The Bad Shoot

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong perp, wrong sentence

Detective Veloz, the first man in, got a good look at everyone as he knocked Castaneda to the floor. His gun was drawn but no one threatened him and he didn't shoot, even after Torres says they made eye contact. To Campos, Veloz's focus seemed to be on securing the premises, apprehending this bunch, and locking them up. Campos states that the detective yelled: "Get down!"

Everybody else hit the floor without a word. Torres, who was sitting on a sofa at two o'clock from the door, immediately put his hands in the air. Then Picallo spotted Hector. That's when thunder clapped three times. The sergeant, the second man in, was braced in the doorway like a movie cop, knees bent and both hands extended in the stiff-armed Hollywood stance -- Al Pacino in Heat. No warning, according to the four perps. Torres felt something like an electric bee sting under his left arm. He remembers losing feeling in his body from the shock, dropping to the floor with his back toward the shooter, and praying it wasn't the end for him.

He claims he immediately asked Picallo, "Why did you shoot me?" Realizing what might have led him to do so, Torres belatedly explained: "That's just a paintball gun!" The image that burned into Torres as he rolled on his side was Picallo's face: "He had the expression of someone who'd just seriously fucked up, he almost seemed as shocked as I was," Torres says of the frozen figure at the door. Detective Gonzalez rushed in and pushed past Picallo to see what had happened. "[Picallo] still had his gun drawn. He didn't come near me, Veloz and Gonzalez did. Gonzalez kept screaming at me to shut up, that I wasn't shot, calling me a pussy; but when I lifted my arm and the blood squirted, everyone went quiet. I could hear the talking outside the apartment because of how silent it was inside. They told me I'd be okay."

Photo by Steve Satterwhite
Photo by Steve Satterwhite

A lake of blood collecting from a gushing armpit didn't deter the cops from handcuffing Torres's hands behind his back. The resulting pain was so bad that his screams finally got to one of them, who switched the cuffs to the front.

A few seconds later the rest of the squad burst in and gutted the apartment. They found a little less than 180 grams of weed, not a mother lode by any heavy dealer measure, but plenty to charge Allen, the intended take-down, with selling felony weight (which is only 20 grams). They also confiscated two firearms, a 9 mm automatic and a .25-caliber Lorcin, along with the sticky, blood-covered paintball gun. It was turning out to be a worthwhile bust after all.

The smell of gunpowder in the air seemed to rev the cops: "I don't want to say [they] gave each other high-fives, but I think they actually did," Campos says.

The three unharmed suspects -- Allen, Castaneda, and Campos -- were lined up in cuffs along the outside wall of the apartment building. Then they were separated into different police cars for questioning.

Torres was airlifted to Jackson Memorial's Trauma Center fifteen minutes later. He was thinking of home. That's where he expected to be as soon as this nightmare was over. At the moment, though, he needed to be sewn up. But at least the worst was past.

It never crossed Hector's mind that the hospital would be a pit stop to jail. In fact his mind was elsewhere altogether. According to both medical and police reports, Det. Daniel Rivers showed up to take his statement a half-hour after Hector had been dosed with 50 mgs of Demerol and 25 mgs of Vistaril, heavyweight painkillers. Torres was enough on the nod by the time Rivers arrived to be fretting over his missing pants more than worrying about getting busted. He'd gone from crying that he was going to die, to insisting -- as you do in emergencies -- that someone PLEASE retrieve the Nautica khakis cut off him and thrown away. Most of his rent money was in the pockets, $300 cash. He was supposed to have given it to his wife Patsy, but it was impounded by the cops. Torres, stoned on serious pain-cap, still bleeding, and babbling about his pants, was hardly in shape to talk lucidly. Still that's how he made his statement.

The next morning Torres woke to the luminous sight of his two little girls. He tried to convince Patsy he was okay, but he was only speaking of his physical condition. When he was better, it was a police officer, not a nurse, who wheeled him out. Nothing was okay. It was his last day of freedom -- Christmas Eve, 2000. Ironically, Travis Allen, the unscathed drug dealer who was targeted by the GIU investigation in the first place, was out on bond two days later, though a subsequent arrest at Torres's bond hearing (where he was going to testify on Hector's behalf), landed him back in the slam for violating parole. Allen was ultimately convicted on a drug trafficking charge.

A public defense

The charge against Hector was aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer with a firearm. The circumstantial stuff looked bad, plus he had a bumpy record. Although he'd never been convicted of a felony before the shooting incident, he had fallen for burglary and "violating probation" -- he hadn't completed his "advocate" program of fines and public service before moving to Miami from Tampa. His choice of friends was also shady; Torres didn't deny that he'd hung around with dealers and guns before, which didn't help his credibility in the eyes of the court. Louis Vucci, one of two public defenders (the other was William Barzee) appointed to handle Torres, didn't try to excuse their client's befriending of a dealer, or hanging out at his pad during a narc bust, but said the physical evidence was all on Hector's side. They were relying on his statement: "I was sitting next to my paintball gun when they busted into my friend's crib." So then he caught a bullet in the dead center of his armpit. According to Torres, Dr. Stephen Cohn at Jackson Trauma, who treated Hector that night, said the location of the entry wound indicated his arms were raised, the normal "surrender" stance. "When the doctor examined me," Torres tells New Times, "he told me to get a good lawyer." (A hospital spokesperson, Lorraine Nelson, insists that Cohn is "not allowed" to comment on the "medical aspects" of the case because of "confidentiality clauses" at Jackson Memorial. Cohn did not repudiate the words attributed to him by Torres, faxed to him from New Times, but did not respond at all.)

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