In Depth

April 4, 2013

Radio dispatches at odds with cop’s account of I-95 chase

The officer involved in Wednesday’s fatal wrong-way crash has a sometimes troubled past, and radio dispatches seem to undermine his account of what happened.

“We’re now going northbound in the southbound lanes,’’ Cpl. Sergio Perez tells dispatchers, his voice rising as a siren wails in the background.

Moments later, he is heard uttering “Oh, my god.” The SUV he had been pursuing had crashed head-on into a minivan, killing four people and leaving a trail of engine parts and debris scattered across Interstate 95 under a post-midnight half moon.

The brief recording of his dispatches before Wednesday’s grisly wrong-way crash sheds fresh light on what happened just after 1 a.m. Wednesday on I-95 slightly north of Ives Dairy Road.

It was Willie Dumel, not Perez, who made the fateful decision to flee north in the southbound lanes. What’s at issue is whether Perez truly did, as his department insists, discontinue the pursuit when Dumel entered I-95 heading in the wrong direction, hurtling toward oncoming traffic.

The victims of the ensuing crash were identified Thursday. They include three tourists and a 26-year-old Fort Lauderdale woman.

Perez, 26, who engaged in the pursuit after witnessing what he said in his report was a minor traffic infraction, has had a bumpy career. He was fired from Miami Shores Police Department, kicked out of the police academy and, as a recruit, arrested for causing a nasty crash while drag-racing off duty.

Questions have also been raised about his decision to initiate the pursuit, and to continue it well beyond Opa-locka’s jurisdiction.

The department’s own pursuit policy prohibits officers from continuing a chase that goes against the flow of traffic. In addition, Opa-locka’s policy allows pursuits only in the case of serious felonies such as murder, rape and robberies.

A copy of the police report, briefly viewed by The Miami Herald but not yet formally released, indicated that Perez attempted to pull over the SUV at Northwest 22nd Avenue and 144th Street in Opa-locka for what the report calls “an improper right turn.’’

Dumel sped off, hopping onto the interstate at the Golden Glades interchange, going the proper direction. Perez told dispatchers that the suspect was northbound and driving recklessly.

Dumel exited at Ives Dairy Road, then suddenly turned right and headed down the southbound exit ramp, going north.

Perez, Opa-locka City Manager David Chiverton reiterated Thursday, “cut off the pursuit and did not follow northbound the wrong way.”

But radio transmissions appear to tell a different story.

During most of the pursuit, there is no urgency in Perez’s voice and no sound of a siren in the background. Perez never mentions the reason for the pursuit or any traffic infraction, although he describes the occupant or occupants of the SUV as “a possible 29,’’ indicating robbery suspect.

But minutes into the radio dispatches, Perez’s voice sounds alarmed.

“This guy is all over the road,’’ Perez says, his siren now audible in the background. “Now he’s going against traffic on I-95. We’re going northbound in the southbound lanes.”

He then adds: “The subject threw a 55 out the window. I don’t know when though … Oh my god …’’ The 55 is a reference to a firearm, which police said they recovered.

Seconds later, Perez announces he has the suspect in custody at gunpoint. He then asks for assistance to help victims trapped in the minivan, crumpled in a heap a few yards away.

The Florida Highway Patrol identified the victims as Dennis Ryan Rinon Ortiz, 33, of California; Albertson Anthony Almase, 31, of Fort Lauderdale; Kristina A. Almase, 26, of Fort Lauderdale; and Lily Marie Azarcon, 26, of the Philippines.

Albertson Almase, a petty officer 2nd class in the U.S. Navy, was stationed in San Diego. His sister Kristina had just gotten married and was the mother of a young girl.

Dumel was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood for treatment of two broken legs. He faces four counts of vehicular homicide.

Opa-locka and FHP continue to investigate the pursuit.

Perez has been placed on administrative leave. According to his personnel files, he began his law enforcement career as a police explorer in Miami Beach. He twice failed the police entrance exam before being hired by Miami Shores in October 2006 as a recruit.

But just two months into his training, he crashed his car into another vehicle on I-95 while drag-racing at speeds in excess of 110 miles per hour, according to the FHP report. A city of Miami police detective witnessed the race, the report said. Perez, who was off duty, was taken into custody on reckless driving charges. It’s not clear from the report whether he was driving a patrol car or his personal vehicle.

But he was fired the following day and kicked out of the police academy.

He applied to Opa-locka a month later, noting on his application that the reason for leaving Miami Shores was because he “received a criminal traffic citation.’’

Opa-locka hired him a year later, in March 2008. There is no indication in his personnel file that the city conducted a background check or investigated why he left Miami Shores.

A month later, he was given a “post-accident substance control test,’’ which he passed. It’s not clear why the test was administered, since there is no accident report in his file.

In October 2009, a woman filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging that Perez punched her in the head with such force that surgeons had to reconstruct her face by inserting a metal plate. Included in the lawsuit is a copy of the surgeon’s report from Jackson Memorial Hospital, detailing the severity of her injuries.

Perez contended that the woman struck him in the chest and continued fighting with him as he was trying to arrest her. He said he used his police baton to subdue her and finally she struck her face on a “TV shelf,” which caused her injuries. She was not transported to the hospital.

During this time, Perez’s file indicates he received nearly 20 commendations for arresting robbers, writing 16 traffic tickets and making three arrests in one night, participating in a joint narcotics sweep, and collaring various people suspected of murder, armed robbery, carjackings and drug dealing. He was promoted to corporal last year.

At the same time, complaints were filed against him for beating up a sexual assault suspect who was able to take off in his squad car, and inserting his handgun into a juvenile’s mouth.

In the first case, he allegedly bragged to fellow officers about the beating. Later blood was found on his police radio.

In the second, a video surveillance tape shows Perez leading a young suspect away from cameras, into a hallway. The suspect is led back into the holding room at the police station a short time later, then doubles over and collapses on the floor.

The young man later told authorities that Perez had beaten him and placed a gun in his mouth.

Those complaints were referred to the state attorney’s office, but were dismissed.

Chiverton Thursday declined to release the police report.

When asked whether the dispatch tapes seemed to contradict the corporal’s story, Chiverton declined to comment. He said he had not listened to the tapes.

Miami Herald staff writers Elinor J. Brecher and Carol Rosenberg contributed to this story.

If you knew Tina or Albertson Almase, Lily Marie Azarcon or Dennis Ryan Pinon Ortiz, we’d like to talk with you. Please call 305-332-1634.

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