By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The iron and concrete Sweetwater City Hall and Police Complex feels like some kind of futuristic frontier outpost. The forbidding building juts out of the tiny swampside town's one-story landscape of small homes and gritty shopping centers like a stumpy obelisk. An inflatable Santa Claus and a few strings of fat Christmas lights only add to the sense of menace.
The city's wood-paneled commission chamber sits atop the plush mayor's office, which, in turn, is positioned above the concrete police station on the ground floor. Inside, plump Cuban cops down cafecitos at the long imitation-wood booking desk. Motormen in shiny boots and white helmets enter chewing long cigars.
In a sizable rear office, the police chief, Robert Fulgeira, sits at a desk surrounded by mementos of his run as a SWAT sniper. A two-foot-tall black-and-white photograph of John Wayne hangs behind him, flanked by Old Glory and the town flag. A pearl-handled 1911 .45 clings to the chief's hefty side, and he punctuates his sentences with giant brown gobs of spit and tobacco.
But Mayor Manuel Maroño has final say in hiring, firing, promoting, and demoting the entire 23-member police force.
Short, with bulging, hairy arms and a bald, shiny pate, Maroño runs the town from his third-floor office, where stuffed deer heads gaze at visitors through black plastic eyes. A large ceramic replica of the Seal of the President of the United States looms behind Maroño's desk. His shelves display a samurai sword, a framed semiautomatic, and a photo of him proudly clutching a bloody elk killed at Chief Fulgeira's hunting ranch in Texas.
The borderland atmosphere is so pungent here it's a wonder the streets aren't paved with dirt and horse shit.
"They give new meaning to a Third-World mentality," Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera says of Sweetwater and its public officials. "It's not like its own little city; it's like its own little country."
It was from within these walls that, on June 18, 2003, at 4:30 a.m., Dade County Fire Rescue personnel carried eighteen-year-old Peter Michael Daniel on a stretcher, deathly pale and writhing in pain. When paramedics asked what had happened to him, Peter told them he had vomited and moaned that he'd fallen from a chair, according to EMS worksheets and depositions from officers on the scene. Someone had beaten him half to death, he said, and told him not to say anything.
As he was being hooked up to oxygen and an EKG machine in the ambulance, Peter repeated that he'd fallen from a chair. Later, when surgeons opened him up, they discovered massive internal bleeding caused by lacerations to his spleen and liver.
Peter Daniel's mother, Lourdes Lima, spoke intermittently with her son as he reeled under the dizzying whirl of morphine and near-death, she later testified. Though details were scarce that night, Peter's halting speech, hand signals, and scrawled notes provided her with enough information to construct a tale of jaw-dropping police brutality.
In the days that followed, she made several phone calls, and camera crews flooded Kendall Regional Medical Center. Photos of Peter splayed on a hospital bed appeared all over the local television news: His neck was wrapped in a brace, his torso was divided, from navel to neck, with surgical staples.
One of the officers who was at the station that night, Eladio "Kiki" Parra, alleges Mayor Maroño pressured him to conduct a violent interrogation. The mayor has repeatedly and emphatically denied he had anything to do with the beating. "Absolutely not. I never said anything of the kind," Maroño says. He claims Parra and the others are angry and dislike his management style. Moreover, the state attorney has declined to investigate the mayor's role in the incident.
Nevertheless, in October 2005, Sweetwater paid Peter a $2.02 million settlement.
Today Peter Michael Daniel lives on the same small patch of land he grew up on, just one block outside the town limits. A new Spanish-tile roof caps the snug yellow home, its humble façade obscured by a thicket of gleaming new American cars: a gigantic Ford F-350, a sleek Corvette convertible, and a silver Dodge Charger. Only his cousin's dented white Econoline van disrupts the vista of automotive opulence.
Peter answers the door with a pair of stony, red eyes. The sides of his head are shaved into a close-cut faux-hawk. A dark blue T-shirt hangs from his gaunt shoulders; his large hands suggest he was once bigger. The furniture in the house's dark interior is heavy and decorous velvet fabric adorned with heavily gilded armrests. His mother's expansive collection of Spanish porcelain figurines supple seamstresses, dancing courtiers, and a big, shiny Jesus on the cross pack several shelves and cabinets. A giant flat-screen TV set strains the limits of its wooden cabinet and faintly reflects the thick brown leather couch wrapping the room like a listless boa.
"I know people, voices around town, think of me as a spoiled, hit-me-now, pay-me-later kind of brat," Peter says flatly. "But it's not as the public would have you think. I bought myself a car. I bought a four-wheeler. But all of the money was used to pay back debts. I really didn't make out with anything." (His mother, the Corvette's nominal owner, told New Times that Peter's settlement money has been set aside for his future and a possible liver transplant, though he currently shows no signs of needing one.)