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Miami Cops Covered Up Fatal Motorcycle Chase, Panel Suggests

Miami Cops Covered Up Fatal Motorcycle Chase, Panel Suggests

Just after 3:30 p.m. on May 27, 2018, 29-year-old Yoinis Cruz Peña, was driving his black 2008 Kawasaki north on the Rickenbacker Causeway at high speed. His wife, Yailen Gonzalez, was on the back. They slammed into a retaining wall, and Cruz Peña died.

Later, Cruz Peña’s fellow bikers claimed their comrade died because a Miami cop had been chasing them. That violates the department’s policy, which generally prohibits high-speed chases. Though New Times published a video that appeared to show an MPD cruiser chasing Cruz Peña at more than 100 mpg, Miami PD’s Traffic Homicide Unit found that MPD was not at fault and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s office declined to press charges against the cops.

But staggering new details emerged yesterday that raise significant questions about MPD’s conduct during and after the crash. After a yearlong investigation, Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel last night sustained misconduct allegations against the officers.

Last night, at least two CIP members speculated that Miami PD may have intentionally hid details of the accident. Board member Russell Motley said he was flabbergasted that Miami PD has failed to even identify the police officer who appeared in the video. “It makes it appear that it might be a cover-up,” he said.

Another board member, Doug Mayer, blasted MPD’s investigation as “incomplete,” “unprofessional,” and “shoddy.” He said, “It looks like they’re doing so to hide the fact that what happened that day was improper.”

The CIP found that crucial crash evidence was not reported on police documents; Internal Affairs seemingly hid or ignored evidence that a traffic-enforcement operation was going on that day; and that Internal Affairs misreported crucial statements from Gonzalez, who broke her pelvis and left femur, but survived the crash. She  spoke to Internal Affairs at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center.

Although Gonzalez stated unequivocally that Miami Police officers had been chasing her, Miami PD’s Traffic Homicide Unit claimed evidence of a police-chase was “unfounded.”

Said board member Stephen Navarrete:”When I see so many inconsistencies, I have to ask myself: Is it either because they’re incompetent, or is it by design? And either way, it’s not acceptable,”

Just after 8:15 p.m. last night, the panel voted to sustain misconduct violations against the MPD unit working on Key Biscayne that day. (The CIP can verbally reprimand officers but has no power to actually punish any cops.)

Chief Jorge Colina, who is out of town in Washington, D.C., told New Times yesterday that he’s open to examining the case a second time.

“I certainly have no problem looking into the matter again,” Colina texted. He added that he’s “always open to have an outside entity look into the matter again.”

Colina, a veteran MPD cop who previously ran the  Internal Affairs bureau, oversees a department that has long been accused of white-washing misconduct. The department is still being monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights division after the DOJ in 2013 found officers were disproportionately shooting people of color and failing to fully investigate complaints.

Like cops in many departments, Miami PD officers are banned from engaging in high-speed chases unless a violent felony has occurred. Chases often end in needless crashes and deaths, and Miami cops are instructed to discontinue a chase if the suspect committed only a “traffic infraction, misdemeanor, or nonviolent felony” or “when there is a clear and unreasonable danger to the officer and/or other citizens.” This includes “when speeds dangerously exceed the normal flow of traffic.”

After the crash, MPD stated that it “does not have knowledge or information of any Miami Police officer or any other agency in pursuit of the said motorcycle, or any other motorcycle, in the area at the time of the crash.”

MPD’s then-union president, Ed Lugo, stated there was “no evidence that they were chased. On the contrary, Miami police officers were responding code 3 to render first aid. Instead of the deceased motorcycle ‘family’ rendering first aid to him, they were too busy taking cell phone videos of his lifeless body next to a woman fighting for her life.” Lugo also tweeted insults at Cruz Pena’s fellow riders.

CIP investigators began looking into the case in May 2019. The CIP re-listened to three interview tapes from Gonzalez’s interview with Internal Affairs. She told the cops that she and her husband had left Whiskey Joe’s Miami Bar and Grill on the Rickenbacker Causeway that afternoon. She added that after the pair peeled out of the bar, a police cruiser began chasing them with his sirens off and that the cop had been “edging” them by driving dangerously close at high speed.

She said there were three or four cops that  “would edge us, they got close and that is when my husband got close to the curve. And I do not know what happened at the curve [but] that we flew out and the motorcycle stayed, and they were the same police that went to see us down there where we landed.” Later, another IA investigator re-interviewed Gonzalez, and she stated, flatly, that the cops “were chasing us.”

In a third interview with Internal Affairs, Gonzalez stated that a Miami PD cruiser was “lateral” to the motorcycle when the bike flew off of the overpass. Cruz Peña had been driving at around 120 mph at the time. A Miami cop — listed as “A. Hernandez” in reports — says he arrived one minute after the crash occurred.

But Miami Police investigators magically came to different conclusions in official reports. MPD’s Traffic Homicide Unit conveniently claimed it was “impossible” for a cop to be driving that fast without also crashing into the retaining wall. MPD investigators stated that, because Gonzalez did not say the cop activated his emergency lights or sirens, there did not appear to be enough evidence a police-chase occurred. Officers later claimed video shot by other riders that day — which showed an MPD cruiser driving at a ludicrous rate of speed — had been edited and, in fact, showed a cop driving to help the crash victims.

At last night’s meeting, board member Jason E. Bloch — a former judge — was astounded Miami PD could so blatantly misconstrue Gonzalez’s statements.

“We have a report that seems to mischaracterize a statement by a witness,” Bloch said. He later alleged Internal Affairs’ reports contained an “outright misrepresentation” of Gonzalez’s statements. He called it a “very serious violation” of policy and convinced the panel to open a separate investigation into Internal Affairs’ conduct.

Other potential video evidence from the crash seems to have been improperly handled. Cruz Pena’s fellow motorcyclists — a group called the Dade County Riderz — have long maintained that Cruz Pena always wore a GoPro. MPD’s Traffic Homicide Supplementary Report stated that a GoPro had been recovered from the scene, but police property-receipts didn’t show it. The CIP stated:

Mr. Cruz-Pena was known to wear a Go Pro camera on his helmet. However, news coverage following the crash showed Mr. Cruz-Pena’s helmet in the roadway without the camera affixed. Property Receipts provided show 2 motorcycle helmets, 2 pairs of gloves, a helmet face shield, a GOPRO mount, and a black Kawasaki motorcycle were all impounded by MPD. There was no mention of a GOPRO camera. 

CIP investigators also stated that they were initially unsure what may have happened to Cruz Pena’s camera. But the CIP later discovered that MPD had the camera the entire time — and that a U.S. Secret Service agent later examined the camera

Since the November 2018 meeting, Staff has learned that a damaged GoPro Hero 5 with a micro SD card was collected from the crash scene and impounded into MPD Property, CIP documents state. The chain of custody for this property shows it was signed out by US Secret Service Digital Forensic Examiner Anthonius Kurver for forensic examination. Detective Kurver advised in memorandum form he imaged the data using forensic equipment.

Kurver, however, found the only footage left on the camera’s SD card was shot after the crash. The CIP later interviewed Cruz Pena’s cousin, Alejandro Mustafa, who told the CIP that he felt it was “very unusual” that Cruz Pena was not recording his ride.

In an even more bizarre section of the report, the CIP states that investigators have been unable to determine whether any cops were in the area when the crash occurred. Police cruisers often carry laptops that track police-cruiser GPS data. Despite the fact that video shows an MPD cruiser, the CIP stated MPD has no GPS information showing that GPS-enabled any cars were on the Rickenbacker Causeway at that date and time.

“Nobody showed up on the GPS at the crash site despite the fact that there were 12 officers were working detail at that time,” Albert said during last night’s CIP meeting.

Miami PD’s internal investigators also stated there was no paperwork or operational plan showing the department was conducting traffic-enforcement operations on the Rickenbacker that day. But the CIP later obtained information showing MPD’s “DUI/Saturation Operational Plan” for May 26 through 28. MPD held its roll calls for that operation on the Rickenbacker Causeway beginning at 12 noon and ending at 9 p.m. those days.

Neither Internal Affairs nor the Traffic Homicide Unit interviewed any of the cops potentially involved or any of the fellow Dade County Riderz who may have witnessed the incident.

Just before 7:30 p.m. last night, one CIP panel member, Deidria Davis, asked how, if no cops were allegedly in the area, Officer A. Hernandez was able to arrive on-scene so fast.

“He sounds like a magician,” Davis stated. She later added that: “To me, the death wouldn’t have occurred if he wasn’t being chased.”

Board Member Stephen Navarrete said that he owns a GoPro but found it “incredibly odd” that the device only turned on after the crash occurred. He said that, typically, one needs to “mash the buttons” on a GoPro to get the camera to start recording.

Mayer suggested that Chief Jorge Colina and the department’s Internal Affairs bureau ought o be hauled in front of the CIP for questioning. “If this police department is inadequately investigating homicides, then you know they’re not investigating other stuff,” he said. He later added: “I hope this makes it into the newspaper — I hope somebody writes about this.”

Published at Wed, 17 Jul 2019 12:40:00 +0000

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