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13 Indicted in Miami Cop Scandal

THE NATION

Crime: In the latest upheaval for the force, officers are accused of planting guns to cover up unjustified shootings.

September 08, 2001|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIAMI — Thirteen current and former Miami police officers were accused by U.S. authorities Friday of shooting unarmed people and then conspiring to cover it up by planting evidence. The indictment is just the latest scandal for this city's trouble-plagued police force.

On four separate occasions, federal prosecutors said, Miami officers performed "throw downs"--in which they placed guns at crime scenes to justify shootings. And after firing 37 rounds that killed two purse-snatching suspects near a downtown expressway ramp in 1995, the officers involved allegedly met for lunch at a barbecue restaurant to get their stories straight. U.S. Atty. Guy A. Lewis said Antonio Young and Derrick Wiltshire, the men killed by police, were not armed.

"These [13] officers planted weapons. They lied about their role in shootings," Lewis said Friday. "They lied about what they saw. They falsified reports. They tampered with crime scenes. They stole property."

Earlier in the week, two retired members of the force pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges and were cooperating with the investigation, federal officials said. They have not yet been sentenced. The 11 officers arrested Friday face various federal charges, including conspiracy to violate the civil rights of citizens of Miami, obstruction of justice and committing perjury before a grand jury. If found guilty, they each could be sentenced to five or 10 years in prison and fined $250,000.

All of those charged were veterans assigned to SWAT teams, narcotics units or special crime-suppression teams in the late 1990s.

Several of the officers refused to comment Friday. But defense attorneys dismissed the allegations. "It's like a rerun of everything we've seen before. It's a lot of hype," said attorney Janice Sharpstein, who represents two of the officers.

A rash of suspicious police shootings in recent years already has undermined the credibility of the 1,100-member Miami force, especially among black residents.

"A certain segment of police officers were guilty of committing criminal acts and getting away with it--murdering people, planting evidence," said Nathaniel Wilcox of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, a consortium of civil rights groups. "These guys were criminals behind the badge."

Police Chief Raul Martinez, who appeared with Lewis and other law enforcement officials at a news conference, acknowledged that the federal indictment unsealed Friday would further mar his force's reputation. But he said he was committed to rooting out bad cops.

"We will not stop until we clean up each and every vestige of wrongdoing from within our police force," Martinez said. "This is painful, but it is something we have to go through."

At least five of the indicted officers were summoned to the chief's office Friday morning, ordered to hand over their guns and badges, and then were arrested, FBI spokeswoman Judi Orihuela said.

Only two of the officers were still on the job prior to the indictment being announced, Miami police spokesman Jorge L. Pino said. One other had been fired already, and the eight remaining were on suspension.

Hector M. Pesquera, the FBI's special agent in charge in Miami, said Friday that more indictments are anticipated. "Make no mistake, the circle is not yet closed," Pesquera said. "This investigation is not yet over."

The probe zeroed in on a series of shootings that federal officials said followed a suspicious pattern. A total of three people were killed in those incidents, and one was wounded.

Lewis said none of the shooting victims was carrying a firearm. But guns later were brought to the scene by officers, Lewis asserted, to make it seem as though they had been armed.

According to the indictment, the weapons had been taken by Miami officers during earlier arrests and had not been logged in at the police property room.

On March 12, 1996, a SWAT team, which included four of the officers now under indictment, raided the home of 73-year-old Richard Brown in response to reports of a drug sale. The officers blasted the tiny two-room home with 123 bullets, eight of which hit Brown.

The officers claimed that Brown had fired first and that he still had a gun in his right hand when he died. But Lewis said the weapon was a plant and the officers' statements were lies.

Then four years ago, an officer shot and wounded a homeless man in Miami's Coconut Grove area. A 17-year veteran of the force, Jesus Aguero, arrived on the scene 45 minutes later and allegedly dropped a .45-caliber pistol by the curb.

According to sources in the U.S. attorney's office here, it was that July 26, 1997, incident that first attracted the attention of federal authorities.

In the fourth shooting, on April 13, 1996, Aguero fired at a robbery suspect, and a fellow officer allegedly planted a .38-caliber revolver under a nearby tree.

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