Frontier Justice

The iron and concrete Sweetwater City Hall and Police Complex feels like some kind of futuristic frontier outpost. The forbidding building juts out of the tiny swampside town's one-story landscape of small homes and gritty shopping centers like a stumpy obelisk. An inflatable Santa Claus and a few strings of fat Christmas lights only add to the sense of menace.

The city's wood-paneled commission chamber sits atop the plush mayor's office, which, in turn, is positioned above the concrete police station on the ground floor. Inside, plump Cuban cops down cafecitos at the long imitation-wood booking desk. Motormen in shiny boots and white helmets enter chewing long cigars.

In a sizable rear office, the police chief, Robert Fulgeira, sits at a desk surrounded by mementos of his run as a SWAT sniper. A two-foot-tall black-and-white photograph of John Wayne hangs behind him, flanked by Old Glory and the town flag. A pearl-handled 1911 .45 clings to the chief's hefty side, and he punctuates his sentences with giant brown gobs of spit and tobacco.


Peter Michael Daniel

But Mayor Manuel Maroño has final say in hiring, firing, promoting, and demoting the entire 23-member police force.

Short, with bulging, hairy arms and a bald, shiny pate, Maroño runs the town from his third-floor office, where stuffed deer heads gaze at visitors through black plastic eyes. A large ceramic replica of the Seal of the President of the United States looms behind Maroño's desk. His shelves display a samurai sword, a framed semiautomatic, and a photo of him proudly clutching a bloody elk — killed at Chief Fulgeira's hunting ranch in Texas.

The borderland atmosphere is so pungent here it's a wonder the streets aren't paved with dirt and horse shit.

"They give new meaning to a Third-World mentality," Police Benevolent Association President John Rivera says of Sweetwater and its public officials. "It's not like its own little city; it's like its own little country."

It was from within these walls that, on June 18, 2003, at 4:30 a.m., Dade County Fire Rescue personnel carried eighteen-year-old Peter Michael Daniel on a stretcher, deathly pale and writhing in pain. When paramedics asked what had happened to him, Peter told them he had vomited and moaned that he'd fallen from a chair, according to EMS worksheets and depositions from officers on the scene. Someone had beaten him half to death, he said, and told him not to say anything.

As he was being hooked up to oxygen and an EKG machine in the ambulance, Peter repeated that he'd fallen from a chair. Later, when surgeons opened him up, they discovered massive internal bleeding caused by lacerations to his spleen and liver.

Peter Daniel's mother, Lourdes Lima, spoke intermittently with her son as he reeled under the dizzying whirl of morphine and near-death, she later testified. Though details were scarce that night, Peter's halting speech, hand signals, and scrawled notes provided her with enough information to construct a tale of jaw-dropping police brutality.

In the days that followed, she made several phone calls, and camera crews flooded Kendall Regional Medical Center. Photos of Peter splayed on a hospital bed appeared all over the local television news: His neck was wrapped in a brace, his torso was divided, from navel to neck, with surgical staples.

One of the officers who was at the station that night, Eladio "Kiki" Parra, alleges Mayor Maroño pressured him to conduct a violent interrogation. The mayor has repeatedly and emphatically denied he had anything to do with the beating. "Absolutely not. I never said anything of the kind," Maroño says. He claims Parra and the others are angry and dislike his management style. Moreover, the state attorney has declined to investigate the mayor's role in the incident.

Nevertheless, in October 2005, Sweetwater paid Peter a $2.02 million settlement.

Today Peter Michael Daniel lives on the same small patch of land he grew up on, just one block outside the town limits. A new Spanish-tile roof caps the snug yellow home, its humble façade obscured by a thicket of gleaming new American cars: a gigantic Ford F-350, a sleek Corvette convertible, and a silver Dodge Charger. Only his cousin's dented white Econoline van disrupts the vista of automotive opulence.

Peter answers the door with a pair of stony, red eyes. The sides of his head are shaved into a close-cut faux-hawk. A dark blue T-shirt hangs from his gaunt shoulders; his large hands suggest he was once bigger. The furniture in the house's dark interior is heavy and decorous — velvet fabric adorned with heavily gilded armrests. His mother's expansive collection of Spanish porcelain figurines — supple seamstresses, dancing courtiers, and a big, shiny Jesus on the cross — pack several shelves and cabinets. A giant flat-screen TV set strains the limits of its wooden cabinet and faintly reflects the thick brown leather couch wrapping the room like a listless boa.

"I know people, voices around town, think of me as a spoiled, hit-me-now, pay-me-later kind of brat," Peter says flatly. "But it's not as the public would have you think. I bought myself a car. I bought a four-wheeler. But all of the money was used to pay back debts. I really didn't make out with anything." (His mother, the Corvette's nominal owner, told New Times that Peter's settlement money has been set aside for his future and a possible liver transplant, though he currently shows no signs of needing one.)

Peter's cousin, Danny Daniels, leans against a stone countertop. The husky 29-year-old tile setter's eyes are glossy and impassive behind a pair of glasses. The room is packed with the contents of the master bedroom, which the two are in the process of remodeling.

"Let me tell you," Daniels says, shaking his head. "He was a lot happier before this whole thing started."

Peter's father, a cement truck driver; and his mother, a process-server, divorced when he was four years old. His mother got remarried to a Miami-Dade bus instructor. Peter grew up in his grandmother's house with his mother and stepfather. The family ran a trucking company, parking big rigs in the back yard.

Peter dropped out of high school at age sixteen. His stepfather suffered a stroke. His mother declared bankruptcy. He needed to start earning. His mother sold the trucks and put up $50,000 to buy six Jet Skis. Peter intended to save the family by launching a business offering high-speed aquatic tours of celebrity homes on Hibiscus, Palm, and Star islands for $110 per hour. Extreme Jet Ski Tours earned a marginal profit in 2001 and 2002.

By the time Peter was admitted to the hospital in June 2003, the family was not doing well financially. There was a tax lien on the house. The tours, it seems, were just not extreme enough.

Peter and his mom ran a propaganda machine from his room at Kendall Regional. During his two-week stay in summer 2003, Peter held several interviews with newscasters sporting names like Rosh and Rad. Although his story would change over the next three years, his earliest accounts, pieced together from media interviews and civil court depositions, went something like this: On the way to his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend's house, he was silently pursued by a Sweetwater cop — no lights, no sirens. Peter got spooked and led Ofcr. Allen St. Germain on a high-speed chase through the back streets of Sweetwater. After running stop signs, jumping parking pylons, and sliding over multiple lanes of traffic, Peter lost St. Germain. He then drove to his girlfriend's house, got dumped, and went home.

An hour later, St. Germain knocked on Peter's door and arrested him for fleeing and eluding. At the police station, around midnight, four cops allegedly pulled Peter from his cell and pointed to a poster depicting a recently stolen Jet Ski. They demanded to know what Peter had done with it. The boy pleaded innocent.

One of the officers, Sgt. George Alvarez, threw a punch, Peter later testified. The boy claimed he fell to the concrete and pulled himself into a fetal position. The officers — including, he then said, 60-year-old Catalino Rodriguez, the Jet Ski's owner — kicked, punched, and stomped Peter's 135-pound frame in the interest of recovering the watercraft. "They just kept screaming at me: 'Tell me where the Jet Ski is,'" Peter claimed in court two years later. "'Tell me where the Jet Ski is and we'll stop.'"

Peter Daniel told the media that Rodriguez threatened, between strikes, to cut him into tiny pieces and feed him to alligators; Alvarez and St. Germain, he claimed, took turns hoisting him up by the back of his shirt and pummeling him like a side of beef.

Peter squeaked out the name of his best friend, Danny Izquierdo, to appease his tormentors. The officers cuffed Peter and tossed him into the mayor's dark green Ford Excursion. They drove, in the dead of night, to Izquierdo's home, smacking him all the way, Peter told reporters.

After manhandling a defiant Izquierdo, the cops and the mayor dragged the pair back to the station. The cops punched Peter one last time for good measure, the boy, his mother, and Izquierdo later alleged. Straining to breathe and begging for help, Peter scrawled a statement accusing Izquierdo of stealing the Jet Ski. A furious Izquierdo denied the charge. The two were thrown into adjacent cells. Izquierdo refused to confess and was released.

At 2:30 a.m., Izquierdo burst into the little waiting room and berated Peter's hysterical mother for having "a piece of shit" for a son. She had been waiting up all night, tormented by screams she later attributed to her son. Two hours later, St. Germain called fire rescue to the scene. Peter couldn't stand up. He was rushed to Kendall Regional, where he underwent surgery. Peter's mother later testified her son woke up with the names of the offending officers on his lips: Alvarez and St. Germain.

The story would change.

A month after the beating, Mayor Moroño demoted Jesse Menocal, Sweetwater's police chief of nearly nine years, to supervisor on the graveyard shift. The four officers Peter had named while at the hospital were suspended without pay. Eleven months later, in June 2004, Peter changed his mind about the number of attackers. Two of the officers, including Rodriguez, were dropped from the investigation and returned to regular duty.

Sergeant Alvarez and Officer St. Germain were arrested, charged with brutalizing Peter, and placed on suspension without pay. St. Germain faced up to a decade in prison; Alvarez, 25 years.

In October 2005, 30 days before a civil trial was set to begin, Peter received a $2 million insurance settlement from the Florida League of Cities, plus $20,000 from Sweetwater coffers. Izquierdo later received $100,000.

The criminal trial began in January 2006. The case fell apart. Not one of the prosecution witnesses provided coherent testimony. Peter admitted multiple times to lying in interviews and sworn depositions. His version of events was virtually worthless; his assertion that the beating occurred at midnight, more than four hours before he was rushed to the hospital, proved especially damaging. The young man's physician estimated Peter probably couldn't have survived more than an hour after the organ-busting attack.

"[Peter] Daniel looked like a smarmy, wood-sucking, weasly little runt on the stand," says Richard Sharpstein, Alvarez's defense attorney, who described Peter as a "punk" in his opening statement. "He was just a punching bag for me," Sharpstein says now.

The jury handed down a not-guilty verdict at the conclusion of a 40-minute lunch break. Alvarez and St. Germain were reinstated late this past year.

Though neither defendant took the stand, eleven officers and other witnesses who had been at the station that night were deposed. The only one who would speak out about the beating was Ofcr. Eladio Parra.

In a statement given to state investigators immediately after the beating, and in subsequent depositions, Parra described Mayor Maroño's involvement; he also noted that Rodriguez, the Jet Ski's owner, was there, which might have inflamed the situation. Though Maroño asked Parra to interrogate the alleged thieves, he refused. Maroño later approached Parra in the bathroom and announced "the kid" had fallen from his chair.

Then, Parra claimed, the mayor indicated a tougher approach might be needed. "The mayor told me: 'Get in there and find out where that Jet Ski is,'" Parra told New Times. "And he made a slapping motion — like he wanted me to get in there and smack this kid around." That allegation first surfaced in a 2003 sworn statement that Parra's supervisor and union rep, Larry Churchman, gave to state and federal investigators.

(The mayor denies the conversation ever took place. "I never spoke to Parra in the bathroom. I was peeing in the pee stall. I never speak when I'm peeing," he told New Times.)

Parra stayed clear of the station for most of that night, managing multiple calls. When he returned at 4:30 a.m., he found Peter in grave condition. Soon Peter was picked up by a fire rescue unit and transported to Kendall Regional.

Parra and Churchman described these events to investigators from the State Attorney's Office shortly after the night of the beating. The next morning, Parra said his usual hellos to the guys on his way into work. "They were all hanging out in the parking lot outside. Maroño looked at me like he wanted to kill me," Parra recalls, his eyes agog. "Like he wanted to eat me alive. I was worried they were gonna do something to me. But I do my job. I follow the law. What could they do? Boy, was I fuckin' wrong."

The following month a veteran investigator at the State Attorney's Office was reportedly terminated for leaking information about the investigation to Maroño and the police chief.

On February 27, 2005, Parra was working off-duty security outside the Ohio Sports Bar when he had to Taser a violent drunk. Parra allegedly bashed the man on the forehead before he finally went down. Though the arrestee never filed a complaint (Parra contends the man apologized the whole way to the station), Parra and Churchman were fired in March for falsifying official reports and violating procedures.

Parra had to dip into his pension, file for unemployment, and take out loans. At Maroño's behest, the city spent $80,000 on a private attorney to fight the officers' appeals. "I don't have confidence in my city attorney," Maroño says.

Twenty months later, an arbitrator found that the firing had been "predetermined to get even with [Parra] for his prior acts, most likely related to his prior testimony in another case." The arbitrator further implied that Sweetwater PD's conduct "could not be considered anything less than attempted witness intimidation." Parra was reinstated in late 2006. Churchman's arbitration verdict is pending.

"I don't think [St. Germain or Alvarez] beat anyone," Parra said recently over a cup of cold Cuban coffee in his Hummel-crowded kitchen in Kendall. "Maybe they were trying to cover up for someone."

"I'm glad Parra is back," Mayor Maroño says, sitting amid the paramilitary filigree of his office. "He's a good cop."

The feeling is not mutual. "I despise [Maroño]," Parra told the jury during the criminal trial.

Miraculously Mayor Maroño remained outside the scope of the state attorney's investigation into the beating.

Several of the town's officers wonder why. That's not surprising. The mayor has never been popular with the rank and file.

Shortly after being appointed mayor in 2002, Maroño achieved infamy for rehiring disgraced police Chief Ray Toledo as a reserve officer. Maroño even provided him with a take-home car. Toledo had been fired by a previous administration in May 1995 for assaulting and humiliating his officers. Toledo's return kicked up so much dust in the department that Maroño called a special meeting.

When the irate cops arrived at the gathering, Maroño reportedly held up a pair of decorative chrome testicles ("truck nuts" given to him by Toledo) and dared them to complain to their union. "I wipe my ass with the PBA," he announced, holding the nuts aloft. (His preferred catch phrase, it's said, is "Por mis cojones" — "For my balls.")

Several officers interviewed by New Times accused Maroño of staffing officer positions with hatchet men and incompetent cronies. Maroño has recently taken to promoting favorites to the rank of "corporal" (a position that is not recognized in the town's PBA contract) and doing away with merit exams for sergeant positions in favor of mayoral appointments. During Maroño's term as vice mayor, his uncle was promoted to director of the city's maintenance department. While he was mayor, his ex-wife (with whom he currently lives) was promoted to manager of the city's "special projects."

"They run this town like a bootleg mafia," one officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Throughout his term, Moroño has had a penchant for police work, spending lots of time at the station. He has his own call sign — SW 1000 — and admits to occasionally driving through the city in an unmarked police car: a black Intrepid equipped with lights and sirens. His own vehicle, the Excursion, is also equipped with lights and sirens.

"He's a cop wannabe," says PBA president John Rivera.

In June 2003, Maroño was subpoenaed by the officers' defense attorneys. His account of the evening went like this: From 8:00 to 9:00 p.m., he presided over a special meeting of the Sweetwater City Commission. After the meeting, he went home, showered, and returned to the station just to hang out. He took a dispatcher out for coffee, and when he came back, he offered to drive Peter and the officers to Danny Izquierdo's house because they needed an unmarked car, and his trailer hitch seemed ideal for recovering the Jet Ski.

In a deposition given to state investigators, Maroño made a special effort to convey his innocence. "I [was] so uncomfortable at that time," he said, describing a moment when he and Peter sat side by side in the Excursion. "I wanted to jump out of the truck, run back to the station."

But there are inconsistencies in Maroño's description of the night Peter was beaten. Maroño recently told New Times his evening came to an end when he dropped off Peter, Izquierdo, and the officers at the station. He forgot to mention he took officers out a second time to investigate a third suspect. "Oh yes," he remembered when prompted. "I took them out there and then went straight home."

But Officers Churchman and Parra say otherwise. They insist the mayor was at the station well after Izquierdo's 3:00 a.m. release. They believe the order to beat Peter came from Maroño.

The mayor initially kept quiet about his involvement in Peter's ordeal. But then TV news reported that his call sign, SW 1000, had figured prominently in Alvarez's and St. Germain's paperwork from the incident.

Soon afterward, Miami-Dade cops seized his Excursion and ran forensic tests on his floor mats for traces of Peter's blood. In an early version of his story, Peter had claimed he'd been hit inside the mayor's car and was bleeding from his head. The tests came back negative.

"I still haven't gotten my floor mats back," Maroño says, smiling behind his broad mahogany desk. He denies any wrongdoing and looks back on the night as "a learning experience." He adds that he has given up involvement in police work since the incident, but he is never far from his police radio.

Peter's case took three years to try and continues to be investigated by the FBI, the U.S. Attorney's Office, and MDPD's public corruption unit. County police investigator Miriam Gordils told New Times her agency is trying to build a case based on federal civil rights violations. Peter's injuries yielded nearly three million dollars in various settlements and lawyers' fees — plus an avalanche of litigation, retaliation, and terminations. The city is battling Alvarez's and St. Germain's lawyers over the officers' legal fees, which continue to grow.

The event clearly left its mark on Peter. If he was a punk before, he is an unhinged punk now. His mother says she doesn't know what to do about him. Since the incident, he has seen therapists and analysts and has been prescribed numerous psychiatric medications. His mother argues he's not the same person and that, since the trauma, he has been afraid to sleep alone.

During negotiations preceding the averted civil trial in 2005, a Miami-Dade cop pulled Peter over for driving around Coral Gables with his headlights off. When Peter rolled down his window, a strong whiff of marijuana poured out of the car, according to the police report. The county cop peered inside to discover a bag of leafy green in plain view.

This past May, Peter, driving with a suspended license, was speeding west on SW Eighth Street when an MDPD cruiser caught up to him. At a red light on SW 122nd Avenue, the cop flashed lights and sirens. Peter gunned it, making a frenzied U-turn and heading east. According to the incident report, the cop followed at a safe distance until Peter went sailing off the Dolphin Expressway exit ramp, totaling his black 2006 Ford pickup against a palm tree. As the officer approached the wreck, Peter climbed from the cab and fled into a nearby apartment complex. Back-up officers had to drag him out in handcuffs.

He has never been prosecuted for any of his arrests.

During the criminal trial in January 2006, Peter paid a visit to Maroño. On a sunny Sunday afternoon, the mayor stood in the driveway of his home, washing down a truck. His five-year-old son played on the lawn nearby while he and a friend from the neighborhood chatted about kids.

Peter rolled by in an orange Chevy pickup. "I'm going to get you," he shouted.

"What?" Maroño called after him.

Peter put the truck in reverse and stopped in front of Maroño's house.

"I'm going to get you," he said.

Maroño filed a police report with Sweetwater PD. Peter was not arrested.

The stolen Jet Ski has never been found.

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