DeFede

Meet MIA's Own Barney Fife

By now everyone knows that Miami International Airport is a mess. Political cronies of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas have plundered millions of dollars' worth of contracts from the facility, while the public has been stuck with $8000 toilet seats and an airport so mismanaged it took more than a decade to bring something as simple as luggage carts to the main terminal. Every now and then, though, a story comes along that makes even the most seasoned cynic scratch his head in amazement. Nelson Oramas is such a story.

Recently Oramas, who is director of airport security and a 23-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department, not only lost his county-leased Jeep Cherokee, he lost his gun as well.

When I learned of this last week, I could only laugh. It must be a joke, I thought. Veteran cops don't lose their guns. But I was assured that the rumor swirling around the airport was a serious matter: Their security czar had pulled up to a bar in Fort Lauderdale, turned to the first black guy he saw on the street, and assuming he was a parking valet, tossed him the car keys and proceeded on his way. When Oramas returned to the parking lot a few hours later, he realized his car was missing and that -- surprise! -- the man evidently was not a valet. Complicating matters, Oramas had left a fully loaded Browning 9mm handgun in the rear of the Jeep, along with an extra clip of ammunition.

"Come on," I told my source. "Things like that only happen in the movies." After a few phone calls, however, I discovered it was all true. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department confirmed Oramas reported his Jeep and his gun had been stolen.

"I feel kind of silly," Oramas told me last week, gamely trying to brush off the incident. He said he pulled into a parking lot next to a bar/restaurant called Dicey Riley's around 9:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 10. He explained he was looking for some friends in the area. When he got out of his Jeep, he said, he saw someone standing nearby. "There was a young black male standing there, over by the curb," he recalled. "I asked him: 'Are you parking 'em?' He said, 'Yes.'"

Oramas, who is 46 years old and rakes in nearly $130,000 per year as head of security for the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (which includes Opa-locka and Tamiami airports in addition to MIA), said he gave the man his car keys and a five-dollar bill. "The guy looked legitimate," Oramas added.

Of course the precise meaning of "legitimate" is subject to interpretation. Valets and parking attendants in the area generally wear white shorts with shirts that feature the name of the valet company, or they wear orange vests and carry flashlights to guide drivers to parking spaces. And normally drivers see some sort of sign indicating valet parking. None of those things was present in this case. According to the police report, the man to whom Oramas tossed his car keys was wearing a white shirt and black pants. Did Oramas find it odd that the man didn't give him a receipt or ticket stub for his keys? No, he said, he didn't even think about it.

"I didn't do anything wrong," Oramas volunteered defensively. "I got ripped off in some kind of valet scam. It's embarrassing, and if it's something that you think is news, that's up to you." Oramas noted the car was found the next day. His gun and ammunition, however, are still missing.

Philip Eastman, owner of Dicey Riley's, was dumbfounded at the thought of someone turning over his car keys to a complete stranger on the street. "There is no way you could be that stupid," he scoffed. "There is no mistaking the valets around here. How could he just give his car keys to some guy? And he just left his gun in the car? What kind of cop is this guy?"

Oramas, I told Eastman, was a veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department and now was head of security for the county's aviation facilities, including Miami International Airport. "Well, that certainly says something about Miami, doesn't it?" he replied.

It sure does.

A person would be hard pressed to find a better symbol of the incompetence of Miami-Dade County's administrators than the bumbling Nelson Oramas. After all, when the head of airport security blithely hands over to a crook the keys to his county-issued vehicle, it isn't difficult to understand why there have been so many security lapses at the airport. And if he can't even hang on to his own gun, how the hell is he supposed to protect the millions of people who fly in and out of MIA every year?

Eastman, the Dicey Riley's owner, was suspicious. There had to be something more to Oramas's blundering. One obvious question: Had the security chief been drinking that night? Oramas claimed he had consumed no alcohol either before or after turning over his car keys. But he was extremely evasive when asked where he had gone that evening, and he did not disclose the names of the friends he was looking for.

His actions after discovering his car was stolen only fueled the suspicions. Oramas told Fort Lauderdale police he realized his car was missing at about 1:00 a.m., but he did not actually report the vehicle stolen until almost 9:00 a.m. His explanation: He simply decided to go home, go to sleep, and then report the car and gun missing in the morning. "I waited until that morning, until I could get my personal car to go to the police station to report it," he said. (That, naturally, raises the question why was he driving his county-issued vehicle instead of his personal car while off-duty and enjoying a night on the town.)

Was he afraid that if he summoned police to the scene they would see he had been drinking? Once again Oramas denied he had been drinking that night.

Even if he is telling the truth, his actions are inexcusable. As a long-time police officer, he should have known the risk he was taking by waiting eight hours to alert police that his car and gun had been stolen. Suppose a cop had spotted Oramas's vehicle that night and pulled it over for some minor traffic violation. Approaching the Jeep, the officer wouldn't have realized the car was stolen. More important, the officer would not have known the driver was armed. And that driver, fearful he was about to be arrested, could have tried to shoot the unsuspecting officer. Luckily that didn't happen.

At the very least, if he had immediately reported the car and gun stolen, there would have been a greater chance the thief would have been apprehended and the weapon recovered. As it stands, thanks to Oramas there is a gun on the street -- unaccounted for, waiting to be used, ready to inflict suffering.

Nelson Oramas's irresponsible conduct may be inexcusable but it also is indicative of the neglectful manner in which nearly every department at the airport has been managed, a trend Alex Penelas has done little to reverse during the four years he's been mayor. If Oramas cared about anything other than adding cash to his pension, he would resign. But it's apparent he doesn't, so he should be fired or at the very least demoted. But he'll probably come out of this without much more than a slap on the wrist. (According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, Oramas still is officially listed as an employee of the Miami-Dade Police Department. But Miami-Dade police officials say they no longer are responsible for his actions. As a result it doesn't seem likely Oramas will face disciplinary action for failing to properly secure his gun as required by the department's rules and regulations.)

Here's another reason Oramas will probably emerge from this unscathed: He is one of those politically connected airport employees. "Nelson has always been a big name-dropper," says one senior airport source, who requested anonymity. "He brags all the time about the advice he gives Penelas, and his close ties to [Commissioner] Natacha Millan." Oramas also has told people around the airport he's interested in applying for the job of aviation director, though he denies he is interested in the top job. Now, there's something to be thankful for.

Oramas's tenure at the aviation department has been rife with problems. Even his transfer from police to aviation wasn't without controversy. It is widely believed that Oramas, who was a division chief with the Miami-Dade Police Department, was shuffled over to MIA because he clashed with Carlos Alvarez, the department's director. Oramas said he is well aware of those stories, but claimed he and Alvarez have a good relationship. (Alvarez declined a request for an interview about Oramas.)

Since Oramas's arrival at the aviation department, MIA has been awash in security-related scandals. Federal agents discovered a brazen ring of baggage handlers that was smuggling drugs through the airport. During a sting operation last year, federal agents were even able to bribe a baggage handler to smuggle a hand grenade aboard a plane. The Federal Aviation Administration also has been highly critical of lax security measures at MIA. During much of this time, Oramas has been an absentee security chief. Airport officials says he frequently calls in sick. Oramas blames "stomach trouble" for his repeated absences.

Despite these major problems, Aviation Department director Gary Dellapa and Mayor Penelas have continued to place their confidence in Nelson Oramas. Penelas recently attended an airport press conference in which Oramas unveiled the department's answer to the widespread smuggling: Airport employees will now be required to carry their belongings in clear plastic bags. This way if an employee is toting a kilo of cocaine or a bomb, Oramas's crack security staff will be able to see it inside the bag.

Penelas applauded the introduction of the plastic bags and hailed the measure as just the type of proactive, innovative initiative citizens can continue to expect from his administration. Sadly that's probably true.

In the meantime let's just hope the criminal genius who conned Oramas out of his car keys and gun doesn't go to work for the Colombian drug cartels or a band of international terrorists. Lord only knows how we could possibly defeat such a cunning outlaw.

jim.defede@miaminewtimes.com

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