Jailhouse Rumble

If racial strife and political bickering were crimes, the entire staff of Dade County's corrections department would be locked up

During a recent interview, HACO vice president Nieves and HACO executive director Margarita de Pazos were asked how many times they've met with Assistant County Manager Ari Rivera.

"Several," Nieves said cautiously.
"Numerous," de Pazos said simultaneously.
Which is it? "Let's put it this way," Nieves said. "If I could have the same access to Commissioner Burke or [Commission Chairman Art] Teele the way they [OMCO] have, I'd be happy."

Whether Frank Dennis knew it or not, he was about to become a martyr A an unlikely role for a 24-year-old whose rap sheet included nineteen felony convictions. In the summer of 1994, he'd been arrested, and then released, on charges he'd pummeled his girlfriend with a bottle and a stick. Soon he was arrested again, this time on drug-possession charges.

On the morning of August 21, 1994, five days after his most recent arrest, Dennis was standing in the rear lobby of the county jail at NW Thirteenth Street and Thirteenth Avenue, waiting to be shipped off to another county facility. He was more than a little irritated about his pending transfer. How was his girlfriend going to visit him, he complained to corrections officers, if he was way out in West Dade?

While waiting for the jail van to arrive, Dennis was causing problems for the officers nearby. He had apparently been leering at, or making some sort of statements about, the posterior of a female officer. After a short while, Dennis eyed a nearby phone, walked over, and placed a call. He wasn't handcuffed or in shackles, and none of the guards noticed his movements for several minutes until a supervisor, Ofcr. Manuel Diaz, spotted him and yelled to another officer, Daniel Arocho, to tell the inmate he wasn't allowed to use the phone.

"I'm talking to my people!" Dennis shouted at Arocho when the officer told him to hang up. Arocho grabbed the phone from Dennis's hand, slammed the receiver down, and ordered Dennis back against the wall.

"You fucking Cuban, you hung the phone up on my people!" shouted Dennis, who is black. "I'll whip your Cuban ass! I'll whip your Cuban ass!" By now Diaz was standing alongside Arocho as Dennis finally moved against the wall. According to reports the two officers later filed, they decided Dennis should be locked up until the van arrived, and escorted him to a secluded portion of the building where the jail's holding cells are located. What happened next remains a matter of dispute. This account is drawn from official reports and depositions.

One witness, Ofcr. Curtis Wright, said that after Diaz and Arocho placed Dennis in the holding cell, the two officers returned to the lobby, put on protective latex gloves, then went back to the area of the holding cells. A few minutes later Dennis began screaming for help.

In a handwritten statement to investigators, Dennis concurred that the officers left the holding cell but soon returned. They were still angry, he stated, about the way he supposedly looked at one of the female officers and said they were "going to stop his punk ass" for being so disrespectful to a woman. "Then one of the officers hit me in the eye," Dennis wrote. "And I said, 'What's going on?' Then I grab the officer that hit me in the eye, trying to keep him from hitting me again. That's when three more officers jumped on."

Diaz and Arocho contradicted both Wright's and Dennis's account. They maintained that while they were escorting Dennis to the holding cell, the inmate sucker-punched Arocho in the face and then bit Arocho on the forearm. There is no disagreement, however, that a melee ensued, with several other Hispanic officers joining the fracas.

The commotion in the holding cell attracted the attention of other officers. Six black female officers later came forward to say they were horrified watching the Hispanic officers beat Dennis. They claimed the officers had Dennis face-down on the ground and were punching, kicking, and choking him. "Help me!" they said Dennis screamed. "I've had enough! Help me! I can't breathe!" When one of the women, Ofcr. Sara Walker, approached the scene, she said, Dennis grabbed her leg and began pleading, "Sister, please help me!"

Walker wrote in her initial report that Diaz appeared out of control, screaming over and over again: "He bit Arocho!" When she tried to move Diaz away from Dennis, the officer shoved her so hard she nearly fell to the ground. Diaz claimed he didn't realize it was Walker and thought it was another inmate attacking him, but Walker said Diaz knew it was her and began shouting, "Get the fuck out of the way!" Other female officers recalled Diaz screaming at them: "All you bitches get the fuck from back here!"

Meanwhile, Arocho was in a panic himself. His forearm was bleeding and he, too, kept shouting, "He bit me! He bit me!"

"What do you expect!" Ofcr. Sylvia Simmons screamed back. "You all are kicking on him. Just handcuff him." But Arocho could only think about the possibility that Dennis might be infected with AIDS.

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