Family of slain tourist wants Miami Beach cop to pay
As the sun sets on Ramadan's 11th day in a suburban Virginia duplex, tears flood the eyes of a tiny 49-year-old Palestinian-American named Widad Shehada. Her head wrapped tightly in a black hijab, she grabs a chair, white-knuckled. "Husien should be sitting here with us, but they killed him," she says. "They killed him for nothing."
Two months after her son Husien bled to death next to his brother on a South Beach sidewalk, the Miami Beach Police Department has fallen under national scrutiny. Questions have been raised that could take down not only the cop who fired the fatal shots but also his protectors in high places.
Last week, the department finally suspended Officer Adam Tavss, who killed Shehada and then, four days later, shot dead 29-year-old Lawrence McCoy Jr. The cop tested positive for marijuana.
The U.S. Department of Justices Civil Rights Division recently told the Shehada family its monitoring the situation. Miami Beach Police should be worried, says John Contini, a lawyer representing the dead mens relatives. Contini plans a civil lawsuit against the department in January and says he has dredged up evidence of racism, poor training, and lax discipline that goes far beyond the two June shootings.
The result could be a big payout courtesy of Miami Beach taxpayers and a painful shakeup for the Beachs boys in blue. "This department is a disaster from the bottom to the top, Contini says. "Bottom line: Miami Beach is not safe with these guys on patrol. Be a tourist at your own peril."
Chief Carlos Noriega declined to comment for this story.
The first Miami Beach Police shooting since 2003 shattered the Shehadas' success story. In 1975, Husien's father, Husam, fled Jerusalem for suburban Washington, D.C. The next year, Widad joined her husband, who had found steady work selling Lincolns and Mercurys at a dealership outside Woodbridge, Virginia.
Samer Shehada, who narrowly escaped Tavss's bullets, was born in 1977, and Husien three years later. Two younger sisters, Nasrean and Yasmean, followed in the next eight years, and the family moved into a quiet subdivision in Woodbridge.
In December 1992, when Samer was 15 years old, Husam collapsed into a ball next to his car outside their duplex and died of a massive coronary. Young Samer became the man of the house. By the time he was 16, he was working nights at Taco Bell after school, caring for his mother — who also had chronic heart problems — and keeping his brothers and sisters in line.
"Samer really raised us, like a father," Nasrean says.
Through it all, he earned marks high enough to get into Virginia Tech's competitive engineering program. When Samer left for college, 17-year-old Husien became the man of the house, working at the same Taco Bell.
The brothers were best friends and often looked similar with their shaved heads, broad faces, and olive skin. But they were contrasts in personality. Samer is solemn-faced and pragmatic, with a dry sense of humor. Husien was the family cutup, a guy who was so much fun his younger sisters would wait up until 1 in the morning just to watch movies with him after his late-night shifts.
"Even when I went to college, we still talked every day," Samer says. "There wasn't a decision we made without talking to each other."
Samer landed a job at Lockheed Martin after college. In 2002, he earned a Pentagon security clearance and since then has worked on top-secret defense contracts. Husien, meanwhile, bought a 2004 Lincoln and started a limo service. During President Obama's inauguration, he ferried senators and lobbyists around the capital for almost 20 hours.
Thursday, June 11, the brothers traveled together to South Beach with their girlfriends and booked a room at the Loews. They spent the weekend like any other tourists. They hit a few clubs Friday and visited Sawgrass Mills Mall Saturday afternoon.
Saturday night, they visited some clubs, and Sunday, a little after 4 a.m., a surveillance camera outside Twist at 11th and Washington captured the worst moment of Samer's life. A grainy video shows the two brothers, dressed almost identically in baggy white T-shirts and jeans, walk past the camera toward a street light. The two spin around as they hear police officers yell. The brothers raise their hands. Suddenly, Husien flies backward out of the frame, slammed in the chest by Tavss's shots.
Four days later — just a few hours into his first shift after passing a psych evaluation — Tavss gunned down McCoy, a semi-homeless man who had allegedly stolen a cab and driven the wrong way on the MacArthur Causeway. Tavss said McCoy was armed, but no gun was found at the scene.
In the two months that followed the shootings, Contini and the Miami Beach Police have waged a fierce war of words over what caused Tavss to shoot the two men.
In the Shehada case, these facts are indisputable: Both Husien and Samer were unarmed. And although cops surrounded the pair, no officers other than Tavss felt threatened enough to fire a shot.
"I watched blood pouring out of my brother's mouth, and I knew he was dead," Samer says today. "I started praying and I was really confused. Why would the police just shoot my brother like that?"
Miami Beach PD claims the shooting traces back to a fight between Samer and his girlfriend, Karlia Karpel, outside the nightclub SoBe Live at 12th and Washington three hours earlier; three men beat up Samer after he pushed Karpel to the ground. In a taped conversation after Husien's shooting, Karpel said Samer had left the hotel with a coat hanger tucked under his shirt, looking for revenge against the men who had roughed him up. A passerby on Washington, mistaking the coat hanger for a gun, made the call that brought the police.
Noriega, the chief, told reporters at the time that Tavss was justified in pulling the trigger because Husien had reached for his waist as if going for a weapon.
But Samer says the brothers were out to buy cigarettes, not to pick a fight. And the surveillance video doesn't show any aggressive moves by either brother before the shots were fired.
What's more, Tavss, a 34-year-old who had served on the force for only three years, has looked less and less credible since that night. He had been working 14 hours straight before the shooting, according to police. Days later, the department released Tavss's personnel file, which showed a complaint from a female officer named Bernadette Maher, who said she had seen Tavss with cocaine at his home after a 2007 Christmas party.
McCoy's shooting has raised nearly as many questions as Shehada's case. The first shots fired at the itinerant 29-year-old apparently came from off-duty public service aide Gisela Tacoa and her boyfriend, retired Miami Beach officer Steve Stuart, who were at the police refueling station on Fisher Island. The couple didn't admit their involvement until hours after the shooting. Tacoa was suspended without pay.
Tavss and another officer, Frank Celestre, fired at McCoy as he ran back up the causeway. Photos Contini provided New Times show nearly a dozen wounds in the man's back and sides. One bullet nearly severed his hand. Days later, cops pulled a gun from Biscayne Bay, but they haven't been able to connect it to McCoy — who, Contini says, simply might have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Last week, Noriega suspended Tavss with pay pending a new investigation. The officers lawyer, Gene Gibbons, said his client failed a drug test for marijuana, CBS4 reported Tuesday. Three separate investigations by Miami Beach detectives, internal affairs, and the Miami-Dade State Attorneys Office are still ongoing into Shehadas and McCoys deaths.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, the Shehadas struggle to understand Husien's death. Widad cries every day and refuses to touch her son's bedroom. Nasrean and Yasmean haven't turned on the TV set in two months because it reminds them too much of their late-night movies with their brother.
And Samer can't stop thinking about the night he watched his brother bleed onto the Washington Avenue pavement.
"In our tradition, I had to wash my brother's body. I had to pull him from that body bag with his eyes open and his mouth open and wash out those wounds myself," Samer says, sitting in his family's living room under a black-and-silver inscription from the Koran.
"I want Tavss to go to prison for the rest of his life," he says, his voice cracking. "It's the only thing fair to my brother."
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