It took a bewildering eight years to investigate, but prosecutors announced Wednesday that they won’t seek criminal charges against two Miami Beach police officers and a civilian aide who fired at a carjacker after he led cops on a wild car chase on the MacArthur Causeway.
Miami-Dade’s State Attorney, while admitting investigations into police shootings take way too long to complete, released a final report detailing the June 18, 2009, shooting death of Lawrence Raymond McCoy — whose killing led to a number of strange twists. Among them:
▪ One of the shooting officers, Adam Tavvs, who was involved in another high-profile fatal police shooting four days earlier, was later arrested and convicted of running a marijuana grow house.
▪ The case’s lead detective, Reinaldo Casas, was fired after testing positive for drugs, then got his job back when he claimed he unwittingly used a cocaine-infused erectile dysfunction cream.
▪ Gisella Tacao, the former police public service aide who fired at McCoy and initially lied to police about her role, was later arrested for hoarding dozens of dogs in inhumane conditions. She is still awaiting trial.
The state’s investigation ruled that Tavvs and officer Frank Celestre were justified under Florida law in using deadly force against McCoy, who was believed to be unarmed at the time he was shot. Prosecutors wouldn’t rule the same for Tacao, saying only there was “insufficient evidence” to file any charges against her.
The final report has also underscored concerns about long delays by Miami prosecutors in ruling on police shooting and in-custody deaths. Unlike in most counties, Miami prosecutors produce exhaustive reports detailing every shooting — but the process often drags on for years.
“Historically police-involved shooting investigations have taken my prosecutors far too long to resolve,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle said in a statement, while announcing her office will soon begin posting regular status updates on its website for each police shooting.
“In our effort to make every police-involved shooting and designated in custody death investigation totally complete, absolutely transparent and in line with existing Florida law the important consideration of timeliness has suffered.”
The lawyer representing McCoy’s family said the long delay has left a civil lawsuit against Miami Beach in limbo.
“There’s no excuse for it to take more than eight years,” said Gregory Samms. “There’s something fatally wrong about how they investigate these police shootings. If it’s true that justice delayed is justice denied, then we’ve been denied justice. Period.”
The bizarre incident started when McCoy, 29, carjacked a taxi cab driver on Alton Road and Third Street around 11 p.m. He whipped him badly in the head with an object the victim believed to be a handgun. Investigators later determined that the object was the heavy metal base of tire jack.
911 was called to report a cab stolen at gunpoint, which led officers to chase the stolen cab, which accelerated into oncoming traffic while traveling west on the MacArthur Causeway’s eastbound lanes. The cab crashed into a another car and spun around.
Officer Celestre and another cop, Victor Silot, immediately pulled up in separate cars. Both officers, and a civilian onlooker, later suggested that they believed the carjacker was firing at cops after two loud bangs were heard — and the cab’s passenger-side window blew out.
That spurred Celestre to open fire on the cab. But prosecutors determined that McCoy had no weapon and never fired. The sound may have actually been the cab’s two airbags deploying, kicking up debris and shattering the window, according to the report.
McCoy was not hit and escaped on foot west toward Terminal Island, two small spits of land that house the U.S. Coast Guard station, a city vehicle maintenance facility and a power plant.
It was at that moment that Tacao and her then-boyfriend, reserve Miami Beach officer Steve Stuart, were at a police fueling station feeding feral cats on their off-hours.
Tacao saw the bloodied McCoy running toward her, followed in the distance by cops. She claimed that McCoy stopped by some city buses and appeared to throw something away, the report said.
Prosecutors believe Tacao fired at McCoy, but it was unclear if he was struck. The fleeing man got into a brief wrestling match with Stuart. McCoy slipped away.
But Tacao’s gunshot may have had the unintended consequence of fooling the approaching police officers into thinking McCoy had opened fire. When Celestre and then Tavvs — who joined in the chase — caught up with and surrounded the carjacker, they opened fire, killing him.
No weapon was found on McCoy, and a test of his hands showed no gunshot residue. What he may have discarded is unknown; a knife was found in the parking lot, but there’s no proof it belonged to him. Police divers later found a BB-gun in Biscayne Bay near the scene, but it was not believed to have been involved.
What spurred McCoy’s attack on the cabdriver and flight from the law also remains a mystery. Toxicology tests found no drugs in his system. Bizarrely, the Medical Examiner’s office found an aluminum can pull-tab in his mouth, and a bird feather in his stomach.
The State Attorney’s Office is tasked with deciding whether officers broke the law in using deadly force. Across Florida, prosecutions of officers for on-duty shootings have been rare — state law afford law enforcement wide latitude to use deadly force.
Florida law also allows officers to fire at a “fleeing felon” — someone believed to have committed a felony can be shot in the back, under the presumption they may do harm to the public unless stopped.
A Miami-Dade prosecutor assigned to review police shootings in 2014 initially recommended that the shooting could not justified, though she did not recommend criminal charges, according to the final report. However, a committee of senior prosecutors determined that the investigation was incomplete, not taking into account some civilian witness statements, surveillance footage and a missing firearm ballistics report.
In Celestre’s shooting at the scene of the taxi crash, prosecutors ultimately ruled that he acted in lawful self-defense after firing at what he believed were gunshots but were most likely “two airbag deployments, associated noise, dust or powder and a shattering front passenger window,” prosecutors Jose Arrojo, Frank Ledee and Christine Zahralban wrote in their final memo.
Celestre gave an account of what happened through his union-appointed attorney, and it jibed with other testimony and evidence in the case, according to the final report.
“While it was an erroneous conclusion based on the now-available evidence, we are compelled to conclude that it was reasonable for Officer Celestre to believe that Mr. McCoy fired upon him at least twice from inside of the taxi cab.
Samms, the McCoy family lawyer, burst out laughing when told of the conclusion. “The police would have been trained to recognize gunfire — this is what our taxpayer money has gone for?” Samms said.
As for the second shooting, Celestre “may have reasonably attributed that gunshot” from Tacao was McCoy “firing upon him again, or exchanging gunfire with other officers,” prosecutors said.
Tavvs never gave a version of what happened. He was convicted not long after the shooting for running the marijuana growhouse and agreed to house arrest in exchange for giving up his police credentials. Prosecutors determined that Tavvs was justified in firing under Florida’s “fleeing felon” law.
But the state refused to say Tacao was justified in using her weapon, saying only that there was “insufficient evidence” to press charges. At the scene, Tacao initially lied to detectives about her role in the confrontation, then gave differing stories about what happened.
Prosecutors called Tacao and Stuart’s presence “highly unusual, if not outright bizarre” and chastised them for initially lying to police about their roles. Unable to disprove her self-claim, the state was “troubled” by the fact Tacao was so quick to fire.
“It may have also been reasonable to conclude that Mr. McCoy was a victim or bystander running away in fear from a shooting,” the prosecutors said.