More Than a Year After Demz's Death, No Criminal Charges and Many Questions

Last December 4, during Art Basel, a 21-year-old amateur graffiti artist named Delbert Rodriguez stopped in Wynwood with a friend to visit some bars and soak in the art-festival atmosphere. Later that night Rodriguez, who went by the street name "Demz," was tagging a wall on a dark corner of NW 5th Avenue when he saw the flashing blue and red lights of a police car.

Rodriguez dashed up the street. The police officer driving the car, a City of Miami undercover detective named Michael Cadavid, pursued him in the vehicle. Seconds later, Rodriguez was splayed on the ground next to the unmarked police car, unconscious. He died five days later. 

More than a year later, his family is still mired in disbelief at how a tagger in Wynwood — a neighborhood famed for its graffiti — ended up dead after being pursued by a police car. In October, an investigation by the Ninth Judicial Circuit, which took on the case after the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office opted out because of a potential conflict of interest—Cadavid's father works for the agency—concluded that Rodriguez' death "was a tragic accident."

"There is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Cadavid committed a crime during this incident," the report said. 

Last year, soon after the incident, Miami police maintained that Rodriguez had hidden between cars and then jumped in front of the moving police car, giving Cadavid no chance to avoid him. But that narrative was quickly called into question: Danny Garcia, the friend who was with Rodriguez that night, told New Times "that whole story they gave is baloney." Because the chase happened so fast, Garcia said, it would have been impossible for his friend to somehow hide and then jump out.

Cadavid's Internal Affairs file also showed he had a history of complaints about road rage, aggressive policing, and abusing business owners while out of uniform (none of which were substantiated.) He was also reprimanded for an infamous Halloween brawl caught on camera.

In determining there was no cause to charge Cadavid, the Ninth Circuit, relying on a medical examiner's report, concluded that Cadavid did not intentionally collide with Rodriguez, or run over him. The officers in the car "temporarily lost sight," of Rodriguez, they told the investigator, as they drove alongside or behind him, and then the officer accompanying Cadavid "heard a thump, but felt no impact." 

The report concluded that the most likely scenario was that the young man fell after some kind of low-speed collision with the car, then ultimately died from injuries sustained from making contact with the ground.

The car was dirty, and "there is some evidence of the car being touched on the right front bumper, perhaps by [Rodriguez] right shoe as he was running," the report said. "So, there is evidence that the car struck [Rodriguez], but no evidence that it was hard enough to leave an injury—evidence that would be more consistent with an intentional act."

Yet the report also references multiple witnesses who told investigators that the police car actually struck and ran over Rodriguez. One said that she saw the car hit Rodriguez, run him over, and leave him underneath the car for 30 minutes; another said she believed the car had accelerated to catch Rodriguez, and "stated that the cop car tried blocking [Rodriguez] then ran [him] over. Others said they saw the lower half of Rodriguez' body lying underneath the car.  

But most of the testimonies lacked credibility, the investigators concluded, because they contradicted the medical examiner's report and other forensic evidence. The injuries sustained by Rodriguez did not indicate that he had been run over or dragged underneath the car, the report said, and nor was there any proof that Cadavid had acted with the hatred or indifference to human life required for a second degree murder charge.   

"There is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt that Officer Cadavid caused [Rodriguez'] death," the report said. 

In April, Rodriguez' family filed a civil suit against the City of Miami, alleging that Cadavid's negligence resulted in their son's death, and the city is contesting the case.   

Demz' memory, at least, lives on. In Wynwood, tags bearing his signature or stating "RIP Demz" adorn open spaces on walls; the young man's family and friends, of course, do their best to remember and honor the memory of the skinny young man who loved art and his friends and being alive. 

Still, Nanette Kaniaris, Delbert's mother, has now been missing her son for over a year, without any kind of recompense. "My son was struck by an irresponsible undercover cop, for painting on a wall," she told New Times last year. 

Amid her grief, she told New Times by email, there has been one happy event: This past July, the day before Delbert would have turned 22, he became a father of a little girl. 

"I'm the happiest grandma," Kaniaris said. "She's a blessing."  
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Trevor Bach