Miami Gardens - Opa-locka

Facing bribery charges, Opa-locka commissioner rams SUV into tree, killing himself

Just two days before Opa-locka Commissioner Terence Pinder was ordered to turn himself over to Miami-Dade prosecutors on corruption charges, he agonized to a friend over the shame of his imminent arrest.

He fretted over the ordeal of fighting bribery charges for a second time in his political career. He wondered how he would ever be able to pay the legal costs.

Hours later, he revved up the engine of his city-leased Chevy Tahoe, sped across several hundred yards of a grassy field and rammed into a towering banyan tree.

The impact killed him—instantly.

“He just snapped,” said Julio Uuzat, who took the call at 10:39 p.m. on Monday. “Nobody knows what someone is really going through.”

The death of the 43-year-old commissioner, who had resurrected his political career two years ago from earlier corruption charges, stunned the city where he had recast himself as a reformer struggling to save the city from an impending financial collapse.

Though Miami-Dade authorities have not confirmed the manner of death, they have indicated it appears to be a suicide.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, whose office was prosecuting Pinder, was among the first public officials to comment about what she called a tragedy.

“No such charges or offenses are worth taking one’s life,” she said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. “This is a tragedy for Terence Pinder’s family and friends, a tragedy for the city of Opa-locka and a tragedy for the people of Opa-locka that circumstances surrounding the city’s operation have gone this far.”

Pinder’s death represents another crisis for a city on the verge of a financial takeover by the state over massive debts and a corruption scandal that has led to a sweeping FBI investigation into its most powerful leaders.

“It’s sad that it has come to this,” said Natasha Ervin, a local activist who has lived in the city for decades. “But we need a better Opa-locka.”

For hours on Tuesday, Ervin and other political supporters gathered behind police tape just past the large, open field on the south side of the Opa-locka Executive Airport where Pinder’s black SUV struck the tree at an estimated 100 miles per hour. Rescue workers were called about 8 a.m.

In the days before his death, Pinder had told friends he thought the state corruption case—unrelated to the FBI investigation—might not be brought against him because investigators had not questioned him since March.

On Monday, Pinder was called and told by his defense attorney, Ben Kuehne, that he would have to surrender on the state bribery charges on Wednesday morning.

“He thought he’d beaten it,” said Uuzat, who worked with Pinder at the Opa-locka Flea Market. “He thought it might go away. But then it came back.”

Pinder’s latest troubles began four years ago when he took a job as a consultant with a recycling firm trying to land a lucrative garbage contract with Opa-locka.

Pinder helped the firm, Ecological Paper Recycling, get the job in 2013 in what became the company’s first solid-waste deal.

After Pinder was elected as a commissioner in fall 2014, however, the company lost the contract to a competitor and later filed for bankruptcy.

In the ensuing year, Pinder’s relationship with the company’s president, Jose Flores, grew tense as he pursued back pay and ultimately filed a $25,000 claim.

Flores eventually complained to investigators with the state attorney’s office and county ethics commission that Pinder was trying to shake him down, prompting the state investigation.

More than a dozen times. Flores wore a wire in meetings with Pinder, discussing a “number of public corruption-related criminal schemes” between June 2015 and early this year, a warrant said.

In one meeting, Pinder told Flores that would no longer accept cash payments of less than $1,000 because “I’m a f*****g commissioner” and “I’m the man.”

In their scheme, they talked about closing a city-operated solid-waste transfer station, then steering a contract for Ecological to provide the services.

Over the months, Pinder insisted that Flores had to wait until a new city manager was approved. That manager was Steve Shiver, a “white-boy” that Pinder said he could control, the warrant said. “You put a white boy there, we run this bitch,” Pinder said on one recording.

Finally, in September 2015, Pinder put a resolution on the City Commission agenda asking that staff study the possibility of a transfer station at Flores’ property.

The next month, Pinder again put the “sham” study on the agenda, according to the arrest warrant, and later demanded more money from Ecological and its backers.

“Tell the owners to send me some more Christmas present ... we’re a little low,” Pinder told Flores, according to the recordings. “I need some love, baby.”

“No love, no deal,” Flores replied.

The resolution passed. Pinder began arranging with Flores and new City Manager David Chiverton to present the project to the public.

On March 11, Pinder admitted to investigators he took more than $7,000 from Flores in “exchange for promises he made to assist in obtaining approval from Opa-locka to operate a transfer station at the Ecological facility.”

But at the same time, Pinder insisted he took the money only to get Flores to shell out back pay from his previous job as a consultant for Ecological. In recent weeks, the commissioner repeated the claims to a Miami Herald reporter.

“This was money that Flores owed me,” Pinder said. “This had nothing to do with the transfer station.”

Flores’ attorney, Josh Entin, said his client was a victim of extortion. “While the results of this investigation is tragic for Commissioner Pinder and his family, it is a result of a series of bad choices made by this public official,” he said.

Pinder, who wasn’t married, leaves behind an ill sister he cared for and girlfriend Sha’mecca Lawson, his former assistant and now an administrative aide at Opa-locka City Hall.

He also leaves a checkered legacy at a city perpetually awash in scandal.

Pinder graduated from Webber International University in Polk County and joined Opa-locka as the city’s first public information officer and chief of staff for Commissioner Timothy Holmes in the early 2000s.

His first successful campaign for office was in 2004, charging to victory as a young reformer and serving a term as vice mayor before his re-election two years later. His second term would be derailed under the scrutiny of Miami-Dade ethics and public corruption investigators.

He was arrested in 2006 when police claimed he fabricated campaign reports — at one point claiming he hired a man who turned out to be dead — and charged family meals at chain restaurants like Applebee’s, P.F. Chang’s and Red Lobster on his city-issued credit card.

The next year, Pinder was slapped with additional charges that claimed he accepted kickbacks from notorious Opa-locka power broker Dante Starks, who was also arrested.

In the end, Pinder pleaded no contest to four misdemeanor charges and prosecutors agreed to drop racketeering and unlawful compensation charges. He was placed on probation for two years.

The case behind him, Pinder won back his seat in the fall of 2014.

Last September, Pinder recruited Shiver — the former county manager in Miami-Dade —to manage Opa-locka. Pinder worked with the new manager to look for ways to cut costs and find new revenue, often opposing Mayor Myra Taylor and other commissioners.

Shiver would be ousted by commission vote only two months after he was hired — but not before he warned that the city was on the brink of financial failure. Pinder cast the lone vote to support the city manager.

Shiver was stunned Tuesday to learn of Pinder’s death.

“He was the only one who was speaking out about the city’s problems,” said Shiver. “He was the only one who wanted to do something good for the city.”

Michael Sallah: 305-962-2218, @MikeSallah7

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