A 16-year-old walking in West Kendall hours before dawn with a “bulge” under his clothes was shot six times by a Miami Dade police officer — even after the teen had followed his order to lay flat on a sidewalk. That encounter five years ago left Sebastian Gregory partially paralyzed from the waist down.
Officer Luis M. Perez said he was forced to open fire after Gregory, whom he had arrested only a month earlier carrying an aluminum baseball bat and two knives, suddenly reached toward that suspicious bulge. The officer said he thought it could be a gun. It turned out to be another bat.
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which reviews police shootings, cleared Perez, but Gregory’s family sued in federal court, accusing the veteran officer of using excessive force on a teen who wasn’t even charged with a crime. Their case was dismissed last summer by a Miami district judge, but a federal appeals court has now revived it, ordering a trial.
For Gregory’s parents, securing a day in court to defend their son is a victory. But it’s not one they’re celebrating because Sebastian won’t be there to tell his side of the story. On the morning of Jan. 12, 2016, the teen tied his belt around his neck and hanged himself from a tree in a remote wooded area in West Kendall.
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“I’m the father. You’re supposed to care for your son,” Andres Gregory said this week. “At least we’re seeing the light at the end. The worst part is that Sebastian didn’t have the chance to see this.”
The family, still struggling with the guilt that accompanied their son’s suicide, blames his death squarely on the shooting. His parents say their son suffered emotionally and physically after the shooting. The bullets, two of which were never removed, left him in constant pain, with trembles, and urinating through a catheter.
Martin Leach, a family attorney, said the family also now intends to add a new argument to the case — wrongful death — during the upcoming trial, which has yet to be scheduled.
“He didn’t pose any type of danger,” said Leach. “Basically, he got shot for a curfew violation.”
Assistant Miami-Dade County Attorney Ezra Greenberg, who has been defending the case on behalf of Perez and the county, said he could not comment on the pending litigation.
But in court documents and police and county records, Perez, 51 and a 10-year veteran, contended that the teen forced his hand by reaching toward a “shiny” object in his pocket, leaving the officer little choice but to defend himself.
It was around 3:30 a.m. on May 28, 2012, when Sebastian — a McArthur South Senior High School student — was found walking in the 15900 block of Southwest 72nd Street in the Hammocks neighborhood wearing black baggy clothes. The teen, Perez reported, also had what was described as a “bulge” under his clothes and he was carrying a white garbage bag.
He was spotted by Perez, who had arrested the teen a month earlier. The officer said Sebastian had run from him at 2:56 a.m. and was eventually caught carrying a baseball bat and two knives. That day he was charged with carrying concealed weapons.
Perez argued that the troubled teen, who had been attending South Dade’s Miami MacArthur Senior High, was linked to a gang there called South Park Nation and that Sebastian was also suspected in several burglaries.
The officer ordered him to the ground and initially the teen obeyed the command. From there, accounts of what happened next differed.
In the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s closeout memo that cleared Perez and called the shooting “legal and justified,” the officer said Sebastian “rolled on his left side simultaneously as he’s rolling he reached with his right hand, grabbed the shiny metallic object, which I thought was a gun. In fear he was going to pull out a gun and shoot me, I fired my weapon at the threat.”
Perez fired nine times, six of the bullets striking Sebastian. Officers historically have been given wide latitude in defending themselves against perceived threats, especially in situations like the confrontation between Perez and Sebastian, when there are no other witnesses.
According to the Gregory family lawsuit, Sebastian was never a threat to the officer, who fired from at least seven feet away. In a hearing in U.S. District Court Sebastian told the judge he never moved his hands, he had them in a u-shape above his head.
But the teen seemed to contradict that statement before the case was initially dismissed when he agreed to an interview with a Colombian television station in the backyard of his Hammocks home. During that interview — which Sebastian conducted without informing his attorney — he seemed to show how he reached toward the bat.
It was that statement, in part, that led U.S. District Judge Donald Graham to toss the case in August 2016. During the interview for a show called Especiales Pirry, Graham noted that Sebastian obeys Perez’s command to lay on the ground. Then, while seated in a chair, Sebastian reached down toward his waist and told the interviewer, “I tried to move the bat to one side and that’s when the officer shot me...”
“This assertion is in direct contravention of his deposition testimony and evidentiary hearing testimony and it matches Officer Perez’s testimony regarding the moments leading up to the shooting,” Graham wrote. The judge went on to say that “Officer Perez had arguable probable cause to believe Sebastian posed a threat to his life...”
But earlier this month, a three-member federal appeals court panel voted to overturn Judge Graham’s dismissal of the case and send the case back to the U.S. District Court for trial.
The Nov. 15 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th District found that though Miami-Dade’s sovereign immunity disqualified it from any liability in Sebastian’s shooting, Perez himself could still be found to have used excessive force if Sebastian posed no threat to the officer.
“There was competing and contradictory testimony about whether Gregory moved his hands, creating a genuine dispute of fact,” Apellate Judge Frank M. Hull wrote in the majority opinion. “If Gregory did not move his hands, then Gregory made no threatening moves towards officer Perez.”
The lone dissenting voice, Judge Adalberto Jordan, went even further than the other two judges, saying Miami-Dade should not have been granted immunity and that it’s possible for an officer to commit an illegal act while acting in good faith.
“In my view,” Jordan wrote, “Mr. Gregory properly and sufficiently pled that Officer Perez acted negligently.”
After the shooting Sebastian spent more than a month in the hospital before beginning rehabilitation. His parents said their son suffered chronic pain and fell into depression. Years of rehab enabled him to move about with the help of a walker. He saw psychologists, lost the use of his sexual organs and had to see urologists.
“He was despondent over his condition,” said another family attorney, Michael Feiler. “The injuries he suffered and the incident itself left him with demons he couldn’t deal with.”
The Gregorys sought support themselves. They attended meetings with anti-violence organizations and met with a Black Lives Matter group. Andres Gregory befriended Carlos Aguilar, whose son Christian Aguilar was killed by a friend in Gainesville four months after Sebastian was shot.
The night almost two years ago when Sebastian went missing, Andres Gregory called Carlos Aguilar. It was Aguilar who found Sebastian’s body the next morning in the West Kendall woods. It’s something the Gregorys say they will never recover from.
“I felt angry, guilty, because I always thought I had to get rid of Sebastian’s pain and help him,” said Sebastian’s mother Amalia Villafane-Gregory. “Sebastian was on the floor [ground] when the police shot my son. He listened to everything they said.”