The hospital staff wheeled Marco Barrios’ stretcher into the room where his girlfriend lay.
He looked around at all the medical workers and family members, only to notice that they were all watching him.
“How is she doing?” he asked.
“How much do you know?” a nurse responded.
He knew he had been in a car accident. He knew his girlfriend — Andrea Castillo, whom he called Andy — had been in the car with him.
What he didn’t know was that the driver in the other car, the Crown Victoria that Barrios’ Jeep Compass had collided with on Oct. 19, was a Hialeah police detective.
He also didn’t know that police would blame the crash on him, pitting him against his own city’s police department as he denied many of the cop’s claims: that Barrios did not yield the right-of-way at a stop sign, that he and Castillo weren’t wearing their seat belts, that their officer wasn’t speeding.
And he still didn’t know that, just days after her 21st birthday, his girlfriend — the only daughter of newly elected Miami-Dade School Board member Susie Castillo — was now brain-dead.
When Barrios, 23, was brought to see her for the final time, the machines hooked up to Andy were keeping her artificially breathing only so her organs — her corneas, heart, liver, lungs and kidneys — could be donated.
Barrios took his girlfriend’s hand, and sang into her ear.
“Home is wherever I’m with you,” he sang, quoting the Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros song called Home.
Barrios could not go to his girlfriend’s funeral; he was in the hospital with a shattered pelvis, broken clavicle, cracked ribs and collapsed lung. He is home now, and the pamphlets from Castillo’s memorial service are still in his room. He hasn’t brought himself to look at them yet.
Before the crash that sent them to Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center, Barrios and Castillo were getting ready for her birthday celebration at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino outside Hollywood. Castillo had turned 21 the day before.
Barrios wore a new shirt, and Castillo had slipped into the new black dress he had bought her for the occasion. She had on “fancy” heels; her makeup and hair were done, Barrios remembers.
“We were waiting on one of her friends to come meet us up, and we were all going to go in my car,” he said. “So while we were waiting we decided, ‘Let’s go put gas.’ ”
They filled up the tank a few blocks from Barrios’ home, and hopped back into the car with Barrios behind the wheel.
“I remember looking at her, and laughing about something,” he said.
What happened next depends on who is telling the story.
On the day Castillo’s life-support machines were disconnected, Hialeah police held a press conference to say that Barrios ran a stop sign as he pulled out of the U-Gas station at East 49th Street and Ninth Court. They said his car came into the path of Raul Somarriba, a police detective for seven years who was driving an unmarked car. Police said they based their statements on surveillance footage and witnesses.
Hialeah police refused to comment for this article, and have not spoken publicly about the crash since the press conference.
Barrios said witnesses told him that the crash flipped his car three times, and the police crash report states that his Jeep flew into six parked vehicles at a used-car lot next to the gas station. Somarriba’s unmarked police car jumped over a median, according to the crash report.
Somarriba had been involved in two other accidents on the job, both minor, and neither was his fault, according to personnel records. His police department file contains numerous commendations.
Somarriba was the only person airlifted from the scene, while Barrios and Castillo were taken to the hospital by ambulance. Hialeah Fire Department officials have said the way the patients were taken to the hospital didn’t affect their medical outcomes, though family members have questioned that claim.
Surveillance tape from the used-car lot shows a car pulling out of the gas station around the same time as the crash. It is difficult to tell what kind of car is shown. More than 10 seconds later, another security camera shows a car sliding on its roof into parked cars at the lot.
Barrios’ attorney, John E. Leighton, said the lag time between the car leaving the station and the accident is proof that his client obeyed the stop sign just outside the gas station.
Police insisted their detective was not speeding. Lawyers for Barrios’ and Castillo’s families say the damage to the cars suggests otherwise.
Experts said that dozens of calculations go into deducing speed in accidents. Dietrich Jehle is a professor of emergency medicine at the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. He said that speed is not the only thing that can cause cars, especially SUVs, to roll over.
“If you have an edge that trips you, that’s what starts the rollover process. You can be hit not very hard, but it starts the process,” Jehle said.
Everything, including the temperature outside, the weight of the cars, and even whether a driver should have been wearing eyeglasses, needs to be considered when determining what caused a crash, said Tod Burke, a professor of criminal justice at Radford University in Virginia.
“You don’t want to guess at this. This is science. Wait until the evidence comes in,” said Burke, who also is a former Maryland police officer.
Hialeah police have not let the families or their lawyers download what they say is crucial evidence: information stored on each police car’s “black box,” which would record the speed of the cars right before the fatal crash. Barrios’ mother, Maria, said that when an insurance adjuster inspected the Jeep, it had already been moved, and the police would not let the adjuster see it. The insurance payout from the totaled vehicle would help with Barrios’ medical bills, she said.
In response to what they say is Hialeah’s stonewalling, attorneys for the families filed a complaint in Miami-Dade Circuit Court in November asking for evidence to be released. Both families have notified Hialeah that they will sue the city.
The Barrios and Castillo families aren’t fighting only for evidence to be released, but have also begged Hialeah to turn over its investigation to an outside agency to assure the case is handled without bias in favor of its own detective. The department has refused.
“They made these fast statements without doing any research, and they’re all false. So how can I trust them?” Barrios asked.
Among the police claims that Barrios has steadfastly denied: that he wasn’t wearing a seat belt. Jehle, the professor emergency medicine, looked at photos of Barrios’ bruises and was given a description of his injuries. Jehle has conducted studies on seat belt usage and injuries from crashes.
“His injury pattern may well correspond with a belted driver,” Jehle said, but added that it is difficult to tell because Barrios was also hit on the same side as where his injuries are.
Peter Valentin is a former police officer and a lecturer for the Forensic Science Department at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. He read the Hialeah Police Department’s preliminary crash report, and questioned parts of it.
“It seems like they make assumptions as to whose version of events to believe,” he said of the police. “As I look through the report and the photos . . . I see information that argues against the report.”
He said the police report states that Barrios was stopped at the stop sign, but that he didn’t give the right-of-way to the Hialeah detective. Valentin wondered why police marked in the report that they believed Barrios was drinking, that he wasn’t wearing his seat belt, and that he was distracted. The narrative of the police report does not provide any supporting evidence for these assumptions, he said, though that information isn’t always included in an initial police report. Barrios has maintained he had “not one sip” of alcohol before the crash.
Only one witness is listed in the crash report, and that witness did not respond to multiple requests from The Miami Herald to be interviewed for this story.
As the legal battle drags on, Barrios’ family carts him back and forth to doctor’s visits. His time used to be spent at the gym, and working as a manager for Panera Bread, helping the company open stores across South Florida.
While he used to spend hours on his feet, Barrios now can’t get out of a wheelchair. He needs help just to maneuver into and out of the tight doorway of his bedroom. Barrios’ online studies through Valencia College in Orlando are on hold as he awaits more surgeries to repair his pelvis.
His pain is constant. Doctors told him he could expect it to continue for at least a year, Barrios said.
Now, the young man is left to tackle a different kind of pain: the emotional void now that his girlfriend is gone.
“It’s just too much,” he said. “It shouldn’t be like this.”