<![CDATA[NBC 6 South Florida - Team 6 Investigators]]>Copyright 2018 https://www.nbcmiami.com/investigations http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/NBC+6+LOGO+GOOGLE.png NBC 6 South Florida https://www.nbcmiami.com en-usTue, 20 Nov 2018 22:28:56 -0500Tue, 20 Nov 2018 22:28:56 -0500NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Teachers Accused of Sexual Misconduct Remained in School ]]> Mon, 19 Nov 2018 21:51:46 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/217*120/Classroom+2.png

Sex.

A former student says that’s the topic her English teacher asked her to write about.

The former student, who we are naming Andrea, says she took Jason Meyers’ class at Palmetto Senior High School when she was 16.

“He would tell me about like ex-girlfriends that he had and like their physical relationships and then parallel that to with what he may do with me,” she said. “I was paralyzed but at that age, again, what do you do?”

Andrea says she started to meet her teacher secretly inside his classroom and it turned physical.

“He grabbed my face and kissed me,” she said. “I stood up and ran out of the room to my mom’s car.”

She says it happened twice but that an inappropriate relationship went on for a year.

At one point, Andrea says her former teacher asked her to take nude photos and show them to him.

But she did not report Meyers to school officials.

“I didn’t know just how wrong it was,” she said. “I always thought that I've been the only one.”

Police says she wasn’t the only one.

After Meyers was arrested in 2016 for having sex with another student, seven girls in total came forward. The allegations range from inappropriate assignments like writing about intimacy to sexual relationships. Most of the girls were from Palmetto and one from Dr. Michael Krop High School, where he previously taught.

Meyers faces criminal sexual battery charges in the case of one former student who said they had intercourse. He has pleaded not guilty.

In a deposition, a former student from Krop High School said they had oral sex multiple times at an apartment in Sunny Isles. She was 17 at the time.

Another student handed police emails she said the two exchanged.

The emails come from an account that lists Meyers’ first and last name.

In one of them, she’s asked to describe what they would do in the bedroom if they were alone.

The emails have been presented to the court as a part of the prosecution’s efforts in the case against him. 

“My daughter was left unprotected,” said Andrea’s father. “The damage that was done to my daughter was so far beyond physical damage, so far beyond.”

Meyers is not facing criminal charges for his relationship with Andrea. 

But she, as a Jane Doe, is suing the School Board of Miami-Dade County.

Meyers spoke about the allegations during an internal school district hearing following his arrest and termination.

“I was terminated without anyone hearing, to this day, my side of the story,” he said.

The former teacher said that a group of female students from Palmetto High School conspired against him because he rescinded a college recommendation letter he’d written for one of them.

Meyers declined to speak with NBC 6 but his attorney, Marcos Beaton, told us he is “devastated” and ready to prove his innocence in court.

“We believe we are going to get a fair shake,” Beaton said.

He denied all the allegations made against his client.

“I can think of few things worse than hurting a child, except for being falsely accused of hurting a child,” he said.

The NBC 6 Investigators found a warning about Meyers made years before his arrest: a 2008 email sent to a principal’s assistant at Krop that accused Meyers of “having sex with students.”

“There was nothing found whatsoever to substantiate these allegations,” said Beaton. “There was an email and not much more.”

Two years after the email was sent, a police report was written suggesting that the email came from a disgruntled student.

But neither the email nor the police report were put in Meyers’ personnel file.

Meyers requested a transfer to Palmetto High School in 2011.

In a deposition, the principal who hired him said she wasn’t aware of any allegations.

“There was nothing in his file that could have alerted her,” said Mark Schweikert, an attorney who is representing Andrea. “All of his personnel evaluations over the subsequent years reflect that he was an exemplary teacher. Really?”

Schweikert believes the email complaint about Meyers not being in the file is a symptom of a larger problem.

“The system is broken,” said Schweikert.

A spokesperson with the Miami-Dade County Public Schools told us that the email and the police report were not part of Meyers’ personnel file because the school police closed the investigation “due to a lack of credible evidence” and said a “victim was never identified.”

“We take these allegations very seriously. It’s not something that we look the other way,” said Dr. Jimmie Brown who oversees the district’s disciplinary process against teachers.

While he describes the process as “extremely solid,” he says “one (teacher) is too many.”

“We expect our employees to conduct themselves professionally and respect our children and respect each other,” he added.

An investigation into a teachers’ misconduct can take months, even years.

In the meantime, Brown told us the district can remove an employee from the classroom and keep them away from students, if they find the allegations to be “extremely serious.”

NBC 6 Investigators found Meyers is one of more than 40 teachers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who have been disciplined or arrested due to incidents related to sexual misconduct in the past two years.

The list includes a social science teacher who lost his license for inappropriately touching and kissing a 12-year-old student. And there was a music teacher who asked a 10-year-old student to raise her shirt and expose herself. We found many others disciplined for watching pornographic and erotic material on their school computers, even in front of their students.

The troubling stories are listed in hundreds of court and Department of Education records reviewed by the NBC 6 Investigators.

Meyers is not the only teacher facing criminal charges from reported incidents in the classroom.

Wendell Nibbs, a former physical education teacher from Brownsville Middle School, was charged in 2017 with two counts of sexual battery of a student. He has pleaded not guilty.

According to an arrest warrant, at least seven former students have made allegations against him, some dating back more than a decade.

NBC 6 spoke exclusively with one of those former students -- who met him when she was 13. We will refer to her as Wendy.

“He told me I had the body of a grown woman,” she said.

Wendy says her former teacher touched her inappropriately while they were on school grounds.

“It got to a point every time I see him, he was touching me below my waist,” she said.

Nibbs denied the allegations during an interrogation with the Miami-Dade School Police.

“I never had any sexual encounter with any student,” he told detectives. 

His attorney did not respond to numerous calls and emails.

Wendy says she reported Nibbs to the school’s principal in 2013. But he continued teaching in Brownsville until his arrest four years later.

“He shouldn’t have been there. He shouldn’t have had contact with kids,” Wendy said.

The district would not comment on Nibbs’ case and we have not yet received his personnel file requested from the district.

Dr. Brown says the district’s priority is to keep students safe.

“I would like us as a district to get to a point where we have zero every year,” he said referring to cases of teachers accused of sexual misconduct.

In a statement, a spokesperson from the Broward County schools echoed the sentiment saying allegations involving sexual misconduct are taken “seriously” and that they are “committed to providing safe and productive learning and working environments for students and staff.”

But for both former students, the damage is done.

“They obviously don’t care,” Wendy said. “It’s not a big deal as long as they can sweep it under the rug.”

“I don’t feel like a young free-spirited kid anymore,” Andrea said.

Her lawsuit against the School Board of Miami-Dade County is pending and will likely not be heard until after Meyers criminal case is resolved. He is scheduled to face trial in December 2018. Wendy is also planning a lawsuit against the school district.

Nibbs’ criminal trial is currently scheduled for January 2019.


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<![CDATA[Teacher Troubles: Recent Cases of Sexual Misconduct]]> Tue, 20 Nov 2018 17:14:11 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/11+19+18+Watching+Porn+in+School.png NBC 6 Investigators reviewed hundreds of court and Department of Education administrative complaints. We found that more than 40 teachers in South Florida (Broward and Miami-Dade) have been accused of sexual misconduct in the past two years. Some have been fired, arrested and/or charged as a result.]]> <![CDATA[Lower Rejection Rate For Mailed-in Ballots]]> Tue, 13 Nov 2018 18:39:16 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/226*120/ballots.PNG

As the popularity of mailed-in ballots increases in Florida, voters seem to be getting a better handle on how to make them pass muster once they reach supervisors of elections offices, according to preliminary data compiled by a University of Florida professor.

In the 2012 and 2016 general elections, 1 percent of Florida's vote-by-mail (VBM) ballots were rejected, almost all for signatures that are missing or do not match those kept in elections records.

So far, that rejection rate statewide is down to 0.77 percent, according to figures compiled by Dr. Daniel Smith, chair of UF political science department.

That's just about 20,300 rejected ballots.

In Miami-Dade, where 1.9 percent of 2016 VBMs were rejected, the rate so far this year is only 1 percent, or about 2,800 ballots. Broward's rate has remained relatively stable: 1.4 percent in 2012 and 2016; 1.2 percent this year.

The greatest improvements, so far, are being found in younger voters, ages 18-21, who Smith found have cut their rejection rate in half -- from around 4 percent to nearly 2 percent. It is still four times higher than the rate for voters 65 and over.

Disparities between white voters and minorities also remain, but have narrowed. White voters had a 0.6 percent VBM rejection rate so far this year, about half the rate for black and Hispanic voters. 

In a study he led for ACLU-Florida, previously reported on here by the NBC 6 Investigators, Smith found minority and young voters were being rejected at significant rates, compared to white voters.

Sen. Bill Nelson's campaign is due in federal court in Tallahassee Wednesday, arguing that study supports its claim that a judge should order the counties to accept VBM ballots where they have already decided the signatures do not match those in their records.

Canvassing boards are not expert handwriting analysts, their suit notes.

The state countered that accepting rejected ballots would be a violation of election law and that the judge does not have the power to re-write the statute, only to interpret it.

But Nelson's camp claims it is unconstitutional to deny equal protection for voters and that the disparities faced by minorities and the young constitute a violation of their civil rights.

Here are numbers compiled by Smith in the ACLU-Florida report and what he has released so far about the 2018 election.

 

SHARE OF MAILED BALLOTS REJECTED
2012 2016 2018
STATEWIDE 1.0% 1.0% 0.8%
MIAMI-DADE 0.6% 1.9% 1.0%
BROWARD 1.4% 1.4% 1.2%
RACE 2016 2018
BLACK 1.9% 1.3%
HISPANIC 1.8% 1.2%
WHITE 0.7% 0.6%
AGE GROUP 2012 2016 2018
18-21 4.2% 4.0% 2.1%
30-44 1.6% 1.7% 1.3%
45-64 0.7% 0.8% 0.8%
65+ 0.5% 0.5% 0.5%
NUMBER OF MAILED  BALLOTS REJECTED
STATEWIDE 20,300
MIAMI-DADE 2,800
BROWARD            2,350

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<![CDATA[Survivors Complain Funeral Home Company Took Money ]]> Tue, 13 Nov 2018 00:23:01 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/Funeral+Home+Web+2.png

For decades, Louis and Phyllis Schneider took care of each other.

“He was wonderful. He was terrific," Phyllis recalled of her husband of 70 years. “We had a wonderful marriage.”

When Louis died in September, the Schneider family thought services and burial were taken care of too – after all, they had spent $34,000 that they say was supposed to go into a trust to pay for both of their services and burials.

After Louis was buried, Phyllis said, “I really felt at ease, at peace. I thought my husband was going to be in peace. And two days later, the you-know-what hit the fan.”

That’s when the Star of David cemetery informed the family that a $6,500 check from Riverside Florida Funeral Homes LLC had bounced. Account closed, the bank had informed the cemetery.

Phyllis has not been at peace since.

“Oh my God, they turned my life upside down. I haven’t had a peaceful night since this occurred,” she told the NBC 6 Investigators. “It’s been a horror.”

Same for Jahoska Rodriguez, whose husband of 15 years, Jose, died suddenly in January.

A couple weeks after burial at Forest Lawn, she got a call from the cemetery.

“They told me that the payment hasn’t been done for the gravesite of my husband and how was I going to pay for it. And I told them I already paid Shawn for it,” she said.

She says Shawn did not give her his last name when he took $4,700 in cash from her and signed a receipt on behalf of Riverside Florida Funeral Homes.

The NBC 6 Investigators showed her an array of mugshots belonging to convicted felon, Raymond Shawn Mackey, 40.

She says she instantly recognized him as the man who took her cash.

“That’s him,” she said, pointing to the photos that included one from his 2004 conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

“He was very nice, he was very helpful,” she recalled, though, she said she’s come to realize, “he was scamming me.”

The NBC 6 Investigators tried to question Mackey at the funeral home’s listed address in Oakland Park, but by October, the office was vacant. The company’s landlord sought its eviction, claiming it stopped paying rent in August.

(Riverside Florida Funeral Homes LLC is not associated with Riverside Gordon Memorial Chapels, which has an excellent reputation in South Florida.)

But we did find Mackey at the office address of another funeral home company, created by some of the same people associated with Riverside Florida.

We tried to ask what he thought of the allegations Schneider and Rodriguez are making against him, but he closed the door on us.

Then he re-emerged long enough for NBC 6 Investigator Tony Pipitone to ask, “Mr. Mackey, what is going on here? What about all that money you took from those people? They have to pay twice to have their loved ones buried? Tell us why that is.”

He said he would only speak off camera, before shutting the door again.

Off camera, he denied soliciting, handling or receiving any money on behalf of the funeral business.

Soon after, he drove off in a black minivan with a placard on the dash that read “Funeral Director on Official Business.”

The Schneiders have filed a complaint with the state agency that oversees funeral services. Mackey has not been charged with any crimes related to the funeral business.

Mackey is not a licensed funeral director. Had he applied to become one, his felony conviction could have been used to deny him licensure by the state board that oversees the industry. It says it has no record he ever applied.

The funeral director that Riverside Florida claimed was in charge at the business told the state in February he was unaware they were using his license and complained the company was “forging my signature without my knowledge.” The state took no action against Riverside Florida’s license.

None of that is comforting to Rodriguez, who in June obtained a $4,200 judgment against Riverside Florida Funeral Home LLC from small claims court in Broward County.

Without that money – and the headstone it would allow her to place on the now-unmarked grave, she says she’s can’t bring herself to bring her two children to their father’s gravesite.

“There’s no way we could bring flowers to him, there’s no headstone,” she said.

Asked what she thinks of someone who could take money from a grieving widow without providing all the services promised, she replied, “That’s really mean of him taking my money knowing what I’m going through.”

Phyllis Schneider, whose family has complained to the state, claiming it was taken for $28,000, is a bit more blunt in her assessment of those involved.

“Low life,” she said. “Real low life.”

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<![CDATA[Cities Battle Vacation Rentals Through Fines That Often Go Unpaid]]> Thu, 08 Nov 2018 22:25:14 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/215*120/short+term+rentals+fines.PNG

It’s a battle going on for years but not getting any easier.

Cities like Miami Beach prohibit short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods because they are concerned about the quality of life for year-round residents.

The effort has been criticized by vacation rental sites like Airbnb and some homeowners who believe they should be allowed to decide for themselves if they can rent their homes for short periods of time.

On weekends, Miami Beach Code Enforcement officers respond to calls about illegal short-term rentals on the beach.

They wear bodycams to record what they find. Some of the footage shows luxury homes turned into party houses.

Eventually, officers break up the parties and ask guests to leave because short-term home rentals are illegal in residential neighborhoods.

On May 12, 2018, bodycam video shows code enforcement officers responding to a multi-million dollar home in Miami Beach.

A guest of the home comes out and tells officers, “Chris Brown’s in there.”

That same day, video of celebrity Chris Brown dancing inside a home surfaced on social media. The home looked just like the one code enforcement responded to.

The NBC 6 Investigators rode around on a Friday night with Officer Jorge Hernandez. It’s his job to respond to complaints from angry residents about nearby party houses.

“The last thing you want is a party house next to you in a residential area that they’re having constantly parties and people that you don’t know, a neighborhood is a neighborhood,” he said.

Hernandez responded that night to a call of an illegal short-term rental at a condo complex on Collins Avenue.

Short term rentals are allowed in that part of the city but Hernandez says this particular unit doesn’t have permission from the city or condo to rent short term.

When he knocked on the door, a group of tourists from Chicago came to the door. They told Hernandez they paid $3,000 to stay there for three days. They told him they rented the unit on Airbnb.

Miami Beach has concerns that Airbnb doesn’t check the locations of short-term rentals on the website to ensure they are not in areas where it’s prohibited and the company doesn’t publish addresses so renters can check that out for themselves.

“We know that if they wanted to, they could come up with a way to only rent legally,” Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales said.

The City recently began fining online companies that advertise illegal rentals.

For some time, they’ve been giving homeowners who rent their home illegally $20,000 fines per violation.

“The reason we do that is because they’re not making $500 a night on Miami Beach,” Morales said. “Sometimes when they’re renting these beautiful big houses on the ocean or on the bay they’re getting $5,000-$6,000 a night. If you have a $500 fine, it’s the cost of doing business.”

In a statement, Airbnb told NBC 6, “We are disappointed by the city’s decision to double down on a law that even they admit isn’t working… our hosts and residents in Miami Beach deserve comprehensive short-term rental reform that addresses the fundamental flaws in the city's existing system.”

The house where Chris Brown and other celebrities were said to be partying was advertised on Airbnb for $2,395 a night.

The owner already has seven violations and is appealing $100,000 in fines.

We found not every homeowner knows what’s going on in their house.

“I didn’t know they were going to be running 20 people through my house,” said Lisa Almy, the owner of a luxury home in a residential area of Miami Beach.

Code Enforcement bodycam video shows the city has responded several times to the home she owns that was being rented on Airbnb.

She is seen on the video telling officers that she leased her property to a company called VACAYO for a year and they’re the ones who put it on Airbnb.

“I’ve been trying to get them out,” she told them but was still hit with $20,000 in fines for each time she’s been cited for the illegal short-term rental of her home.

“I was told that they had high-level executives that were vetted that they had a good reputation for and I believed them,” she told NBC 6 about the information she was given when she leased her home to VACAYO.

Beatriz Hernandez also says she leased her Pinecrest home to VACAYO for a year under the same understanding only to discover it was put on Airbnb as sleeping 16 plus guests.

“The idea they presented was that this was going to be for corporate rentals,” she said.

Hernandez says on one occasion, she saw about a dozen cars in the driveway.

“They had the bedroom window open. One of the people that was here, a young man was standing outside,” she recalled. “We drove by and he saw my daughter and I staring to see what was going on and he actually shot a finger at us.”

Pinecrest does allow short-term rentals but requires people to get permission first. In her case, VACAYO didn’t get that permission. When a neighbor complained, Beatriz was fined.

“They flat out know that to a large extent what they are doing is exposing the homeowner to the liability,” said Carlos Ziegenhirt, her attorney. “They have no liability as far as what the county can do because the county is going to fine the property owner.”

VACAYO’s CEO declined our request for an interview.

Months ago, she told CNBC they have since got out of the leases where the short term rentals aren’t allowed.

But we discovered through court records they only left the homes after lengthy eviction battles.

When Lisa Almy got her home back, following a nine-month-long court battle, she says she had racked up fines totaling $100,000.

“I was paid a total of $4,500 for the entire time that they used my property. My legal bills were in excess of $16,000,” she said.

After appealing the fines, Lisa managed to get them transferred over to VACAYO. The company owes Miami Beach $140,000 in fines.

Since 2015, Miami Beach has issued fines totaling over $12.5 million but has only collected $427,000.

Lisa Almy tells us she is in favor of short-term rentals on the beach despite what she went through.

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<![CDATA[Miami-Dade High Rejection Rate for Mailed-in Ballots]]> Tue, 30 Oct 2018 19:59:48 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/226*120/ballots.PNG

Your chances of having a vote-by-mail ballot rejected in Miami-Dade are among the highest in the state – especially if you are a black or Hispanic voter, a study by ACLU Florida found.

Statewide, one percent of VBM ballots are rejected. In Miami-Dade, the rejection rate is 1.9 percent - the third highest rate in the state.

For black and Hispanic voters, 2.7 percent of mail-in ballots are rejected. That's the second-highest rate in the state for black voters.

Ballots can be rejected for two reasons: voters either failed to sign the envelope or the signature did not match the one on file.

Christina White, Miami-Dade supervisor of elections, said she did not know why the county she oversees rejected such a relatively large share of ballots.

“I can’t really say why. We educate all of our voters equally. This information is on the ballot itself,” she said. “We would love for it to be zero percent. We don’t like rejecting ballots and we really go above and beyond to accept all of them.”

It would be wrong to assume a large share of older voters in Miami-Dade boosts the rejection rate because, perhaps, older voters have more trouble following the instructions. The ACLU-Florida study found voters under 22 years old were eight times more likely to have their vote rejected than those 65 or older.

Two voters who failed to sign their ballots in a recent election told NBC 6 investigators they were sure they had signed them.

But when White’s office pulled their envelopes, it was clear they had not.

Nor did they return an affidavit to cure their ballot, which is sent to everyone whose ballot is rejected.

Last week, White and two judges reviewed nearly 1,000 ballots that had questionable signatures, accepting almost every one that was even a close call.

“We don’t like rejecting any ballot,” White said. “But if you don’t sign or your signature doesn’t match, we are required by law to reject it.”

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<![CDATA[Voting Rights Amendment Could Transform Florida Electorate]]> Mon, 29 Oct 2018 12:59:59 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/florida_primary_vote.jpg

Amendment 4 would give more than 1.4 million convicted felons in Florida the right to vote, as long as they are no longer in custody or on probation and were not convicted of murder or sex crimes.

Angel Sanchez is one of those people. He was a teenaged gang member on the path to prison.

Now he’s a college honors graduate, recipient of a prestigious scholarship and a University of Miami law student.

He was sentenced to 30 years in prison at age 17, but turned his life around – writing legal motions that led to a sentence reduction and ultimately release.

But he’s still a marked man, in a way – as a felon unable to vote.

"The short of it is I lost my voting eligibility for life before I ever had an opportunity to ever to vote,” he told NBC 6 during a break in his studies at UM. “Come every election, as much as I could forget about the fact that I’m disenfranchised, on Election Day I’m reminded, Angel you don’t count."

The amendment would need 60 percent support to be added to Florida’s Constitution – and not everyone is in favor.

"The amendment goes too far, in my opinion," said Ashley Moody, the Republican nominee for state attorney general. "Aggravated battery or kidnapping, terrorism -- none of these things would require a specific case-by-case determination, whether or not rights should be restored. They’d automatically be restored. I think that process, automatic restoration, should be for nonviolent, less serious violent offenses."

The governor and cabinet act as a clemency board, but the process is slow and the waiting list long. Only about 3,000 people have had their rights restored in recent years.

Disproportionately affected: minorities, especially African-Americans.

"As much as it is a vestige of the Jim Crow era today it’s not (just) impacting African Americans," said Sanchez, "but it’s starting to impact people across the board."

He says the change would benefit everyone. “Individuals who are restored are two to three time less likely to re-offend. That’s good for our communities.”

Sanchez, the law student, would still need to persuade the Florida Bar that he is worthy of becoming a lawyer, but first he needs his civil rights restored and Amendment 4 would be one big step in that direction.



Photo Credit: Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA[Orphaned by Opioids: The Silent Victims of the Crisis]]> Fri, 26 Oct 2018 18:31:22 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Orphaned+by+Opiods+topper+image.jpg

The 911 call came in just around 5:30 on a Friday evening.

A man, breathing heavily, told dispatchers that he was overdosing. In the background, a child can be heard frantically yelling “Mom, wake up.”

When police arrived to the South Florida home minutes later, they found an unresponsive couple lying on the floor while their two young children cried.

According to the arrest report, there were bags of heroin and fentanyl “in plain view” inside the “filthy” cockroach-infested home.

That’s the reality some children in South Florida are facing.

Over the past three years, the state has removed children from addicted parents in more than 4,000 cases in our area.

Almost half of those cases were reported in Broward County.

“Right now, we have more children between birth and five in shelters and in group care than we’ve ever had and that may very well be a function of opioids,” said Larry Rein, the Executive Director of ChildNet.

The non-profit organization is contracted by the Florida Department of Children and Families to provide foster care services in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Rein says there are not enough foster parents to care for the children orphaned by drugs.

“We have a dramatic need for homes and it’s only going to grow,” Rein said.

In Palm Beach County, there was a 42 percent increase in cases linked to drug abuse, from January to July - compared to the same period last year.

The Department of Children and Families told us that they don’t track the cases by drug choice, but Rein says the increase can be linked to opioids.

The crisis is not only hitting Florida’s foster care system.

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that the foster care populations in six states rose by more than half in just four years (2012-2016).

The study concluded that counties with higher rates of overdose deaths and drug hospitalization were connected to the increase of child welfare caseloads. 

It’s a saddening reality that motivates Victoria and Jerry Irizarry.

The couple became foster parents just weeks after saying their “I Do’s.” They’ve have had seven kids, mostly infants, in and out of their South Florida home.

“We can’t stop people from having babies, but we can take care of the babies we have in our community,” said Victoria, a former caseworker.

One of the children the couple is caring for is just 19-months-old. A blue-eyed little girl with a lot of energy and a constant smile on her face.

“We’ve always seen her as our own, like we tend to forget about the first three months of her life, because the moment she walked in the door, it was immediate love,” said Jerry.

But the first few weeks of her life were not as happy. The little girl was born with drugs in her system and had to spend a month in the intensive care unit.

Walter Honaman, a senior attorney with Broward Legal Aid, says he handles hundreds of cases similar to the couple’s each year.

“It’s a chain of misery and tears and often the outcomes are not that good,” said Honaman.

It’s Honaman’s job to protect the babies and children who find themselves in Broward County Court. His desk is covered with stacks of case files. Each file represents a different child.

He says he has double the amount of files than three years ago.

“You get to know the kids, faces, names, stories, their aspirations, their dreams, and sometimes you have to watch those dreams get snuffed out,” said Honaman while fighting back tears.

Legal Aid’s office in Palm Beach County tells us 24 parents have died from overdoses in just 24 months - an average of one death per month.

“It’s a crisis for children and their parents,” said Rein.

There are similar anecdotes at the Broward Dependency Court.

“I unfortunately had parents who have overdosed, some had died while their cases are in care,” said Judge Stacey Schulman, who sees an average of 40 families a week.

“It’s tragic,” she added.

While Schulman’s goal is to reunify children with their parents, she admits that’s not possible in some cases due to constant relapses.

“Our number one priority is to keep children safe and keep them stable,” she said.

Allison and Johnathan Lowe know how difficult getting clean can be. The pair, who has been battling opioid addiction since they were young adults, lost custody of their daughter for more than a year.

“We lost a lot of loved ones, friends and family along this path,” Allison said. “It’s a sad existence is what it is, you’re alive but you’re not living.”

It all started when Allison was prescribed Oxycodone after two back to back car accidents. She says it only took a week to get hooked. Soon, they both were.

“That definitely started us down a path, where there’s no turning back,” she said.

After completing court ordered rehabilitation, they were reunited with their daughter last Summer. “Living the life of an addict is not easy and living the life of someone in recovery is just as difficult,” she said but adds “we’re so excited to be living this new life.”

They are now sharing their story, hoping others can learn from their own experience.

Schulman says the Lowe’s success story is possible but it takes time and support. She cites medical assistance treatment (MAT) and trauma-based therapy as successful sources of treatment for parents battling addiction.

“The only way you can get sober is to do it for yourself and I wouldn’t have done it because I didn’t love myself. If it hadn’t had been for the court system,” Allison said.

In the meantime, the Irizarry family is committed to take care for as many children as possible. They are currently approved for up to three children at a time.

“We talk about how we can get a bigger place to take on more kids,” said Victoria.

Last summer, they formally adopted their 19-month-old foster daughter, after her birth mother died from an overdose and her father signed over his parental rights.

“A lot of people are afraid to take in a kid who comes from an opioid crisis home because it’s going to be hard, but I’d like to push people to think about the child’s heart before you think about yours,” said Jerry.


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<![CDATA[FDOT Revises Details on Timeline on FIU Bridge]]> Fri, 19 Oct 2018 13:51:49 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/215*120/FIU+Bridge+2.png

The Florida Department of Transportation Thursday revised its timeline in the Florida International University bridge collapse, saying its original statement could have been worded better.

It previously claimed a state bridge engineer -- who did not listen to a days-old voicemail alerting him to cracks in the bridge until after it collapsed -- was not able to listen to the voicemail until he “returned to his office” on Friday, March 16 “as the employee was out of the office on assignment.”

Now the agency is saying Thomas Andres returned to agency headquarters from his out of office assignment on the morning of Thursday March 15, hours before the bridge collapsed, though it still says he did not listen to the voicemail until the day after.

Here is the department’s original statement on this matter: “(The) voicemail was left on a landline and not heard by an FDOT employee until Friday, March 16 as the employee was out of the office on assignment. When the employee returned to his office (on) Friday, March 16, he was able to listen to the voicemail.”

After this article appeared online, FDOT contacted NBC 6 and said its position had not changed from its original timeline.

The agency said it did not mean to imply in its statement that Andres returned to his office on March 16 after being out of the office on assignment until that date.

 “I see it looks that way,” said interim communications director Ed Seifert. “We could have worded it better.”

The latest on FDOT’s timeline comes more than two weeks after the NBC 6 Investigators requested calendars and timesheets that could help pinpoint exactly what Andres was doing during the days he says the voicemail sat in his FDOT phone system without being listened to. 

FDOT has not revised its statement that Andres first listened to the voicemail from the engineer of record on the project, Denney Pate of FIGG Bridge Engineers, on Friday, March 16 – the day after the pedestrian bridge collapsed onto Eighth Street, killing one worker and five people in vehicles below. 

In the message, which FDOT said was left on Tuesday, March 13, Pate stated there was “cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span,” the area that would fail two days later. “Obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done, but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue there so we’re not concerned about it from that perspective, although obviously the cracking is not good and something’s going to have to be, ya know, done to repair that.” 

FDOT and Andres have not answered a key question: Would they have ordered Eighth Street shut down had they heard about the cracks before the bridge collapsed?

It did issue this statement, though: "The responsibility to identify and address life-safety issues and properly communicate them is the sole responsibility of the FIU design build team. At no point during any of the communications above did FIGG or any member of the FIU design build team ever communicate a life-safety issue. Again, FIGG and the FIU design build team never alerted FDOT of any life-safety issue regarding the FIU pedestrian bridge prior to collapse." 

The agency also noted the number to Andres' state-issued cell phone is listed in his email signature and Pate "could have called the mobile phone but instead chose to leave a message on the employee’s landline." 

NBC 6 has now requested any record that could reveal the exact time the voicemail was played back for the first time. 

Andres’ calendar reflects he was in Pensacola on a site visit for the two days prior to the collapse, and that he returned to his office on Thursday, March 15.

The bridge collapsed at 1:47 p.m. that day.

On Friday, FDOT revealed Andres was back at FDOT's headquarters, where his office is located, on the morning of Thursday, March 15, for meetings.

In response to questions from NBC 6, FDOT spokesman Tom Yu Thursday wrote that Andres “worked in office and responded to bridge collapse inquiries” on March 15.

The latest development comes less than a week after NBC 6 first reported evidence showing FDOT was more involved in overseeing the FIU bridge design and construction than it said in a statement in the hours after the failure. 

Gov. Rick Scott’s office sent out an FDOT “fact sheet” within six hours of the collapse stating FDOT’s role in the design was limited to “conducting a routine preliminary review to ensure this project complied with the terms of the agreement with the state.” 

In fact, emails and other records uncovered by NBC 6, reveal Andres expressed concerns about the design – and the potential for cracking – in March 2016 and continued offering comments or accepting revisions to the plans through at least as late as September 2017. FIGG made some modifications to address Andres’ concerns. 

But so far, no record has emerged to show subsequent plans addressed Andres’ concerns about the inset for a drain pipe that would have run along the bottom center of the walkway. Andres in March 2016 said it would “likely create a weak point which will be a crack initiation point.” 

Three months later, FIGG said the area Andres was concerned about was a “compression zone” and that “cracking is not expected to initiate from zones of compression.” An engineer who reviewed the latest publicly available drawings for NBC 6 said he did not see any changes to the drain pipe design, though it’s possible other revisions could have addressed Andres’ concerns. 

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<![CDATA[Records Shine New Light of FDOT’s Role in Doomed FIU Bridge ]]> Mon, 15 Oct 2018 17:15:50 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/215*120/FIU+Bridge+2.png

Three months after a Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) bridge engineer expressed concerns about the design of the doomed Florida International University pedestrian bridge, many of the issues he raised had still not been addressed by the designer and builder, according to newly released documents.

In March 2016, FDOT engineer Thomas Andres noted several concerns that the state agency expected would be addressed in the next phase of drawings, called the 90 percent plans.

But in June 2016, FDOT rejected the 90 percent plans, citing some of the same concerns Andres had raised in March, according to minutes of a June 30 meeting at FDOT headquarters in Tallahassee.

This as FDOT claimed within hours of the collapse that it had done only a ”routine preliminary review” of the project – a claim FIU officials rejected as “misstatements and misinformation,” “fake news” and “so not accurate,” according to emails obtained by the NBC 6 Investigators.

The newly released documents reveal new details about the extent of FDOT’s involvement in approving aspects of the project.

They show Andres was being asked to comment on design changes as late as September 2017.

And the concerns Andres raised in March 2016 about potential cracking and other design issues were not always accepted by the bridge designers.

In June 2016, an engineer for bridge designer FIGG downplayed Andres’ concerns that a drain pipe running along the bottom center of the span “will likely create a weak point which will be a crack initiation point.” In a document prepared for a meeting with Andres on June 30, FIGG took issue with Andres’ interpretation, saying, “cracking is not expected to initiate” from the area Andres was focusing on.

A professional engineer who reviewed the latest publicly available plans for the bridge design told NBC 6 Investigators that no changes were made to address Andres’ concern about the drain pipe area.

In another exchange, FIGG responded to Andres’ concern about forces concentrating at the north end of the main span by saying Andres’ scenario was not possible, based on FIGG’s reading of its design.

It turned out that was the same area where failure occurred on March 15, 2018, the result of excessive “shear,” engineers say – the very force Andres was concerned about in that area.

When the engineers for FDOT, FIGG and FIU met again in September 2016, one of Andres’ suggestions from six months earlier – involving the inclusion of sloping edges in place of 90-degree edges - had still not been incorporated in the plans as extensively as he had proposed. In handwritten notes sent to FIGG engineers the day after that meeting, Andres said those sloped edges – or “chamfers” – would address a potential for “shear.” Again, shear is the same force that engineers say triggered the collapse.

  

  

While FDOT claimed its involvement was only preliminary, the records reveal Andres was being asked in June 2017 to comment on plans that are labeled “release for construction” – far along in the process from the preliminary designs he commented on 15 months earlier.

In September 2017, Andres was raising issues with FIGG about how it would pour concrete to create the main span’s deck, asking that the design-build team of FIGG and MCM verify they were doing what FDOT was demanding.

The latest records were released by FIU in response to a public records request by NBC 6.

FDOT and Andres have not responded to detailed questions and records requests about Andres’ role in the bridge design for several weeks. FIGG and MCM say they cannot comment while the federal investigation into the collapse continues.


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<![CDATA[FDOT Warned Avoiding Cracks in FIU Bridge Would Be 'Tricky']]> Fri, 12 Oct 2018 18:14:22 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/217*120/FIU+Bridge+Collapse+1.png

Within six hours of the Florida International University pedestrian bridge collapsing, killing six, Gov. Rick Scott’s press office sent out a “fact sheet” that claimed his Department of Transportation (FDOT) had little to do with the project.

In emails obtained by the NBC 6 Investigators, members of the FIU’s project team almost immediately expressed “shock” at the governor’s “misstatements and misinformation,” calling the press release “fake news” and saying FDOT had “extensive involvement.”

“This is so not accurate and we were shocked” by FDOT’s claims, wrote Ken Jessell, FIU’s chief financial officer, to a senior staff member at the state university system.

“FDOT was involved every step of the way…Every plan was reviewed and signed off by FDOT,” he said. 

In its March 15 statement, FDOT said it did just a “routine preliminary review” of the project, while issuing traffic permits, passing through federal money and authorizing FIU to occupy the space above Eighth Street for what was to be its showcase concrete pedestrian bridge.

But records obtained by the NBC 6 Investigators suggest the state was much more involved and concerned than it has let on.

FDOT engineer Thomas Andres, who oversees bridge design plans, informed FIU’s design-build team nearly two years before the bridge came crashing down that avoiding cracking in the bridge during construction would be difficult.

Commenting on the bridge’s preliminary plans on March 25, 2016, Andres wrote “maintaining stress limits throughout all intermittent phases to avoid cracking of the members will be extremely tricky” and he expressed concern that the early design may not have adequately compensated for “shear” – the very force that engineers say appears to have led to the bridge’s collapse.

What, if anything, FIU’s design-build team - FIGG Bridge Engineers and Munilla Construction Management (MCM) did in subsequent designs to address FDOT’s concerns is not yet known.

The companies say they are prohibited from commenting while they participate in the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the failure.

FDOT has not responded for weeks to requests for emails and other records that may shed light on what FDOT did or did not do to make sure their concerns were addressed. Nor would FDOT or Andres answer questions about Andres’ role and how it may conflict with the state’s claim that FDOT was barely involved in the design plans.

An NBC 6 public records request with FIU for all emails mentioning Andres’ name and any responses to his concerns is also pending.

But this we did confirm: A telephone message from FIGG’s bridge engineer, Denney Pate, informing FDOT of cracking in the bridge two days before the collapse was left with Thomas Andres - the same engineer in the state structures design office who early on expressed concerns about potential cracking and design issues.

Pate described for Andres “some cracking that’s been observed on the north end of the span...and obviously some repairs or whatever will have to be done but from a safety perspective we don’t see that there’s any issue.”

FDOT said Andres did not listen to the voicemail until March 16, the day after the collapse, and FDOT and Andres have so far declined to say what Andres might have done had he heard it, including possibly ordering closure of Eighth Street.

The NBC 6 Investigators showed Andres’ comments, along with plans, calculations and other documents obtained through public records requests, to Al Brizuela, a Miami-based professional engineer.

“He’s thinking this is going to be problematic,” Brizuela said, referring to how the complex, aggressively designed truss bridge was going to be stressed before it was lifted, rotated and placed on supports above Eighth Street.

That operation was completed the morning of Saturday, March 10, and severe cracking was documented on the north end of the span within days.

The failure on March 15 came in that same area, as a work crew was carrying out previously unplanned re-stressing of steel bars that ran through a diagonal truss on that north end of the 175-foot span – an attempt, some engineers have theorized, to close the cracks that had formed on that truss.

The process is called “post-tensioning” and it is one of the things Andres warned about two years earlier, writing “predicting where the (post-tensioning) stressing actually goes will be tricky.”

While Brizuela cautions that not all the plans have been released – so any opinion is not yet fully informed - he questions whether the final plans and actual construction took into account Andres’ concerns about the careful sequencing of stressing bars and cables that run through the deck, canopy and trusses.

Even before the apparently fatal decision to re-stress the truss in the area of the failure on the day of the collapse, there is conflicting information in the available record about the sequence of stressing.

For instance, calculations done by FIGG dated Feb. 10, 2017, assumed stressing would begin with tendons in the canopy and post-tension bars in the two outermost diagonal trusses, followed by tendons in the deck.

But plans dated April 7, 2017 - marked “for construction” and signed and sealed by FIGG’s engineer Pate – call for the tendons in the deck to be stressed first, followed by the canopy and then the post-tension bars in the outermost trusses.

Also, a February 2018 memo from Bolton Perez & Associates, engineers hired by FIU to inspect the design-build team’s work, states the northernmost diagonal truss was stressed a day before its southern-end counterpart in late January, in preparation for the move to above Eighth Street. But the plans released so far call for those trusses to be stressed in the opposite order.

“They did it backwards,” Brizuela said, though again cautioning that is only an assumption based on the records available publicly so far. Another record appears to state they were stressed on the same day.

Moreover, it is not known whether altering those stressing sequences would make a significant difference in calculations conducted to determine if the structure can withstand the forces being applied to it during and after construction.

But, in his comments, Andres refers repeatedly to the importance of adopting the proper stressing sequence.

He said all 12 members of the main span “may have to be stressed to avoid cracking.” The “for construction” drawings released so far reveal that was not done for all 12 members.

Andres also warned that “the web truss will be very difficult to form without shrinkage cracking” on some of the members.

Cracking was indeed observed on two of those members on February 6 - one week after tension was applied to adjacent trusses, as the main span was being prepared on the roadside for lifting and movement to its resting place over the highway. Further, larger cracks were found weeks later on each end of the main span before the move.

Another concern of Andres that may not have been adequately addressed in subsequent plans: an 8-inch diameter drain pipe running down the bottom center of the deck “will likely create a weak point which will be a crack initiation point,” Andres noted.

Brizuela said the “for construction” plans he reviewed did not show any significant change in the design of the drain pipe, which remained at the same location and the same size.

Andres submitted his comments on the preliminary design into an FIU document called an “over-the-shoulder review” on March 25, 2016, according to records released by FIU.

He stated the comments were “for information only. No response is required. The comments are intended to assist in providing general feedback to the (design-build firm).”

Four weeks later, a FIGG bridge engineer acknowledged the comments, saying they were “intended to assist in progressing the (design-build firm’s) concept to 90% plans.”

On April 25, 2016 the record reflects Andres accepted that response and closed the comments section.

Taken as a whole, Brizuela said, Andres’ comments point to some of the same issues that he believes ultimately contributed to if not caused the bridge to collapse.

“He’s pointing out what’s going to happen. What could happen,” Brizuela said, concluding, “Unfortunately it looks like he was kind of predicting what was going to happen.”

Given Andres’ concerns about potential cracking and shear forces built into the original plans, Brizuela wonders what Andres would have done had he received Pate’s March 13 voicemail.

“I think he would’ve stopped traffic,” Brizuela suggested. “That’s the only thing you can do at that point. You want to protect the public.”

FDOT said it possesses no email discussing cracks in the week before the collapse, though FDOT’s local agency project assistant coordinator did attend a meeting held on the morning of the collapse where Pate and others, from MCM and FIU, discussed the cracks.

After that meeting adjourned, a crew from Structural Technologies was carrying out orders to re-stress bars in the northernmost diagonal truss, directly above where the most severe cracks had formed, when 950 tons of concrete collapsed onto the road below, killing a Structural employee who was working on the canopy and five people in cars below.

In addition to Andres not listening to his voicemail for three days while “out of the office on assignment,” there’s also no evidence he saw photographs of the cracks taken on March 13 by MCM and March 14 by Bolton Perez & Associates.

Brizuela said any engineer who did see those photos or the cracks themselves should have heard a clear message: “The bridge is failing. Once you see cracks (such as those in the photographs) in concrete, we know there’s a failure occurring within the concrete.”

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<![CDATA[Over-the-Counter CBD Market Booms; Many Laud Health Benefits]]> Tue, 02 Oct 2018 23:14:49 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/cbd+wallace.png

Some are calling it a natural miracle drug for ailments ranging from joint pain to seizures and anxiety. Skeptics say it’s too early to “greenlight” CBD, known for its greenish hue. CBD is short for cannibidiol, one of the chemical compounds in the cannabis plant. Unlike THC, CBD does not produce a mind-altering high.

The federal Drug Enforcement Administration classifies all cannabis as an illegal “dangerous” drug but has taken a hands-off approach where over-the-counter CBD is concerned, that includes in the state of Florida.

The result: CBD is exploding in popularity in the health and wellness market, where smoke shops, health food stores, day spas and pharmacists are carrying a dizzying array of CBD products, everything from oils to salves to capsules and gummies.

“You’re not going to hallucinate, you’re not going to feel euphoria, you’re going to feel relief from your pain,” said Peggy Galant, who uses a CBD salve. She has chronic pain from multiple back surgeries and swears by CBD.

“I get severe muscle pain and nerve pain and this helps both,” she said.

Mindy Lomasky uses a daily dose of CBD for her 12-year-old son, Jake, who has severe autism. 

“He’s generally on the whole a bit calmer. I think it dials down his anxiety. He’s more focused,” Lomasky said.

She said she doesn’t understand the stigma some associate with CBD.

“I’d rather give my son something natural than something that’s big pharma,” Lomasky said. "I would never tell anybody that anything is a cure-all for autism. It’s just another tool in our arsenal that we can use, along with other therapies and school, and a healthy lifestyle.”

Michelle Steiner, a busy mother of four, said CBD oil has helped her with stress and alleviated her digestive problems.

“I would eat something and 2 seconds later, I’d be running,” she said. “That doesn’t happen any more.”

Englewood plastic surgeon Gil Altman said he began taking CBD several months ago for ulcerative colitis.

“After two months, I was just noticing a calmness coming over my abdomen,” he said. “The fact that I have less pain and less sensitivity to it. Why not use it?”

Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist, says there is a potential risk because the industry is unregulated. The FDA has only approved one prescription form of CBD, Epidiolex, for a specific form of childhood epilepsy. 

“You’re not guaranteed that what’s in the bottle is what they say you’re getting, she said. "It might be a different dose, it might be different ingredients.” 

The FDA has warned several companies to stop making misleading claims about CBD products. 

Last year, a study found only 26 of 84 products researchers bought online contained the amount of CBD claimed on the label. Some didn't contain any CBD, while others were found to also have THC.

In Florida, it's legal to buy CBD, but Consumer Reports recommends caution.

"It's regulated differently from state to state even in states where it's legal and regulations can get particularly confusing when you're looking into products that are sold online," said Rachel Rabkin Peachman of Consumer Reports.

A number of reputable medical centers are doing research into the safety and effectiveness of CBD. One business report predicts the industry could hit $22 billion by 2022.

Consumer Reports contributed to this report.



Photo Credit: News 4]]>
<![CDATA[Scam Robocalls Are On the Rise, and Help May Be on the Way]]> Wed, 03 Oct 2018 11:14:09 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/161*120/robocalls+nbc+responds-1.jpg

As unwanted calls continue to proliferate, many mobile phone users have simply stopped answering the phone. But new technology is on the horizon that could sharply cut the number of scam and spam calls we all receive daily.

Fraudulent calls — frequently originating overseas — have spiked sharply since 2017. In a study published this month, tech analyst First Orion projected by next year, nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be scam calls. Of those, First Orion researchers say more than 90 percent will use caller ID "spoofing" — displaying a fake call-back number — to trick potential targets.

NBC Bay Area wanted to know, why is the problem of spam calls getting worse? How do fraudulent callers spoof caller ID? Why don't phone companies simply shut them down? And, what is the government doing to stop scammers? The answers we found are complicated, but there's also hope of a solution on the horizon.

An explosion of unwanted calls
Most of the calls from scammers and fraudsters are made with auto-dialers, and are known as "robocalls." Irvine-based tech firm YouMail estimates 4.2 billion robocalls were placed nationwide last month, amounting to about 13 calls per phone user.

Ethan Garr, Vice President of anti-spam calling firm TelTech, tells NBC Bay Area the numbers are staggering.

"Over 3,000 calls are being made every second to Americans," Garr said.

TelTech makes an app called RoboKiller. The company was awarded a $25,000 prize from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission for its spam call-fighting technology.

Garr tells NBC Bay Area the surge in caller ID spoofing by spam callers has conditioned most of us to simply stop answering our phones.

"I would guess 40 percent of the calls you get, you can trust the caller ID," He said.

We asked Garr how scammers spoof caller ID. He said it's pretty easy.  TelTech also makes SpoofCard, an app that lets any mobile phone user choose any number to show up on a call recipient's caller ID. Garr says it's pretty simple, because caller ID is a decades-old technology.

"It was an add-on into the phone system," Garr said. "It wasn't something that was invented so people could manipulate it or change it. It was a way for people to see who was calling, but it got co-opted over time."

Unfortunately, scammers were among those doing the co-opting of caller ID.

The robocall problem - it's complicated
For years, YouMail has tracked the rapid rise in computer-dialed phone calls.  It offers apps to help phone users block them. CEO Alex Quilici says the reluctance of most people to stop answering unknown calls has only made scammers more determined.

"They're clever, and they want to get through, so they're picking random numbers to call," Quilici said. "People are not answering the calls any more, if they can help it. They just assume, 'This is a number I've never seen before; I'm not going to pick up the phone.' So the bad guys try to call more and more numbers, to try to get through. It's a little bit of a death spiral for the phone network."

So, why can't the U.S. government simply ban all robocalls? 

Eric Troutman, an attorney with Womble Bond Dickinson, tells us it's not that simple.

"We need to have a better definition of what a 'robocall' is," Troutman said.  "When I think about what a robocall is, I think a scam, pre-recorded call; generally, random-fired, and probably by some bad actor overseas someplace. You might think that a reminder call to go pick up your pills at the pharmacy is a robocall."

Troutman represents clients such as banks that auto-dial fraud alerts, and pharmacies that use robocalls to inform patients of prescription refills. He welcomes tougher federal laws for scammers, but not a robocall ban.

"What is it that we're actually trying to prevent?" Troutman said. "Is it that we're trying to prevent American businesses from contacting their customers with account-specific information that their customer needs? I don't think so."

Troutman, who also writes for and edits telecom law website TCPAland.com, is a critic of the Telecommunications Consumer Protection Act, or TCPA. He says the 1991 law — written long before widespread mobile phone and internet use — is badly in need of replacement.

"Congress needs to focus on scammers," Troutman said. "When we've got a lot of noise out there, trying to shift the focus from bad actors to legitimate American businesses, you're going to get a lot of push-back when it comes time to draft that statute."

Technological impediments and solutions
The other major challenge to blocking scam calls is the aging, sprawling national telephone system. Alex Quilici with YouMail told us that makes any effort to stop spam callers a daunting task.

"There are 3,000 [phone] carriers in the U.S.," Quilici said. "There are multiple billions of phone calls every day. To roll out something like that is a pretty massive undertaking."

The good news is the major players in telecommunications are trying. Right now, a consortium of technology engineers, phone service providers, and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission are developing a sweeping update to caller ID. Known by the acronyms STIR and SHAKEN, the caller ID authentication standards will make it much more difficult for spam calls to get through.

Here's how it might work: calls from someone using a verified phone line, approved by a certification authority, could show up on your phone screen with something like a green checkmark. That way, you'll know the caller ID can be trusted. 

Conversely, calls that come in through scammers' preferred routes, such as unverified overseas phone services, will be flagged. You might see a red "X" or a "caller not verified" message with their caller ID. Or, your mobile carrier might be able to block all such calls before they get to your phone.

The new caller ID authentication standards could be rolling out to our phones as early as next year. While the measures should reduce the number of unwanted calls we get, it won't stop them altogether. Ethan Garr with TelTech says we can count on scammers' persistence and greed.

"They hate us," Garr said. "They don't care about us. They don't think of us as humans. They want to get to us. They want to steal from us."


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<![CDATA[Thousands of Gunshots, But Few Arrests]]> Thu, 25 Oct 2018 16:15:06 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Police+Officers+Standing+in+Front+of+Cruiser+Investigator+Topper.jpg

When shots were fired during an armed robbery last July, police were notified just after the suspect took off – even before the victims were able to call 911.

“They came quick,” said one of the victims, who agreed to speak with NBC 6 on the condition of anonymity. “By the time I already called, one already arrived.”

Miami Police said they learned about the incident via ShotSpotter - an audio detection system that tracks gunfire in real time.

“It'll give us the address and also the number of rounds that are fired,” said Miami Police Sergeant Gary Sampson.

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ShotSpotter uses a network of acoustic sensors that are located on rooftops across the city. The audio is sent to the company’s call center in California where technicians review it and determine whether the alert is a gunshot.

If it is determined to be gunfire, the report is sent to Miami Police.

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Sgt. Sampson gets the ShotSpotter alerts on his phone.

He says he has to respond to every one of them, but it’s not an easy task.

The company provided an analysis of alerts to Miami Police. Their analysis shows ShotSpotter sensors have captured close to 7,000 gunfire incidents from January 2015 to September 2018. More than half of them were reported in the area of Liberty City. There were more than 31,000 shots fired during these incidents.

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The NBC 6 Investigators tried to obtain the raw data from the Miami Police Department to conduct an independent analysis, but the company opposed its release saying it is proprietary information under its $2.5 million contract with the city.

It is not the first time.

In a 2015 nationwide memo, obtained by Forbes, the company asked customers to respond to requests for records “in a way that would not harm ShotSpotter business.”

When asked if he has been pressured by the company about releasing public records, Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez was quick to respond “not at all.”

He says the technology is saving lives.

“It gets the officer to the scene quicker, but also gets first responders quicker," he said. “Life and death oftentimes is a matter of seconds." 

ShotSpotter is used in 90 cities across the country, from metropolitan high crime areas like Chicago to smaller communities like the city of Glendale in Arizona.

“Eighty to 90 percent of gunfire events don't get reported and so we are invaluable tool in certainly making police departments aware of these events and then allowing a very rapid and precise response,” said ShotSpotter’s CEO Ralph Clark during a phone conversation.

But some question the technology’s role in reducing crime.

At least seven police departments found ShotSpotter was not effective in scoring a high number of arrests, including the Broward Sheriff’s Office – which stopped using it in 2011 saying the benefits didn’t justify the cost.

According to records provided by Miami Police, there have been only two arrests linked to the technology since 2017 - when the department started tracking the information.

Clark says on-scene arrests are rare and that his technology is helping police collect evidence that could lead to future arrests.

“Even if they are not capturing a criminal on scene, if they are getting shell casings, they are interviewing witnesses, they might make an arrest two to three weeks later,” he added.

He says his company’s success is not measured by the number of arrests but rather by detecting gun violence that might otherwise go unreported.

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When asked about the findings, Mayor Suarez cites a 35 percent drop in homicides.

“We are talking about 10, and 20, and 30 lives that we are seeing saved on an annual basis,” he said.

But the mayor admits there is no way to know ShotSpotter is the reason behind it.

“In fairness, we don’t,” he said. “I think it’s connected to a variety of different things. I think the ShotSpotter program helps. We have also increased our patrolling force. That also helps.”

While ShotSpotter cannot take “full credit” for the drop in homicides, Clark says it definitely plays a role.

“We think we are a contributing factor to that because we are enabling a police department to be much more responsive in responding, dispatching, investigating these gunfire incidents and all of that adds up, we believe, to reductions,” he said.

For Sgt. Sampson, ShotSpotter is doing what’s supposed to.

“I believe that it saves lives. It makes us more aware of what we are going into,” he said. “It’s just a great tool."

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NBC 6 Investigators asked other local law enforcement agencies about their experience with the technology.

Miami Gardens Police Department said ShotSpotter has been used in 28 arrest reports.

Miami-Dade Police had stopped using the technology in 2013, but resumed it again. The department says in the past two years, it has made 24 on-scene arrests and 31 follow-up arrests.

ShotSpotter also shared a county memo that says the Miami-Dade Police Department was able to collect more than 1,600 casings during incidents involving ShotSpotter.


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<![CDATA[Medical Marijuana’s Money Problems]]> Tue, 25 Sep 2018 04:09:57 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/218*120/Cash+Only+3.png

Marijuana is one of the newest drugs approved for medical treatment in Florida, but there’s only one way someone can pay for it – cash.

Unlike other drugs that can be picked up at a pharmacy, patients have to go to a licensed dispensary to purchase medical marijuana. There are more than a half dozen of them in South Florida.

Inside each of those dispensaries, you will find an ATM machine. There is a reason for it.

While the state of Florida allows the use of medical marijuana, the federal government does not. That means a patient cannot use a credit card to buy the drug.

“It’s not cheaper for me but it’s healthier for me,” said Zoey Brown, a Miami resident who got her medical marijuana card last year.

She says she was diagnosed with PTSD and OCD.

Brown spends about 30 dollars a day on her treatment. She buys cannabis oil and inhales it through a vaporizer.

Josh Reed is the vice-president of production at Surterra, one of Florida’s largest medical marijuana companies. He says being a cash-only business comes with challenges.

“That’s a conversation to be had with patients,” said Reed. “You know if you don’t have the cash in your account, you obviously can’t buy the medicine.”

But patients are not the only ones struggling.

Most banks are federally regulated and insured. Therefore, they avoid doing business with marijuana companies.

Trulieve, one of the largest medical marijuana dispensaries in the state, knows it all too well.

The company was dropped by a national bank after finding out they were in the business of selling marijuana.

“We had a notification that we had to withdraw all of our funds and transfer in 30 days and that happened within six months of us starting out as a company,” said Trulieve’s CEO Kim Rivers.

Many national banks are scared of the federal repercussions. It’s a similar situation with insurance companies that do not cover medical marijuana treatment.

Patients are signing up in records numbers to get their medical marijuana cards. In Florida alone, there are more than 160,000 patients.

For Dr. Michelle Weiner, a pain management specialist, the number could be much higher if medical marijuana was covered by insurance.

“A lot of my patients say, you know what, my Percocet is covered by Medicare and that’s fine for me, I can’t afford pretty much anything else,” said Dr. Weiner.

But many people are willing to pay the price for what they call the all-natural alternative.

“I’d rather do this now matter what the cost than go back on prescription opioids,” Brown said. “It does make a difference in my life.”

Patients can also pay for their marijuana medication using a popular app called “CanPay.” It allows a customer to transfer funds from a checking account to the store.



Photo Credit: NBC 6 ]]>
<![CDATA[Police Cameras Raising Privacy Concerns]]> Thu, 13 Sep 2018 21:20:41 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/240*120/PHOTO+COVER.png

From Liberty City to Downtown, there are more than 130 police cameras watching over the city of Miami.

“The purpose of these cameras is, in fact, to see what’s happening and we try to take advantage of that as often as we can,” said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina.

NBC 6 was given access inside Miami’s “Virtual Policing Unit,” where law enforcement personnel monitor the cameras. They can zoom in and out, even rotate them to a particular location.

Sergeant Alex Gutierrez oversees the surveillance program. He says the cameras can capture key information to solve crimes, from a vehicle’s tag to articles of clothing.

“Before it was just a blue hat. Now it can be a blue X hat, depending on what’s actually on it,” he said.

“We want to make sure we capture the right guy, so we want to give as much vital information to our officers out on the road as possible,” said Gutierrez.

But some are raising concerns about residents’ privacy.

“I find this to be very disturbing,” said Florida ACLU’s Deputy Director Melba Pearson, when asked about the Miami police cameras.

“Just because someone lives in a particular neighborhood doesn’t mean they need to be scrutinized on a regular basis,” she said. “These cameras should be for targeting investigations only not blanket wholesale surveillance of entire communities."

Most of the residents that we approached didn’t want to go on camera but said they feel safer having more eyes on the streets.

Pearson says the cameras could lead to racial profiling.

A recent ACLU report found that people living in predominantly black neighborhoods were more likely to be arrested, prosecuted and convicted in Miami-Dade County.

In a statement, Miami State Attorney Katherine Rundle Fernandez said she is committed to pursue “unbiased justice for all.” Her office is working with the ACLU, community leaders and other local agencies to address the findings.

The Miami Police Chief insists the cameras are not being used improperly.

“These cameras are all put in public spaces right where people know that they don't necessarily have an expectation of privacy anyway,” said Colina.

Miami Mayor Francis Suarez echoed the sentiment.

“It’s no different than a police officer walking a beat,” he said.

Pearson encouraged authorities to invest more in community-based programs.

“It’s that community policing that has proven across the county, time after time, to be effective, as opposed to breeding more distrust through heavy-handed tactics and widespread surveillance,” she said.

Miami Police tells us they’ll continue expanding their camera program and they have a budget of more than half a million dollars to do so.

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<![CDATA[Only One in Four Nursing Homes Meet Back-Up Power Demands]]> Fri, 14 Sep 2018 10:48:09 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/nursing+home+power+graphic.JPG

Within days of extreme heat killing a dozen residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills last year, Gov. Rick Scott gave all nursing homes in the state 60 days to connect air conditioning systems to back-up generators with enough fuel to keep residents in safe temperatures for four days after a storm cuts off power.

"Failure to comply," the governor said, "will result in penalties, including fines of up to $1,000 per day and the possible revocation of a facility’s license."

But it was obvious to anyone who knew anything about how nursing homes and emergency generators operate that a 60-day goal was impossible to meet.

Sure enough, by November 15, 2017, no nursing home could satisfy the requirement.

So it was extended to June 2018.

By then, less than 10 percent had completed the implementation of the emergency backup systems.

Now – one year after the Hollywood Hills tragedy - only one in four nursing homes statewide has met the requirement.

In Broward County, it’s even worse: one in six.

And not one facility has been fined or disciplined in the process.

The state has now extended the deadline until January 1, 2019 to implement their plans.

The Agency for Health Care Administration says it has granted every home an extension because they’ve all claimed construction, equipment or regulatory delays. They’ve also promised to evacuate or have contracts with companies to provide emergency power within 24 hours of a state of emergency being declared in their areas.

"We recognize that this is an aggressive timeline for implementation, and our Agency has seen a lot of progress from the facilities in working to implement these emergency rules," AHCA secretary Justin Senior said in a statement.

The Florida Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes, said it takes about 38 weeks to get a generator up and running, at an average cost of around $200,000 per nursing home.

"In some cases these are long-term projects that require permitting, zoning and construction," Senior said, adding that despite the delays, "we will stop at nothing to ensure these facilities are appropriately protecting Florida patients."

The homes are required to keep temperatures below 82 degrees for four days without power.

Ralph Marrinson, who owns two nursing homes and three other facilities, said his generators are hooked up and running, though the state is still waiting for a final inspection before declaring them completed.

At his Manor Pines home in Wilton Manors, "We’re fully functional. It will cool everything. It will run everything in the building. So if the power goes down, within three seconds we’re back up 100 percent."

He said he’s spent $2 million total on the projects for all five properties.

"We’re down to some nitty gritty, small details we’ve got to finish," he said, adding "the permitting process took a long time. There's a big learning curve by everybody because nobody has ever required us to do this."

Marrinson said if power had been restored to Hollywood Hills sooner, this all could have been avoided.

The medical examiner ruled all 12 deaths homicides, but no criminal charges have been filed. The case remains under investigation.

The state revoked Hollywood Hills’ license, a decision now under review by an administrative judge.

The home’s owner, Jack Michel, did not respond to a request for comment.


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<![CDATA[Three Dead, Two Cameras, No Surveillance Video ]]> Wed, 12 Sep 2018 22:58:07 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/218*120/Housing+and+Miami+Cameras+2.png

Nyla Jones was sitting in a car when she was struck by a bullet fired from her uncle's gun. Her family says it was an accident.

A week later, Northwestern High School student Kimson Green, 17, and Rickey Dixon, 18, were shot to death.

Their deaths in the Liberty Square neighborhood got a lot of attention, but the investigations were made more difficult because nearby surveillance cameras didn’t record what happened.

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The Liberty Square housing complex is surrounded by surveillance cameras put up and maintained by Miami-Dade Public Housing and Community Development Department.

According to a memo by the Miami Dade County Attorney, Green and Dixon were shot “directly beneath” one of those cameras but it wasn’t recording.

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“It’s frustrating,” said Miami’s Mayor Francis Suarez. “To think that they don't have those basic protections it's frustrating, it's upsetting.”

With no video to serve as an eyewitness, Miami Police acted on a tip and arrested Anthony Clinch,19, and Yaairnes Rashad Bryant, 21, in connection to the shooting.

“He told the people he was innocent from the jump,” said Clinch’s mother, Sharon Dansey.

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The pair was released and charges dropped when video evidence proved Clinch was shopping with his family in another part of town at the time of the shooting. As of now, police has made no arrests in the shooting that killed Green and Dixon.

“Y’all need to have the cameras working for incidents like this. Anything could happen. For the people who didn’t do nothing, that could be their evidence,” said Dansey. “He could've been in jail for life.”

The director of public housing, Michael Liu, declined to comment about what happened that day.

“We have an ongoing investigation in that situation,” he said.

He also wouldn’t comment about why the cameras weren’t working when Nyla Jones was shot and killed the week before.

After the back-to-back shootings, Mayor Suarez had the city install its own crime cameras.

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The city now has 33 cameras in Liberty Square. Some of those cameras are on the same poles where housing cameras already are.

“It's a duplication of effort in government and spending, but we felt we had to step in,” Suarez said. “We needed cameras that work.”

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The city said they have spent approximately $90,000 on installing them.

The cameras are monitored at the Miami Police Virtual Policing Unit, a dark room filled with high-definition TVs that show images from the streets.

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“With the camera systems, you have the ability to sort of rewind and see what happened, get details, precision,” said Suarez. “You can do a lot of things that you really can’t do with eyewitness testimony.”

Sergeant Alex Gutierrez, who oversees the surveillance program, agrees.

He sees the cameras as an invaluable tool.

“We want to make sure we capture the right guy, so we want to get as much vital information to officers on the road as possible,” he said.

The city now has more than 130 smart cameras in Overtown, Downtown and Liberty City.

Some of them are being paired with a system called “Shot Spotter” that can detect gunfire.

The cameras have the ability to pan to the location where shots are detected. An officer is also dispatched to respond.

“For us, it’s a huge advantage where we don’t have to necessarily rely on someone calling the police and saying they’ve heard shots being fired,” said Miami Police Chief Jorge Colina.

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Director Liu says he welcomes the Mayor’s efforts but insists the county’s camera problems are fixed.

“All the cameras are working,” he said firmly.

There are 24 housing cameras in the Liberty Square complex.

The department, which is primarily funded by the federal government, said they have spent over $350,000 thousand dollars upgrading and repairing the CCTV system in the area since 2015.

But they wouldn't tell us how often they go down, who inspects them, when those inspections are or the results of inspections. They told us they consider the information protected under Florida law.


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<![CDATA[Potential Evidence in FIU Bridge Collapse Destroyed]]> Wed, 12 Sep 2018 18:10:24 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/rods.jpg

A Miami-Dade circuit judge wants to know how 26 threaded steel rods – similar, if not identical, to those installed in the collapsed FIU pedestrian bridge –  were melted down after being removed from the work site by one of the companies being sued over its role in the project.

"It's distressing," said Judge Jennifer Bailey, after being told in a court hearing Wednesday that the melted down rods were the only unused ones left behind on the job site. "I'm dismayed, as I'm sure everyone in this room is dismayed, at this turn of events -- given the time and effort and detail that was put into the order regarding the disposition of the material from the bridge collapse."

The rods and a bolt found with it were identified for preservation by another defendant in the cases, according to an evidence custody form filed in court pleadings.

But an attorney for Structural Group said a company employee removed and destroyed the rods in July after consulting with the general contractor MCM's site supervisor and determined only the bolt lying atop the rods was tagged for preservation. A photograph shows only the bolt had a yellow tag attached to it.

Bailey gave lawyers until next Friday to produce affidavits from people who witnessed the events leading to the destruction of the potential evidence.

"I  just want to know what happened and who was on the scene and who were the decision makers and how did this happen," the judge said. "That's really the question I have."

Once those sworn statements are reviewed, parties can argue whether they believe depositions or other testimony is necessary to show whether the destruction was a violation of the court's order on preservation of evidence.

Structural Group, among other tasks, used steel rods for post-tensioning in the bridge. 

If it's found a party intentionally destroyed what it should have known could be key evidence, and that such actions prejudiced other parties in the case, the judge could instruct any future jury to draw "adverse inferences"– in other words, to assume bad motive for destroying evidence. 

But such a possibility is still a long way down a winding legal road that's just beginning to take shape six months after the bridge collapsed – killing six people, including a Structural Group worker who was atop the bridge canopy tightening a  tension rod when the bridge collapsed.

"I don't know whether the rods are important or not," Bailey said in a hearing last month. "This could've been a mistake."

The rods are 1 ¾ inches thick – the same size as those being tightened in the truss that failed, so they could be significant, one lawyer argued.

The NTSB also collected rods of that size from the site and tested them, finding no issues with the materials, the agency said.

Glenn Fuerth, an attorney for Structural, declined comment but in court papers said there was no "willfulness or bad faith" by his clients and there was no prejudice because the rods were "extra material and were not used" in the bridge. He also stressed bars from the scene tested by the NTSB were "found by the NTSB to be without 'notable material issues.'"

"Here's the core question," the judge said near the end of the hearing attended by lawyers for 20 defendants and almost as many plaintiffs. "At the end of the day, does this have anything to do with finding the truth about the bridge collapse? That's what this is about."

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<![CDATA[PTSD and the Medical Marijuana Loophole]]> Thu, 06 Sep 2018 16:34:58 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/208*120/Vet3.png

Every time Jose Belen drives under an overpass on I-95, he flinches. When he hears his young daughter cry, he sometimes cringes and has to walk away.

He says both are strong reminders of the enemy fire and screams of dying children he experienced while patrolling the streets of Baghdad while serving in the Army.

"You're going to war, you're never going to come out the same," said Belen.

Inside his Parkland home, he sat on his couch and sorted through a box of memories he has never shared with his wife Danielle – until now.

"I haven't gone through this stuff in years," said the former Army combat veteran. "We had to go hunt some bad people."

He pulled out an Iraqi flag that he kept folded inside his helmet, pictures of friends he fought beside and a welcome home sign his family made for his return. He spent more than a year serving in Iraq.

Belen's unit was part of the invasion of Baghdad in 2003. He says his best friend was killed and he witnessed children die.

"I couldn't sleep but that was the norm," he said. "I was angry, but I was always angry, you're angry in war. I was just being me."

Once he was back home, doctors diagnosed him with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.

"You don't break, that's the problem," Belen said.

Belen says he went to the local Veterans Affairs hospital where he was prescribed medication.

But he said the medications made him feel more depressed.

“It’s like, if this is the rest of my life, I don’t want to be here,” he said.

He says after having thoughts of suicide, he turned to medical marijuana for help.

Since medical marijuana is banned federally, it’s not something that’s offered through Veterans Affairs.

It’s a drug he has chosen to pay for out of pocket 

"It allows me to function," he said. "It allows me to have this conversation without having intrusive thoughts or anger and having scatter brain. It allows me to be the father that I was meant to be."

His wife says the drug has changed both of their lives.

"I look at him before and I look at him now and I, 100 percent, would prefer him the way he is now," said Danielle Belen.

PTSD is one of ten conditions that makes patients eligible for medical marijuana in Florida. The list also includes cancer, epilepsy, ALS, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, Crohn's Disease, MS and Parkinson's Disease.

But the NBC 6 Investigators talked to two doctors who prescribe marijuana to close to 2,000 patients combined. They said the number one reason people ask for a prescription is for pain.

But pain is not on the list of the ten approved conditions.

Florida lawmakers added a clause to the law stating cannabis can also be prescribed for conditions that are "comparable" to conditions like cancer and Crohn's Disease. The clause opened up medical marijuana to thousands more people.

Pain management doctor Michelle Weiner says she believes medical marijuana is often a safer alternative to other prescription drugs.

"It's a safer profile, it's a better choice because the patient isn't going to abuse it to the point that they're dying," said Dr. Weiner.

As for Belen, he says of the more than 150,000 patients on the drug now in Florida, the group he's concerned most about is veterans.

He started a nonprofit hoping to get medical marijuana access to more people like him.

"What's changed in me is that I feel I have a purpose," he said. "There are too many veterans committing suicide."


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<![CDATA[Medical Marijuana: Prescription for What?]]> Wed, 05 Sep 2018 18:47:12 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/Prescription+for+What+Option+5.png

People in Florida are signing up for medical marijuana ID cards in record numbers. More than 3,000 new patients are registered every week.

But the NBC 6 Investigators have had a difficult time finding out the conditions doctors are prescribing medical marijuana.

In order to receive an ID card, a patient must visit a registered doctor who is allowed by the state to prescribe marijuana.

At Miracle Leaf, a medical marijuana doctor's office in Wynwood, there's a reason they have two telephones at the front desk. They're ringing constantly.

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"It has been busy, a lot busier than I expected," said Dr. Tommy Louisville. "It was something that the public wanted and something the public actually needs."

Dr. Louisville has prescribed more than a 1,000 patients with marijuana over the past year. He says, he often has to turn patients away.

"It's not hard to weed out the bad seeds," he said.

NBC 6 Investigators tried to find out what conditions patients who sign up for prescriptions.

But the Florida Department of Health, the agency that runs the program, first said they won't release the information.

A spokesperson told NBC 6 numerous times in calls and emails that it's "protected" information under the law. Even though, more than 20 medical marijuana states across the country, from New York to Hawaii, release the information.

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"It quite frankly doesn't make any sense," said Jorge Silva, a medical attorney and professor at FIU. "There really is no legitimate reason for the state to withhold this information."

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The information was withheld until NBC 6 Investigators reached State Representative Rene Plasencia, R-Titusville, who wrote the bill. He told us that the Department of Health has a mandate to collect the data and provide it to state legislators.

The next day, a spokesperson with the health department called back saying they will release the conditions after all, but not until sometime later this year.  The spokesperson also said their initial denial of our request was a misunderstanding. 


This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Six Updates on the FIU Bridge Collapse Investigation]]> Wed, 29 Aug 2018 14:34:43 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/082918+fiu+bridge+collapse+video.jpg

It’s been five and a half months since the FIU bridge collapsed, killing six people.

But federal and state officials have imposed an almost-total blackout on information – information that is usually public in Florida.

Now, as lawsuits are filed and some information begins to dribble out, we are learning a few more things about what happened and what will happen next.

Here are six recent developments:

1)      NTSB STATEMENT IN DOUBT

Video released from FIU contradicts what the NTSB reported about work being done just before the collapse of the pedestrian bridge. In a March 21 news release, the agency said: “The investigative team has confirmed that workers were adjusting tension on the two tensioning rods located in the diagonal member at the north end of the span when the bridge collapsed. They had done this same work earlier at the south end, moved to the north side, and had adjusted one rod. They were working on the second rod when the span failed and collapsed.”

Watch this time lapsed video that begins at sunrise on Thursday March 15 and ends with the collapse at 1:47 p.m. and you can clearly see the workers had only been working on the north side of the span before it collapsed. It appears they never restressed the rods on the south side on that day  – and a review of previous days’ video shows no work there, either. NTSB would not comment on the differences between their statement and what the video shows.

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2)      MISSING PIECES

A circuit court judge is allowing parties to investigate circumstances surrounding the destruction of 26 steel rods that had been flagged for preservation by one of the defendants during a court-ordered inspection of the job site in July. An attorney for one of the defendants said he believed he had “tagged” for preservation both a nut and the 26 steel rods accompanying it. But the rods were removed in August by representatives of Structural Technologies – a defendant which, among other tasks, used steel rods for post tensioning. Earlier this month, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Jennifer Bailey granted a motion allowing an inquiry to go forward, but cautioned, “I don’t know whether the rods are important or not… This could’ve been a mistake.” But if it turns out a party intentionally destroyed what it should have known could be key evidence, she could instruct any future jury to draw "adverse inferences” based on that party’s conduct – in other words, to assume bad motive for destroying evidence.

Structural’s lawyer would not comment on the matter, but said in court the yellow tag was attached only to the nut and, after consulting with a Munilla employee in charge of the site, Structural was told it could remove the rods, leaving behind the nut. The rods are 1 ¾ inches thick – the same size as those being tightened in the truss that failed, so they could be significant, one lawyer argued. The NTSB also collected rods of that size from the site and tested them, finding no issues with the materials, the agency said.  The video below shows what the nut and rods looked like after the nut was tagged for preservation and before the rods were removed. It also shows a document – an evidence custody form prepared at the site – identifying the material to be preserved as “26 threaded steel rods w/bolts.”

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3)      FOUR-HOUR GAP IN VIDEO

FIU had at least three cameras trained on the construction site round the clock, capturing time lapse video of what was to be the campus’ showcase pedestrian bridge. But the camera with the most direct view of the north side of the span – the side that had cracked and failed – is missing about four hours of coverage on the morning of Monday March 12. When it comes back on, a backhoe is seen working to deepen the canal just north of the pier that is holding the deck and canopy that would collapse three days later. The backhoe is seen operating there during work hours from Monday through the time of the collapse. No record yet made public reveals who may have ordered that work to be done and what impact, if any, it had on what happened.

This video shows the camera shutting off early Monday morning and coming back later that day. FIU said it did not redact any video, so it may have been a technical malfunction that caused the gap.

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4)      VIDEO FILLS IN TIMELINE

The time lapse video from March 15 provides the best record made public so far of when events occurred on the bridge that day.

FDOT, FIU and others have refused to release records that could reveal exactly what was said about the cracks at a 9 a.m. meeting among Figg, Munilla, FIU and FDOT representatives.

The video shows a group of people around 8 a.m., paying close attention to the cracked area at the north end of the bridge. It also shows workers then getting onto the canopy.

By 9 a.m – as the meeting convened in the Munilla construction trailer in the upper right of the video -- there is almost no one on the bridge for about a half hour.

At around 9:30 the crane that would be used to lift equipment for the re-tensioning arrives.

By 10:40 workers are back up on the canopy working on the northernmost tension bars.

And at 1:47 it collapses.

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5)      NEW PLANS FOUND AMID DEBRIS

The judge has been informed that, amid all the debris at the collapse site, something very important may have been found during a June 29 pre-inspection: an oversized set of plans that appeared to reflect the structure as it was built. They were found amid a crushed truss and are “unique,” with “handwritten notes that may be of interest to the parties,” a lawyer for Munilla informed all the other lawyers on Aug. 1. There are about 150 pages -- “oversized, dirty … a mess … ripped” and damaged from being out in the elements,  the lawyer told judge Bailey. The plans were taken to the MCM trailer and later moved to the lawyer’s law firm’s office. They will be made available, perhaps in digital format, for all parties to review, once NTSB allows the plans to be produced in the litigation.

6)      INSURANCE COMPANIES SUE TO LIMIT EXPOSURE

Two of the most prominent defendants in the 16 wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits filed so far are also being sued by their insurers, The Travelers and The Phoenix Insurance Company. The insurers want a judge to rule that the general commercial liability polices taken out by Figg Bridge Engineers and Bolton Perez & Associates do not cover any damages due to the bridge collapse. Those policies’ coverages total $12 million for Figg and $5 million for Bolton Perez.

Instead, the insurers claim, the allegations would be covered by professional services liability policies, which have much lower limits: $5 million for Figg and $1 million for Bolton Perez.

The most significant defendant, the general contractor Munilla Construction Management, has $37 million in liability coverage and $5 million for professional service claims – and none of its insurers has yet sued to limit their exposure on any of those policies, according to federal court records.

As the personal injury cases move forward, the costs are beginning to come into view; $32,500 for tagging and segregating potential evidence from the site; $5,000 to put the materials into containers;  $24,000 to remove unwanted debris; perhaps $120,000 a year to store it all. All of that will pale in comparison to what some lawyers estimate could be more than $100 million in damages to the victims and their survivors, when it’s all said and done.

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<![CDATA[Can This Backpack Protect Kids From School Shooters?]]> Thu, 23 Aug 2018 22:51:03 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/BulletProofBackpacksThumb.JPG

If a new backpack for your child is on your back-to-school shopping list, there is more to consider for parents than just what the bag will hold. In response to the rise in deadly school shootings nationally, major retailers are stocking their shelves with bulletproof backpacks for the first time.

NBC4 in Los Angeles attempted to find out if parents are actually buying the backpacks and if they can actually stop a bullet.

"We definitely want to protect our children," said Janine, a concerned parent. "I don't know that a product like this would do that for them."

For parents like Janine, though, the images of school shootings like the one in Parkland, Florida last February are seared in their memory.

"They go in your school and they have guns and some people get shot," said Felix, a student.

His casual assessment of the situation betrays the urgency and anxiety of parents struggling with how to protect their kids from a potential mass shooter.

"I think it's scary," said Lesli, a parent. "I don't want my son getting shot!"

Retailers are responding to that fear. Bulletproof backpacks are being sold at stores like Walmart, Home Depot and Office Depot, where an NBC4 producer bought one.

The model purchased was a Guard Dog ProShield 2, claiming to be certified to stop a 9 mm or .44-caliber bullet. NBC4 enlisted Scott Reitz, a firearms instructor with three decades of experience with the LAPD, to test that claim.

"There's a lot of BS in this industry, guys who claim this, that and the other thing," Reitz said.

The backpack was attached to a mannequin and hung as a target. Reitz set up about 15 yards away, the distance he says most school shooting victims are shot from.

First, he fired a 9 mm handgun, and the bullet penetrated every layer of the backpack's inner fabric. Upon further examination, however, the bullet had not made it through the back panel.

The next shot was from a .45-caliber, a more powerful handgun. Again, the back panel contained the bullet.

Lastly, Reitz used an AR-15 rifle, the weapon our military uses and has been frequently used in school shootings. This time, both bullets went through the back panel.

In a statement to the NBC4 I-Team, Skyline USA which manufacturers the Guard Dog backpack said: "Our backpacks are tested and rated against Level IIIA, which excludes AR-Caliber bullets. This protection can lessen the impact of bullets from higher caliber weapons such as an AR-15 when filled with normally carried objects (books/binders)."

That raises a new dilemma for parents: Are they paying for protection or peace of mind?

Reitz believes both may be worth the cost.

"It's better than nothing," Reitz said. "It's better than a T-shirt, better than a cotton dress."

Additionally, some parents say it would be better to not have to live with the fear of their child being shot at school.

Bulletproof backpacks are pricey, as costs average between $130-$180. Consumers should do their homework, check its safety rating and certification, and there should be no expectation that a backpack like this can stop a bullet from a military-style rifle.



Photo Credit: KNBC-TV]]>
<![CDATA[Teachers Leaving Classroom Based Partly on Low Pay]]> Wed, 22 Aug 2018 09:43:02 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/MEDIAN+TEACHER+PAY+MIAMI+DADE_5846309_2018-08-21T165830.918.JPG

August has meant back to school for Deanna Burton for the past six years, but not this year.

She packed up her classroom in June after resigning her position as a teacher in Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

"Some of the students I haven’t told that I was leaving just because I’m not really sure how they’ll receive it," Barton said. “With the kids and the teachers, it’s just like a family. So, I’m going to miss them all for sure."

Barton is turning her part-time job as an art therapist into a full time business.

She says one of the reasons she’s leaving teaching is the pay.

"Sometime you feel like you’re living paycheck to paycheck," she said. "I know many teachers like me have had to work second, sometimes third jobs, just to make sure bills are paid."

Nationwide, about eight percent of teachers leave the classroom each year, according the National Center for Education Statistics.

In South Florida including Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach school districts, 1,081 teachers have left the district after teaching just one year since 2015.

Pre-K teacher Nicole Lischner says it’s tough watching talented new teachers leave because of pay. The teacher, who is in her fourth year, understands the struggle.

"I wouldn’t be able to live on my own if it weren’t for my parents," she said. "They help me out with my car payments. If I didn’t have that support then there’s no way I could be living on my own."

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade, understands.

"We don’t make enough money to live in the community that we teach in and that’s a shame," she said. "I certainly knew I wasn’t going to become rich being a teacher but I also did not expect to be poor being a teacher."

Hernandez-Mats says high turnover should concern parents.

"We know just through research that teachers become expert teachers after seven years in the classroom," she said. "So you’re getting a lot of novice teachers that don’t necessarily have the content knowledge and the skill set that those experienced, seasoned teachers have."

Florida ranks 40th in the country for annual average salaries when you factor in the cost of living, according to EdBuild, a non-profit that tracks public school funding.

Teachers in Miami-Dade earn among the highest median salaries in the state at $46,176. But the high cost of living here makes their money not go as far. When you compare Miami-Dade and Dixie County, teacher salaries in Miami-Dade are 17 percent higher. Dixie County’s median salary is $39,257. But the median price of a home in Miami-Dade is 340 percent higher.

A shortage of teachers is a problem everywhere. Florida’s Department of Education reported the state’s districts had more than 1,700 teacher vacancies for the first day of school last year.

It makes districts compete to lure teachers.

“We actually get a lot of hits in the northeast from people that are ready to leave the winter weather,” said Ana Flores who recruits teachers for Miami-Dade County Schools. “Miami definitely has a certain appeal.”

Miami-Dade plans to ask voters to approve more money for teachers on the November ballot. Broward County Schools have a similar request of taxpayers on the ballot for the August 28 primary.

Another issue making the teacher shortage worse is that fewer college students are pursuing education degrees.

The Learning Policy Institute reports the number of students pursuing education as a degree has dropped 35 percent.

That has led to school districts to recruit college graduates with degrees in other areas like science. Those new hires are given a temporary teaching certificate and they have three years to earn their full certification.

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<![CDATA[Patients Turn From Opioids to Medical Marijuana]]> Thu, 09 Aug 2018 04:14:32 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Opioids+and+Medical+Marijuana+5.png

Rosemary Maseri was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years ago.

"With MS, you fall and trip a lot," she said. "I really did not have a life."

Maseri, 58, says she was prescribed opioids at age 36 after breaking a leg and getting a bone infection.

She says her treatment quickly turned into addiction.

"I was waiting for those six hours to go by like this so I could have another opioid," she said. "You start liking it and seven days later, you're addicted."

For the mother of two, there were some dark moments.

"I told my children that I didn't want to live," she said while fighting tears.

Maseri says her life changed after she got her medical marijuana ID card last year.

"It's one of the things I've told my children, I cannot wait for the day for me to wake up and not have pain and my dream has come true."

She inhales marijuana daily using a vaporizer that's filled with cannabis oil. It's one of the therapeutic methods approved by the Florida Department of Health.

Maseri said she still takes prescription pills for some treatment, but not opioids.

"The opioids are gone, gone, gone," she said.

Doctor Michelle Weiner, a pain management specialist, says people like Maseri are part of a bigger trend.

"I think it's (medical marijuana) a great alternative for a lot of people that are suffering with pain or have a lot of neurological degenerative diseases," she said. "It really improves quality of life."

In Florida, medical marijuana cannot be recommended for chronic pain alone.

"We have to justify to the Department of Health why this condition is similar to one of the ten qualifying conditions and then support our decision in the literature with research and evidence to show why patients have benefited from this condition."

Weiner says patients who used opioids are turning to medical marijuana because it can be a safer option.

"The patient isn't going to abuse it to the point that they're dying or they're going through life-threatening withdrawal," she said.

Dr. Weiner currently sees 800 patients on cannabis.

Some research shows that doctors are handing out fewer opioid prescriptions in states where medical marijuana is legal. In Florida, it's too soon to tell but it's something researchers are keeping a close eye on.

On July 1st, a new state law went into effect putting a three-day limit on most opioid prescriptions. It also requires doctors to record what they're prescribing in a statewide database and cross-check what other medications the patients are taking.

"A lot of physicians are concerned about prescribing opioids for a chronic condition," said Weiner.

She says her practice has gotten more patients since the law took effect but says some still have a difficult time getting access to treatment because medical marijuana is illegal under federal law. Therefore, cannabis is not covered by insurance.

"A lot of my patients say, you know what, my Percocet is covered by Medicare and that's fine for me," said Weiner.

For now, Maseri says she's willing to pay out of pocket.

"It's not fair," she said.

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<![CDATA[Growing Pains for Medical Marijuana in Florida]]> Wed, 08 Aug 2018 17:47:06 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/marijuana+leaves.jpg

Steve Garrison grows more than 700 plants at his Homestead farm, but there's one plant he isn't allowed to grow. And it's one he wants to the most – marijuana.

"It has been a lot of heartaches, a lot of frustrations and expenses," said Garrison.

He's been fighting to get his license to grow medical marijuana for four years.

For him, the struggle is personal.

"I owe this to my son," he said.

Garrison's son, Matt, was a combat veteran who suffered from PTSD.

He died of heart failure before medical marijuana was legalized in Florida.

"We're on a mission," he said.

As Garrison has learned, it's not an easy process to get a license to grow medical marijuana in Florida.

Farmers: "We Can't Grow Fast Enough"

The number of patients being prescribed marijuana by doctors in Florida is growing fast, but the number of farms growing the plants is not.

Right now, more than 144,000 patients are registered to receive medical marijuana. The number of patients has doubled since January 2018.

All marijuana prescribed in Florida has to be grown, processed and sold in the state.

The Florida Department of Health has granted licenses to 14 farms throughout the state over the past two years to grow and sell cannabis, but less than half of those farms are up and running.

Some businesses say they're having a difficult time keeping up with demand.

"Keeping up in six months is going to be challenging," said Josh Reed, Vice President of Production for Surterra Wellness.

NBC 6 Investigators visited the greenhouse where all of Surterra's marijuana is grown in Hillsborough County.

Inside, the facility is filled with plants that are made into oils and sold at dispensaries across the state.

"We're increasing as fast as we can, but we also don't see the need to limit the competition," said Reed. "The more people the better."

Dispensaries Running Out of Marijuana

So many patients are signing up for marijuana prescriptions, some dispensaries are having a difficult time keeping their shelves stocked with popular products.

Pain medicine Doctor Michelle Weiner says she has 800 patients who have prescriptions for marijuana.

Some of them are having a difficult time getting their prescription filled.

"The places that they've been getting their medications from will run out of what they've been taking, so I'll have to give them suggestions for different places," said Dr. Weiner. "So then they may go to a dispensary and try something else out that may or may not work better."

New License Applications Accepted Soon

The Florida Department of Health's Office of Medical Marijuana said it will start accepting applications for new licenses, but not until at least next month.

By the time the applications are reviewed and granted, it could be another year before new marijuana facilities are sprouting up in the state.

In response to the delay in licensing, the Department of Health sent this statement: "The department continues to focus on the health and safety of Florida's families and is dedicated to ensuring patients continue to have safe access to medicine."

Homestead farmer Steve Garrison is waiting for those new applications to be accepted. He's hoping his farm will be one able to grow marijuana by this time next year.

"We're going to do whatever we have to, we're not going to give up," said Garrison.

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<![CDATA[Broward Schools Set New Rules on Medical Marijuana]]> Wed, 08 Aug 2018 09:16:24 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Arianna+taking+her+medication.png

At first glance, Arianna looks like any other six-year-old, but she's been living with a very rare brain tumor since she was a toddler.

"It's devastating," said Michele Riquelme, her mother.

Doctors gave Arianna two years to live.

"I don't know how long I have her for, so I want to grab her, and not let her go," she said.

It's been three years since the devastating diagnosis. Her tumor hasn't shrunk or grown, but Riquelme says her daughter is feeling better after turning to medical marijuana.

"From the first drop, everything changed," she said.

She gives her cannabis oil drops three times a day.

Arianna is starting first grade later this month at Margate Elementary. Her mother was concerned about how and even if her daughter would be able to get her medicine until Broward County schools passed new rules Tuesday.

The new policy would allow students who are registered patients to receive medical marijuana in school. The school principal is responsible for assigning a location to administer the medication.

"No one is allowed to administer it except for me, none of the nurses are allowed to touch it," Riquelme said.

Even though medical marijuana has been legal in Florida for more than a year, some school districts have been slow to develop a policy.

"At least Broward put something in place," Riquelme said. "I know my child is not the only one."

Under state law, each school board shall adopt a policy to ensure access to the medication. However, many schools are worried about losing federal funds because medical marijuana is illegal on the federal level. 

Miami-Dade, the largest school system in the state, doesn't have a policy in place. They treat each request on a case-by-case basis.

In an email, spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego said the district is not ignoring the law, rather continuing to review "the law and its implications to formulate an appropriate policy response." 

She said that they want more input from the state but the Department of Education told us they haven't issued any guidance.

For Michele, it's been another thing to worry about as she transitions her daughter to a normal schedule and routine.

"What matters to me is that she lives, and if this can help her live and not suffer, while she's going through all this treatment, then I'll have to do it."

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<![CDATA[Woman's Death Leads to Doctor's Restricted License]]> Mon, 20 Aug 2018 11:23:24 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/VALLS+LONDON+DUAL+PICTURE_5653239_2018-08-07T183446.108.JPG

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect that the ten women who have died following plastic surgery happened at different area clinics with different doctors. 

The Florida Department of Health is taking action against a doctor who performed a Brazilian butt lift procedure in Miami.

The department's restricting the license of Dr. Arnaldo Valls after a patient, Kizzy London, stopped breathing and died after undergoing the popular procedure.

For the time being, Dr. Valls is not allowed to perform liposuction or the Brazilian butt lift.

It's a popular procedure where fat is removed from unwanted areas on a patient's body through liposuction, and the fat is then injected back into their backside to give them a bigger butt.

In December of 2017, Kizzy London, 40, traveled from her home in Louisiana to Jolie Plastic Surgery in Miami Dade to undergo the procedure with Dr. Valls. NBC 6 Investigators were the first to report on the death of the mother of three. 

In documents filed this week, the health department claims Dr. Valls injected fat deep into the patient, hitting a vein. The documents show a piece of fat then traveled to London's lungs and caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

The health department also claimed Dr. Valls lacked "supervised training and experience" in the procedure, even though it is legal for any doctor to perform plastic surgery in Florida, regardless of if they're certified in the area or not.

London died of what's called a fat embolism.

NBC 6 Investigators uncovered ten women who died in South Florida after getting fat in a vein while undergoing the same procedure at different clinics with different doctors.

Our investigations led doctors from across the country to travel to Miami this summer.

They're trying to make the procedure safer.

They'll be issuing new recommendations and guidelines on how doctors should perform the Brazilian butt lift. A spokesperson for Jolie Plastic Surgery said they learned of the restriction order late Tuesday afternoon. They said Dr. Valls will remain employed by the center, but he won't be performing the procedures in question and he does plan on fighting the emergency restriction.

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<![CDATA[Doctor’s License Remains Unchanged After Woman's Overdose]]> Wed, 01 Aug 2018 23:03:16 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/olya+langille+overdose+death.jpg

Olya Langille had big dreams. Those dreams brought the 18-year-old, after she finished high school in New Jersey, to South Florida.

She aspired to be a model and was training to work onboard expensive yachts.

But Langille died in March from what the Broward Medical Examiner found was an accidental drug overdose.

She was found early one morning lying on the floor of a South Florida doctor's apartment not far from Los Olas Boulevard.

Dr. Naval Parikh told the officers who arrived that the two had met at a bar and what followed was a night drugs, drinking and sex.

Parikh told police they were snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana.

The police report describes bags of suspected cocaine or heroin and a possible drug pipe in the apartment.

"It was a total shock," said Leslie Maxsom, Langille's close family friend. "I have to say that never in a million years would I have thought that something like this would have happened to Olya."

Fort Lauderdale Police didn't suspect foul play but did open a death investigation that remains open. The department said it would not comment further until the investigation is complete.

The next day, March 27, police confirmed they made a report regarding the incident to the Florida Department of Health.

But no record of the death or report of the incident is evident on the public page listing Parikh's medical license with the Florida Department of Health.

He also remains able to prescribe opioids and medical marijuana.

Brad Dalton, a spokesman at DOH told us the department "can neither confirm nor deny the existence of a complaint or investigation until ten days after probable cause is found. This includes neither confirming nor denying notices from law enforcement or hospitals regarding the actions of licensed practitioners."

Jorge Silva teaches medical malpractice at the Florida International University College of Law. He believes the health department should have the ability and responsibility to post reports of this nature about doctors so patients can be aware.

"How on God's green earth would an unsuspecting patient know?" Silva asked. "The fact that the Department of Health was notified on the 27th and despite that, this physician's privileges and license was not suspended immediately, without delay, screams how broken our system is and how much revamping it demands."

Also, the NBC 6 Investigators have discovered that 72 hours after Langille was found dead and after Dr. Parikh's admission to police that he was snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana, he was at Broward Health North hospital using his security badge to access the emergency room and a floor where critically ill patients were being treated.

In response to a public records request, Broward Health provided information from Parikh's security badge showing when and where it was used. The entries show in the month after Langille died, he was at the hospital 24 days with over 200 entries logged under his ID badge.

"To allow this man to have continuously participated in the care and treatment of these patients is just unfathomable," Silva said when showed the records.

Broward Health told us Dr. Parikh is "not an employed physician of Broward Health. He is a community-based physician with privileges at area hospitals."

Once we informed Broward Health about the death investigation involving Parikh, they told us they found "alternative coverage for his patients pending further investigation."

The doctor's attorney, Fred Haddad, declined our request to interview them, but in an email said, "the doctor has not been charged with any type of wrongdoing, and is a dedicated medical professional who has not had a single allegation of any kind by an patient throughout his career."

Silva believes the hospital should take a second look at anyone Parikh treated.

"We don't know if there were any ill consequences that patients suffered as of this physician's management on the 29th and thereafter," Silva said.

The hospital told us it follows the rules when it comes to what it's required to report to the Department of Health. A spokesperson wouldn't say if it reported any details about Doctor Parikh.

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<![CDATA[Dying For a Bigger Butt: Doctors Take Action After Deaths]]> Mon, 30 Jul 2018 22:38:04 -0500 Aesthetic Surgery Journal in March of 2017.
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Aesthetic Surgery Journal in March of 2017.
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<![CDATA[Doctors Take Action After NBC 6 Investigation]]> Mon, 30 Jul 2018 22:53:21 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/225*120/072618PICTURE1+%281%29.jpg

They died for beauty: A doctor from the Bahamas, a mother from West Virginia, a wife from Lauderhill, Florida.

The NBC 6 Investigators uncovered the deaths of ten women in South Florida over the past eight years after undergoing a popular cosmetic procedure.

Medical examiner reports show all ten of the women died from the same cause.

Now, doctors from across the country are trying to change the way the procedure is performed to make it safer.

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<![CDATA[Officer Who Shot Teen Did Not Violate His Civil Rights: Jury]]> Thu, 19 Jul 2018 11:26:04 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/121317+Tony+Investigates.png

A federal jury Wednesday found a Miami-Dade police officer did not violate a 16-year-old boy's civil rights in May 2012 when he shot him six times, mistakenly believing an aluminum bat the boy was carrying was a gun.

Sgt. Luis Perez was already found not to have violated criminal law, when the state attorney's office declined to file charges against him.

But the boy, Sebastian Gregory, and his parents filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Perez and the county. An appellate court affirmed dismissal of the county, but sent the case back to the District Court so a jury could decide if Perez's actions violated Gregory's right to be free of excessive force.

After a weeklong trial and two hours' deliberation, the four-man, four-woman jury found Perez did not act improperly.

His attorneys, with the Miami-Dade County Attorney's Office, declined to comment.

Gregory, who according to testimony, suffered chronic pain, partial paralysis and loss of some bodily functions from his injuries, committed suicide in January 2016 — something the jury was not told because it was not relevant to the crucial issue: did Perez use reasonably necessary force to eliminate what he reasonably believed was a threat to his life.

The jury quickly found his actions were reasonable.

Perez testified he thought the bulge he saw in Gregory's pocket was a firearm when he saw a section of the metallic object that turned out to be an aluminum tee ball bat. He said he fired nine times when Gregory reached for the object.

"I'm looking at what in no doubt in my mind is a gun," he testified.

Gregory was walking alone west on Sunset Drive at 3:30 am when Perez spotted him and decided to investigate. He ignored repeated commands to get on the ground and show his hands, Perez testified, before eventually lying face down on the sidewalk, Perez said.

It was then that, Perez testified, Gregory made a sudden rolling maneuver toward him and reached for the object and touched it, causing him to open fire.

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<![CDATA[Trampoline Parks Injuries on the Rise]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 18:04:25 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/girl+sitting+on+couch+with+trampoline+injury.jpg

Like many teens, Alexandra Karob-Volpina loves to be active. In cell-phone and home videos, she can be seen dancing at a ballet performance and showing off her skills as a gymnast.

“I used to be able to do back flips, aerials, a lot of things,” she said.

But Alexandra, 13, now says life has changed.

About two years ago, she was bouncing off at the Off the Wall trampoline park in Coconut Creek when she got injured.

“Someone ran by and just jumped on my ankle as I was landing,” she said.

She broke her ankle and was rushed to an urgent care.


Today, her scar is still visible.


“I just remember sitting down on the floor crying. Looking at my ankle thinking ‘what just happened?,’ she said. “It hurt. It really hurt.”


Alexandra’s experience is not unique.

NBC6 Investigators reviewed 911 calls made from trampoline parks across South Florida. In the past two years, close to 300 calls were about injuries and falls. In at least 70 incidents, paramedics showed up.

Among the calls, a four-year-old boy who sprained his ankle. A six-year-old girl left bleeding after someone jumped on top of her. A boy who fell and busted his head at a park in Broward County last month according to dispatch records. 

William Ruggiero, a personal injury attorney based in Fort Lauderdale, has worked on several cases against trampoline parks. He says that he has seen people report a variety of injuries including wrist and leg fractures, even head injuries.

“It’s a very dangerous place to be,” said Ruggiero.

According to dispatch records, 911 was called more than 60 times in the last two years to the Off the Wall location where Alexandra got hurt. Hers was one of two calls for help made that day. 

Our producers visited the trampoline park last month. Despite prominently displayed safety signs and at least two employees supervising, they saw teens doing risky flips even though double bouncing and multiple flips are not allowed.


A 2016 study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that, trampoline park injuries increased ten-fold in just four years. That study concluded that parental supervision is key.

Bethany Evans, the Executive Vice President of the International Association of Trampoline Parks, said customers’ safety is a top priority for IATP, the industry’s largest trade group, and that they take every incident as a serious matter.

Evans says the organization takes every opportunity to recommend its members, some including parks in South Florida, to take steps to mitigate risks. Off the Wall is not a member of IATP.

Alexandra says the months following her injury were tough: two surgeries, therapy and no fun activities like dancing.


“It sucked,” said the teen candidly. “When you think of a thirteen-year-old, you’re in the period of time when you’re living your life the most and that’s something I couldn’t do half the time.”

“I remember feeling so bad for my parents because they would have to go through so much trouble to make me feel better. I felt bad for everyone who I knew would be putting up with my pain,” she added.

Alexandra and her family filed a lawsuit against Off the Wall. The Broward Clerk’s website shows it’s one of at least 12 lawsuits filed against the company as a result of injuries. Ruggiero is their attorney.

Their lawsuit claims that the park was negligent and failed to have proper supervision, which ultimately resulted in Alexandra’s injury. The company declined to talk with NBC6 about the ongoing case but in court filings, it denied the allegations and said it was the teen’s own actions that led to her accident.

Off the Wall also told the court it cannot be held accountable because her dad signed a waiver.

From court filings, we obtained a copy of the waiver that the company says Yan Karob signed. In it, he agrees not to take legal action if anything were to happen to his daughter, even in the case of death or negligence. The first page of the waiver has a strongly worded warning including that Off the Wall’s trampolines are “dangerous” and have “inherent risks.”

Ruggiero said the fine print of the waiver was not something that parents often pay close enough attention to.

“It’s just not something you read,” he responded. “If somebody were actually to sit down and read, you probably would not let your kid go in.”

Karob admits that he didn’t read the waiver.

“I signed it without even really looking,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking at that point.”

And that decision could cost him.

Off the Wall is now suing Karob because of what he agreed to by signing the waiver including paying for the cost of any claims filed against Off the Wall. If he loses, he may have to pay attorney fees for the trampoline park’s attorneys.

Ruggiero describes the company’s lawsuit against the family as “the biggest insult of all.”

NBC6 reviewed the waivers of 13 trampoline parks in South Florida and found that nearly all include the same wording. By signing it, parents are basically agreeing to give up their child’s right and their right to recover damages in a lawsuit that results from injuries or death.

The wording is not a coincidence.

Florida law (F.S. 744.301) allows these waivers to be used in court when they include that specific language but only for activities that are considered inherently dangerous.

The statute reversed the Kirton Florida Supreme Court decision, which held that parents and guardians cannot execute pre-injury releases on behalf of minors in commercial activities.

Ruggiero thinks more companies will start using waivers even simply buying products.

“Your receipt is going to be a waiver one day,” he quipped. He and other personal injury attorneys said that these waivers don’t give companies a license to be negligent, which is a basis for a lawsuit.

In a phone conversation, the IATP spokesperson said they encourage members to have waivers but the organization won’t get involved in any litigation related to them.

“We focus on the big picture,” Evans said.

Ruggiero says that a parent who signs for someone who is not their own child could also be putting themselves at risk legally.

We sent one of our producers to the Off the Wall location in Coconut Creek  with a teen who wasn’t her child. An employee asked her to sign a waiver. She explained that she was not the teen’s mother or legal guardian but was encouraged to sign it anyways. Our producer asked the employee if that was okay several times and got the same response.

We asked the company’s attorney about what happened but he declined to answer our questions.

Alexandra says she will never go back to a trampoline park and has a message for others.

“I want them to be careful,” she said. “Yes, you want to go and have fun but you need to think about the consequences before you do something because then it can completely change your life.”



Photo Credit: William Ruggiero, family's attorney
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<![CDATA[Man Acquitted of Shooting Woman During Robbery]]> Fri, 13 Jul 2018 17:35:38 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/michaelcolonmug.jpg

A Palmetto Bay man charged in 2015 for shooting a woman during a robbery was acquitted in May after spending more than 30 months in jail without bond.

Michael Emilio Colon, 44, was found not guilty of armed robbery, aggravated assault and escape in May by a jury that deliberated for less than two hours.

Because he was accused of shooting the robbery victim, he faced a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life in prison.

His attorney, assistant regional counsel Jean-Michel D’Escoubet, told NBC 6 Investigators:"It's extremely unfortunate that a person like Michael, who ends up being acquitted of a very serious violent crime, would spend so much time in custody awaiting trial. The wheels of justice move slowly but, thankfully, through the correct verdict, Michael found justice and the truth, in this case, did come out."

A woman leaving a Target store near 71st Avenue and SW 80th Street in October 2015 was shot as she pursued the man who grabbed her purse. Part of the encounter was captured on video and played for the jury, but the images were blurry.

She survived a gunshot to her knee, but did not testify in-person at the trial; a previous sworn statement by her was read into the record for the jury.

In arguing the state did not prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt, D'Escoubet focused on discrepancies in physical evidence and witness descriptions of the suspect. There was evidence the shooter was described as a black male with hair, but no goatee or beard; Colon was a bald, white male with a goatee, at the time.

Also, a gun found in a search of Colon's home was not connected to a shell casing apparently fired from a different gun used at the scene of the robbery.

Miami-Dade police focused on Colon after a witness jotted down the first three numbers of the assailant's car's license plate. It led them to a Chevrolet Spark that had been rented by Colon’s then-wife.

She told police her husband had the car during the time of the attack and that later that day, Colon told her, “If the cops come, don’t tell them I had the car,” according to court records.

Cell phone evidence also showed Colon's phone was in the area of the shooting with the car.

But, D'Escoubet successfully argued, the presence of the car and his client's phone at the scene did not prove who fired a weapon during the robbery.

In an interview, Colon praised D'Escoubet for "saving my life," noting a prior attorney suggested a plea deal for a 10-year prison sentence. That attorney withdrew and Colon represented himself for a while until the regional counsel was appointed to represent him.

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<![CDATA[No Charges for North Bay Village Cops After Hurricane Party]]> Fri, 13 Jul 2018 11:07:21 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Officers_Face_No_Charges_for_Hurricane_Party.jpg

No charges will be filed against police officers accused of partying during Hurricane Irma and that includes a supervisor seen using a cup to cover a surveillance camera in the room where the alleged party happened.

In May, NBC 6 Investigators first obtained and broadcast the video that was recorded inside North Bay Village hall.

The video shows a police supervisor, Lt. James McCready, inside the building with a cooler. A fellow officer filed an internal affairs complaint that the cooler contained beer. He said McCready and other officers drank alcohol while the hurricane blew through South Florida. McCready is seen on the video using a red plastic cup to block the camera's view of a room where the officer said the party took place.

North Bay Village Police Internal Affairs investigated the complaint. They found the camera was blocked for nine hours. There is no video to show what was in the cooler or what happened in the room where the camera was blocked.

As a result of the investigation, McCready and five other officers were given reprimands and docked accrued leave time. McCready was also removed from the hurricane landfall team for a year.

Village officials also asked the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office to determine if a crime was committed. Their concern was that blocking the camera could constitute "public records destruction."

An assistant state attorney "respectfully declined" to file any charges writing in an email that blocking the camera was "not a violation of public records unless it was a public meeting." The email went on to say that since some officers were sleeping at the station, "it would not be inappropriate to seek some level of privacy as they slept/changed clothes."

McCready told NBC 6 Investigators that he had no comment about the case.

In an odd twist, McCready is currently serving as the acting police chief in North Bay Village.

In a statement, the village attorney, Norman Powell wrote, " Lt. McCready will serve as our Village's Acting Police Chief from Wednesday July 11, 2018 until Monday July 16, 2018. On Monday, Lt. Brian Collins will serve as the Village's Acting Chief during the period Mr. Velken serves as our Interim Manager and the Village conducts a search for the new Manager. Mr. Velken will manage and oversee all of the Village's Departments, including the Police Department."

A former prosecutor who rode out Irma in his North Bay Village condo understands why no charges were filed.

"There isn't a statute here on the books that would actually cover this particular incident as disturbing as it is, the camera is covered up," said Herbert Walker III. "It's disturbing. You want everybody, particularly law enforcement, to be on their p's and q's and be ready to go."

Walker says Florida law should be changed.

"It would seem the technology of today has outstripped and surpassed the statutes that we have on the books," Walker said.

NBC 6 Investigators contacted the two lawmakers who represent North Bay Village. Rep. David Richardson declined repeated requests to speak about the incident and if the law should change.

Sen. Daphne Campbell also declined an on-camera interview but said she's troubled by what she saw. She says the incident could lead her to propose a bill that would protect the images on surveillance cameras. She said with the legislative session still a long way off, there's still time to come up with specific rules and try to implement them next year.

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<![CDATA[Victims Of $26 Million 'Scam' May Recover Fraction Of Losses]]> Tue, 10 Jul 2018 20:05:51 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/scott+cooper+court+departure.JPG

The 70-foot yacht has been repossessed.

The Swiss bank accounts emptied.

And the seven-bedroom waterfront Miami Beach mansion is for sale.

These are the outlines of the financial fall of a once-high flying former car salesman and mortgage broker who ran what the Federal Trade Commission called a $26 million invention-promotion scam.

Scott Cooper, founder and CEO of World Patent Marketing, has agreed to turn over about $1 million in his remaining assets – including equity from his home, now listed for $3.5 million – in exchange for the FTC suspending $25 million of the $26 million judgment that is being entered against him in US District Court.

Whatever money remains after expenses will be used to pay back the company’s victims, many of whom spent tens of thousands of dollars each seeking patents and promotion of their inventions. They are likely to recover only a small fraction of their losses.

Under the agreement with the FTC, Cooper and his company neither admit nor deny wrongdoing. But he agreed to never again enter the patent promotion business.

A federal judge found enough evidence to permanently freeze his assets, while the FTC and a court-appointed receiver tried to identify and seize whatever proceeds remained.

Calls to Cooper and his attorney seeking comment on the resolution of the case were not returned.

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<![CDATA[Couple Upset When Tip About Bank Robbery Doesn’t Net Reward]]> Tue, 10 Jul 2018 22:36:49 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/female+bank+robbery+suspect+cristina+rossi.jpg

You hear it all the time: call Crime Stoppers!

The non-profit group takes anonymous tips on crimes in an effort to get criminal off the streets. But the NBC 6 Investigators have found few people who provide a tip end up collecting reward money. Some don’t pick up reward money they’ve earned but most others don’t because their tip didn’t meet the criteria set by Crime Stoppers to qualify for a reward.

The latter was the case for a couple who says they gave the identity of a suspected bank robber but didn’t get a reward.

On May 15, the FBI sent out a news release with surveillance photos from a bank robbery alleging the same woman walked into two banks and demanded money. They provided photos of the woman who was wearing a white New York baseball cap, distinctive glasses, jeans and black sneakers.

NBC6 ran the photos on TV and at NBC6.com.

A local couple, who asked not be identified on TV, say they recognized the woman and wanted police to know who it was.

“We saw what occurred with the bank robbery and we saw it on NBC 6 on the website,” the man said. “We watched the video and when we watched the video the person that did the robbery looked very familiar.”

So, they say they called Wilton Manors Police, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. They say they also submitted a tip on the app for Crime Stoppers of Broward County and got a code to track their tip.

Six days later, the bank robbery suspect was back on NBC6.

The FBI reported Cristina Rossi had been arrested.

She’s since been charged with bank robbery.

The federal court records outline a timeline of what happened. Prosecutors allege she entered the SunTrust Bank on Powerline Road in Fort Lauderdale at 1:39 p.m. with a note written on a piece of notebook paper that read “I Need To Feed my 5 Kids DO NOT PANIC put all The money in a Bag No Die PAKS I Need all The money NO sudden moves Keep Hands where I can see Them.”

The charging form goes on to say that after a teller asked the woman to remove her hat and glasses, the woman left the bank without taking any money.

Federal prosecutors allege the same note was handed to a teller at the Wells Fargo in Wilton Manors at 2:15 p.m. The teller handed over $1,253.

Rossi has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges she faces.

After the arrest, the couple who contacted NBC6 said they were expecting a call about reward money for the accurate tip they provided.

“Okay, so are they going to call us because we gave them the information,” the husband wondered.

When no call came, the woman called Wilton Manors Police to find out about the reward.

“They basically just said no, there is no reward,” the husband said.

Wilton Manors told us the couple’s tip was accurate and they had given the information to the FBI.

“We were able to reach out immediately to the lead investigative agency and provide them the information that was given to us by that caller,” Assistant Chief Gary Blocker said.

But Wilton Manors wasn’t offering a reward as the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Only Crime Stoppers would be likely to offer a reward for the right tip. The original news release sent out by the FBI urged anyone that recognized the woman to call Crime Stoppers.

“Your tip has to be the tip that leads the police to make an arrest that holds up,” Paul Jaworski, the president of Broward Crime Stoppers said.

The federal indictment indicates that tips were used to identify Rossi as the suspect.

One came from a probation officer who supervised a woman who “served time” in federal custody with Rossi. The woman reportedly identified Rossi. Prosecutors say another probation officer who himself supervised Rossi also identified her from the photos.

The FBI also said it got a tip from someone who knew Rossi from Piper High School in Sunrise.

The charges don’t list the tip from the couple as one that was used to identify Rossi.

Jaworski says the couple did something wrong when calling in the tip that would disqualify them from getting a reward.

He says because they called the police department from an identifiable number means they are no longer anonymous and cannot collect a Crime Stoppers reward.

“If they have called the information into the police first, for example, that would disqualify them for a Crime Stoppers reward tip because their identity is now known,” Jaworski said.

Crime Stoppers in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties report giving out $280,465 in rewards since 2015.

They received 37,334 anonymous tips in that time period.

1,004 of those tips lead to rewards.

That’s 3.3 percent of tips leading to rewards.

In addition to remaining anonymous, a person who provides a tip to Crime Stoppers has to be the first one and the information has to help lead to an arrest.

“If it’s the same information from two different people we might look at it from a time factor,” Jaworski said. “Who called in first?”

Jaworski says it can take weeks, even months for a reward to be paid out.

The couple who provided a tip about the bank robbery felt let down that they didn’t get a reward.

“We wanted to keep the community safe but you know, we wanted the reward as well,” the man said. “And then to find out, thanks for doing what you did. Awesome. Pat on the back, and that’s it, you know, we were a little upset.”

They told us they don’t want what happened to discourage anyone from calling when they can help police.

Now they they could have improved their chance of collecting a reward by contacting Crime Stoppers first and letting them contact the law enforcement agency that’s investigating.

The FBI and the local agencies involved in locating Rossi told us they appreciated the public’s help and want the tips to keep coming.

They recognize that reward money isn’t the motivation for many.

In Miami-Dade, only 44 percent of the available reward money was collected. More than half was not picked up.

Crime Stoppers believes that’s because most people just want to do the right thing.

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<![CDATA[TriRail, Brightline Risk Missing Train Safety Deadline]]> Tue, 03 Jul 2018 17:53:58 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/train+trirail.jpg

The Federal Railroad Administration is warning two South Florida commuter railroads they are at risk of missing a mandated deadline to install a critical safety system onto their trains.

Both Brightline and TriRail were informed last month that they appear to be falling behind schedule to fully implement a technology called “positive train control” by the end of the year.

In 2008, Congress gave railroads until 2015 to install the technology, which overrides humans to correct their errors before trains can derail, collide with other trains or work crews, or steer onto the wrong tracks.

But railroads protested and the deadline was moved to Dec. 31, 2018.

Now some railroads are proposing substitute systems to appease the FRA, which they could later ask to extend the deadline to Dec. 31, 2020.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimates hundreds of lives lost in derailments, collisions and accidents would have been saved over decades had PTC been in use.

“It is sad to see accident after accident that could have been prevented by PTC,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “It is frustrating to go to accident after accident that could have been prevented if someone would have implemented an NTSB recommendation.”

Labor unions, whose workers are most often at risk of accidents, agree.

“I’m embarrassed, I’m hurt, I’m frustrated … when I hear again and again of an accident that could’ve been prevented by PTC,” said John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

And those who ride the rails also can’t understand why the life-saving technology is not yet in place,

“Yeah, they need to get on the ball like yesterday, like ASAP,” said Shamika Innocent, as she waited for her mother to arrive at a Hialeah train station. “My mom’s life is in their hands.”

But once again some in the railroad industry are angling for a delay in the mandated PTC implementation.

They complain there are too few vendors and suppliers who produce and install the systems and that the FRA may not have enough employees to inspect and certify all the systems by the end-of-the-year deadline.

Before they may seek an extension of the deadline to 2020, Brightline and TriRail have proposed substitute criteria to the FRA’s proposed schedule.

Brightline last month requested it be allowed to have the system fully running on only 10 miles of its 67-mile commuter rail system – about 15 percent of its track. FRA said that request is under review.

TriRail took another approach, proposing to install PTC on all 72 miles of its track, but only testing it at first on trains that are not occupied. FRA has approved that request.

But the agency says both operations will still be required to have all PTC hardware in place by the end of the year and train all employees, before it can request a delay to as late as December 2020.

The NTSB is not thrilled about the possibility of more delays.

“Any delay in implementing positive train control, from a safety perspective, is unacceptable,” Sumwalt said.

But it’s not the NTSB’s call.

Even the FRA cannot shut down a railroad that misses the deadline, a spokesman said. It can issue fines, but the agency told Congress it has not yet decided if it will exert that authority against those railroad show miss the deadline.

AMTRAK and most of the largest freight-heavy railroads are on course to have PTC installed on time, according to FRA data.

Brightline, which is operated by Florida East Coast Industries, said in a statement they “are working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration to meet critical milestones during the implementation of Positive Train Control that meet statutory requirements.”

TriRail said it still expects to meet the end of the year deadline, but the process has not been quick, easy or cheap.

“In 2015, a lot of people didn’t realize that positive train control is not something you can just get off the shelf,” said Mikel Oglesby, TriRail deputy executive director. “As everyone learned and we moved forward, it costs more than expected.”

For TriRail, the original estimate of $20 million doubled to $40 million.

As for sanctions from the FRA, Oglesby said the agency is not too concerned.

“Well, the good news is since we’re on schedule and on target, we’re not even thinking about that, but should it come to that point, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The American Public Transportation Association says the commuter rail industry has made significant progress over the past year to implement PTC. APTA says it’ll cost the industry more than $4.1 billion to implement PTC which it says diverts funds from other infrastructure and safety priorities. It says the industry has faced “significant financial constraints and technical challenges in implementing PTC.” It says one problem is a limited number of vendors qualified to meet the demand of both the passenger and freight lines.

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<![CDATA[Giant 'Darknet' Bust Yields 40 Arrests, $20M+ in Guns, Drugs]]> Thu, 28 Jun 2018 14:36:25 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/180*120/Darknet+Raids.jpg

Authorities arrested 40 people and seized more than $20 million in guns, drugs, cars, gold and cryptocurrency after a massive, year-long undercover operation targeting underground activity on the Internet.

The sprawling operation involving vendors on the "Darknet" led to the seizure of  more than 100 guns, more than $20 million in Bitcoin, more than $3.6 million in US currency and gold bars, and prescription pills and drugs, including Xanax, Oxycodone, MDMA, cocaine, LSD and marijuana. 

Homeland Security Investigations agents from New York posed as a money launderer on underground market sites and exchanged hard currency for virtual currency.

The operation led to the opening of dozens of cases against vendors around the country and to more than 90 active cases around the country.

“The focus of this operation was not only to infliltrate the dark net marketplaces but to really focus our efforts on the bad actors," said Angel Melendez of Homeland Security Investigations. 

Agents from HSI and postal inspectors conducted a series of subsequent arrests and the impending prosecution of more than 35 Darknet vendors.

“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated. But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit,” said Acting HSI Executive Associate Director Benner in a press release.

The investigation is ongoing.



Photo Credit: USDHS]]>
<![CDATA[Former North Bay Village Manager Being Investigated]]> Wed, 27 Jun 2018 19:34:54 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/216*120/rollason.PNG

The new man tapped to help lead Miami-Dade County Emergency Management has been the subject of an inquiry by Florida's Chief Inspector General.

Frank Rollason was the manager in North Bay Village before he resigned in January. He was appointed last week to the position of assistant director at the county department.

Village Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps says his time in North Bay Village didn't end well.

"A lot of issues are still being sorted out and evaluated and investigated," Connie Leon-Kreps told NBC 6. "He wasn't a fit for the Village as evidenced by his departure with no notice."

In a document the NBC 6 Investigators obtained, an attorney with the Inspector General's office requested public records from the North Bay Village Clerk. The February request is for documents about "any and all investigations into the acts or omissions of Frank Rollason as related to allegations of official misconduct" dating back to January 2015.

Rollason's time as village manager includes what was seen on surveillance video during Hurricane Irma. The video shows coolers being brought into the village hall. An officer is seen using a plastic cup to block the view of a camera. It was like this for nine hours. A fellow officer filed an internal complaint that officers were drinking during the time that the camera view was obscured. He wrote that his co-workers were too drunk to respond to calls for help. Six officers were given a written reprimand and docked leave time they had accrued. Rollason approved the discipline.

"It does look awful," Leon-Kreps said. " No city wants to know that their police are drinking alcohol during a time of emergency."

Rollason's new boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is coming to Rollason's defense.

"Some police officers did something they shouldn't have been doing and they got disciplined," Gimenez said. "Frank, as the village manager, disciplined them. And then, that's the end of the story."

Another North Bay Village incident steaming from Hurricane Irma has been reported to the federal government for investigation.

The current administration alleges that, under Rollason, the village improperly submitted claims to be reimbursed by FEMA for $250,000 in overtime.

NBC 6 reached out to speak to Rollason but he chose not to comment.

The Miami Dade Mayor's Office told NBC 6 they were not aware of any of the investigations or allegations in public documents concerning Rollason and North Bay Village. After reviewing the documents, Mayor Gimenez said he has complete confidence in Rollason.

"I know his character and so I knew these accusations were basically false," Gimenez said. "It didn't cause me concern. I have confidence in Frank. He's been a great public servant. He's served in a lot of different capacities in this town, in the city. I'm sure he'll do a great job as the emergency manager for the county."

The Governor's office doesn't discuss ongoing investigations and wouldn't say where it is with the Inspector General's probe into Rollason.

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<![CDATA[Stolen Money in Youth Sports Often Goes Unreported]]> Tue, 26 Jun 2018 22:44:04 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/miami+xtreme+youth+football.jpg

For mom Denice Pozo, football practice is a family affair.

“There was a time when we had four football games in one day,” she said. “To us, football is life.”

Her four boys have played for Miami Xtreme Youth Football Inc. - one of the largest youth football leagues in Florida.

Pozo says the sport has taught them some valuable life lessons like discipline, athleticism and camaraderie.

But in 2013, Miami Xtreme members got an unexpected lesson.

The league’s former treasurer was accused of taking nearly $50,000 from the organization’s bank account.

The charges were dropped after he completed a diversion program and paid some of the money back.

Richard Raphael, the league’s current president, admits that this was not the group’s first case of embezzlement.

“I have learned that approximately three individuals had previously stolen money from the league and those incidents had gone unreported,” he said.

“It’s very sad. You would like to think that this is sacred. Right?” Pozo says. “You don’t steal from children.”

What Miami Xtreme dealt with is a problem facing youth sports leagues across the country.

According to police and court records reviewed by NBC6 Investigators, there have been at least 16 cases of thefts in Florida youth organizations totaling more than $500,000.

NBC6 Investigators reviewed dozens of police and court records. Using information from the Center for Fraud Prevention, we identified at least sixteen cases of embezzlement and fraud across Florida totaling more than $500,000. Click on the icons in the map to see a description of the cases in the state.

“I’ve seen some of these embezzlement cases essentially bankrupt an organization,” says Erik Carrozza, the co-founder of the Center for Fraud Prevention.

His non-profit organization tracks embezzlement in youth sports nationwide. According to his group’s analysis of 255 cases nationwide, youth sports leagues have lost at least $17 million to theft over the past decade.

Carrozza says it’s hard to say how big the problem is since there’s no central governing body and the person accused of the theft is often a familiar face.

“A lot of these cases of embezzlement don’t get reported because the remaining board members may be reluctant to prosecute because these are community members. There’s children involved,” he said.

Last year, Mike Hyatt from the Greater Central Florida Youth Soccer League, faced that dilemma.

He noticed money was missing from the league’s scholarship program, which helps local kids pay college expenses. At the time, his friend, Lauren Lemay, was the league’s treasurer.

“She was giving us excuses on why scholarships checks were not going out. She tried to blame it on her mailman losing her mail, teams and clubs not paying us on time what they owe,” he said.

Hyatt decided to go to the bank and review the organization’s account.

“I came to find out that she had opened two accounts posing like my position - president of the league,” Hyatt said.

According to the arrest affidavit, Lemay took nearly $60 thousand from the league’s funds. The money was allegedly used to buy cell phones, gift cards and evens stays in out-of-town hotels.

“After reviewing the list, there are some things that are actually legitimate charges that the board of directors did together,” Lemay told us in her first interview about her arrest.

While police and Hyatt say Lemay admitted to taking the money in a controlled phone call, Lemay said she doesn’t recall it.

“I don’t remember that controlled call,” she said. “I was never informed that I was in a call.”

Police reports show they obtained surveillance video of the former treasurer at the bank withdrawing money from the accounts in question.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges in court and told us she believes she was framed. 

Hyatt said Lemay repaid $10,000. Police reports confirm the money was repaid. Lemay now says she was extorted to pay that money.

Hyatt tells us he's surprised to hear her extortion allegation.

"If you were innocent of taking money, would you pay back $10,000? For any reasons under any circumstances? If we were extorting her then she could have taken it to the police," Hyatt said.

The mother of two is now facing theft and fraud charges. Her trial is set for later this summer.

Meanwhile, Carrozza says thefts from youth sports are often similar.

“These aren’t sophisticated criminals and the techniques that they’re using to steal money from these associations are very simple,” he said. “They’re writing checks to themselves or paying personal bills with the association’s checking account. I’ve also seen abuse with debit cards and credit cards.”

Miami Xtreme has taken several steps to prevent fraud in their organization including doing background checks on all volunteers, making invoices available at meetings and giving multiple board members access to inspect bank accounts.

The league’s president tells us that he hopes these steps help to keep the focus in the right place.

“At the end of the day, it’s about these kids and providing services to these kids,” Raphael said.


This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Releases of Potential Evidence Begin to Tell Story]]> Fri, 22 Jun 2018 17:57:07 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/Judge_to_Review_Parkland_Gunman_s_Confession.jpg

As bits of potential evidence in the case of State vs. Nikolas Cruz trickle out of the Broward state attorney’s office, a narrative is beginning to emerge, one that could play out as the beginnings of a prosecutor’s opening statement.

First, there were the cellphone videos of the killer coldly detailing his plans, evidence of premeditation and a heinous, atrocious and cruel plot – the underpinnings not just of a murder conviction, but also a death sentence.

Then, two weeks ago, the state released the testimony of the first person to encounter the killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, campus security monitor Andrew Medina. He described how he radioed ahead to a colleague to warn him that “crazy boy” was heading toward his building.

Friday, while waiting for a judge to decide how much can be released of a 12-hour videotape of Cruz in custody, the state moved the narrative along to its next phase – the statement of the monitor Medina radioed and a student who saw Cruz unpacking his assault rifle in the building’s east stairwell.

Cruz told the freshman who was on a bathroom break “you better get out of here, something bad is about to happen,” Chris McKenna recalled for police the day after the shooting. “And then he just, he told me to run. So I ran.”

Just seconds earlier, the security monitor in charge of that building, David Taylor, had walked down the west stairwell after being alerted by Medina of the then-trespasser.

“I believe he made eye contact with me. I looked at him and he immediately made a right turn into that far east stairwell,” Taylor told detectives.

Thinking Cruz was heading up the east stairs, Taylor said he climbed the west stairs, expecting to cut him off on the second floor.

But the killer had other plans.

His gun now loaded, Cruz turned back down the first-floor corridor and began firing.

Hearing the shots, Taylor told police he took cover in a second-floor closet.

McKenna, meanwhile, alerted Coach Aaron Feis who, after taking McKenna to safety, responded toward the sound of gunfire, opened the west doors to the building and was almost immediately killed.

Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. The state is seeking the death penalty. It is releasing bits of potential evidence in response to public records requests, which must be honored once the materials are turned over to the defense.

Medina, Taylor and others at the school have said they knew Cruz was trouble before he was removed from the campus in February 2017.

“He’s been in trouble,” Taylor told a detective in his statement. “Not like fights or anything but like, just odd stuff like swastikas all over his backpack and on his folders.”


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<![CDATA[Parkland Tragedy: Comprehensive Timeline]]> Tue, 19 Jun 2018 16:38:13 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Parkland_Tragedy__Comprehensive_Timeline.jpg

The NBC 6 Investigators combined police radio, 911 calls, witness statements, a sheriff’s animation and Scot Peterson’s Today Show interview into a second-by-second account of the crucial minutes of February 14, 2018.

See and hear for yourself where Peterson was and what he and others were doing and saying as a killer stalked the hallways of the 1200 Building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

And consider the crucial minute, as Peterson was outside the east doors of the building while the killer reached the second floor on the west side and began walking east.

It shows Peterson had about one minute to enter the building before the shooter made it to the third floor, where six of the victims died.

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<![CDATA[Broward Sheriff Says BSO Bailiff Was Threat to Courthouse]]> Tue, 05 Jun 2018 18:27:01 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/broward+county+courthouse+sunburst.jpg

A longtime Broward County Sheriff’s Office court bailiff had his 67 firearms confiscated by deputies last month after, co-workers claimed, he threatened to unleash violence on them and the public at the county courthouse.

Franklin Joseph Pinter, 60, was relieved of duty and of the firearms, ammunition and his concealed weapons permit after a judge granted the sheriff’s request for a temporary risk protection order.

A law allowing law enforcement to seize weapons from people suspected of being a danger to themselves or others was enacted in the wake of the Parkland school massacre and it is being used more in Broward than anywhere else in the state.

Pinter, contacted at his Hollywood home last week, declined to comment on his co-workers’ concern about their safety or the court’s decision to issue the temporary protection order. He can argue at a final hearing next week that he is fit to regain possession of his weapons. His attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

But an affidavit filed in support of the order describes comments and behavior that led one co-worker to say “he’s the kinda guy that could shoot a lot of people.”

Bailiffs are civilian employees and not authorized to carry firearms in the courthouse.

But one of Pinter’s co-workers said Pinter showed him one of his handguns in a courthouse garage and had stated he previously bought an AR-15.

Twice within the last six months, according to the affidavit, Pinter was seen standing above the courthouse atrium overlooking the lobby with one arm extended as if holding a long rifle.

Last month, “Pinter pointed at individual people in the lobby while saying the words, ‘pow, pow, pow’ … and said, ‘Easy prey. I can take everybody out,” a fellow bailiff told a sheriff’s investigator, who prepared the affidavit.

Another colleague said six months ago he saw Pinter “leaning over the railing of the atrium simulating he was shooting people in the lobby on the first floor,” according to the affidavit.

“'Pinter’s behavior has been deteriorating and his anger has increased,’" it quoted the coworker as saying.

According to the affidavit, Pinter: told one co-worker, “All you rats should be exterminated;” threatened to “blow torch” others; and told a third “I’m going to exterminate you,” while pointing an imaginary long gun at him.

Pinter was suspended for three days in 2012 after an internal affairs investigation found he sexually harassed a jury clerk in the courthouse, according to sheriff’s records.

He was terminated in 2014 after another internal investigation found he viewed pornography on his personal tablet at work in full view of a female judicial assistant. An arbitrator in 2015 upheld the finding of “unbecoming conduct,” but found the termination too harsh, and Pinter was reinstated in November 2015 without receiving back pay, according to sheriff’s records.

Currently, he is “temporarily relieved of duty, pending a fit-for-duty evaluation,” the sheriff’s office said in an email. He is still receiving his salary of $48,530 a year.

When deputies showed up at his home on May 25 to seize his weapons, he voluntarily gave them up, according to court records.

Previously, a co-worker told investigators, Pinter had told him “nobody will take my guns. Not over my dead body.”

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<![CDATA[Medical Malpractice Complaint in Brazilian Butt Lift Death]]> Thu, 24 May 2018 22:54:38 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Heather-Meadows.jpg

Two years after Heather Meadows died following a Brazilian Butt Lift in Miami, the Florida Department of Health has filed a complaint against the doctor who performed the procedure. The complaint alleges Dr. James McAdoo committed medical malpractice.

In May 2016, Meadows traveled from her home in West Virginia to Encore Plastic Surgery in South Florida to undergo the popular cosmetic procedure. Her friends and family members told NBC 6 Investigators the mother of two found the clinic online and chose it due to the affordable price.

"This is something she wanted to do for herself, to make herself feel better,' said Meadows' longtime friend Suzanna Wilson. Meadows had given birth to her second child two months before the procedure.

"She was scared. This was her first surgery ever in life," said Wilson. "She asked me to pray for her and she told me that she loved me, those were her last words."

The medical examiner’s report shows Meadows died of a fat embolism. That’s when a piece of fat gets into a vein, travels to the lungs and causes a patient to stop breathing.

The NBC 6 Investigators found it’s what has killed at least eight mothers in South Florida in the past five years. The women all had different doctors and went to different clinics. 

The Florida Department of Health has filed a medical malpractice complaint against James McAdoo.

The administrative complaint in Meadows’s case claims Dr. McAdoo failed to perform a complete physical exam before surgery, didn’t slowly and carefully inject fat into Meadows’ body and hit a deep vein in her backside.

The complaint also lists the time frame between when Meadows gave birth prior to her procedure. The Department of Health says patients are supposed to wait at least three months.

Dr. McAdoo is one of two South Florida plastic surgeons the state has taken action against.

Dr. Osak Omulepu had his license revoked after two of his patients had their internal organs punctured during Brazilian Butt Lift operations and another patient died in June of 2017. He’s currently appealing the revocation with Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals. 

"I want this to stop, we want to save the next woman’s life," said Wilson.

The clinic where it happened, Encore Plastic Surgery, has since shut down. But Dr. McAdoo is still practicing. His attorney reacted to the complaint in a statement to NBC 6:

"Due to issues of patient privacy, Dr. McAdoo cannot comment publicly on the allegations contained within the Administrative Complaint filed by the Department of Health. Dr. McAdoo does not agree with the allegations contained within the Complaint, and fully intends to contest these issues through the appropriate administrative process."

If the doctor formally disputes the allegations, a hearing will be held to determine whether or not he was at fault and what, if any, disciplinary action he could receive.

The Meadows family settled a civil lawsuit against Dr. McAdoo and is currently suing the facility where it happened. An attorney for the owner told NBC 6 Investigators they have "no comment about the case."

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<![CDATA[FIU Bridge Collapse Raises Questions About Troubled Bridges]]> Tue, 22 May 2018 17:53:04 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/ne+23rd+at+rio+canal.jpg

Take a peek under the 25 bridges in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that the state has rated "structurally deficient" and you might be taken aback by what you see.

Plywood or boards shore up concrete patches, rebar is exposed and there are plenty of cracks seen under the bridges that are given that lowest rating by bridge inspectors.

But none of that suggests the bridges will collapse any time soon, according to Miami-Dade County bridge engineering manager Dennis Fernandez.

"Structurally deficient means that the bridge, one of the elements of the bridge is in poor condition it does not mean the bridge is going to collapse," he said.

Of course, experts also said the FIU pedestrian bridge that collapsed on March 15, killing six, was safe.

But that was a uniquely designed, under construction bridge that included "fracture critical" members – meaning the failure of one such member could lead to collapse because it lacked redundant design elements. There are nearly 400 bridges in Florida that contain fracture critical members, according to FIU.

The failure of the FIU bridge occurred as a work crew was re-stressing one of two post-tension rods that ran through one of those fracture critical elements, a diagonal truss that joined with the deck on the northern end of the span. The work was ordered after cracks were found in the concrete near where the failure occurred.

When it comes to existing bridges, the most recent structural failure in South Florida came in October in Palm Beach County on a bridge that was not rated by inspectors as poorly as structurally deficient.

A section of concrete and railing fell from a bridge on U.S. 1 over the Earman River in North Palm Beach, leading to a shutdown of the span while it was re-inspected and repaired. It is now rated structurally deficient. Florida's Department of Transportation said corrosion in steel rods in the bridge had gone undetected.

The rating is assigned to bridges that have decks, superstructures, substructures or culverts and retaining walls in poor or worse condition, or have the worst ratings for structural conditions or waterway adequacy. It does not mean they are unsafe or in danger of collapse.

But they are supposed to be repaired or replaced within six years.

One of the bridges identified as structurally deficient – on Northeast 23rd Avenue over the Ibis waterway in Lighthouse Point – has been on the list for at least six years and has not been repaired or replaced sufficiently. The city’s public works department failed to return several calls seeking an explanation for its failure to adequately repair or replace the bridge.

Of the 25 bridges on the FDOT list in Miami-Dade and Broward, the busiest is on Oakland Park Boulevard in Lauderhill, over the C-13 canal. More than 53,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge.

It and another bridge on Stirling Road over the C-10 canal were added to the list in November. FDOT said in a statement it “prioritized the identified repairs of these bridges due to the design similarities to” the North Palm Beach bridge that suffered the partial structural failure in October.

In Miami-Dade, the busiest is on a section of the 79th Street Causeway entering North Bay Village, with about 23,000 vehicles a day.

In Miami-Dade, FDOT contracts with the engineering firm Louis Berger to inspect 362 bridges every two years, 18 of them fracture critical.

After the FIU bridge collapse, FDOT singled out Louis Berger as not being properly prequalified to do the design review work it was hired to do for that bridge’s design-engineering team.

But the firm is properly prequalified to oversee bridge inspections, FDOT said.

A Louis Berger spokeswoman declined to comment on its bridge work, citing litigation and investigations of the FIU bridge collapse.

Fernandez said he is satisfied with the safety of the bridges, even those rated structurally deficient.

“It only tells you, it’s a flag telling you have an element in poor condition and you need to correct it,” he said. “Once you correct the problem, the bridge will not be structurally deficient anymore.”


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<![CDATA[Despite Overdose Deaths, New Drug Law Goes Unused]]> Mon, 21 May 2018 18:10:24 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/cindy+dodds+and+kyle.jpg

More people are dying in South Florida from a drug overdose than gun violence. A local mother who lost her son to drugs helped push for a new law to prosecute drug dealers, but the NBC 6 Investigators found it hasn’t been used yet.

Cindy Dodds’ son, Kyle, died of a drug overdose in September of 2016. He drove to Overtown, a neighborhood near downtown Miami, ingested a drug and died on the sidewalk.

The drug he took was mixed with fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetics that can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Kyle’s addiction started, after getting prescribed pain medication for a shoulder injury he got playing high school football.

“It started with a legal prescription from a wonderful doctor who did his job,” said Cindy Dodds.

Cindy helped push for a new law to be passed in Florida that allows prosecutors to charge drug dealers with felony murder, if they sell a synthetic drug that leads to an overdose.

The bill had the backing of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

“Clearly we had to do something,” said Fernandez Rundle. “We couldn’t prosecute anyone, any of the dealers or the suppliers of those drugs, because they weren’t covered in the state statute.”

They’re covered now. It became law in Florida in October 2017.

Since then, 79 people have died in Miami Dade County alone due to an overdose of synthetic drugs. NBC 6 Investigators found not a single drug dealer in South Florida has been charged under the new law.

Tying an overdose to a particular drug dealer can be difficult. In Kyle Dodds’ case, his cell phone disappeared, there was no bag of drug evidence found and no witnesses who came forward.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney said the law is changing the way evidence is sought after moving forward.

“Before we had some cases but didn’t have the law,” said Fernandez Rundle.

“So now when we start to gather the evidence, we look at who sold it, are their fingerprints on a baggy, what was the amount, who was with them.”

Meanwhile, Cindy Dodds is doing her part in the fight against drugs.

She’s visiting schools and telling her son’s story.

She recently went to Kyle’s former high school, Westminster Christian Academy, to give a talk in front of the high school students.

She says it was an emotional reunion.

“I have a big mouth,” said Dodds. “We’re pretty much unstoppable when we lose our kids.”

Dodds showed a video of her son and told students, “Kyle sunk in shame, don’t live in shame or fear. People love you.”

In addition to speaking to schools, Dodds also helps educate workers at the state attorney’s office about the dangers of drugs and what her son experienced.

The new legislation also strengthens the penalties for people who carry and traffic synthetic drugs.

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