By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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.
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.
The I-395 shooting was the only one in which Izzy was implicated. I can understand why the case looked good to the feds. Hames and Mervolion say they knew guns were planted, and both say they met the next day with six others at the Barbecue Barn restaurant to plot cover stories. But Izzy, who is 43 years old, has a strong defense. Mervolion placed him at the meeting. Hames didn't. This seemed to me to be the definition of reasonable doubt. Essentially that was the case against him. He was not accused of planting the guns or talking to anyone at the scene about planting a gun. The shooting, as defined by department policy, was justified. So it really was a matter of whether he was at the meeting where a conspiracy allegedly was hatched.
I spent some time with Izzy before the trial began. Because of a gag order he was careful not to talk about his case. We'd sit and have a beer at Soyka on Biscayne Boulevard and discuss police work in general, or motorcycles.
Every time I was with him, I thought: Is this guy lying when he asserts his innocence? How well do I know him? I dug through his personnel records at the police department for clues. Among other things, I found a 1984 commendation for confronting a man carrying an Uzi submachine gun. "Officer Gonzalez ordered the man to drop the gun but he hesitated as if he was not going to drop it, causing Officer Gonzalez to fear for his life. Officer Gonzalez held his fire and the man dropped the machine gun." And one from 1990, in which Izzy tried to calm a man who had stabbed his brother with a screwdriver and was brandishing a knife and machete in front of several officers. "Officer Gonzalez continued talking to the subject, trying to get him to disarm himself. This was an exhausting job that lasted more than two hours" until police grabbed him. Both of these incidents easily could have ended in "justified" gunfire.
And I remembered what former Lt. John Campbell told me. Campbell headed homicide until 1999, when then-Chief Raul Martinez transferred him out and appointed Izzy in his place. "They came to me and said I had to go talk to Izzy, because he wouldn't take the job unless he knew it was all right with me," Campbell recalls. The two aren't friends. In fact Campbell helped persuade one of the indicted officers to plead guilty and cooperate.
Izzy's simmering rage at being a defendant, seeing his career ruined, and facing incarceration had somehow evolved into resignation. He'd been through worse, he would say. Over a beer one night he talked about his wife Lidia. In 1999 carjackers shot her dead for her Rolex -- a grim twist of fate for a cop sworn to protect others from precisely such crimes. It colored his view of the 25 years in prison he faced. "They can't do anything to me now, it doesn't matter," he muttered. Wherever he was, he'd be alone. He even told his family, including his parents and two sons from a previous marriage, to stay away from the courthouse. They did. "Like birth and death," he said, "there are some things you need to go through alone."