Nearly two years after a North Miami cop shot an innocent, unarmed black man lying on the ground with his arms in the air, the city's police department is still reeling. The cop who shot Charles Kinsey, who was just trying to help an autistic man that bystanders mistakenly through had a weapon, has been charged with two felonies and the North Miami Police chief was fired.
Now, Neal Cuevas, the city's former assistant chief, is suing the city and its new chief. He alleges he was pushed out for blowing the whistle on "corruption" in an internal investigation into the disastrous shooting.
"The only thing Cuevas ever did was fail to toe the party line," says Michael Pizzi, who, along with fellow attorney Benedict Kuehne, is representing Cuevas. "They've gotten away with retaliating against him so far. Let them go to court and try to explain it."
North Miami City Manager Larry Spring didn't immediately return a message from New Times about the lawsuit.
Cuevas says he was demoted from the department's second-ranking officer all the way down to a road-patrol sergeant solely because he wrote a whistleblower complaint about current Chief Larry Juriga's investigation into a commander on the scene of the Kinsey shooting.
On July 18, 2016, Arnaldo Rios, a 26-year-old man with autism who was holding a toy truck, walked out of a group home, and Kinsey, a mental-health worker, followed him into the street. As Kinsey tried to coax Rios back inside, a bystander mistook the truck for a gun and called the cops. Armed officers quickly surrounded the men.
Audio and video from the scene showed Kinsey was lying on the ground and yelling repeatedly that the man was holding only a toy. Two officers also took to police radio to confirm there was no weapon. Yet Officer Jonathan Aledda fired three shots, hitting Kinsey in the leg; he later said he was trying to hit Rios because he believed the man was armed.
Prosecutors charged Aledda with two felonies last year, but North Miami PD quickly turned its attention to the commanding officer on the scene, Commander Emile Hollant. He was suspended after city officials said he'd lied by claiming he missed the shooting while he ran to his car to get binoculars; they claimed audio instead showed he had actually helped trigger the shooting by giving bad orders.
But North Miami's chief at the time, Gary Eugene, later told investigators a different story. He said then-Assistant Chief Juriga had a long-running feud with Hollant and had cooked up the accusation. Both Miami-Dade prosecutors and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement later concluded Hollant had told the truth about missing the shooting.
But North Miami's internal investigators found the opposite. They fired Hollant, who has his own ongoing federal lawsuit against the city. Eugene was also fired and was replaced by Juriga.
Now Cuevas says he was also unfairly punished in the Hollant affair. He says he tried to blow the whistle on Juriga's department for concocting bogus charges against Hollant and, thus, was forced out of his position.
At the heart of his case is a whistleblower memo he filed June 2, 2017, outlining his concerns with the department's investigation into Hollant. Cuevas, who had been with the department since 1975 and risen to become its highest-ranking Hispanic officer, wrote in the memo that he couldn't endorse the findings that Hollant had lied to investigators.
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“Based on a thorough review of this file, I cannot endorse the findings of the panel," he wrote in the memo. "The allegation of 'Obstruction of a Law Enforcement Investigation by way of False Statements' made against Commander Hollant is unequivocally NOT sustainable.”
On March 1, North Miami hired Juriga as its new chief — and Cuevas says Juriga quickly moved against him for authoring the Hollant memo.
"All he did was write a memo and take the position that Hollant was being framed," Pizzi says. "Juriga had a separate agenda. And when Juriga became chief, the first thing he did was demote Cuevas."
The criminal case against Aledda remains open in Miami-Dade court, and Kinsey has his own civil case pending against the city in federal court.