On December 2, 2017, Coral Gables police nearly shot Simon Sullenberger on his own property for holding his own gun.
That night, Sullenberger says, he was out on his porch by a table cleaning his legally licensed shotgun to prepare for a shooting excursion the next day. He owned the home but says his relatives had locked him out by accident. And when he jiggled the door to open it, he set off a security alarm.
The call alerted the Coral Gables Police Department, which routed Officers Natalie Flores and Jecabseel Nunez to the home. Sullenberger says the cops appeared in the darkness and immediately drew their guns on him — but he says he couldn't tell who they were and warned them he was holding a gun.
The cops say he pointed his weapon at them, but video obtained by New Times appears to show nothing of the sort. According to a two-minute clip from the scene that evening, Sullenberger stood, pointed his finger at the officers, and backed away with the gun pointed toward the ground.
Sullenberger — who was initially charged with resisting arrest without violence, aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer, and two felony counts of attempted murder on a cop — has now sued the City of Coral Gables and the officers involved in arresting him. His lawyer, Roberto Pertierra, says it's a miracle he was not killed that day at his own home.
"Prior to this incident, Simon Sullenberger had a spotless record; he was an Eagle Scout and firefighter, among other notable accomplishments for a young man," Pertierra says. "Now he has been unjustly charged, based on lying police officers, with two counts of attempted second-degree murder of police officers. Based on these lies, Simon's life is forever tainted."
The City of Coral Gables declined to speak about the case with New Times because it does not comment on pending litigation.
The night of the incident, Sullenberger says, he held onto the weapon until he saw the cops walk beneath the single porch light at his home and saw they were wearing police uniforms. So he walked to the center of his yard, raised his arms as if to surrender, and dropped his gun. A cop picked up the weapon and removed it from the scene.
The officers walked toward him and spoke to him close to his face. Sullenberger says one cop then tried to tackle him. The video shows a physical scuffle ensuing. Sullenberger refused to go to the ground, and eventually one of the cops whipped out a Taser and shocked him into submission. The video cuts out as three cops struggle with Sullenberger near a 36-inch-high retaining wall on his property.
Police reports from that night, however, describe events that the video does not show. The cops claim they demanded Sullenberger show ID to verify he was the owner of the house. And the officers say that when Sullenberger stood up with his gun, he pointed it at them. The video contradicts those claims.
"The officer Flores and Nunez both gave loud verbal commands to the defendant to drop the weapon, which he refused," a police arrest form from that evening states. "The defendant made eye contact with officer Flores, raised and pointed the shotgun east towards Santiago Street and in the direction of Officer (Flores). During this time, both Officers Flores and Officer Nunez felt threatened by the Defendants' actions and they were both in fear for their lives. After a brief pause, the defendant dropped the weapon onto the grass."
Additionally, the officers claim Sullenberger attempted to choke Nunez and pinned the officer against the retaining wall on his property. The video does not appear to show any of those events occurring. Multiple police reports involving at least three officers — Nunez, Flores, and Jorge Puga — claim Sullenberger pointed his shotgun at the officers that night.
Arrest affidavits are sworn documents; lying on them amounts to criminal perjury. Records show police took witness statements from two people near the scene that night, but neither mentioned seeing Sullenberger point his gun at anyone.
Amazingly, Sullenberger's home security camera recorded the vast majority of the incident. The footage, Sullenberger says, shows he never pointed a gun at any of the officers on his property that night. After his lawyer sent the footage to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office, prosecutors declined to file attempted murder charges against him. But the other criminal charges against him remain pending despite the fact that Sullenberger says his video footage shows he did nothing wrong. His case is set to go to trial January 6.
In response to Sullenberger's lawsuit, the three cops he's suing — Flores, Nunez, and Puga — have moved to dismiss his claim in court. The officers say they were justified in arresting him.
"As the Complaint's allegations make clear, Officers Nunez and Flores were forced to make potentially life-saving split-second decisions to protect themselves — in the face of a deadly weapon and non-cooperative individual — during a rapidly escalating encounter in which Plaintiff presented a threat of serious physical harm to the officers," the cops' motion states.
Sullenberger's attorney says he had trouble tracking down Puga and Nunez to serve them with the legal complaint. That's because, strangely, they no longer work for the department. Records obtained by New Times show Nunez resigned this past June 16. Puga resigned November 17, nine days after Sullenberger accused him of lying in Miami-Dade Circuit Court.