A once-stellar point guard for a private school, Terence Pinder became one of the most recognized faces in Opa-locka when he hosted a local cable TV show, Pinder’s Perspective, in the early 2000s.
He complained about the city’s blighted areas overrun with crack dealers, and its main streets strewn with trash. He bemoaned the gang violence and political corruption.
By 2004, the former honor student was such a popular figure that he swept into public office with one of the largest mandates of any city commissioner in Opa-locka’s history.
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“What he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in heart and desire,” recalled Dave Ahern, his former basketball coach at Monsignor Edward Pace, a Catholic high school in Miami Gardens. “When you put him on a court, he loved to win.”
But years later, the politician who promised to rid the city of its troubled past would be lured into the same web of cronyism and graft that has defined the impoverished community for generations.
On the verge of losing his political career to bribery charges, the 43-year-old Pinder sped across a grassy field in the wee hours of Tuesday and slammed his city-leased Chevy Tahoe into a banyan tree at 70 miles per hour, leaving shards of metal imbedded in the trunk.
His abrupt death would not only evoke questions about why he took his life so violently, but stir deeper emotions about a community’s inability to overcome problems that have persisted for decades. In the end, his life became emblematic of the very conflicts that have torn apart his city.
Just days before he died, he faced his own struggles: His younger sister was ailing in the hospital from a kidney transplant and his personal finances were in disarray, records and interviews show.
He was also locked in a bitter battle with his colleagues on the commission — including Mayor Myra Taylor — over the city’s financial crisis and whether Gov. Rick Scott should declare an emergency and order a takeover of the failing government. Adding to the friction: the FBI’s long-standing corruption investigation of the mayor, Commissioner Luis Santiago and several top officials.
“It became a war,” said community activist Natasha Ervin.
But none of the people interviewed for this story — nearly a dozen political supporters, city employees and friends — said there were any hints that he would be a casualty.
A leader on the court who attended Webber International University on a basketball scholarship, Pinder won his first political office in 2004, pledging to clean up a local government that had been taken over by the state in a prior fiscal crisis.
At 31, he was elected vice mayor, one of the youngest in the city’s history, raising his profile by speaking out against crime and for beefing up police patrols.
Pinder was also warned about the temptations of Opa-locka by a political mentor, who talked about an FBI investigation just a few years earlier into alleged kickback schemes among commissioners.
“I told him like a son: He needed to stay away from the wrong people,” said Steven Barrett, a former vice mayor in the 1990s.
But within two years of taking office, Pinder — single with a young son — began engaging in practices that would soon derail his career and force him out of office for years. In 2006, he was arrested in a credit card scandal for charging dinners to the city, and the next year, he was charged once again for accepting kickbacks from influential lobbyist Dante Starks for approving $3.8 million in sewer repair contracts.
Barrett said Pinder, who was forced to step down, had run into the very problems that had compromised other elected leaders over the years: cronyism and graft.
With criminal charges pending, Pinder was intent on returning to office, running twice — in 2008 and 2012 — but failing both times. Many voters who had been swayed by the energetic candidate were disappointed that he was no different than other politicians.
Those close to him said he craved public life. “He liked saying, ‘I am the commissioner.’ He enjoyed the title,” said Julio Uzat, a friend who worked with Pinder at the Opa-locka flea market.
After striking a lenient deal with prosecutors in 2014 that resulted in a sentence of probation, he won a seat on the commission later that year on yet another reform platform.
“He seemed like he was moving in the right direction,” recalled Alex Fraser, who played basketball with Pinder in high school and later went on to star at the University of Miami. “He was pretty confident that he had moved past all of it.”
By the time he returned, property values had plunged in Opa-locka while the city was losing millions in water and sewer collections, records show. Pinder saw the city budget was headed for disaster. Over the next two years, he would make a series of unpopular moves that angered his colleagues.
He proposed freezing the salaries of some department heads in late 2014, and cutting his own $3,000-a-year salary by 10 percent, along with travel and expenses.
With more than 225 city jobs, Pinder said administrators would have to lay off dozens of workers to make a dent in the budget. To pull it off, he recognized Opa-locka would need an experienced city manager.
The city’s surprise choice: Steve Shiver, a former Miami-Dade County manager who would soon expose the city’s massive debts. In just weeks, Shiver found more than $2 million in unpaid bills to vendors, the checks stuffed in envelopes and not mailed because they would bounce.
For the next two months, Shiver fought with Taylor over revealing the debts to the governor, while getting key support from one of the most well-known commissioners: Pinder. Again and again, Shiver said he turned to Pinder when the mayor threatened to fire him.
“Terence kept telling me, ‘Stick to it. You’ve got to dig it out,’” Shiver recalled
In backing Shiver, however, Pinder put his career at risk. “I remember him telling me, ‘I’m trying to do the right thing, but I’m all by myself,’” said longtime city code enforcement officer Randolph Aikens.
Pinder had already separated himself from the other commissioners, moving into an office on the second floor instead of the top floor of City Hall. He even broke ties to his benefactor, Dante Starks, who had taken sides against Shiver. When the commission voted to fire Shiver in November, Pinder cast the lone vote to keep him.
Later, Pinder’s enemies circulated an unflattering flier, “Meet Team Pinder,” mocking his relationship with Shiver and City Attorney Vincent Brown.
Over the next six months, tensions escalated as Pinder challenged the new city manager, David Chiverton, on a host of crucial issues, including claims by Chiverton that he could balance the budget at a time when debts had reached $8 million.
Pinder even asked that county officials inspect the bids for a new solid waste contract, saying he didn’t trust his own city for the review.
“He was trying to break away from them,” said Uzat, who frequently discussed politics with Pinder. “He wasn’t leaning toward anyone. He just wanted the best contract for the city.”
After the Miami Herald revealed in April that local business owners secretly recorded themselves paying bribes to Chiverton, Santiago and Starks in an FBI sting operation, Pinder told a reporter that he wanted to strip the city manager of his duties. But he acknowledged he would never be able to muster the votes.
While Pinder was fighting with Taylor, the commissioner was drawn into an undercover sting operation that would prove to be his final undoing. It began when a 47-year-old contractor who had once hired Pinder complained that Pinder was trying to shake him down for back pay.
Before his last election, Pinder worked as a lobbyist for a company led by Jose Flores, helping him win a lucrative garbage contract with the city in 2013. A year later, Flores lost the contract, prompting him to file bankruptcy for his company, Ecological Paper Recycling.
Flores, who was once arrested himself on grand theft and stolen property charges, went to the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office a year ago, and agreed to secretly wear a recording device and meet with Pinder.
During one meeting, they talked about shutting down a city-operated solid-waste transfer station so they could steer a contract to Flores’ company to provide the services, according to an arrest warrant.
In September 2015, Pinder put a resolution on the City Commission agenda asking the staff to study the possibility of a transfer station on Flores’ property.
The next month, Pinder again put the study on the agenda, according to the arrest warrant, and later demanded more money from Flores. The resolution passed.
When investigators questioned Pinder in March, he admitted he took more than $7,000 from Flores. But Pinder insisted he took the money only because he was entitled to it for back pay. After he was paid, Pinder dropped a $25,000 claim in the bankruptcy case, and Flores later testified that the dispute over the money with the commissioner was settled.
In the ensuing months, Pinder fretted over the specter of being charged. But it wasn’t until Monday, when his lawyer told him he would have to surrender, that he realized he would lose his commission seat, his friends said.
What he lacked in physical stature, he made up for in heart and desire. When you put him on a court, he loved to win.
Pinder’s high school basketball coach
On Monday night, he tuned into the Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors playoff game and within a couple of hours called his friend, Uzat. He agonized about surrendering to the charges Wednesday and the pain it would bring, Uzat said.
Uzat said Pinder was about to lose the one job he had spent years trying to win back. “If he couldn’t be in politics, he didn’t want to do anything else,” he said.
Shiver said Pinder exercised poor judgment in using his commission seat to get paid. “It’s wrong. You can’t do that,” he said. But ultimately, his friend was one of the few elected officials who was “trying to make a difference.”
Michael Pizzi, a former attorney for Opa-locka who had once represented the commissioner, said Pinder’s “passion to put the city on the right track often came into conflict with the fact that he kept getting dragged back into associations with people who did not have the city’s best interest at heart.”
Barrett said the tragedy has as much to do with the city as his friend’s death. For years, Pinder represented the new generation of leaders who were going to help Opa-locka move beyond its cycles of poverty and crime.
“Until Pinder came along, the young people didn’t want anything to do with Opa-locka,” he said. “They were tired of watching what the older people had done. Pinder was young, with fresh ideas. Even us older people took to him. We wanted him to do well.”
Ultimately, though, he succumbed to the same pressures that Barrett warned him about years ago. “They used to say in Opa-locka, $1,500 will buy you anything,” he said. “That is still true today.”