Prosecutors have long contended that South Miami Detective Joe Mendez had child pornography on his phone – 31 images of an underage girl, eight of them depicting “sexual performances.”
But those images, his defense attorney now says, were actually of Mendez’s girlfriend, who may appear youthful but is very much an adult.
Mendez is now asking a Miami-Dade judge to dismiss the eight child pornography charges against him after his 30-year-old girlfriend, during an interview with prosecutors, identified herself in those photos taken a couple years ago. The issue will be addressed at a court hearing on Thursday.
“It’s an injustice to my client,” defense lawyer Doug Hartman said of the charges.
The girlfriend’s claim could impact the most serious of several chargesagainst Mendez, 47. He is also accused of trying to seduce underage students involved in a police education program by illegally buying them alcohol. Those charges are misdemeanors.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office declined to comment.
State agents in September arrested Mendez, who had been lauded for his work with the South Miami Police’s Explorer program, which introduces students into the world of law enforcement.
Mendez is a longtime South Miami police officer who spent time detached to a Drug Enforcement Administration task force. He is the son of Joe Mendez, a former Hialeah police officer who later became part of a multiagency federal task force known as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program.
The younger Mendez coordinated South Miami’s explorer program between 2009 and 2014. He has twice been named officer of the month, and was once a finalist for a county-wide community policing award.
But in June 2014, South Miami police’s internal affairs unit asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate a complaint that Mendez was involved in “inappropriate” behavior with underage cadets.
One girl told FDLE agents that Mendez picked her up at home, then dared her to flash her breasts before repeatedly trying to get her to drink wine. He also tried kissing her, the warrant said. With another girl, Mendez allegedly tried to play “truth or dare,” asking her to “let me slap your a**” and eventually kissing her over beers, the warrant said.
Mendez later admitted he took part in the Explorer program because he was having problems with his marriage and he “needed something else to get my mind off of it.” He admitted to buying the drinks while with the girls only to “loosen up” and get “fresh ideas” for the Explorer competitions.
When FDLE seized his smartphone, they found over 20,000 images on his cell phone, many of those of “undressed males and females,” according to an arrest warrant.
A state expert, Dr. Walter Lambert, of the University fo Miami’s Child Protection Team, concluded that 31 images “depicted females under the age of 18.” Eight of those “identified as depicting sexual performances by children,” agents said.
But in a motion to dismiss, Mendez’s lawyer said the unnamed girlfriend, identified only as T.P., was actually 27 or 28 at the time.
In April, she gave a sworn statement at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office and “identified all 31 pictures shown to her by the state, as pictures of herself,” according to the motion to dismiss.