Crime

Miami police to review squad car’s role in motorcyclist’s plunge to death off I-95 ramp

Did a speeding Miami police cruiser contribute to a motorcycle wreck that left one man dead and his wife badly injured?

Internal affairs investigators and Miami-Dade prosecutors said no. But now members of a police oversight board want a deeper look at the crash near Key Biscayne on Memorial Day Weekend in 2018, calling the police probe “shabby” and questioning whether officers were trying to hide information.

On Monday, Deputy Miami Police Chief Ron Papier said Police Chief Jorge Colina had ordered the case re-opened, this time to be reviewed by the Professional Compliance Bureau, which reports directly to the chief.

“If that means interviewing people who haven’t been interviewed, that will be done,” Papier said. “Right now we need to take a look at it from top to bottom and that will be done.”

The crash happened after about two dozen motorcyclists, all members of a group called the Dade County Riders, left the bar Whiskey Joe’s on a route that took them north through the I-95 overpass just past the Key Biscayne toll booth.

Yoinis Cruz Peña and his wife Yailen Gonzalez never made it to the highway. Cruz Pena’s Kawasaki motorcycle somehow catapulted over a short wall on the right side of the overpass, hurtling to U.S. 1 down below. He was killed. Gonzalez sustained broken bones and broken pelvis, but survived.

In interviews with police, she claimed a Miami police cruiser was speeding upwards of 80 mph along with the bikers on a turn on the overpass and that a patrol car was “edging” her husband’s bike, coming teasingly close to it without touching. That she said, caused the bike to move too far from the roadway’s center and clip something that caused the accident.

In the ensuing months, the crash was investigated by the department’s Internal Affairs unit, which eventually cleared officers of any wrongdoing. Investigator’s claimed video footage of the bikers and a Miami patrol vehicle couldn’t be trusted because there was no time stamp; that a speeding police cruiser didn’t appear to be chasing any of the motorcycles and that it would have been impossible for a cop car to avoid crashing on the overpass had it been traveling alongside Cruz Peña’s bike.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office followed suit, recommending that no felony charges be filed.

Yet an investigator with Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel — a group created to oversee questionable police actions — told board members that not a single police officer or motorcycle rider had been interviewed during the internal police probe. And, Internal Affairs claimed in its close-out memo it wasn’t even able to identify an officer seen on video speeding and passing bikers along Crandon Boulevard after they’d left the bar.

“We have a lot of weird, conflicting information in all this,” said CIP investigator Elizabeth Albert.

During its meeting last week, CIP members reexamined the crash through surveillance footage taken near Whiskey Joe’s entrance, not far from Virginia Key. They were also aided by several edited clips of video from GoPro’s supplied by some bikers. None of those videos, however, were time stamped. The panel viewed clear pictures of two dozen bikes leaving the bar and heading north on Crandon Boulevard at 3:25 p.m. The group was trailed by at least one Miami patrol car.

One GoPro video showed a cop car with its lights on passing some of the bikers on the road with the camera operator claiming the bikers and the patrol car were driving in excess of 100 mph. Another video showed a biker stopped just before the overpass and a third showed bikers screaming and pointing to Cruz Peña’s bike after it ejected over the wall.

Cruz Peña’s death caused outrage, with some family members claiming during television media interviews that Cruz Peña was killed because of a Miami cop’s aggressiveness. Members of the Dade County Riders, who meet for lunch most Saturday’s at Whiskey Joe’s, posted video clips of bikers that day on Instagram, faulting the police for Cruz Peña’s death. City police policy is that cops don’t chase speeding drivers unless they’re involved in a felony.

Still, the one video that was lacking: The crash itself, or any video showing a cop car anywhere near Cruz Peña’s motorcycle when it jettisoned over the wall.

CIP investigators also said its investigation was not only hampered by the lack of information gathered by Internal Affairs, but also by the unwillingness of bikers and family members of the dead man to do follow-up interviews. Cruz Peña’s wife couldn’t be interviewed because she had left town for another city.

Still, CIP Director Cristina Beamud recommended that the board vote on a resolution saying that the actions of an “unknown” police officer, the one driving the patrol car passing motorcyles, had potentially contributed to Cruz Peña’s death.

Last week the CIP wouldn’t go that far, instead passing a resolution saying the traffic unit of Miami police had used “improper procedure” during its actions in what was supposed to be a DUI saturation on Key Biscayne that weekend. It ordered Albert, its investigator, to look into why there were discrepancies between how Internal Affairs and a CIP translators interpreted statement’s given in Spanish from Cruz Peña’s wife.

And the board chose to draft a letter to Colina expressing its disapproval over the probe into police actions the day of the crash and into other probes it has taken issue with in the past. The board’s decisions were first reported last week by Miami New Times.

CIP board member Doug Mayer called the internal police investigation into the crash, “shoddy” and “inadequate.”

“It looks like they’re doing so just to hide the fact that what took place that day was improper,” he said.

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