Widow in Rickenbacker Motorcycle Crash Sues City of Miami for Police Negligence

Yailen Gonzalez said Miami Police cruisers chased her and her husband's motorcycle off an overpass.
Yailen Gonzalez said Miami Police cruisers chased her and her husband's motorcycle off an overpass. Photos by Dade County Riderz/Instagram
On Memorial Day weekend in 2018, Yailen Gonzalez and her husband, Yoinis Cruz Peña, crashed their motorcycle on the Rickenbacker Causeway in an incident that cost Cruz Peña his life.

After the wreck, Gonzalez insisted that she and her husband were being chased by Miami police at the time of the crash. Now, she is suing the City of Miami for negligence while the Miami Police Department (MPD) investigates the crash for the fourth time, in a saga that has spanned three years and two police chiefs.

The lawsuit claims that an officer's negligent driving led to Gonzalez's injuries and her husband's death. Gonzalez alleges that an MPD squad car tailed and bumped the couple's 2008 Kawasaki motorcycle, causing them to crash into the retaining wall of the Rickenbacker Causeway and fall 27 feet to the roadway below.

Cruz Peña was pronounced dead at Jackson Memorial Hospital, and Gonzalez was treated for a broken pelvis and left femur.
The May 27, 2018, crash garnered widespread attention after clips posted on Instagram by the motorcycle group Dade County Riderz showed a police vehicle waiting in the parking lot of Whiskey Joe's Miami Bar & Grill on the day of the crash as a group of motorcyclists, including Gonzalez and Cruz Peña, left the restaurant. A second clip captured a squad car chasing a motorcyclist, who witnesses say was Cruz Peña, at high speed. A third snippet showed Cruz Peña and Gonzalez collapsed on the roadway after the crash. No footage has ever emerged of the actual collision.

In interviews with MPD investigators while she was in the hospital, Gonzalez said she and her husband were being chased by police traveling around 100 mph just prior to the crash.

Before the videos were posted, MPD leadership denied any involvement in the accident. Then-Miami Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) president Ed Lugo claimed there was no evidence that the motorcyclists had been chased and mocked the motorcycle group for recording the incident.

The MPD's Traffic Homicide Unit investigated the crash and found that police were not at fault. A subsequent Internal Affairs (IA) report held that "any police officer would not have been able to maintain control of their vehicle traveling at the speed Ms. Gonzalez indicated without being involved in a collision as well."

The City of Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an independent police-watchdog board, blasted the department for an investigation it claimed was flawed by design. CIP members even suggested there may have been a coverup of the incident.

The panel pointed out that the traffic homicide report misrepresented Gonzalez's statements and left out important information, such as her claim that there were multiple police cars involved in the chase that day. The report also omitted Gonzalez's statement that a police car was "edging" the motorcycle before the crash.

Although the IA report stated that the police department had no operational plans near the Rickenbacker that weekend, the CIP and local blogger Al Crespo were able to uncover contradictory evidence. Documents obtained through public-records requests showed the MPD did in fact have a traffic-enforcement operation in the area that day that was led by Capt. Javier Ortiz, a Miami cop with a long history of misconduct complaints on his record.

After the CIP's scathing review, then-Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina ordered another investigation by the department's Professional Compliance Section (PCS) in August 2019.

This time, the PCS agreed that an MPD officer had been improperly pursuing an unknown solo biker at a high rate of speed, in violation of a department policy that says officers are supposed to drive safely and only go after fleeing violent felony offenders. The PCS also said IA and the traffic homicide unit should have done a better job of interviewing witnesses and officers who were nearby on the day of the crash.

According to the PCS review, the traffic homicide detective investigating the crash improperly stashed Cruz Peña's GoPro camera inside his desk rather than turn it in to the department's property division. The review says Det. Alfred Hernandez stored the GoPro in his desk on May 27, 2018, and delivered it to a Miami Police Department detective who was assigned to a U.S. Secret Service electronic crimes task force ten days later.

The detective, who helped extract files from the damaged camera, told Hernandez the GoPro had personal photos and a video taken after the crash, but Hernandez didn't pick up the camera and review the footage for another five months. An assisting detective turned over the GoPro and its accessories to the Miami Police Property Unit on November 28, 2018, six months after the crash.

PCS investigators were unable to identify the identity of the officer in the video shown chasing a motorcyclist and couldn't catch the identification number on the squad car because of the quality of the videos from Dade County Riderz. The report stopped short of saying that an MPD officer was at fault for Cruz Peña's death, asserting that the motorcyclist shown being chased in the video was a lone driver, while Cruz Peña had been riding with Gonzalez.

The PCS did, however, identify Officer Andre Mathis as the cop who's shown in the first clip in the parking lot of Whiskey Joe's. Mathis was conducting a traffic stop of an unrelated vehicle and afterward pulled onto the Rickenbacker after the bikers left the restaurant.

PCS investigators were unable to speak to Mathis, who retired in July 2019 and did not respond to certified letters requesting an interview.

In Gonzalez's court complaint, filed this past April, Mathis is named as the officer who bumped Cruz Peña's motorcycle, causing the couple to crash. Although Mathis has not been implicated as the responsible officer in any City of Miami reports, Gonzalez's attorney, David Frankel, says they have reason to believe Mathis caused the crash. (A copy of the complaint is embedded at the end of this article.)

As part of the discovery process for the lawsuit, Frankel has requested a copy of Mathis' driving record, any record of damage to Mathis' vehicle, and the officer's phone records on the day of the crash. Frankel says he intends to subpoena Mathis for a deposition and compel him to speak under oath about the events of that day.

In any case, Frankel says, they don't need to prove that Mathis in particular was responsible, only that an MPD officer was at fault and that the city, in turn, was responsible for the officer's negligent driving.

The city has responded to the complaint by demanding the court strike a part of Gonzalez's complaint that says the city attempted to cover up the details of the crash.

"The City submits that this allegation pertains to a matter which is immaterial, scandalous and should be stricken from the Complaint. It serves no purpose in supporting Plaintiff's allegation that she was injured while riding on the back of her boyfriend's motorcycle by a City driver's alleged negligence," the city's motion states.

But Frankel contends that the city did in fact cover up important facts about the crash and that the allegation is relevant to Gonzalez's claim of negligence.

"There's no doubt that obviously they were trying to conceal the fact that the officer did chase them and cause the accident," Frankel tells New Times. "The fact that they covered up evidence shows a guilty conscience, and a guilty conscience means they have something to hide."

Reached by New Times via email, senior assistant city attorney Henry J. Hunnefeld declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Gonzalez's suit coincides with a new investigation into the crash by the MPD's Professional Compliance Section. According to a CIP agenda from March, the PCS has recently been in contact with Gonzalez and is currently looking into new information regarding her case. The CIP has also reopened its investigation into the MPD's handling of the fatal crash after receiving new information from Gonzalez.

It remains unclear what that new information might be. Reached by New Times via email, a spokesperson for the MPD said the department is unable to comment on the PCS investigation owing to the pending lawsuit.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Joshua Ceballos is staff writer for Miami New Times. He is a Florida International University alum and a born-and-bred Miami boy.
Contact: Joshua Ceballos