B efore Lisa Spence went missing, her relationship with Paul Edwards was rocky. Police learned the two argued and fought — and friends told them that Paul was abusive.
Investigators were dubious of Paul’s description of the last night he saw Lisa. He told them that after Lisa returned from work late at night on Oct. 7, 2009, she was planning to leave him. Paul went on a one-hour drive to give her time to collect her things, and she was gone when he returned.
But the lead investigator on the case, Danny Smith, says he didn’t believe Paul was telling them everything he knew, and that something violent had happened to Lisa.
Investigators found blood in the couple’s bathroom, and although there was no DNA profile from Lisa to compare it to, it was a close match to the DNA profile of her daughter, Cerline. Close enough to make police confident the blood was Lisa’s.
Police questioned Paul several times in the weeks after Lisa disappeared, and he repeatedly denied knowing what happened to his girlfriend.
But his stories weren’t adding up for police. For one thing, Lisa didn’t have a car in Florida — if she had packed and left on the night of Oct. 7, how did she get her belongings out of the apartment? Paul had no explanation.
And then there were the text messages that Lisa’s friends and family were receiving from her phone after her disappearance.
Records from cell towers revealed that Paul’s phone was always in close proximity to Lisa’s when those texts were being sent.
Police believed it was Paul who was sending texts from Lisa’s phone.
Text from the grave
Investigators needed a breakthrough in the case, so they came up with a tactic so unusual they needed a judge to sign off on it.
If it was Paul who was sending texts from Lisa’s phone, they were going to turn the tables on him.
They made a clone of Lisa’s cellphone by having her phone’s ID number transferred to a new device.
Then, with dozens of detectives, U.S. marshals and deputies from the sheriff’s office set up to track Paul’s movements, Detective Danny Smith sent Paul a text message from the clone of Lisa’s phone.
It was phrased the way Lisa would send a text message: short and sometimes with a typo in it.
It said: “Wait till I got better.”
The trap was set, and within a few hours, Paul stepped out of his mother’s house and into the surveillance operation. For about six hours, they tracked Paul as he drove through several cities, Paul led them from place to place. He went to Aventura — near the senior-living center where he works as a concierge. But he didn’t stop.
He drove past the crowded, high-end Aventura Mall but didn’t stop there, either.
He returned to Miramar, stopped at a friend’s house, then went back home. Then he was on the move again, driving to another friend’s house in Miami Gardens.
Finally, he returned to his mother’s house and didn’t leave again that night.
For the next several weeks, police retraced Paul’s movements and searched the locations he stopped at. In dumpsters, lots, homes, anywhere they might find a clue.
Finally, at the last place Paul stopped, they found what they were looking for.
The body in a barrel
At the end of the the surveillance operation on Nov. 5, 2009, Paul stopped at the Miami Gardens home of a woman he once worked with.
A canal runs along her street and into an open field behind her house.
The field was empty except piles of debris such as tires and other garbage. As they did with the other locations Paul stopped at, police sent cadaver-sniffing dogs into the field.
The dogs, a Belgium Malinois named Riot and a yellow lab named Jewel, quickly zeroed in on a cardboard barrel that was next to a cluster of low trees.
Police believed Paul had led them to the body of Lisa Spence. They loaded the barrel into a truck to bring it to the medical examiner’s office, where it would be opened.
The 55-gallon barrel was cardboard with a coating that made it waterproof. It was sealed on both ends with metal caps. Despite remaining in the hot Florida sun for perhaps months, it was intact and remained tightly sealed.
Inside was a woman’s headless body. It was badly decomposed. The woman had been stabbed more than 30 times.
The condition of the body made it impossible to lift fingerprints for identification. Without the head, dental records couldn’t be checked. But blood and tissue samples were sent for DNA testing.
The DNA profile from those samples were compared to the DNA of Lisa’s daughter.
They were a close match and an expert concluded the body was indeed Lisa’s.
There was also a toe ring on the body, and detectives knew Lisa liked wearing jewelry. Lisa’s daughter confirmed that the unique ring did belong to her mother.
Detectives had enough evidence against Paul. On April 14, 2010, he was arrested and charged with killing Lisa Spence.
It took more than five years to bring Paul’s case to trial. And it lasted for nearly a month.
Paul’s lawyers noticed how nice he was to them. His demeanor didn’t match the violent way Lisa was killed. During the trial, they argued that police targeted Paul early in the investigation and didn’t take a hard look at other possible suspects.
One potential suspect, Paul’s lawyers said, was Shakiene Lopez. He and Lisa had been seeing each other behind Paul’s back for a few weeks before she disappeared.
But police said Lopez had a solid alibi for the night of Lisa’s disappearance and they ruled him out. About two years before Paul’s trial, Lopez was shot and killed in an attack police said was unrelated to the Spence case.
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Paul’s trial lasted for a month. But it took the jury just three and a half hours to make its decision.
They found him guilty of first-degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
This year, the Florida Supreme Court refused to hear Paul’s last chance at an appeal.
About Felonious Florida
The Felonious Florida podcast is produced by the South Florida Sun Sentinel and presented in audio form in partnership with Wondery. Reporting is based on court documents, interviews, police reports and media coverage. The show was created by Lisa Arthur and Juan Ortega and is produced by David Schutz. Reporting by Stephen Hobbs, Juan Ortega, Marc Freeman and Tonya Alanez. Editing by Randy Roguski. The host of Felonious Florida is EmmaKate Austin. Sound direction by Sean Pitts with additional recordings by Carline Jean, Susan Stocker and John McCall. Web design by Yiran Zhu. The Felonious Florida team includes Dana Banker, Danny Sanchez, Cindy Choi and Kelly Frye.
Have a comment or question about this podcast or the cases it features, leave a recording at 954-283-7531 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.