Prosecutors have cleared police officers in three separate deadly shootings involving motorists — including the case of a teen shot dead after driving a stolen SUV into a police car at a North Miami-Dade flea market.
The cases are among eight fatal police-involved shootings recently cleared by the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office, which were detailed in final reports obtained by the Miami Herald.
The release of the reports comes during a heightened time of scrutiny on police tactics across the country. From Chicago to Missouri to Baltimore, fatal encounters with police have sparked investigations, spirited rallies, some civil unrest and criminal charges against officers.
“Am I disappointed that there are no charges? Yes. Am I surprised? No,” said Alyssa Carulla, the sister of 17-year-old Jason Carulla, who was shot and killed by Coral Gables police officers cops in June 2014 after he smashed the stolen SUV into an officer’s car. “He didn’t get the media coverage. He didn’t get rallies.”
Locally, controversy surrounding police officers shooting at moving cars has swirled for years. Most notoriously, Miami Beach and Hialeah officers wounded bystanders and killed a motorist who barreled down a crowded South Beach street during Memorial Day 2011, nearly hitting several people. That shooting spurred Miami Beach police to place restrictions on shooting at moving cars, a policy long in place across the causeway in the city of Miami.
The office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle declined to prosecute any of the officers in the Memorial Day case. That is not unusual.
Florida officers are rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings because state law affords them wide latitude to use deadly force, including the ability to shoot at “fleeing felons” who presumably pose a danger to others.
No Florida officer has been charged with an on-duty shooting until last month,when a Broward County jury indicted a deputy for manslaughter for the shooting death of Jermaine McBean, who was walking home from a pawn shop carrying an air rifle.
Before that, the last Florida cop to be charged was Miami Police Officer William Lozano, who shot and killed a man on a motorcycle in 1989, sparking racially charged riots. He was later acquitted of manslaughter.
Unlike in Broward, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office does not present police shooting and in-custody deaths to a grand jury. Instead, a committee of prosecutors reviews each case to see if officers broke any laws, and produces a “close-out” memo detailing the evidence.
The system has led to criticism of lengthy delays in police-shooting investigations — with cases often taking years to conclude.
In Jason Carulla’s case, prosecutors issued their final memo on the case a few weeks ago, saying the Gables cops were “legally justified” in killing the troubled 17-year-old runaway as he tried to flee police.
“Moving vehicles can be deadly weapons. And after 18 months of investigation, the State Attorneys’ office determined that, while tragic, the shooting did not violate existing Florida law,” said Ed Griffith, an office spokesman.
The teen had several run-ins with the law over the years and had been in the care of Florida’s Department of Children and Families. He had recently run away.
Back in June 2014, Gables officers arrested five young people who were suspected of stealing and breaking into cars. Detectives said they learned that Carulla was picking up a stolen car at a flea market off Northwest 79th Street and 30th Avenue.
Officers cased the parking lot. Miami-Dade Sgt. Robert Fortich saw Carulla walking toward the stolen Toyota Sequoia SUV, according to the memo.
To block Carulla, Fortich stopped his unmarked Nissan Altima at an angle in front of the stolen SUV. But as Fortich, who wearing a vest clearly marking him as a police officer, was getting out of the car, according to prosecutors, Carulla accelerated, smashing into the sergeant’s car and knocking him back into the Nissan.
Officers Nelson Quintana and Kristopher Klute, who were nearby, opened fire, striking Carulla. The SUV traveled about five parking spaces away before stopping, Carulla mortally wounded inside.
Janik Carulla, the teen’s father, said he believed his son was “set up” and that police officers should have disabled the car before Jason showed up to prevent him from fleeing.
“The police, they just go out there and shoot,” Janik Carulla said. “And they being allowed to get away with, unless there is a video camera catching them acting over aggressively.”
Fortich and other police witnesses said all of the shots rang out just as Carulla’s SUV rammed into the police Altima. But the locations of the bullet casings raised “concerns” about “inconsistent facts” — Quintana’s casings suggested he “advanced” and fired more rounds at the Toyota after it stopped, the memo said.
But investigators never heard from the officers themselves. Quintana and Klute chose not to give their versions of events.
“He panicked. We are all 17 once and he thought he would get away,” Janik Carulla said. “He didn’t think his life would end.”
For prosecutors, the inconsistencies with the casings did not mean they could prove criminal charges such as manslaughter or murder under Florida law. At least the first two shots — fired as Carulla’s SUV rammed into Fortich’s car — could be deemed as defending the sergeant or others, the memo said.
Officers had probable cause to believe Carulla committed an aggravated assault, or aggravated battery, when he rammed Fortich’s car. That meant, under Florida’s “fleeing felon” law, officers could use deadly force to stop him.
“Having already used the stolen vehicle as a weapon against Sgt. Fortich, there was ample reason to believe that Jason Carulla would be prepared to do so again if other officers or civilians got in his way,” prosecutors wrote.
The Coral Gables police department will now determine if any of the officers broke internal policies or procedures during the episode. The Fraternal Order of Police, which represents the officers, declined to comment.
Danny Valdes also tried running from the cops in a stolen car.
In May 2013, he led police on nighttime high-speed chase before stopping along the road in North Miami-Dade. Cops began yelling at Valdes to get out of the car — witnesses said he yelled back, “If you don’t kill me, I’ll kill you,” the final memo said.
Miami-Dade Officer Timothy Marchetti tried breaking the driver’s side window with a flashlight. He claimed Valdes appeared to be reaching for something underneath the seat. When he heard a metallic sound, Marchetti fired his gun, killing Valdes.
No firearm was found, although a screwdriver was discovered under the driver’s seat.
“Under the totality of the circumstances that had occurred, that fear was reasonable,” prosecutors wrote last month in ruling the officers were justified in using deadly force.
Another officer, Erica Tirse, also fired her weapon. She declined to speak to detectives.
Valdes, 30, who battled a drug addiction problem, was on probation and had told his probation officer that “he wasn’t going back to jail.”
His mother, Elena Valdes, told the Miami Herald then: “My son did not carry a gun. He did not have any weapons with him. He had a drug problem. I’m not going to say he was the best person in the world, but he didn’t deserve what they did to him. What they did was extremely brutal.”
The death of Carlos Sierra, a robber shot to death in Hialeah, got no publicity.
According to prosecutors, Sierra robbed a Farm Store on the 600 block of West 29th Street on the night of May 3, 2010. He may have wielded a realistic looking black BB gun, later found in his car.
An officer found Sierra, in a blue Nissan Altima, in a nearby parking lot. The cops surrounded the Nissan, yelling in English and Spanish for Sierra to show his hands. The car “began to back out of the parking space” toward the officers, according to a final report.
Officers, through their attorneys, claimed he yelled in Spanish “I’ll kill you, someone is going to die.”
Hialeah officers Nick Lopez, Fernando Carvajal, Robert Iglesias and Ruben Miguel opened fire. “The discharge of weapons by the shooting officers was justified and legal,” prosecutor Sally Weintraub wrote in a final memo.
OTHER POLICE SHOOTINGS
In recent months, Miami-Dade prosecutors also have cleared officers who fired their weapons in killing of four other cases:
▪ Marcus Rogers was shot and killed by Miami-Dade Detective Kelvin Cox in September 2010 as the men grappled over the policeman’s gun inside a Brownsville house, prosecutors said. Cox and other detectives had chased the robbery suspect into the home.
“I feared that he was going to take my gun and use it against me,” Cox told police. The detective is being sued for wrongful death in federal court by the Rogers family.
▪ Catawaba Howard, a mentally ill and suicidal Air Force veteran shot Miami-Dade Police Officer William Vazquez point blank in the chest in August 2011 outside a home in North Miami-Dade. Vazquez and Officer Saul Rodriguez returned fire, killing Howard, 32. Vazquez survived because the round hit his body armor.
▪ Durrall Jessie Miller, 24, shot a Miami-Dade police officer in the foot during a confrontation in April 2011. After a manhunt, prosecutors said, Miller threatened to shoot police with an AK47, reaching in a doorway out of view.
Special Response Team Officers Alain Cruz and Fernando Villa shot and killed Miller. No weapon was found near him, however, but prosecutors justified the use of force saying “he appeared to be reaching for the weapon he threatened to use.”
▪ Luis Nuñez, while “agitated and frantic” in his Hialeah apartment hallway in February 2012, shot a flare gun at officers, hitting one in the arm. Three Hialeah officers — David Morales, Zenen Diaz and Lazaro Guerra — fired their guns, killing Nuñez , 48.
▪ Jonathan Woolfson shot and killed a friend inside a North Miami Beach townhouse in July 2011. After a tense SWAT standoff, the mentally ill Woolfson — who was known to keep a stash of guns in his home — emerged from a bathroom with his hand behind back, spurring officers to fatally shoot him.
However, he was not wielding a gun at that moment. “No one knew what was in his hand,” the memo said in ruling the shooting justified.