Rundle's Office Still Hasn't Closed Investigation Into 2009 Fatal Shooting by Disgraced Cop

Katherine Fernandez Rundle
Katherine Fernandez Rundle Miami-Dade County State Attorney's Office
In June 2009, Miami Beach Police Officer Adam Tavss fatally shot two people in four days. Tavss resigned the next year after testing positive for marijuana and was later caught running a marijuana growhouse. In 2011, he was cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting of the first victim, an unarmed tourist named Husein Shehada.

But eight years after Tavss killed the second victim, 29-year-old semihomeless man Lawrence McCoy, Miami-Dade County State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle is still "investigating" the nearly decade-old case.

"The McCoy case is still open," Rundle's spokesperson, Ed Griffith, confirmed to New Times Friday. "I have not been able to get more information yet due to being pulled to a special project." Griffith did not respond to a follow-up message sent Tuesday morning for more information.

As Rundle faces a vote tonight from the Miami-Dade County Democratic Party, which is considering censuring her for failing to file charges in the case of Darren Rainey — a schizophrenic inmate who died after being locked for nearly two hours in a scalding shower — the Tavss case is another reminder of her abysmal record regarding police shootings.

In 24 years since taking over for State Attorney Janet Reno, Rundle had not charged a cop for a fatal on-duty shooting despite reams of cases in which cops appeared to have demonstrably acted in bad faith. (Amid mounting pressure from the public and media earlier this year, Rundle charged North Miami Police Officer Jonathan Aledda with manslaughter and culpable negligence for shooting unarmed behavioral therapist Charles Kinsey in the leg. Kinsey, thankfully, survived.)

Rundle has also been criticized for taking a remarkably long time to close investigations into state-sponsored killings. The statute of limitations in Florida for a wrongful-death lawsuit is only two years, which means delayed investigations could hurt a family's chances of filing a civil suit if a loved one is wrongfully killed by police.

In April 2015, the Miami Herald's David Ovalle pointed out that after five years, Rundle's office still had not closed an investigation into the police killing of Joeell Johnson, a black 16-year-old suspected of armed robbery. After the Herald's story was published, Rundle's office closed the investigation less than a month later — and cleared the officer of wrongdoing.

Infamously, Rundle's office had stopped investigating the 2012 death of Rainey before the Miami Herald's Julie Brown began reporting on Rainey's case. Rundle reopened the investigation but then earlier this year cleared the four state prison guards who oversaw the death. That decision has led to protests, mass backlash, and possible censure from the local Democrats at the party's meeting later tonight. (Rundle is a Democrat.)

But throughout that time, the investigation into McCoy's death has lingered.

Cops said McCoy had stolen a cab, driven the car the wrong way on the MacArthur Causeway, and pointed a gun at cops. But police did not recover a weapon on McCoy's body, and though a handgun was later fished out of Biscayne Bay, there was no way to tie it to McCoy. And Tavss' awful record — in addition to failing the drug test and getting caught in the growhouse scandal, he was also arrested for battery in 2011 — calls the police account of the case into further question.

McCoy's father, Lawrence Sr., sued Tavss and the City of Miami Beach in 2011. That suit remains open six years later. The family's lawyer, Gregory Samms, did not immediately respond to a call from New Times.

According to police, McCoy crashed the cab he stole into an oncoming car, got out, and ran from officers. Tavss fired nine to 11 shots at McCoy. The New York Times reported in July 2009 that McCoy had "holes up and down his arms and a wound in his back."

The family's lawyer at the time, John Contini (who is now a judge in Fort Lauderdale), called the incident "complete savagery."

From the outset, police and witnesses gave inconsistent testimony about the events leading up to the shooting. After MBPD initially claimed McCoy had pistol-whipped a cab driver, stole his car, and died in a shootout with police, the department then walked back some of its claims. In August 2009, Beach Police said it was unable to prove McCoy was carrying a gun when he was killed.

In January 2010, McCoy's sister, Autumn Romero, told New Times the family believed McCoy had been wrongfully executed by police and demanded the state take action. Throughout the ordeal, the family maintained Tavss should have been tried for excessive force.

"We want criminal charges," Romero told New Times that year.

But no charges ever came. Instead, Tavss resigned that month after failing a drug test and getting caught smoking pot. (He banked more than $17,000 in unused vacation and sick time.) His reputation only continued to unravel: In May of that year, he was caught running a hydroponic marijuana growhouse in his home, filled with 47 pot plants. Tavss was later sentenced to house arrest.

Then, in March 2011, Rundle's office cleared Tavss in the shooting of Shehada, the tourist. According to surveillance video taken from the scene, Shehada hadn't been doing anything incriminating when Tavss approached but reached for his waistband when the officer pulled out his gun. It turned out Shehada had a beer bottle in his pants. Rundle's office said that because Tavss could have mistaken the beer bottle for a gun, the shooting was justified. (Shehada's family sued Tavss and the City of Miami Beach in 2011. That lawsuit was dismissed two years later.)

By May 2011, a mere two months after being cleared for killing Shehada, Tavss found himself in trouble again. He was arrested for battery and false imprisonment in Doral. Those charges were never prosecuted.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.