Former Miss Miami Lakes suing Hialeah police for false arrest
Vanessa Barcelo is a former beauty pageant queen with twin titles from Miami Lakes and Hialeah, but she was even prouder of her entrepreneurial success. She says she worked hard to carve out her own custom cake business, creating works of frosted art for weddings and birthday parties, and marketing her products online.
But over the last two years, she says, life has not been so sweet. The Internet just can’t forget her notorious baseball bat incident.
The former Miss Miami Lakes was arrested by Hialeah police during her own “ugly Christmas sweater” party, accused of walloping a guest in the face with a blue Nike aluminum softball bat. The 2016 story, as told in police records, went viral along with a mugshot of her in a tacky snowman sweater.
Ever since, Barcelo says, she has been deluged with snide comments on her Instagram, Facebook and YouTube pages, and her cake business has crumbled. “If your cake come out bad, do you take a baseball bat out and hit it also? Lol,” reads one post.
Now, her attorney has filed a notice of intention to sue the city of Hialeah, the police department and the officer that arrested her, saying the cops violated her civil rights and put out the wrong story, ruining her reputation and harming her business. Barcelo suffered a “loss of employment opportunities, mental anguish, mental suffering, humiliation, shame, destruction of reputation and fright,” according to the notice.
She never actually hit anyone with the bat, she and witnesses testified during a “Stand Your Ground” hearing in July, but merely pointed it at a drunken partygoer she believed was trying to assault her drunk cousin in an upstairs bedroom. Prosecutors agreed and dropped the most serious charges. And a Miami judge ruled she acted in self-defense when she slapped the man on her own property. tossing the remaining misdemeanor count.
“People still think I hit him with a bat,” Barcelo said. “People think I got away with hitting him with the bat.”
Her lawyer, James DeMiles, recently filed the notice of intent to sue the city, police department and Officer Nicholas Lopez. Under Florida law, Barcelo must wait six months to file the actual federal lawsuit. A Hialeah police spokesman, and city officials, did not return requests for comment.
Cops are generally immune from lawsuits stemming from arrests. But Barcelo’s legal team is relying on a novel approach, relying on the language of Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law, which mandates that cops determine “probable cause that the force that was used or threatened was unlawful.”
According to the notice, Lopez conducted a “grossly negligent and/or reckless investigation that amounted to no investigation at all.”
“Had he done what he was obligated to do, this woman’s life wouldn’t have been ruined,” DeMiles said.
There’s irony in the lawsuit for Barcelo, 28, a graduate of Barbara Goleman High who grew up in Hialeah. At the time of her arrest in December 2016, she was the reigning Miss Miami Lakes, the surburban town bordering Hialeah. Several months after her arrest, an independent beauty pageant still selected Barcelo as Miss Hialeah — although she says the city never invited her to any official events.
“I am very proud to be from the city of Hialeah,” said Barcelo, a former high school softball player who began her baking company, One Love Cakes, about six years ago. “I am very proud to be part of the new and upcoming Hialeah.”
On the night of Dec. 21, 2016, Barcelo hosted the holiday house party at her townhome to promote her company. She invited friends, family and neighbors — as well as Dave Duperon, a Power 96 radio DJ she knew through a friend. Barcelo said when he arrived late that night, he began acting obnoxious, pushing shots of liquor on people.
Her 26-year-old cousin got so drunk she passed out on the living room couch. According to witnesses who testified during Barcelo’s self-defense immunity hearing in July, Duperon tried taking her into a first-floor bathroom — but Barcelo returned her to the couch.
Moments later, witnesses testified, Duperon lifted the woman across this shoulder and took her upstairs to the master bedroom. Barcelo rushed upstairs to find Duperon taking her shirt off, later claiming he was only trying to put her in the shower. She intervened, put clothes on the woman and ran downstairs to get two friends to help. They returned to find the door locked. Witnesses testified they banged on the door until he finally opened it to reveal the drunk woman sprawled out on the floor.
“Her pants were off and she was laying flat on the floor,” Barcelo said. “She was not awake ... I knew exactly what he was trying to do.”
Duperon later insisted he did nothing wrong. He has never faced criminal charges in the incident. “Never touched her, never took off her clothes, never did anything inappropriate with her,” Duperon told WTVJ-NBC6. “This is somebody that I thought I was helping out, a friend. I was intoxicated. I tried to do something right and it backfired on me.”
The group demanded Duperon leave. That’s when the ruckus broke out. Duperon began cursing and yelling at Barcelo and two of her friends as he made his way downstairs, witnesses told the judge.
“Mr. Duperon became irate, hurling threats, insults and consistently refusing to leave the home,” Miami-Dade County Judge Michelle Alvarez Barakat wrote in her order dismissing the misdemeanor case. “This was witnessed by many party goers.”
During the shouting, Barcelo grabbed the softball bat from a closet and pointed it at him. “I told him, ‘Get out,’” Barcelo said.
Witnesses testified that Duperon grabbed the baseball bat from her, went outside and began swinging it wildly toward the crowd. A security guard arrived and took the bat from him. One of Barcelo’s male friends then punched Duperon in the face, knocking him to the ground. As he began to get up, Barcelo slapped him in the face.
The judge said Barcelo was justified in believing that Duperon might “continue escalating the situation” and threaten her or others.
“Mr. Duperon suffered facial injuries that night, however, they were caused by his own actions and not those of the defendant, who merely and repeatedly asked that he leave the party and her home,” the judge wrote in her order.
Duperon, his eye bloodied and swollen from the male friend’s punch, called 911. Officer Lopez arrived and listened to his account. As for Barcelo, she “began to cry and begged to tell her story,” according to the notice of intent to sue.
Barcelo claims that the cop refused to listen, arresting her as she anxiously walked back into the townhome to get a cup of water.
She was charged with felony aggravated assault, felony aggravated battery and misdemeanor battery. The arrest report would turn out to be wrong. It claimed he “was struck with the bat” and suggested that Barcelo was the one who punched him in the eye, causing him to fall.
After interviewing eyewitnesses, the Miami-Dade County Attorney’s Office concluded she never hit him with the bat and dropped the two felony charges. Prosecutors pressed forward on the misdemeanor battery charge, which was dismissed by the judge after a nine-hour hearing in July.
Still, the narrative of Barcelo beating up a man with a baseball bat persists.
As words of her arrest spread, her cake business sputtered and she decided to attend paramedic training.
“I was basically the class joke,” she recalled. On a recent road trip, a friend of her child cousin Googled her name and began taunting her about the arrest. Online, the story of her case appears on dozens of news websites and niche crime sites such as CaseyAnthony.com (“Where Bad Girls Go Really Bad”), named after the infamous mother acquitted of murdering her daughter.
Barcelo’s story is also included on an Internet video called “Innocent Looking People You Don’t Want as Neighbours,” on the popular YouTube page The Richest. “This beauty was hosting a holiday party, and apparently her holiday traditions include beating people with baseball bats,” one caption says.
The video has been viewed more than 2.5 million times.
Said Barcelo: “People like to see people fall.”