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Every month the St. Patrick Parish School in Miami Beach honors a family through its guardian angel program. On February 18 faculty, parents, and students from the Catholic parochial academy gathered in the auditorium to salute the Buttacavoli clan. The program notes that Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli is a Miami Beach assistant city manager, and her husband Frank is executive vice president at a local beauty-products firm. Two of their sons graduated from St. Patrick; the third, Michael, is currently a sixth-grader there.
Although such prominent parents certainly would appear to merit these kudos, their youngest boy may have engaged in some far-from-angelic behavior. In September 1999 Michael was accused of pushing a female classmate to the ground, shoving a male classmate on top of her, and then applying pressure to the boy's buttocks so the pair appeared to be humping.
Police were called to investigate the matter. After hearing about the probe, Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli seems to have acted even naughtier than her baby boy. According to the police report, the assistant city manager blamed one of the alleged victims and her mother for the scuffle. Then she questioned investigators' credentials and even slipped in a veiled threat.
"We were appalled," says Maria Guerra, mother of the alleged female victim. "Everything [Diaz-Buttacavoli] said [to the investigators] was not true. She said all I had done was cause problems. We felt really hurt; why was she going after us instead of trying to resolve the situation? We felt what we had done was right."
Miami Beach police began looking into the case on September 13, 1999, when Guerra brought her daughter to the station to file a battery complaint against Michael Buttacavoli. Miami Beach Police Det. Marilyn Tepperberg and Department of Children and Families (DCF) protective investigator Rose Lesniak began a joint inquiry; the cop treated the incident as a possible crime, the DCF officer as a possible case of abuse and neglect.
Tepperberg took a sworn statement from the Guerra girl. The sixth-grader said she was in music class on September 9. While she was in one room with several students, the teacher was next door. The Guerra girl said Michael Buttacavoli pushed her to the floor, "where she ended up face down with [another boy] on top of her.
"She indicated that she couldn't get up, felt pinned, and couldn't breathe," the report reads. "She then felt [the other boy's] body, his groin being shaken and pushed against her backside. She was unable to see who was doing this to her, as she was face down.... She said, 'It lasted about five to ten minutes.'"
On September 15 Tepperberg and Lesniak went to St. Patrick and spoke to principal Josephine Kenna, who helped set up interviews with children and teachers who had witnessed the incident. The principal notified parents, then brought the students, one by one, to the teachers' lounge. The children's stories varied on several points. Some said the Guerra girl was acting "hyper" before the incident, and was even punching and kicking Michael previous to the pileup. Most of the kids agreed that Michael had pushed Guerra and the boy to the ground. Everyone concluded that Michael had forced the boy on top of Guerra.
Shortly thereafter the assistant city manager swooped in. Her first target was the alleged victim's mother, Maria Guerra. "In paraphrasing, Mrs. Buttacavoli advised, 'The victim's mother is to blame for this and that there have been numerous problems since she has been coming to this school,'" Tepperberg wrote. "She further stated that [the Guerra girl] 'was in love with my son and that she fabricates lies.'" (Maria Guerra denies both of these assertions.)
Next in the cross hairs were the investigators. "Ms. Buttacavoli questioned my employment as to whom I work for," Tepperberg wrote. "I informed her that I work for the police department. She questioned [Rose] Lesniak's employment [and it] was explained that [Lesniak] works for the Department of Children and Families, but is housed at the police department, to which Mrs. Buttacavoli responded, 'Then the city pays your salary.' Investigator Lesniak corrected her, advising she was paid by the state."
By early October Lesniak had closed her investigation. She found no evidence of sexual molestation but concluded that the school should have done a better job of supervising the kids. (This finding carries no official consequences for St. Patrick.) Police closed out the battery charge against the Buttacavoli boy last October. The case is classified as "exceptionally cleared," which means that, while police established that the incident had in fact occurred much as the Guerras described it, they decided not to pursue criminal charges.
That wasn't good enough for Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli. At some point in the two months following the incident, she must have read Tepperberg's report. So, on December 6, 1999, an all-star cast assembled in the city manager's conference room at Miami Beach City Hall. Present were then-City Manager Sergio Rodriguez; Police Chief Richard Barreto; Police Maj. Steve Robbins; Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli and her husband; St. Patrick principal Josephine Kenna; and the parents of the boy whom Michael Buttacavoli had allegedly pushed. It soon became clear that Diaz-Buttacavoli's concerns had nothing to do with protecting her son, and everything to do with protecting herself.