Before arrest in civil-rights case, Florida police chief touted perfect crime-solving rate
By helping the feds make a case against a corrupt ex-Biscayne Park police chief, two convicted former officers were hoping to avoid prison time for their roles in framing a black teenager with a string of burglaries.
Instead, Charlie Dayoub and Raul Fernandez were handcuffed and led by U.S. Marshals into custody on Tuesday after U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore sentenced them to the maximum: one year in prison for the false arrests.
As family members cried in disbelief, Moore chastised federal prosecutors for agreeing to recommend eight months of home confinement for Dayoub and one year of probation for Fernandez based on their grand jury testimony and other assistance in helping target former Chief Raimundo Atesiano, who had pressured officers in the mostly white suburban town to pin property crimes on people of color. He pleaded guilty last month.
“It would have been a slap on the wrist, and it would have sent entirely the wrong message — particularly to the minority community,” Moore told Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Wallace. “To think that they can come into court and get a slap on the wrist is insulting to the men and women in law enforcement.”
Moore challenged the prosecutor about his recommendation of leniency for the two defendants, who pleaded guilty in August to depriving a 16-year-old of his civil rights after framing him for four unsolved burglaries in 2013 at the direction of the ex-chief, Atesiano. The misdemeanor conviction carried up to one year in prison, while under the plea agreement prosecutors dropped a more serious civil rights conspiracy charge with a maximum 10-year sentence.
Wallace said his decision allowed the U.S. Attorney’s Office to use testimony by Dayoub and Fernandez to compel Atesiano to plead guilty to the felony civil rights conspiracy. “We were faced with a Hobson’s choice,” Wallace told the judge.
But Moore, who accused the prosecutors of “sentencing manipulation,” rejected Wallace’s argument. The judge said had the prosecutors gone to trial against the ex-chief and the two officers, it would have been a “slam dunk.”
The sentencing outcome was a shock to everyone in the courtroom, especially the defendants, who were expecting leniency because the prosecutors joined their defense attorneys in support of no prison time.
The reason: The two former Biscayne Park police officers testified before a federal grand jury about how the department’s ex-chief pressured them to arrest people of color and others for crimes they did not commit in the leafy bedroom community north of Miami.
Dayoub, 38, and Fernandez, 62, testified that Atesiano’s goal was to achieve a 100 percent burglary clearance rate, even if it meant pinning unsolved break-ins on people who were innocent victims, according to newly filed court records.
Atesiano, 52, and another former Biscayne Park officer, Guillermo Ravelo, 37, already pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate the civil rights of innocent victims by falsely arresting them. Ravelo faces up to 10 years at his sentencing on Thursday, while Atesiano faces similar punishment in November.
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 — though the federal investigation did not identify any of the arrest victims as black. In a 2014 Biscayne Park report, 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.
This summer, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office launched an investigation into potentially dozens of criminal arrests during Atesiano’s tenure that have been called into question by the federal probe.
In August, Dayoub and Fernandez admitted they falsified arrest affidavits for the black teenage suspect identified as “T.D.” for the four unsolved residential break-ins in June 2013, a month before Atesiano touted the town’s 100 percent burglary clearance record at a village commission meeting.
Fernandez, a 30-year law enforcement veteran in South Florida, was particularly candid in court papers about a “culture of fear and reprisal” created by Atesiano while he was the chief of the dozen-member Biscayne Park police force in 2013 and 2014. Fernandez wrote a letter to the village’s new manager in early 2014 that exposed Atesiano’s misconduct and led to his resignation that year.
“Mr. Fernandez was haunted by what was happening within the Biscayne Park Police Department,” Fernandez’s defense attorney, David Sobel, wrote in a court motion seeking a 12-month probationary sentence. “Atesiano was so focused on having a 100% clearance rate that he was enlisting his officers to make ‘bad’ arrests and to harass people of color who were seen anywhere within the city.”
“Mr. Fernandez detailed to the FBI and United States Attorney’s Office ... how Atesiano, via his underlings, would use a specific code meant to alert officers that a person of color was seen in the city and that they needed to be stopped and confronted,” the defense attorney wrote. “Atesiano would call the train tracks that border the city the ‘badlands’ and was notorious in saying ‘stop them (meaning people of color) at the badlands.’ ”
Dayoub said in a court filing that he made a “poor decision” to follow Atesiano’s direction but also acknowledged “he has nobody to blame but himself.”
“The chief of police was a person who he looked up to for guidance as a senior officer; however in this instance, respect for the law should have come well before any notion of obedience to authority,” Dayoub’s defense attorney, Ana Davide, wrote in the filing.
In June 2013, Atesiano told the two officers that he wanted them to unlawfully arrest T.D. for the four home break-ins “knowing that there was no evidence that T.D. had committed the burglaries,” according to the indictment filed five years later charging all three former officers.
The burglary charges against the teen were eventually dropped after the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office noticed the four arrest affidavits, notarized by Fernandez and signed by Dayoub as the arresting officer, 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.”
Ravelo, the third former Biscayne Park officer implicated in the scandal, admitted he falsified arrest warrants for two men at the direction of the chief. Those men, both in their 30s at the time, were also black.
Ravelo, who was fired from the force earlier this year, pleaded guilty 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. He 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.