Miami-Dade County

Cop shoots homeless man wielding pipe at Overtown park

The scene at Northwest Third Avenue and 13th Street on Thursday, June 11, 2015.
The scene at Northwest Third Avenue and 13th Street on Thursday, June 11, 2015. El Nuevo Herald

A veteran Miami police officer training a rookie shot and killed a homeless man who was threatening him with a pipe at an Overtown park filled with kids on Thursday, police said.

The shooting sent children attending summer camp at Gibson Park scrambling to get inside buildings. Police said as many as 60 people may have witnessed the morning confrontation at one of Overtown’s more popular summer spots for kids.

The officer who fired the fatal shot was identified as Antonio Torres, a 20-year police veteran who was badly injured in a motorcycle accident in 2007. Struck while driving his police motorcycle on State Rd. 836, Torres suffered a fractured skull and heart damage.

It took him more than a year to fully recover and return to the force. The 41-year-old officer is a member of the department’s Honor Guard and has worked in training and traffic enforcement. He will be placed on administrative leave while the Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigates the incident.

The man shot dead is 46-year-old Fritz Severe, a vagrant who some familiar with the investigation said spent time at a nearby post office. Severe has a lengthy criminal past with convictions for violent and non-violent offenses in different jurisdictions.

Even as the children attending summer camp at Gibson Park Thursday were quickly ushered inside a building, parents who had been notified that their kids were safe waited nervously outside. Police brass, sensitive to the national concern over recent videotaped police actions, showed up at the park in large numbers.

Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes took the unusual step of personally addressing the public. He said his officers responded after police received a call about a “violent disturbance.”

“The officer confronted the subject and discharged his weapon,” Llanes said. “There was more than one shot.”

Llanes said police have to interview 40 to 60 witnesses. The chief said an officer would only fire his weapon if he felt threatened, and added that he’s well aware of the “anxiety that’s been created across the country.”

“I would ask that everybody wait for the facts,” Llanes said. “We will determine the truth based on the number of witnesses.”

An officer familiar with the investigation said the man died after being taken to Jackson Memorial Hospital. Witnesses gave differing accounts, but all seemed to agree that Severe was homeless and frequented the park.

Police were called to the scene Thursday morning by a park worker concerned that Severe was a threat to the children playing there. Though his body was removed quickly, a three-foot long metal pipe remained at the scene, police said.

Police said none of the officers at the shooting scene were wearing body cameras. They were checking late Thursday to see if there was video surveillance at the park or if anyone may have recorded the confrontation.

The shooting death of Severe was one of two on Thursday by law enforcement in South Florida.

Four Broward sheriff’s deputies were involved in the death of a bank robbery suspect in Pompano Beach. In that incident, Broward Sheriff Scott Israel said the deputies had the man in custody, but a struggle followed and he broke free. When he reached for a weapon in his car, Israel said, he was shot dead by one of the deputies.

Several people claimed to have witnessed Thursday’s shooting in Gibson Park. Most said they recognized the man who had been killed but didn’t know him personally.

Nichelle Miller said she saw the confrontation, which took place around 10 a.m., inside the park at Northwest 13th Street and Third Avenue. It happened in front of the entrance to the Culmer/Overtown branch library. Miller said the officer fired five times.

“The man had a stick in his hand. They could have Tasered him. He was a homeless guy who’s there every morning,” Miller said. She said the man didn’t swing the pipe at the officer, but pointed it at him.

Another witness, Stephanie Severance, told Miami Herald news partner CBS4 that the officer stopped Severe, and when he began pointing the metal stick at the officer, the officer opened fire.

“The next thing you know, the man shot him,” she said. “I didn’t know whether to run, duck or hide.”

In January, Miami handed over investigations of police-involved shootings to the FDLE. This is the second police-involved shooting since April — when Miami rookie cop Rosny Obas got into a shootout with a man driving a taxi.

The FDLE, which doesn’t comment on investigations, said its sole mission is to look for criminal wrongdoing.

Javier Ortiz, president of the Fraternal Order of Police union that represents Miami officers, said it’s imperative that the public has confidence in officers — especially when deadly force is used. He cautioned against jumping to conclusions.

“The FOP is confident that when the independent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is complete, it will find that our officer involved acted within the law,” Ortiz said.

Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Severe has a lengthy criminal history littered with trespassing arrests in Miami-Dade and Orlando. The records also show he was arrested in 2005 in North Miami for aggravated battery, but the case was dropped. In 2009, he was found guilty of aggravated battery in Broward County. The same charge was dropped a year later in Miami-Dade.

Last year, the records show, Severe was arrested by Miami-Dade police for burglary and resisting arrest with violence. Those charges were dropped. Finally, he was found guilty of criminal mischief after being arrested by Miami police in January.

By Thursday afternoon, most of the kids at the YMCA summer camp had been released to their parents. Some stayed, even as investigators continued to swarm the park. The crime scene was on the small walkway outside the library wall covered with colorful hand-painted pictures.

The city spent millions of dollars three years ago renovating Gibson Park, refurbishing the once-popular but decaying swimming pool and allowing the YMCA to open a center on Northwest Third Avenue, to the south of the popular Overtown Youth Center. Today, it offers swimming lessons and other outdoor activities like football.

The park is on the northern end of rehabilitated Northwest Third Avenue, which now has shops, covered walkways and other street improvements for several blocks south of 14th Street. The shooting took place at the north end of the park, across the street from a building under construction and next to a vacant building.

Veronica Sands was waiting for her 11-year-old son and 7-year-old grandson to be released from the YMCA. Standing in the hot sun outside the park and under a poinciana tree with two hens roosting in its branches, she said she received a call from a park employee soon after the shooting. He said her family members were safe.

“I’m feeling a little better knowing they’re OK,” Sands said. “I can’t even begin to describe what goes through your mind, though, when you get a call saying something like this happened. I’m just upset it had to happen in front of the kids.”

Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report.