Tainted by scandal, Sweetwater Police Department is in turmoil

 

msanchez@elNuevoherald.com

The way those who have been arrested in Sweetwater tell it, cops in this small city targeted low-level criminals, people with little credibility and no resources to defend themselves.

“I know my brother isn’t innocent,” said Leslie Anne Torres, who is trying to recover the three vehicles and other belongings Sweetwater police seized from her brother after a credit-card fraud arrest. “But if the police go to your house and steal your things, then they ain’t no better than my brother.”

Federal authorities are investigating accounts like this one in a widening criminal probe of problems in the Sweetwater Police Department that range from excessive use of force to the unreasonable seizure of suspects’ vehicles.

So far, the FBI has arrested just a single detective on separate fraud charges, though he is also suspected of playing a central role in the larger alleged abuses of power. Two other detectives face possible charges for brutality and theft.

Others have also been tainted by the scandal, including an officer-turned-city-commissioner who was once responsible for the evidence room where thousands of dollars in cash went missing, and a commander who supervised the detectives accused of the most egregious offenses.

Sweetwater’s former police chief, Roberto Fulgueira, who retired in October claiming it was a personal decision, did not leave unscathed. Soon after his retirement, city leaders announced that cash was also missing from the city’s towing-fee revenue — cash Fulgueira made it a point to count himself. No one has accused the former chief of stealing that money.

But the U.S. attorney’s office and FBI view the relationship between Fulgueira and former Mayor Manuel “Manny” Maroño, who recently pleaded guilty to corruption charges, as symbiotic. Maroño chose Fulgueira for the chief’s job in 2005, and in turn he gave the mayor’s former towing company a no-bid agreement to operate in the city. Today, authorities are investigating Fulgueira’s police department and the ex-mayor’s towing business as two sides of a suspected criminal enterprise.

This week, top city officials said they could not turn over any more personnel files of police officers or civilians because the FBI had seized all of those records for its broadening investigation. El Nuevo Herald and CBS4 have been reporting on the former mayor’s questionable connections to the towing company since August.

John Rivera, who heads the county’s Police Benevolent Association, blamed a corrupt chain of command that went all the way up to the strong mayor, Maroño.

“When you see this type of culture it’s like a disease, a cancer that keeps growing,” he said. “But despite these problems, there are still great cops in Sweetwater. And the good ones keep hoping things will get better.”

It’s unclear what triggered the federal probe into this tiny department, which currently employs 39 full-time police officers and close to 70 reserve and part-time officers. But one case that drew criticism was the 2011 beating of Alberto Domínguez, who had been arrested by Sweetwater police for vandalism.

A video of the incident showed that Domínguez was handcuffed and didn’t lunge at officer Paul Abreu, as the officer had claimed. The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office concluded there was no criminal intent.

Dominguez never filed a complaint with police because, he said, he didn’t think anybody would believe him — although this year he filed a civil suit against the city for excessive use of force.

Abreu’s attorney, Oscar Marrero, said the incident should be judged on its own, and not in the context of other problems in the police department.

“It’s very important to examine all the facts and not rush to judgment,” he said. “Other than this matter, he has a good history serving as a police officer.”

Another civil suit alleges that Sweetwater detective Octavio Oliu and auxiliary officer Richard Brenner arrested and paraded a special-needs teacher in front of his students — despite the fact the school isn’t even in Sweetwater. Police had charged Daniel Larosa with threatening a public official after posting comments online such as: “It’s Sweetwater pd that’s gotta die!!! Lol.”

Larosa had posted the comments after learning that his ex-girlfriend was dating a Sweetwater cop, according to the suit. The charges against Larosa were dropped and in February he sued the city, alleging civil liberties violations, false arrest and abuse of process.

“Such behavior by the city was wholly outrageous and went far beyond the bounds of decency in that it was a violation of the great power and authority we as a community entrust to police officers,” his attorney, Domingo Rodriguez, wrote in the suit.

Federal authorities have paid special attention to Sweetwater’s once-elite detective unit, which was dismantled in September. The FBI arrested one of five detectives in the group and two have been suspended because they are targets of the federal probe. A fourth detective quit after Fulgueira’s retirement.

And the commander who supervised the unit, Mario Miranda, was recently let go partly because of his lack of control over the detectives.

“How can you tell me you don’t know what these people who worked for you were doing?” asked Jose M. Diaz, who was a commissioner for 12 years and became mayor after Maroño’s arrest in August.

The three suspended officers under federal investigation are:

• Detective William García, who was arrested in August on charges of identity theft and credit-card fraud. According to his indictment, Garcia used the cards for personal expenses, such as eating out at restaurants at the Dolphin Mall and in Miami Beach. He allegedly seized some of the counterfeit credit cards from a suspect he had arrested in Sweetwater.

Prior to the arrest, Garcia maintained a clean record in Sweetwater, where he was first hired in 1997.

• Acting sergeant and detective Reny Garcia. Like many of his colleagues, he was welcomed to the Sweetwater Police Department despite having a criminal record. He was convicted of drunk driving in 1991 and 1993.

Then, in 2003, a week after he was first hired as a police dispatcher in Sweetwater, Garcia was arrested in Colorado on charges of impersonating an officer and harassing a woman. The case was dismissed.

Garcia became a part-time officer in Sweetwater in 2006 and was promoted to detective five months later.

• Detective Oliu, an officer named in the Larosa lawsuit. State records show that Oliu resigned from his job as a Miami-Dade Police officer in 2007 as a result of an internal investigation over allegations that he had worked without authorization at his own private security company, lied during a separate internal investigation and falsified work activity logs. He was hired in Sweetwater in 2010.

Troubled pasts are not unique to Oliu and Reny Garcia. The Sweetwater Police Department became something of a rehab for bad cops.

A 2011 investigation by the Sarasota Herald Tribune revealed that 12 Sweetwater cops were hired after disciplinary incidents at other law enforcement agencies. But Fulgueira insisted that the officers weren’t necessarily unfit for duty.

“This stuff is supposed to follow you forever?” he asked. “For the rest of your career? Of course I’m going to give somebody a second chance.”

One man who got a second opportunity in Sweetwater is Catalino Rodriguez, who resigned from the police department in October on the same night he was unexpectedly named to fill a vacancy on the City Commission.

In 1986, Rodriguez admitted to stealing at least 30 boxes of bullets, a half-dozen gun holsters and 200 dresses before becoming a police officer and seeking work at the Miami Police Department. He wasn’t hired in Miami, but Sweetwater offered him a job.

During his last few years in Sweetwater, Rodriguez was tasked with supervising the property room — where authorities now say thousands of dollars in cash went missing. Rodriguez denies taking any money.

A decade ago, Rodriguez was implicated in the beating of an 18-year-old accused of stealing a Jet-Ski from the police officer’s house. Some of the alleged beating took place in the backseat of then-Mayor Maroño’s SUV while the mayor drove it. Two officers were formally charged in the alleged beating of Peter Michael Daniel, but they were acquitted. Daniel, who reached a $2 million settlement with the city, couldn’t offer a cohesive account of the beating in court.

After the scandal, Maroño demoted then-Police Chief Jesus “Jesse” Menocal, who had asked the state attorney’s office to investigate the incident. But the mayor insisted Menocal’s demotion was not the result of his criminal referral of the alleged beating.

After Fulgueira’s retirement in October, Menocal was reappointed as interim chief by Maroño’s replacement as mayor.

The new administration is trying to improve the police department’s image in the community. It started a bike patrol and has a new focus on community policing. As a whole, the city has also started accepting checks and credit cards for the payments of fines.

Diaz, the new mayor, said he wants to eliminate all opportunities for corruption.

“We’ve implemented this zero-cash policy so that nobody is tempted to pocket any of the money,” he said.

Meanwhile, Menocal has begun offering special trainings this week on the use of force, professional traffic stops, discriminatory profiling and vehicular pursuits. He also plans to offer courses on suspects’ constitutional rights and the use of Tasers. All officers must attend.

“This way nobody can give an excuse later, say they didn’t know or forgot,” Menocal said. “You have to train officers on professionalism and ethics because these are the things that can bite you in the long run.”

“I tell my officers to hold their heads high,” he said. “We can’t change the past, but we can change the present and the future.”

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