What's a Little Gunplay Among Friends?

Not much, it seems, if your friends happen to be well placed in the Miami Beach Police Department

Jose "Pepe" Alvarez lives a charmed life. Waterfront home on Miami Beach's exclusive Sunset Island number three, menservants, yacht, black Cadillac limo for squiring friends around. The 50-year-old president of the Miami-based Union American Insurance Company is accustomed to VIP treatment.

Winston Noe Curtis lives in a small Northwest Dade apartment with his wife and works two low-paying jobs. The 24-year-old Nicaraguan doesn't drink or smoke and claims to have never gotten so much as a speeding ticket. His goal is to become a police officer.

On Friday morning, August 2, their disparate paths crossed. Curtis, driving a construction delivery van, squeezed in front of Alvarez, who had just backed out of his driveway on to West 24th Street. The two exchanged honks and profanities and the tirade continued on to the property next door, where Curtis was delivering materials to a construction crew. There, say Curtis and five witnesses, Alvarez sprang from his Mercedes SL 500, unzipped a yellow pouch, and pulled out a handgun, pointing it at Curtis.

The men squared off ten yards apart, according to the witnesses, Curtis empty-handed and Alvarez now aiming the 9mm semiautomatic handgun at Curtis's head, his finger on the trigger.

"What do you want me to do?" Curtis recalls Alvarez asking. "You want me to do something?"

With the construction crew watching and pleading with Curtis to shut up and not move, Alvarez walked back to his car and drove away. Curtis immediately grabbed the van's cellular phone and called his boss, Kay Statz, president of Camp Development Corp., who called the police. Thirty minutes after the standoff, Ofcr. Ambrose Sims was on the scene, interviewing Curtis and the crew. Sims then walked over and knocked on Alvarez's front door, but a woman claiming she didn't understand Sims's broken Spanish refused to open the door. The Mercedes was not in the driveway.

Sims filed an incident report at the police station at approximately 4:00 p.m., which notes that Det. Gary Schiaffo "would follow up on the report." But before Schiaffo could investigate, Alvarez had arranged a meeting with Assistant Chief Manuel Diaz through a phone call from "a mutual friend," according to Diaz. Alvarez arrived at the police station at approximately 1:30 p.m. the day of the incident. In Diaz's office, Alvarez told his side of the story to the assistant chief and Detective Schiaffo.

"He said he had a problem and I told him I'd help him get it resolved," remembers Diaz about the meeting with Alvarez. "I had met this guy once, maybe twice before at some functions. I told him to get over here and I'd introduce him to the detective. I told him the best way to handle this was to come clean. Just tell him what happened. It was a common courtesy that I'd give to anyone."

Diaz, a former City of Miami police captain, has been an assistant chief of police administration for a year. He says he told Schiaffo to use his own judgment in the case. "I told Alvarez, 'It's up to the detective,'" insists Diaz. "I wanted to stand back and be objective about this. I don't want to influence the decision of my officers. My credibility has never been called into question."

Schiaffo learned about the case around noon that day, when Sims relayed to him over the police radio a brief description of the alleged aggravated assault. But before Schiaffo could question the victim or the witnesses, he says he summarily closed his investigation after talking with Alvarez.

"He came to the station to talk to me. He said, 'I want to tell you what happened,'" recalls Schiaffo. "That in itself is something. How many guys come in like that?"

According to Schiaffo, Alvarez said that Curtis was always driving fast through the quiet neighborhood and that Alvarez's young child played in the street. He also complained that the construction crew had ruined his car with "concrete and concrete cinder blocks." Says Schiaffo: "He had been very tolerant for a long time about this stuff."

Curtis denies the allegations. He and the construction crew, which had worked at the site for about a year, say they never saw a child around the Alvarez house.

Alvarez declined to comment for this story, but Diaz and Schiaffo say Alvarez told them that he never took the gun out of its case. "He took the gun case out and showed it to the guy," Schiaffo explains, "because he thought the guy was going to get a bat or something out of his truck."

Diaz recalls differently: Curtis "came at Alvarez with a tire iron," he says.

Both versions contradict the report of the victim and the witnesses. Schiaffo, however, says he was not bothered by the conflicting stories. "There's always three sides to every case: the suspect's, the victim's, and mine. It's my interpretation," Schiaffo reasons. "Alvarez is not a scumbag. He's a gentleman. He's a professional person." He rejects the assertion by Curtis, crew, and construction company president Statz that Alvarez was given special treatment because of his wealth and connections: "He knows a lot of people," Schiaffo concedes, "but I don't worry about who he knows. I've been doing this 23 years."

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