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Florida murderer of nine-year-old Jimmy Ryce facing execution Wednesday

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) - Two decades after a Cuban immigrant kidnapped, raped and murdered a 9-year-old south Florida boy, his killer will be executed by lethal injection Wednesday evening.

Juan Carlos Chavez, who confessed to the ghoulish 1995 murder of Jimmy Ryce, was found guilty in 1998. He is due to be executed by lethal injection at 6 p.m. at Florida State Prison in Starke.

Memories of the incident, which triggered changes in U.S. laws on violent sexual predators, are still vivid in Miami.

"My daughter was just a little bit younger at the time and everybody who had a kid was glued to this," said J. Alex Villalobos, former Florida Senate majority leader who shepherded the Jimmy Ryce Act through the state legislature.

The Florida law, which has been replicated across the country, cleared the way for imprisoned sexual offenders to be held after their release if found likely to repeat their crimes.

At the time "if you knew somebody was going to commit a crime there was nothing you could do about it," Villalobos said.

Chavez, who worked as a farmhand and had no criminal history, kidnapped Ryce at gunpoint as he got off a school bus in the Redland, an agricultural area of south Miami-Dade County.

He then took the boy to his trailer and raped him. When Jimmy tried to escape, Chavez shot him in the back, dismembered him, and hid his body in concrete-filled plastic pots.

The boy's disappearance shook south Florida and garnered national attention. Hundreds of volunteers signed up for the search and his parents held a stream of press conferences.

Three months after disappearing, Jimmy's remains were found near Chavez's trailer after his landlord found the boy's school bag.

Chavez arrived in south Florida on a raft from Cuba with two others in 1991 and was working as a farmhand at the time of the murder. Little is known about his background or family, who remained in Cuba.

The Florida Supreme Court upheld Chavez's 1998 conviction and death sentence. Subsequent appeals were denied, though Chavez last week filed a final appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court.

After Jimmy's death Don Ryce and his mother Claudine, who died in 2009, became advocates for abducted and missing children. They opened a center for abduction victims in south Florida and have provided hundreds of Bloodhounds to law enforcement nationwide to help find missing children.

"They were camping out at my office just to make sure that the bill passed and at the same time going through this grief," Villalobos said.

The Ryces were also on hand as President Bill Clinton in 1996 signed an order instructing federal agencies to post missing-children posters in federal buildings.

Don Ryce, a retired lawyer now living near central Florida, told a local CBS TV affiliate he plans to attend the execution and that it will provide "a sense of relief," though he continues to grieve.

"This is the kind of loss that never gets right, that you never completely recover from," Ryce added.

(Editing by David Adams and Sofina Mirza-Reid)

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