Courts

Miami-Dade cop wounded in gun battle testifies

 

dovalle@MiamiHerald.com

At first, Miami-Dade Detective John Saavedra recalled with business-like precision, the events leading up to the fateful marijuana grow house shooting.

The tip came in. Detectives drove by the West Miami-Dade house to investigate. His team later set up to watch the home, then walked up to the driveway when a man emerged from the front door.

But emotion soon wore heavy on Saavedra as he testified Wednesday for the first time about the shadowy gunman who suddenly popped out of a nearby BMW parked in the driveway, firing a weapon.

Saavedra paused, rubbing his hands over his face, holding back tears.

He knew immediately he was wounded: two bullets pierced his gut, just under his bullet-proof vest, he remembered.

“It was almost instant,” Saavedra said. “It all happened so quick. As soon as I began firing, he began firing.”

Saavedra took the stand in the criminal case against Luis Estevanell, charged with marijuana trafficking, aggravated assault on an officer, attempted felony murder and felony murder for the death of his armed cohort, Gerardo Delgado, who was shot to death by police during the firefight.

In Florida, someone who commits a felony — in this case marijuana trafficking — can be held responsible if someone dies during the commission of the crime.

The shootout was captured on stunningly clear surveillance video at the house, footage first aired in court last week.

On Wednesday, the court heard details directly from Saavedra, who has yet to return to active duty while recovering from his wounds; the White House honored him last week in Washington D.C. for his actions.

After the conclusion of Wednesday’s extended bond hearing, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Monica Gordo declined to allow Estevanell, 60, out of jail before trial.

The hearing began last week and included the testimony of an FBI agent and two detectives involved in the gun battle. Their testimony is unusual because officers normally do not testify while under criminal investigation by prosecutors for using deadly force while on duty.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, as it does in all police shootings, still is reviewing whether the officers were justified in firing at Delgado.

That day, July 31, 2012, Saavedra’s team had gone to the house at 2325 SW 60th Ct., to investigate a tip that it was being used to cultivate marijuana. The visit was a “knock-and-talk” to see if detectives could get consent to search the home, police testified.

Moments before, Delgado walked out of the house and puffed a cigarette, the video showed. Miami-Dade Detective Donald Law, across the street watching in an unmarked police car, radioed the team to spring into action.

But as he turned to check for oncoming traffic and reverse the car, Law lost sight of Delgado. He did not see Delgado, wearing a light print shirt with a collar, enter a BMW with dark-tinted windows parked in the driveway.

At that moment, as detectives began descending on the home, Estevanell — wearing a similar light print shirt as Delgado — walked out of the house.

“I thought it was the same person,” Law testified last week.

At that moment, Saavedra rounded the corner, passing Delgado in the BMW.

“I approached in a very friendly manner, actually had a smile on my face,” Saavedra said.

Estevanell immediately began yelling “Police!” and pointing in the air, striding toward the sidewalk.

“He seemed like he was trying to get me away from the house and was alerting someone in the house,” Saavedra said. “The last thing I expected was that he was alerting someone inside the car.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Saavedra said, he noticed a silhouette of an armed man emerging from the BMW. Delgado, taking cover behind a tree in the yard, pointed the weapon at FBI Agent Raul Perdomo.

Saavedra pushed Estevanell down and drew his weapon.

“I felt Raul Perdomo’s life was in immediate danger. I felt my life was in danger,” Saavedra said. “I retrieved my firearm and started firing. ... He immediately turned his attention to me and began firing.”

Saavedra knew he was hit, but grabbed his stomach and kept firing with one hand as he fell to the ground.

Another round hit his leg. Then, he felt someone punch and kick his head. Estevanell, he remembered, began attacking him, ripping away the rosary draped around his neck.

Estevanell fell backward into bushes as another Miami-Dade detective, Jorge Milan, felled Delgado with a precision shot through the thick tree branches.

“When I fired the weapon, he went down,’’ Milan said last week. “I fired one shot.”

Estevanell was detained as fellow officers helped Saavedra across the street, where he took off his vest and lay on the ground.

Inside hidden rooms of the home, detectives found 80 pounds of marijuana and hydroponic lab equipment.

“The defendant was an active participant in all of this,” said Miami-Dade prosecutor Frank Ledee.

Estevanell’s lawyers argued that the longtime jeweler only used the home as a place to melt down gold for resale and had no participation in the marijuana operation. And both men believed the cops were impersonators looking to rob them, lawyers James McGuirk and Edward Carhart said.

“Mr. Delgado saw his friend being attack by what everyone thought was a burglar. He came out with a gun and didn’t start shooting,” McGuirk said. “The police started shooting.”

But Judge Gordo said prosecutors proved enough of a case to keep Estevanell behind bars for attempted felony murder and felony murder.

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