Death threats flood auto shop where immigrant girl hid after escaping detention center

In less than five minutes, Gonzalez Auto Center in Homestead received more than 10 death threats from callers.

“I’m going to bomb your building. I’ll find your family and I hope you die,” one caller yelled, expletives in between, before hanging up.

The phone calls — just a few of hundreds that the business has received since Friday — happened as a Miami Herald reporter interviewed the shop’s workers on Monday.

“Who thought that your life could change in an instant?” Francisco Gonzalez told the Miami Herald, three days after police discovered a 15-year-old Honduran immigrant girl hiding in his shop.

Francisco Gonzalez, owner of Gonzalez Auto Center in Homestead, has been flooded with death threats after police apprehended an immigrant girl on Friday who escaped from a Homestead shelter for migrant children and then hid in the auto shop. Monique O. Madan

On Friday, the teen had escaped from the nearby Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children and barricaded herself behind a large tool box in the shop. Her ordeal was first reported by the Washington Post.

In Gonzalez’s oil-stained hands were printouts of several online death threats against him and his relatives, including his 93-year-old mother.

“So this is the address of the cowardly boot-licking f*** who called the cops on an immigrant girl who escaped from a concentration camp,” one poster, Anonymous, wrote on Facebook.

The FBI stopped in Monday morning and is investigating, Gonzalez said.

“Everybody thinks I called the police to come take the girl away,” Gonzalez, the shop’s owner, said Monday. “That’s not true. The shelter people called 911. Police were already searching the area and came right into the shop. Now my elderly mom had to evacuate her home, and I have to walk in public with sunglasses and carry a firearm.”

According to Homestead police, Gonzalez’s story checks out.

The teen girl — who crossed the border by herself and for three weeks had been held at the Homestead detention center, which is housing about 1,200 migrant children — had escaped from facility workers who were taking her to a routine doctor’s appointment Friday morning.

As she was getting out of the car to go to the doctor, she made a run for it and somehow dashed into the busy auto shop. That precise moment was not captured on surveillance video as several cars pulled in and out of the service bays, blocking the cameras’ views.

“She told the police officers to please don’t touch her,” Gonzalez said. “The police officer talked to her in Spanish and treated her like a human being, like his daughter. He told her, ‘Mama, you have to go back’ and then put handcuffs on her like a regular human being, not like a criminal.”

Records show Homestead police received a 911 call from the staff members operating the detention center at around 9:15 a.m. Friday saying a teen “ran away from the employees that were transporting her to an eye exam.”

The girl — who has not been identified — was ultimately found inside. Footage shows officers roaming around the shop and locating the girl in a corner behind an orange tool sectional.

This is where a 15-year-old immigrant girl from Honduras hid after escaping a Florida detention center housing migrant children in Homestead on Friday. Monique O. Madan

According to police reports, an anonymous person near the shop advised officers that the person they were looking for may be inside.

The girl was handcuffed, as per police policy, placed in the front seat of a patrol car and taken back to the Homestead shelter without incident.

Regardless of who flagged down officers, Homestead Police Det. Fernando Morales says Florida State Statute 787.03 obligates anyone with knowledge of such a situation to cooperate with police.

“If someone knew about the girl’s whereabouts, and didn’t tell law enforcement, or lied to law enforcement, that person is subject to arrest and could be charged with obstruction of child custody,” Morales said.

“Put it this way, if your child ran away and was hiding at her friend’s house, and that friend’s parents knew police was looking for her, and stayed quiet, or lied about the runaway’s whereabouts, there’s ground for the arrest of those parents for obstructing. This is the same situation.”

According to Gonzalez, workers at the auto-repair shop noticed the weeping girl as she hid. When they approached her, she told them she was 19 and that she was “being chased by a man.” The frightened child stayed at the shop for more than an hour as tears streamed down her face.

“We had no idea she was a minor,” said the shop owner’s son, Eric Gonzalez. “All she kept saying is that she didn’t want to go back.”

Local immigration rights activists, who were contacted by family members of shop workers the day of the incident, told the Herald the girl described the shelter as a “prison.”

The Homestead facility is the second-largest shelter in the country and is managed by Comprehensive Health Services, a company that has a contract with the federal government for at least $30 million.

In June, about 70 of the more than 1,100 children living in the facility had been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, with the majority of the children coming from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America, according to shelter officials.

The Department of Health and Human Services, the entity that regulates the facilities, would not comment on the incident.

The Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, enacted in April, led to more than 2,500 children being separated from their parents at the border. After many vociferously denounced the policy, Trump signed an executive order in June prohibiting family separations at the border.

Since then, government officials have reunited the majority of families after a federal judge ordered HHS to reunite all of them by Thursday. But the federal government failed to meet that deadline, acknowledging it still had more than 700 children in its custody for various reasons.

On Monday, as customers got their cars serviced at the auto-repair shop, TV camera crews camped out front. Since Friday, the story has mushroomed with people criticizing Gonzalez’s willingness to give up the girl.

“Look, we gave this girl water, offered her food; I treated her as my own daughter,” Gonzalez said. “I explained to her that the police want to ‘make America great again’ by uniting her with her family, but for that to happen, she needs to cooperate.”

He added: “We live in a country with laws, laws I had to follow, even if it breaks my heart.”

The shop on Monday deleted its social media pages amid the threats. Before going offline, the company issued a statement:

“Please be certain that Gonzalez Auto Center will not entertain false accusations but instead will prosecute those who intentionally defame our hard work. Our business was in full function at the time of the incident and by the time we realized what was happening the person was already apprehended by authorities who had a perimeter around all businesses.”

Monique O. Madan, @MoniqueOMadan, 305-376-2108