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
A 37-year-old single mom with short brown hair and blond highlights, Martha Gonzalez moved to Miami from Bogotá, Colombia, in 1991. Four years later, she gave birth to a son, Johan Sebastian, and moved back to her home country. She returned to South Florida in 2002 but left Johan behind to live with her parents and study at a private school. "I just think the schooling is a little more regimented in Colombia," Gonzalez explains.
He enjoyed playing soccer and riding his bicycle. He was a disciplined student whose favorite subject was mathematics and who loved to paint with oils and watercolors. "He was very creative," his mother boasts. "But he wasn't rebellious. He was a very well-mannered boy."
Johan would fly to Miami every December for three weeks and also for three-month summer vacations. This past June 24, Martha took the boy to her new, two-story, three-bedroom townhouse in a residential development at SW 139th Avenue and 176th Street in Kendall. "I used to live in a two-bedroom apartment [not too far away]," she says. "But I wanted to get a bigger place. He wanted to have a back yard and his own room."
On July 4 around 11:00 p.m., Johan was kneeling down in the dimly lit, narrow private street in front of his mother's house, igniting firecrackers. Other children and adults mingled nearby. At the street's dead end, a gray four-door 2003 Isuzu Rodeo with tinted windows had just dropped off a passenger. The Rodeo's driver, Carlos Ventura, shifted into reverse and began to back out when he hit Johan, knocking the child head-first into the asphalt.
Five witnesses, including Martha Gonzalez, yelled at Ventura, who stopped and got out of the SUV. A commotion ensued. Gonzalez's neighbors charged at Ventura. Martha grabbed the young driver. "I screamed at him to help my son," she says. "But he didn't care. He got back in his car and took off."
While they waited for the police and paramedics to arrive, neighbors consoled Martha by telling her Johan was going to be all right. "But I knew when I saw him on the ground," she reveals, "that he was dead."
According to Ventura's defense attorney, H. Scott Fingerhut, the nineteen-year-old bolted because he feared for his life. "It was only when Carlos's own safety became in dire jeopardy that he thought it best to take cover elsewhere," Fingerhut says.
One of the witnesses, Christina Cordovez, who lives at 17536 SW 143rd Pl., said the neighbors pounded on Ventura's car windows and called him a killer as he drove off, according to her sworn statement. "He would have stayed," Fingerhut insists, "but the people there made it hard for him to do so."
About a half-hour after hitting Johan, Ventura, accompanied by his parents, turned himself in at the Miami-Dade Police Hammocks station, where he was arrested for leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death as well as driving with a suspended driver's license while causing a death. Both are felonies. Ventura gave a taped sworn statement to traffic homicide investigators, and two days later police impounded his Rodeo.
Fingerhut maintains his client's innocence, asserting that Ventura, the father of a one-year-old boy, has fully cooperated with police. What happened this past Independence Day was a "horrible accident," he says. "Though we wish we could, there is nothing any of us can do now to bring this boy back home," Fingerhut says. "My client is devastated by the pain he's caused, but at no time did Carlos shirk his legal responsibilities."
Martha Gonzalez says her life has been terrible the past four months without Johan. "It is something you don't want to admit happened," Gonzalez says. She lives alone with her pet Yorkie, Mateo. With no family in Miami, she has relied on her neighbors. "My friends are always checking on me," she says. "They worry about me. They support me."
Gonzalez intends to file a wrongful death lawsuit against Ventura, who has been thrice ticketed for careless driving this year. "I just want justice," she says. "I've cried so much already."
This past April 8 at 2:25 a.m., Casimir Wrobel of Naranja was behind the wheel of a 2004 Chevrolet van registered to his employer, ADT, a security company. The 45-year-old alarm installer was traveling south in the center lane of South Dixie Highway when he ran a red light at SW 220th Street in Goulds.
Ten feet past the intersection, he rammed into Samuel Render, a 55-year-old Goulds resident who was pedaling his bicycle. Wrobel continued driving until Miami-Dade Police Sgt. Steven Liebowitz pulled him over at SW 230th Street. Wrobel said he didn't know he had run over a human being, even though Render's mangled body was splayed out on the van's hood, windshield, and roof, according to the traffic investigation report. Liebowitz and officers from the Florida Highway Patrol, who investigated the crash, noted a strong odor of alcohol on Wrobel's breath.
"I wasn't going to stop," Wrobel allegedly told the investigators. "I thought I hit a dog."
Render was pronounced dead at the scene. Blood tests confirmed Wrobel was drunk. He had a blood-alcohol level of .224 percent, more than twice the amount needed to charge him with driving under the influence.