The federal investigation into a handful of former Biscayne Park police officers accused of framing innocent people widened this week, when another cop was accused of falsifying arrest warrants for two men at the direction of the police chief.
Guillermo Ravelo, who was fired from the force earlier this year, pleaded guilty Thursday in Miami federal court to a conspiracy charge that he violated the rights of the falsely accused men — one charged with a pair of home break-ins in 2013, the other with five vehicle burglaries the following year. The charges against the two men, both black, were eventually dropped.
Ravelo, 37, also pleaded guilty to using excessive force during a Biscayne Park traffic stop in 2013 when he struck a handcuffed suspect in the face with his fist.
Ravelo’s admission to the false police arrests intensifies the spotlight on former Biscayne Park police chief Raimundo Atesiano. The 52-year-old was indicted in June along with two other former police officers, Raul Fernandez and Charlie Dayoub, on a conspiracy charge of pinning four unsolved home burglaries on a 16-year-old so the chief could claim a perfect clearance rate on property crimes in 2013. The teen also was black.
The town reported clearing 29 of 30 burglary cases during Atesiano’s tenure as chief in 2013 and 2014. But now that seemingly stellar record — once touted by Atesiano to town leaders — has been shattered by the reality that at least 11 of those cases were based on false arrest reports, according to federal authorities.
On Friday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Wallace added an additional charge to Atesiano’s civil-rights conspiracy indictment stemming from one of Ravelo’s arrests. Meanwhile, Fernandez and Dayoub plan to change their pleas to guilty at a hearing set for Aug. 3, court records show. Prosecutors say both officers were ordered by Atesiano to frame the teenager by falsifying arrest affidavits.
Fernandez, Dayoub and now Ravelo are all cooperating with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in the case against Atesiano.
Atesiano has strongly denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty as he awaits trial. His defense attorney, Richard Docobo, questioned the integrity of the cops who have flipped for the feds to reduce their potential prison time.
“There is a very good reason why juries are instructed that the testimony of flipped witnesses should be taken with caution,” Docobo said. “Witnesses who hope to gain more favorable treatment in their own cases may have a reason to make a false statement in order to strike a good bargain with the government.”
Biscayne Park’s new police chief and village manager insist they have overhauled the small department in the years since Atesiano resigned amid an investigation of allegations of racial profiling and other issues.
In the aftermath of Atesiano’s indictment in June, the Miami Herald obtained internal public records suggesting that during his tenure as chief, the command staff pressured some Biscayne Park officers into targeting random black people to clear cases.
“If they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries,” one cop said in an internal probe ordered in 2014. “They were basically doing this to have a 100% clearance rate for the city.”
In a report from that probe, four officers — a third of the small force — told an outside investigator they were under marching orders to file the bogus charges to improve the department’s crime stats. While only one officer specifically mentioned targeting blacks, former Biscayne Park village manager Heidi Shafran, who ordered the investigation after receiving a string of letters from disgruntled officers, said the message seemed clear for cops on the street.
“The letters said police were doing a lot of bad things,” Shafran told the Herald. “It said police officers were directed to pick up people of color and blame the crimes on them.”
In February 2014, Atesiano told Ravelo that he wanted him to arrest Erasmus Banmah, 31, for five unsolved vehicle burglaries, despite knowing there was “no evidence” that he had committed the crimes, prosecutors allege in court records. A couple of days later, Ravelo filled out five arrest forms falsely accusing Banmah of the vehicle burglaries at five different street locations in Biscayne Park.
For each of the five burglaries, Ravelo “falsely claimed in an arrest affidavit that [Banmah] had taken him to the site of the respective burglary and confessed to the items that [he] had stolen,” they say.
In January 2013, Atesiano ordered Ravelo to arrest Clarens Desrouleaux, 35, for two unsolved home break-ins. The officer signed two arrest affidavits falsely claiming that Desrouleaux “had confessed to committing the burglary,” prosecutors allege.
On Thursday, Ravelo admitted his wrongdoing in federal court.