The Unduly Long Arm of the Law

When the feds indicted Izzy Gonzalez, they may have reached too far

Although I had seen Lt. Israel Gonzalez around the Miami Police Department, it wasn't until a meeting in a deserted office building just before midnight two years ago that I got to know him. I hoped he could verify a story I'd heard -- that a police major quashed a murder investigation to protect a witness who was the son of a friend. Whatever the major's reasons, his meddling meant that a murderer remained at large. Gonzalez was in charge of the homicide unit at the time.

He confirmed everything, adding that he confronted the major and the chief about the episode and then was promptly transferred to midnight shift. The detectives investigating the case were also transferred. Izzy, as he is known, berated himself for not successfully shielding his detectives from the fallout.

He was talking to me on condition of anonymity, hence the cover of night. At the end of the discussion, I pitched him: "Hey, this would be a lot stronger if you put your name behind these statements." Izzy paused, then shot back: "You're right. I've never hidden behind anything in my life. I won't start now." I've interviewed plenty of cops about sensitive subjects and can say that Izzy's response was uncommon.

Israel Gonzalez leaves the federal courthouse as a jury begins deliberating his fate and that of ten other Miami police officers
Israel Gonzalez leaves the federal courthouse as a jury begins deliberating his fate and that of ten other Miami police officers

I knew he was deeply troubled by the corruption that permeated the Miami Police Department. That's why I was floored when, after twenty years on the force, Izzy was indicted by the U.S. Attorney's Office in 2001, along with ten other officers, accused of shooting suspects then planting guns on them and lying to investigators. The trial began in January and ended last week. (At press time the jury was still deliberating.)

I'll tell you right now, Izzy is a friend and I'm pulling for him. That said, I also think the feds were on target. If they hadn't gotten involved, the department never would have changed its inhumane shooting policy. In the past, officers who witnessed a violent felony were authorized to shoot fleeing suspects, armed or unarmed. Now they are directed to shoot only if they or someone else is in imminent danger. And the intense scrutiny following the indictments should bring an end to the whispered practice of using throw-down guns to justify an arrest or shooting. Without indictments, there would be no new chief and no change to the routine practice of ignoring scandals. Police department commanders and state prosecutors knew about these controversial shootings but did nothing.

During the trial, prosecutors presented convincing evidence that something was badly amiss. They were helped in this by two former officers, Bill Hames and John Mervolion, who pleaded guilty and testified against the others. But the prosecution undermined its effectiveness by arguing the existence of a conspiracy so elaborate it diverted attention from the strongest facts.

The trial was actually a series of mini-trials involving four police shootings: the 1995 killing of two men who had just smashed the car window of a terrified couple and snatched a purse on I-395; a 1996 SWAT team raid in Overtown that killed a 72-year-old man accused of firing a pistol at police; another 1996 case involving an officer shooting, and missing, a fleeing purse-snatcher on NW 43rd Street; and an infamous 1997 incident in Coconut Grove in which an officer shot a homeless man in the leg, believing he had a gun. (The feds say it was a Walkman.)

Only a few of those charged were involved in more than one of the incidents. Ofcr. Art Beguiristain was at each shooting, and in fact "found" guns at I-395 and NW 43rd Street and took the gun off the body in the SWAT raid. Clearly he should have been a target. Ofcr. Jesse Aguero, depicted at trial as trigger-happy, was at three scenes, shooting his weapon at I-395 more than twenty times and firing three shots at the fleeing purse-snatcher. He's also the one who found the gun in Coconut Grove. Cooperating witness Mervolion says he saw Aguero pull it from his pants and drop it under a car. (The guns found in the Grove and NW 43rd Street shootings were traced back to earlier police seizures.)

Yet others were at just one scene. SWAT officer Alejandro Macias, for example, was present only at the Overtown shooting. He was shot from behind by a fellow officer and hospitalized (a bulletproof vest saved his life). His lawyer pointed out that in the entirety of the alleged three-year conspiracy, Macias was on the scene for one hour. It was his statement to investigators that supposedly tangled him up.

As noble as their intentions may have been, prosecutors Allan Kaiser and Curtis Miner overreached by charging so many individuals. They created a trial so complex that surely not even they believed all eleven officers would be convicted. The jury will have a tough time sorting out the cops and the conspiracies.

The SWAT shooting, which garnered much pretrial press, should not have gone to trial at all. Some SWAT team members on the scene were indicted, others weren't. No witnesses say they saw a gun planted and nothing linked the gun to any officer. Physical evidence -- spattered blood, bullet trajectories -- was inconclusive. Shortly after the shooting the victim's great-granddaughter told homicide investigators her great-grandfather had a gun and dealt drugs, but later changed key parts of her story.

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