A group of Miami-Dade police officers will not face criminal charges in a botched, bloody 2011 sting in the Redland that killed four armed robbers in a hail of bullets — including a law enforcement informant who had surrendered and was lying on the ground.
But in a stinging 40-page final report released Thursday night, the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office also stopped short of ruling that most of the members of the department’s Special Response Team were “justified” in gunning down the band of armed robbers at the South Miami-Dade rural property.
Prosecutors branded many decisions of the officers that chaotic June night “unusual, counter-intuitive, suspicious … disturbing,” and pointed out severe flaws in the police operations.
Miami-Dade police detectives, working with an informant within the gang, had tricked the men into believing there was a sizable marijuana stash inside a home on the 18900 block of Southwest 216th St. The investigation into the gang was set up by the Miami-Dade robbery bureau’s Street Terror Offender Program, known as STOP, a group that targets violent career criminals.
With incomplete narratives of what happened — only four of the 11 officers who opened fire gave statements to investigators — prosecutors ruled they could not disprove claims that the officers had acted in in self-defense.
In making the decision to not file charges, prosecutors pointed out that an appeals court long ago ruled that the violation of police procedures or training is not admissible as evidence in a criminal case. That decision came in the last case charged by Florida prosecutors of an officer who fired in the line of duty: William Lozano, who ultimately was acquitted of the 1989 killing of a fleeing black motorcyclist that ignited three days of racially charged rioting in Miami.
Prosecutors noted that many of the officers in the Redland operation were themselves nervous about a plan that took place in the dark in a rural area, where the possibility of dangerous crossfire was great and did not account for the possibility that the informant might have tagged along.
One Miami-Dade officer “testified that this operation was the most frightening he had ever been on. He said the level of fear was generated by the fact that he could not tell who was firing or from where.”
The families of the dead in the Redland shooting have filed federal wrongful death lawsuits against more than a dozen officers involved in the sting.
The suits allege that none of the would-be robbers fired their weapons and that all were killed while trying to flee. The lawsuits also claim that the men also did not know the SRT officers were police, instead believing they were the occupants of the house.
“The prosecutors’ report is very telling and we think there is going to be a lot more evidence in the civil case that will show this was a police operation that went incredibly wrong,” said Miami lawyer Justin Leto, who represents families of two of the slain men.
Coral Gables lawyer Edward Nicklaus, who represents eight of the Miami-Dade officers, called the dead men “armed dangerous criminals.”
“I would say the citizens of this community are safer because these officers acted bravely in performing their duties,” Nicklaus said. “Instead of criticism, these officers should be decorated for bravery.”
Miami-Dade detectives had been tracking the crew of alleged ringleader Roger Gonzalez-Valdez, believe responsible for over a dozen violent robberies and brutal tortures.
The informant, Rosendo Betancourt, 39, who had been released from prison seven months before the shooting, claimed he came forward to help police because he was concerned about the gang’s savage tactics. He also owed the group money. Detectives later learned he might have been an active participant in the rip-offs.
The men took off in a Cadillac SUV, which had been secretly outfitted with a police audio recorder. Wearing masks, gloves and toting guns, the men cut through a fence onto the property when the police confronted them.
The robbers scattered before police flood lights flashed on. Exactly what spooked them remained unclear, although at one point, a police vehicle hit a fence that had remained locked, though it was supposed to be open.
In killing Gonzalez-Valdez, police opened fire as the man lay curled up in the fetal position under a tree, the report said. One officer told investigators that he believed the man was reaching for a weapon, though the investigation revealed he had ditched or dropped the gun moments before.
More than 50 rounds were fired at Gonzalez-Valdez. Over a dozen bullets tore into him. Prosecutors called the infrared video, filmed by police aviation units, of the killing “disturbing” and noted that officers gave one cohort “fist bumps to the chest.”
Prosecutors found it “difficult to comprehend why four officers, over a time span of approximately 10 seconds, fired in excess of 50 rounds, at someone laying just a few feet in front of them.”
Officers also moved his body afterward. A black hand-held radio was found by his hand, although prosecutors noted they could not say if he reached for the device or if someone had placed it by his body afterward.
In the case of the informant, Betancourt, prosecutors called his death “greatly disturbing.”
In the lead-up to the operation, robbery detectives monitoring the wired-up Escalade expressed concern that the informant was being pressured to go on the raid. But the SRT officers never heeded the warnings.
Police aviation surveillance video later showed he accompanied the group but when the chaos erupted, he had already surrendered and was on the ground on his stomach, the report said.
However, Sgt. Manuel Malgor ordered him to roll over on his back, and he claimed Betancourt appeared to reach for a pistol in his waistband. The footage did not capture the actual shooting, meaning prosecutors could not disprove the sergeant’s story, even though they questioned why he did not just handcuff Betancourt as he lay on his stomach.
Also killed: robbers Jorge Lemus, 39 and Antonio Andrew, 36. Gonzalez-Valdez’s son, Roger Valdez Jr., was in the getaway SUV and charged federally; he was sentenced to more than 27 years in prison.
Prosecutors did rule Lemus’ shooting “justified.” Sgt. Jose Gonzalez felled him after he refused to drop his weapon or surrender, a shooting captured on aerial surveillance.
Andrew was shot and killed as he appeared to be trying to head toward an escape through a hole in the fence. Miami-Dade Sgt. Humberto Perez told police he reached toward his waistband — although prosecutors noted Perez shouted “contradictory” orders: “don’t move your hands,” and “let me see your hands under your waistband.”
Prosecutors also noted other inconsistencies in the shooting that suggest police might have tried to explain away the bloodshed afterward.
At least six of them had testified that they heard an “accidental discharge,” which might have spurred the gunfire. But an analysis of audio recordings of the shooting led prosecutor to conclude “definitely” that no accidental gunfire took place.