems like the case is just getting started, the information just stops. They stop asking questions. There’s a point where they contact the owners of the garage, which is adjacent to where his body was found, to see the video camera footage. I didn’t even know there was video camera footage there, and then nothing is followed up. There is no indication of where the body was located. I have my own memory of it, but there’s not a diagram. I spoke to a homicide detective, and he said, you always do a diagram. So really, there’s not a tremendous amount of evidence in there that sheds any light on anything.

Taya Graham:      Stephen, what was your biggest takeaway from these files?

Stephen Janis:     My biggest takeaway, and what I conclude from looking at them – And we’re going to go into more detail because we’re going to follow up on some leads that the police didn’t follow up on – Was that somehow, for some reason, this case stopped cold. They just basically stopped it without any sort of positive evidence that it should be stopped. There were just things that weren’t pursued, bank accounts, all sorts of stuff. So it seems to me like just looking at it, it’s kind of like you’re reading a book and you’re just getting into the beginning chapter, and then suddenly it stops as if the writer just stopped writing, as if the story just ended, and it seems like someone pulled the plug on it. Just like, boom, it’s gone.

To me it just, I think, gives credence to the people who feel like the police just let this go based on a very flimsy… There’s really no evidence of the notes of the people they interviewed. Nobody says Rey told them they were going to commit suicide. In fact, there are people they didn’t talk to that I talked to, like the last person that spoke to Rey before he died, which was a computer tech guy at an Apple service company who said he was just trying to get equipment to finish a project. So really, it seems to me that someone pulled the plug on this. That’s all I can conclude.

Taya Graham:      Now, we’re going to go on to the questions from people who watched the Unsolved Mysteries series, who were very curious to see what you’ve uncovered.

Stephen Janis:       Okay.

Taya Graham:       The first question is: What are your thoughts on how the Baltimore Police Department handled the investigation, and are you aware of any case activity in recent years or any new developments since Unsolved Mysteries released?

Stephen Janis:       Okay. I mean, if indeed Baltimore City Police Department gave us all the documents that are related to this case, I can say unequivocally that no, nothing happened in this case after like June 3 or 4 of 2006. In those documents, there is no indication that they did a single thing after that period of time. Of course, I have followed up with police and they’re very noncommittal about anything happening since. But we went and visited the detective, the last detective, Marvin Sydnor, and he indicated to us, just recently after the show came out, we went and tried to talk to him, and he indicated to us that nothing had been done. He didn’t say that he’d been working on it. Of course, he’s retired. But no, I think that it’s pretty clear that this was stopped in June of 2006. The reason? I don’t know.

Taya Graham:      Do you have any theories about who placed the last call to Rey before he went missing, how his cell phone and eyeglasses arrived on top of the Belvedere Hotel annex undamaged, or who might have called the Baltimore City police to inquire about his computer equipment?

Stephen Janis:       Mm. Well, we know who called because that’s in the police report, actually, that I just reviewed. It was people from Agora or The Oxford Club, one of the places called to ask for his computer. That was from his former employer. There was no reason put in the notes. But yeah, someone from Agora or, I think it was The Oxford Club, had called because they said there was stuff he was working on for them. I think that was the reason in the notes, so we know that. But the call itself, it had to have been whoever, I think, ended up being part of whatever happened to Rey, right? I mean, I don’t know. I know that some of the calls that they found in their home line were from someone in Agora, but they don’t know where, they couldn’t trace them back.

That’s another interesting thing. For example, there’s no indication that police subpoenaed his cell phone records. Usually, when you look at homicide files, there’ll be subpoenas in there for cell phone records, correct? There are no subpoenas that said, requesting the cell record of so-and-so so we can get the last numbers. I don’t see any indication the police tried to find out who that person was, which to me is unbelievable. I mean, literally unbelievable. I mean, Taya, you’ve done this kind of stuff, so you understand why that would be weird, right?

Taya Graham:       Right, for the police department not to reach out to the last person that Rey spoke to?

Stephen Janis:       Well, not even look for their number.

Taya Graham:       And not even look for their number, that actually is quite shocking. I’m curious, though, the second half of this question addresses… How did his cell phone and eyeglasses end up on top of the Belvedere Hotel undamaged?

Stephen Janis:      Right. Well, see, I think that’s one of the strongest pieces of evidence that he didn’t jump from anywhere. Even as improbable as it sounds that there’s a hole in the roof – Which of course, the roof was very flimsy, it wasn’t well-constructed – It seems more like someone had his cell phone and threw it up there, because it’s right on the concourse where he landed. If he had that cell phone in his pocket and his glasses when he fell from a height of a hundred meters, or whatever it is, or 114 feet, there’s no way it survives unscathed. I don’t see how on Earth it comes out of his pocket and lands unscathed next to him.

To me, what that indicates is that there was a hole and they’re throwing the phone and his glasses up through the hole to make it look like… Or climbing up the hole or something and placing them there. It’s like this whole case, the reason people find this case so infuriating is because none of the evidence makes any sense. That is just nonsensical, that his phone would be there unscathed. It is one of the main indicators that I think, I believe that he didn’t fall from that height.

Taya Graham:       Yes, I think it makes an excellent argument for the case that these articles were placed. I can’t drop my phone three feet without it cracking the screen. It seems very strange.

Stephen Janis:      Right. Right, exactly. That’s why we all have… That’s a great point. That’s why we’ll have phone protectors, right? But he somehow falls a hundred feet and his phone is just sitting there with his glasses. So yeah, I think that’s a big, big red flag.

Taya Graham:     Absolutely. During the previous Land of the Unsolved podcast, you shared that you were able to access the room where Rey’s body was located on the day in which it was found. What was that experience like? Did you observe any traces of blood or other evidence suggesting that a body had fallen through the ceiling?

Stephen Janis:       Well, first of all, the smell I don’t think got out of my nostrils for days and days because they had tried to cover it up with some sort of chemical, but it mixed with the decay, and it was a very troubling admixture because it just… Anyone who’s been to a crime scene and smelled it, you never forget it. It’s a type of smell, a decomposing body that is absolutely stifling. So that I remember. There was a red spot over by where his body laid, because his body had been removed by the time I got back there, close to the wall. One of the things that struck me, I mean, my memory is pretty firm, it was on the north side of the room, which would make it closer to the top of the hotel, so it seemed to me like, how did his body end up there, almost up against a wall? If he had jumped or been pushed off the ledge of this building, it just didn’t make any sense.

I do remember that there were paint chips and all sorts of debris around the room. I think the thing that struck me, like the weirdest, is there was a stencil lettering on the door of a church that I guess had been… Baltimore has a lot of storefront churches, Taya. You’re aware of them, right?

Taya Graham:      Yes.

Stephen Janis:       Churches that are all over the place. Someone had had a storefront church back there and then they clearly moved out. So there was like just this strange scene that just was kind of disturbing, eerie, and a weird smell. Yeah, that was what I remember.

Taya Graham:      This is an interesting question. Detective Michael Baier, who believed that death was a homicide and that Rey’s personal items appeared to be staged, was reassigned just three weeks into the investigation. Is it typical in homicide investigations for investigators to be reassigned?

Stephen Janis:     Well, no, I don’t think that’s very typical. I think that’s very political when people… Basically, homicide’s pretty orderly. When you’re up for a case, so to speak, it just is sort of like you’re up for the next case, that case becomes your case until you leave the department or you retire. Generally speaking, that’s the way it works because otherwise, if people keep shuffling cases around, someone will have a disproportionate number of cases, so it’s pretty orderly. They try to keep it on a rotation and to take someone off that case without any explicit reason… But that goes back to what I think by looking at the documents themselves, that somebody was like, hey, this is over. Stop it. Because the notes just stop, and it’s stunning. I think it’s extremely unusual, and I think it raises a lot of questions that I just can’t answer, but yeah, no, it’s very weird.

Taya Graham:       The case is currently an open homicide investigation, and during the Dr. Oz Podcast, you discussed a theory that Rey was struck by a car. What evidence do you believe most supports that Rey was murdered, and why do you think he may have been targeted?

Stephen Janis:       Well, first let me say one thing and clear this up. The medical examiner ruled this case undetermined, which mean they couldn’t determine it was a homicide or suicide, accident, or natural causes. That means it’s sitting in Baltimore City Homicide as a pending case, so it’s really not an open homicide case in any stretch of the imagination. Baltimore police are more than… They have the discretion to investigate it, but it’s not on the wall, so to speak. It’s not listed on the books as a homicide.

Well, the most pertinent evidence, I would refer people to the podcast where we spoke to an expert in accident investigations. What she noted was that the injuries seem to be more severe on one side, I think on the left side of Rey’s body, than the right side. She said that that would be very difficult to happen if someone was falling from a height, had created the kind of hole, which is a relatively small hole, which seemed to me he would have to either have landed on his feet, and that the injuries would be more consistently spread across his body, that there would be injuries of his hands if he went head first. It just seemed like because only one leg was compound fractured, which is broken through, means that, to her, it looked more like something she had seen from accidents where people were hit by cars where one part of their body was traumatized and the other part wasn’t. I think given what we talked about, the phone being on top of the roof, and all the questions about no one seeing him in the hotel. That the injuries, given what this forensic investigator has said, I think you could make a good case that he was hit by a car.

Taya Graham:      I do think the forensic investigator made an excellent case that he could have been hit by a car, because the way that she described the physics of the body falling makes it highly unlikely that he could have fallen so perfectly with no damage to his hands, that he didn’t put his hands out at any moment, and that the injuries were just on the left-hand side of his body. It sounds highly unusual, and I think the forensic expert made a really good point.

Stephen Janis:       Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.

Taya Graham:     How easy would it have been for a nonresident to gain access to the upper floors of the Belvedere Hotel in 2006?

Stephen Janis:        Yeah, that’s a really good question. Okay, so one thing that was really interesting is a couple of weeks ago, Jayne Miller and myself walked around there just to see what you could get access to and what you couldn’t. To go onto the floors where people live, you have to go through an elevator and there’s usually a security guard standing there. If you got up to the 13th floor, which is a bar, then you would have access to the stairwells that went to the roof, I believe. However, some of those doors are locked or need some sort of key to get in, so it would be extremely difficult just to get up there, and to get someone up there who wasn’t cooperating would be even harder.

However, if you just wanted to get someone into that conference room, which was empty and abandoned, there are a myriad of ways from the hotel to get there. Especially if you go through the parking garage, which is adjacent to the concourse where Rey was found. You can go up a set of stairs in the stairwell in the parking garage and get entrance to, I think, what seemed to us the second level and also the living quarters, so there’s a back way in there that’s pretty easy. That would also work from the basement as well, where you could, let’s say you wanted to take a body, you could take it through the basement and then up through the stairwell in the parking garage. There was more than one way. There’s another stairwell we couldn’t even go up, but you could get in that back way much easier than I think you could get on the roof of the hotel with a person or a body.

Taya Graham:      Rey had a well-known fear of heights, but according to the fact sheet prepared by Stansberry Research, Rey had previously visited the Belvedere rooftop to view a sunset. In your reporting, have you found that Rey has ever accessed the Belvedere rooftop prior to his death?

Stephen Janis:       I think I asked Allison about that, and she might have confirmed that they had wandered up there or something, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have fear of heights. because I can tell you this much. His brother, Angel, one of the first things he said to me when I was working on the story in 2006 or ’07 after his body had been found, was that Rey didn’t even like to climb to the top of the Christmas tree and put the Christmas ornaments up there.

Taya Graham:       Oh, wow.

Stephen Janis:        I mean, he was extremely scared of heights, and that was one of the first things he said: There’s no way you’d get Rey up to the top of that building. It’s very interesting, because anyone who’s been up to the top of the hotel, it’s really scary. It’s like there’s all these things around and it just seems like you could… If you have vertigo, you don’t want to go up there, let’s put it that way. But just the fact that he went up there doesn’t mean he wasn’t scared of heights. Pretty much everyone who knows him said he was scared of heights, so that’s absurd. That’s just absurd.

Taya Graham:        In The Land of the Unsolved Podcast, you mentioned an email you received stating that Rey was a whistleblower and that he did not commit suicide. Did the email include any other information?

Stephen Janis:       Actually, I’ve received a lot of emails with, I would say, sort of nonspecific information. Information that Rey was a whistleblower, that Rey knew something, that people wanted to keep him quiet. But when you try to drill down and say, okay, so then what did he know? Those answers are not substantial enough for me to say something. I don’t want to speculate. I understand that people want answers in this case, but I’m a reporter, so I’m not going to just throw out something that someone sent me on Twitter or Facebook. I appreciate the contextual information, but I don’t have any proof. But I would say that there is a certain amount of people who have been sharing with me the idea that Rey had stumbled onto something, or had some information that someone wanted kept secret. So I can say that that’s definitely consistent, but I can’t point to anything specific because I haven’t been given anything specific and I haven’t confirmed it, so it would be irresponsible to say anything.

Taya Graham:           You have said you believe there was sufficient evidence for the medical examiner to reach a conclusion other than undetermined. Which evidence do you think most supports that in the autopsy report?

Stephen Janis:        Mm, well, I think now that we have this accident investigation, this forensic investigator that said that she believes the injuries are not consistent with a fall, to me it’s kind of stunning. Because here we have this person pretty much across the ocean who came up with these concepts and ideas, and you think to yourself, why didn’t they investigate them…? They’re sitting there, they’re looking up at this hole, and they’ve got these injuries, why didn’t someone put these two and two together? Like I said, I can’t even answer questions concretely about where the body was. It feels like they just left so many things unanswered, and had they drilled down a little bit and said, wait a second, he’s got injuries on one side. He’s only got one compound fracture. How on Earth could he have fallen from a height and only compound fracture one of his legs? That they could have ruled this a homicide.

The suicide evidence is so flimsy. There’s just no evidence. This man was, as you pointed out, Taya, was leading a great life. He’s just married, finished a screenplay. In absence of evidence, you can’t just say, oh, it’s a suicide. I think undetermined was a cop-out. I think there was plenty of evidence that Rey Rivera had no intention of dying that day. Therefore, it’s at the hands of another.

Taya Graham:       Now, reconstruction testing was reportedly performed from the Belvedere rooftop with the use of a dummy. Do you know if any testing has been conducted involving the parking garage?

Stephen Janis:      None that I know of. One of the things that was interesting with the forensic expert we talked to, she said, if he had come off the parking garage, there’s no way he would’ve been able to, where he landed, create that kind of vertical drop hole. So none that I know of, but I mean, there are a lot of people that speculate. For example, if he was hit by a car, thrown into the air, could he have landed on the roof? Or could something have happened in the parking garage? But the only thing I know is that this particular person we talked to claimed that if he had come from the parking garage, that the hole itself would not have been shaped like it was, because he had been moving with so much horizontal force that it would’ve been a longer hole, a more elongated break in the roof.

Taya Graham:      Thom Hickling, who did some work for the same company and was a friend of Rey’s, also died under questionable circumstances just five months prior to Rey’s death. What do you know about Rey and Thom’s relationship, and do you believe their deaths could be connected?

Stephen Janis:       Oh, that’s what’s so interesting because –

Taya Graham:      Mm-hmm (affirmative), it’s a good question.

Stephen Janis:         …Thom Hickling, he dies in Africa, completely out of sight, in circumstances… Some say a car accident, but certainly murky. I think that the connection is that both their deaths are murky, and his death is murky. Certainly, I’ve looked into it and I’ve tried to find information, but there’s not that much information on it because it didn’t happen here, it happened in a country where the media’s a little different – although I can’t give us too much credit because we haven’t solved this case – But much of what we got was second or third-hand. But I do think it’s very disturbing that two people who worked in some proximity die under very mysterious circumstances, non-natural causes within that period of time. It is extremely disturbing.

Taya Graham:      How have your thoughts on the case evolved since you began covering it 14 years ago, and which facts do you feel are the most compelling?

Stephen Janis:      Well, I never really thought that Rey Rivera committed suicide. I think that over time, that’s only become more firm. Just seeing the way people reacted to the case by watching the show, it was pretty lonely here. I mean, I would urge everyone to read The Baltimore Sun article that sort of gave Porter Stansberry the chance to respond, although he would not talk to us or wouldn’t talk to Unsolved Mysteries, to let you know what kind of journalism atmosphere we deal with here, Taya, in Baltimore.

Taya Graham:         Right.

Stephen Janis:       I mean, that was basically…

Taya Graham:      It was like a press release for Porter Stansberry.

Stephen Janis:       Yeah, yeah.

Taya Graham:       It essentially outlined everything Porter Stansberry wanted the public to believe with very little pushback.

Stephen Janis:         With no pushback whatsoever. What was affirming to me was that most of the people who have watched the show believe that Rey did not commit suicide. And so I’ve only become more firm, and I think the fact that now, number one, they stopped this case cold in its tracks, number two, all the information missing from the police file, all the things that should have been done, like where was the body positioned, were the injuries consistent with this type of fall is very specific, right? A very small hole with the body laying against a wall should produce certain injuries that can be… I think, I mean, I’m not an expert on this, but there should be a certain type of… There is more information now than ever that this was not a suicide, which means this case needs to be reopened as a homicide.

Taya Graham:      I also think the article that you were mentioning also shows how local media, and it’s not just Baltimore City, this is other towns, will often go along with the politics of the law enforcement. I think this article that you mentioned shows that a problem that happens with a lot of local media, which is that they fall in line with whatever their local law enforcement wants them to –

Stephen Janis:       Mm-hmm (affirmative), definitely.

Taya Graham:      …That the local media definitely bolsters the narrative of the local law enforcement and does not push back against it. Essentially, the law enforcement is telling us to accept their judgment. Don’t ask any questions. This case needs to remain closed. It’s a homicide, we called it, leave it alone. Essentially, the Stansberry article reaffirmed that. And it’s incredibly disappointing, because investigative reporting is absolutely essential to bringing these things to light, and unfortunately, there’s a lot of local media that simply goes along to get along.

Now, for your last question. You recently indicated that you might be working on a project related to the case. Can you share any details about that or any other upcoming projects you’re working on?

Stephen Janis:      Well, Jayne and I have been working together to do some sort of long-form work on this, and I know she’s working on some other stuff. I can only say at the moment that I’m trying to put everything together and piece everything together I can to do a larger piece that will put this all in context and explore every piece of evidence and follow up. And now that I’ve got the police report, there’s a lot of stuff to follow up on. I think to a certain extent, I will say this: I think that the police report gives enough space for things to be followed up that they didn’t follow up on, and I think the forensic piece that we did is part one. But part two, Taya and I are going to keep looking into it and keep working on it. So yeah, there will be more to come. Let’s say that.

Taya Graham:       Thank you for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved. The Land of the Unsolved is produced for Ace Spectrum Productions. It is edited by my co-host, Stephen Janis. If you enjoy this podcast, please consider hitting the Support button and donating. Every penny counts. Also, if you’d like to read more of our work in print, Stephen and I have written three books on policing all available on Amazon: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore, You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond, and The Book of Cop: A Testament of Policing That Works. All are available on amazon.com. My name is Taya Graham, and thank you so much for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved.

Taya Graham

Host & Producer
Taya Graham is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered U.S. politics, local government, and the criminal justice system. She is the host of TRNN's "Police Accountability Report," and producer and co-creator of the award-winning podcast "Truth and Reconciliation" on Baltimore's NPR affiliate WYPR. She has written extensively for a variety of publications including the Afro American Newspaper, the oldest black-owned publication in the country, and was a frequent contributor to Morgan State Radio at a historic HBCU. She has also produced two documentaries, including the feature-length film "The Friendliest Town." Although her reporting focuses on the criminal justice system and government accountability, she has provided on the ground coverage of presidential primaries and elections as well as local and state campaigns.

 
taya@therealnews.com
 
@tayasbaltimore

Stephen Janis

Host & Producer

Stephen Janis is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work has been acclaimed both in print and on television. As the Senior Investigative Reporter for the now defunct Baltimore Examiner, he won two Maryland DC Delaware Press Association Awards for his work on the number of unsolved murders in Baltimore and the killings of prostitutes. His in-depth work on the city's zero-tolerance policing policies garnered an NAACP President's Award. As an Investigative Producer for WBFF/Fox 45, he has won three successive Capital Emmys: two for Best Investigative Series and one for Outstanding Historical/Cultural Piece.

He is the author of three books on the philosophy of policing: Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore; You Can't Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond; and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. He has also written two novels, This Dream Called Death and Orange: The Diary of an Urban Surrealist. He teaches journalism at Towson University.