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Sweetwater Police Department Under Fire; Interim Chief Turns To Training To Improve Image

MIAMI (CBS4) -- The cloud of suspicion in Sweetwater is growing.

It now hangs heavy over everyone from the former mayor and ex-police chief, to a recently appointed commissioner, several police officers and a fired civilian employee.

CBS4 and our partners at El Nuevo Herald have learned the FBI is investigating a slew of complaints against the police department, ranging from brutality to theft.

"They came and they threw me to the floor and started hitting me," Jefferson Alvarez recalled of his arrest in September 2012.

Alvarez said he was returning a rental car at the Enterprise near Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens when officers from Sweetwater approached him and his wife, Brasilia Arias.

Alvarez was accused of grand theft and burglary of a vehicle outside a Sweetwater Best Buy.

He said cops roughed him up, then stole some of his personal belongings from a home in Hollywood where he was living at the time.

"They entered in an unjust way, not how a person should enter a family home," Alvarez said. "They went inside, they ransacked the home."

The report lists the arresting officer as Det. R. Garcia.

Reny Garcia is one of three suspended Sweetwater officers currently under federal investigation.

Garcia has a criminal record, including two DUI arrests.

Another officer under the FBI probe is Det. William Garcia.

He was arrested in August on charges of identity theft and credit card fraud.

His trial is scheduled for next month.

Sources say Det. Octavio Oliu is a target of the investigation as well.

Oliu is the subject of a civil suit which alleges he and auxiliary officer Richard Brenner arrested a special needs teacher in front of his students outside their jurisdiction because the man wrote a threatening message about cops online.

In the complaint filed against the City of Sweetwater, Daniel Larosa accuses the officers of false arrest, false imprisonment and violating his civil rights.

Brenner was fired from the department for failure to meet "probationary standards".

He worked as a red light camera operator, but insists he was also part of the now-defunct Detective Bureau.

Brenner is fighting for his job back.

"I think it's more a casualty of war," Brenner said at a Special Commission meeting Tuesday. "It's more a political struggle going on in the city. I've paid the ultimate price."

That political struggle is a result of the conviction of former Sweetwater mayor Manny Maroño on one count of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.

Maroño faces up to five years in prison when sentenced in January.

CBS4 and El Nuevo Herald have been investigating Maroño's ties to Southland, a towing company that once had a verbal, no-bid agreement with the police department lead by Chief Roberto Fulgueira.

Several people have come forward claiming their cars were towed illegally and never returned.

When CBS4 first started asking questions about the connection to the towing company, Fulgueira said he suspended the agreement with Southland because of complaints regarding missing vehicles.

Fulgueira retired last month.

Maroño's arrest created a shake-up at City Hall.

Jose M. Diaz took over as mayor, leaving a vacant seat on the commission, which was ultimately filled by Catalino Rodriguez.

Unlike the other candidates for the job, Rodriguez never submitted a resume or agreed to a background check. Yet he was appointed seemingly out of the blue by the commission, against the wishes of Mayor Diaz.

Rodriguez was a Sweetwater officer who oversaw the property and evidence room.

Diaz recently revealed thousands of dollars have disappeared from that room.

The current administration is also investigating another, secret property room only a select few people knew about, including former Commander Mario Miranda, Octavio Oliu and Richard Brenner.

The clandestine warehouse was filled with uncatalogued property and evidence from open criminal cases, a violation of law enforcement procedure.

The Sweetwater Police Dept. employs 121 officers, 39 full-time, 13 auxiliary and 69 part-time, including many volunteers.

Interim Police Chief Jesse Menocal said the department is cooperating with investigators.

"The investigations are what happened before I took over. I can't change the past," Menocal said. "My style is not to badmouth or talk bad about anybody, whether it be previous mayors or command staff or the chief. My concentration is to focus on the present and the future."

To that end, he has instituted a mandatory training program to refresh officers on policies and procedures on traffic stops, use of force and pursuits.

Despite the recent turmoil, the city is hosting a "Police Appreciation Picnic" Saturday afternoon at the Women's Park on West Flagler Street.

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