When South Beach kicks out the last of its unwashed weekend masses into the graying light of dawn, they often drift across the causeways to that downtown Miami warehouse district known as Park West.
They queue up in lines of 50, 100, or 200, eager to join the gyrating throngs of DJ slaves within Club Space's cavernous, dimly lit interior. They've navigated the maze of empty one-way streets, found a parking spot, paid a petty extortionist -- either parking attendant or entrepreneurial homeless person -- to "watch" their vehicle. They do this because, in the words of one wide-eyed clubgoer whose message was recently posted on miami.citysearch.com: "Space is hands-down one of the best clubs in the World. The music and lights are amazing. And you have 2 have a multiple roll night to make it till 10am. SPACE ROCKS."
On Club Space's massive, 30,000-square-foot shoulders the City of Miami has hung its revival dreams for a particularly dank section of town. Its allure among young urbanites with the cash for nonstop music, alcohol, and drugs (and later, maybe, for posh restaurants and apartments) is what municipal planners and schemers had in mind last year when they created an entertainment district saturated with 24-hour liquor licenses within walking distance of downtown's two sports arenas. Anchored by Space, the strip club Goldrush, the currently closed Fuel (which Space co-owner Luis Puig is said to be buying), and Exile (a new club that expects to open in December), NE Eleventh Street at least is undeniably livelier. "It really created the 24-hour entertainment industry that we have right now that's transforming Park West," effuses Patricia Allen, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority.
Allen's enthusiasm is lost on Roberto Bazail. He's afraid to go downtown anymore and believes there's a big problem with this new entertainment district the city and Puig have worked so hard to create -- namely, the city cops Puig hires to work off-duty outside Club Space. "Bottom line, these guys are pigs, violent pigs," Bazail growls, recalling a night he says he was beaten and arrested outside the club. "It's like the bullies who beat you up in high school have got badges."
Bazail's is not the only complaint the Miami Police Department has received about the conduct of off-duty officers outside Club Space. Since January 2001 the department's internal-affairs unit has fielded several charges from patrons who claim they were abused by overzealous cops at the club. The complaints range from mere whines about rude behavior and profane language used by officers to allegations of excessive force, including pepper spray and hard punches, to subdue arrestees.
In September Club Space shut down briefly for remodeling and reopened October 12 with famed DJ Paul Van Dyk headlining. "A great night," noted a club reviewer at cooljunkie.com. "And considering the volume of people waiting to get in, a special mention goes out to the Space staff for working on previous problems and keeping things calm and controlled at the door."
Sgt. Gene Kowalski, who worked with and supervised the half-dozen cops who regularly provided security at Club Space, says most of them didn't return in October. He didn't either. The long hours and crowd hassles, he says, simply weren't worth the extra pay. But Kowalski denies the officers used excessive force. "If people get out of hand and need to be handled, then sure, they will be," he allows. "But it's not like these [officers] are a bunch of animals. These are all guys who went up to New York, digging out bodies."
None of the allegations against the officers has been sustained by internal affairs, and Club Space proprietor Puig says he's not aware of any complaints about the cops. The local ACLU hasn't heard a peep either. But to the people who suffered what they say is abuse at the hands of police, the experience has left them questioning whether downtown Miami is safe for nightlife.
Bazail, a diminutive 36-year-old, was arrested outside the club on February 4, 2001, around 3:15 a.m. When he later filed a complaint, Bazail told police he had stepped out of a taxi across the street from Club Space and was waiting there for two friends who were inside. He was immediately approached by Ofcr. Willie Ealey, who told him he wouldn't be able to get into the club wearing sneakers and that he should leave.
This is how Bazail describes that encounter: "I tried to explain that I was just waiting outside for my friends to come out. [Ealey] came toward me very aggressively, saying, You got to go.' Then he grabbed my arm, spun me around, and twisted it behind my back. He kicked my legs out from under me and took me to the ground. I was screaming. That's when the rest of the cops jumped on me and started kicking me and hitting me with their clubs. One of them took pepper spray and stuck it right under my nose. The blood's running in my eyes and snot is hanging out my nose and I can't breathe. When I saw the blood, I screamed out that I'm HIV-positive, and that's when they stopped. One cop was taunting me while I was on the ground: You're HIV-positive. You're going to die anyway.'"
Bazail, who says he had consumed only two beers that night, was arrested and charged with battery on a police officer and resisting arrest with violence. Bloodied and bruised, he spent several miserable hours in jail shirtless and coated with pepper spray.
In response to the internal-affairs investigation of Bazail's complaint, Officer Ealey offered a very different account. He wrote that Bazail refused to be arrested and pushed him. Ealey called for assistance and the head of the club's security team, Nick Caprio, came over and "punched [the] offender, causing a laceration above his right eye. Offender continued to resist at which time he was [pepper]-sprayed and handcuffed." Other officers at the scene confirmed Ealey's version of events, as did club security employees.
Bazail says he didn't see any bouncers beating him, only cops. "I think that's a flat-out lie," he scoffs while reading the internal-affairs file for the first time. Bazail adds that he later took a plea deal that kept him out of jail; he was afraid the cops would lie in court if his case went to trial. "This has totally destroyed me," he fumes. (Adjudication was withheld; Bazail received probation and had to take an anger-management course.)
While the story comes down to Bazail's word against the police, the details of his tale are disconcertingly similar to other complaints received by the Miami Police Department. This past June 17 police arrested a 32-year-old Brazilian man outside Club Space, charging him with resisting arrest without violence and disorderly intoxication. He spoke with New Times but asked that his name not be revealed because it could cause problems with his employer. He filed a complaint, along with his friends -- attorneys Charles Mantei and Mayra Gonzalez -- alleging that he was roughed up by police during his arrest.
Gonzalez, Mantei, and the Brazilian all say they and two other friends arrived at Club Space at roughly 3:30 that Sunday morning to find a long line at the door. Gonzalez assured them they were on the guest list. The Brazilian man, a slight figure of five feet eight inches and 160 pounds, walked to the door to inquire about the guest list. He says Sergeant Kowalski rudely told him there was no guest list and he wasn't getting in the club. A brief argument ensued, which ended with the man saying, "I don't need to be in this fucking place anyway." He returned to his friends, and they all began walking west on NE Eleventh Street toward Mantei's nearby apartment. The group had passed the officers at the door and was perhaps 50 yards away, according to Mantei, when Ofcr. José Rojas ran after them and jumped the Brazilian man from behind.
Mantei's friend struggled at first, not realizing the person on his back was a cop. Rojas pushed him to the ground and twisted his arm behind his back, Mantei says. His face was bleeding, so Rojas picked him up and walked him down the street and made him lie on the ground. Then, according to Mantei and other witnesses, Ofcr. Jackie Jesurum put her knee on his back to keep him down and mashed his face into a sewer grate. "I said, I'm his attorney,'" Mantei recalls. "I got down there on the ground with him, and the female officer took his hair and pounded his head against the grate. She said [to Mantei], Get the fuck out of my face!' There was blood everywhere. It was one of the worst things ever."
Kowalski, Mantei contends, insulted him as he was trying to get police badge numbers: "He called me stupid and said he knew I was going to jail by the end of the night." Mantei says his friend had been drinking earlier that night at a party but he was not roaring drunk.
Again police put forth a different version of events. Officer Rojas wrote that the Brazilian man had bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, and an odor of alcohol about him. "Defendant was told numerous times by this officer to clear the street for his own safety. Def. refused to clear the street. Def. was arrested." As to the injuries sustained by the man, Rojas explained that he began swinging his arms and resisting arrest, so Rojas had to take him down, "whereupon defendant obtained a small laceration on his forehead."
This explanation satisfied internal-affairs investigators. The arrested man, however, showed New Times photographs he claims were taken shortly after the incident. The pictures show him in a torn and bloody shirt with several cuts on his face and neck, one of which he says has formed a scar.
On August 13, 2001, a woman and her husband were standing in line outside Club Space around 7:30 a.m. and watched as a man was punched and kicked by several police officers. The woman, a 29-year-old attorney who asked that her name not be revealed because she fears retaliation by police, provided New Times with a vivid account of what she saw. She also contacted an assistant state attorney, who asked police internal-affairs investigators to look into the incident. But neither the woman nor Rick Marabini, the 38-year-old Weston man arrested, filed a formal complaint with the police. "What are they afraid of?" asks an exasperated Lt. Jorge Perez, who works in internal affairs.
Marabini's arrest report states the five-foot eleven-inch, 230-pound man refused to move out of the street, used profanity, and "took a fighting stance and pushed [Ofcr. Octavio Santiago]." The report says the officer kicked Marabini, then he was pepper-sprayed, handcuffed, and arrested for battery on an officer, resisting arrest with violence, and disorderly conduct.
The female attorney admits she didn't see the very beginning of the incident because she had her back turned. She did hear Marabini mouth off to the cop. Then she saw an officer kick Marabini and another place him in a choke hold. Two officers in uniform and four men in plainclothes then dragged him to the ground. "Two cops were holding him down while the other punched him in the face," she remembers. "It seemed to go on for two or three minutes. A girl was crying. A lot of people in line were screaming, Fucking stop! You're hurting him!' Then the cops dragged him around behind some cars so we couldn't see exactly what happened. It looked like they were stomping and kicking him and macing him."
According to Kowalski, what the attorney apparently didn't see was a large, angry man who wanted to fight. The sergeant says after the man calmed down, he apologized for his behavior. "I remember the people yelling, Oh, it's not right!'" Kowalski asserts. "They just saw the tail end of the policeman wrestling with him. That guy wasn't hurt, and he would tell you that. Everything was done right that day." Marabini did not return messages left with his attorney. An internal-affairs investigator told New Times that photos taken by police after the arrest did not show injuries consistent with the beating the attorney described. "He was not injured; he was pepper-sprayed," explains Lt. Daniel Dominguez.
The four other complaints are less dramatic: two allegations of discourtesy; a man who claimed an officer stole his jacket, sneakers, and baseball cap from him; and one complaint that an officer didn't do anything about a bouncer beating up a patron. The first three were classified as inconclusive, and the fourth was found to be untrue.
Is a handful of complaints over several months at an all-night club that routinely packs in thousands every weekend an indication of a larger problem? Kowalski doesn't think so. He says cops routinely make several arrests every weekend at Club Space. "At five o'clock in the morning, that place is out of control," he maintains. "The [nearby hotel] Howard Johnson is complaining about the noise, bums are breaking into cars, then you got bouncers beating up people inside -- a million things going on at once."
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The internal-affairs records of several officers who regularly worked Club Space reveal that most of them have drawn only a handful of complaints in their careers, and most of those were inconclusive. Kowalski's record, however, shows a long and pervasive pattern of complaints for discourtesy, abusive treatment, and improper procedure throughout his twenty-year career, although only a few were sustained.
Seniz Miseroglu, who witnessed the June 17 incident involving the Brazilian man, says the experience radically changed her perception of police. She hasn't been back to Club Space since. "I was so scared," she remembers. "Now I distrust police. Whenever I see a cop now, I know that anything can happen."
Miami ACLU president Lida Rodriguez-Taseff says the public's dissatisfaction with the way Miami police handle allegations of police misconduct is the reason voters approved the Civilian Investigative Panel on November 6. "If we have a process that's fair and open, the public is more confident in the results," she reasons. "There's not much credibility when it's police investigating police in secret."