Before arrest in civil-rights case, Florida police chief touted perfect crime-solving rate
Raimundo Atesiano, the former Biscayne Park police chief who directed his officers to frame innocent black men for a series of unsolved burglaries, admitted he wanted to appease community leaders and polish the village’s property crimes record.
Even in a small village of about 3,000 residents, the pressure was just too much, he said.
“When I took the job, I was not prepared,” Atesiano told a federal judge on Tuesday. “I made some very, very bad decisions.”
His apologies did not sway U.S. District Judge K. Michael Moore, who on Tuesday sentenced the 53-year-old former cop to three years in prison. He allowed Atesiano to remain free for two weeks before surrendering so he can care for his mother, who is dying of leukemia.
In September, Atesiano pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge of depriving the three suspects of their civil rights because he and the officers charged them without a legal basis. Atesiano’s conspiracy conviction carried up to 10 years in prison.
Atesiano resigned from the Biscayne Park force in 2014 and previously worked as an officer for Sunny Isles Beach, Hialeah and Miami-Dade County Corrections.
Atesiano’s sentencing ended an ugly chapter in Biscayne Park’s recent history, where allegations of racism — the three men falsely charged are black — 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 reformed the department.
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 prosecutors Harry Wallace, Donald Tunnage and Trent Reichling in the hope of reducing their prison time.
In August, Officers Charlie Dayoub, 38, and Raul Fernandez, 62, pleaded guilty to falsifying the arrest affidavits for a 16-year-old black suspect for four unsolved break-ins in June 2013. That was just a month before then-police chief Atesiano touted the town’s 100 percent burglary clearance record at a village commission meeting. In October, Judge Moore sent each to prison for a maximum one-year term.
The charges against the teen were eventually dropped after the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office noticed the four arrest affidavits 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.”
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 black men. and used excessive force on a Hispanic man during a traffic stop. A different federal judge, Cecilia Altonaga, sentenced Ravelo, 37, to two years and three months in prison.
In January 2013, Atesiano ordered Ravelo and Dayoub 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.
Desrouleaux, 35, pleaded guilty and ended up getting sentenced to five years in prison. He was 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.
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 at least 11 of those cases were based on false arrest reports, according to federal authorities.
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 are reviewing old criminal arrests in Biscayne Park during Atesiano’s tenure in 2013-2014. The Miami-Dade Public Defender’s office has been examining scores of cases going back to 2010, when Atesiano was a patrol cop there, hoping to clear records of anyone who was wrongfully arrested.
“He fabricated evidence. He damaged lives. Even before he was chief, Atesiano issued 2,200 traffic tickets himself in one year, fabricated cases, and wrongfully arrested innocent individuals,” Miami-Dade Public Defender Carlos Martinez said. “He created a culture of corruption that has further eroded public trust in the criminal justice system. Just as appalling is the damage Atesiano has done to law-abiding, hardworking, police officers and chiefs.”
Atesiano was not charged with violating anyone’s civil rights because of their race. His lawyers called into question “any notion that random people were targeted for arrests or that race played any factor in the arrests of any individuals.”
“Quite the contrary,” Atesiano’s defense attorney Richard Docobo wrote in court papers seeking a two-year prison sentence. He said the three men falsely arrested in 2013 and 2014 had a history of criminal activity in the suburban town north of Miami.
“They were no saints,” Dacobo told the judge on Tuesday.
The judge still gave Atesiano 36 months in prison — three more than what the government had asked for.