Following a flawed 2019 internal investigation by the Miami Police Department, a second review of a motorcyclist's death on the Rickenbacker Causeway in 2018 — ordered by Chief Jorge Colina after outside scrutiny — has determined that an unknown City of Miami officer was in fact pursuing the group of bikers at a high rate of speed.
The conclusion from the department's Professional Compliance Section was not based on new evidence, but rather a review of video footage previously viewed by the Internal Affairs Division when it investigated the fatal crash.
"The video currently available shows an unknown officer traveling at a high rate of speed in a marked Miami Police vehicle behind a motorcyclist, which is in violation of [departmental policy]," the second group of investigators wrote in a May 22 report obtained by New Times. (The full report is embedded at the bottom of this story.)
The crash occurred on around 3:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 27, 2018, as the bikers were leaving a group lunch at Whiskey Joe's in Key Biscayne. Upon leaving the restaurant, Yailen Gonzalez and her husband, Yoinis Cruz Peña, crashed into a retaining wall on the Rickenbacker as they approached U.S. 1. The two were ejected over the edge of the highway and fell 27 feet to the roadway below. Cruz Peña died at the hospital. Gonzalez was severely injured.
After the collision, Gonzalez told investigators that police cruisers had been chasing her and her husband at a high rate of speed and "edging" their 2008 Kawasaki by driving dangerously close to them.
Bolstering her claim, three videos posted on the @dade_county_riderz Instagram page days later showed a Miami Police Department cruiser behind the bikers.
In the first video, the cruiser can be seen speeding alongside the motorcyclists with its lights on. The second video shows the cruiser accelerating to 100 mph, according to the person who shot the footage. The third video depicts the scene of the crash.
Despite the videos, the Miami Police Department and its Fraternal Order of Police union in 2018 denied there was any evidence that a police pursuit caused the crash. And when the department's Internal Affairs Division issued its findings in February 2019, the terse three-page report determined that "any police officer would not have been able to maintain control of their vehicle traveling at the speed Ms. Gonzalez indicated without being involved in a collision as well."
The report didn't satisfy critics. In July 2019, one member of the Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) — Miami's independent police watchdog — went as far as suggesting there "might be a coverup."
Panel members pointed out that internal investigators seemingly mischaracterized Gonzalez's statements and that a detective had improperly stashed Cruz Peña's GoPro camera in a desk drawer for days after the crash.
After reviewing the evidence, CIP staffers found that MPD Officer Alfred Hernandez lied in his traffic homicide report by including statements Gonzalez never uttered in her recorded interviews — including an odd bit about how her husband drank a Red Bull at lunch on the day of the crash. Hernandez also referred to a singular police officer in his reports, when in fact Gonzalez said multiple cruisers were observing or pursuing the motorcyclists that day.
The CIP also noted that the Internal Affairs summary stated "there were no operational plan and/or worksheets associated" with Miami police's Memorial Day weekend traffic enforcement detail on the Rickenbacker Causeway.
But both the CIP and local blogger Al Crespo obtained the operational plan via public-records requests. The plan shows that the officer in charge on the day of the crash was Capt. Javier Ortiz — the Miami cop infamously accused of myriad misconduct — who, at the time, also served as vice president of the police union.
New Times also obtained an overtime form showing that Ortiz waited until June 21, 2018 — nearly a month after the fatal motorcycle crash — to submit the ten hours of overtime he worked that day.
In an interview with Professional Compliance Section investigators this past February, Ortiz said he was on a marine patrol vessel at the time of the crash. He recalled being dropped off at Miami Marine Stadium and said he assisted a lieutenant and other officers at the scene before returning to the police boat.
In addition to Ortiz, Professional Compliance Section investigators spoke with 36 other officers who were working in the area of the Rickenbacker on the day of the crash. None claimed to have been pursuing the group of bikers or to have seen any other officer chasing the motorcyclists.
The officer on the @dade_county_riderz video who can be seen parked outside Whiskey Joe's was identified as former Officer Andre Mathis. According to the second police investigation, Mathis issued a speeding ticket to the driver of an unrelated white vehicle at 3:24 p.m. before hopping back onto the Rickenbacker. The new report says Mathis was seen leaving the parking lot at a normal rate of speed.
Notably, Mathis was not interviewed in the second police review by the Professional Compliance Section. According to the report, he retired on July 1, 2019, and did not respond to a certified letter from investigators requesting an interview. Nor did he respond to a voicemail and text message from New Times last week asking to discuss the case.
Based on the Instagram videos, the Professional Compliance Section said, it was clear a Miami Police Department cruiser was traveling behind the motorcyclists above the speed limit. But the report dismisses the possibility that the cruiser was pursuing Cruz Peña, stating that the officer was chasing an unknown solo rider.
The report also fails to identify the driver of the cruiser, stating that the video resolution was too fuzzy to make out the car number.
The investigators concluded that several Miami Police Department policies had been violated, including an order that officers operate their vehicles in a safe manner and only pursue fleeing violent felony offenders. The report also determined that Det. Alfred Hernandez — who initially investigated the traffic fatality — improperly kept Cruz Peña's GoPro in his locked desk drawer until turning it into evidence on June 7, 2018. (A forensic examiner with the U.S. Secret Service later determined that no videos from the day of the crash had been deleted or modified.)
Maj. Jose M. Gonzalez, commander of the Professional Compliance Section, wrote in a letter to Chief Colina that he had an "executive-level discussion" about the results of the second investigation with all current and former majors at the police department, which he said was "constructive" and "well-received by all."
The results of the Professional Compliance Section investigation have now been forwarded to the Civilian Investigative Panel, which is again reviewing the case. CIP assistant director Rodney Jacobs tells New Times that while the updated investigation is far more thorough, the way the first Internal Affairs investigation was conducted remains as a black mark on the police department.
"It doesn't necessarily give people reassurance for accountability," Jacobs says. "I think if it wasn't for our panel saying we need to look at this deeper, we wouldn't have even gotten this far."
Jacobs also pointed out the noticeable absence of a statement from Officer Mathis.
"I think the department could have gone to bigger lengths to make sure this key factor, this officer, was at least interviewed," he says. "That gives me some concern there on that end."
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Nevertheless, he says, it's gratifying to see the department admit that an officer was pursuing the motorcyclists.
"I think that was a big part that not only our office wanted to know, but the public: Was this a chase? Because it sure looks like one," he says.
After CIP staff reviews the case, Jacobs says, it will be presented to the full panel at a public meeting.