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
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?

And at what point does bravado give way to paranoia generated by the conviction that there are two types of people in the world: cops and everyone else? For those individuals the goal is no longer the betterment of society but rather personal survival. How many officers have come to believe that politicians, journalists, and the public are just waiting to turn on them if they make a mistake? How many of them factor that into how they perform their jobs?

Aguero doesn't exist in a vacuum. In the case of the Coconut Grove shooting, more than a dozen officers formed a human shield to block onlookers' view as Aguero allegedly planted the throw-down weapon. I would have liked to discuss all this with Aguero himself, but his attorney refused my request for an interview with the suspended officer.

Which brings me to Miami-Dade Det. Laura Russell. Last week the Miami Herald ran a story about Russell, a robbery detective who three years ago began a second career in standup comedy. The story also noted that since this past January Russell has been using her comedy skills to work with a group of troubled teenagers an hour each week at the county's Juvenile Justice Center.

According to the kids, she's quite a hoot.

Russell's earlier work with troubled teens wasn't quite so funny. The Herald story neglected to mention that in 1991 she shot and killed an unarmed teenager in front of her North Miami house while he and his buddies tried to steal the stereo speakers from a neighbor's car.

Russell claimed Andrew Morello tried to run her down with his van and that she fired in self-defense. The police department's internal affairs division and the Dade State Attorney's Office cleared her of any wrongdoing, though in my opinion their investigations were whitewashes. As I wrote in a series of articles, the physical evidence actually showed Morello was driving in reverse, away from Russell when she shot him. (Russell later filed a defamation lawsuit against me and New Times over those stories, though eventually she withdrew the suit.)

Do I think Russell deliberately killed Morello? No, I don't. I've always believed she was startled by one of the teenagers that night, panicked, and accidentally shot the boy. But what I've never understood is why she couldn't just say that.

When I saw last week's Herald story about Russell, I called Morello's parents. They fought for years to expose the truth about their son's death, and they hated that the boy was described by authorities as someone who tried to kill a police officer. They did not want “attempted cop killer” to be their son's epithet.

Andrea Morello read the story about Russell and seethed a mother's rage. Joe Morello wondered if Russell's work with teenagers was an act of contrition on her part. Was she feeling guilty for shooting his son? Good question. Russell, however, wouldn't return my phone calls.

Similarities exist between the Morello shooting and the Coconut Grove case. In the Grove incident, officers came upon two homeless men they thought were brawling in the street. They actually were just horsing around, but both men admitted it may have looked as though they were fighting. As one of the officers approached, he saw something shiny and black in the hands of one of the men, and, believing it was a gun, shot him, wounding him in the leg. In fact the man was holding a Sony Walkman.

If the officers on the scene had just told the truth, they would have been cleared of any wrongdoing. Instead they ditched the Walkman, and Aguero allegedly came along and planted a gun at the scene.

It's worth pointing out that the stories officers create often make them seem heroic: confronting armed suspects or standing in the path of an oncoming vehicle. Is it really better to lie and sound courageous than to tell the truth and appear human?

So pervasive is the culture of lying within the Miami Police Department, that city attorneys would rather pay out huge settlement sums to individuals who sue the department than risk going to court and having officers' veracity questioned before a jury.

Even more troubling is the notion that lying actually works -- at least from the officer's perspective. Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle cites the Coconut Grove case as an example of her office vigorously searching out the truth. And yet consider the I-395 shooting. Rundle's office cleared those officers of wrongdoing through an inquest, but the case is about to unravel. Why didn't prosecutors catch it five years ago?

I learned a lot about inquests when I was investigating Andrew Morello's death. Laura Russell was cleared during an inquest as well, which shouldn't surprise anyone. Inquests are nothing more than dog-and-pony shows put on by the State Attorney's Office to give the public the illusion that police shootings are seriously scrutinized by an independent judge. In more than 98 percent of Miami-Dade inquests held since 1982, the police officer was cleared of wrongdoing.

A coroner's inquest is like a trial except that the prosecutor is the only one who gets to present evidence to the judge; no one is permitted to challenge that presentation. In the Morello case, for instance, prosecutors conveniently withheld from evidence tapes of Russell calling 911 immediately after the shooting and declaring that the van was backing up -- a key bit of information as Russell later claimed Morello was trying to run her down.

Despite the fears of many police officers that prosecutors are prepared to indict them after the slightest mishap, the instinctive reaction of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office has always been to accept the officer's version of events and clear them without delay.

Ironically Rundle is now struggling to stay in office because the area's biggest police union, the Police Benevolent Association, is backing its own candidate against her, claiming she isn't sympathetic enough to the plight of law-enforcement officers. More paranoia.

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