Let's Not Forget Miami Candidate Joe Carollo's Domestic Violence Arrest

Joe Carollo was arrested in 2001 for hitting his wife so hard he left a golf-ball-size welt on her head. One of the then Miami mayor's young daughters called 911 and begged, "Help, my dad is hurting my mom! Please come now, please!" as a woman's screams were heard in the background. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office eventually dropped domestic violence charges against Carollo because he agreed to attend anger-management courses.

Now, "Crazy Joe" Carollo — one of Miami's most infamous political characters who has somehow kept his political career alive for decades despite acting like a Trumpian lunatic long before the Orange One ever entered politics — is back. He's preparing for a runoff election Tuesday, November 21, against challenger Alfonso "Alfie" Leon for Miami's District 3 city commission seat, which his brother Frank currently occupies. Joe Carollo is the likely frontrunner against Leon and received a fairly glowing Miami Herald profile today about his return to local politics and vampiric ability to survive character assassination after character assassination.

But in today's climate, in which public officials, celebrities, and politicians are (finally) being called to the carpet for past decades of abuse against women, why — why — does this city seem like it's ready to roll over and let Carollo back into local politics?

He has a major name-recognition advantage over Leon and will almost certainly win. Today the Herald basically celebrated Carollo's re-entry into city life with a huge profile saying he has, at the age of 62, "resurrected his career" and is poised for a "triumphant return."

But Carollo's wife-beating case didn't get a mention until after the 20th paragraph, and the details of the assault didn't even make it into print. That's a shame, because striking one's spouse in the head is the sort of thing that should disqualify a candidate for office. So we figured we'd run through the case again here.

According to news reports at the time, police were dispatched to the Carollo home on the 2600 block of Natoma Street in Coconut Grove shortly after 7 a.m. Wednesday, February 7, 2001. Police said Carollo's two children, then aged 12 and 10, were at home when officers arrived to find Mari Carollo standing in her pajamas in front of the home while Joe Carollo stared at her through the front gate. (The couple was living together but had filed for divorce in November 2000. Joe blamed their split on the pressures that came with being mayor, but Mari was the one who petitioned for the divorce and wrote that their 15-year marriage was "irretrievably broken and there is no present hope for a meaningful reconciliation." )

Mari Carollo, then 42, showed police a bruise on the side of her head and told them Joe was the one who had hit her, using a "hard object." (The item he used is in dispute. She told cops it was a terra cotta tea canister, but he later said it was a cardboard container.) As police waited for domestic violence officers to arrive, Mari reportedly refused to put ice on her wounds, telling authorities: "No, this is the way I want it for the picture."

She also begged the police to take action. "I know you are his friend," she told one officer, "but you have to act as a cop. Look what he did to me."

Carollo was arrested and spent the night at the North Miami-Dade Detention Center. Both he and his wife petitioned for a judge to release him, but county Judge Mark King Leban refused, calling the incident a "garden-variety case of domestic violence."

Mari Carollo almost immediately sprang to her husband's defense, in a move Judge Leban said was typical of someone trapped "in the cycle of domestic violence." She released a statement hours after the arrest claiming her husband had hit her by accident. Per the Sun Sentinel:
"I deeply regret the circumstances of this morning and hope that our families and friends can understand the trying times we are enduring," the statement read. "Under no circumstances did my husband intend to harm or injure me. I am completely opposed to any further involvement of the legal system in this very personal situation."

She added:

"I am grateful to the police officers who responded with concern and sensitivity this morning at my home. But despite the concern of the police, this is a matter to be handed by Joe and me."
Carollo then went on what amounted to an apology tour. He admitted he had struck his wife but said he only meant to throw a container "at the wall" and not at her head. He disseminated results of a polygraph test to reporters that seemed to support his innocence. (This was 2001; since then, polygraph tests have basically been proven worthless.)

Eventually, under the direction of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, the case ended with Carollo getting off with virtually no punishment. He agreed to enter anger-management courses in exchange for the charges being dropped. The Carollo family also underwent counseling.

Rundle's office later said in a news release that "successful completion of a counseling program allows the offender not to have a criminal record while providing rehabilitation to the behavior which led to police intervention."

But the incident occurred 16 years ago — before Bill Cosby, before Harvey Weinstein, before social media gave women more spaces to show the world the complicated, horrifying, and unacceptable ways in which American culture lets powerful men get away with all types of violence against them. It's been 16 years since Joe Carollo hit his wife in the head; an election in four days will show whether Miami has really learned anything in that time.
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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.