Haitians Sent Home
Swami Lalitananda planned to hit the gym this past March 28. But then she decided on an early-morning stroll along Hallandale Beach.
She crossed A1A and watched the 15 mile-per-hour winds whip whitecaps offshore. A few minutes later, shortly after 8 a.m., the blue-eyed, 64-year-old retired teacher spotted dozens of people plunging into the surf from a tiny wooden boat with a shredded sail and tipping mast. They slapped at waves and scrambled to shore.
She stopped dead. From the line of luxury high-rises to her left, residents used binoculars to spy the scene unfolding below them.
A few feet from Lalitananda, two policewomen waded into the water to fish out the motionless body of a gaunt black man. He wore blue plaid boxer shorts and a ripped mesh basketball jersey. The rescue workers laid him on his back with his feet pointing toward the ocean.
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As she peered at the young man, Lalitananda said a prayer. "God, if there's any life in him, let him be resuscitated. Let him know he really reached his goal — the shores of America."
Nearby, Charles, a young orphan, trudged through the chop to the beach. Then he began pacing, looking for his older brother, who had disappeared during the voyage. Charles clung to the hope that his brother had been locked away somewhere on the boat.
Two crew members, he would later claim, saw him and growled, "We'll kill you if you tell anyone your brother died."
Daniel Batiste, 25 years old, also waded ashore. He had assumed his death would have come before this day. It was the first land he had seen in 22 days. Where am I? he thought and joined dozens of other dazed Haitian men, women, and children on the sandy beach.
Rescue workers shepherded Charles, Daniel, and 99 others from the spot behind The Beach Club's opulent condo towers to a nearby fire station, and draped them, shivering and bruised, in white blankets. They were offered water and dry clothes to replace garments that reeked of fuel.
After a few minutes, Lalitananda left the scene. She couldn't stop looking behind her at the corpse on the beach. He must have been a very good soul, she thought.
The man pulled to shore would later be identified as 24-year-old Haitian refugee Lifaite Lully. He was pronounced dead at 8:15 a.m., and his body was covered with a white sheet. Soon the boat wobbled free from a sandbar and ran aground on the beach. Authorities found one refugee onboard in shock and tightly grasping two ropes.
The men, women, and children had boarded that flimsy 40-foot sailboat to escape curses, slavery, political slaughter, and hunger. Smugglers had crammed them into the hold like animals, along with concrete bags to prevent capsizing. They had lost their way, and after food and water were exhausted, survived for a week on Colgate toothpaste, salty rice, and seawater.
Right minds wafted to sea. Those onboard the ship claim crew members bludgeoned some passengers and killed one, maybe more, before they finally made it to the States. It was the largest landing of Haitians in the continental United States since October 2002, when more than 200 migrants reached Key Biscayne, according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
Local Haitians and advocates sprang into action. A 15-day hunger strike, a massive street protest, and headlines across America demanded fairness for the troubled souls. Then the noise stopped. For the past eight months, bewildered family members have watched as the government has warehoused their loved ones in secrecy behind barbed wire in Pompano Beach and sent them back to Haiti one by one. Prayers to God or vodou spirits haven't saved them. Nor have immigration lawyers.
"The whole world saw them on the TV," says Cedelia Calixte, a 28-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident and godmother of a refugee in his twenties who was deported on Halloween. Family members have not heard from him since. "They put them away like they were going to do something, and when everybody was sleeping, they sent them away, piece by piece."
From some angles, the Broward Transitional Center on Powerline Road in Pompano looks like the Quinta Inn it was supposed to become before the government took over and opened the center in 1998. People lounge on benches. Soda machines and pay phones punctuate outdoor hallways. Balconies face a courtyard with a shoddy putt-putt course where Midwestern families might have slathered on sunscreen to tan in the Florida sun.
But here pay-per-view is not an option. Small rooms fit six in bunk beds. A line of hundreds of refugees in crossing-guard orange snakes through halls and spills outside at mealtime. Fences at least 10 feet high and topped with barbed wire divide women from men.
Up to four hundred men and 200 women live at the center. They await immigration court decisions on their requests for asylum in the United States. Asian, Hispanic, and Eastern European faces are sprinkled throughout the place. Five months after the landing in Hallandale Beach, a few of the Haitians remain. Many have been sent home to a country corroded with crime and poverty.
"Every time I say things can't get worse for the Haitians, they do, so I've stop saying it," says Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which handled 37 of the Hallandale refugees' cases. "There have been so many harsh measures directed at Haitians it's hard to envision an end in sight."
Indeed Haitians have been leaving their half of the island of Hispaniola, about 700 miles from Miami, on boats for decades.
Many fled in the 1960s to escape the terror, torture, and killing at the hands of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his Tonton Macoute thugs. When the dictator died in 1971, his son, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, continued the violence, and the exodus burgeoned. Often forgotten is that some 25,000 Haitians arrived in South Florida around the same time 125,000 Cubans landed during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift. But because of the 1966 Cuban Readjustment Act, which gives residents of Fidel Castro's island special rights, Cubans were allowed to stay while most Haitians were denied asylum.
In 1981 the Reagan administration ordered the Coast Guard to stop suspected Haitian boats and turn them around. It was believed the economy, not politics, brought them here. And that wasn't good enough for the federal government.
After Baby Doc was ousted in 1986, political instability continued. It worsened after the democratic election of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. He took office in February 1991 but was violently overthrown seven months later. Three years into Haiti's military rule, the United States led a 21,000-strong force that pried control from the regime and returned Aristide to power.
In the years that followed, American presidents continued to turn away Haitian boats. Beginning in 2001, the federal government adopted a secret no-release policy for Haitian asylum seekers, while refugees of other nationalities were freed at a 91 percent rate, according to a Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center report. The second Bush administration gave the strange rationale that releasing Haitians could stoke terrorism — that terrorists might start posing as Haitian refugees.
"God help us all if our government can't tell the difference between a Middle Eastern terrorist and a Haitian boat person," Little quips.
Despite Aristide's 2004 exit from the country and recent political stability under President René Préval, Haitians have continued to flee because of widespread kidnappings, gang violence, and destruction caused by hurricanes. In 2004, Tropical Storm Jeanne left 300,000 Haitians homeless and 3,000 dead and submerged parts of Port-de-Paix and the island of Tortue, from which the March ship departed.
Despite these many travails, the U.S. government has not extended to Haitians temporary protected status, which would allow them to stay in the States while their country heals. It regularly bestows the relief to Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua, where suffering has been less constant.
"There's no question that Haitians fully qualify. It's completely senseless," says Steven Forester, a senior policy advocate at Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, or Haitian Women of Miami. "The reason they don't get it is blatant discrimination and racism and a lack of political power."
Daniel Batiste is one of 21 Haitians still locked in the Broward Transitional Center. It's November 1. His hair is short, and he wears a federal-issued neon orange shirt and pants, white socks, and leather sandals.
He is gawky and shifts his weight like an anxious teenager when he greets a New Times reporter. Teased about not looking his interviewer in the eye, he quickly glances up and reveals a wide smile and a gap between his front teeth. He sits and folds his hands on his lap.
His lanky legs stretch below the long wooden table in the fluorescent-lit room lined with books. Not far away is a computer lab and sterile cafeteria. Federal officials, who took nearly four months to decide whether to grant an interview, allow him only 30 minutes for the meeting. You might think it's either a glacial-moving bureaucracy or part of a strategy to keep the refugees' stories from the public eye.
Eyes cast down, Daniel begins to tell his story in an unwavering voice so soft that one must strain to listen.
His family lives in a concrete-block, dirt-floor home in Port-de-Paix. His mother birthed 17 children, and he was among a lucky handful that survived. His father worked construction until he fell from a coconut tree. "No more heavy lifting," the doctor said.
Daniel finished the 10th grade after sporadically attending school. He hoped to study film, but his family couldn't pay the tuition. His parents made a living hawking second-hand clothes imported from the United States for a 10 to 20 percent cut of the profits.
His older cousin, Wisler Telcy, lived next door and worked as a tailor. He gave Daniel small jobs like pinning folds in trousers in exchange for food. In 1995, Telcy fled Haiti on a boat and settled in South Florida.
By 2001, Daniel had begun working for a political party to earn some money, and a few years later his brother Jeremie took over as chief security guard for a local delegate with Aristide's party, Lavalas. When the president was ousted in 2004, Jeremie ducked into hiding.
Two years later, after Préval came to power, Jeremie returned to live with his family. He wrongly believed his life was no longer in danger. On February 7, Daniel says, an angry mob knocked on the family's door around 9 p.m. His brother answered it.
"You were the one we were after. Come out," Daniel recalls hearing. The mob carried Jeremie by his arms and legs from the living room. His father yelled, "They took Jeremie!" to wake the house, and Daniel and his parents followed the gang to the street, where a crowd watched as Jeremie was beaten with a club. Daniel sprinted to a neighbor's house for help. When he returned, he saw his brother lying in a pool of blood. He had been partially decapitated. During the nights that followed, Daniel had trouble sleeping for fear the same would happen to him. He went into hiding in a city along the north coast.
"I realized I was the only one left who could help my family," Daniel says. "In Haiti, even if you finish school, it's not easy to find a job to help your family."
Others on the boat have told similar stories of horror in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, according to interviews and federal documents obtained by New Times.
Charles, who wandered the beach that day in Hallandale and is not being identified by his real name, says his uncle made him work like a slave for years after his parents died. He finally escaped at age 16.
Clebert Calixte, a card-carrying election supervisor in his midtwenties from Tortue, says his brother was beheaded in 1996 and a local politician threatened to do the same to him.
Cerisma Federic asserts the leader of a political organization in Port-de-Paix sent men in black bandannas to his home to harass his family after he refused to offer support.
Frannso Brutus, age 32, says his politically active father was found dead, hands tied, head covered, and body riddled with bullet holes, in December 2001. Brutus went on radio to denounce the murder and claims to have been kidnapped twice as a result.
Decidel Blaise contends a political gang set his home ablaze.
The boat was hope for all of them.
"If there are things that make life unendurable in Haiti, people are going to come. Haitians know people die at sea," Forester says. "These are horrendous voyages. People don't make the decision lightly to get in a boat like that."
Federal authorities still try to dissuade them. "The U.S. government continues to discourage any type of illegal immigration. Individuals who take to the sea are putting their lives at risk," says Barbara Gonzalez, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman.
New Times submitted requests to ICE in July to interview all of these detainees. After almost weekly phone calls and e-mails, interviews were set for November. But by then, Cerisma, Decidel, and Clebert had been deported. A request to interview Charles, whose case is perhaps the most controversial, still had not been cleared as this story went to press.
In early March, word surged around Port-de-Paix, a coastal city that spills into shantytowns, that a sailboat destined for Nassau would soon push off from the nearby island of Tortue.
On maps, Île de la Tortue is a crumb that hovers off the northwest coast in the claw-shape landmass of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. Situated along the Windward Passage, the island lies almost directly across from Cuba and was known for its 17th-century buccaneers. The pirate tradition continues. Nowadays the stowed goods are people.
Daniel Batiste bid his mother, François, goodbye in early March. François knew the trip was dangerous, but she encouraged her son to go. "There's no opportunity here," she told him. "I'm not worried, because I send you with God's supervision."
Daniel and about 40 other people from Port-de-Paix paid a few dollars for the ferry ride to Tortue, which takes an hour or two. On March 6 — which most of the refugees recall as the departure date — men, women, and children collected near shore. They boarded the sailboat with only the clothes they were wearing and a scant supply of food and water. A handful of Haitian men was said to have crewed the peeling red, white, and blue ship.
"On those boats, 99 percent of the time, you don't make it anywhere alive, but I figured that wherever I landed, God would show me a way to stay," said Frannso Brutus, who left a wife and three young children behind. "I didn't know it was going to go down the way it did, but if I did, I would have definitely been afraid."
They didn't dare ask if the boat was stolen.
Daniel pitched in about $50 to buy bags of rice, 15 gallons of water, plantains, goat meat, and fish. Brutus had no money to contribute. He boarded with a box of salted crackers and two Coke bottles filled with water. Many of the refugees have insisted they didn't pay for the trip, but family members wonder if smugglers planned to muscle payment upon arrival.
Crew members barked at passengers as they stuffed them into the windowless hull of the boat. The refugees recalled they had to wedge their arms between pinched knees so everyone could fit. The dank space was maybe four feet high. There was no room to sit, so they were forced to squat. They were packed so tightly that the rocking seas caused their backs and chests to rub against one another, much like passengers on slave ships of old. Charles was relieved to see a familiar face during the voyage: an older brother from whom he had long been separated.
The first few days, spirits were high. Sleep came with exhaustion. Passengers sang folk songs, chatted, prayed, and shared food.
The smugglers blocked the only exit to fresh air. They allowed passengers on deck to relieve themselves, which was a welcome chance to stretch legs. Their shoulders and backsides chafed against the sides of the hold and then stung like wasp bites when salt water poured in. A putrid wash of vomit, sweat, and sea sloshed around their ankles.
If there's wind, Haitians say, the sailing trek from Tortue to Nassau can be completed in two to three days. The typical windless trip takes five days, tops.
But five days into the voyage, there was no land. "We were supposed to have seen land after two days," Brutus says. "But when we didn't, whoever believed in God was praying to God, and whoever believed in Satan was praying to Satan."
The mood shifted. Sharing stopped. Around day 15, Daniel says, most of the water and food was gone. They boiled rice with salt water. From then on, Daniel survived on routine. Each morning he grabbed a fistful of ocean-washed rice. Then he squirted toothpaste to banish the salt from his palate and to make his parched mouth salivate.
In a federal statement, Charles said his long-lost brother's mind softened into delirium. Then one morning he awoke and the brother was gone. He asked whether anyone had seen him. No, everyone answered. He concluded his brother was murdered or committed suicide. Fearful, he stopped asking.
Using frayed rope, smugglers bound some who threatened to jump ship, passengers said. Those who became unruly or hallucinated were bludgeoned with hammers, wooden boards, and bats, refugees told lawyers. Passengers recalled many people being forced overboard, disappearing, or committing suicide during those desperate days. After hearing reports of violence, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in June called on the U.S. Attorney's Office to investigate. The office would not confirm an investigation.
The ghastly voyage has since been woven into some relatives' minds through tales of magic.
Miami pastor Jean Valsaint counted 11 relatives including Charles on the ship. He heard that some of those who hurled themselves overboard didn't sink. They nimbly strolled along the surface. Good-bye, they shouted and waved to the hungry souls. Their bodies faded into the blue oblivion. One man was said to have spun magic to escape. He was the first person reported to have set foot on Hallandale Beach while others grasped the boat's splintered sides and crashed belly-first into the foamy green.
Lifaite Lully, the man who rescue workers dragged onto the beach March 28, it would seem, hadn't had the same magic.
On the last Saturday of this past March, Haitian flags and protesters filled the parking lot in front of Cool J's Urban Footwear at NE 79th Street and Biscayne Boulevard, across the street from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office. Only three days had passed since the boat landed on Hallandale Beach, and the Haitian community was pressing the government to let the voyagers stay.
Activists standing on a stage barked messages in Kreyol and English through a megaphone. Around them hundreds of people danced, chanted, and sang. Drums were beaten. Festive music blared. A young woman in a sexy sundress held high a sign that read "I Came by Boat. Today I Am a U.S. Citizen and I Vote."
Father Gérard Jean-Juste, who once was discussed as a candidate for president of Haiti, took the mike. "Brothers and sisters," he boomed, "we thank all of you who since Wednesday have been supporting the Haitians who arrived by boat.... There are good Americans. If only there were Americans in the White House like the ones who were on Hallandale Beach."
He began a chant: "What do we want?"
The crowd answered, "Freedom!"
Joyce Jennings had been attending demonstrations demanding fair treatment of Haitians almost since she arrived from Haiti by plane 32 years ago. "They're treated as criminals; they are treated like dogs," she says. "Other people come and they are welcome. We're not welcome."
Theresa Smith, a 47-year-old African-American, was there too. She had been so moved by the images on television that she traveled from Hollywood to attend the protest. Smith held a sign that read "Freedom Now" on one side and "We Shall Overcome" on the other. "I was born in America," Smith said, "but I have ancestors who came from another country. And we came by boat. Let the Haitians go!"
Jean-Juste warned from the stage: "I hope this week we will see freedom for all our Haitian brothers and sisters. Otherwise we will come back!"
The protest ended, and the hundreds of people who filled the street left. They didn't return.
Henry Petithomme, a 32-year-old Haitian-American, didn't surrender so easily. On April 4, the North Miami real estate agent wolfed down a Denny's breakfast of eggs, pancakes, bacon, and hash browns, and then vowed a hunger strike. When he ran out of energy in the days that followed, he laid down on a cot behind the pews at the humble St. Paul Episcopal Church on North Miami Avenue. He kept a photo of his two-year-old daughter nearby.
Visitors included U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, who didn't return several calls seeking comment for this story. They sat in folding chairs around the hunger striker.
After 15 days of Petithomme not eating, a doctor cautioned that his heartbeat had begun to flutter. Petithomme couldn't muster the energy to announce he was calling off the strike. His lashes flickered as middle-age Haitian women in housedresses prayed over him. His voice had become a whisper. His eyes were sunken, their whites sallow.
He handed a paper to a friend to read into a news microphone. "I have been on a hunger strike for 15 days in protest of the American government's policy regarding Haitian refugees," the friend read. "The current immigration policy is unfair and discriminatory."
He requested the release of the 101 refugees. Then blue-suited City of North Miami rescue workers swooped in and delivered him to a hospital, where he recovered.
The same day Petithomme went home, more than a hundred people attended a wake for Lifaite Lully. It had taken several weeks to gain permission for the 24-year-old's mother, Isemaelite Vassor, to come from Haiti. Vassor looked small and vulnerable as she entered the Monique and Loriston Community Funeral Chapel on West Dixie Highway in North Miami around 8 p.m.
The room was nearly silent as she strode past walls decorated with pastoral scenes of Caribbean plantations, toward the casket and the bright lights of news camera crews. She walked slowly, with dread, dressed in a crisp white linen skirt and blouse and a matching broad-brimmed hat. Vassor hadn't seen her son since he bid her farewell in Haiti.
At the end of the aisle, Lully was laid out like a dignitary. The stainless-steel casket cost $4,000. He wore shined square-toe leather shoes, a taupe suit, and a silk tie. Even in death he was handsome, with almond-shape eyes and midnight black skin.
When she reached the open casket, Vassor collapsed. Fits came in violent spasms, followed by wails. Her hat tumbled to the floor and she stretched herself across the quieted body of her youngest son. Sorrow spread throughout the room, and a few Haitian women let loose loud sobs.
Emmanuel Vassor, Isemaelite's brother, steadied her. After the wake, he talked about his own clandestine boat trip to South Florida 14 years ago. "For me, if my nephew paid a price for those people [on the boat], I accept that," he says. "The only thing that would make me feel better is if they let the other people go free."
Lully was buried the next day, marking an unofficial end to a month of protest. There would be no more street rallies for those who came on that rickety wooden sailboat. Petithomme tried to sustain the conversation. He started an organization, Youth Power Movement, and staged daylong hunger strikes. He dropped off toiletries for the detainees. "It's the same thing that always happens," he says. "It's visible for the moment, and than afterwards, it's not the story that everybody wants to talk about anymore."
Tropical rains are pelting the sheet-metal roof of the Batiste family home in Port-de-Paix when New Times calls in early November. Water is pouring through. It's been falling for days. The family is surviving on cornmeal and rice. They have no money to buy gas to light the lamps. Only Daniel could fix the inverter that provides electricity.
At night they sit in darkness. Daniel's mother hopes his immigration battle is over soon. "Tell Daniel things haven't gotten better here, but his sister just had a baby on Tuesday," says François Batiste. "But we don't have money to eat."
Since March, they've spoken to him about four times, a few minutes each. There's enough time to say only "Hello. I'm alive. I miss you." He hasn't mentioned his asylum claim was denied in late September.
"I hope the government and the president give him an opportunity to live in that country," François says in Kreyol. "We would be very thankful to the whole of the United States."
But Daniel will likely be deported to Haiti soon. His asylum case was recently rejected even though Rosta Telfort, of Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami, says his case was the strongest of the handful of refugees she represented. The judge didn't believe his story because he didn't relate the ordeal during his first contact with federal officials, the day he arrived.
"They [ask only] very basic questions," Telfort says.
More than half of the Haitian refugees who arrived in Hallandale Beach have been deported, according to ICE. Fourteen minors were sent to a shelter and have since been taken in by family members or swept into the foster care system. Unaccompanied child refugees can stay in this country if they can prove abuse, neglect, or abandonment.
"I've seen a lot of detainees go," Daniel says. "When they leave, we all cry, because one of these days we know it will be our turn."
One particularly tangled case is that of Charles, who says his brother was killed on the ship. He and his 36-year-old first cousin, Jean Valsaint, say Charles's father died before he was born. His mother passed away when Charles was a few months old. His grandmother believed the family was cursed after his older sister died. He was taken in by relatives. Daily meals and clothes were rarities. While other children in the household attended school, Charles stayed home and cleaned. His uncle worked him like a slave.
By age 16, Charles was a father. The teenager decided to leave Haiti to provide for his baby girl. "He looks like a minor. He acts like a minor," says Shannon LaGuerre, the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center attorney representing him. "They should have let him go from the very beginning. This is a child."
Charles's birth certificate, authenticated by the national archives in Haiti, shows he was born in September 1990. But U.S. officials have tagged the document as potentially fraudulent. The government also points to dental and bone tests that peg his age as 20 years or older. LaGuerre says the tests aren't scientifically reliable. Indeed they are not admissible in federal court.
Judges often automatically conclude Haitian documents are fraudulent, say several lawyers who handled the refugees' cases. Advocates admit there is a cottage industry of document fraud, but it's unfair to deem every one a fake. "A lot of them had strong stories, but they didn't have basic things like birth certificates or police reports to substantiate persecution," says Callan Garcia of Catholic Charities Legal Services in Miami, which handled about 20 cases. "They literally came with only the shirts on their backs."
Asylum seekers from more stable, developed countries like Venezuela can be more successful in their claims because they have supporting documents that look more authentic.
Many refugees withdrew claims after the first few were denied in July. They lost hope. They missed their families, homes, and food. None of the lawyers could name a refugee from the Hallandale landing who had been granted asylum.
Part of the problem might be an immigration judge named Rex Ford, who handled the refugees' cases. (His office cited a no-interview policy when New Times called for comment.) Ford, a Nova Southeastern University graduate, has the third-highest denial rate of Haitian asylum cases among Miami's 24 judges, according to TRAC Immigration, a Syracuse University records clearinghouse. He denied 97.6 of Haitian cases that went before him between 2000 and 2005. Those who were not Haitian fared better before Ford, who denied 90.5 of all his cases. Yet, nationally, in 2006, federal statistics show Haitians recorded the highest number of asylum claims granted.
"The denial of asylum was expected," says Forester, the senior policy advocate at Fanm Ayisyen Nan Miyami. "It's Judge Rex Ford. I mean that's the only answer. He was the only one hearing the claims."
Frannso Brutus is among the few who remain in Broward. Asked about his case, he chuckles and shakes his head, his wiry frame erect behind a wooden table. His words come firm; his voice rises.
"They haven't done anything for us," he says. "Since I came here, no one has gotten political asylum, but I'm a Christian and my hope is with God."
A few miles down the road in Hallandale, Mary Beth Bell, a middle-age waitress at a beer-and-burger shack, remembers the day the Haitians came ashore. "It was heartbreaking, gut-wrenching," she says. "I thought they wouldn't get sent back.... I thought they'd get to stay. That really hit me. If I knew [they'd be sent back], I would have handed them 20 bucks and said, Go! Go!"
New Times Broward-Palm Beach staff writer Amy Guthrie contributed to this story.
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