It appears that an off-duty Coral Springs firefighter was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It was a warm balmy Florida Saturday evening when Christopher Randazzo decided to visit one of his old haunts where he previously tended bar for close to twenty years.
The Aruba Beach Café, right off the water’s edge has been a fixture in Lauderdale-By-The-Sea for many years, catering to those who enjoy tropical drinks, excellent American-Caribbean cuisine and live nightly music. The popular establishment is accessible by both land or by aquatic means.
After spending some enjoyable time at the café, he made some additional stops at other neighborhood clubs and bars before calling it quits as he began heading back to his girlfriend’s residence at approximately 2:30 a.m. on the night of this past October 19.
There is no question that Randazzo was heavily drinking and was a prime target for anyone up to no good. His trek back to his girlfriend’s was interrupted when trouble found him as two men approached with intent to separate him from any valuable possessions he may have had.
A third man waited back in a car along with his ex-girlfriend and another woman who accompanied the three men from what appears to have been a drug deal gone wrong in Palm Beach County.
The original police report stated that Randazzo was accosted as he was on his feet upright but it was later amended to show that the firefighter was lying on the ground on El Mar Drive, by the Southern Seas hotel when the two men moved toward him with ill-intent.
During the investigation a witness told detectives that he appeared “too drunk to even know what’s going on.”
No matter his overall physical condition, Randazzo could have no idea of the evil that was heading south toward him on the interstate as his quest to get to safety was upended.
Hours before the tragic event took place; Torrey Holston, Garcia Romero, and Marco Rico (the driver) and his ex-girlfriend along with a “so far” unidentified woman were on their way to a Motel 6 hotel on Lantana Road in Palm Beach County, a good thirty miles from the spot where they crossed paths with the off-duty firefighter.
They went there to pick up Cheyenne Papach, Rico’s ex-girlfriend, who was staying at the motel with a man named Mathew Chomin, based on police records. He and Papach were previously staying at Chomin’s mother’s house until she asked them both to leave.
When later interviewed by detectives, Chomin who almost became a victim himself, told police that Papach had called Rico to meet him at the hotel to sell him Adderall. But according to Chomin, in addition to the failed drug buy, Papach was actually looking to reconcile with her ex-boyfriend and had asked him to come there to pick her up.
Rico agreed to come to the hotel to get her and arrived with his two cohorts along with the woman, who all at first waited in Rico’s black Nissan Sentra; as Rico entered the room.
The woman who was in the car with the three men later told police that one of the men who turned out to be Holston talked about robbing and shooting the man his ex-girlfriend was staying with. She went on to say that en route to the motel Holston pulled out his gun and started playing with it at the same time declaring, “This is my military weapon”… and “we are real thugs and we got guns,” according to police records of the conversation.
After showing up at the motel, when Rico entered the room, he and Chomin got in a heated exchange.
When Rico left the room and returned to the car in an agitated state the other two men exited the vehicle and approached Chomin in front of the room’s entrance. A volley of gunshots was fired.
After returning to the car the woman heard Holston say “I think I got him, I saw him slumped over” to which Garcia Romero replied, “Yes, you got him” according to notes taken from the police report.
But as it turned out all the shots fired by Holston missed its target as Chomin ran and hid in a nearby stairwell adjacent to where the melee broke out, avoiding being wounded or killed by the gunman.
Later, examining the scene, police found four spent shell casings from a .22-caliber gun in the outdoor hallway in front of a few room doorways. A palm tree in front of one of the rooms had a bullet hole in its trunk.
After the dangerous free-for-all reached its conclusion, Papach left without delay along with Rico and his cronies. In exception to taking her cat that she brought to the hotel with her, she left all her other belongings that she’d previously brought with her.
Detectives found Chomin at the Motel 6 where he identified Rico’s black Nissan Sentra after they were called to the scene of the shooting.
As they were questioning Chomin the group of assailants and crew were headed south on the Interstate where their path would eventually cross with the off-duty firefighter.
Torrey Holston and Jose Garcia Romero approached Randazzo who they spotted on the ground while Rico waited in the car with his ex-girlfriend prepared to make a getaway after the on the spot robbery they planned was facilitated, the arrest report confirms.
The two alleged thieves took $55 in cash along with wallet, his red Nike sneakers, his keys and a knife. They then told Rico to drive off, but after less than a minute they had second thoughts and coaxed Rico to turn around and return to where a now dazed Randazzo lied on the ground.
On their second go-around with the now vulnerable victim they removed his cellphone from his person and demanded Randazzo provide the pin code, according to the police report.
Drunk and defenseless, Randazzo refused to comply instigating an agitated Holston to shoot him in the back of the head as he lay on the ground.
After the single shot was fired multiple 911 calls went out to police emergency
With the homicide committed police arrived at the scene while the group had already fled, heading back north on Interstate 95. Holston then removed and threw the SIM card from Randazzo’s phone out the window of the getaway car.
Randazzo was found lying on his stomach missing his wallet or any other type of identification. He was ultimately identified by a database search of his fingerprints by police.
It was four days after the murder when investigators uncovered a lead which led to a huge break in the case. Using AT&T’s tracking system they were able to follow the trajectory of Randazzo’s cellphone which showed that in the early minutes after the killing the phone’s location moving south on El Mar Drive then turning around on Commercial Boulevard before heading north again. A few minutes later, the system picked up the phone rotating back south on El Mar Drive.
Then by using footage from the town’s license plate readers, police were able to match the path of a black Nissan Sentra following the exact same route. When the car turned back south on El Mar Drive it ran through a stop sign barreling at a high rate of speed.
Great police work led authorities to the owner of the car who turned out to be Rico’s mother who lived in Palm Beach County. During questioning she admitted that her son frequently uses her car, but at the time of the homicide he was at home sleeping, giving him a weak alibi. Rico confirmed what his mother told the investigators but mentioned it was possible that his ex-girlfriend may have borrowed the car at that hour as she still had a key.
When detectives caught up with Ms. Papach and confronted her with the story they were told she was quick to spill the beans, with a few major changes of details.
The police report revealed that Papach told detectives a similar story telling them that she arranged for her ex-boyfriend to buy drugs at the Motel 6 in Lantana. She went on say that the deal ended in gunshots, and the group sped off to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, where they dropped off another woman.
Her tale diverged when she told investigators it was at that point that she and Rico went to the beach to “fool around” about a half-hour before they stumbled upon the downed firefighter.
The following day police drove back to Rico’s home to further investigate. Papach was with him when they arrived. Both were then taken to the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office where Rico immediately lawyered up. But Papach was willing to amend the details of her previous statement.
She told detectives Chomin was a dealer in prescription psychological medications and he gave her six Adderall to calm her down, but she still wanted to leave the motel. That’s when she made the call to Rico.
At this point Rico also decided to cooperate. He told investigators he knew Holston and Garcia Romero from buying marijuana from them previously. He went on to say that at the time of the incident in Lantana he heard the gunshots but didn’t see the actual act as it went down. He said that he then told Ms. Papach to get in the car.
But the other woman that was in the vehicle was eventually tracked down by Broward County detectives who said she’d talk because “that was a messed-up situation.”
She corroborated the story by telling investigators that after what happened in Lantana the group drove to Lauderdale-By-The-Sea at her direction where they all got out of the car at the Southern Seas Resort. It was then that she told investigators that she called for a Lyft and got out of there.
It was apparently after she left that the others came upon a defenseless Randazzo.
It was the combined effort of the two police agencies that were finally able to uncover the facts of both alleged crimes.
Garcia Romero and Holston are in the Palm Beach County Jail. Rico is in the Broward Jail. All are being held without bail.
The three men face charges of first-degree murder, robbery with a firearm and criminal conspiracy in Randazzo’s death. Holston and Garcia Romero are charged with attempted murder in the shooting at the Motel 6. Lantana police have said they will pursue a similar charge against Rico. Ms. Papach hasn’t been charged with any crime thus far.
Michael Cohen is a Fort Lauderdale based Criminal Defense Attorney specializing in the defense of federal crimes.
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