A Real Wild Child
Every month the St. Patrick Parish School in Miami Beach honors a family through its guardian angel program. On February 18 faculty, parents, and students from the Catholic parochial academy gathered in the auditorium to salute the Buttacavoli clan. The program notes that Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli is a Miami Beach assistant city manager, and her husband Frank is executive vice president at a local beauty-products firm. Two of their sons graduated from St. Patrick; the third, Michael, is currently a sixth-grader there.
Although such prominent parents certainly would appear to merit these kudos, their youngest boy may have engaged in some far-from-angelic behavior. In September 1999 Michael was accused of pushing a female classmate to the ground, shoving a male classmate on top of her, and then applying pressure to the boy's buttocks so the pair appeared to be humping.
Police were called to investigate the matter. After hearing about the probe, Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli seems to have acted even naughtier than her baby boy. According to the police report, the assistant city manager blamed one of the alleged victims and her mother for the scuffle. Then she questioned investigators' credentials and even slipped in a veiled threat.
"We were appalled," says Maria Guerra, mother of the alleged female victim. "Everything [Diaz-Buttacavoli] said [to the investigators] was not true. She said all I had done was cause problems. We felt really hurt; why was she going after us instead of trying to resolve the situation? We felt what we had done was right."
Miami Beach police began looking into the case on September 13, 1999, when Guerra brought her daughter to the station to file a battery complaint against Michael Buttacavoli. Miami Beach Police Det. Marilyn Tepperberg and Department of Children and Families (DCF) protective investigator Rose Lesniak began a joint inquiry; the cop treated the incident as a possible crime, the DCF officer as a possible case of abuse and neglect.
Tepperberg took a sworn statement from the Guerra girl. The sixth-grader said she was in music class on September 9. While she was in one room with several students, the teacher was next door. The Guerra girl said Michael Buttacavoli pushed her to the floor, "where she ended up face down with [another boy] on top of her.
"She indicated that she couldn't get up, felt pinned, and couldn't breathe," the report reads. "She then felt [the other boy's] body, his groin being shaken and pushed against her backside. She was unable to see who was doing this to her, as she was face down.... She said, 'It lasted about five to ten minutes.'"
On September 15 Tepperberg and Lesniak went to St. Patrick and spoke to principal Josephine Kenna, who helped set up interviews with children and teachers who had witnessed the incident. The principal notified parents, then brought the students, one by one, to the teachers' lounge. The children's stories varied on several points. Some said the Guerra girl was acting "hyper" before the incident, and was even punching and kicking Michael previous to the pileup. Most of the kids agreed that Michael had pushed Guerra and the boy to the ground. Everyone concluded that Michael had forced the boy on top of Guerra.
Shortly thereafter the assistant city manager swooped in. Her first target was the alleged victim's mother, Maria Guerra. "In paraphrasing, Mrs. Buttacavoli advised, 'The victim's mother is to blame for this and that there have been numerous problems since she has been coming to this school,'" Tepperberg wrote. "She further stated that [the Guerra girl] 'was in love with my son and that she fabricates lies.'" (Maria Guerra denies both of these assertions.)
Next in the cross hairs were the investigators. "Ms. Buttacavoli questioned my employment as to whom I work for," Tepperberg wrote. "I informed her that I work for the police department. She questioned [Rose] Lesniak's employment [and it] was explained that [Lesniak] works for the Department of Children and Families, but is housed at the police department, to which Mrs. Buttacavoli responded, 'Then the city pays your salary.' Investigator Lesniak corrected her, advising she was paid by the state."
By early October Lesniak had closed her investigation. She found no evidence of sexual molestation but concluded that the school should have done a better job of supervising the kids. (This finding carries no official consequences for St. Patrick.) Police closed out the battery charge against the Buttacavoli boy last October. The case is classified as "exceptionally cleared," which means that, while police established that the incident had in fact occurred much as the Guerras described it, they decided not to pursue criminal charges.
That wasn't good enough for Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli. At some point in the two months following the incident, she must have read Tepperberg's report. So, on December 6, 1999, an all-star cast assembled in the city manager's conference room at Miami Beach City Hall. Present were then-City Manager Sergio Rodriguez; Police Chief Richard Barreto; Police Maj. Steve Robbins; Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli and her husband; St. Patrick principal Josephine Kenna; and the parents of the boy whom Michael Buttacavoli had allegedly pushed. It soon became clear that Diaz-Buttacavoli's concerns had nothing to do with protecting her son, and everything to do with protecting herself.
Robbins, who described the incident in a December report, wrote:
Diaz-Buttacavoli said her comments about Mrs. Guerra had been taken "out of context" by Tepperberg. She said she was "not inferring that [Mrs. Guerra's] behavior was the cause of the incident."
Diaz-Buttacavoli claimed that she stated that the Guerra girl "simply liked" her son. She denied stating that Guerra "fabricates lies."
This next passage speaks for itself: "The Buttacavolis feel that Detective Tepperberg's comments make it appear as if Mrs. Buttacavoli was acting inappropriately with [the investigators] by inferring her authority as an assistant city manager. Mrs. Buttacavoli emphasized a number of times during the meeting that she was acting as a concerned citizen and an alarmed and involved parent. Mrs. Buttacavoli states that she did not question Detective Tepperberg's authority as her gun, badge, and embroidered pullover shirt made it clear that she was a Miami Beach police detective. However, in the case of the state investigator, she was simply inquiring to have an understanding of this person's role and authority."
Such conferences with citizens who want to clarify a case file are uncommon but not unheard of, Robbins says. The presence of the city manager and chief of police, he allows, was a bit unusual. Robbins adds that he asked Tepperberg not to attend, even though she might have contradicted the assistant city manager. "That was my decision," he says, adding that as the person four steps up the chain of command from Tepperberg, he saw himself as the officer's representative. "I'm paid well to shoulder more responsibility," he says. "There were several people of substantial influence in that meeting, and I didn't want to leave my detective out there feeling like everyone around her outranked her."
Robbins clearly backed up his detective in his report. The final paragraph reads: "This supplement is simply an accommodation to Mr. and Mrs. Buttacavoli in allowing them to have their views on the earlier report added to the case file. This supplement is absolutely, in no manner, a criticism or correction of Detective Tepperberg's work on this case."
Mayra Diaz-Buttacavoli would not comment on the specifics of the case, directing New Times to talk to people who were not directly involved. "Not to me, or the mom who prompted this story," she adds, in a pointed reference to Maria Guerra. Her husband Frank requested the second meeting, she says, to clear up the police report's implication that she pulled rank on the investigators. "I did not want there to be any perception on behalf of anyone's mind that this would not be properly or completely investigated," she says. "I did not interfere with that investigation."
The ordeal is not yet over for the Guerra family. On February 24 principal Kenna sent a letter to the Guerras that read, "As per Monsignor [John] Vaughan's instructions, it is necessary to inform you that due to school-related issues, you will not receive the registration packet for the new school year." This ban from St. Patrick applies not only to the eleven-year-old who was pushed around, but also to the six-year-old and five-year-old Guerra girls.
Maria Guerra says she met with Monsignor Vaughan on March 3. He said her children would not be allowed to attend St. Patrick, because they had applied for admission to another private school, according to Guerra.
Kenna referred New Times to the Archdiocese of Miami for comment. A spokeswoman for the archdiocese says the Guerra children left the school because of a "mutual decision."
Guerra says there was nothing mutual about it. "We were not being allowed back because I went to the police and DCF got involved," she seethes. "I touched one of their more important [parishioners]. I guess it's not good to be on the bad side of an assistant city manager."
Guerra adds that she is unsatisfied with the outcome of inquiries into the alleged battery, and has brought the matter to the Juvenile Division of the State Attorney's Office, which, she says, has opened yet another investigation. Leon Botkin, an assistant state attorney in the Juvenile Division, declined to comment.
The flap did nothing to dissuade St. Patrick from honoring the Buttacavolis last month. In lauding the clan, the guardian angel program playbill refers to the boys' favorite leisure activities. "Michael is active in the Boys Scouts [sic], and [his older brother] Franky is a member of the American Jr. Golf Association. In fact, they are a 'golf family.'"
In August 1994 both Michael and one of his older brothers were accused of beating up a seven-year-old boy at Bayshore Golf Course on Alton Road in Miami Beach. The alleged victim's father, Scott Curry, accused the Buttacavolis, then ages six and eleven, of whacking his son with a putter, pushing him to the ground, and kicking him repeatedly. This incident was reported in New Times ("Father Knows Arrest," April 20, 1995, by Art Levine). The State Attorney's Office declined to press charges against the boys, mostly because of their age, but did charge Scott Curry with trespassing -- specifically for passing out flyers at St. Patrick that described the alleged assault on the links. Prosecutors dropped the charge against Curry in June 1995.
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