Messing With The Man
Miami-Dade's southwest suburbs could belong to Anywhere, U.S.A. Trade the royal palms for dogwoods and the Peruvian bakeries for Vietnamese diners, and you could mistake Kendall and the Hammocks for suburban D.C. or Chicago or LA. The same SUVs pull into the same strip malls anchored by the same chains (a Chili's and a Blockbuster, or maybe T.G.I. Friday's and Best Buy) and pull out loaded with DVD players or PlayStations, and 2.5 overfed kids, to the same chemically enhanced lawns and homes where someone hits power on the TV remote even before the door slams shut.
"It's fucking boring, bro," says Carlos, repeating the mantra of teens in his Southwest Miami-Dade neighborhood -- and everywhere. Eighteen and not interested in school, sports, or any particular career, Carlos still has something to prove -- he's just not sure what. He's the informal ringleader of a group of like-minded young men (all of whom begin and end every sentence with "bro" or "yo") who do the things that directionless kids do: They finagle ways to procure beer and liquor, buy and sell small quantities of marijuana, get in the occasional fight, get high. But most of all, they do nothing. They hook up with friends old enough to rent their own apartments, or they hang out at someone's house while the folks are away at work or on vacation. And there they play video games, talk shit, and watch endless television.
"Most of these kids who think they're badasses just get high, and play PlayStation as much as possible," says Miami-Dade Det. Charles Rego, who works in the Hammocks Division gang squad. Rego knows many of the would-be tough teens in the area on a first-name basis.
Simply put, suburban "gangstas" tend to be on the soft side. Not much big-time dealing or hard-core gang activity. So Miami-Dade County police were astonished when three wannabe Latin Kings mounted a bizarre and brash predawn assault on their Hammocks headquarters.
Around three in the morning last June 10, three teenagers -- sixteen-year-old Christian Muñoz, eighteen-year-old Adrian Garcia, and fifteen-year-old ringleader Joseph Muse -- hid behind the dense ficus bushes across from the two-story, beige police station at 10000 SW 142nd Ave., and gathered their nerve before launching their raid.
The Hammocks, as defined by the police, is a huge chunk of Southwest Miami-Dade, stretching westward to Collier County. But the district police headquarters sits in the center of a smaller area with the same name, a collection of neighborhoods that includes Arbor Courts, Place Royale, and Panache. The architecture of the area -- from Kendall Drive south to Coral Reef Drive, and from roughly 137th Avenue west to Krome Avenue -- reflects an economic spectrum ranging from upper-middle class to lower-middle class. Apartment complexes and gated townhouse communities abound, punctuated by clusters of single-family homes. A rural outpost as recently as a decade ago, the Hammocks has gone from predominantly Anglo and Cuban to thoroughly mixed, with fast-growing populations of Colombians and Peruvians.
On that humid June night, Garcia's and Muse's hands were moist as they switched on their two-way radios. Then, while Garcia stayed behind as lookout, Muñoz and Muse crossed 142nd Avenue, with the shadowy expanse of Kings Meadow Park to their right and the police lot's six-foot black chainlink fence to the left. They walked the 50-yard perimeter of the well-lit parking lot until, at the westernmost fence line, they hid behind clustered ficus and vines next to the fence. Then they waited for a cue from Garcia, and when it looked as though no police were lingering at the station's front doors and no patrol cars were arriving or leaving, he radioed that the coast was clear.
Muse and Muñoz pulled themselves up and over the fence, landing in a lot full of marked and unmarked police vehicles, along with employees' personal cars. They couldn't have been inside for more than fifteen or twenty minutes; according to the police, that's about how long the security cameras that scan the parking lot went unmonitored. Somehow in that span of time the teens managed to cause nearly $20,000 in damage to seventeen county vehicles and eleven private cars.
They set to work with a vengeance. One of the boys started in on the police cruisers. Crouching beside the cars, he took his knife and punched and slit the walls of heavy radial tires. Cars slowly sank as their tires deflated. Meanwhile the other teen dragged a key across the side panels of several cruisers and unmarked cars. Police say he sawed away at some of the panels with a knife or a key. No one stepped outside the station for a smoke or pulled into the lot for a shift change. If they had, they might have heard the grinding of metal on metal.
Emboldened, both boys next began scratching and chipping the unmarked cars, scrawling the word "PIG" on at least one of them, and scratching the paint and carving obscenities into others. By the time they were through, they had punctured 39 tires and hacked away at the exteriors of at least two personal vehicles owned by police officers.
At some point they were spooked enough, or had had enough thrills, to split. They radioed Garcia, scaled the fence, and all three disappeared into the night. According to Carlos, who claims to have heard a firsthand account of the crime, "There was a little celebrating after that. It was a pretty big deal, yo."
The crime was quickly discovered, probably within minutes of the boys' escape. An officer walked outside and saw one damaged car, then another and another. The lot filled with incredulous cops, frantically checking their own cars. Officers were on their knees peering under vehicles. A few leaped into cars whose tires were still inflated and screeched out of the lot in pursuit of ... anything they could find.
"I don't know if öshocking' is the right word," says Lt. Lino Calvo, commander of the general investigations unit at the Hammocks. "It made me very angry." He glowers. "Very angry."
Initially the police didn't know where to begin. Because the camera monitors carry only live feeds, there was no recording of the break-in. As one officer told New Times: "We had no idea what to look for, other than possibly some guy with balls too big to fit in his pants."
Police vandalism isn't unprecedented. In January 2003, for instance, eight police cars parked in front of homes around the Hammocks and Kendall communities were vandalized in one night, an act that police speculate might have been some kind of gang initiation. To date no one has been arrested for those crimes.
But this had a different feel to it -- not only was it grandiose in both scope and daring, but it happened right on police premises, under the cops' noses. One officer, speaking anonymously, proclaimed that the vandals had become their public enemy number one.
It was the perfect crime, if such can be said of an act of vandalism. There were no prints, no video evidence. The kids had attacked a cop shop and gotten away clean.
Except that they started talking. Immediately.
"Fuck, yo, all I'm saying is two beers," Carlos pleads with the startled black man playing pool with two young kids. "I'm good for it, check it out." He pulls a couple of twenties from the pocket of his baggy jeans and waves them in the older man's face.
"I'm playing pool with my kids here," the man replies, turning away, "and I don't want to hear any more about it."
Carlos is shooting stick at Don Carter's Kendall Lanes, the bowling alley/pool hall/full-service bar where, on a Friday night, it seems half the high schools in West Miami-Dade, along with families, church groups, and singles on the make, have congregated to meld squeals and chatter with the hip-pop pumping from loudspeakers and the incessant din of caroming bowling pins.
Too cool to compete with the noise, Carlos speaks in a low voice and is generally monosyllabic, talking in a throaty, tough-guy drone that far outdoes his five-foot-five, buck-forty frame. A pack of Newports peeks out of one pocket, a cell phone out of the other. His black wallet, attached to a belt loop by a steel chain, looks so oversized it might drag down his sagging pants were they not cinched by a brown belt over his boxers and skintight tank top.
He and his friends, most of whom are juveniles, spoke to New Times on condition their identities not be revealed. His boys -- a revolving crew of fifteen- to eighteen-year-olds -- are generally clad in similar attire, some with green McNabb or black Dwyane Wade jerseys thrown over their T-shirts. Though most are Latino, they speak almost entirely in English, and if they share one personality trait, it would be that they all think they're bad.
This particular set of kids, most of whom live in the Hammocks area, claims allegiance to the notorious Latin Kings, as did the three teens who committed the crime, according to police. This is suggestive in itself: The Kings, if they still exist in South Florida at all, are certainly only a shadow of the feared outlaw gang they once were. Police say the vandals called themselves Latin Kings, though if you look through the literature handed out by schools or community groups about "gang membership warning signs," you won't find much here. No tattoos. No gang colors. No real money circulating. Carlos, who is a senior at Southridge High School, lives in an apartment with his mom. On weekends he buses tables at a Kendall restaurant -- the source, he claims, of the 40 bucks he's trying to buy beer with at Don Carter's. He spends a lot of time on his PlayStation and a lot of time smoking weed.
A black kid with a shaved head approaches the pool table, gives Carlos an awkward half-hug, and asks, "You gots?" Carlos turns to one of his boys: "Yo, play some pool while I take care of this." Then he and the black kid strut off to the parking lot to transact a $50 weed deal as comically grim-faced as a pair of pistoleros headed for a showdown.
Carlos & Co. get their weed a half-pound at a time from another eighteen-year-old in the southwest Florida city of Cape Coral. "I call him my brother, but he's not," says Carlos, reluctant to disclose more but pining for gangsta credibility. "If I told you all about him, this motherfucker would feed you to the alligators."
It's the same dilemma he must face in his everyday life: He desperately wants to brag about how bad he is, but he lacks the true nihilism to be seriously bad. "I don't give a fuck," is one of his staple phrases -- "I don't give a fuck about school" or "I don't give a fuck about the poh-lice." Yet he admittedly doesn't want to get into the kind of trouble that will land him in jail. Or upset his mother. "Moms got enough stuff to handle, yo," he says.
Carlos did have some brushes with the law as a juvenile, thereby adding to the stuff that Moms handles. He also boasts that he has some knowledge of the nighttime police-station assault and of the three kids who had large-enough cojones and little-enough sense to fuck with the authorities.
On a cold afternoon late last fall, four months after the parking-lot caper, the streets of the Hammocks are swarming with teenagers. Like maggots on a sun-swollen carcass, they're emerging from every possible crack and crevice in Hammocks Town Center, a strip mall housing a Publix, CVS, and Hallmark store, as well as the West Kendall Regional Library.
The twelve- and thirteen-year-olds who've come from adjacent Hammocks Middle School try to act like they're already in training for the tough life. Skinny-armed boys in muscle shirts and socks pulled up into the shadowy, billowing depths of their jean shorts smirk under wispy mustaches as they clasp sweaty palms with too-tall girls. Clones of those younger girls, with the same baby-fat bellies spilling over tight hip-huggers, have graduated to dating older boys. They wrap their arms around the waists of their leering Lotharios, making out against the columns across the sidewalk from Publix or the Magic Wok Chinese Takeout.
Boys with visors and blown-out fake Afros or quarter-inch buzz cuts and girls with ponytails and bandannas sit in clusters in front of the library, some sneaking smokes. The girls whisper to each other while the boys preen. They make trips back and forth across the parking lot to McDonald's.
In an alley behind the mall, one group, seemingly presided over by a huge boy in a black Raiders ski cap pulled down almost completely over his eyes, passes around a glass pipe. The pot-smokers joke enviously about the tall and gangly boy, his back to the wall, standing across the alley. He has a Fu Manchu and a Canes cap, but most important, he has a girlfriend enfolded in his huge winter coat. She sucks on his neck, her hands hidden deep within the folds of his jacket.
About a hundred yards away, in the loading zone behind DJ's BBQ and a martial-arts gym, and separated from the bulk of the mall by a vacant lot, a black boy protected from the cold only by a tight, sleeveless T-shirt and shorts chases two Hispanic kids, one of whom holds a length of pipe. They're bigger, but he's all muscle -- maybe five-four, but built like a clenched fist. They cross the huge parking lot, bursting through the doors into McDonald's, and the black kid stops, gives up the chase. Behind him some high school kids have jumped a fence behind the loading zone and sit next to a manmade lake surrounded by town homes, passing a bottle in a paper bag.
The neighborhoods that comprise and surround the Hammocks range in age and appearance, but almost all bear the distinctive imprint of South Florida's faux Mediterranean, stucco-and-tile aesthetic. The walls separating back yards from busy streets show the ubiquitous signs of teen vandalism: spray-painted tags, mostly in black or red and thoroughly indecipherable. Only a few of the glyphs indicate the truly nefarious, such as a lazy scrawl on the side of DJ's BBQ that reads simply: "Crips."
"On the one hand," says Detective Rego, the gang-squad cop, "you couldn't necessarily say that just because these kids aren't from the inner city, they're not capable of being hard-core." Serious crimes -- assaults, robberies, and drug dealing -- are being perpetuated by the local suburban youngsters. On the other hand, he adds, as far as police know, the kids in Southwest Miami-Dade don't have the connections to big-time drug suppliers that make gang life truly lucrative and lethal. Nor has he seen evidence of organized gang activity. Rego, who looks like he should play the strait-laced younger partner of a cynical vet, works with the kids who get involved in what passes for gang life in the Hammocks area. "Most of these kids sell a little weed or Ecstasy and sit in the house playing video games all day," he says. "They're not on the corner protecting their territory or anything like that."
In short, misdemeanors abound, but events like the vandalism of a police HQ are unheard of. "This was a sign," he says. "If they're getting that brazen with us, they might get a lot more dangerous to the average citizen."
Still, within a couple days, police investigators had a pretty good idea they knew the identity of at least one participant. "And that gave us an understanding of what group we were dealing with," says Rego, who made the arrests with another detective within five days of the incident. He's not giving up anything else (his arrest report cites anonymous sources and confidential informants) but he does admit that word spread among local teens like wildfire, probably within hours. All three kids confessed.
The juvenile system doesn't release information about underage offenders, but sixteen-year-old Christian Muñoz "seems like a pretty good kid who got caught up in something crazy," says Rego. "Unlike a lot of these kids, he seems to have parents who are around and care about what he does. And he's never come up on my radar before, so I give him a pretty good chance of being okay."
He's cagier about Joseph Muse, whose arrest form doesn't list a phone number, though it does mention a tattoo reading "Joey" on his left hand. A classmate says the fifteen-year-old "bounces around a lot." It's unlikely he'll do much bouncing in the near future: He was picked up on a drug charge this past December, plus Miami-Dade police discovered an outstanding warrant from Lee County, where he apparently assaulted a police officer. He is currently in juvenile detention, awaiting adjudication for the Hammocks incident and a laundry list of other charges.
"We've been aware of him since he was pretty young," Rego says of Muse. "He's really a nice kid in some ways." In fact, the detective says, "When you sit with this kid, he doesn't seem like a bad guy. We know where each other is coming from. To me, sometimes he seems like a normal kid."
While the cops have the vandals cold, they don't have much in the way of a motive. "They're bored, they're stoned, they see an HBO special on the Latin Kings and they want to prove themselves ... whatever," says Rego.
"There isn't necessarily an explanation," he adds. "Some of these kids go out and commit crimes and come home and eat PB&J sandwiches."
Motive for the parking-lot attack notwithstanding, Adrian Garcia should have let someone younger stand lookout for Muse and Muñoz; he's being charged as an adult with two counts of occupied burglary and nine counts of criminal mischief -- all of them felonies. (Although the charge has since been dropped, he was originally also accused of unlawful use of a communications device, the two-way radio. Use of such a device in the commission of a crime is illegal, though such charges are rare. On the record, cops say it's simply a by-the-book charge, though one Miami-Dade officer, speaking anonymously, admitted it might never have appeared on the arrest report if the vandal's target hadn't been the police.)
The range of possible sentences for the crimes is vast. "He's looking at anything from house arrest to possibly 36 years," says Ed Griffith, spokesman for the State Attorney's Office. Garcia just turned eighteen, and any crimes he may have committed in the past would be part of a sealed juvenile record. In the eyes of the court, this is the first trouble Garcia has been in; consequently he's unlikely to serve anything close to 36 years in prison. But Griffith says house arrest won't satisfy his office. "We're looking for jail time," he says.
Garcia's trial will begin in March.
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