Miami-Dade police

Lawsuit challenges fatal shooting by Miami-Dade police as excessive force

 

jweaver@MiamiHerald.com

On an early spring evening, two armored Miami-Dade police vehicles carrying 16 helmeted officers thundered into a middle-class Miami Lakes neighborhood for a raid on a suspected pot dealer.

About 10 seconds after the uniformed officers banged a sledgehammer on his front door and forced it open with a crowbar, Michael Santana would be dead.

The lead officer, protected by a brightly lit bullet-proof shield, fired three shots into the 27-year-old, who stood in the foyer with a pistol in his hand.

Santana's girlfriend, a Hooter’s bartender and Playboy model who witnessed the shooting inside the three-bedroom home, later told authorities that the couple thought they were being robbed when the Miami-Dade Special Response Team came knocking with a search warrant two years ago.

Now, Santana’s father is suing Miami-Dade County and the police officer, German Alech, who killed his son, in a federal complaint alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations.

“My brother had no record and had never been in trouble,” said Eric Santana, who owned the Miami Lakes home where Michael Santana was killed. “I think it was a complete violation of what we should expect from our police. Any of us should be scared of something like that coming through our front door.”

The Miami-Dade County Police Department is conducting an internal investigation of the shooting, but Alech is expected to be cleared as a routine matter.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, in an investigation of the shooting released in November, has already ruled Santana’s death “legally justified” and declined to bring any criminal charges against the officer.

It was the second controversial shooting involving Alech and the Special Response Team in less than a year.

Earlier this month, Alech was listed among 11 tactical officers who fired their weapons in a botched 2011 sting operation in the Redland that killed four armed robbers who had been coaxed there under the pretext of stealing a large load of marijuana. The robbers, who were armed but never fired their weapons, died in a hail of bullets — including one police informant who had surrendered and was lying on the ground.

In a scathing report released two weeks ago, Miami-Dade prosecutors called the Redland operation “disturbing” but also found there was not enough evidence to support criminal charges against the officers.

Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson issued a statement, saying the department was reviewing the report.

“Upon completion of this review, the department will take the necessary steps to address any immediate concerns,” he said. “The department is obligated to conduct an administrative review that will result in a thorough assessment of the events that transpired so we may continue to move forward as a professional organization.”

SRT work is dangerous because the officers often confront drug dealers and other armed criminals. In December 2008, an officer was shot in the jaw by a woman in Liberty City during a drug raid. Officers fired back, killing her.

Since the 2011 and 2012 shootings, the team has since undergone a shake-up. Of the 11 who came under scrutiny, seven have been transferred to other police units, including Alech, a 20-year veteran now assigned to marine patrol.

In the Miami Lakes case, prosecutors concluded that, because Santana posed an “armed threat” to the tactical squad when he initially refused to put down his weapon, “Alech was legally justified in using deadly force during his encounter with [him] inside the residence.” Santana was holding a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson pistol when Alech and about 10 other tactical officers confronted him in the home’s foyer.

Attorney Mark Seiden, a former Miami-Dade police sergeant who represented Alech during the state attorney’s investigation of the March 7, 2012, shooting, reiterated key findings in the memo exonerating his client. Seiden, who is limited to what he can say under South Florida federal court rules, called it a “clean shoot.”

During the investigation, Alech did not give a statement. Seiden said he would not let him because Miami-Dade police and prosecutors refused beforehand to turn over a video of the raid that was recorded by a home-security camera system at Santana’s residence.

For the Santana’s civil suit, Miami-Dade County’s law office is defending Alech. A spokeswoman declined comment on the case.

The state attorney’s final report, written by prosecutors John Perikles and Joshua Weintraub, highlighted a sworn statement by Santana’s girlfriend, Brittany Retkofsky, who was standing in the kitchen and living room areas as she witnessed her boyfriend’s shooting.

“Ms. Retkofsky’s acknowledgment … that ‘she has to say honestly they did have to ask him twice to put his gun down’ is compelling evidence offered by someone sympathetic to the deceased,” the report says.

But attorneys for Michael Santana’s father, Hector, who filed the civil-rights suit in Miami federal court this month, questioned the show of force used to execute the search warrant at the Miami Lakes home of the suspected small-time pot dealer.

Attorneys Ray Taseff and Joseph Rosenbaum challenged the SRT claim that officers properly “announced and knocked” on Santana’s front door, before entering the residence and killing him.

“The police unlawfully entered the home of Mr. Santana and once inside, they used excessive and unreasonable force which resulted in the shooting death of Michael Santana,” the suit states.

On March 7, 2012, Miami-Dade police obtained the search warrant for Santana’s home at 6915 Bottlebrush Dr., after a confidential informant had purchased two quarter-ounce bags of marijuana from him for $75 each on separate occasions.

The warrant, based on suspected violations of state drug laws, cited possession of marijuana, paraphernalia and firearms, among other items of suspected illegal activity in his home. But an affidavit, reviewed by a Miami-Dade circuit judge to support the warrant, did not specifically allege that Santana regularly carried a weapon inside his home, as prosecutors later claimed in their investigative report.

Much of the raid — though not the shooting — was captured by home-security video cameras that Santana had installed throughout the residence.

At about 8:15 p.m., Santana’s then 21-year-old girlfriend, Retkofsky, arrived at his home after picking up some take-out ribs at a local Outback Steakhouse. At the time, she worked as a part-time Hooter’s bartender and for a nail salon in Sunny Isles Beach.

Santana met her in the driveway and they walked through the garage into the house. Retkofsky placed the food on the kitchen counter and then in the adjacent living room as the couple prepared to have dinner.

Meanwhile, at about 8:20 p.m., the Miami-Dade Special Response Team approached the entrance to Santana’s home. The video shows the first officer checked the doorknob to see if it was open. The second placed a crowbar, known as a “Halligan tool,” on the front door to pry it open. A third officer, holding a sledgehammer, pounded three times on the door before the squad tore it open.

Tactical squad officers later said they yelled out “Miami-Dade police” and “search warrant” before entering the home. The state attorney’s report said officers’ mouths were moving on the video before they rushed in, but no audio was recorded by Santana’s system.

Meanwhile, the couple heard a series of loud bangs on the front door. A video recording of the Santana’s kitchen shows Retkofsky turning to her boyfriend with a shocked expression. She later told authorities that she asked him, “What the [expletive] is that?”

She recalled Santana reaching for the gun in his waist holster, for which he had a concealed weapons permit. The couple, she insisted, thought someone was trying to rob them.

The video showed Santana rushing past her through the hallway to the foyer. Retkofsky stayed behind in the kitchen, but she still had a view of her boyfriend.

From the time the squad forced open the front door, the deadly confrontation unfolded in less than 10 seconds, according to the timer on the video recording. When Retkofsky saw her boyfriend getting shot about six feet in front of her, she jerked forward and pulled her hands up to her face as if to hide her eyes.

Retkofsky, according to the state attorney’s report, later told police and prosecutors that she heard a number of shouted commands: “Put your hands up!” “Drop the gun!” “Get on your knees!”

In the lawsuit, Santana’s lawyers say that Alech yelled at Santana: “Let me see your hands, show me your hands and get on the ground.”

The suit claims “Santana complied and separated his hands to show that he was following Alech’s command’’ and that he “began to lower his body to get on his knees to surrender.”

But as Santana was getting on his knees, the lawsuit contends, Alech fired his Glock 9mm pistol three times, striking him in the right upper chest and left upper back.

Prosecutors, however, analyzed the rapid-fire fatal shooting in a different light. They note that the girlfriend admitted Santana initially refused to drop his gun. They also say that Santana was getting in a “crouched position” — not to place his firearm on the floor but to shoot it at Alech and the other officers.

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.

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