Crime

Driver in deadly wrong-way wreck freed too early. Now, it’s too late to fix the mistake.

Willie Dumel, right, crashed his car into an SUV on Interstate 95 in North Miami-Dade in August 2013. The SUV, at left, erupted into flames, killing four tourists.
Willie Dumel, right, crashed his car into an SUV on Interstate 95 in North Miami-Dade in August 2013. The SUV, at left, erupted into flames, killing four tourists.

Six years ago, Willie Dumel led an Opa-locka police officer on a high-speed car chase, racing the wrong way on Interstate 95 and plowing headfirst into an SUV. It burst into flames, killing four California tourists.

The horrific crash caused public outrage — at Dumel, and at the Opa-locka police officer who chased the man for making an illegal right turn. Dumel later pleaded guilty to manslaughter and accepted a 10-year prison term, assuaging grieving relatives.

Yet Dumel, 31, is now free after serving less than half the sentence. He got cut loose early, not for good behavior, but because of a prosecutor’s goof. A Miami-Dade assistant state attorney used a single legal term in a written plea agreement that mistakenly chopped the sentence in half. The error was then repeated on a court sentencing order, which was sent to the Florida prison system.

Dumel was released in November 2017 on probation. Prosecutors and the victims’ relatives did not realize he had been freed early until the Miami Herald noticed earlier this month that he had been marked “released” on a Florida Department of Corrections database.

“When we learned that Willie Dumel had been released from prison we were surprised,” Miami-Dade State Attorney’s spokesman Ed Griffith said.

“We believed he was still in prison serving a 10-year sentence. We were wrong. We have communicated with the victims’ families in California and expressed our regret that the case prosecutor did not correctly articulate the sentence on the record in court.”

Said Edward Blumberg, a Miami lawyer representing relatives of two victims: “The families were very saddened and dismayed and disappointed.”

The State Attorney’s Office acknowledges that the legal window has long since passed for it to appeal and fix the sentence. Dumel, however, may still wind up returning to prison.

One year after his release, Dumel was arrested in Broward County on allegations that he choked his pregnant girlfriend. He is free on bond while awaiting trial for aggravated battery — and also a hearing in Miami-Dade on whether he violated probation for the car-crash case.

Dumel triggered the tragedy on April 3, 2013.

That’s when Opa-locka Police Cpl. Sergio Perez spotted Dumel making an apparent illegal right turn at Northwest 143rd Street and 22nd Avenue. The officer tried to pull him over, but Dumel sped off.

The high-speed pursuit ended when Dumel drove his rental car the wrong way on the exit ramp onto Interstate 95 at Ives Dairy Road.

Dumel plowed into an SUV driving south. The vehicle exploded into flames. Killed were Lily-Marie Azarcon, 26, who worked for a Philippines-based real estate developer; her colleague Dennis Ryan Riñon Ortiz, 33; U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Albertson Anthony Almase, 31; and his sister, Kristina Angela Almase, 26, a nurse.

All were visiting from California.

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At the time, Dumel was on probation for aggravated stalking and aggravated assault. After spending 90 days in the hospital because of two broken legs suffered in the crash, Dumel was jailed on charges including vehicular manslaughter, and for violating his earlier probation.

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The Florida Highway Patrol arrested suspect Willie Dumel at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood and transported him by ambulance to the Miami-Dade County Jail on May 1, 2013. Miami Herald file

Toxicology tests showed Dumel had cocaine and marijuana in his system. He was not charged with DUI manslaughter because of the difficulty of proving the drugs were affecting him at the time of the crash.

The fallout of the fiery crash continued in the following months.

Perez, who claimed he had stopped chasing Dumel, was fired — radio transmissions appeared to show he was still in pursuit when Dumel sped onto Interstate 95.

Relatives of the tourists filed wrongful death lawsuits.

The families settled with the city of Opa-locka. A civil trial begins next month against Dumel and Thrifty Car Rental, which provided the car Dumel was driving and never reported the vehicle stolen despite it being missing for two weeks.

Blumberg, who represents the Almase family, said they hope the trial will “obtain a full measure of justice and closure to this terrible tragedy.”

The criminal case dragged on for nearly three years. Finally, on Oct. 26, 2015, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian told lawyers that he was ready to pick a jury and try the case.

Defense lawyers Andrew Rier and Jonathan Jordan, however, said they were “desperately trying to resolve the case,” according to a transcript of the hearing.

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Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Alberto Milian. El Nuevo Herald file

They had good reason: Dumel faced up to 96 years in prison if convicted of the car crash and violating probation on the attack on his girlfriend from 2007.

That morning, the lawyers were in negotiations with Miami-Dade Assistant State Attorney Brent Jostad, who told the judge he needed a few hours to contact the families of the victims, to see if they approved of a plea offer. That afternoon, Jostad told the judge that the families had signed off on a deal.

“Several of the family members have expressed to me they would prefer that this case not go to trial,” Jostad told Milian.

The judge said he was inclined to push the case to trial. “If the family wants me to take the plea, I will take the plea reluctantly. But I think you know my feelings about a case like this,” Milian told the lawyers. “If these allegations are true, it’s particularly outrageous. In some of the jurisdictions in this state, he would probably spend the rest of his life incarcerated.”

During the sentencing, Jostad laid out the sentence: 10 years in prison, followed by 10 years of probation. He also noted that Dumel would be “serving 10 years in state prison on both cases.”

Milian asked Dumel if he agreed to everything outlined in the plea agreement. He did. After reviewing the plea agreement and other court documents, Milian approved the guilty plea and sentenced Dumel to 10 years in prison.

A courtroom clerk acknowledged the terms. The judge asked the lawyers to review the sentencing order to “make sure it adequately reflects the plea agreement.”

“I hope when you’re incarcerated you think every day about the four people that you killed, the four families ­­— you shattered their lives,” Milian said.

But nobody in open court specifically parsed out how many years Dumel would get for violating probation on the 2007 aggravated stalking-and-assault case. The written plea agreement also did not say how many years he would get on that case.

The sentencing order for the probation violation in the 2007 case, however, did say he would get five years in prison for the two counts, the max for each crime. But the order said the charges were to run “concurrently,” or side-by-side — not “consecutive,” which would have made it a 10-year term.

One key legal term made the difference: “coterminous.”

In court and in the plea agreement, Jostad said the car-crash sentence would run “coterminous” to the one in the 2007 case. That’s a legal term that basically means when one sentence finishes first, the other one does too.

So on Nov. 6, 2017, when Dumel’s prison sentence for the 2007 assault-and-stalking case ended, so did his punishment for the car-crash case.

Jostad still works for the State Attorney’s office, although the office declined to make Jostad available.

Legal experts say “coterminous” sentences are rarely used, and it was unclear why Jostad agreed to it in this case.

Rier and Jordan, who still represent Dumel, won’t say whether they realized at the time the sentence would finish after less than five years. On Tuesday, Rier stressed the plea agreement was “approved by the next of kin,” and that the egregious actions of the Opa-locka officer who chased Dumel made the plea deal “in the best interest of all the parties.”

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Miami defense lawyer Andrew Rier. Al Diaz adiaz@miamiherald.com

Jordan also said that the Florida Department of Corrections, as it sometimes does, never raised any questions about the sentence.

Under Florida rules of criminal procedure, the State Attorney’s Office only had 60 days to ask to modify a legal sentence. Two legal experts who reviewed the court transcript and court documents said the hearing and paperwork were not thorough enough.

“The onus is on the state to make sure the language is precise,” said Celeste Higgins, a law professor at the University of Miami who used to work as a federal public defender.

H. Scott Fingerhut, who teaches criminal procedure at Florida International University’s law school, said the judge, the prosecutor and even the clerk assigned to the court should have noticed the errors.

“Nobody was really doing their job, except the defense. And they’re not working for the victim,” Fingerhut said. “The defendant got a huge gift.”

Milian’s job is not over.

The judge must decide whether Dumel violated his probation by getting arrested in Broward, and if so, what punishment he deserves. At a hearing last week, Dumel’s lawyer said the victim in that case has already agreed not to prosecute, although the case remains open.

Dumel’s court hearing is set for June 5.

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