After initially fighting the move, Miami-Dade Police last week returned four vehicles it had confiscated in its investigation into Sweetwater public corruption.
The vehicles went back to Southland The Towing Company, which federal agents are examining as part of a wide-ranging investigation into the Sweetwater Police Department. Many people whose cars were towed after arrests in Sweetwater have alleged that their vehicles were illegally repossessed and sold off.
The company had previously belonged in part to former Sweetwater Mayor Manny Maroño, according to state records. It operated for years in Sweetwater through a verbal agreement until February. Maroño was arrested in August in an unrelated federal public corruption case.
Two weeks after Maroño’s arrest, federal authorities arrested Sweetwater officer William García on charges of identity theft and credit card fraud. Officers Reny García and Octavio Oliu also are under investigation and have been suspended from their jobs with pay. Auxiliary officer Richard Brenner was fired.
El Nuevo Herald and CBS-4 have been investigating Southland’s questionable links to Sweetwater officials since August.
Now, with the latest developments, owners are questioning why Miami-Dade returned the vehicles to Southland, which initially objected to a request from the towing company to return the vehicles. Southland had filed a lawsuit in July to recover them.
County attorneys did not respond to messages from El Nuevo Herald Friday.
Juan Pérez, Miami-Dade’s Police deputy director, said the case was settled “between lawyers.”
“Our legal advisors, after consulting with the county’s attorneys and the FBI, decided to release the vehicles,” said Pérez, who said he couldn’t elaborate due to the ongoing probe.
But the decision raises new questions about the investigation of Sweetwater’s Police.
The department has been criticized for towing vehicles during arrests even when the vehicles were not connected to the alleged crimes. Many of the charges were later dropped in court.
Until recently, Sweetwater charged owners an administrative fee of $500 to recover a towed vehicle.
Among the cars returned to Southland on Friday was a white Porsche Panamara that Sweetwater police had towed after arresting Lazaro Dalmauc more than a year ago.
“How is it possible that they returned my car to a company that is being investigated by the FBI?” asked Dalmauc, who said he testified earlier this year in the federal case against Sweetwater police. “I cooperated in their investigation. Now I don’t know who to trust.”
Dalmauc was arrested at his Miami home on attempted murder charges a day after a bar fight at Dolphin Mall in October 2012. He has pled not guilty and is awaiting trial.
During his arrest, Sweetwater police officers – including many now being implicated in the federal investigation – took jewelry, a gun, computer equipment and $120,000 in cash. Dalmauc said his mom won the money gambling. After the family produced proper documentation, a judge ordered the return of his belongings, including the money.
But the Porsche was not returned.
Dalmauc, who first spoke to Channel 41, América TeVe, said he tried to get the car back.
“Do you think I’d allow a $100,000 to be taken from me because of a $375 fee?”
Dalmauc said employees from the towing company told his family they could not release the vehicle because of a police hold; however, Southland contended in its lawsuit that the Porsche’s owner did not pick it up.
“The Porsche [...] was not officially held by the police department, and was able to be retrieved by its original owner upon payment of the fees associated with towing and storage,” according to the suit. “The original owner did not pay.”
Miami-Dade detectives had first confiscated a 2000 Honda Civic, a 1996 Chevrolet Impala SS and a 1987 Buick Grand National from Southland’s lot in December as evidence in their own public corruption case, which appears to have been folded into the FBI case. The vehicles were towed in Sweetwater during arrests in October 2012, according to the suit.
Miami-Dade detectives took the Porsche in February, days after Southland sold it to a used car dealership, Miami Auto Collection, for nearly $60,000.
Frank Pubchara, a dealership manager, remembers clearly when police arrived to take the vehicle. It all started when Dalmauc’s mother showed up, insisting that the car belonged to her son. She called Miami-Dade Police. Detectives from the public corruptions unit soon arrived and explained to Pubchara that the car was evidence in an ongoing investigation into Maroño, Southland and towing in Sweetwater.
Pubchara said he showed detectives the title and a copy of the check used to pay Southland. Then, in the officers’ presence, he called Southland’s owner, Robert Muriedas.
“I told him there were some cops here and asked what was going on,” he said. “Robert told me that if there was a problem, he’d take care of it and give us back the money.”
And that’s exactly what happened.
Alexander Fox, an attorney for Southland, declined to say why his client returned the money. Miami-Dade never told Muriedas what the investigation was about.
But he said the return of the Porsche and the other vehicles is proof his client did nothing wrong.
“This goes to show the Miami-Dade Police Department never had a legitimate reason for taking and keeping the cars in the first place,” he said.