Ana María Cardona had spent 22 years on death row when I received her first letter. When she arrived at Florida's Lowell Correctional Institution in 1992, Cardona, then 30, was a young mother, healthy and attractive. Now 55, she is gaunt and tired, her brown hair graying. In the decades since she was convicted of torturing and murdering her three-year-old son and sentenced to death, Cardona has been trying to clear her name.
Long before the state presented any evidence against Cardona, the media vilified her, as the crime she had allegedly committed was one of most brutal in Miami's history. She was a monster, they said: she and her lesbian partner had killed her son and abandoned his dead body near their home. What had first appeared to be a case of child abduction and murder was one of parental neglect, torture and psychopathic disregard for the health of a baby boy.
All of South Florida was enraptured. I was 11 years old, living with my family in Miami Beach, when Baby Lollipops was found. I watched the news with everyone else, followed the story for weeks as it unfolded on the pages of newspapers, on an episode of America's Most Wanted. I had seen the flyers taped on the windows of local businesses, had speculated with my friends about the killer. I had my mind made up before she even had a trial.
Then one day more than 20 years later, during an email exchange with a social justice activist, I was put in touch with Cardona. "I would like to hear your story," I told Cardona in a letter in May of 2012. "Not what the papers said or what people said or what was in the news, but the truth." I explained that I wanted to write this story.
"This is not a story," she replied. "This is my life."
It's a crime that has haunted South Florida for decades. On November 2nd, 1990, two Florida Power & Light employees were working in the wealthy Miami Beach neighborhood of La Gorce around 8:30 a.m. when they made a discovery: Under the cherry hedge between a house's driveway and a garden wall, lying in a pile of grass and leaves, was the dead body of a little boy wearing only a diaper and a T-shirt with lollipops across the front. He quickly became known as Baby Lollipops.
He was, police would announce several weeks later, just three years old. He had been starved and beaten, his soiled diaper wrapped to his emaciated body using brown packing tape. The medical examiner would tell the courts that when the diaper was removed, it was so caked with the baby's excrement it had been like removing a cast. A blunt object – later determined to be a baseball bat – had fractured his skull; there was a cigarette burn on his left cheek and dozens of other injuries, including broken bones, broken teeth and bedsores from being tied to a mattress for prolonged periods. His left arm had been broken months before, an injury so severe that rather than healing, the nerves had died and the muscles calcified into bone – a painful process that lasted months. It was determined that he'd been tortured for about a year and a half. At the time of his death, he weighed only eighteen pounds.
The news rocked Miami. No one understood how it was possible – a toddler tortured this way, his parents nowhere to be found. The police, the judge, the medical examiner, everyone agreed: it had been the single worst case of child abuse and child murder they had ever seen. Local channels aired specials urging parents to teach children about "stranger danger," reminding them of children kidnapped in department stores and supermarkets. The story of Adam Walsh's kidnapping and murder was back on the news. Whoever had killed this baby had to be a monster.
Several weeks later, the story changed. Baby Lollipops, it turned out, had a mother and siblings. His real name was Lázaro Figueroa. They had found Lázaro's mother, Ana María Cardona, her partner, Olivia González, and two other children living in St. Cloud, Florida. After several hours of interrogation, González told detectives that Cardona had killed Lázaro, and together they had dumped his body under the bushes. They were both charged with aggravated child abuse and first-degree murder.
In 2002, Cardona’s conviction was overturned and she was granted a new trial. Once again, in 2010, she was found guilty of first-degree murder, and in 2011, sentenced to death. Then, last February, the Florida Supreme Court overturned her second conviction. She's preparing to face a jury for the third time next July.
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Ana María Cardona was born in Havana, Cuba, to a poor single mother whom she says was often abusive. Before her arrival in Miami, Cardona had a difficult life under the Castro regime. Sexually assaulted when she was 10 years old, she had attempted suicide several times as a teen, and by 16 was using drugs, drinking and having sex on the streets.
"My whole family died in Cuba," she wrote me on May 15th, 2015. "All I have left is God and my children."
She came to the U.S. in 1980 during the Mariel Boatlift, alone and pregnant, when she was 19, and supported herself with sex work. Cardona lived on the streets for some time, had two children and then met Fidel Figueroa. Fidel was a successful drug trafficker in Miami, and soon, Cardona started using cocaine. Before she knew it, she was addicted.
Fidel made enough money to support Cardona and her children, and the family lived well. After years of poverty and struggle, Fidel's drug money provided a life like she'd never imagined: a maid, a penthouse apartment, expensive cars. In 1985, she had another child, a girl, and then she got pregnant with Lázaro. Fidel was gunned down in August 1987, and Lazaro was born a month later. Fidel left a $100,000 estate, which Cardona quickly squandered on drugs, alcohol and parties. During this time, her children sometimes lived with babysitters, whom Cardona left them with for weeks, sometimes months at a time. They were removed by social services for a while until they could determine that Cardona could care for them herself.
Cardona met Olivia González at a nightclub in Miami Beach in March 1989. Cardona was an attractive and confident woman who partied too much, drank too much and used cocaine – González was smitten. The two began a relationship. Eventually, after the money was spent and the cars were gone, Cardona was evicted from her luxury apartment and found herself on the streets again. Except this time, she had three of her four children in tow. Lázaro was eighteen months old. "It's hard," Cardona wrote in 2015, "you find yourself on the streets with little children, like I did, and not a single person extends a hand."
With no other place to turn, Cardona and her children moved in with González. While González was at work, she was home with the kids. When the two older children were in school, Lázaro was home alone with his mother.
This was corroborated by Olivia González, who was offered a deal by prosecutors in exchange for her testimony against Cardona, and sentenced to 40 years in prison after pleading to aggravated child abuse and second-degree murder. She became the prosecution's star witness. She testified that the they and the children moved from place to place, from one apartment to the next, from motel rooms to friends' houses to trailers and back again. In each of these spots, she said, Lázaro was always either locked in the bedroom, bathroom, closet, or strapped down to the bed. If he moved, disobeyed, or cried, his mother would beat and choke him. He was barely ever fed, or bathed, or changed. They used packing tape to keep his diaper on for days at a time, and to hold in the waste.
One after another, friends, neighbors and landlords testified, backing up Gonzales's story: Lorenzo Pons, who had allowed them to live in his trailer, told the court he saw Cardona beat Lázaro with a shoe, that he was kept locked in the bedroom or strapped to the bed, while the other children were allowed to roam freely and play outside. Sandra Ruggles, who worked at one of the hotels where they stayed, testified that she saw Cardona beat and drag Lázaro by his left arm on more than one occasion, the same arm that had been broken so badly that the elbow fused at a 90-degree angle. Carla Ventrano, who lived at the same hotel as them for a time, described how Lazaro was kept strapped to the bed, how his mother punched him and pulled his hair.
Dr. Bruce Hyma, the medical examiner, testified that he found a skull fracture that turned into "an open festering wound," causing meningitis bacteria and irreversible brain damage. The final blow to the head by a baseball bat severed spinal nerves in the back of the brain. During his testimony, Dr. Hyma explained that while the blunt force trauma to the head eventually hastened his death, Lázaro would have died anyway – his body would have succumbed to the injuries on top of injuries inflicted during the months of his torture.
Dr. Richard Souviron, who performed a posthumous dental exam and determined that Lázaro had sustained blunt force trauma to the mouth, causing the loss of his two front teeth, also testified. "His body was totally beat up," he told the prosecution on the stand. "He looked like he had come from Auschwitz."
During the trial, Cardona's defense argued that it was Olivia González who tortured and murdered Lázaro, and that his mother had simply been too strung out to prevent it – that she wasn't in charge of the child during the last months of his life, instead had given control over to Gonzalez and their babysitter, Gloria Pi. González, in turn, said Cardona tortured her own son, and claimed that she was in better spirits when she was using drugs – when she wasn't high, the abuse got worse. On the stand, González said that Cardona had given Lázaro cocaine and sprayed him with insecticide for her own amusement. She enjoyed watching him convulse, González said. She admitted that she felt guilty for letting it happen, but said she was afraid because Cardona had stabbed her in the hand during one of their fights. When the trial was over, Cardona was found guilty of first-degree murder. The judge sentenced her to death. Olivia González was released in 2008, after only 17 years.
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Ten years after Ana María Cardona was convicted, the state's case started to falter. Years of appeals, investigations, and depositions by the defense team led to a discovery. In 2002, an appeals court found that the state of Florida withheld evidence from the defense it should've disclosed: During her interviews with police, Olivia González had confessed that she had lied to investigators, that she hit Lázaro on the head with a baseball bat and reluctantly admitted that the blow was so hard, there was a possibility it might have caused his death. There was crucial evidence to support that González had killed him: The medical examiner himself had originally reported blunt force trauma had been the cause of death.
The jury also never heard how babysitter Gloria Pi had also confessed to the murder, though that was because the police determined that Pi's confession was not believable because details of her confession were not consistent with the physical evidence. (Gloria Pi later recanted.)
Cardona’s conviction was overturned, and she was granted a new trial after ten years on death row. But after that second trial, she was once again convicted, and in 2011, she was sentenced to death.
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"I did not kill my baby," Cardona told me in one of her letters. "I have faith in God that the truth will come out." She has adamantly denied partaking in her son's torture, insisting that she was under the influence of drugs while he was being abused.
She refuses to believe that her son would've died anyway, as the medical examiner said during the first trial. She believes her son would be alive were it not for González, who she says abused Lázaro, and who, during cross-examination, admitted that her violence against Lázaro got progressively worse over time. Cardona admits that she let this happen while she was strung out on crack cocaine, that she failed to protect him. She did what she could do to put a roof over their heads, including, she claims, enduring a relationship with Olivia González. But while the woman who confessed to hitting Lázaro with a baseball bat was released, Cardona remains in jail.
During our four-year correspondence, Ana Cardona told me again and again that she did not kill her son. She stands by the defense's theory, raised during her second trial, that Olivia González and Gloria Pi were responsible. The defense argued that González had given Lázaro over to Pi to take care of him, and that he had been in the babysitter's care during the last months of his life. In her statement to police, Pi had given details about the baby's taped diaper – details that had not yet been released to the public. Statements from their landlords – that they had not seen Lázaro in the apartment where the family lived, although they had seen the other two children – supported the defense's theory.
Cardona says that before her second trial started, she was offered a plea deal. "But I refused. I won't sign a paper that says something I didn't do. I am prepared to die defending my integrity. Let the truth come out. It's not about saving my life. It's about the truth."
Although her newly-appointed public defender, Steven Yermish, would not comment on the deal, according to Cardona, if she had pled guilty to a lesser charge, she would've been sentenced to 20 years. With the years she had already served, she might have been out of prison by 2012. Yet instead of admitting guilt, Cardona has taken her chances. Going back to court, she could be found not guilty – or she could, once again, be sentenced to death. She weighed those options and decided to take a chance. Cardona says that, to her, proving her innocence to her surviving children is more important than her freedom.
Cardona has three other children, all adults now, who she hopes to have a relationship with if she gets out of prison. Any other person, she says, would've taken the 20 years. But she wants her children to know the truth. Next summer, the state of Florida will be trying her for first-degree murder for the third time. Her third trial is scheduled to begin in July.
She maintains that she did not kill her baby.