South Miami Cop Shoots Unarmed Local Football Star for No Reason

Michael Gavins just wanted a hamburger. He'd worked up a growling hunger while watching the Dolphins beat the Eagles with his childhood buddies in South Miami, where he'd grown up.

The 36-year-old knew he could have been a pro himself if his knees had held up. The six-foot-six behemoth was one of the best football players to ever come out of the town wedged between Kendall and Coral Gables. He was a high-school star who had shined on the D-line for the University of Missouri.

Before he made it to Shake Shack on South Dixie Highway, though, red and blue lights flashed in his rear-view mirror. A pair of South Miami cops pulled him over and said his windows were tinted too dark. They then asked him to exit his white Mitsubishi — they smelled weed. Gavins knew the drill — cops were always nervous around him, a hulking black man. "I pulled up my shirt and said, 'No, I don't have any weapons,'" Gavins recalls today.

But as Gavins stood with his hands on the hood of the cruiser, one of the cops — a third-year officer named Aryo Rezaie — became agitated. "Suddenly, I hear, 'Don't move!' I'm like, 'You talking to me?'" Gavins recalls. "I'm like, 'Sir, I don't have any weapons. I'm not resisting. Please!'"

A loud pop, a searing pain, and suddenly Gavins found himself prone on South Dixie Highway as traffic whizzed past. He'd been shot. He watched a crimson stain grow on his chest. "I'm losing blood, getting cold, I think I'm gonna die," Gavins recalls. "I'm thinking, For what? I shoulda stayed home. I went to see my family and friends, and he shot me."

Gavins' November 15 shooting hasn't generated big headlines for a simple reason: Unlike at least 60 people in Florida and nearly a thousand nationwide this year, Gavins didn't die. But his story deserves a closer look.

"If someone would have... investigated how this officer treated us, maybe Michael wouldn't have gotten shot."

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Not only was he unarmed when Rezaie shot him, but also his back was to the officer and — according to Gavins and at least one independent witness — his arms were above his head. What's more, Rezaie had recently been accused of racial profiling and recklessly chasing a teen through a crowded park with his gun drawn.

Gavins and his attorneys argue that the facts in the case are damning enough to break Miami-Dade's 26-year streak of not criminally charging a single officer in any on-duty shooting.

"[Rezaie] needs to be charged," says Paul Layne, Gavins' attorney. "I think he's reckless, and I think he's trigger happy. I think he needs to turn in his badge."

South Miami has 11,000 residents, but it felt like a small town to Gavins, who grew up there in the 1980s. His mom, Marie, was a banker, and his dad, Glen, was a long-haul truck driver. They were a tight-knit clan.

"He was always a mama's boy since he had no brothers and no sisters," says Jeremy Tooks, a childhood friend and football teammate.

He was close to his father too and sometimes tagged along for his multistate drives. The summer he was 8, he hopped into his dad's truck and returned to Miami weeks later nearly a foot taller. Tooks and his friends could only stare as the suddenly towering Gavins bossed the basketball courts at Marshall Williamson Park. But his passion was always football. It was in his blood. One uncle had played in college, and another had a brief stint with the Dolphins.

There was only one problem: By the time he was old enough for peewee, Gavins was already a giant. "I was too big for my age group," he recalls. "My mom didn't want me to play with guys five or six years older. I was still her baby."

Gavins had to bide his time until he reached South Miami High. As a senior, he won a vote for the hardest hit of the year and earned third-team All Dade honors alongside future NFL star Santana Moss.

Off the field, though, the bone-crunching tackler always had a smile. When he'd spot neighbors lugging groceries from their cars, he'd run to help. "He was always big, but he's a very gentle guy," says Revired McFadden, his aunt. "His mother raised him right."

After high school, Gavins was recruited to play at Missouri. Suddenly, he wasn't the biggest guy on the field. "When I hit someone in high school, it was like, wow," Gavins recalls. "But I'm hitting these guys in college with everything I got, and nothing."

Gavins grew into the role, though, playing in every Mizzou game during his sophomore and junior years. In 2000, he made national highlights tipping a ball at the line of scrimmage against Oklahoma State and nearly returning it for a touchdown. He dreamed of an NFL career.

But it wasn't to be. Before his senior year, Mizzou got a new head coach who clashed with the huge lineman. Gavins says he wanted to skip practice after coughing up blood, and the coach saw it as weakness. The two argued, and Gavins missed practice. He'd never suit up for Mizzou again. He later transferred, but soon his knees gave out.

"You dream of playing in the NFL, but my knees wouldn't heal," Gavins says. "I want to be running around with my kids someday."

The timing was fortuitous. Soon after he moved back to South Florida, his mother began battling renal failure. Young Michael became her primary caretaker. "He made sure she got to the hospital," McFadden says. "God did this for a reason, his knees giving out. His mom needed him."

He found work in construction and then as a security guard, and earned a Class D license. In 2013, Marie died. Michael was devastated. "It was real hard for him. They were really close," Tooks says.

Even with his mom gone, Gavins stayed close to his hometown. Though he moved to Broward, his aunts and uncles and many friends still lived in South Miami. "I never had trouble with police there because everyone knows me," Gavins says. (He had been charged four times since 2002 with misdemeanor marijuana possession; prosecutors dropped the charges in each case. He was also charged in 2002 with resisting arrest without violence, which Gavins says arose after he demanded an officer's name during a traffic stop. That charge was also dropped.)

In recent years, though, plenty of others have had issues with South Miami's police force — and in particular with Rezaie, a Florida International University grad who joined the small department in 2012.

On October 3, 2014, David Wright, a retired school employee, drove to South Miami to pick up a 71-year-old friend who'd owned a home there for more than 50 years. As they drove north on Red Road, sirens suddenly blared from an unmarked white pickup truck. One of the cops was Rezaie. He told Wright his windows were overly tinted. But the stop was at night, and Wright says the windows were rolled down.

"I told him I think the real reason I'm being pulled over is racial profiling," says Wright, who is black. He says Rezaie and his partner then aggressively dragged him from the truck, belittled him, and threatened him with hands on their guns.

After Wright filed an internal affairs complaint, Rezaie told investigators he searched Wright because he had spotted a mysterious "bulge" in his pants, but he admitted he found nothing. Rezaie denied harassing or yelling at Wright, and IA dismissed the complaint. But investigators never bothered to interview Wright's passenger.

"I feared for my life," Wright says. "If someone would have actually investigated how this officer treated us, maybe Michael wouldn't have gotten shot."

That's not Rezaie's only questionable recent conduct. According to attorney Layne (of the firm Silva & Silva), multiple witnesses this summer watched the officer run with his gun drawn through a crowded park while chasing an unarmed teenager. Gavins himself was in the park that day. "We all see this kid running; we figured he did something dumb," Gavins says. "And then we see this cop chasing him, and I'm like, 'Look, he's got his gun out!'"

South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard confirms the incident took place but defends Rezaie's conduct. He says when Rezaie had checked the teen's record, he discovered the boy was wanted for stabbing a cop in Broward County. "He'd drawn his gun because the last time this kid had encountered a cop, he stabbed him," Stoddard says.

That's hardly South Miami PD's only recent claim to infamy, though. Last month, city officials docked pay from and opened a review into one of the department's highest-ranking cops, Lt. Jesus Aguiar, after the Miami Herald revealed a string of jaw-dropping allegations, including that he'd handcuffed and pepper-sprayed an ex-girlfriend at work, used police databases to stalk a woman, and repeatedly sexually harassed co-workers. He'd never been punished beyond a brief suspension.

Gavins didn't know any of that backstory when he encountered Rezaie November 15 on South Dixie Highway. The way Rezaie tells it in his official report, he pulled Gavins over for speeding. He ordered him from the car when his partner smelled weed, and instructed Gavins to "wait by the hood" of his cruiser. Rezaie then saw "Gavins reaching into the front of his waist band." He yelled at him to stop, but Gavins "continued to keep his hands inside of his waist band" while acting "nervous." Rezaie says he fired when Gavins "began to walk towards" him.

But Gavins says that account is total B.S. And witness testimony and physical evidence back him up.

His hands were never in his waistband, Gavins says. In fact, he had them above his head during the whole incident. "I was turned, with my back to him, and my hands in the air when he shot me," Gavins says.

Indeed, Gavins' gunshot entry wound is just beneath his right armpit. When Gavins lowers his arms, the wound is covered. "It would be physically impossible for Michael to be shot there if his hands weren't up in the air," Layne contends.

There's even an eyewitness who backs up that account. John Schulte, a Coral Gables lawyer, was at a gas station when he witnessed the shooting.

"He stood facing us, with his hands on the roof of the car," Schulte told the Miami Herald. "Then, all of a sudden — bam and he's on the ground and he's crying... I'm just shocked and sickened at what I saw."

Gavins was rushed to the hospital after the shooting; miraculously, the bullet passed clean through his chest without nicking his lungs or any other organs. That's not to say the shooting hasn't left a painful mark on him, though.

Prosecutors initially charged him with resisting an officer without violence, a misdemeanor, and two felony counts of marijuana possession. (Officers say they found several baggies of weed; Gavins denies it was his and says a friend recently borrowed his car.) Those charges have since been downgraded to a single misdemeanor marijuana count, but Gavins still lost his job as a security guard at Miami Jai-Alai. He's in daily pain, he says.

"I can't sleep," he says. "Every time I hear sirens, I tense up."

Gavins is scheduled to meet with prosecutors this week. ("The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office investigates all police shooting, both fatal and non-fatal, to legally determine if the actions taken were in violation of the Florida Statutes," says Ed Griffith, a spokesperson for the SAO. "The recent incident you addressed is currently under investigation.")

In the meantime, Rezaie is on desk duty. Pressure is mounting for a resolution; dozens marched from Gavins' aunt's house to South Miami City Hall last month and voiced their concerns at a city commission meeting, where officials promised further review. Layne also wants police to release two videos shot by security cameras at a gas station, but so far Miami-Dade Police — which is handling the case — has declined to do so.

"What I'm seeing is everyone is trying to do backflips to avoid the mistakes of other cities where they've stonewalled these investigations," says Mayor Stoddard, who won city commission backing to buy body cameras for South Miami officers after Gavins' shooting.

Adds South Miami Police Chief Rene Landa: "I want everything as transparent and open as possible in this investigation. That's why we bring an agency in from the outside to handle a case like this."

But Gavins says only one thing will make the situation right. "This officer needs to be charged," he says. "It's a miracle I'm even alive to tell my story about what he did to me."

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink