In late March 2011, New Yorker Jesse Campodonico and his girlfriend flew down to Miami for a wild weekend at the Ultra Music Festival at Bicentennial Park — but they never got past the entrance.
A private security guard stopped them because the girlfriend, Crystal Iglesias, was holding a glow stick in her hand.
Within seconds, Miami police officer Nathaniel Dauphin told the couple that Iglesias couldn’t enter, setting off a violent confrontation between Campodonico and a group of Miami police officers working an off-duty detail at the electronic music fest.
He claims the officers beat him up, choked him, threw him to the ground and tasered him three times — the last time directly into his back while he was lying face down — according to a lawsuit filed in Miami federal court.
All over a glow stick, which is as common to the Ultra Fest as a kid bringing a baseball mitt to a ballgame.
Campodonico, who was charged with battery but eventually cleared, claims Dauphin and fellow officers Harold James, Edward Lugo and Javier Ortiz brutalized him and that Ortiz, a sergeant, lied on an internal report to justify the arrest and use of force.
“There was nothing I could do but try to survive,” Campodonico, a buff, 27-year-old fitness trainer, told The Miami Herald. “I was trying to cover myself. There was no fighting back. It was just me trying to protect myself from them killing me.”
But the officers gave an entirely different account, stating in an internal report that Campodonico punched, bit and kicked them while officer James tasered Campodonico to subdue him.
What sets Campodonico’s police brutality lawsuit apart from others is that Dauphin and James were recently revealed to be dirty cops, after being caught up in an FBI undercover investigation. Both officers pleaded guilty to extortion charges after admitting they took cash payments in exchange for providing protection for a Liberty City sports-betting ring in Dauphin’s case, and a check-cashing store, in James’s case.
As for Ortiz, a sergeant, he was recently elected president of the Fraternal Order of Police union after serving as its vice president.
A bystander video-recorded the Ultra Music confrontation on March 25, 2011, the first night of the weekend event, on a cell phone and posted it on the Internet. The video is dark and distant, and doesn’t capture the entire event, making it difficult to see how the confrontation started and exactly what transpired. It does show an officer tasering Campodonico while he was face-down and his body inches from the ground.
On the video, audio captured a man criticizing the officers’ actions. He can be heard saying, “That’s f---ed up. That’s f---ed up.” A school teacher standing nearby yelled, “They’re going to kill him,” before she rushed in to help Campodonico, according to her deposition in the state battery case.
Ortiz and Lugo deny any misconduct, saying through their FOP attorney that the suit is “nonsense.”
“It costs $300 to file a lawsuit,” FOP attorney Ronald Cohen said. “But it takes evidence to prove it. We look forward to complete vindication for these fine officers.”
Dauphin and James, who are both free while awaiting sentencing, could not be reached for comment. The city of Miami, also a defendant in the civil suit, declined to comment in an email.
A prosecutor for the Miami-Dade state attorney’s office dropped the charges against Campodonico, after concluding the video showed he was defenseless while being tasered. The prosecutor’s findings jibe with many of the assertions in Campodonico’s suit.
“Although of poor quality (i.e., dark and relatively distant), it does show the defendant on the ground when the zaps of the Taser are heard,” Assistant State Attorney Cristina Rivera wrote in a March closeout memo.
She also noted that the police officers’ sworn depositions in the criminal case were “inconsistent” with their statements in the internal report, written by Ortiz.
For example, the prosecutor found that in a deposition, officer Lugo said he did not see Campodonico punch Dauphin, yet in Ortiz’s report Lugo said he saw the defendant punch Dauphin in the chest. Also in his deposition, Lugo said he didn’t hear James warn Campodonico, “Taser discharge!” Yet in Ortiz’s report, Lugo said he did hear James yell that out.
“I subpoenaed all officers, including Sgt. Ortiz, to my office on at least three separate occasions; each time, each officer failed to appear,” Rivera wrote. “I finally got a hold of Sgt. Ortiz via phone and spoke to him about the discrepancies and the futileness in attempting to correct them at trial.”
She further noted that Campodonico’s criminal defense attorney, Scott Srebnick, was “so bothered by the circumstances surrounding this case” that he contacted prosecutor Jose Arrojo, a senior aide to State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, via email “to suggest taking actions against the officers involved.”
Srebnick said the state attorney’s office confirmed receiving his email, but never got back to him. A spokeswoman for the office did not answer a reporter’s question about what action, if any, Arrojo took.
Srebnick filed suit in November against the officers along with the city of Miami, alleging excessive force, battery, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and negligence. He is seeking unspecified damages.
“Ortiz fabricated the police statements after taking one from all seven cops at the scene that night,” Srebnick asserted in an interview. “He doctored them all to sound alike.’’
Srebnick called Ortiz’s official account — a “response to resistance” report required by the police department because a Taser was deployed — a “cover-up.”
In the suit, Srebnick asserted the city was well aware that all four officers named as defendants had a history of complaints, including being investigated for alleged excessive force by either internal affairs or the city’s Civilian Investigative Panel, an oversight agency. The CIP had placed all of the officers but James on its “monitoring list,” according to the suit.
Cohen, the attorney for Ortiz and Lugo, said the officers were simply trying to restrain a violent person who assaulted them.
“Force was used in subduing Mr. Campodonico, but the only force that was used was that which was necessary to place Mr. Campodonico under arrest,” Cohen said. “Several officers were injured during the course of the arrest, including Sgt. Ortiz.”
No complaints of abusive treatment or false arrest have ever been sustained against Ortiz and Lugo, he added.
Campodonico and his attorney say they don’t put a lot of faith in police disciplinary reviews, particularly when it comes to Ortiz, because he is the union president.
Photographs taken after the confrontation by a Miami police crime-scene investigator show Campodonico sustained blows to his face, along with cuts on his hairline, back, knees and elbow.
“Once they had me in cuffs, they walked me away” to a makeshift police unit near the entrance to the music festival off Biscayne Boulevard, said Campodonico, whose girlfriend was also charged but eventually cleared. “They threw me to the floor and hit me. They said, ‘Welcome to Miami, bitch.’ ’’
“It’s about time someone called them on it,” he said. “They need to learn a lesson so it doesn’t happen again.”