Gibson Belizaire: Victim or criminal?

By the time the bullets slammed into the Tripod Collision & Repair Shop's concrete walls — thwack, thwack, thwack — Gibson Junior Belizaire had nowhere left to run.

A slight five feet four inches tall and weighing a hair more than 130 pounds, Belizaire crouched into a small corner behind the shop at NW 62nd Street and Second Avenue. The muddy yard flashed red and blue in the swaying, early-afternoon police lights.

A tall chainlink fence had kept the cops at bay for a few hours while Belizaire cradled a gun and thought about his next move. But now, suddenly, the bullets were flying. Crack, crack!

Then the rounds found their mark. One and then two tore through Belizaire's raised forearms. Another nicked his leg. The last thing he might have felt was both shinbones shattering.

When the shooting stopped and the police moved in, the 21-year-old was riddled with 18 bullets. One had burst through his eyeball and into his brain. Two others had made a mess of his temple and the top of his skull. Seventy-seven shells lay on the ground. Belizaire was dead.

One month later, Belizaire's death is mostly a footnote in a hotly debated six weeks when Miami Police fatally shot four suspects in Overtown, Liberty City, and Little Haiti. The killings have left black Miami teetering on a violent edge in a way unseen in a decade and have led community leaders to question new police Chief Miguel Exposito's tactics.

Belizaire's story has never been told in full because, of the four men killed by police, his death seemed the easiest to accept. He had a criminal record, he was armed, and he allegedly fired at police. Breaking precedent from the other cases, MPD never named the cops who shot him.

But senior police sources have confirmed to New Times that among the officers who killed Belizaire were Eric Guzman and George Diaz. Both have troubling records of violence against suspects, and each has killed another man in the past year. Add it up, and his case raises even more questions for the department to answer about this deadly summer.

"Under [former Chief John] Timoney, he preached not to use deadly force unless it's the last alternative," says Larry Handfield, a lawyer chairing a panel formed by city Commissioner Richard Dunn to investigate the shootings. "The new message is, 'We'll take the streets back and meet violence with violence.' That permeates down."

Gibson Belizaire was born March 31, 1989, in Little Haiti. His mother, Julina Belizaire, had emigrated from Haiti to the Bahamas before making her way with Gibson's four older siblings to Miami. His father, Aggerholin Joseph, was long gone by the time he was born.

He grew up poor, moving with his family from one rundown house to another. Julina cared for her children as best as she could, but she was a single mom without much money, so the kids spent a lot of time looking out for each other. "I pretty much raised him," says Elcie Belizaire, his oldest sibling, who now lives in Atlanta. "We all stuck together and kind of helped each other."

Gibson, who was always slight-framed and smart, went to Little River Elementary, Miami Edison Middle, and then North Miami Beach High. From a young age, he looked out for his family, his siblings say. "He was the kind of guy who never had much but would give you his last dime if it'd help," says Wesley Belizaire, his older brother.

But Gibson also had a chip on his shoulder, and his clashes with the law began early. Records show he was booked into juvenile detention in March 2000, when he was just 11 years old, for assault. The next year, he was back for beating up a sports official. Minor arrests followed in 2004 and 2005, for marijuana possession and resisting arrest without violence.

His trouble grew more serious in 2006, when he was 17. On November 16, police pulled over a 2003 Buick LeSabre near NE 75th Street and Second Avenue for an expired tag. As the officer approached, he spotted Belizaire stashing a chrome .38 Rossi handgun under the seat, according to the police report. He was booked for carrying a concealed weapon and stolen property.

Less than a month later, he was arrested again and charged with cocaine possession. Then, on June 20, 2007, cops spotted him in a "well-known" coke-dealing spot on NW 42nd Street. When they approached, he dropped a bag full of crack.

A psychologist examined the 18-year-old before he went on trial for drug charges. The report paints a picture of a bright but confused and angry young man. The doctor found he was "functionally illiterate" but well above average in intelligence and "excellent in math."

"A lack of nurture has fueled the intense anger within him," the doctor wrote. When he showed the teen some Rorschach inkblots representing a mother, Belizaire saw a "moth flying away" and felt sad. The psychologist recommended antidepressants but also cleared him to stand trial. In August 2007, a judge sentenced him to one year of probation.

His last serious charge came in May 2009, when he was booked after trying to buy a bag of pot. He was found guilty but released with time served.

Despite Belizaire's long record, his family insists he was serious about turning his life around. Last year, he had a son — Andrew Gibson — and he was determined not to let the boy grow up fatherless, says Wesley. "He'd do anything for that kid."

This past August 14, Belizaire tried to visit his son. His sister Linda drove him in her older model Jaguar to his son's mother's apartment and waited outside while he went in.

That's when something went wrong.

Belizaire's family still doesn't know how the trouble began, and the police aren't saying. But Andrew's mother — whom Belizaire's family has declined to identify — called 911 to report domestic violence. When officers arrived, Belizaire and his sister drove off in the Jag.

Around noon, another unit spotted the car on NW Second Avenue near 62nd Street. Police say Belizaire jumped out of the car, fired a shot at the cops, and then hid behind the Tripod body shop. His family says he might have just panicked.

Either way, that's when Belizaire's path collided with that of officers Guzman and Diaz.

Between them, the two cops have used force on 35 suspects and accumulated seven citizen complaints in six years. Each also killed a man in the past year.

Guzman, who is currently assigned to the K-9 unit, once shot himself in the foot during a SWAT raid. His dog, Ares, bit and injured suspects three times in a short time on the unit. One person interviewed by New Times, a Liberty City resident named Janesha Brookins, says Guzman screamed at her to "back the fuck up" during an arrest and slammed her head against a car.

In July 2009, Guzman spotted a homeless man named Kiana Sean Lamb who matched the description of a robbery suspect. When the officer tried to arrest the 27-year-old on NW Fifth Avenue near the Miami River, a scuffle broke out and Guzman fired three shots. Lamb died on the spot.

Diaz, meanwhile, joined the force six months after Guzman, in November 2004, and works the B shift in the central unit. Records show that in 2006, he was cleared on a complaint of negligence of duty. Allegations of abusive treatment and discourtesy were filed as "information only" in 2008.

On July 6, 2009, Diaz responded to a house on NW 30th Street where a man refused to drop two knives. Diaz fatally shot the man, 51-year-old Celso Rebuelta.

Around noon this past August 14, Diaz, Guzman, and several other cops surrounded the Tripod lot where Belizaire was hiding. The standoff lasted more than two hours.

Police say Belizaire then began firing at them again. In response, more than 70 rounds rained down from the cops' automatic weapons, killing Gibson at the scene.

Miami PD declined to comment about the shooting because an investigation is ongoing. But Armando Aguilar, president of the city's police union, says there's no doubt Guzman and Diaz were justified.

"I don't know how anyone could question this one. Even the business owners in the area saw this guy shooting at the officers and reloading his gun," he says. "This was suicide by cop."

But Belizaire's relatives aren't so sure. They say they have their own witnesses who didn't see Belizaire shooting. And they've retained attorney Jon Zepnick to explore the possibility of filing a civil claim against the city.

"The police didn't give him a chance to come out with his hands up. They came in with an army, and they shot to kill," Zepnick says.

Last Tuesday, one month after Gibson's death, about 30 friends and family members gathered on the filthy corner where he died. A half-dozen candles melted into the mud below the wall marred by jagged bullet holes. The evening air was silent except for cars motoring along NW 62nd Street.

"We just want answers from the police about what happened to our brother out here," says Wesley, gesturing at the pockmarked wall. "None of this makes any sense."

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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

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