BY JOSEPH TANFANI AND DAVID KIDWELL,
Long before federal authorities arrested 14 Miami police officers on corruption and coverup charges, the department’s own investigators had received at least 293 allegations of beatings, thefts and other misconduct against them – more than twice the average of other Miami officers, a Herald investigation shows.
Some suspects told of pistol-whippings, bloodied heads and broken noses.
Others told of rip-offs, planted drugs and guns held to their heads. One woman said she was raped. But the department’s internal affairs investigators and police brass cleared the officers in case after case, even when independent witnesses or physical evidence bolstered the charges and cast doubt on the officers’ stories, according to a Herald review of hundreds of department files and court records, supported by dozens of interviews. Even when some were caught lying, officers escaped serious consequences. Instead, Miami police brass applauded them for their aggressiveness in nabbing criminals and handed them choice assignments on hard-charging units such as street narcotics and SWAT, where they became involved in more suspicious shootings, beatings and allegations of wrongdoing. “Maybe we did a lousy job disciplining these cases, ” said Miami Police Chief Raúl Martinez, acknowledging his department’s failures. “We have to do a better job putting these cases together.” The high price of that failure is now coming due. A federal grand jury has issued sweeping indictments, charging the officers with shooting unarmed suspects, and lying and planting guns in a conspiracy to cover up their actions. The shootings resulted in four deaths. Though 14 were indicted, two officers – John Mervolion and William Hames – have already pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against their colleagues. Miami taxpayers will pay $3.75 million to settle two of the cases. More settlements amounting to millions of dollars are being negotiated in other civil suits. “A small clique of police officers came into the department in the early 1980s, a criminal element sneaked through and some of them have risen high enough so they can protect each other, ” said H.T. Smith, a community activist and lawyer who has sued the department in other shooting cases. “They had to be protected at the top, ” he said. “Every police chief during that period needs to answer that question, because as far as I’m concerned the blood of some of these people that were killed is on their hands.” Said Martinez, the police chief: “I have seen no evidence of protection, but I certainly understand why people perceive it. Obviously, these officers have lied, and some of them were good at it. “We’ve been trying for the past year and a half to shore up our problems.” Lawyers for the officers defend them as hard-working, aggressive cops who took on Miami’s roughest criminals and generated unfounded complaints as a result. They say the Herald’s findings are unfair. “Of course they are going to have more allegations made against them. They are working in the most confrontational of circumstances – SWAT and street narcotics, ” said Roy Kahn, lawyer for indicted Sgt. José Acuña. Some of the 14 officers had records less tarnished than others, and not all were accused of lying. But repeated allegations of lies, brutality and thefts dogged some of these officers for a decade or more: GUN ALLEGATIONS Officer most tied to shootings charged * Arturo Beguiristain had 16 internal affairs complaints and was involved in eight shootings – the most shootings of anyone in the department. Twice, independent witnesses came forward and said they saw him beating suspects; both times, internal investigators said the charges couldn’t be proved or disproved. Beguiristain never faced more than a reprimand. Instead, his personnel file is stuffed with accolades and he won the department’s Medal of Honor for shooting and killing an armed bank robber on Biscayne Boulevard. He now stands accused by federal authorities of helping to plant guns in three suspicious shootings, including the 1996 SWAT raid that killed 73-year-old Richard Brown. In that drug raid gone wrong, police fired 123 bullets indiscriminately and wounded one of their own officers. Beguiristain himself fired 30 shots. “They are aggressive, ” said Richard Sharpstein, who represents Beguiristain and Officer Jorge Castello. “That doesn’t upset the citizenry, but it upsets the criminals, and they make bogus allegations.” SAVED BY SUPERIOR Officer lied but was kept on by then-Chief Warshaw * Jesus “Jesse” Aguero has 46 internal affairs complaints alleging beatings, harassment and thefts. Ten of those complaints were sustained, meaning investigators concluded he broke department rules. Four times, investigators said they caught him lying. Twelve years ago, internal investigators found he lied to help an officer accused in the beating death of drug dealer Leonardo Mercado. Martinez, then an assistant chief, wanted to fire him. But former Chief Donald Warshaw, now serving time in a federal prison for stealing more than $70,000 from a police children’s charity, gave him a reprimand instead. Later, a prostitute accused him of forcing her to perform fellatio in his cruiser. When investigators went back to the parking lot where it supposedly happened, they discovered his semen on a discarded Dairy Queen napkin. DNA evidence backed up the woman’s story. Aguero denied the accusation and said the DNA tests were wrong. The criminal charges were dropped after the woman refused to cooperate. The department tried to fire him, but Aguero won an administrative appeal and went back on the street. He also was cleared on other allegations. Among them: beating an assistant pastor, stealing money from suspects, slapping a motorist who argued with him in traffic and using a racial slur to describe a superior officer. When some criticized him, other police supervisors jumped to his defense: “One of the most feared officers on the street, ” wrote one sergeant in 1996. Aguero was rewarded with a spot on an elite street crime unit. Since then, federal prosecutors say, Aguero has participated in three shootings in which authorities suspect guns were planted – including one in which he allegedly shot a fleeing unarmed man in the back of the head, then knelt by his side and, as he died, uttered a racial epithet. Finally, he was fired last year. Federal agents are now reviewing other cases in Aguero’s file, including the alleged sexual assault. Hugo Rodriguez, his lawyer, said Aguero and the other officers were ordered to clear out tourist robbers and other armed thugs and are now are being punished for it. * Police investigators found Alejandro “Alex” Macias was lying in two cases in 1989. In one of them, witnesses said Macias stood by while his partner beat a handcuffed doctor in a Coconut Grove park; Macias said he never saw the beating and got a two-week suspension. “If they ever pulled me over at night I think I would keep running, ” said Dr. Leonard Frank, now of Seattle, who said he won a $35,000 settlement from the city. In the other case, investigators said Macias lied when he denied harassing a window washer by pouring soda on his head. Investigators wanted to suspend him, but then-Police Chief Calvin Ross, who could not be reached last week for comment, did not. Now, federal indictments charge Macias lied yet again, by saying a mentally disturbed man, Jesse Runnels, stuck a gun out his back window before Macias fatally shot him. Prosecutors believe the toy gun was dropped by a Miami cop, though they haven’t determined who planted it. “The bottom line is that Macias is the kind of cop that you want to arrive on the scene when your life is in danger, ” said Bill Matthewman, his attorney. GUN-PLANTING ALLEGED Prosecutors say firearm was put at I-95 shooting * José Quintero, another Street Crimes veteran, was hit with 48 complaints and investigators found no wrongdoing in 46. He was accused of punching a handcuffed suspect and of helping to steal $13,000 during a search of a suspected drug dealer’s house. The finding: “Inconclusive.” After a 1994 traffic stop, a motorist said Quintero and Macias strip-searched a young passenger and held guns to his head for “an extended period of time.” That incident earned the pair a scolding from their bosses, even though internal affairs dropped the case because the motorist never gave a formal statement. Macias and Quintero said they did nothing wrong. About a year later, Quintero said he found a gun on the scene of a fatal shooting near I-395 in downtown Miami. It was really a plant, prosecutors say. “Quintero is a great cop, ” said Sam Rabin, his lawyer. Together, the 14 indicted officers account for nearly one quarter of all Miami police bullets fired at people since 1990: 280 rounds. Of the 293 accusations of wrongdoing by the 14 officers, 83 allege abusive treatment or excessive force, 33 stolen property, 20 untruthfulness and 60 discourtesy. “We’ve had a pretty good system in place to identify these officers, ” Martinez said. “I don’t think we’ve done a good job trying to figure out what to do with them once we’ve found them. “We’re still struggling with that.”
COMPLAINTS VARIED Accusations range from assault to theft The Herald’s review of internal affairs files involving the officers shows there were complaints about narcotics planted in pockets and guns pulled during traffic confrontations. Some people told stories about being arrested, handcuffed, taken to darkened streets and stomped on by some of these Miami cops. Among the people who claimed they were abused: Jorge Mas Santos, now chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation; a preacher; a doctor and a teen skateboard champion. But many of the complaints were discounted. In one strange case in 1997, two men called 911 and said that three men – who seemed to be officers or police impersonators – had forced their way into their Northwest 62nd Street house at gunpoint, stolen their money and driven off in a red Nissan Altima without making any arrests or giving them any paperwork. A half hour later, dispatchers asked whether any Street Narcotics officers had worked a raid in the city’s north end. No one responded. Then, a supervisor remembered that Officer Glenn Maura had picked up a city-issued Altima the day before. When confronted, Maura said he was chasing a drug suspect into the house – with Beguiristain and Macias. All denied taking anything. Maura said in a recent interview he did not remember details of the incident. Investigators gave the three officers reprimands for not answering their radios and for not filling out reports. As for the robbery allegations: “Inconclusive.” In some cases, investigators had evidence of wrongdoing, but the victims refused to cooperate. In 1997, the pastor of Solid Rock in Christ Jesus Holiness Church called internal affairs and said that, looking from just outside the Brownsville church’s entrance, she had witnessed a police beating. Jessie Mae Brown said she saw two plainclothes officers pistol-whip a man they believed was dealing drugs, take his money and jump back into their red convertible as other plainclothes officers were arriving. “He took the money out of that man’s pocket and put it in his own pocket, ” Brown said in a recent Herald interview. “He beat that boy right down there by the ear on the back of his head until the blood started coming. “I said, ‘You know you don’t have to do that.’ And they told me, ‘Get out of here, lady!’ ” The two officers were Beguiristain and Oscar Ronda, both later charged with lying about their role in suspect shootings. They said the drug dealer had hit his head on a fence. But evidence backed up Brown’s account. Beguiristain’s gun tested positive for blood. The dealer, Howard White, said he had more than $390 in his pocket, but only $130 made it into evidence. The internal affairs investigator, who never interviewed Beguiristain or Ronda, said his hands were tied because White refused to file a complaint. “I was scared and I just wanted them to turn me loose and let me go, ” said White, who pleaded guilty to the drug charges. “They would come after me for the rest of my life, every little thing, that’s what I felt.” Like the alleged rip-off, the beating case is now under review by federal investigators. NO PUNISHMENT Some people win lawsuits but officers not punished Sometimes, cases were dropped without any investigation. In November 1991, Mas Santos and friend Carlos Valdes said they were pushed, grabbed by their hair and belts and marched to the CocoWalk security office by Beguiristain and another officer, who wanted them to leave at the mall’s closing time. Mas and Valdes later met with then-chief Warshaw, who persuaded them to withdraw their complaints, according to Capt. Miguel Exposito, who has filed a lawsuit against the department alleging he was punished for pointing out wrongdoing. Mas and Valdes declined to comment. Several times, alleged victims of Miami police misconduct won money in lawsuits, even though the department hadn’t punished the officers. It happened to Willie Ross, who charged he had $500 stolen in a jailhouse beating by Officer Rafael “Ralph” Fuentes, also one of the 14 officers facing federal charges. Ross said Fuentes hit him with handcuffs. Medical records showed his hand was broken. Ross later won a $16,000 civil judgment. Fuentes denied abusing Ross or taking his money. It happened to Ricky Martinez, who was 16 and skateboarding in Bayfront Park when he made a smart aleck remark to Beguiristain, who wanted him to stop. “He just went to him, grabbed him and pushed him to the ground. He was bleeding, ” said witness Rosario Roman, an administrator at Miami-Dade Community College. Martinez was charged with battery on a law-enforcement officer but the charges were dropped, his lawyer said. And the city gave him a $10,000 settlement.
A PERSONAL STORY Woman got broken arm while police were in home His case is not unusual. A Herald review of court records also shows that, in at least 35 of the cases involving these officers, enough questions emerged to prompt judges and prosectors to drop the criminal charges against the offenders or the people who made the complaints. When it was the officers’ word against a citizen’s, the officers almost always won: “Inconclusive, ” investigators would write. Octavia Muldrow was 17 years old and asleep in her upstairs bedroom on June 30, 1993, when José Acuña and SWAT team members burst into her house with a search warrant. The police were there on suspicion her brother was fencing stolen property. “I was upstairs and I heard all this commotion, ” Muldrow recalls. “I came down the stairs half asleep and said, ‘What’s going on?’ ” She said they barked orders at her and she continued to question them. “I heard somebody say, ‘She wants to be a smartass, ‘ and one of them comes after me.” She said Acuña dragged her from the stairs and hit her. “I hit him back, and then we rolled down the stairs, ” she said. “Then all hell broke loose.” Muldrow later told investigators that Acuña slugged her, kicked her and stomped on her arm repeatedly. “There were three or four of them on me after that, ” she said. “They broke my arm in three places.” Acuña denied beating or stomping on Muldrow, saying he broke her arm while struggling to handcuff her. According to records, all charges against Muldrow stemming from the incident – resisting arrest, battery on a police officer, and dealing in stolen property – were dismissed. “They never showed up at the court hearings, ” Muldrow said. “My momma always told me to leave it alone – to leave it in God’s hands. And now look. It all comes back around, ” Muldrow said.