Before arrest in civil-rights case, Florida police chief touted perfect crime-solving rate
Five years ago, Biscayne Park Police Chief Raimundo Atesiano bragged to the town’s leaders about his department’s exceptional 100 percent clearance rate on burglaries in the tree-lined suburb north of Miami.
On Friday, however, Atesiano admitted his own criminal behavior was behind the boast to the village commission: He acknowledged at his plea hearing in Miami federal court that he directed three of his police officers to pin a series of unsolved home and vehicle break-ins on three innocent men to perfect the force’s property crimes record.
Atesiano, 52, pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge of depriving the three suspects of their civil rights because he and the officers framed them. Although race was not a factor in the federal case against the former police chief, the three wrongly arrested men are black.
Atesiano’s conspiracy conviction carries up to 10 years in prison, though the ex-chief is expected to get far less time. Two other rights violations carrying up to one year each will be dismissed.
His defense attorney, Richard Docobo, who negotiated the plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, declined to comment. His client’s change of plea came just days before he was to face trial on Monday in Miami federal court. Prosecutors were preparing to introduce evidence of three other prior false arrests by Atesiano when he was a Biscayne Park officer. He resigned from the force in 2014 and previously worked as an officer for Sunny Isles Beach, Hialeah and Miami-Dade County Corrections.
Atesiano’s sentencing is Nov. 27 before U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore. He faces between 2 and 2 1/2 years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines. The U.S. Attorney’s Office agreed to recommend two years under Atesiano’s plea agreement, though the final decision is up to the judge.
Federal authorities condemned Atesiano’s misconduct.
“The vast majority of law enforcement officers across the nation serve our communities with honor and integrity,” U.S. Attorney Benjamin Greenberg said in a statement. “We will not allow the minority of officers who cast aside their oaths to tarnish the reputation of those who protect us all.”
Atesiano’s admission of guilt closes an ugly chapter on the town’s recent history, where allegations of racism tainted the police department’s culture of law enforcement in the mostly white community. Village leaders, including Police Chief Luis Cabrera, a former veteran officer in Miami, say they have overhauled the department to ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself.
Over the summer, three former Biscayne Park police officers who had worked under Atesiano while he was the chief in 2013 and 2014 pleaded guilty to civil rights violations stemming from the false arrests of the three suspects. All three ex-cops cooperated with the FBI and federal prosecutors in the hope of reducing their prison time, putting pressure on Atesiano to cut his own deal rather than face a jury trial.
In August, Officers Charlie Dayoub, 38, and Raul Fernandez, 62, pleaded guilty that they falsified the arrest affidavits for a 16-year-old black suspect for four unsolved break-ins in June 2013, a month before then-police chief Atesiano touted the town’s 100 percent burglary clearance record at a village commission meeting.
Atesiano told the two officers that he wanted them to unlawfully arrest T.D., the teen, for the residential burglaries “knowing that there was no evidence that T.D. had committed the burglaries,” according to the indictment charging all three former officers. The charges against the teen were eventually dropped after the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office noticed the four arrest affidavits, written by Fernandez and signed by Dayoub, all used similar vague language — that the “investigation revealed” T.D. employed the same “M.O.” and the homes had a “rear door pried open.”
Earlier this summer, a third Biscayne Park police officer admitted falsifying arrest warrants for two men at the direction of Atesiano during 2013 and 2014. Those men were in their 30s at the time.
Guillermo Ravelo pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge that he violated the rights of the two falsely accused men.
In January 2013, Atesiano ordered Dayoub and Ravelo to arrest Clarence Desrouleaux on charges of breaking into a pair of homes in Biscayne Park, according to a factual statement filed with the ex-chief’s plea agreement. Atesiano told the officers to take Desrouleaux into custody because “there was reliable information that [he] had forged and cashed a check stolen during the course of” a third home burglary, according to the statement. Then, “Atesiano told the officers to make the arrests for the two additional burglaries, despite knowing that there was no evidence that [Desrouleaux] committed the burglaries” at the two homes, the statement said.
Desrouleaux, 35, ended up getting sentenced to five years in prison and deported to Haiti. In light of new evidence about his false arrest, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office threw out his wrongful conviction.
Also, 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 said 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,” according to court records.
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.
The admissions of the three Biscayne Park officers to the false police arrests magnified the evidence against Atesiano, exposing not only his leading role in the civil-rights conspiracy but also his lies to the town’s leaders. The police department reported clearing 29 of 30 burglary cases during Atesiano’s tenure as chief, but now that seemingly outstanding record has been refuted by the fact that at least 11 of those cases were based on false arrest reports, according to federal authorities.
“As chief of police for the Village of Biscayne Park, [Atesiano] caused and encouraged officers to arrest persons without a legal basis in order to have arrests effectuated for all reported burglaries,” said the indictment filed by federal prosecutor Harry Wallace, with assistance from the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. “The existence of this fictitious 100% clearance rate of reported burglaries was used by [him] to gain favor with elected officials and concerned citizens.”
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.
In the continuing fallout from the scandal, Miami-Dade prosecutors said they will review old criminal arrests in Biscayne Park during Atesiano’s tenure in 2013-2014.