Old Freezer in Warehouse Reveals Terrifying Secret: Body of Woman Missing Nearly 6 Years
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When Lilian Argueta opened a used upright freezer at her scrap business and saw a woman’s body inside, she was so frightened she began to scream.
“It thought it was a witch, or a mannequin,” said Argueta, who runs the business in Margate with her husband, Pedro Rodriguez. “I thought, ‘It can’t be a person.’ But there was a bad odor.”
Argueta, 55, began to cry as she described in Spanish how she found Heather Anne Lacey’s body in the freezer one night in March, at their warehouse bay on Northwest Eighth Street.
Argueta’s anguish brought neighboring business owners and workers to her side, including mechanic Steven Calcano.
“I just heard the commotion and everyone screaming,” Calcano said. “I took a glance at (the body) and said, ‘Oh my God,’ and walked away.”
Lacey was 35 when she disappeared almost six years ago. The discovery of her body is just part of a case that spans Broward County. Hollywood Police and the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office are working to solve it.
Argueta and Calcano were shocked to know that Lacey was a pale blonde when she was alive, and said the body they saw was shrunken, with skin darkened like a mummy would have.
Inside the disrespectful coffin, Lacey’s face was turned to one side and her arms were raised as if her hands were pushing against the door of the freezer that stood about 5 feet high. Her legs were compressed toward her upper body in the small space, they said.
Though they are trying to forget, the witnesses said they still ponder the life of the woman inside the freezer.
“Every once in a while I think, ‘Why would this happen, and how would it happen?’” Calcano said.
Said Argueta, “I feel bad. She was a woman, and something bad happened to her.”
The Lacey family’s final contact with her was in the fall of 2013; her last post on social media was in November that year.
“My dad was talking to her every day until Thanksgiving,” said Amber Lacey, Heather’s younger sister. “She needed that phone for business and when it was disconnected, I knew something was wrong.”
Lacey was raised by her parents in Pembroke Pines, attended Chaminade-Madonna, a Catholic High School in Hollywood, and for a few years, Florida International University in Miami, her family said.
The eldest of three sisters, she was divorced and the mother of two children.
Though Lacey was very bright and good grades came easily to her, relatives said after she had a cesarean section during the birth of one of her children that did not go well, she started using painkillers as well as cocaine and other narcotics.
Beginning in 2006 when she was 23, Lacey began accumulating arrests in Miami-Dade and Broward counties for non-violent offenses of drug possession and prostitution. She served a year and a day in state prison for forging a check and identify theft.
“She was a very smart girl and had a lot going for her and unfortunately, her downfall was getting into drugs, doing drugs and being addicted,” said Patti Palumbo, Lacey’s mother. “It put her in a cycle that led us here.”
For her sex work, Heather Lacey walked Federal Highway in Hallandale Beach, Hollywood and Dania Beach, and also advertised on the now defunct Backpage, according to her sister and police.
But when Lacey got sober, she could hold down straight jobs such as working at a call center, her family said.
In December 2013, Randell Lacey filed a missing-persons report for his daughter with the Broward Sheriff’s Office, and told deputies she lived on the streets and was bipolar, the report said.
Amber Lacey said when she and her father searched for Heather in the months after she had vanished, maintenance men at motels in Hallanadale Beach told them they felt that something had happened to her. In neighborhoods where Heather had bought drugs, the sellers encouraged them to leave, Amber Lacey said.
Though Heather Lacey was an addict, the family stayed in touch with her and she was in contact with her children, who were living with relatives.
“We did some tough love too,” Patti Palumbo said about her daughter. “But we’d always try to be in her life.”
When Lacey disappeared, “we noticed right away,” Palumbo said. “For Thanksgiving and Christmas to come and for her to not be in touch with the kids, or on their birthdays, that wasn’t like her.”
Amber Lacey said of Heather, “We were 23 months apart, and every memory I have is of my sister. We still loved her and spoke with her every day. We weren’t gonna just disown her. She didn’t steal from us. She made her money, but not the right way.”
The discovery of Heather Lacey’s remains may never have happened if another body hadn’t been found 24 miles to the east, in Hollywood.
Jonathan Escarzaga, 36, was last seen alive around Feb. 10, and was found dead a week later in his apartment.
A neighbor’s complaint of a foul odor brought Hollywood Fire Rescue to Escarzaga’s apartment in the 1500 block of Polk Street on Feb. 17. His body was inside, and it had begun to decompose, according to a Broward County Medical Examiner’s report.
Escarzaga was a freelance airplane mechanic with a “No Regrets” tattoo on his left arm.
The medical examiner’s office could not determine how Escarzaga died or what caused his death. An autopsy examination did not detect needle tracks or drugs in his system and there was no sign of recent injuries.
After police investigated inside Escarzaga’s apartment, the building manager hired a Margate appliance refurbishing company to remove all of the appliances, including an old upright freezer.
The company took the freezer to its Margate warehouse, the building manager said. Then it ended up at Lilian Argueta and Pedro Rodriguez’s scrap company that is nearby.
A month after Escarzaga’s death, the freezer was opened and Lacey’s body was found.
The building manager of Escarzaga’s apartment said he didn’t know how long the freezer had been inside the unit, and that as a tenant, Escarzaga hadn’t called for repairs since 2017.
When Escarzaga died, the apartment had a clogged kitchen drain and a toilet in need of repair, the manager said.
Police have not said whether Escarzaga knew Lacey, or what role, if any, he may have had in her death.
Lacey’s family said they don’t know him.
Also unknown is how long Lacey has been dead, or how long she was hidden inside the freezer.
Argueta and Rodriguez both said the freezer wasn’t locked when their business received it. It was the first time they have found human remains inside of an appliance, they said.
Four days after her daughter’s remains were discovered, a detective called Palumbo, who said: “It killed the very little hope I had, of course. Now it was real.”
A member of a club no one wants to belong to, she said she would see billboards others have erected to memorialize the missing and ask the public to help find them.
“I was in their shoes,” Palumbo said. “I think about those poor families.”
For herself, she says, “I didn’t realize how much grieving I had to start doing. Now it hits home, it opens it all up again.”
Over the past five years, strangers “came out of the woodwork” and approached Palumbo, telling her things about Lacey.
“There was a real connection with my daughter beyond this world that I felt like I was constantly getting communication with her,” Palumbo said.
Palumbo said she and her family rely on counseling to cope with the situation, and she believes that her prayers led to the recovery of Lacey’s body.
“Love and respect is all I could give her,” Palumbo said about supporting her eldest child while she struggled with a “self-centered disease.”
“She deserves that,” Palumbo said. “Everybody does.”
Her family is hoping detectives can solve their case.
“Police would always tell me somebody is going to get in trouble and will know something and want to help themselves out,” Palumbo said. “That was my best hope.”
And it may still be how investigators and the family learn how Lacey died.
If Hollywood police suspect what led to Lacey’s death, they aren’t talking about it.
A Hollywood police report for the case was heavily redacted. Though Lacey’s mother and a sister provided DNA to a detective, the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office said Lacey was identified by her fingerprints.
Police are withholding any other findings from the autopsy examination.
Calcano, the mechanic who works at the warehouse near where Lacey’s body was found, said he was baffled by how she was moved across Broward County to Margate without being found.
“How does no one open the freezer?” Calcano said.
©2019 Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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