123 Shots

Officers In Elite Squads Accused Of Planting Guns

When gunshots ripped through a tiny Miami apartment on March 12, 1996, everything changed, not just for the people inside that apartment but for the entire Miami Police Department.

A police surveillance team had watched someone from inside that apartment hand drugs to a dealer and hours later, a SWAT team moved in. Officers fired 123 shots, killing a man named Richard Brown, and setting off a federal investigation that could send at least a dozen Miami officers to jail.

Federal prosecutors think they can prove that a core group of elite Miami police officers, in shooting after shooting, planted guns on unarmed suspects, tampered with evidence and lied to cover it all up.

All this came to light after Brown's adopted granddaughter Janeka, who was 14 at the time, went public with what she saw that night when police raided her home and killed her grandfather while she was hiding in the bathroom.

Those 123 shots are believed to be the most shots ever fired at any one scene in Miami police history. But all are legal as long as police feel threatened.

But Janeka Brown tells correspondent Vicky Mabrey that when she came out of the bathroom after the gunfire stopped, she saw her grandfather lying on the floor of a closet and he had no gun in his hand.

Later, police produced a weapon, saying it was the gun Richard Brown, a man with no prior record, died clutching. Janeka sued the city of Miami for wrongful death. Her attorney, Barbara Heyer, says the officers' story about the gun never did add up.

"One of the officers supposedly picked up the gun - who gave it to another police officer, who gave it to another police officer, and then suddenly it came to the crime scene technician," Heyer says. " And, of course, lo and behold, there were no fingerprints on it, or smudge marks or anything of that nature."

Raul Martinez, now Miami's police chief, reviewed the Brown raid at the time. He did not believe the gun was planted and cleared the officers. But now he admits the shooting was excessive.

"We were troubled by the number of rounds, obviously," he says. "We were troubled that they didn't know that the daughter, that the granddaughter, was there. We were very fortunate, you know, that she wasn't hit."

The City of Miami harshly criticized the Brown raid because no drugs were found. It settled Janeka's lawsuit for $2.5 million.

Then federal prosecutors indicted five officers for, among other things, lying about Richard Brown's gun. Now prosecutors have filed criminal charges against another half dozen Miami officers in four more shootings. They expect to go on trial in a year.

Guy Lewis, then U.S. attorney, laid out the government's case at a news conference. "These officers planted weapons," he said. "They lied about their roles in the shootings. They lied about what they saw. They falsified reports. They tampered with crime scenes."

Lewis claims the cops stole guns, wiped them clean of fingerprints and held on to them, sometimes for months, until they needed to plant them at a scene. The officers have pled not guilty and have been suspended with pay.

The officers all were members of Miami's elite police squads – the SWAT teams, the crime suppression unit, the street narcotics unit.

Officer Arturo Beguristain, who has been involved in more shootings than any other officer on the force, is one of those who emptied their weapons during the Brown raid. Beguristain alone fired 30 shots and also found the gun police say Brown fired. He also has found guns at two others shootings now under indictment.

Some officers and their supporters say prosecutors are on a witch hunt, but not Sgt. Robert Rambo.

In the same month as the Brown raid, Rambo was part of a SWAT team that responded to a call about a disturbed man.

Another SWAT team member shot and killed the man because he said the man had aimed a pistol at ice through this kitchen window. Rambo says he canvassed the scene at first and found no gun. But that had changed minutes later when he returned to the body and someone pointed out a gun to him.

"I went ballistic," he tells Mabrey."I started cursing. And I said, 'No, these guys are not doing this'. I said, 'they're not doing this'"

Crime scene photographs taken that night appear to corroborate Rambo's story. The first pictures show no gun at all. But in a later photo, a gun, suddenly appears in plain view under the window. The official story is that it was buried in debris.

For two years, Rambo kept silent. "This thing bugged me," he says. "You just don't, you just don't know. I never told my wife about this. Never. Never, until the indictments on the Brown case."

Police chief Martinez admits he heard rumors, but he says he never had the proof.

"It is sad, it is disappointing, and we have done a lot of soul searching," he says. "A lot of painful looking at what happened cause, you know, we definitely missed it."

The most damning evidence was uncovered in what the government calls the I-395 shooting in which two young robbery suspects were fatally shot in the back near the interstate in December 1995.

Prosecutors got a break when two of the cops who fired at the suspects started telling a very different story.

Under the threat of indictment, Officers William Hames and John Mervolian admitted the teen-agers were unarmed "until" the officers planted guns on their bodies, to make the shooting look better. They also claim all the officers met the next day at this local restaurant to get their stories straight.

Myles Malman, who represents Mervolian and Hames, claims the practice was so widespread that officers had a name for it. "They call it the sock. Who had the sock? That meant who had the gun to plant on the shooting victim?" Malman says.

No one has suggested the entire department is involved. Federal prosecutors are only going after a small circle of officers inside a police force of more than 1,100 men and women.

Rambo, who is on leave from the SWAT team, says officers in that circle operated by their own rules and expected everyone else to lie to protect them.

Rambo is still on the force and when he goes to work, he watches his back. "I'm concerned, but I'm not afraid," he says. "I haven't been approached, you know. I hear rumors behind my back, but no one has come up to my face and said anything."

He is not happy about having to testify against fellow officers, he says, but he is angry that "they did what they did and to put me in this position."
  • Mary-Jayne McKay

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