Hit and Run Hero

Not everyone’s charged with a crime — even if someone is killed.

Payfront Park
Filed Under: Culture

First-run movies every night on a 60-foot-high screen in a beautiful grassy spot by the water? Excellent idea.

Fencing off about 40,000 square feet of prime downtown Miami green space 24 hours a day, seven days a week? Maybe not so excellent.

Since it set up its outdoor movie operation in Bayfront Park this past November, California-based Sunset Cinema has seen audiences grow, according to Sunset spokeswoman Susan Herting. The 1000-plus capacity lawn area is perfect for a blanket and a few glasses of wine — except that there's no glass allowed.

No trespassing is allowed, either, even though the outdoor theater is situated in the middle of a public park. The lawn remains closed off during the day to protect the cinema equipment, which is too cumbersome to move in and out for every showing. It ain't pretty either: A chainlink fence covered with a blue tarp of sorts blocks the bay view for anyone west of it, including pedestrians and drivers on Biscayne Boulevard.

While the 32-acre park has several private concessionaires, including a casino boat that docks there and a horse-drawn carriage, Sunset Cinema is one of only two that occupy land around the clock. The other is a trapeze school that takes up 9163 square feet. Sunset Cinema's lease, which runs out in April, costs $1000 a month, plus one dollar per ticket sold. The trapeze school pays $500 a month on its open-ended lease.

Timothy Schmand, director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, said he's simply trying to find a balance of "compelling" attractions to bring people in and raise money for upkeep and programs like free yoga classes and a new weekly farmers market. "Let's just say that what we manage here is not a park," he said, "but a public facility." Rob Jordan

Hit and Run Hero
Filed Under: News

Married for just under a year, bicyclists Melanie Ashby and Wayne Phelps are already on a second honeymoon of sorts. Since being hit by a car last month, they've been confined to hobbling around the house together on walkers. The accident occurred while the couple was riding their tandem bike on SW 217th Avenue with the Everglades Bicycle Club, when the driver — Jorge Benitez, 22, of Miami — hit them from behind. He fled the scene, leaving the two unconcious. They were air-lifted to the Ryder Trauma Center, where Wayne had surgery for a cracked hip, and Melanie was treated for a broken leg, broken ribs, and cracked vertebrae. The couple is recovering in their Kendale Lakes home.

As the couple lay bleeding on the ground and Benitez sped away, a 58-year-old Haitian man named Jean Donatien stopped his van to call the police. Then he gave pursuit.

Donatien's vehicle was slow, he explains in broken English, because it had fifteen people in it; he had been driving his fellow "agricultural workers" to Homestead. He pursued Benitez for several blocks before his van broke down, at which point he jumped out and enlisted the help of "a black American man" who was standing on the corner. This man, Donatien says, jumped into a white pickup truck and took over the chase. "Ten minutes later," says Donatien, "he come back with the guy." The unidentified pursuer, wary of getting drawn into the accident, says Donatien, later disappeared quietly.

During that time, unfortunately, Donatien's overwhelmed van caught fire and burned to the ground. The Everglades Bike Club presented Donatien with a "Good Citizen Hero" award at its club banquet on February 11. They have started a "hero fund" to raise money to help Donatien purchase another vehicle.

Donatien, for his part, explains his extraordinary actions this way: "Sometime, God make you do like that." He's similarly philosophical about his ruined van. "I don't worry," he says. "Maybe God take care of the car."

Jorge Benitez, whose driving record includes a previous infraction for careless driving and a criminal citation for leaving the scene of an accident, was charged with careless driving, driving an unsafe vehicle, and driving with a suspended license. So far he's been fined $133.50 for the first charge; court dates have not yet been set for the other two.

Benitez is not being charged as a hit-and-run driver. Asked why not, Miami-Dade Public Information Officer Mary Walters says only that charges are generally the discretion of the arresting officer. "Additional charges can always be added," she points out. "But not everyone's charged with a crime — even if someone is killed." Isaiah Thompson

Slow JusticeCarlos Ventura ran over and killed ten-year-old Johann Sebastian Gonzalez this past July 4 ("Crash Dummies," November 2, 2006). Nearly nine months later, the attorney representing the victim's mother is accusing the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office of lackadaisical interest in prosecuting Ventura.

Some time around 11 p.m. on Independence Day, Ventura was backing down a private street in a Kendall townhouse development when he struck Gonzalez, sending the boy head first into the asphalt. When confronted by the boy's mother, Martha Gonzalez, and her relatives, Ventura panicked and fled the scene. He later turned himself in to Miami-Dade County Police. He is facing one felony count of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death. Prosecutors dropped a felony count of driving with a suspended license while causing a death. "The State Attorney's Office is not doing much with the case," grouses Gustavo Gutierrez, the civil lawyer representing Martha Gonzalez. "They have not even contacted the witnesses."

Gutierrez voiced his displeasure with prosecutors in two letters to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle last month. He was particularly upset by prosecutors' decision not to charge Ventura with vehicular homicide, as well as a plea offer in which Ventura could avoid any jail time. "We'd like the state to do what is right," Guttierrez said. "Johann's mother is just looking for something that gives her some sense of justice."

A State Attorney's Office spokesman, Ed Griffith, says prosecutors have not closed the door on charging Ventura with vehicular homicide. "That is still under investigation," Griffith said. "And we have certainly attempted to contact witnesses. However they have been hesitant to come forward."

Ventura's attorney, H. Scott Fingerhut, did not return calls for comment. In November, Fingerhut told New Times that Ventura 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." Francisco Alvarado

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