Prosecuting the Police

The State Attorney's Office takes heat no matter what the outcome

I don't know if Miami Police Ofcr. Jesse Aguero and Miami-Dade Police Det. Laura Russell have ever met, or even if they know each other. But I do know they have one thing in common: They are both killers.

Aguero is one of the most notorious cops in the City of Miami. During the fifteen years he has been a police officer, he has spent nearly half that time under suspension or criminal indictment and has been at the center of some of the department's biggest scandals.

In 1988 he was investigated for sexual assault after a prostitute stepped forward and accused him of forcing her to have sex with him. Investigators found a couple of semen-stained paper napkins on the street where the woman said Aguero assaulted her. A DNA test matched the semen to Aguero. Despite this the State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute him. The Miami Police Department, however, fired him in 1992 based on their own investigation. Amazingly a civilian civil service board later ordered Aguero's reinstatement.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is in the political fight of her life thanks to the PBA
Steve Satterwhite
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is in the political fight of her life thanks to the PBA
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is in the political fight of her life thanks to the PBA
Steve Satterwhite
Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is in the political fight of her life thanks to the PBA

Federal prosecutors in 1993 accused Aguero of trying to cover up the 1988 murder of Leonardo Mercado, the Wynwood drug dealer who was beaten to death by six Miami police officers. Prosecutors believe Aguero lied to FBI agents investigating the heinous beating by offering a partial alibi for one of Mercado's attackers, Ofcr. Pablo Camacho. A federal jury ultimately acquitted Aguero of wrongdoing.

In 1997 an officer shot and wounded an unarmed homeless man in Coconut Grove. Prosecutors claim Aguero organized the ensuing coverup by planting a gun on the shooting victim so the other officers could claim self-defense. Aguero allegedly had stolen the so-called throw-down gun from the home of a drug dealer while executing a search warrant in 1996. Earlier this year Aguero was charged with grand theft and tampering with evidence in connection with the Grove incident.

For Aguero there is more to come. As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, federal prosecutors are investigating a 1995 incident in which Aguero and a group of his fellow plainclothes officers shot and killed two teenagers, Derrick Wiltshire and Antonio Young. The nineteen-year-olds, along with two other men, committed a smash-and-grab robbery against a pair of Ecuadorian tourists. As they tried to make their escape, Aguero and his police cohorts descended on them, chasing them onto the on-ramp of Interstate 395 in downtown Miami.

Boxed in, the teens jumped from their car and tried to flee on foot. As they ran, Wiltshire and Young were shot in the back. Young died face down in the street, Wiltshire a short time later at a hospital.

Five officers discharged their weapons that night, none more eagerly than Aguero, who was responsible for twenty-one of the nearly three dozen bullets fired. Aguero and the others claimed they shot in self-defense, that Wiltshire and Young had weapons. And indeed near the spot where each man fell was a handgun -- handguns without fingerprints on them, one of which wasn't even loaded, the other incapable of being fired because it was loaded with the wrong type of ammunition.

All the officers involved in the I-395 shooting were cleared through both an internal review of the shooting and by a judge through a process known as a coroner's inquest. But given the allegations against Aguero in the Coconut Grove case, the I-395 shooting is being re-examined.

In the meantime we are left to ponder the existence of cops like Jesse Aguero, who has been suspended for nearly three years now as a result of his involvement in the Coconut Grove case. He continues to be paid, nearly $110,000 in accumulated salary during his suspension.

It would be easy to think of Aguero as simply a rogue cop. A number of people I spoke to inside the department, however, say Aguero has been a hero and a role model for many younger officers. His personnel file overflows with commendations. Read these citations alone and you'd think Aguero was the department's greatest cop.

“Officer Aguero is a very hard-working and dedicated officer,” one states.

“His record speaks for itself,” notes another. “He is an aggressive officer who is very active.” As a member of the street narcotics unit, better known as “the jump-out boys,” Aguero made scores of arrests in the city's most drug-infested neighborhoods. During one period he made more arrests than all other members of his unit combined.

And yet along with the dozens of commendations are nearly as many complaints -- about excessive use of force, abusive language, and allegations he stole money from drug dealers he arrested. He once was disciplined for hanging the name of an investigator in the Mercado case on a target at the police firing range. As early as 1989 there were suspicions he may have planted a gun in another officer-related shooting.

How do you reconcile the different images of Aguero? Are cops like him an inevitable byproduct of the war on drugs, in which some officers believe they must win no matter what the cost? Is he one of those cops who believe that if you have to lie, cheat, and steal a little to achieve the greater good, then so be it? Is Jesse Aguero an ends-justifies-the-means sort of cop?

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