Lawrence "Larry" Perez spots a white BMW 750Li blowing through a stop sign at the intersection of West Flagler Street and SW 62nd Avenue. It's about 20 minutes past 10 p.m. The husky, bald Hialeah Gardens police detective flips on the blue-and-red lights inside his unmarked silver Ford Fusion and pulls the Beemer over.
He asks the driver, Wilfredo Gonzalez, and the passenger, Danny Zequiera, for their IDs and then sniffs the air. "I smell something strange," Perez announces. "Open up the trunk."
Inside is a duffel bag packed with ten pounds of marijuana belonging to Zequiera. Perez arrests Gonzalez on the spot but lets Zequiera go. A few minutes later, a white tow truck with the words "Good Fellows" stamped on the door whisks the BMW away.
It might sound like an ordinary pot bust, but the car was never sent to an impound lot. Gonzalez was never booked into jail, and the ten pounds of pot — worth $33,000 on the street — never ended up in an evidence room.
Zequiera didn't know it, but he'd been victimized in a plot hatched by Carlos Teran, a rival drug dealer nicknamed "El Negro"; Gonzalez, a pot middleman; and Perez, a dirty cop way out of his jurisdiction.
Perez's story — outlined in interviews and hundreds of pages of court documents — opens a window onto what has become an increasingly common tale in Miami-Dade: cops turned by greed or desperation into working for the drug dealers they're supposed to be busting. In the past two years, federal prosecutors have charged four Dade-area cops, including Perez, for helping dealers. The others are:
• Miami Police Officer Roberto Asanza, arrested last June after the FBI found ten bags of cocaine and two bags of marijuana from a drug bust in his truck. A yearlong investigation revealed Asanza had swiped the drugs and given them to an informant. Asanza pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge in exchange for helping in another case.
• Opa-locka Police Capt. Arthur Balom, charged last November with eight counts of trafficking Ecstasy, cocaine, and oxycodone. Federal prosecutors say Balom also protected a violent drug gang by tipping members off to police raids. Balom's trial is pending.
• Miami-Dade Police Officer Daniel Mack, indicted April 11 for helping a Miami Beach code inspector transport what they thought were more than a dozen kilos of cocaine in exchange for $25,000. He was charged with four counts of cocaine possession with intent to distribute. His trial is pending.
It's not clear whether increased numbers of cops have been helping drug dealers or if the feds are just upping their efforts on the problem. Some experts, though, say there might be a link between plunging budgets and greater temptation.
"Cops have to pay bills too, and we know the economy has been bad," says Bob Jarvis, a Nova Southeastern University law professor who co-authored Out of the Muck, a book about corruption in the Broward Sheriff's Office. "When that happens, you have more of a chance to flip a police officer into committing a crime. Certainly a cop in Nebraska doesn't have the same opportunity to protect drug dealers like a cop in Miami does."
Jarvis's theory seems to fit the bill for Perez, a cop whose life at first seemed like an American success story.
Born in Newark, New Jersey, on May 22, 1967, Perez had a rough childhood. His biological father abandoned him and his Ecuadorian mom, Linez Alvarez, when he was 1 year old. He and his mom soon moved to Miami, and she remarried. In court, Perez said he had wanted to be a cop since he was a kid: "It was my dream to help people and do what I saw police officers do."
But after finishing 11th grade, Perez dropped out of Miami Senior High because his stepdad had died of respiratory failure. "I had to help my mom by working," he said. He found jobs as a busboy and a waiter and later as a school bus driver and, by the late '80s, a county bus driver. In 1989, he married his girlfriend, Adela Rodriguez. Seven years later, the couple purchased a three-bedroom house in Allapattah for $107,500.
One of his neighbors, a Cuban-American electrician named Luis Agular, recalls fixing the wiring in their house for free as a way to welcome the young couple to the neighborhood. "We became fast friends," Agular says. "Every weekend, I'd have him and his wife over for breakfast. He's my daughter's godfather."
Agular, who cannot read English, says Perez would help him write bid proposals for electrical work on county projects. "He was always willing to help," Agular remembers. "He's a tremendous person."
In late 1996, Agular taught Perez how to ride a motorcycle. Perez soon bought a used Harley-Davidson and joined his neighbor's motorcycle club. That's where he met Teran, a 53-year-old originally from Matanzas, Cuba.
The two bonded instantly. During later testimony, Teran said he'd regularly go on double dates with his new pal and their spouses: "We'd go to restaurants and motorcycle shows. We would ride down to the Keys together."
Perez never gave up on his dream of becoming a cop. In 2004, at age 36 — two years after Adela gave birth to their daughter, Lauren — he passed his GED test and enrolled in the police academy at the Miami Dade College North Campus. For nine months, he drove a Metrobus from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m. and then attended class from 4 to 11 p.m.
After graduating, he was hired by the Hialeah Gardens PD in 2005. He was a good cop. After two years on patrol, he was promoted to detective. He made roughly $1,600 every two weeks. Perez continued riding his Harley and remained friends with Teran.
But the relationship grew awkward. Teran, who worked at a body shop and later as a tow truck driver, had a budding criminal career. Between 1998 and 2002, he was convicted five times for grand theft auto, burglary, and dealing in stolen property, according to court records.
Still, by all accounts Perez was a good cop until 2009. That's when his wife kicked him out after she learned he was seeing another woman, Agular remembers. The neighbor says he let Perez stay with him for a week until he found an apartment in Hialeah. In court, Perez said the split ruined him financially — he was giving half of every paycheck to his estranged wife to help support their daughter.
Teran later testified that one day Perez came by his house in South Miami sounding desperate. "He told me that he had no money and that he was fucked up," Teran said. "He told me he could help me with any drug business that I had, whether it was to protect me or escort me or whatever."
By then, the FBI had begun to dig into Teran's enterprise, which had moved beyond stealing cars. According to affidavits, the man now known as "El Negro" was the "primary supplier" for traffickers in Florida and New York, specializing in "Purple Haze," a potent brand of seedless marijuana. The feds started tapping both Teran's and Perez's phone calls after an informant recorded a meeting in which the pair discussed ripping off $300,000 from a buyer. The heist never happened because it was a ruse by the feds to see if Perez would go along with the plot.
Soon, Perez went beyond talking about crimes and officially crossed the line from cop to crook. His first job for Teran came on March 12, 2010, when he stole the ten pounds of weed from Zequiera. That rip-off was just the beginning.
On May 24, 2010, he stole 14 pounds of marijuana from another drug dealer after pulling over his white pickup truck on SW Eighth Street at 97th Avenue.
A month later, on June 18, he plotted to steal $28,000 from a drug dealer in a blue Hyundai who had just left Teran's house. But undercover cops working with the FBI pulled the dealer's car over first.
Then, on July 10, he acted as security for Teran while he transported 35 pounds of pot from Hialeah Gardens to South Miami. A couple of weeks later, on July 25, Perez and Teran were spotted staking out a warehouse on NW 71st Street at 35th Avenue where rival drug dealers had set up a grow house with 600 plants and 15 kilos of high-grade bud. Teran wanted Perez to scare off the growers, who were armed with semiautomatic pistols. Three days later, the feds and Miami-Dade police raided the warehouse, hoping to avoid a bloodbath if the plot went off.
By the next month, on August 27, the feds decided it was time to test Perez's loyalty. Would he choose to honor the badge or protect his criminal buddy? Two Miami-Dade police investigators showed Perez photos of Teran and his cohorts. They asked Perez if he could help them identify the men. The cop denied knowing any of them. Soon after, the feds traced a call from Perez's girlfriend to Teran's wife warning that the law was onto El Negro.
FBI agents had their answer. A few weeks later, on September 10, they dropped the hammer. To lay a trap, Hialeah Gardens Police Chief Van Toth told Perez he was recommending him for an FBI task force. Toth, who declined to comment for this story, told Perez to meet agents at FBI headquarters in North Miami. Perez agreed, and when the feds walked into the office, they slapped handcuffs on the fallen cop.
The same day, they charged him with eight counts of conspiracy to traffic marijuana. Agular and other neighbors were shocked. "He's just a wholesome guy," says Mirta DeCespedes, who lives nearby. Adds another neighbor, Raphael Burgos: "I know him as a serious, responsible person. He followed the letter of the law to a tee."
Perez went to trial this past February 26. Teran, along with three other co-conspirators, testified against him in exchange for reduced sentences. Zequiera, whose pot was stolen, also testified against Perez.
The cop pleaded not guilty. He claimed Teran never gave him a nickel and that he was pretending to be a dirty cop so he could bring a big case to the DEA.
"I wanted to do something that would take me out of Hialeah Gardens," Perez said. "Something that would get these people that really needed to be put in jail, and not the kids selling marijuana in the parks and on the corners." (Perez's attorney, Richard Houlihan, declined to comment for this story.)
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Perez's first trial ended in a mistrial on February 23. The second time around, he wasn't so lucky. On May 14, after just one day of testimony, a new jury found Perez guilty on two counts of conspiracy to traffic marijuana. He's awaiting sentencing.
In his closing argument, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jared Dwyer said there was no truth to Perez's claims that he wasn't choosing fast money over his duty to the law.
"He had no intention to help law enforcement," Dwyer said. "[He] wanted to help his co-conspirators, and he wanted to move the drug conspiracy forward."