After crashing her BMW into several cars at high speed, college student Cariann Hithon sat behind the wheel as a noisy crowd gathered around her. Onlookers filming on their smartphones yelled for her to get out of the damaged car. Somebody hollered: “She drunk as sh*t.”
Uniformed Miami Beach police officers walked up. For a brief few seconds, it appeared nothing more than a routine, if harrowing, car accident on South Beach.
Then the car screeched forward.
As onlookers screamed in terror, the black BMW sedan plowed into a Miami Beach cop standing in the middle of the street, tossing him to the pavement, video footage from the scene showed. Another officer instantly let loose three quick shots. The BMW swerved and crashed on 12th Street just yards away.
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“I was literally shocked she would drive into four or five officers,” said Miami Beach lawyer Sean Ellsworth, a passenger in one of the cars that was hit. “She just floored it.”
Witness accounts and video footage posted Monday appear to jibe with the Miami Beach Police Department claim that Hithon drove at officers Sunday evening, forcing one to fire, killing the 22-year-old Temple University student who was in town to celebrate her birthday.
“It played out like a movie set with people running, screaming, car crashes, gunshots, an injured officer lying on his back on the road — all within a minute,” said John Butchko, a retired Miami-Dade homicide detective whose car was hit by Hithon moments before the shooting.
Exactly why Hithon panicked and tried to flee may never be known, but investigators believe she and a male friend — who is seen casually getting out of the car well before she accelerates — had been drinking heavily that day.
Now, against a backdrop of scrutiny of police tactics across the country, prosecutors have opened an inquiry into whether police acted lawfully in killing Hithon as her family and friends grapple with the violent ending to a promising life. “She was going to be the attorney to save the world,” said her father, Cary Hithon, a retired U.S. Navy captain. “Everybody that knew her knew she had a great future.”
Hithon’s father said she’d recently transferred from Hampton University in Virginia to Temple University in Philadelphia and expected to graduate with a degree in political science this spring. After that, Hithon, who is from Bowie, MD., planned to follow her longstanding dream of attending law school.
Hithon was a talented baker and makeup artist, her father said, the one all her friends and sisters tapped to help on special occasions.
Hithon had a few brushes with the law over the past year in Hampton, according to court records, including arrests for marijuana possession, giving a fake ID to an officer and assault and battery. She was not convicted of any of the charges, although she was convicted on a citation of improper driving.
Shooting at a moving vehicle was once completely prohibited by Miami Beach Police Department policy, an approach adopted by Miami Beach Police Chief Daniel Oates when he arrived in 2014. Oates’ 2014 directive followed a wild melee on Memorial Day weekend that bears only passing similarity with Sunday’s incident. Raymond Herisse, a tourist in town for the 2014 weekend’s parties, was killed in a hail of bullets from multiple police officers.
Cops unleashed 116 rounds at Herisse’s car after police say he sideswiped a number of cars and hit a patrol officer on a bicycle. But one exception was added to the policy five months ago — when a vehicle threatens to ram into a crowd. The policy was updated after terrorist vehicle attacks in Europe.
Counterparts at Miami-Dade police are investigating the officer-involved shooting. Prosecutors will ultimately decide if the firing officer broke any laws in using deadly force. Under Florida’s “fleeing felon” law, police can open fire on someone suspected of committing a felony and who could pose a threat to the public.
In a statement, Miami Beach’s police union lamented the woman’s death but said “we cannot dismiss the fact that an officer was hit with deadly force by a vehicle that was driving recklessly and fleeing from the scene of an accident.”
Oates said there were more officers than usual patrolling the Miami Beach’s entertainment district, which was busier with tourists because of the Columbus Day holiday.
Just past 6 p.m. Sunday, police said, Hithon and her companion got into the black BMW sedan and sped into oncoming traffic on Ocean Drive, smashing into two cars in full view of horrified sidewalk diners.
Moments later, the BMW blew through a red light on 12th Street at Collins Avenue, plowing into a Mercedes-Benz driven by Butchko, the retired county homicide detective — missing a direct hit on his passenger, Ellsworth, the lawyer, by just a few feet.
Butchko said the woman was going at least 60 miles at full speed before hitting the front passenger side of his Mercedes. “We clearly had a green light. Two cars had already gone through the intersection,” Butchko said.
Butchko and Ellsworth suffered minor injuries. The two had just left the hospital after visiting George Cholakis, a former prosecutor who died earlier Sunday of an apparent heart attack.
Ellsworth called 911 and hopped out to check on the damaged BMW. “She was looking straight ahead. She didn’t acknowledge anything in her peripheral vision,” he said.
“I think she was on drugs or something,” said Miguel Garcia, a tourist from Chile who ran to the car after the crash. “She looked like she was messed up.”
Video footage, shared on Instagram by a witness with the screen name “MrWeLive,” showed observers reveling in the spectacle. “They getting that story together,” one man said of the couple in the BMW.
“Ya’ll get out the way in case she drive on,” one woman told the crowd.
As a Beach cop walked up, somebody yelled, “She was trying to run away.” Then, the BMW accelerated. After the police officer shot and the car crashed, the crowd began running to the scene. “She’s going to jail!” somebody yelled.
The footage showed police officers frantically performing CPR on the woman as paramedics arrived.
The injured Miami Beach officer is David Cajuso, who joined the force in September 2015. He was released from the hospital early Monday and is recovering at home, a department spokesman said.
Miami Beach police have not identified the officer who opened fire on Hithon.
Her dad said he had “a lot of questions” about what exactly happened Sunday night, but he wouldn’t speculate without more information.
“She liked to drive fast, but what young person doesn’t drive fast?” he said.
His daughter was a champion for the undeserved, Hithon said. His last conversation with her was about the controversy over NFL players kneeling during the national anthem and police brutality in the United States.
“It’s kind of ironic she was killed by a police officer,” he said. “To end her life this way is obviously very devastating.”
Miami Herald staff writer Carli Teproff contributed to this report.