Miami-Dade County

Payments to robbers’ families after police killings anger gang’s victims

Relatives of three of the four armed robbers killed by Miami-Dade police in a controversial shooting in Redland have settled their wrongful-death lawsuits against the county for a total of $600,000.

That has infuriated earlier victims of the band of armed robbers — who detectives say committed dozens of home invasions in which children were held at gunpoint and some residents were tortured in gruesome ways.

“I’m outraged that the families of these monsters who terrorized my children are going to be given taxpayer-funded prize money,” said Coral Gables lawyer Keri Lynda Horvat, who was held at gunpoint with her family in December 2010 while her then-husband was tortured.

In another case, a 34-year-old businessman and father of two was beaten, slashed and tied up for six hours as the robbers ransacked his family’s house of valuables worth more than $100,000. At one point, he was blindfolded and lifted up as the robbers threatened to hurl him into the swimming pool.

“What about all the stuff they took from us? It was such a financial setback for us,” said the man, who asked that his name not be published for fear of retaliation. “Their families are getting $200,000 [each], and they were criminals.”

Their outrage adds another twist to the fallout from the June 2011 Miami-Dade police shooting that killed Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr., 52; Jorge Lemus, 39; Antonio Andrew, 36; and Rosendo Betancourt, 39. Betancourt had been working as a confidential informant and helped detectives set up the undercover sting.

Horvat this month filed her own lawsuit against the estates of the dead men, though the suit is likely to fizzle because the two-year legal window to seek damages has long since closed.

Miami-Dade robbery detectives had tricked the men into believing there was a sizable marijuana stash inside a home in the 18900 block of Southwest 216th Street. But the plan to arrest them went awry, and in the dark and confusion, Miami-Dade’s Special Response Team fatally gunned them down — including Betancourt as he lay on the ground.

The state attorney’s office in March declined to bring charges against police, but wrote a scathing report criticizing severe flaws in the operation, and writing that many of the officers’ actions were “unusual, counter-intuitive, suspicious . . . disturbing.”

Miami-Dade’s police director has since criticized the state attorney’s office for revealing in its report a sensitive investigative technique: a wristwatch equipped with an audio recorder worn by the informant. The top cop also called for an investigation into whether prosecutors illegally released aerial video footage of the operation to a local television station.

The county last month settled with the families of Andrew, Lemus and Gonzalez-Valdez, who sued the county and officers in federal court.

But Betancourt’s relatives have so far not accepted a similar settlement. A trial on that case is pending in federal court.

The families of Lemus, Gonzalez-Valdez and Andrew know nothing of the alleged home-invasion robberies, said their lawyer, Justin Leto.

“Certainly, nobody condones that kind of behavior,” Leto said. “Our lawsuit had nothing to do with that; it had to do with police behavior. Anyone who has seen the videos knows these were very brutal killings. The police don’t have the right to be judge, jury and executioner.”

The attorney for the Betancourt family did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

The police investigation began June 10, 2011, when Betancourt walked into the Miami police station to say he had information about the robbery of an 80-year-old man who had been tied up, his house ransacked.

Betancourt claimed he had been a fence for the group led by Gonzalez-Valdez, who had recently gotten out of state prison, where he served 14 years for similar armed robberies. According to police, what followed was a fast-moving investigation by detectives from the Street Terror Offender Program, a robbery unit that targets violent criminals.

Betancourt, working with detectives, lured the robbers to target the county-owned house in Redland. According to police, the plan was for robbery detectives to arrest them outside a nursery not far from the home, where they had planned earlier jobs.

The informant, detectives now believe, owed the group money and was also an active participant in earlier robberies.

But the gang had unexpectedly gone to a cohort’s home not far from the house, forcing the Special Response Team to make the arrests in the dark area outside the home. Police say Betancourt was told repeatedly he was not to go into the house with the group.

But he did, donning all-black clothes and a mask and wielding a weapon, according to authorities. The robbers scattered before police floodlights flashed on.

In killing Gonzalez-Valdez, police fired more than 50 rounds as the man lay curled in the fetal position under a tree. One officer said he believed the man was reaching for a weapon, though the investigation revealed he had ditched or dropped a gun moments earlier.

Betancourt was on the ground as he was shot. However, one sergeant claimed he ordered him to roll over onto his back, and said Betancourt appeared to reach for a pistol in his waistband. Prosecutors called his death “greatly disturbing.”

Versions of the police aerial footage, which were redacted so as not to show the killings themselves, were then released to the media.

Last month, WTVJ-NBC 6, saying prosecutors had accidentally released the footage to them, aired the unredacted video. Prosecutors deny giving up the footage; Florida law prohibits the release of video that shows killings.

Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson, in a July 23 letter, asked Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to allow an “independent, impartial” probe into how the video was released. The matter is still pending, according to her office.

As part of the lawsuits against the county, plaintiffs’ attorneys also had copies of the video. They are prohibited from releasing it under a federal court order.

After the shooting, Miami-Dade detectives said, they positively linked at least 15 robberies to the crew. In one case, the crew sliced open a man’s scrotum. In another, they pounded a man’s toes with a hammer.

Gonzalez-Valdez’s namesake son stayed in an SUV the night of the shootings and was not harmed. He pleaded guilty to federal charges, and is now serving prison time. According to authorities, he confessed that the crew was responsible for dozens of robberies.

In Horvat’s case, she did not find out that Gonzalez-Valdez’s crew was responsible for the robbery until last month, when police told her.

In December 2010, the lawyer was getting her kids ready for bed when masked robbers suddenly appeared, and shoved her into the bedroom. One of the robbers — she believes it was Lemus because of his facial hair — forced her at gunpoint to retrieve jewelry.

She later found out that her husband, from whom she is now divorced, had been a jailhouse snitch years before against Gonzalez-Valdez, who may have targeted their house after his release from prison.

To this day, Horvat said, her 12-year-old son won’t brush his teeth alone because of the trauma of that night.

“I’m not one of these people who had a grow-house or stole their drug money,” Horvat said. “They stole my children’s innocence. This is not about money, this is about injustice.”

For the other victim who asked not to be named, his South Miami-Dade home was actually targeted more than once — he believes through a former family friend who gave his information to Gonzalez-Valdez.

In the first case in 2010, the robbers, clad in black, vests and masks, burst into his house as his kids were watching TV, but were scared off by the house’s security alarm. His family moved to another home.

Several months later, the gang burst in again, hitting him on the head, tying him up until his wrists turned purple from swelling. He said he later recognized Betancourt by his distinctive nose.

“These guys were evil,” the man said. “My son can’t let go of the memories. He starts to cry whenever he hears the house alarm because it reminds him of that night.”