December 18, 2006 12:00 PM

Raymond Merrill thought he was headed for the adventure of a lifetime. A year ago the divorced 56-year-old carpenter living near San Francisco had fallen in love with Regina Rachid, a 40-year-old Brazilian beauty whom he met online. After a whirlwind romance of e-mails and phone calls, as well as two visits to Brazil to test their chemistry, Merrill was planning a final trip before his wedding and a move to South America. “Every time I’m in front of my computer, I’m looking at your photo,” he e-mailed Rachid on the eve of his third trip in March. “I miss you so much…. I can’t stand it anymore…. I want my life with you.”

It would be his last valentine. Within a month of that hopeful missive, his charred remains were found on a dirt road near the town of Caçapava, not far from where Rachid lived. Police investigators now say they have uncovered evidence that Rachid, who has not yet been formally charged in the case, masterminded Merrill’s murder, helped a hit man set his body on fire and drained his bank accounts of nearly $200,000. “This is a case of pure evil,” says Brazilian detective Waldomiro Bueno Filho. “This man died for love.”

It is not hard to see how Merrill fell so hard for Rachid. Her e-mails to him brimmed with ardor and the promise of everlasting romance. “I’m here, far away from you but close in my heart,” she wrote earlier this year. “I miss you too much.” Merrill gushed to family and friends that his new love was classy and educated, with a taste for the finer things in life. The last part, at least, seems to have been true. The mother of two grown children, she lived in a small house in São José dos Campos, a modern city of 600,000. She supported herself, police say, by performing beauty treatments including liposuction—without a license—and yet managed to get herself featured in the local society pages. “It seems she fooled a lot of people,” says local journalist Alexandre Alves.

Merrill’s family and friends grew concerned when he told them earlier this year that he had bought his girlfriend a new SUV, wired her $10,000 to legalize her home Botox clinic, helped pay her daughter’s college tuition and given her extra cash for groceries and household bills. His sister Marcia Sanchez-Loebick, 60, of Cleveland, tried to keep an open mind about the relationship. “I’m always a little skeptical of online things, but I have seen nice things come out of it too,” she says. Bill Rauch, Merrill’s best friend, was more blunt. “I told Ray, ‘I wouldn’t walk away from this woman. I would run,'” says Rauch, a fellow carpenter who lived a few blocks from his pal. “She was soaking him for money. And this is a guy, to put it nicely, who was very careful with his money. Frankly, it stunk.”

Yet Merrill set off for Brazil anyway, in March. Sanchez-Loebick knew something was terribly wrong in April, when her brother failed to respond to e-mails after their father fell gravely ill. In early May, after Merrill failed to show up for his father’s funeral, Sanchez-Loebick contacted police in his hometown of San Bruno, Calif. They searched Merrill’s computer and mail and found that $16,000 had been drained from his checking account alone in the month of April. Brazilian police, who have teamed with the FBI on the case, arrested Rachid in June, after she dropped her purse, which was later found to contain Merrill’s credit card, during a botched robbery attempt.

The investigation led authorities to Nelson Neves, Rachid’s ex-boyfriend, and then to a friend of Neves’s named Evandro Ribeiro. Under questioning by police in September, Ribeiro told how Rachid and Neves held Merrill captive for six days and then hired Ribeiro to strangle Merrill with an electrical wire and set his body on fire. According to police, Neves and Rachid helped subdue Merrill with the date-rape drug Rohypnol. Neves, who is wanted by police and is now in hiding, has denied any involvement in Merrill’s death. “The case is proving to be very complex, with surprises at every turn,” says Brazilian officer Ana Paula Medeiros Monteiro de Barros. “Every day we find out something new,” she says of Rachid, who allegedly passed herself off as a doctor, writing illegal prescriptions on stolen prescription pads.

Rachid, who is being held on robbery charges, insists she had nothing to do with Merrill’s death. She contends that Merrill simply vanished after she dumped him because she feared he was cheating on her with another woman and she disapproved of his past drug abuse. (Merrill’s sister says he had once been addicted to heroin but had been clean for 10 years.) All the same, police point out that they found Rachid’s home full of expensive new housewares, jewelry and imported beauty products, not to mention a stash of Rohypnol.

Merrill’s sister, meanwhile, is still struggling to understand the ghastly murder of her brother, a gentle, free-spirited man who loved to play the guitar. He was an avid reader of self-help books and had, in recent years, become a fitness buff, swimming and biking and eating healthily. The father of fraternal twins who are now in their 30s, Merrill had long nursed the hope of getting married and retiring in South America. “Part of the problem is he was lonely,” says Sanchez-Loebick. “He was a good person that just wanted to love and be loved.”

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