FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — For 40 years, Bernice Novack lived quietly in her Fort Lauderdale home, amid the treasures of her glamorous past: expensive oil paintings, diamond jewelry, a piano from Frank Sinatra and photos of her with presidents and movie stars.
On April 6, 2009, that charmed life came to a traumatic end. Ben Novack Jr. found his mother sprawled in her utility room, face down on the floor, wearing a nightgown drenched in blood.
The autopsy showed massive skull injuries, broken teeth, a fractured finger and broken jaw. The conclusion: accidental death due to a series of falls.
Initially, Ben Novack Jr. believed it, but then he developed doubts, says his lawyer. Whether he ever reconciled those doubts will never be known. Three months later, the wealthy convention planner was beaten to death in a New York State hotel room, a crime that remains unsolved.
The death of his mother -- who would have been executor of Ben Novack's multimillion-dollar estate -- remains a strange footnote to one of South Florida's more intriguing murder mysteries.
LIFE AFTER BEN SR.
Bernice Novack reigned as queen of the Fontainebleau, dining and dancing with the wealthy and the famous, when the hotel was owned by Ben Novack Sr. After their marriage soured, the flaming redhead, a former model for Salvador Dali, moved into a comfortable home in an upscale golf course community where few neighbors knew about her storybook past.
She performed clerical work for her son's company, Convention Concepts Unlimited. Family and friends said the 87-year-old was in robust health, regularly practiced yoga and drove herself to work every day.
The entire Novack clan -- Ben Jr., his wife Narcy, Bernice, and Narcy Novack's adult daughter May Abad -- worked at Convention Concepts, which grossed more than $50 million annually.
It wasn't a love fest. Ben and Narcy's relationship was strained, as Ben carried on affairs with a number of women.
Narcy and her daughter had a long history of animosity.
Ben Jr. was often cold and indifferent to his mother, whom he always addressed by her first name.
Bernice didn't particularly care for Narcy, an exotic dancer when Narcy and Ben Jr. met 25 years earlier. Big Fannie Annie, a stripper who now works in Las Vegas, recalls Narcy -- whom she said danced under the name ``Sylvia'' when they worked at the now-defunct Follies International club in Hialeah.
``She was a nice girl. But it was a cut-throat business. She was the kind of girl who counted her money all the time, like 12 times a night,'' she recalled.
Narcy also practiced Vodou and had dolls, said her daughter, May Abad.
``When I was younger I just thought of it as a game,'' Abad said. ``But as I grew up, I realized it was serious, kind of crazy.''
DEATH OF A MATRIARCH
In the predawn hours of April 6, Rebecca Greene became concerned when she saw the open garage door at Bernice's home across the street. She phoned Bernice but there was no answer.
She called Ben Jr., who entered the home and found his mother dead on the floor.
The trail of blood ``started inside or near her vehicle and then proceeded into the residence, where she attempted to clean up at the sink,'' theorized Detective Mark Shotwell, a homicide investigator with Fort Lauderdale police.
From the droplets, it appeared she entered the bathroom, bled profusely on the floor and in the toilet bowl, returned to the kitchen and then went to the laundry room, where she collapsed, he said in his report.
The house was not ransacked, nothing was missing, and there were no footprints leading away from the blood.
Police believe Bernice fell in her house, intended to drive somewhere to get medical attention, thought better of it, returned to the house and died.
Maxine Fiel, Bernice's sister, thinks that's nonsense.
``She was in a nightgown,'' said Fiel. ``My sister would have never gone out in a nightgown. It seemed to me that she was being chased, not that she was falling around the house. There was blood smeared everywhere and her injuries were horrific.''
When police arrived, Ben Jr. told them his mother had taken a spill one week earlier, outside a Bank of America branch in Fort Lauderdale. She had landed face down on the concrete.
Bernice was treated and released at Imperial Point Medical Center, where she demonstrated some yoga positions before heading home.
Later, Ben Jr., became concerned that the fall did not cause his mother's death. He was bothered by a glass of white wine sitting atop the kitchen table. My mother never drank white wine, he told police.
He discussed his doubts with Robert Switkes, a Miami Beach attorney he had hired to sue the bank.
``Ben fortified my belief that this couldn't have been an accident,'' said Switkes, who studied all her medical records and the autopsy and police reports. ``The wine, the massive injuries, the trail of blood -- he felt it just lended itself to something more sinister.''
To this day, Switkes believes Bernice was murdered.
``You just don't get up and fall. The injuries were totally inconsistent with somebody falling,'' he said.
About a week after Ben Jr. 53, was found dead by his wife, police in Miami Springs received a curious letter. Unsigned, written in Spanish, the letter asserted that Ben Jr. and his mother had both been murdered as part of a plot to get Ben Jr.'s millions.
The letter mentioned the wine glass -- and that Ben Jr. had confided his concerns to his lawyer. At that time, neither fact had been made public by police.
The letter claimed Narcy Novack and one of her brothers (his name is blacked out by authorities) were involved.
Narcy, who, through her attorney, declined several requests for comment, has been named a ``person of interest'' in her husband's death but there have been no arrests. The case is now in the hands of the U.S. Attorney in New York.
The letter also said Bernice had been stalked before her death. Although it's not certain, that may have been a reference to an incident two months before her death. A neighbor filed a police report describing how he saw two men outside Bernice's house, hiding in the bushes. A day later, Bernice filed a report stating someone had hurled a ceramic garden ornament through her window.
The letter went on:
``That night [April 5], they went to her house. The daughter-in-law had keys to the house and had taken the cellular or all communication.'' The writer said the killers ``beat her up so bad so that she could not call her son Ben and like that to appear like [the] perfect crime.''
Miami Springs police shared the letter with authorities in Rye Brook. They, in turn, passed it along to Fort Lauderdale, since Bernice's death happened there.
Fort Lauderdale police were unimpressed.
``That letter doesn't prove anything,'' said Frank Sousa, Fort Lauderdale police spokesman. He said police chose not to pursue the claims because the letter wasn't signed. Detectives say it could be a red herring meant to cast suspicion on Narcy, who stands to inherit her late husband's wealth -- unless implicated in his death.
``At this point, there is nothing to indicate anything different from our [initial] finding,'' said Sousa. ``We've looked at this case on several levels, several times and came to the same finding.''
Broward County Medical Examiner Joshua Perper agreed. He said Bernice's injuries were consistent with ``a series of falls.''
Some family members question the thoroughness of the investigation.
Other than from the wine glass, no fingerprints were lifted inside the house or inside Bernice's car, Sousa acknowledged. The only prints on the glass were Bernice's. No DNA samples were collected and there is no photograph on file of the wine glass, he said.
Sousa added that three neighbors -- whom he declined to identify -- were interviewed, but there is no record of those interviews. Greene, the next door neighbor, said she had only a brief discussion with a patrolman, not a detective.
Police did not interview Bernice Novack's handyman, with whom she had spent part of the day before her death, Sousa said.
They did consider Bernice's claim, contained in a 2002 police report, that Narcy tried to poison her. Bernice made the allegation after finding Ben Jr. handcuffed and duct-taped for 24 hours in his Fort Lauderdale home. Ben Jr. said his wife stole money from his safe as several men threatened to kill him. He later declined to prosecute, and police found no evidence to support Bernice's claim.
Fiel believes police put little effort into her sister's case because of her sister's age.
``Bernice was in good health,'' Fiel said. ``They tried to say she was confused, but she was not. She was driving. She was cleaning along side her cleaning person. She went to work every day. The letter lays it all out. She was murdered.''
Switkes said Fort Lauderdale police did not reach out to him, although the letter correctly stated that Novack had confided his doubts to his lawyer.
``I did speak to the prosecutor and the lead detective in Rye Brook N.Y.,'' Switkes said of those looking into Ben Jr.'s murder. ``They also felt that something wasn't right about her death. There was a mutual feeling that the facts didn't add up.''
Rye Brook police would not discuss the case with The Herald.
Crime experts say that almost every unexplained death should be investigated initially as if it were a homicide. Otherwise, if evidence later suggests that the death is in fact a murder, the failure to document the scene can hamstring efforts to build a case. Interviews with friends, neighbors and witnesses are critical early in the investigation.
``Interviews are important,'' said Ramesh Nyberg, a 21-year veteran Miami-Dade homicide investigator, now retired. ``You have to piece it together and tell a story you can live with. Maybe they got enough from family members that they felt they didn't have to interview everyone.
``But it doesn't hurt to talk to as many people as possible. If you fail to talk to the neighbors and somebody says I saw something then you have some serious egg on your face. You have to do a little more than you think you need to do.''
And yet, he found it telling that Bernice would have been able stumble around the house and fall before she died.
``If you go to someone's house to kill them, you finish the job; they wouldn't allow her to stumble around the house,'' the veteran homicide investigator said.