Former Miami Beach officer goes to trial for ill-fated bachelorette party joyride

An officer who ran over a couple on the beach three years ago heads to trial as his department continues to clean up its reputation.

05/29/2014 5:09 PM

05/29/2014 8:06 PM

When five women celebrating at the Clevelander Hotel saw the two “buff dudes” in tight cop uniforms appear just before 5 a.m., they thought strippers had been sent to spice up their bachelorette party.

The events soon to transpire on Miami Beach proved anything but entertaining.

Police officer Derick Kuilan’s joyride with a bride-to-be on a city-issued ATV sent two people to the hospital with serious injuries and — coming just weeks after a controversial Memorial Day shooting — helped brand the Beach’s finest as cops-gone-wild. The scandal, turned viral by a snapshot of two grinning party-crashing cops, would cost Kuilan and his partner their jobs and push out a police chief.

Three years later, Kuilan, 33, is about to get the chance to convince a jury that he is not guilty of police misconduct. Opening arguments in his criminal case are expected to begin Monday.

The Beach police force also is working to restore its reputation and regain public trust — still. The department has been hit with a number of controversies since, but former chief Raymond Martinez points to the Kuilan case as the trigger for a sweeping overhaul.

“He turned that department upside down, single-handedly with what he did,” said Martinez, who was elevated in an effort to reform the force.

Prosecutors say Kuilan and his partner Rolando Gutierrez showed up at the Clevelander bar just before sunrise on July 3, 2011, and mingled with a group of women celebrating an upcoming wedding. Dancing and drinking ensued until, prosecutors claim, Kuilan offered bride-to-be Adalee Sharee Martin a ride on the sand in his ATV.

Five blocks from the Clevelander, as Kuilan rode along the beach in the ATV, he struck Kitzie Nicanor and Luis Almonte. The arrest affidavit from the 2011 incident says the two had just dipped their toes in the ocean and were walking away from the water when Kuilan slammed into them.

Martin told police that Kuilan had kept the vehicle’s lights off, even though it was well before sunrise. Friends of the victims, who could barely see what happened because of the darkness, reported that the ATV had passed them at a very rapid pace.

Almonte’s leg was broken. Nicanor also suffered a broken leg, was knocked unconscious and had to have several surgeries. Martin, the passenger, flew off the bike into the sand. Kuilan desperately radioed for help.

When the officer’s blood-alcohol level was taken hours later, it registered .088 — just above the legal limit. Kuilan was charged with two counts of driving under the influence and causing serious bodily harm, and two counts of reckless driving.

Kuilan’s attorney Evan Hoffman wouldn’t outline defensive strategy, but a judge recently rejected efforts to block the blood work as evidence.

“We have defenses, and we’re looking forward to going to trial,” said Hoffman.

The joyride gone bad was the second police incident that year to put Miami Beach in the national spotlight.

On the tail end of a packed Memorial Day weekend, Miami Beach police and cops from other local agencies opened fire on a car driven by Raymond Herisse as it stopped on Collins Avenue. In all, 116 shots were fired. Herisse was struck 14 times and died. Four innocent bystanders were hit in the crossfire.

Police defended their actions, saying the driver nearly ran over officers and there were reports of someone firing from the vehicle during the holiday weekend. Days later, police say they found a gun wrapped up beneath the driver’s side seat, but tests showed it wasn’t fired.

The Miami-Dade state attorney’s office said it expects to complete its investigation of the case later this summer.

The Kuilan incident, which followed five weeks later, proved more embarrassing, with the criticism fueled by a photo of the two officers surrounded by five women in glittery club attire striking poses. It became something of an Internet sensation.

Former Miami Beach Deputy Police Chief Mark Overton, who was hired out of Hialeah in 2012 to work with Martinez as part of a move to instill new leadership, called the ATV crash an aberration but also an impetus for change.

“It probably did change the agency because of the outrageousness of the incident, but it’s not something I think was a true example of the type of police work going on there,” said Overton. “I think it embarrassed the officers that one of their own would do something so disrespectful, not only to their department but to the profession itself.”

In the aftermath of the ATV crash, city administrators moved to punish multiple officers and supervisors. Both officers involved were fired outright. The chief at the time, Carlos Noriega, later was stripped of his power by City Manager Jorge Gonzalez. Gonzalez would wind up resigning himself in 2012 amid continuing political turmoil.

Noriega largely blamed the media for his early exit.

“We became the target of everybody's venom,” Noriega said in a deposition.

After the crash, Noriega became a witness for some of the fired officers — some of whom had their punishments overturned or reduced — testifying that they were good cops and that the department was the victim of politics and sensationalist media accounts.

Reached this week at the Fontainebleau Miami Beach Hotel where he oversees security, Noriega said he needed clearance to speak with the media, and probably couldn’t say much because the case is ongoing.

Martinez, promoted from assistant chief, brought in new internal affairs investigators and implemented a new policing strategy heavy on community presence in an effort to re-establish a connection with residents and business owners.

“If there was a silver lining in the incident, it did allow the department and the city to make the changes that needed to be made,” he said.

Those changes haven’t kept the force out of hot water, however.

In August 2013, Beach cops came under fire again after graffiti artist Israel Hernandez-Llach, known to friends as Reefa, was chased down after tagging an abandoned McDonald’s building on the beach. He was jolted with a Taser, and died. The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner ruled Hernandez-Llach’s heart stopped after being zapped by the Taser.

Despite the medical examiner’s ruling, the Hernandez-Llach case remains open. Prosecutors said they expect to make a decision on whether the officer who used the Taser was at fault in the next few months.

Two weeks later, a Miami Beach detective was suspended after allegedly kicking a man in the head in a hotel lobby. The injured man had called police on the detective who was trying to remove a drunken model from the lobby. The citizen mistakenly believed the cop was trying to snatch the woman’s purse.

Last year reports also surfaced of 911 dispatchers appearing to be asleep while on duty. The city manager yanked control of the emergency center’s call operations from police and put it under a civilian emergency manager.

To Gonzalez, the former city manager, the biggest loss from the Kuilan case was the public’s trust.

“That one day just kind of really blew the lid off of any support the police department might have had with the residents,” said Gonzalez, who still lives on Miami Beach.

The incident continues to dog the department but officers hope that the Kuilan trial will be the last public reminder of an embarrassing episode.

“It always gets rehashed,” said police union president Sgt. Alejandro Bello. “That’s why we’re anxious to just put this behind us.”

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