FATAL FIRE / FLAWED JUSTICE

Contradictions cast doubt on police shootings

 

After two Miami police officers fired 17 times across a busy intersection at some fleeing purse snatchers, they claimed that one of the suspects had pulled a blue steel revolver. But no gun was ever found. Instead, police relied on a dubious and contradictory confession from one of the robbers, a mentally ill 17-year-old named Termain Robbins, who said one of his pals had shot at officers with a .44 Magnum through the back window of their car.

He now says he made up the story under pressure from investigators, an accusation that police deny. But like many other shooting cases involving Miami police officers, no one dug very deeply to resolve the contradictions, a Herald investigation has found. A review of more than a decade of Miami shootings uncovered nearly two dozen cases in which officers were cleared despite evidence - disregarded by investigators and police brass - that suggested the shootings might not have happened as officers claimed. Today, Robbins tells a different story: There was no gun, and no shots were fired. "I was so scared and I didn't know what to do, " Robbins said in a recent interview with The Herald. The detective in the case said there was no coercion. Still, Robbins' original statement was enough for detectives and a shooting review panel, headed by now-Police Chief Raul Martinez, to clear the two officers. "Many of the cases were rubber-stamped, " said Miami police Capt. David Rivero, acknowledging problems in his own department. "Even if there were contradictory statements from other witnesses and bad guys, you don't consider that - because you believe the cops." One of those officers in the Robbins shooting was José Quintero. He and 12 other Miami officers now face federal charges of helping to plant guns and concoct stories in five other suspect shootings. Quintero's lawyer said the shooting was justified. The conflicts were minor and easily explained by the high-pressure circumstances, he said.

BRIDGING THE GAP Police unit in charge of resolving the issues

The job of bridging the gap between officers' stories and what really happened fell to internal affairs, the squad that investigates charges of wrongdoing by officers, and all police shootings. But even when investigators had doubts about officers' conduct, often nobody followed up. "The tough questions were never asked, " Rivero said. "The conflicts in testimony were never addressed. They were just discounted." Martinez said the review board during his tenure tried to resolve contradictions, though he said he did not remember details of specific cases. He said it is often difficult to refute officers' stories. "If they were brought to the board, the board would not rule until those contradictions were resolved, explained away, or there was some impasse, " Martinez said. At the same time, he acknowledged that Miami detectives' probes of police shootings were often crippled by leading questions and a lack of skepticism. Martinez said he is now pushing to toughen up investigations. "Instead of 'Why did you shoot?' the question is, 'Did you shoot because you were in fear for your life?' " Martinez said. "Obviously not the type of question you want to ask. We found some of those cases that were disturbing." On Super Bowl Sunday in 1992, Robbins and friends Fabian "Poo Poo" Sullivan, Michael Lodico and Monroe Jackson were driving around in a stolen red Camaro, looking for victims. They picked three people from Kentucky who were sitting in the drive-through lane of a Kentucky Fried Chicken on Biscayne Boulevard. Bad choice. Across the street from the restaurant - inside a Miami police ministation - a police aide watched as the youths yanked a purse and jumped back into their car. Quintero and Francisco Casanovas were on their tail before they made 10 blocks. The Camaro went north on I-95, exited at 79th Street, swerved onto the sidewalk to dodge stopped cars, then pulled a U-turn and smashed into Quintero's car. Casanovas pulled up behind, and the two robbers in the front took off. "The driver gets out, I see what appears to be a handgun, and pointing to Officer Quintero's direction, " Casanovas said. "So I immediately pulled my service pistol out and fired through my window." Said Quintero: "As he was running, he started to point the gun towards me." Quintero fired 11 times, Casanovas six. They missed. Robbins and Sullivan say that's fiction. "They just opened fire, " Sullivan said. "We never had no gun in that car - no way. They just scared Termain [Robbins] into saying that. They blew out every window in the car." Robbins' confession was a bad fit with the evidence. First, there was no gun used in the purse snatching. Second, Robbins had told detectives, in his original confession, that Sullivan shot at the officers just after they exited I-95. But in sworn court statements, Casanovas and Quintero never mention being fired upon - even though Quintero was directly behind the fleeing car when its back window supposedly exploded. Both Sullivan and Robbins were captured in the back seat of the car. Again, no gun. Casanovas and Quintero explain that by saying the gun was pointed by Lodico, one of the two robbers who ran from the car. But Robbins' confession - on which police relied that night - was entirely different. He said it was Sullivan who had the gun. "It is conceivable that the weapon changed hands inside the vehicle, " wrote internal affairs Detective Julian Garcia. Lodico and the fourth robber, Monroe Jackson, were caught minutes later, two blocks away. No gun was ever found. Those discrepancies were never resolved. Robbins was never asked about a gun changing hands. The three other robbers insisted in court proceedings that there was no weapon, though they admitted snatching the purse and fleeing police. The entire case suggesting that the officers were shot at that night rested on Robbins, who would spend his two-year prison term in Florida State Hospital in Chattahoochee as a diagnosed schizophrenic. He is now living in Liberty City in his family's home. "They told me I would get 25 years, " Robbins said. "They said I was driving. I wasn't driving. They told me I better start helping them or I would go away for a long time." The taped interview makes it clear that the shooting was discussed before the tape recorder was turned on. Miami police Detective Wilfredo Fonticiella, not Robbins, first brings up some details - including the presence of a gun. "I don't like to go into an interview like that without as many facts as I can get, " said Fonticiella, now retired. "I recall that entire investigation was conducted with [internal affairs] right in the room." He said he did not remember enough details to address the conflicting accounts. Likewise, Garcia, the internal affairs detective who sat in on the taped interview, said he did not remember the case. Casanovas declined to discuss the shooting. Sam Rabin, Quintero's lawyer, said there are always conflicts - particularly when some of the people giving statements have committed crimes. The gun could have been ditched by one of the fleeing robbers, he said. "If there were no contradictions, you'd be saying it's too neat a story, " he said. NAGGING QUESTIONS Cases cleared despite discrepancies in evidence

The Herald review found other cases that were cleared despite nagging questions about the officers' accounts. Juan Pablo Hernandez, an 18-year-old on probation, was walking through his Little Havana neighborhood one Saturday evening in September 1997 when he attracted the attention of a rookie Miami patrolman. Then-Officer Richard Perez saw a bulge under Hernandez's shirt that he suspected was a gun. He rolled his window down and unholstered his Glock pistol. With his gun pointed, he called Hernandez over to his car. What happened next? Hernandez tells one story, Perez another. This much is clear: Hernandez ran and Perez shot him in the back, a bullet striking two inches from his spine. "I took my hand and I saw the blood, " Hernandez said. "I was thinking, 'I don't want to die, I don't want to die. I have to keep my eyes open.' " Perez claims he pulled the trigger after Hernandez pulled a weapon out of his pants, aimed the gun at him, then twisted to run away, still pointing the pistol. Hernandez, who has no violent crimes in his past, told this story: He says he tossed his gun through the officer's open window and bolted. The bullet dropped him when he got 15 feet away. "I threw the gun in the car for the simple reason I wanted to run and not get shot, " Hernandez said. "If I don't have the gun, why would he shoot me?" Asked to describe how Hernandez could have ended up shot squarely in the back, Perez couldn't say. "I'm not sure when I fired, sir, " Perez said later in a sworn statement. "I closed my eyes, so I don't know what happened." When a fellow officer pulled up seconds later, he found Hernandez writhing on the ground, Perez outside the car pointing his pistol and no other gun in sight. Hernandez's gun was on the front passenger seat of the cruiser, just where Hernandez said he threw it. Perez said he had used a pen to help him pick up the gun and put it in his police car, a method he never learned in the academy but had seen a lot on television. The internal affairs report makes no mention that Hernandez was shot in the back, a fact that might have raised questions. Instead, reports describe Hernandez's wound in a vaguer term: "midsection." The Firearms Review Board, a panel of three assistant police chiefs chaired then by now-Chief Martinez, justified the shooting, never questioning that Perez closed his eyes or that he drew his gun simply because Hernandez had a bulge under his shirt. Prosecutors dropped the criminal charges against Hernandez on grounds that Perez had no legal reason to suspect Hernandez of any crime in the first place. Perez, now a sergeant, said in a court statement that Hernandez's story was "ridiculous" and that he never would have allowed him to put the gun on the cruiser seat. He did not return phone calls and a letter seeking comment. In other shooting cases, officers swore they saw guns - but guns were never found. On a rainy night in 1992, about seven weeks after Hurricane Andrew, Officer Nestor Garcia spotted a pickup heading west on Route 836, driven by a man he thought was a Miami Beach murder suspect. When Wallace Brimer bailed out near Northwest 27th Avenue and ran, Garcia followed. He said Brimer pulled a handgun and pointed it at him - then took off running again. "He still had the gun, " Garcia said in a statement. "He turned his body toward my direction." Garcia fired three rounds, then two more. All missed. Brimer decided to stop running after Garcia caught up to him and pointed the gun at his head. "Mr. Brimer had no complaints about his arrest, " the internal affairs report reads, "but did say that he never had a weapon." Garcia said he never lost sight of Brimer. Still, no gun was found. There was no explanation. Garcia was never asked for one in his interview with internal affairs. And Brimer, an auto-glass installer from Alabama, turned out not to be the murder suspect. He said he ran because he had a suspended license. Prosecutors dropped the assault charges against Brimer as unfounded. The shooting was ruled justified by the Firearms Review Board, again under Martinez. Garcia did not respond to requests for comment. In another case involving a disputed gun, then-homicide Detective Confesor Gonzalez was driving on Northwest Seventh Avenue one afternoon in May 1995 when he spotted Gesner Altenor, 27, a security guard, leaning into a stopped car, pointing a gun. Gonzalez jumped out and Altenor took off. With Gonzalez on his tail, yelling at him to stop, Altenor bolted down an alley. "At one point, the male turned and pointed a black gun at me, " Gonzalez said. He squeezed off three rounds, but the man didn't drop the gun, Gonzalez said. He cranked off two more. Grazed once in the right foot, Altenor was caught a half-block away. Altenor, who pulled the gun after a road-rage argument, said he had dropped the gun as soon as he saw the officer and had nothing in his hands when he was shot. Indeed, the blue steel .357 Magnum was found on the sidewalk where the chase began - not in the alley where Gonzalez said Altenor carried it. "When I fired, this guy was armed - no doubt in my mind whatsoever, absolutely not, " Gonzalez said in a recent interview. "I've never been trigger-happy. It was my first shooting in 15 years." Police even called out a ladder truck to check rooftops for a second gun. No luck. "He could have thrown it anywhere, " said Gonzalez, adding that the gun found was not the same one he saw in Altenor's hand. All charges against Altenor were later dropped after Gonzalez failed to appear for court hearings. "A total miscommunication, " Gonzalez said. "I was very aggravated by it." Questions about the handling of controversial shootings first surfaced publicly in 1997 after the shooting of an unarmed homeless man in Coconut Grove. Miami police investigators discovered that the gun found at the scene was planted by one of their own - by which officer is still unresolved. Alleged coverups involving contradictory evidence are now at the heart of a federal indictment involving 13 Miami officers. But The Herald's review shows that years earlier, doubts arose about the stories told by some of those same officers in other shootings. And again, the department did little to resolve the discrepancies. "The same names jump out at you, " said Deputy Chief Bobby Cheatham, looking over a list of questionable shootings provided by The Herald. One of them involved Israel Gonzalez. Prosecutors and detectives had open doubts about Gonzalez's version of how he came to shoot Anthony Smith in the back on an Overtown street corner in June 1987. The call went out shortly before 10 on the night of June 21, 1987: Shots fired in Overtown. Gonzalez and partner William Andersen, working in plainclothes and driving a rented car, answered. Here is Gonzalez's story: He spotted two men running toward them. One had a revolver, the other a shotgun. As Gonzalez jammed on the brakes and grabbed for his own shotgun, he said, one running man raised the shotgun barrel "just above hip level" and shot once in his direction. The man shot again as Gonzalez chased him through an apartment courtyard, according to Gonzalez. "I told him, 'Freeze! Police!' and I saw his torso turning towards the right, " Gonzalez said. "I rapid-fired two rounds, and the offender went down." Anthony Smith did have a shotgun, a 12-gauge pump found near the bloodstain that marked the asphalt where he fell, his back and leg and right side raked by double-00 buckshot. But Smith and an independent witness told a much different story. Smith and Roslyn Snead, who was watching from her porch, said Smith never pointed his shotgun at the officers. Both said Smith stumbled and the shotgun went off into the ground by mistake. A casing from Smith's shotgun was found near where he was shot, reports say. There was no evidence to support Gonzalez's story. No casings were found a block away, where Gonzalez and his partner say Smith first shot at them. No casings were found in the courtyard either, and no pellets in the officers' car.

CONTRADICTIONS NOTED But official found no proof that a crime was committed Paul Ridge, then an assistant state attorney, knew that the officers' stories had contradictions, noting in a 1989 memo, "There is no physical evidence to corroborate the officers' testimony concerning the initial discharge when it is reasonable to assume that there should be." Interviewed recently by The Herald, Ridge, now an attorney for the U.S. Justice Department, said: "Are there inconsistencies? Absolutely. But you can't prove a crime was committed." Any other problems were matters for the Miami Police Department to handle, Ridge said. Prosecutors dropped the felony charges of aggravated assault against Smith, who ended up serving four days on a misdemeanor charge of improperly showing a firearm. Gonzalez declined to be interviewed, but defended the shooting through his attorney, Jay Moskowitz. "He was called to that scene and he handled it appropriately, " Moskowitz said. "It was a good shooting as far as he was concerned." Meanwhile, Gonzalez rose steadily through the ranks, becoming a lieutenant and executive assistant to Police Chief William O'Brien. When O'Brien lost his job, Gonzalez was mentioned as a possible replacement. He is now one of 13 officers facing federal conspiracy charges in other shootings. Numerous contradictions also emerged in several shootings involving veteran Officer Arturo Beguiristain, another of the 13. Three times, he reported finding guns that federal authorities are now convinced were planted by police. In November 1994, Beguiristain and partner Evelio Nogues were on a downtown stakeout, walking to get some dinner, when they saw robbers snatch the purses of several female tourists, then jump back into a rolling Cadillac. Nogues, running along the driver's side, pulled out his off-duty gun and fired three shots, wounding robber Kelvin Steward in the wrist. The car crashed. All three robbers went to jail. The robbers were unarmed, and Miami police officers are not supposed to shoot at moving cars because it's considered dangerous and counterproductive. But Beguiristain and Nogues defended their actions and told the same story: Nogues had to shoot the driver to protect Beguiristain, who was struggling with one of the fleeing purse snatchers through the passenger window. "Nogues, he's dragging me!" Beguiristain yelled. Two of three purse-snatching victims, and all three robbers, tell another story. The three robbers admitted taking part in the purse snatching, but they said Nogues fired to stop them - not to protect his partner. "There wasn't a cop being dragged by the car. The only thing they were doing was shooting, " Steward said in an interview from the main Miami-Dade County jail, where he is being held on other robbery charges. "None of their lives were in danger, " he said. "They were shooting to stop us." The officers identified Steward as the driver. But all three robbers, in separate interviews, said Steward was in the back seat when he was shot. "I was the driver, " Mario T. Young said. "They tried to make him the driver to justify the shooting, but he wasn't the driver." There is no mention of the conflicts in the internal affairs report. None of the robbers were interviewed. The third robbery victim, contacted recently by The Herald, said she did see an officer being dragged - though she didn't mention it in her sworn statement to police immediately after the robbery. Beguiristain's lawyer discounted the contradictions and said The Herald's review was unfair. "Another fine job of Monday morning quarterbacking, a 20-20 hindsight review of split-second decision-making by officers who are doing nothing more than apprehending criminals, " attorney Richard Sharpstein said. "And as for the fine, upstanding young men in the car - I'm sure their memories are clouded by the fact they are felons." Raul Martinez, heading the review board, said the shooting clearly violated city policy on moving vehicles. But Martinez said the prohibition against shooting at moving vehicles should be relaxed for situations like this in which a fellow officer is being dragged or endangered. "The officer cannot be faulted, " the board concluded. Nogues was reprimanded for using an off-duty weapon without permission. In another case involving Beguiristain in 1995, he shot at a man in downtown Miami who was running away with a tourist's purse. He missed. Partner John Mervolion - now a cooperating witnesses in the federal case - backed up the story. The victims never saw a gun, and no gun was found. Department officials now say they are demanding tougher investigations. "When these guys roll in now, it's not the high-fiving, booty-slapping kind of thing, " said Maj. Frank E. Christmas, internal affairs commander. "We want to keep it clean."

Read more Special Reports - News stories from the Miami Herald

  • The Cuba puzzle

    For Cubans in exile and on the island, what seemed like certain change now looks like more of the same.

  • Fields of death

    For sugar-mill workers in Nicaragua, a fatal disease defies understanding.

  • Fidel Castro

    A look back at the man and his country.

Miami Herald

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category