Bad Miami Cops Probed Over Beating, Fleeing Scene of Crash

Officer Eric Guzman's highlights over his nine years on the Miami Police Department include 30 use-of-force complaints, two dead suspects, and one self-inflicted gunshot wound to the foot. Sgt. Juan Mendez, meanwhile, has killed four suspects and racked up nearly 100 complaints in his 28-year career.

Like a recurring migraine, the two cops are yet again causing pain for their higherups. Guzman is wrapped up in a contentious criminal case with a businessman who says the cop fractured his jaw, eye socket, and two ribs during a DUI arrest in Coconut Grove. And Mendez was placed on leave after slamming into a parked car and fleeing the scene.

Together, their stories raise an important question: What exactly does it take to get canned from MPD?

Guzman has the shorter — but no less sketchy — tenure. He killed one homeless man during a scuffle and was one of the officers who fatally shot Gibson Belizaire during MPD's infamous run of seven dead black suspects in eight months in 2010 that led to a Justice Department investigation and the downfall of then-Chief Miguel Exposito.

Now a 44-year-old businessman claims Guzman severely injured him during an arrest. Carlos Sotolongo, a Cuban immigrant who owns a market in Kendall, lives on a boat in Dinner Key. Last November 10, he went to move his car from a space in the Coconut Grove Convention Center lot to a spot closer to his boat.

In his incident report, Guzman says Sotolongo was weaving through the lot and then refused to stop and resisted arrest. He says the businessman kicked his leg and yelled, "You pigs are all faggots."

Sotolongo tells a different story. He says when he questioned why he was being pulled over in the parking lot, Guzman handcuffed him, put him in the squad car, and then punched him repeatedly in the head and body. A report from Jackson Memorial Hospital confirms Sotolongo ended up with broken bones in his nose and orbital socket, as well as two cracked ribs.

"I still don't know why," says Sotolongo, who has no other criminal record. "With all the delinquents on the street, why are you messing with a decent guy like me?"

Sotolongo complained to Internal Affairs, but it ruled the case "inconclusive" and cleared Guzman on May 30. Sotolongo now faces trial on two felonies: battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest with violence.

Mendez, meanwhile, joined the force in 1984. He could have been canned in 1987, when he and a group of other cops brutally beat a black off-duty Miami-Dade officer named Alfred Lee. The case became a racial touchstone when it was revealed MPD had covered up the abuse.

In 1999, Mendez shot a 19-year-old carjacking suspect named Antonio Butler seven times, killing him on the spot. Mendez was cleared by prosecutors, but the city later paid the dead man's family a nearly $1 million settlement. Three other suspects died in cases all ruled justified, but the cop has also received 60 citizen complaints and sparked 23 use-of-force investigations.

His latest caper came this past August 16, when administrators put him on leave. They'd found that a month earlier, on July 20, he'd slammed his Lexus into a car parked at Overbrook and Kirk streets in the Grove — pushing it two dozen feet into the road — and then fled the scene.

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink