Miami Cops Covered Up Fatal Motorcycle Chase, Panel Suggests

Miami Cops Covered Up Fatal Motorcycle Chase, Panel Suggests
Dade County Riderz / Instagram
Just after 3:30 p.m. May 27, 2018, 29-year-old Yoinis Cruz Peña was driving his black 2008 Kawasaki north on the Rickenbacker Causeway at high speed. His wife, Yailen Gonzalez, was on the back. They slammed into a retaining wall, and Cruz Peña died.

Later, his fellow bikers claimed their comrade died because Miami cops had been chasing them. If the bikers' account is true, the cops' actions would violate the department's policy, which generally prohibits high-speed chases. Though New Times published a video that appeared to show a Miami Police cruiser pursuing Cruz Peña at more than 100 mph, the department's Traffic Homicide Unit found that MPD was not at fault, and State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle's office declined to press charges against the cop.

But staggering new details emerged yesterday that raise significant questions about MPD's conduct during and after the crash. After a yearlong investigation, Miami's Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP) last night sustained misconduct allegations against the officers involved.

Last night, at least two CIP members speculated that Miami PD might have intentionally hid details of the accident. Board member Russell Motley said he was flabbergasted that Miami PD has failed to even identify the police officer who appeared in the video. "It makes it appear that it might be a coverup," he said.

Another board member, Doug Mayer, blasted MPD's investigation as "incomplete," "unprofessional," and "shoddy." He said, "It looks like they're doing so to hide the fact that what happened that day was improper."

The CIP found that crucial crash evidence was not reported on police documents, that internal affairs seemingly hid or ignored evidence that a traffic-enforcement operation was underway that day, and that internal affairs misreported crucial statements from Gonzalez, who sustained a broken pelvis and left femur in the crash but survived. She spoke with internal affairs investigators at Jackson Memorial Hospital's Ryder Trauma Center.

Although Gonzalez stated unequivocally that Miami Police officers had been chasing her, MPD's Traffic Homicide Unit claimed evidence of a police pursuit was "unfounded."

Said CIP member Stephen Navarrete: "When I see so many inconsistencies, I have to ask myself: Is it either because they're incompetent, or is it by design? And either way, it's not acceptable."

Just after 8:15 last night, the panel voted to sustain misconduct violations against the MPD unit working on the Rickenbacker Causeway that day. (The CIP can verbally reprimand officers but has no power to punish them.)

Chief Jorge Colina, who is out of town in Washington, D.C., told New Times yesterday he's open to examining the case a second time.

"I certainly have no problem looking into the matter again," Colina texted. He added he's "always open to have an outside entity look into the matter again."

Colina, a veteran MPD cop who previously ran the department's internal affairs unit, oversees a force that has long been accused of white-washing misconduct. The department is still being monitored by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division after the DOJ in 2013 found officers were disproportionately shooting people of color and failing to fully investigate complaints.
Like cops in many departments, Miami PD officers are banned from engaging in high-speed pursuits unless a violent felony has occurred. Chases often end in needless crashes and deaths, and Miami cops are instructed to discontinue a pursuit if the suspect committed only a "traffic infraction, misdemeanor, or nonviolent felony" or "when there is a clear and unreasonable danger to the officer and/or other citizens." This includes "when speeds dangerously exceed the normal flow of traffic."

After the crash, MPD stated it "does not have knowledge or information of any Miami Police officer or any other agency in pursuit of the said motorcycle, or any other motorcycle, in the area at the time of the crash."

MPD's then-union president, Ed Lugo, stated there was "no evidence that they were chased. On the contrary, Miami police officers were responding code 3 to render first aid. Instead of the deceased motorcycle 'family' rendering first aid to him, they were too busy taking cell phone videos of his lifeless body next to a woman fighting for her life." Lugo also tweeted insults at Cruz Pena's fellow riders.
CIP investigators began looking into the case in May 2019. The CIP re-listened to three recordings from Gonzalez's interview with internal affairs. She told the cops she and her husband had left Whiskey Joe's Miami Bar & Grill on the Rickenbacker Causeway that afternoon. She added that after the pair peeled out of the bar, a police cruiser began chasing them with his sirens off and that the cop had been "edging" them by driving dangerously close at high speed.

She said there were three or four cops that "would edge us; they got close, and that is when my husband got close to the curve. And I do not know what happened at the curve, [but] we flew out and the motorcycle stayed, and they were the same police that went to see us down there where we landed." Later, another IA investigator re-interviewed Gonzalez, and she stated, flatly, that the cops "were chasing us."

In a third interview with internal affairs, Gonzalez stated a Miami PD cruiser was "lateral" to the motorcycle when the bike hit the wall. Cruz Peña had been driving around 120 mph at the time. A Miami cop — listed as "A. Hernandez" in reports — says he arrived one minute after the crash occurred.

But Miami Police investigators magically came to different conclusions in official reports. MPD's Traffic Homicide Unit conveniently claimed it was "impossible" for a cop to be driving that fast without also crashing into the retaining wall. MPD investigators stated that because Gonzalez did not say the cop activated his emergency lights or sirens, there did not appear to be enough evidence a police chase occurred. Officers later claimed video shot by other riders that day — which showed an MPD cruiser driving at a ludicrous rate of speed — had been edited and, in fact, showed a cop driving to help the crash victims.

At last night's meeting, CIP member Jason E. Bloch — a former judge — was astounded Miami PD could so blatantly misconstrue Gonzalez's statements.

"We have a report that seems to mischaracterize a statement by a witness," Bloch said. He later alleged internal affairs' reports contained an "outright misrepresentation" of Gonzalez's statements. He called it a "very serious violation" of policy and urged the panel to open a separate investigation into internal affairs' conduct.

Other potential video evidence from the crash seems to have been improperly handled. Cruz Peña's fellow motorcyclists — a group called the Dade County Riderz — have long maintained that Cruz Peña always wore a GoPro camera. MPD's Traffic Homicide Supplementary Report stated a GoPro had been recovered from the scene, but police property receipts didn't show it. The CIP stated:

Mr. Cruz-Pena was known to wear a Go Pro camera on his helmet. However, news coverage following the crash showed Mr. Cruz-Pena’s helmet in the roadway without the camera affixed. Property Receipts provided show 2 motorcycle helmets, 2 pairs of gloves, a helmet face shield, a GOPRO mount, and a black Kawasaki motorcycle were all impounded by MPD. There was no mention of a GOPRO camera. 

CIP investigators also stated they were initially unsure what might have happened to Cruz Peña's camera. But the CIP later discovered that MPD had the camera the entire time — and that a U.S. Secret Service agent later examined it.

Since the November 2018 meeting, Staff has learned that a damaged GoPro Hero 5 with a micro SD card was collected from the crash scene and impounded into MPD Property, CIP documents state. The chain of custody for this property shows it was signed out by US Secret Service Digital Forensic Examiner Anthonius Kurver for forensic examination. Detective Kurver advised in memorandum form he imaged the data using forensic equipment.
Kurver, however, found that the only footage left on the camera's SD card was shot after the crash. The CIP later interviewed Cruz Peña's cousin Alejandro Mustafa, who told the CIP he thought it was "very unusual" that Cruz Peña was not recording his ride.

In an even more bizarre section of the report, the CIP states that investigators have been unable to determine whether any cops were in the area when the crash occurred. Police cruisers often carry laptops that track police-cruiser GPS data. Despite the fact that video shows an MPD cruiser, the CIP stated MPD has no GPS information showing that any GPS-enabled police cars were on the Rickenbacker Causeway on that date at that time.

"Nobody showed up on the GPS at the crash site despite the fact that there were 12 officers working detail at that time," Albert said during last night's CIP meeting.

Miami PD's internal investigators also stated there was no paperwork or operational plan showing the department was conducting traffic-enforcement operations on the Rickenbacker that day. But the CIP later obtained information showing MPD's “DUI/Saturation Operational Plan" for May 26 through 28. MPD held its roll calls for that operation on the Rickenbacker Causeway at noon and 9 p.m. those days.

Neither internal affairs nor the Traffic Homicide Unit interviewed any of the cops potentially involved or any of the fellow Dade County Riderz who might have witnessed the incident.

Just before 7:30 last night, one CIP panel member, Deidria Davis, asked how, if no cops were allegedly in the area, Officer A. Hernandez was able to arrive on scene so fast.

"He sounds like a magician," Davis stated. She later added, "To me, the death wouldn't have occurred if he wasn't being chased."

Panel member Stephen Navarrete said he owns a GoPro camera and found it "incredibly odd" that the device turned on only after the crash occurred. He said that, typically, one needs to "mash the buttons" on a GoPro to get the camera to record.

The CIP's Mayer suggested Chief Colina and the department's internal affairs unit be hauled in front of the panel for questioning. "If this police department is inadequately investigating homicides, then you know they're not investigating other stuff," he said. He later added, "I hope this makes it into the newspaper — I hope somebody writes about this."
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.
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.