<![CDATA[NBC 6 South Florida - Team 6 Investigators]]>Copyright 2017https://www.nbcmiami.com/investigations http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/NBC+6+LOGO+GOOGLE.png NBC 6 South Florida https://www.nbcmiami.comen-usWed, 22 Nov 2017 06:26:02 -0500Wed, 22 Nov 2017 06:26:02 -0500NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Missing Pieces: More Firearms Stolen in South Florida]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 23:36:53 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/generic+handgun.jpg

By some accounts, there are more firearms in the United States than people – a proliferation fueled in part by fear and the resulting desire of self-defense.

But a joint investigation by NBC-Owned Television Stations and the journalism nonprofit The Trace reveals a dangerous side effect of so many guns being stored in homes and vehicles: stolen guns winding up in the wrong hands.

The bounty from law-abiding gun owners is feeding a black market with a deadly impact from coast to coast.

In South Florida, thefts from vehicles is an increasing problem: up nearly 120 percent in Fort Lauderdale and up almost 75 percent in Miami between 2010 and 2015, according to the data compiled by The Trace.

And those guns often turn up at crime scenes.

“There are community guns that criminal organizations share firearms among themselves,” said Ari Shapira, assistant special agent in charge of the Miami division of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The customer base: felons, the mentally ill, juveniles – people who cannot legally buy or possess firearms.

Instead, they are sold and traded, borrowed and bartered among a criminal subculture where the gun is a necessary tool of their trade.

An undercover officer for a multiagency gang task force told NBC 6, “These juveniles are obtaining firearms through crimes of burglary, robbery or street sales, illegal street sales.”

And “firearms that are obtained illegally demand a higher price,” said Shapira.

In Pompano Beach, one drug trafficking organization did a booming business with firearms for years, selling 285 of them over a 14-month period.

Unfortunately for them, they sold the guns to an undercover ATF agent.

“We had an undercover, a very experienced undercover who purchased hundreds of guns,” said Shapira, noting at least 40 of the guns purchased by ATF during Operation Clean House were confirmed stolen. They include AR-15s and AK assault weapons, as well as a police sniper rifle.

Sometime gun thieves target gun shops, using a blow torch, a sledgehammer, or a vehicle to gain entry and loot the inventory.

But more often the supply of illegal guns is buoyed by a careless gun owner who leaves his weapon in an unlocked car, or unsecured in a home that becomes a target of burglars.

The NBC Investigative Units and the Trace collected more than 800,000 police reports involving more than a half million guns lost, stolen, found or seized from crime scenes identified more than 23,000 stolen firearms recovered by police between 2010 and 2016 — the vast majority connected with crimes.

That tally, based on an analysis of police records from hundreds of jurisdictions, includes more than 1,500 carjackings and kidnappings, armed robberies at stores and banks, sexual assaults and murders, and other violent acts committed in cities from coast to coast.

“It's not so much surprised me as it does alarm me. It seems to be a growing trend,” said Neil Troppman, a manager at ATF’s National Trace Center. His advice is simple: “Keep them locked up, keep them in a safe place where they can’t be stolen or misused.”

More than 237,000 guns were reported stolen in the United States in 2016, according to the National Crime Information Center – but that only includes weapons where serial numbers were known. Studies based on surveys of gun owners estimate that the actual number of firearms stolen each year surpasses 350,000.

“It’s never a good idea to store a firearm in a car,” said Shapira. “Because people steal cars.”

Or, more often, steal from them.

Criminals car surf, combing parking lots at night checking door handles and taking valuables found inside unlocked cars.

Police say they know some gun owners don’t want the weapons around children in their house, but vehicles are not the answer. They recommend safe storage in homes, trigger locks, safes – whatever it takes – but not cars.

Still even some professional law enforcers don’t get the message.

A gun was stolen from a pick-up truck in Southwest Miami-Dade in August.

The victim was a Miami-Dade police officer.

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<![CDATA[Governor Reviews North Bay Village Commissioner Controversy]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 18:36:27 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/212*120/052217+north+bay+village+commissioner+douglas+hornsby.jpg

Governor Rick Scott's office confirms it is now reviewing the case of North Bay Village Commissioner Dr. Douglas Hornsby. 

An NBC 6 Investigation revealed Hornsby twice didn’t mark on his voter registration form he had a felony drug conviction.

He was removed from the voter list in July. In a letter, the head of Miami-Dade Elections told him he's been ineligible to vote since registering in 1998. In late July, he registered again and is now an eligible voter.

The reason this is an issue for him serving as a North Bay Village Commissioner is because the Village requires Commissioners to be registered voters.

Hornsby, who refused to answer NBC 6's questions about his eligibility, told the commission he’s the victim of blackmail and extortion attempts over his past. FDLE is investigating those claims, but won't comment on the ongoing investigation.

In a statement, the governor's spokesperson wrote, "Our office is reviewing this specific situation. Governor Scott expects all elected officials to act ethically.”

The governor can decide if someone should be removed from office. Other scenarios that could lead to Hornsby being removed include the commission voting him off or if he's charged with a felony.

This controversy has divided the commission. 

Last week, the commission voted to fire attorney Robert Switkes. On his way out, he told Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps she was the target of the police investigation into the blackmail allegations.

“I have been authorized by the criminal authorities investigating the criminal behavior and extortion and blackmail of Commissioner Hornsby that you are a subject of interest and have been identified as such,” Switkes said in the meeting after his position was terminated.

Kreps said she was stunned and that his claims are without merit.

Switkes also gave Commissioner Jose Alvarez a warning too.

"Commissioner Alvarez you have a potential conflict of interest as well in that your wife has been identified as a person of interest in that criminal investigation," Switkes said.

Alvarez says he denies involvement.

Switkes along with Hornsby and Village Manager Frank Rollason are being sued by five residents.  The residents allege there was a conspiracy to conceal Hornsby’s ineligibility. 

One person suing them is resident Laura Cattibriga.

"There has been a cloud of scandal hanging over North Bay Village for too long,” she stated.

She and the others are being represented by attorney, J.C. Planas.

"It’s a violation of the Miami Dade County Citizens Bill of Rights to have their elected officials and their appointed officials, especially their appointed officials, especially the staff members of the government, lie to the public in that manner,” Planas said.

Switkes denies any wrongdoing and Rollason says he can’t comment.

“Until we can lift that cloud and get integrity, clarity, and truth, this Village will never be able to move forward," Cattibriga said.

The interim Village Attorney, Norman Powell, is just days into his job. He says he's looking into the circumstances and told us it’s his intention to have complete transparency and work with the Commissioners and staff to restore confidence in North Bay Village Hall.

Government law experts say Governor Scott has the power to suspend local leaders but that has generally happened when there has been an arrest.

Meantime, another North Bay Village Commissioner has had an ethics ruling against him. The Miami-Dade Ethics Commission says Vice Mayor Eddie Lim "violated...provisions of the Conflict of Interest" rules by representing his condo association when the building had been fined $40,000.

Ethics rules prohibit elected officials from doing that.

Lim told NBC 6 in a text message that it "didn’t occur to me at the time."

<![CDATA[Pregnant & Addicted: 3 Mothers’ Stories About Getting Clean]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 19:26:06 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/112017+Addicted+Moms+1.jpg

Camie McGonigle’s boyfriend called 911 after she overdosed on heroin inside her Broward County home this year.

When paramedics revived her, she says one thought came to mind.

“The first thing I said was ‘where’s my son, where’s my son,” McGongile said. “The next day, he was taken from me.”

The Florida Department of Children and Families removed her five-month-old son from the home.

“I knew exactly the order I would lose everything in, how I would lose it, and I did it anyway,” she said. “And that’s the insanity of this disease.”

It wasn’t the first time the mother, who is now in her late twenties, overdosed.

She said she almost died after injecting heroin with a needle when she was six months pregnant last year.

“I always go back to what I know, and what I know is numb the pain,” she said. “I was worried about my baby, that scared me.”

Her son is one part of a growing epidemic in Florida. The number of opioid-related deaths is on the rise in Florida and more children are getting removed from the homes of parents who abuse drugs than ever before.

More than 7,700 kids were taken into state custody last year alone.

“It’s either you get help or you die,” McGonigle said.

She chose to get help at the Susan B. Anthony Recovery Center in Pembroke Pines.

It’s one of the only centers of its kind in South Florida where pregnant mothers can safely detox and get therapy while living at the facility with their children, when possible.

That’s where McGonigle has found a new support system of other mothers are are suffering from similar addictions.

Mother of three Erika Oldenbrook has been heroin-free, after relapsing five months ago.

“It’s devastating, I love my children more than anything in this world and somehow I was given this disease of addiction and I chose drugs over my children” said Oldenbrook. “There’s nothing that hurts worse than that.”

The addiction doesn’t always involved heroin.

Kimberly Durant of Pompano Beach says her drug of choice was flakka.

“Through my pregnancy I couldn’t stop, my disease was talking to me a lot,” said Durant.

All three mothers said they quit abusing drugs before giving birth and all three gave birth to un-addicted babies.

However, all three relapsed months after giving birth.

“I’m not a bad person, I just needed help, something that wasn’t available to me at the time,” said McGonigle.

All three of the mothers have been clean for five months after undergoing in-house treatment at the center.

McGonigle is now allowed to have her son, now one-year-old, with her at the center on weekends.

The other mothers say they are close to reuniting with their children as well.

The Governor has proposed a big increase to the state’s budget next year to help fight addiction.

But centers like Susan B. Anthony aren’t expecting to see an increase to the part of their budget that relies on state funding.

Even though they have an increase in their waiting list, and have numerous state contracts to treat mothers.

“We’re only so big, we only have so many beds available so we do everything we can to manage that waiting list to get people in as quickly as they can,” said marketing director Whitney Hughson.

A lot of the state funds go toward what’s called Medication Assisted Treatment.

That’s where prescription drugs like Suboxone are used to treat drug addicts.

At Susan B. Anthony, they use behavioral therapy to treat mothers and their children, not prescription drugs.

Mothers at the center can stay with their families at the treatment for facility for six to ten months.

“I really need help and my therapist tells me you have to open up to let all the pain and anger, you have to express and get it out so you can move on,” said Durant.

The three mothers said after months of intense therapy and being drug free, they have something they didn’t have before – hope.

“I’m being empowered by other women, not just other women, but mothers,” said McGonigle. “And we’re doing it together and we’re standing on our own two feet and learning what it is to love ourselves and our families.”

<![CDATA[Commissioner Controversy Heats Up]]> Thu, 16 Nov 2017 19:08:49 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/hornsby+and+switkes.jpg

Dr. Douglas Hornsby is currently a member of the North Bay Village Commission, but the NBC6 Investigators have learned multiple agencies are evaluating if he is eligible to serve.

In July, Miami Dade Elections wrote Hornsby a letter informing him that “your voter registration is ineligible… your name has been removed from the voting system…” The letter from the head of the Elections Department, Christina White, informed Hornsby that he was ineligible to vote from the time he first registered in Florida in 1998.

In May, we first reported on the growing controversy involving Hornsby. He revealed at a commission meeting that he had a felony drug conviction. And he alleged he was being blackmailed.

“This is somebody on the outside trying to get me,” he told the audience in the recorded meeting.

FDLE told us it’s investigating that claim.

The NBC 6 Investigators found the documents Hornsby signed when he twice registered to vote in Florida. On both occasions, he marked he wasn’t a convicted felon.

Records show Hornsby’s voting rights were restored in Tennessee in 2005.

Hornsby filled out a new application in Florida after getting the letter from Miami-Dade County. He was issued a new voter card in mid-July.

When questioned by NBC 6 Investigator Willard Shepard, Hornsby wouldn’t respond instead he continued on his way into a commission meeting to take his seat on the dais—a place where for the last 11 months he has been voting on important matters like the budget and future development projects.

Some residents are calling for the circus to stop in their traditionally quiet village by Biscayne Bay.

“In this moment, it’s not my commissioner,” resident Raul Turo said.

He’s one of five people suing in an effort to get Hornsby removed. Toro also filed a complaint with the Miami-Dade Ethics Commission.

“That chair belongs to people,” Toro said. “Don’t lie and he lied to us.”

The controversy over Hornsby has divided a community normally known for its stunning water views and not turmoil at the North Bay Village Hall.

It also appears to have cost the Village Attorney his job. Robert Switkes advised the commission in the spring to reaffirm Hornsby’s role on the commission because of the brewing controversy about his eligibility to vote. Switkes was fired by the commission Tuesday. Hornsby was the only commissioner who voted to keep him. In a parting shot, Switkes told the commission he was being retaliated against for informing police about the blackmail allegations. North Bay Village Mayor Connie Lee Kreps denies that was the reason he was fired from serving the village.

Former state prosecutor Herbert Erving Walker, III looked at all the documents collected by the NBC 6 Investigators. He believes White’s decision that Hornsby was not a registered voter at the time he took office in January means he shouldn’t be able to serve.

“It would seem to me that letter from Elections Director White to Mr. Hornsby is the smoking gun and results in Mr. Hornsby making a false and perjured statement to the Miami-Dade Board of Elections,” Walker said.

“Everything he did as a commissioner while sitting on the commission, every election, and every vote that he took would be null and void,” Walker says.

That’s exactly what Mayor Kreps is worried about.

“If it’s determined that he’s not valid or illegally sitting on the Commission, then we’re going to have some work to be done and review all those votes that were taken,” the Mayor said.

Hornsby’s attorney, Bruce Fleisher, said he can’t discuss the situation because of the pending litigation.

Two of the Commissioners, Eddie Lim and Andrea Jackson, in May voted along with Hornsby to keep him on the Commission after he told them about the drug conviction.

Jackson told us “no comment.” Lim never responded to our request for his input.

<![CDATA[Cars Catching Fire When Off Prompt Recall]]> Wed, 15 Nov 2017 22:46:42 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/bmw+caught+fire+when+off.jpg

It’s something luxury car owners didn’t think they’d have to worry about when buying their vehicle – it catching on fire while parked.

Some BMW owners are not parking their cars in the garage after the German automaker announced two recalls due to a risk of fires under the hood. The recalls affect more than one million cars and SUVs.

For Beverly Jonas of West Park Florida, the recall is two years too late.

“It was gut-wrenching, it really was,” said Jonas.

Her BMW caught fire back in October of 2015.

“I haven’t gotten over it,” said Jonas.

Jonas said a few hours after parking her 2009 BMW 5 series in the driveway and going to bed, it caught fire under the hood and melted her car.

“If my car was parked in my garage, this would be a different story, it was bad,” said Jonas.

The mother of two said her car had regular scheduled maintenance and gave no indication or warning lights that something was wrong.

To this day, she said BMW has not given her an answer as to what happened.

Jonas said the company did offer her a rental car for two months after the fire, before she bought a new car from a different automaker.

“This can cause death, what if you park your car in your garage and you’re sleeping and this happens,” she said.

The two voluntary recalls affect different models from 2006 to 20011.

A spokesperson told the NBC 6 Investigators in “extremely rare” cases the wiring near the motor may corrode, causing melting at the connection point and other “irregularities” could lead to a fire.

The NBC 6 Investigators dug through a decade’s worth of complaints made to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and found more than 40 cases nationwide of drivers claiming their vehicles caught fire while parked.

There were at least two complaints made from drivers in the Miami area. Another complaint is from a driver in California who said their car caught fire in the garage causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages. Plus, a driver in New York said only the seats and trunk of the car were left on the ground after their fire.

According to a letter BMW sent to the NHTSA, they’re offering free repairs that are expected to begin on December 18th of this year.

Here are the vehicles impacted in both recalls:

2007 -2011 models



328i xDrive







X3 3.0si

X3 xDrive30i

X5 xDrive30i

Z4 3.0i

Z4 3.0si

Z4 sDrive30i















328i xDrive

335i xDrive




In an email to the NBC 6 Investigators, BMW spokesperson Hector Arellano-Belloc said:

BMW of North America has notified the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration of its intention to simultaneously conduct two unrelated recalls affecting a total of approximately 1 million vehicles.  The first voluntary recall includes certain BMW 3 Series models ranging from 2006 to 2011, due to a potential issue with the wiring of the climate control blower fan. Over time, and due to a number of contributing factors, the wiring connection at the blower-motor regulator may corrode. In extremely rare cases the melting at the connection point could lead to a thermal event. The second voluntary recall involves the PCV Blow by Heater Valve of certain BMW models ranging from 2007 to 2011 equipped with the 6-cylinder engine (N52 and N51). The PCV Blow by Heater incorporates a heating element that is designed to prevent the PCV from freezing in cold ambient temperatures. Irregularities in the manufacturing process could lead to corrosion and in extremely rare cases may lead to a thermal event. Customers with questions may contact BMW Customer Relations at 1-800-525-7417, or email CustomerRelations@bmwusa.com.

<![CDATA[Phone Sex Operator Helps Police in Child Porn Cases]]> Fri, 17 Nov 2017 10:51:03 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/216*120/111517+willard+phone+sex+package.JPG

“Lola” who doesn’t want to be identified because of her work as a confidential police informant says it’s her number one request.

“It’s like having a cup of coffee to most men. It’s that common to call up and say, I want you to play my daughter and I am going to have sex with you.”

“Lola” says she gets more requests for those calls compared to just a few years ago. She says she hears from all types of people.

“The men that actually call are usually professionals, very intelligent men, very articulate,” she said. “They know what they want. They can’t ask their wives or girlfriends to roleplay a young fantasy for fear that they might think they want to do it in real life.”

And police tell us these calls are not illegal unless an adult believes they are actually talking to a minor or child pornography is involved.

“It is a fine line,” said Lola who knows from experience.

She was arrested in 2015 on child pornography charges after sending one of her callers some pictures he requested.

She said she did not know the pictures were of children.

“I was very stupid and went and copied them and emailed them to him,” she said.

Lola started working as a police informant after her arrest and says she flags police when she gets a suspicious call.

“If I felt that there was a real child involved or that they were a real danger, I would contact the police,” she said.

Police officers like Detective Jeannette Azcuy with the Miami-Dade Special Victims Bureau say they need all the help they can get because of how rampant child pornography cases have become.

“It’s an epidemic,” Azcuy said. “Five years ago we were getting maybe 30 cases a month. Now, sometimes, we get 30 cases in one day.”

The technology Azcuy works with can track, in real time, computers downloading suspicious videos. Detectives are then able to download those very same files.

“We see videos of infants, toddlers, 5-year-olds, 3-year-olds,” said Azcuy.

Last month, South Florida’s Internet Crimes Against Children unit arrested 23-year-old Sergio Castiblanco.

Azcuy says they recovered files on his computer of children under the age of 7 engaging in sex acts. He entered a not guilty plea in court on the charges he faces.

He’s one of about a dozen arrests the unit makes per year.

Azcuy says getting child pornography cases to a point where they can make an arrest takes time.

“I wish he had an army of detectives to do this,” said Azcuy.

Lola may not have chosen to be a part of that army, but she hopes she can help.

“I don’t want to see any child victimized,” said Lola.

Court documents show Lola received 15 years on probation for her charges.

<![CDATA[Barriers Preventing Cars Into Stores Not Always Required]]> Tue, 14 Nov 2017 12:13:15 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Storefront+crashes+resized.jpg

Florida has more cars crashing into buildings than nearly any other state. But efforts to prevent the vehicles from hitting buildings vary depending on where you live.

Celeste Gaitan was seven months pregnant when she was sitting on a bench just outside her Miami-Dade County store and was hit and killed by a pickup truck.

“My sister had the chance to stand up a little bit, but that was the end,” said Sol Pappas, Gaitan’s sister.

Gaitan was sitting with her friend, Laymet Albelo, when the two were hit. Both died.

A 72-year-old driver accidentally hit drive instead of reverse, accelerating into Celeste’s Boutique at a shopping plaza on Bird Road and 134th Avenue.

The Storefront Safety Council, an advocacy group for barriers, found in 2014 Florida led all states with 17 percent of the nation’s storefront crashes in 2014. In other years, Florida has been at or near the top of the list with other large states like California and New York. The group’s research is mainly collected from news articles and other accounts of the crashes.

Their analysis found that these accidents mainly happen when drivers hit the gas pedal instead of the brakes.

In response to the problem, state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez (D-Miami) last week filed a bill that would create a fund to pay for barriers, called bollards, that prevent vehicles from running into people and buildings.

The $250,000 Bollards Grant Program would award the money to cities and counties based, in part, on the number of crashes in an area and the population of senior citizens, who Rodriguez said are more prone to be both victims and causes of the crashes.

As both a personal injury attorney and politician, "I know how dangerous some of these parking lots cans be," said Rodriguez. "I think that these kind of accidents can be easily prevented. Again we know seniors and others are particularly vulnerable." 

The driver in Celeste’s crash was fined $5,000 dollars and had his driver’s license revoked.

“It’s very painful,” said Celeste’s other sister, Lila Gaitan.

Since the 2011 crash, Lila says she still has trouble driving past the shopping plaza where the accident happened.

“When I pass here and she’s not here, it’s like something is missing in my heart,” she said.

Even after the deadly crash, there are no barriers or bollards in front of the parking spaces to prevent crashes from hitting the building at the plaza. The plaza is not required to have any.

“What stands between you and that car right there?” asked NBC 6 Investigator Tony Pipitone.

“Nothing,” replied Lila.

The crash that took her sister’s life however prompted an ordinance, passed unanimously by Miami-Dade County in 2012, which requires barriers wherever you can park directly in front of a store.

But there’s a catch.

The rule applies only in unincorporated Miami-Dade County, and only in front of buildings that went up after 2012.

This is why you may find them at newer stores and not older ones. Plus, each city can set its own rules.

Under Rodriguez's bill, government would be allowed to spend the money for bollards on private property.

But he admits the initial amount of funds would not go very far. "The appropriation in the bill is for a quarter of a million dollars, which is a drop in the bucket, but we have to start somewhere," he said.

In Broward County, there are no requirements for storefront barriers.

“I think it’s something worth looking into,” said Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief.

However, among developers, costly government requirements for barriers are unpopular.

“I think it will probably be very difficult to legislate on that level,” said Sharief.

For Celeste Gaitan’s family, they are now advocates for more safety at stores and wonder if something could have been done to save Celeste and her unborn child.

“Some days are good, some days are bad, but it’s not the same. Life changed.” said Lila.

Her sister, Sol Pappas, agrees. “I lost not just my little sister,” she said. “I lost the glue of my family - the person who kept us all together.”

<![CDATA[Some FPL Customers Say Post-Irma Bills Higher Than Expected]]> Fri, 10 Nov 2017 17:12:59 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/electric+smart+meter.JPG

Some Florida Power and Light customers say they’re feeling powerless after receiving their electric bills after Hurricane Irma.

While they expected to pay less after being without electricity for days, their charges were about the same, if not more, than the same time last year.

A total of 4.4 million FPL customers lost power during the storm for an average of two days.

Fred Perdomo, of Homestead, lost power for more than ten days. When his electricity bill arrived weeks later, he had to take a closer look.

“I was shocked,” said Fred Perdomo. “To me it’s just the math, it doesn’t add up,” he said.

Perdomo’s bill after the storm was close to the same amount it was at the same time last year, despite being in the dark for more than a week.

“It just doesn’t make sense,” Perdomo said.

He filed a complaint with the Florida Public Service Commission, a state agency that regulated FPL.

The NBC 6 investigators found dozens of others made formal complaints.

The complaints came from many people throughout the South Florida area who called the charges “nonsense” and some claimed to have higher bills after the storm.

“There’s something wrong because if you were without power for that long, it would be less,” said Grete Butcher, a customer who thought her bill would also be lower.

Florida Power and Light would not discuss the issue on camera with NBC 6.

A spokesperson said the company will never charge customers for power they don’t use and that there could be three reasons bills are higher than expected.

First, September brought high temperatures, which means your air conditioner was running more than other others.

Second, after the storm, customers often use more power because it takes more energy to cool your home.

And third, many of the bills sent after the storm were estimates. That’s because the company can’t read your smart meter if you don’t have electricity. Any adjustments should show up on the second, most recent bill.

However, Perdomo said that second bill was only ten dollars lower.

“That’s when I got really pissed off,” said Perdomo.

In his case, the company came to his home and replaced his meter. FPL is testing the old one. It’s a meter he’s now watching closely.

“Thank God we have a place where we can complain and have people like you who listens to us, and takes the time to hear our concern,” said Perdomo.

To file a complaint with the Florida Public Service Commission, click here.

<![CDATA[Expired Defibrillators Found in Schools]]> Thu, 09 Nov 2017 00:06:15 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/RODJEANY+PIERRE+LOUIS+PHOTO.jpg

Sophia Pierre Louis smiles when she looks at pictures of her son, Rodjeany.

“He’s always happy when you talk to him, he’s happy,” she said.

But raising her son was a challenge because of his cerebral palsy.

“For 12 years, it’s not easy,” she said. “But I always take care of him. He can’t talk, walk. He can’t do nothing. He can’t tell you what he needs.”

His family wanted Rodjeany to be like other children and sent him to Thomas Jefferson Middle School in northwest Miami-Dade.

Rodjeany spent the last day of his life at the school on February 2, 2017.

“The teacher called me to say to come to the school because they have an emergency,” Sophia said.

School officials initially reported they found Rodjeany unresponsive and a school nurse, “equipped with two defibrillators responded to the student and began administering CPR.”

A police report says Rodjeany “…needed further medical attention.”

He was rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital where he was declared dead.

“I want answers for my son,” Sophia said about her son’s death.

For the next 9 months, the NBC 6 Investigators searched for answers. We requested maintenance records for defibrillators not only at Rodjeany’s school but all Miami Dade Schools.

We found that in December 2016, the school district sent a memo to principals with a list of 143 schools that needed to replace their AED electrode pads.

Thomas Jefferson Middle School was on that list. Its pads had expired months earlier.

Other schools with expired pads include Hialeah Middle School. Its defibrillator’s pads expired in 2012. South Dade Middle School and Sweetwater Elementary had some that expired in 2010 and the pads at Miami Jackson Senior High expired in 2007.

Of the nearly 1493 electrode pads in Miami-Dade public schools, 629 expired between 2007 and 2016.

Sophia was surprised to hear the defibrillator pads at her son’s school were expired.

It’s not known what, if any, role it in his death. Rodjeany’s autopsy report cites possible arrhythmia as a likely cause of death.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue called the incident a cardiac arrest/death and school police has spent the last 9 months investigating “if a crime did indeed occur.”

“I don’t know why it’s so long for an investigation,” Sophia wondered. “I don’t know.”

She says detectives have never interviewed her and she only learned about the investigation after hearing it from the NBC 6 Investigators.

As for the hundreds of expired pads in schools, the district provided a written statement.

“The safety, security, and well-being of our students are paramount priorities for this school district. As such, Miami-Dade County Public Schools has taken every requisite measure to ensure that our Automated External Defibrillators are in proper working order, appropriately maintained, and tested. We continue to review the efficacy of these devices and will recalibrate training and maintenance accordingly.

We have no information or evidence that indicates that any of our defibrillators are not in good working order. Nonetheless, in order to further verify and ensure that AEDs maintained by the District are operating at full capacity or do not have any factors that would render them inoperable, we have contracted with an outside entity to do a complete evaluation of all our AEDs; this review will be completed within the next few weeks.”

Attorney Spencer Aronfeld has written numerous articles on defibrillators. He says while the life-saving equipment isn’t required by law, anyone who chooses to have one is responsible for its maintenance.

“There’s no obligation to have it but if you’re going to have it, it’s got to work and you’ve got to have people on staff who know how to use it,” he said. “The amazing thing is these are devices that can easily save lives because you don’t need a medical degree to use them.”

A spokesperson for OneBeat CPR, a company that services AEDs around the country, said proper maintenance means new batteries every four years and new pads every two years.

The manufacturer of the defibrillators at Miami-Dade County Schools, Cardiac Science, donated them in 2007. Since then, the district has been responsible for maintenance. As mentioned in the state, the school district has now entered into a contract with the company to maintain the defibrillators now.

Sophia now awaits the result of the school police investigation to learn if the defibrillators used on her son worked properly or if anything else contributed to his death.

“We miss him. Always. Always,” she said.

Like many other mothers, she trusted her child was in good hands when she sent him off to school that February morning.

<![CDATA[Ex-Corrections Officer Works to Disconnect Inmates' Phones]]> Mon, 06 Nov 2017 11:06:52 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/110517+prison+cell+phone.jpg

Robert Johnson has been telling his story for seven years to anyone who will listen. It’s a story that motivates his mission to keep cell phones out of the hands of prison inmates.

“They started this and it’s my goal to finish it,” Johnson said. "Inmates having access to cell phones, being able to use them is a danger to the community."

In 2010, Johnson, a Delray Beach native, worked at Lee Correctional Institution in South Carolina. He’d been in corrections for 15 years and his primary job was to confiscate contraband.

He apparently was so good at his job that it led to him being shot in his home.

"About two weeks before this happened to me, we had intercepted a package, a very large package," he said. A package of contraband a prison gang believed was valued at $50,000.

On the morning of March 5, 2010, Johnson says he got up around 5:30 a.m. to go to work.

"I hear a boom as my front door is kicked in," he said. “I immediately knew then this was probably a hit."

He says he called the intruder to the hallway so that he wouldn’t go into the bedroom where his wife was sleeping. He said after a short struggle, the larger man pushed him backwards.

"I saw that he raised a barrel of a gun towards me." Johnson said. "And I don’t remember anything after that until I was waking up on the bathroom floor."

Johnson was shot six times in the stomach and chest. He says the gunman shot him from less than six feet away.

Johnson says doctors and the hospital chaplain warned his wife to prepare for the worst.

"They kept calling my wife and telling her 'He’s going to die,'" he said. "She said, 'No, God isn’t through with him.'"

Johnson says his doctor calls his survival a miracle.

"He said I died twice on the operating table but he said I was too stubborn to stay dead," Johnson said.

An ex-convict recently released from prison, Sean Echols, was arrested and later convicted of the attempt on Johnson’s life.

"They contacted him (Echols) using a contraband cell phone and $6,000 on a reloadable Greendot card. They contracted with him to kill me,” Johnson said.

In the past seven years, he’s had 23 surgeries and says he’s in pain daily. But it hasn’t slowed him from his mission to try to prevent crimes caused by inmates with cell phones.

One that shocked him was the death of a nine-month old baby, Kendarius Edwards. The baby was shot and killed in his mother’s arms in Georgia. The order for the murder was made from an inmate in prison.

“Three locked-up inmates were able to call a hit on a little baby because the uncle did something they didn’t like,” Johnson said. "That’s ridiculous."

In March, Johnson testified before the Federal Communications Commission during a hearing about how to address the issue of controlling contraband cell phones in prisons. It’s considered a top safety hazard by many who work in corrections.

The FCC is involved in the issue since it regulates the airwaves used by cell phone providers. There’s a federal law that restricts the ability to “jam” signals or completely block them. So, states like Florida are turning to technology that can be more selective.

Johnson now works as a paid consultant for Securus Technologies. The company has a contract in Florida to provide paid calls for inmates in prison. Now it’s using what it calls a Wireless Containment System or managed access cell phone detection system to stop inmates’ cell phone calls.

“We are literally putting up a cell phone network,” a Securus spokesperson who asked to not be identified said. “Once the phone attaches to the network and a number is dialed, we get to choose what to do with that number.”

The antenna provides a powerful signal to the phones to attract calls coming and going from the prison to it.

“They think they are connected to their home network because we are broadcasting on the spectrum of the particular carriers, but something very different happens,” he described.

He explained that only known numbers are allowed to connect.

Calls from unauthorized numbers are dropped and unable to connect.

911 calls are able to be completed.

Securus says over prisons using their system across the country have blocked 1.7 million inmate calls.

<![CDATA[Police Officer Found With Stolen Golf Cart Suspended]]> Thu, 02 Nov 2017 22:02:35 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/stolen+golf+cart_1759465_2017-11-02T182207.580.JPG

What started as a break-in at his Southwest Miami-Dade County nursery became a year-long saga for Julian Martinez.

On May 16, 2016, someone broke into JMart Nursery and stole thousands of dollars worth of equipment.

"This golf cart, lawn mowers, power tools," Martinez listed the missing items.

He filed a police report with Miami-Dade's Agricultural Patrol, a unit created to combat this type of crime in his area of the county. But before a detective could be assigned to the case, Martinez found the cart on June 4 just blocks from his home.

"I saw my golf cart and two kids were driving it," Martinez said.

He followed the cart to the home of a mechanic who told detectives in a recording that Ag Patrol Officer Elton Mathis had brought it to him.

Internal Affairs Detective: Why was he dropping the golf cart off?
Mechanic: To get it painted.
Internal Affairs Detective: And when Officer Mathis delivered the golf cart to you, did he tell you that he was the owner of the golf cart?
Mechanic: Yes.

The day Martinez found the golf cart, the mechanic called Mathis and put Martinez on the phone.

"He asks me who I am and I said, 'Well, I’m the owner of the golf cart and you have a lot of explaining to do,' and he goes well, 'If that’s your property then go ahead and take it and leave," Martinez recalled. 

Martinez says he refused to take his cart back until Internal Affairs arrived. When they did they began investigating how the stolen golf cart wound up with Officer Mathis.

Under oath, Mathis told investigators he found it "attached to a stop sign around the corner from my house abandoned." He told them threre was a "sign that taid "Take Me" on it. He said he was off-duty at the time.

"In those rural areas that’s not an uncommon thing," said John Rivera, President of the Miami-Dade Police Benevolent Association, on behalf of Mathis who declined to be interviewed.

Rivera says Mathis' version checks out even if Martinez has questions about it. 

When asked why somebody would go through the trouble of stealing a golf cart and then dumping it on a road, Rivera said it could have been kids out for a ride.

"Kids joyride golf carts all the time," Rivera said.

Last December, the internal affairs investigation wrapped up and recommended Officer Mathis be dismissed from his job as a Miami-Dade police officer.

According to documents with findings of the investigation, Mathis admitted that he took possession of the golf cart and took it home for his personal use. It went on to say that "Although off-duty, Officer Mathis should have called the police to investigate or conduct an official record check of the serial number or area canvas in search of ownership."

"There are no policies that mandate a police officer that when they find something in the trash just like you and I and it says free, that you can’t take it," Rivera said in Mathis' defense.

And he said he understood why Mathis didn't use a work computer to search for the vehicle's owner.

"If you use the computer to run information for your personal gain, you could be terminated," Rivera explained. "So, it’s sort of a Catch 22."

With the help of the union, Mathis appealed the Internal Affairs recommendation that he be dismissed. He was able to keep his job. Instead he was suspended for 30 days without pay.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office said there was not sufficient evidence to charge the officer with a crime. 

Mathis has completed his suspension and remains on the department.

Martinez said he never heard from detectives about the outcome of the investigation and the discipline for Mathis.

NBC 6 Investigator Myriam Masihy showed him the results.

"He didn’t do what he was supposed to do," Martinez said. "He was supposed to report it and not take it home."

When asked if he was satisfied with the outcome, Martinez shook his head.

"No, not at all," he said. "I completely lost all the trust in the police department."

<![CDATA[Heroin Epidemic: Growing Costs of Saving Lives]]> Wed, 01 Nov 2017 22:27:32 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/overdose+tattoo_1739926_2017-11-01T144809.645.JPG

The City of Miami spent five times more on a legal drug called Narcan to revive overdose patients from one year to the next.

The drug is being used more often and on more patients in cities across South Florida.

It’s being used to revive patient like Sean Thompson of Miami, who says his nickname is “Overdose.” He even has the words “over” and “dose” etched into his right and left forearms.

“It’s the most amazing thing to come out,” said Thompson.

Thompson says Narcan has saved his life three times.

“All of a sudden you feel like you’re on cloud nine, the next thing you know someone is slapping you and hopefully they have a Narcan shot in your arm to bring you right back to life, that’s the best you can hope for,” he said.

Paramedics doubling up on the drug

Paramedics in the City of Miami say they don’t go out on a call without having their emergency vehicles stocked with Narcan.

They use a version of the drug that’s often injected into a patient’s IV to reverse the effects of an overdose. There’s a nasal spray version of the drug as well that is sold over the counter.

Battalion Commander Archie Vazquez of the Miami Department of Fire Rescue says, they’re not responding to as many heroin overdoses as they did last year, but they are having to use more Narcan to revive patients.

“A lot of the patients are just very close to going into cardiac arrest,” said Commander Vazquez.

Drug dealers are mixing powerful synthetics like fentanyl and carfentanyl into heroin, making it more powerful and more difficult to reverse the effects of an overdose.

Instead of using one dose of Narcan on a patient, they’re having to use two, three, even four doses at a time.

“They’re not coming out of it, normally the Narcan reverses it with one dose, it used to be the case,” said Cmdr. Vazquez.

Addicts called it “amazing”

Nicole Hawkins knows firsthand the effects of heroin and Narcan.

She told NBC 6 Investigator Dan Krauth, paramedics and friends have used Narcan on her 17 times.

Hawkins said on one occasion, the drug brought her back to life and she woke up on life support at UM Hospital.

“I was half dead, I was purple, they said my lips were purple and not breathing,” said Hawkins.

As for Sean Thompson, he says he carries a dose of Narcan on him at all times, in case he or a friend needs it.

“You can pull one of these out and less than five seconds later you pop this in and ahhh, you come right back to life, it’s the most amazing thing,” said Thompson.

Saving Lives at a Growing Cost

The NBC 6 Investigators requested the financial records of fire departments across South Florida and found in the City of Miami alone, Fire-Rescue spent more than five times the amount on Narcan in 2016, than in 2015.

The city spent $180,900 in 2016 compared to $36,459 in 2015.

The cost of the drug went up a few dollars in that time frame but the volume needed on the streets went way up.

The cost more than doubled at three other departments combined in South Florida from $330,638 to $134,604 in one year’s time. Those departments include Broward Sheriff’s Office, Fort Lauderdale Fire-Rescue and Miami Dade Fire-Rescue.

The costs are chipping away at the agencies strapped budgets.

“That requires more staffing on part of the fire department, police, the ER, and the hospitals,” said Cmdr. Vazquez.

<![CDATA[County Worker Quits After Section 8 Investigation]]> Fri, 27 Oct 2017 18:24:37 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/section+8+couple+photo.JPG

A county employee who faced the possibility of being fired has quit his job as a corrections officer after an NBC 6 Investigation found taxpayers have been paying most of the rent on his family’s home. 

A Corrections Department spokesperson said Thomas Harper resigned Monday. Harper disputes that and says he retired from his position.

His annual salary made him ineligible to live in a home being paid for with his wife's Section 8 voucher.

Over a two month period, the NBC 6 Investigators used hidden cameras to see Harper coming and going from his home – from work, to church, even towing his boat and parking it at the home.

Harper said he didn't live there with his wife, Latanya Everette. Her Section 8 voucher paid $1,200 of the $1,383 rent at the home every month since 2010.

According to her landlord, the voucher payments continued even after she married Harper in 2015. 

Public records show Harper made nearly $70,000 per year at his job at TGK and thousands more at a part-time job with the school district. His income is double the maximum allowed for a Section 8 voucher.

"As soon as they got married and they were no longer eligible, they needed to report that to us so we could give that voucher to a truly needy family," said Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez. 

Anyone with a voucher has ten days to report any changes in income or family size.

Before Harper quit, the mayor said the county was investigating what the NBC 6 Investigators found. The investigation could have led to discipline up to and including termination.

Harper's name was not on his wife's voucher.

"When somebody doesn’t abide by the rules, gives false information or is in Section 8 housing that shouldn’t be, that really upsets me," said Gimenez.

Everette relinquished her voucher after NBC 6 Investigators presented the findings to the couple. 

Section 8 vouchers are in high demand. More than 50,000 people are on the waitlist for one in Miami-Dade County.

"Those are needy families that need decent housing," said Gimenez about the waitlist. "Hopefully this will be an example that we're not going to tolerate that."

The couple's attorney, James DeMiles, said Friday he is working out a deal with the county for his clients to return approximately half of the money paid by their voucher since 2015 and avoid prosecution. The total amount is estimated at $36,000. 

<![CDATA[Woman Turns In Section 8 Voucher]]> Fri, 27 Oct 2017 12:20:30 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/222*120/hidden+camera+section+8+investigation_1650819_2017-10-26T171259.220.JPEG

LaTanya Everette has been one of the lucky few in Miami-Dade County to have her rent subsidized by the county’s Housing Choice Voucher Program.

The waiting list to get a voucher has 53,587 people on it currently. Many of those people have been waiting for years.

“Clearly a much greater demand than we have supply,” says Michael Liu, Director of the Miami-Dade County Public Housing and Community Development Department.

Since 2010, a voucher has been used to pay for $1,200 of Everette’s $1,383 monthly rent at a home in Northwest Miami-Dade County, according to her landlord, and she continued to use that voucher even after getting married to Thomas Harper in 2015.

But the NBC 6 Investigators found Harper is a county employee with an income twice the maximum amount allowed for a family to qualify for the voucher.

“The program is income-based,” Liu said. “A family of four, that’s about $36,000 a year. You can’t earn more than that.”

Public records show Harper has worked as a corrections officer at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center making nearly $70,000 per year. He also has made thousands more in a part-time job with the Miami-Dade County School District.

The county requires anyone receiving voucher payments to notify them about any change in income or family size within 10 days.

“If we find out you haven’t complied with that 10-day reporting requirement, we can terminate your assistance,” says Liu.

Harper’s name is not on the voucher. Everette wouldn’t comment about her voucher.

By phone, Harper told NBC 6 Investigator Willard Shepard that he didn’t live at the home.

But NBC 6 hidden cameras saw him or his truck at the Section 8 home over a two month period including every day for more than two weeks straight. There are pictures and videos of Harper coming to the home from work wearing his uniform, heading to church on a Sunday morning and, with his wife, arriving to the home with his boat in tow.

The NBC 6 Investigators presented the findings to the couple and to the county. A spokesperson for the Housing Department said they launched an investigation.

Soon after, the spokesperson confirmed that Everette relinquished the Section 8 voucher she had used since 2010. The county often requires people found misusing a voucher to return money. For Everette’s family, the total would be nearly $36,000.

The couple retained an attorney, James DeMiles, who sent a statement on behalf of the couple.

“Mr. Harper acknowledges that he married Latanya Harper in 2015 and that she was residing in HUD housing as a part of the Miami-Dade Housing Choice Voucher Program at that time. Nevertheless, Mr. Harper had no intent to defraud any person or governmental entity. A thorough investigation will show that, under the unique facts present here, Mr. Harper never misrepresented anything, nor did he fail to disclose anything that he was required to. There is much more to this story than is apparent on its face, however, Mr. Harper is not in a position to comment on further details at this time. Mr. Harper and his wife are actively working with the Miami-Dade Housing Choice Voucher Program in an effort to bring closure to this issue and also clear his name of any perceived wrongdoing."

Between January 2016 and September 2017, Miami-Dade County’s Housing Department reports it has received more than 800 complaints about Section 8 vouchers being abused. Seventy-nine of the complaints resulted in a person having their voucher taken away. But not a single person has been prosecuted. It can be a felony to misrepresent information provided to the Housing Department.

If you suspect fraud in housing assistance, you can call 786-469-4105 or click here.

<![CDATA[Miami-Dade Residents Seek to Oust Convicted Commissioner]]> Mon, 09 Oct 2017 17:55:06 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/North_Bay_Village_Seek_to_Oust_Convicted_Commissioner.jpg

North Bay Village, a normally quiet Miami-Dade city of about 7,000 residents, is now home to a political firestorm over allegations of voter fraud and blackmail linked to its at-large commissioner.

Residents allege Commissioner Dr. Douglas Hornsby lied on his voter registration forms, while Hornsby said he's the victim of extortion attempts.

The NBC 6 Investigators first revealed the questions about Commissioner Hornsby.

Five Village residents decided enough is enough and will go to court on Tuesday to ask a judge to bring the political controversy to an end.

“We have a commissioner right now who, as far as I legally understand it, is not eligible to serve on the Commission,” Laura Cantabriga, one of the five residents filing the court action, said. “He has been dishonest."

When leaving a Commission meeting months ago, Hornsby chose not to answer our question about how he filled out his voter registration applications with Miami-Dade elections. Both forms show Hornsby didn’t mark the box asking if he was a convicted felon. However, it was Hornsby himself who told residents at a prior Commission meeting that he was a felon.

In May, Hornsby stated: “I've got a drug conviction for cocaine back in Tennessee.”

Despite admitting his earlier indiscretion, Village residents will move ahead in court.

“There has been a cloud of scandal hanging over North Bay Village for far too long and until we can lift that cloud and get integrity, clarity and truth, this Village will never be able to move forward," Cantabriga said.

J.C. Planas is the attorney representing the five residents.

“We filed an action basically to ask the court to remove Douglas Hornsby because since he was unqualified to serve office when he was appointed, that appointment is void from the inception and he needs to be removed from office," Planas said.

Fueling allegations of voting fraud, Hornsby said he’s been voting for years in Florida. In May, the commissioner told residents: “I've voted for years in Tennessee and then 20 years here in Florida.”

Hornsby claims someone is trying to blackmail him. North Bay Village Police Chief Carlos Noriega told us he's investigating the circumstances. Mayor Connie Leon Kreps worries all Village business done in 2017 with Hornsby votes could be declared void.

“Well, if he was not legally able to be appointed in January, then all those votes are not valid and that is very concerning to me because there are items such as the budget that are very important to the Village,” Leon said.

The mayor previously asked the commissioner to ask for an independent review of the situation from the Florida Attorney General, but that attempt was rejected in a vote that included Hornsby.

We reached out to Hornsby, his attorney and the city attorney. None responded to our request for comment before Tuesday's court hearing.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney has also been looking into what is going on. The court in downtown Miami will begin to make its own evaluation about what should happen.

“This is about the rule of law and I don’t believe it was followed," Cantabriga said.

<![CDATA[The Cost Of Immigration Enforcement]]> Wed, 04 Oct 2017 18:18:33 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/492659230-Police-ICE-agent.jpg

Enforcing immigration laws has become a priority for President Donald Trump's administration. This year, the House Appropriations Committee has already approved $185.6 million dollars to – among other things – hire 1,000 more immigration law enforcement officers. The move has many undocumented immigrants' families across the country very worried.

The Trejo family, like many others, worry about their future. Ruben Trejo, who has lived in the United States for 20 years, was on his way to work when immigration authorities detained him. He is undocumented and does not have a valid driver's license. Matters only got worse when his 11-year-old daughter Ashley and her mom, Araceli, went to pick up his car and Araceli, who is also undocumented, was temporarily detained.

“I thought that my mom would also get arrested and that I would never see her,” Ashley said.

Araceli was quickly released because she’s in the process of getting her status resolved, but her husband’s future is uncertain.

“He’s practically innocent ... the only problem he has is being an immigrant,” Araceli said.

Claudio Rojas, another undocumented immigrant in South Florida, said officers arrested him because he overstayed his tourist visa and has not been able to sort out his immigration status.

“One day, officials came to me, where I am living now ... and they pointed guns at me and arrested me,” Rojas said.

Rojas was detained for seven months in 2013 and since his release has been reporting to immigration once a year.

But things have changed under Trump's administration, according to Rojas. This year, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement asked Rojas for his passport and a Stay of Deportation order. Rojas's attorney, Sandy Pineda, said these types of requests are becoming more common under the Trump's presidency.

“It’s like you’re going to trial every day, every time that you show up there,” Pineda said, adding that immigration officials are making more demands of their clients and requiring they check-in more frequently.

In a statement earlier this year, immigration authorities said “anyone who violates immigration law is subject to arrest ... detention and removal ... from the United States.”

As part of the effort to crack down on illegal immigration, the administration asked for a 29.4 percent budget increase for ICE, including $4.4 billion dollars for detention and removal operations.

The agency said it’s already seen an important drop in apprehensions at the Mexican border.

“We’re running about 25 percent below last year,” Manuel Padilla, U.S. Customs and Border Protection's chief patrol agent in the Rio Grande sector, said.

Between January and June of this year, ICE detained 114,144 immigrants compared to 267,746 during the same period last year, records show.

Chris Cabrera, the National Border Patrol Council spokesperson, said the "numbers dropped dramatically.”

CBP said the drop coincided with efforts to suspend the catch and release program, an effort in which immigration authorities process immigrants at the border and let them enter the United States with the promise they’ll report to court. As for deportations, those increased from 89,850 in the 2016 fiscal year to 93,469 in the first ten months of the 2017 fiscal year.

Who is being removed? In the first five months of this year, 31.9 percent of those deported strictly had immigration issues – higher than any other category in ICE data. For the following largest categories of those deported: 18.3 percent were listed as having committed violent crimes, 16.3 percent had drug charges and 15.1 percent had traffic violations.

“ICE has been very clear on their standpoint that they do not care if the person does not have a criminal history. All they care about is removing people at this point,” Pineda said.

Her client, Rojas, was able to present his documents to immigration officials and was released with the condition he reports back in December.

Rojas said he doesn’t know what to expect.

“It’s always hard because you never feel free even though you are out walking with society,” Rojas said. “You are not free.”

As for Ruben Trejo, after two months of being detained his family got the homecoming they had hoped for when immigration officials released him. He will have another hearing in a few months in which he hopes to find out if he will be allowed to stay in the United States.

Immigration judges NBC 6 has interviewed said immigrants who have legal representation or a lawyer always have better chances of winning cases.

Photo Credit: John Moore/Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA[Immigration Backlog Puts Families in Limbo]]> Wed, 04 Oct 2017 12:09:55 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/100317+crisis+in+the+courts+immigration.jpg

Getting your day in court is getting more difficult for those who have pending immigration cases. A months long NBC/Telemundo Investigation shows immigration hearings are being delayed for years as the backlog in the courts grows to record lengths.

We’re talking about immigrants who are waiting for asylum hearings among other cases. You would think, being allowed to live here for years while waiting for their day in court would be a good thing, but these delays could make their cases fall apart and put their families back home in life or death situations.

Breaking their silence is not easy for seven undocumented immigrants from Guatemala who spoke to NBC. They speak a Mayan Language called MAM and are terrified of being deported.

"I worry about my daughters, I cry for them," said Juana, who left two daughters behind in Guatemala when she fled to the US with her baby after she says she was raped and her life was threatened.

Basilio, another one of the Guatemalan immigrants, said he left his hometown with his family after being beaten.

All of them are now waiting for their day in court – when they can share their stories with an immigration judge as they seek asylum in this country. That day is going to take years.

According to Syracuse University’s transactional records access clearinghouse or TRAC, more than 617,000 immigration cases are now backlogged. That number has more than doubled since 2009 and the 334 immigration judges across the country just can’t handle the caseload.

"There have been initiatives both under the Obama administration and under the Trump administration that have resulted in us as judges being required to shuffle our docket," explained Judge Dana Leigh Marks, who spoke to us as the president of the National Association of Immigration Judge.

Marks said the latest docket shuffling came when the Trump Administration prioritized border cases. Judges from all over the country had to begin postponing their own cases as they were temporarily reassigned to border facilities.

"What happens is the home courts are left behind and those cases just become older and older," said Marks.

Miami immigration attorney Sandy Pinera says having her cases pushed back really hurts her clients.

"There’s a judge that has moved my case five times already," she said.

Department of Justice records obtained by NBC show at least 13 Miami judges have been temporarily reassigned to detention centers in New Mexico, Louisiana, Texas and Chicago in the last year.

From September 30th, 2016 through July 31st, 2017, the immigration backlog in Miami grew from 24,370 to 31,219 cases. Half of the cases that were rescheduled during that period were because a judge was reassigned.

"It’s as if they have forgotten us," said Andres, one of the Guatemalan immigrants waiting for his hearing in San Francisco where the average wait-time is three years.

In Miami, the wait is about a year and a half and it’s much worse in cities like San Antonio, Atlanta and Chicago. Basilio’s hearing is set for the year 2020.

Judge Marks said she knows there are people whose cases are harmed by waiting on the docket so long.

"People may lose touch...with witnesses that they need. They may have qualifying relatives who become ill and pass away," said Marks.

Retired Arlington Immigration Judge Paul Schmidt said there are simply not enough judges to clear the backlog.

"It’s a disaster, I think it’s moving towards implosion,” said Schmidt.

Congress recently approved money to hire 65 more judge teams but Marks said at least 200 more are needed to start improving the backlog. She also believes immigration judges would be more effective if they didn’t have to constantly adapt to changing administrations who have different priorities.

"We should be taken out of the Department of Justice and made a neutral court system," said Marks.

Though sending judges to the border was a move to alleviate the backlog, Senate Appropriations Staff acknowledged in March that this would likely increase the case backlog.

<![CDATA[Man's Background Check Includes Crimes of Man With Same Name]]> Tue, 26 Sep 2017 22:40:27 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Christopher+Jenkins+091817.jpg

A Maryland man’s life has been turned upside down because he shares a name and birthdate with a felon from South Florida.

Christopher Jenkins of Maryland doesn’t have a criminal record.

But Christopher Jenkins of Broward County does – a long list of arrests including possession of marijuana and grand theft auto.

When a potential employer ran a background check on Maryland’s Jenkins, he said, the criminal history of Florida’s Jenkins showed up.

Jenkins told NBC 6 sister station NBC Washington that he’s never smoked pot and has never been to Florida.

Jenkins said knowing that he may not get a job for which he applied because of someone else's criminal record has caused him depression and stress.

According to the FBI, between 2014 and 2016, more than 1 million people requested copies of what's called an FBI identity history summary to see what shows up. Of those requests, about 2,300 had errors with more than half of those being corrected.

If you fail a background check, you have every right to ask why, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

“They also have the right to correct any inaccurate information,” FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Senior Attorney Tiffany George said.

George said you must contact the company that ran your background check and ask to see the report.

“They should have whatever information at their disposal that proves that they don't have a criminal record and that their identity shouldn't be confused with someone else,” George said.

Jenkins has to carry around a folder of documents wherever he goes, which includes:

  • A letter from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirming he's not the other Christopher Jenkins who has a criminal record.
  • A notarized affidavit addressing the mistaken identity.
  • A set of his own fingerprints to prove he's not a felon.

“It's devastating for me and my fiancee because I'm trying to make a better life for us and if I can't get the right job to provide for the household. It's hard,” Jenkins said. “It's a struggle.”

Identity theft experts said governments that maintain criminal record databases need to set up a better system so that when there is a problem, there is an easier way to challenge it.

<![CDATA[Major Nursing Home Repairs Done Without Permits: Officials]]> Mon, 25 Sep 2017 15:57:30 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/hollywood+hills+generator.JPG

Unapproved work was done without city permits to the air conditioning and back-up generator systems at the Hollywood Hills nursing home where several residents died when power to the air conditioning system failed during Hurricane Irma, a Hollywood city spokeswoman told the NBC 6 Investigators on Friday.

After the first deaths on Sept. 13, city building officials say they discovered a temporary generator had been placed outside the facility and wired into the building without the necessary city permits.

The city also says officials discovered the air conditioning cooling tower was replaced without a permit — also a violation of the city’s building code.

City spokeswoman Raelin Storey said citations are being issued to the owner of the property, Hollywood Property Investments LLC. According to state officials and corporate records the owner is affiliated with the nursing home owner, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills LLC, through Larkin Community Hospital.

Eleven residents of the nursing home have died, some with body temperatures approaching 110 degrees, since the home was evacuated on Sept. 13, more than 63 hours after a transformer feeding the building cooling tower failed.

Contractors for the property owner last year applied for city permits for two projects: a $42,000 effort to replace a back-up generator; and a $55,620 plan to replace the cooling tower.

The cooling tower permit was not issued, Storey said, because the applicant failed to address concerns raised in April 2016 by city reviewers. City records show those issues involved obtaining approval from the Department of Environmental Protection and assuring the new chiller would meet building codes regarding water supply.

“They never answered our questions,” she said. “They never responded.”

Same for the application to replace the home’s back-up generator.

The building department “asked for (more) information” after plans for the generator were submitted in August 2016, but the information was “never provided.”

Among the city’s concerns: the county had not reviewed plans for removing the diesel tank that fueled the old generator at the home, according to city building department records.

The city claims the owners replaced the cooling tower anyway — without getting a city permit.

Installation of the new proposed generator, however, was not completed.

Instead, a temporary generator was wheeled onto the property sometime before the storm struck on the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 10 — but that, too, would have required a permit that was not obtained, Storey said.

A nursing home official, who declined to be quoted by name, tells NBC 6 the temporary generator had been on the property since April 2013 – before it was even purchased by the current owners.

And, the official added, the owner relied on a contractor to get the proper approvals for the cooling tower replacement and did not know the permit had not been approved.

The nursing home has said the generator in place during the storm would have, as required by law, powered life safety systems -- such as nurse call buttons, emergency exit lights, fire alarms and smoke detectors. It would not have powered the cooling tower, which required higher voltage.

On August 10, 2017, a new plan to install a back-up generator was submitted to the city, and the review of those plans was “in process,” Storey said.

The permit applications do not say whether the proposed new generator would have powered the new cooling tower, in addition to the life safety systems.

Even if the new generator had been installed prior to the outage this month, the home official said, it would not under current plans had been connected to the chiller – so the lack of central air conditioning would have been an issue regardless.

In a timeline released last week, the facility said the current cooling tower was fed only by a transformer, which failed during the storm. Another transformer that fed the rest of the facility was intact, so the existing temporary back-up generator was not needed.

Current law does not require homes to have air conditioning on back-up generators.

But three days after the first deaths of residents, Gov. Rick Scott issued emergency rules that would require all 685 nursing homes and more than 3,000 assisted living facilities to back up air conditioners with generators.

They would have to maintain temperatures at or below 80 degrees for at least four days after a power outage — at least in areas of homes where patients would be cared for during such an emergency.

The governor gave the industry until mid-November to complete the work, but at a meeting of hundreds of home administrators in Tallahassee Friday, it was clear that deadline would be impossible to meet statewide.

“We’re going to be working aggressively across the state to make sure that every facility is fully prepared to comply with these new requirements,” said Justn Senior, secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.

Asked about the costs — potentially hundreds of millions of dollars statewide to put all homes’ air conditioning generator — Senior said, “We believe very strongly the cost of not complying with this rule is greater than the cost of compliance… The cost of not complying is the potential for lost lives.”

Legislators at the gathering Friday predicted the mandatory generator rule will be made a state law by next year’s session, but they also doubted all homes could comply by the governor’s current Nov. 15 deadline.

<![CDATA[Nursing Home Victims' Body Temps Nearly 110: Officials]]> Thu, 21 Sep 2017 07:57:42 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/092017+Hollywood+Nursing+Home.jpg

By the time a 70-year-old woman was evacuated from Florida's Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills at 6:42 a.m. last Wednesday, she was in cardiac arrest and her body was blazing hot, according to officials.

She died seven minutes later with a post-mortem temperature of 109.9, according to the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, which alleges she and others were evacuated from the facility “too far gone and far too late to be saved.”

Another woman, 71 years old, was taken to the adjacent Memorial Regional Hospital at 7:03 that morning without a pulse – her body temperature just before she died at 7:54 a.m.: 108.5 degrees.

Armed with that new evidence — plus recorded body temperatures of other victims reaching 108.3 and 107 degrees — AHCA Wednesday issued an emergency suspension of the facility’s license, effectively putting it out of business pending any legal challenges.

AHCA Secretary Justin Senior called what happened in Hollywood Hills “gross medical and criminal recklessness.”

“As more information has come to light on this egregious situation, this facility absolutely cannot continue to have access to patients,” Senior said in a statement Wednesday. “This facility failed its residents multiple times throughout this horrifying ordeal. It is unfathomable that a medical professional would not know to call 911 immediately in an emergency situation.”

The order also claims medical records were created after the residents were evacuated to make it appear they were in better shape than they were.

The “late entries … claim(ed) safe temperatures for patients while those same patients were across the street dying in the emergency room with temperatures of over 108 degrees,” Senior said. “No amount of emergency preparedness could have prevented the gross medical and criminal recklessness that occurred at this facility. For that reason we will suspend their license and completely terminate them from the Medicaid program. We will continue to do everything in our power to protect patients in Florida – especially those who are frail and can’t take care of themselves.”

The emergency order says allowing the center to remain open would create “an immediate serious danger to the public health, safety or welfare.”

The center had already been placed under a moratorium preventing it from receiving any new residents and a suspension blocking it from getting Medicaid reimbursements.

But those actions were superseded Wednesday by the emergency suspension order, according to AHCA.

The center has declined to comment on the events this week, citing the ongoing criminal investigation into the deaths.

The suspension order came as the home’s owners were seeking a court hearing to allow it to reopen. In a complaint filed Tuesday in Leon County Circuit Court, the home challenged the state’s moratorium and Medicaid suspension, saying it was based on “innuendo, implied speculation and conjecture.”

There was no proof any of the residents died as a result of the high temperatures, they claimed at the time, suggesting residents may have died due to the “trauma” of being evacuated.

Among the allegedly doctored medical records: A 78-year-old resident was recorded as having a 101.6-degree temperature at 4:42 on the morning of the evacuation, but 10 minutes earlier she arrived in the Memorial Regional emergency room in cardiac arrest with a temperature of 108.3, the suspension order claims. She died at 5 a.m.

Another resident, an 84 year old with cardiac disease and dementia, was recorded as being resting in bed with even, unlabored respiration on September 14 — long after he had already died, the order stated.

Power to the center’s air conditioning unit failed around 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, as Hurricane Irma’s powerful wind gusts felled trees and took out power lines across South Florida. A second electrical supply from a separate transformer was unaffected, so the center was able to power lights, nurse call signals and other lower-voltage essentials. The home also used spot coolers — portable air conditioners — and fans to lower temperatures while it tried to get utility and state officials to get full power restored.

After center staff called Gov. Rick Scott’s personal cell phone four times, and Florida Power and Light 13 times, “the facility was assured multiple times by FPL, by AHCA and by the governor’s office that the matter was a high priority and would be resolved,” the center claims in its complaint. “Hollywood Hills staff were continuously told to keep residents in place and that help was on the way and they were told to call 911 if anyone became distressed.”

It was only after several residents were dead and all were evacuated that FP&L showed up.

It turns out, the nursing home claims, all the utility had to do was reset the switch for the air conditioning electrical supply line.

It took 15 minutes to get the air conditioning restored.

<![CDATA[Nursing Home Planned New Generator and Cooling, Records Show]]> Tue, 19 Sep 2017 18:08:32 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/rehabilitation+center+at+hollywood+hills_1171664_2017-09-19T190054.473.JPG

Upgrading or replacing air conditioning and electrical systems were on the radar of the owner of a Hollywood nursing home long before eight of its residents died after a transformer powering the facility air conditioning chiller failed during Hurricane Irma, according to city permit records.

And air conditioning mechanics contacted by the NBC 6 Investigators questioned how effective the emergency cooling efforts could have been, if there was not sufficient ventilation above the second floor drop ceiling, where hot air from the cooler was directed.

Video taken just hours before the first of the eight would die shows a spot cooler set up next to a nursing station in a second-floor hallway. Heat from the cooler is removed through a flexible duct that discharges heat into an area above the drop ceiling. That is how the coolers are designed to work, as long as temperatures in the surrounding area to do get too high – above 114 degrees, according to the manual for one similar air cooler.

But air conditioning mechanics, including Scott Engerer of TEAK Refrigeration, say long-term use of spot coolers in such an environment would be most effective only if the hot air concentrating above the drop ceiling is ventilated outside.

If not, he said, “It doesn't permit any of the heat to get out of there or the humidity to get out of the building.”

The roof of the facility does show several vents, but it is not known if any of them relieved heat from where the eight spot coolers used last week were off-loading their heat.

The home’s owners are declining comment under advice of legal counsel, as a criminal investigation into the deaths is underway, the home’s spokeswoman said.

In addition to the spot cooler seen on the video, an industrial sized fan can be seen at the end of the same hallway, potentially drawing hot air down through any spaces between the hall and the drop ceiling and sending it back toward the spot cooler.

After reviewing the video, Engerer said, “It's just recirculating the heat in there and the humidity in there. It's not pulling anything out.”

He said the fan would provide some relief, easing temperatures a bit – but that humidity would remain high, unless the area above the drop ceiling were vented.

The video shows one resident – naked, stooped over -- on a portable bed wheeled into the hallway between the fan and the spot cooler. Family members of residents say they recognize her as one of the patients who died as temperatures soared, especially on the second floor, where the video was taken.

Air conditioning and electrical improvement were on the facility’s to-do list, according to building permit records filed with the City of Hollywood.

Last August, an application for a permit was filed for a $42,000 job to install a permanent generator, according to city records. The records state some reviews of the plan were not approved. They do not show the permit was approved or that the work was completed.

Four months earlier, in April 2016, another application was filed for a permit to replace a cooling tower, a $55,620 project. It too shows not all reviews of the plans were approved and there is no indication the cooling tower was replaced.

NBC 6 has requested the full records from the city, but they were not made available today.

The permit applications do not say whether the proposed new generator would have powered the proposed new cooling tower.

In a timeline released last week, the facility said the current cooling tower was fed only by a transformer, which failed during the storm. Another transformer that fed the rest of the facility was intact and was powering life-safety systems, electrical outlets and other less-intensive electrical services.

<![CDATA[Timeline of Events Being Put Together for Nursing Home]]> Fri, 15 Sep 2017 18:02:20 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Hollywood_Nursing_Home_Deaths_Being_Investigated.jpg

As investigators gather evidence that could determine whether charges are brought in the deaths of eight residents of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, a timeline of events will be crucial.

But public information on details about what the state knew about the conditions there has been at times unclear.

For example, the state Department of Health reported the facility "reported into the state's facility status monitoring database 17 times since Thursday, September 7th."

But when the NBC 6 Investigators requesting data backing up that claim, it showed only five updates by the facility during that time frame.

Asked to clarify, the Health Department spokeswoman who claimed there were 17 reports Thursday referred the NBC 6 Investigators, to the Agency for Healthcare Administration, which passed the buck to state emergency managers, who did not respond to questions about the possible discrepancy.

Thursday night, the Health Department stepped back in to respond, saying "the facility reported updates 17 times. Further, it’s shocking that these trained medical professionals put patients’ lives in needless jeopardy. The fact is that this facility never called 911. Let’s remember, this facility is located across the street from Memorial Healthcare, one of the largest hospitals in the state, which never lost power. The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills is responsible for the health and safety of their patients."

While some nursing homes reported difficulty reporting their status either by phone or on a web-based application used by state health officials, an AHCA spokeswoman said Thursday evening "at no time did Florida Health STAT, the state’s reporting system have a breakdown."

An AHCA official at the state's emergency management center expressed concern Thursday to colleagues and nursing home industry representatives that some facilities have not been reporting their status to the Health STAT system twice a day, as required by the state during the disaster -- suggesting power outages may be to blame.

As for the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, there appears in the database to be a gap of nearly two days between the times the facility updated its status with the state Health STAT system.

They show someone using the email address of Jorge Carballo updated the center's information at 6:51 p.m. Sunday, reporting air conditioning and power were both "operational."

The database appears to show the next update from the facility was not until 4:30 p.m. Tuesday -- leaving a nearly 46-hour gap in the updates, as reflected in the database.

In its order filed Wednesday evening shutting down the facility as a threat to public health and safety, the state Agency for Healthcare Administration states the home became aware the power to the air conditioning unit went down Sunday -- presumably Sunday evening, as the home reported it was operational at 6:51 p.m. Sunday.

By Monday, eight portable air coolers and fans were placed around the facility, operating on the standard 110 voltage that was apparently not affected when a larger voltage transformer serving the air conditioning chiller failed Sunday.

By Tuesday, relatives of residents say the halls were sweltering, and local authorities and Florida Power and Light say they had been contacted by then, but administrators did not call for an evacuation.

The first mention of the problems in the state database come around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, when an AHCA employee updated the database to reflect the nursing home was on "partial" power, the air conditioning was "non-operational."

In a notes field, it states: "Have spot coolers and fans. Chiller is not operational pulling outside air."

A note attributed to administrator Carballo says "Florida Power and Light ticket #4301 need chiller turned on by FPL."

By Tuesday night, 99-year-old Albertina Vega would succumb in the suffocating heat of the facility's second floor -- the first of eight residents who died.

The medical examiner has not yet ruled any of the deaths were caused by the conditions inside the facility -- a determination that would be crucial to any decision about whether anyone would be charged in connection with any deaths.

But we do know that all of those residents rescued from the heat Wednesday morning have survived thus far.

A spokesperson for the nursing home did not respond to detailed questions about the events.

And Carballo did not respond to a text sent to a contact cellphone number he had on file with the state.

While the database does show 17 entries indicating times between Thursday and Wednesday where data about the center was extracted, almost all of those entries simply repeat the information from the most recent previous update.

That leaves only five unique, time-stamped contacts listed in the field that appears to reflect when the facility update was received.

<![CDATA[Miami Hopes Upgrades to Camera System Will Catch Dumpers]]> Wed, 30 Aug 2017 18:11:10 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/illegally+dumped+trash_886821_2017-08-30T183839.876.JPG

When people think of Miami, they often think of palm trees and beautiful beaches. But in reality many of the streets, alleys and rivers are lined with trash.

There are recliners in the river, heaps of furniture and trash on street corners, and trash lining alley ways and train tracks near downtown.

That trash can bring crime to an area, reduce property values, and it can get into the drinking water supply.

During the summer of 2016, Miami city leaders announced a crackdown on illegal dumping. But the NBC 6 Investigators found they’re getting the same amount of complaints as before.

A year later, they're hoping updated technology could reduce the complaints.

"It's disgusting really,” said City of Miami Police Department Sergeant Alexander Canovas.

The environmental officer grew up on the streets of Miami. It’s now his job to patrol the same streets, looking for illegal dumping.

“When you grow up in this neighborhood you want to see it go up, not down,” said Sgt. Canovas.

He’s one of four officers assigned to clean up the problem. A majority of his time is spent responding to 311 complaints. More people in our area complain about trash and illegal dumping than anything else.

“Illegal dumping is a major problem, it leads to other crimes,” said Sgt. Canovas.

When city officials held a news conference in July of 2016, they unveiled new surveillance cameras that would be installed to cut down on complaints and catch dumpers.

But the NBC 6 Investigators found complaints haven’t gone down. In just the past year, more than 1,600 people made 311 complaints about trash. That’s about the same amount as of the same time last year. In fact, there has been a steady increase in complaints made over the past five years.

“That goes to show you that illegal dumping is a chronic situation we need to be on top of,” said Sgt. Canovas.

However the cameras the city unveiled haven’t paid off over the last year, at least not yet.

“We’re working on the software problems, it’s having some glitches right now,” said Sgt. Canovas.

Soon, the city will fully implement the five cameras in hot spots throughout the city. The cameras can be moved from location to location and they won’t just be recording surveillance video of known dumping hot spots. They’ll also stream LIVE video, right into the detective’s vehicles to catch people in the act.

The NBC 6 Investigators crunched the 311 complaints and found many areas where dumping is a problem. The zip code with the most complaints is 33135, the area in Little Havana around SW 8th street.

“My detective, even if he’s two blocks away, will be able to link it and review any footage we may have right away,” said Sgt. Canovas.

If someone is caught illegal dumping, fines can range between $500 to $1,000 dollars. If you see illegal dumping, you’re urged to use 311 to report the problem.

<![CDATA[NBC 6 Investigators Find Pricey School Equipment]]> Fri, 25 Aug 2017 20:08:39 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/school+equipment+broward.JPG

Soon after Pathways Academy Charter School shut down last year, the Broward County Public Schools went looking for $41,000 in electronic equipment it provided to the charter school to use – as long as it stayed open.

But more than year after financial mismanagement and other violations of law led to the school’s demise, most of that equipment was nowhere to be found – until the NBC 6 Investigators found a lot of it Thursday.

The Investigators located the three Promethean Activtables – electronic educational aids worth $5,000 each – at a Fort Lauderdale church run by a pastor who had been associated with people connected to Pathways Academy.

Caleb Deliard, pastor of the Victory of Grace Church in Fort Lauderdale, had named the former head of Pathways Academy – Yudit Silva – principal of a private school Deliard was hoping to open in Tamarac.

Silva’s husband, Adrian Diaz, is listed in state records as president of the not-for-profit corporation formed with Deliard for the planned new school, Odyssey Academy.

And the third officer of that corporation – Samuel Batiste – is the man Deliard said introduced him to Silva and gave him the $15,000 in equipment to store in the church as they waited for the new school to open.

Last week, school police and the chief auditor located about $10,000 of the missing Pathways equipment in a storage unit in Fort Lauderdale.

But the three $5,000 tables were still missing until Thursday, when the NBC 6 Investigators asked Deliard if he had received any tables he was hoping to use in his new school.

Deliard said Batiste had given him some tables and offered to show them to NBC 6.

It was clear after comparing the tables’ serial numbers – these were tables Broward schools had been looking for.

NBC 6 alerted the schools auditor we had located the tables, and Deliard Thursday night promptly turned them over to the district Thursday night.

Even with that recovery, the district is still missing nearly $16,000 worth of technology equipment provided to Pathways after being purchased with bond technology fund. Among four other recently closed charter schools, all or nearly all of the technology equipment used by those schools has been returned to the district, the schools said in a statement.

Deliard said he had no idea the school administration was looking for the tables until NBC 6 contacted him about them on Thursday.

The schools’ chief auditor, Patrick Riley, said all the missing equipment had been reported stolen to the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Batiste did not return a message seeking comment.

Silva has also declined to comment on her role.

Deliard dropped Silva from her position with Odyssey last month after NBC 6 Investigators showed him a Broward schools audit that found mismanagement and violations of law at Pathways while Silva headed the charter school.

In light of the discovery of the tables, Deliard said he would also not allow Diaz or Batiste to be involved in the new school – if it ever opens. The Tamarac location is mostly vacant as Deliard says he seeks proper permitting from the city.

The recovery of the equipment is the latest irregularity involving the failed Pathways Academy charter school.

Pathways Academy was found to have falsified teacher’s signatures, misspent money, failed to pay bills and federal payroll taxes, and overstated enrollment figures, receiving nearly $50,000 in overpayments from state funds, according to an audit by the Broward School District.

Citing “financial mismanagement” and violations of law, the school board voted in April 2016 to revoke Pathways’ charter – a decision upheld in January by a state administrative judge after the school appealed.

The IRS has filed more than $82,000 in liens against the company that ran the school, Silva of South Florida Inc., claiming it did not properly report or pay payroll taxes, such as amounts withheld from employees’ paychecks and the employer’s portion of social security and Medicare taxes.

Earlier this year, the school was evicted from its Lauderdale Lakes site and Silva of South Florida Inc. was ordered to pay $48,000 in back rent, but it has not done so, according to court records. The state judge who upheld the school’s charter revocation said Silva was president of that company during the relevant time period.

The company and Silva are also being sued for $19,000 by a leasing company that claims they failed to pay all that was owed for computer equipment.

<![CDATA[Miami Ordered Watercraft Renters Off Public Land Last Month]]> Wed, 23 Aug 2017 04:39:46 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/082217+personal+watercraft+generic+miami.jpg

The NBC 6 Investigators have learned that the City of Miami moved several weeks ago to prevent companies from renting personal watercraft from public land near Watson Island.

This new information comes a day after Sabrina Daniels, 34, and Julio Monteiro, 30, died when their personal watercraft collided with a concrete bridge support. Police sources and Daniels’ mother said the two rented the watercraft from the location where the city wanted to ban it.

"My daughter would be alive today if the rules had been followed," said Angela Hester, Daniels’ mother.

A Miami city attorney sent a letter in late July ordering personal watercraft rental companies to “cease and desist” any operations from public land around Watson and Star Islands unless they had prior approval and permits. One city source told the NBC 6 Investigators no companies have gone through that process to obtain permission.

On Tuesday, NBC 6 cameras captured people still able to rent personal watercraft.

Cameras also captured a man being arrested on Watson Island after Miami-Dade police said he was operating a personal watercraft business without a license.

Officials said the man, 28-year-old Adewale Ojomo, was given civil citations in the past but has continued to run the business illegally. Ojomo's arrest has nothing to do with the personal watercraft crash, police said. 

The former Miami Hurricanes and NFL player was released after posting $1,500 bond.

Florida Fish and Wildlife officers are investigating the accident that killed Daniels of Atlanta and Monteiro of Massachusetts.

Daniels' family members set up a GoFundMe account to help pay for funeral expenses.

To see the Miami City Attorney's message to watercraft operators click here.

Photo Credit: NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA[Judge Grants Injunction Against Miami Beach Patent Firm]]> Mon, 21 Aug 2017 17:57:02 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/scott+cooper+court+departure.JPG

After the Federal Trade Commission in March obtained a court order shutting down his patent marketing business and freezing his assets, Scott Cooper and his attorneys argued it was a "legal ambush" – that once the judge heard the facts, the court should allow Cooper to get back to work and regain access to his assets.

Now, after hearing testimony and arguments over two days in April, that federal judge has sided with the FTC.

Citing evidence Cooper and his company "devised a fraudulent scheme to use consumer funds to enrich themselves," U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles last week imposed a preliminary injunction on the Miami Beach patent marketing operation that the FTC claims was a $26 million scam.

That means World Patent Marketing remains shut down and Cooper continues to be barred from accessing cash, taking out loans or selling property until the case is resolved.

Meanwhile, a court-appointed receiver will continue trying to locate assets that could be used to repay victims, if the judge ultimately finds Cooper and his company liable. So far, only about $2.5 million in assets and cash have been identified, while potential damages to victims total $26 million.

Cooper’s attorney declined to comment on the judge’s decisions, including one denying a defense motion to dismiss a crucial count in the complaint against Cooper and WPM.

Customers who found WPM on the internet or through other advertising were told their invention ideas would be reviewed by a board or review team before being accepted by WPM. A few days later, salespeople would call back to "'congratulate' the customers, because the (non-existent) board had approved their ideas," Gayles wrote.

The company would then misrepresent the inventor’s likelihood of financial gain, the judge found.

That would lead thousands of customers to spend many thousands of dollars seeking WPM’s help in obtaining patents and marketing their products – something the judge has so far found did not happen in a significant way.

Cooper lives in a waterfront Miami Beach mansion he bought for $3.2 million in April 2016 and owns a 70-foot yacht, worth more than $1 million. He owes lenders some money on both of those assets, according to court filings.

While the court previously gave Cooper access to $75,000 from Swiss bank accounts he had created prior to beginning the patent marketing opreration, the judge last week did not release any more money from those or other accounts. "Cooper is able to seek lawful employment to cover his legal defense and living expenses during the pendency of this FTC action," the judge noted.

Neither Cooper nor his attorney would comment on whether he currently has a job.

Photo Credit: NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA[Brazilian Butt Lift Doctor Fights to Operate Again]]> Tue, 15 Aug 2017 16:02:06 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/102616+omulepu+pic+at+hearing.jpg

A doctor known for performing Brazilian Butt Lift procedures wants back in the operating room.

Dr. Osak Omulepu’s attorney has filed an appeal after the Florida Board of Medicine voted to revoke his license in April.

Two of his patients had an internal organ punctured during surgery in May 2015. After a hearing in October 2016, an administrative judge found Omulepu’s actions fell “below the standard of care.” Omulepu was able to practice after his license was revoked in April 2017 as his appeal began. When Lattia Baumeister, a mother of six, died in June 2017, an appeals court ruled Omulepu could no longer perform surgeries during the appeal process.

In a 40-page appeal, Omulepu’s attorney, Monica Felder Rodriguez, presented arguments why she believes he should be allowed to resume practicing law in Florida.

I understand their concern. When a patient has an injury, they’re rightfully concerned. But this happens, things happen during surgery,” said Felder Rodriguez.

She says a punctured organ is a known complication of surgery.

She believes the administrative judge ruled improperly when she said the patients were injured due to “incorrect angling” of the cannula, the medical instrument used to inject fat in the patient’s backside.

“That wasn’t alleged in the administrative complaint and absolutely no evidence was presented during the hearing that this is in fact what happened,” she said.

She also believes medical board members held it against him that he didn’t testify on his behalf.

“You can’t say, well that makes him guilty,” she said.

The state will soon be able to respond to the appeal. It could take months before the appeals court makes a decision about Omulepu’s future.

<![CDATA[Drivers Face Challenge Proving Bad Gasoline Caused Breakdown]]> Thu, 10 Aug 2017 15:24:17 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/081017+PumpProblems.jpg

Dozens of South Florida drivers are breaking down after fueling up, according to state complaints.

Rene Garcia said his car broke down soon after paying $62 to fill his tank.

“The car started to act up and lose power until it finally completely stopped on the road,” said Rene Garcia of Boynton Beach. “The repairs cost more than $5,000 dollars.”

Garcia said insurance helped cover the cost, but he still had to pay a $1,000 deductible.

The NBC6 Investigators found that Garcia is just one of 130 drivers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties who made official complaints to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services in the past year with car problems after filling their gas tank.

Myron Looker Jr. contacted the NBC6 Investigators after his truck broke down after he gassed up over the Memorial Day Weekend. He said he was with his two daughters when his pickup truck started giving him problems.

“When I started my car, it wouldn’t stay on,” said Looker.

Ft. Lauderdale’s Andre Santos said the same thing happened to his vehicle after filling up at the same gas station. He says his mechanic found water in the gasoline they took out of his tank.

“It cost me more than $500 in repairs,” said Santos.

We are not identifying the gas station where the two men say they filled up because neither made a complaint with the state which would have led to the gas being officially tested.

A high repair bill is common if you’ve put contaminated gasoline in your tank, according to local mechanic.

David Cohn of West Broward Auto Repair said a small amount of water or another contaminant in your tank can cause a lot of damage.

“It can damage fuel injectors, the fuel injection system, it can damage spark plugs,” said Cohn.

Garcia, Santos and Looker all paid to fix their own vehicles because they were unable to prove it was a stations’ bad gasoline that caused the problems.

The best way to get the proof is to file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs. A state inspector will take a sample of gasoline at the station to test it.

State records show inspectors usually test the same day a complaint is filed.

However, state inspectors have only found contaminated gas in three cases this year.

The NBC 6 Investigators discovered one reason that number is so small compared to the number of people who complained. Records provided by the Department of Agriculture show that it took drivers ten days on average to report their problem. Gas stations typically have new fuel in their tanks every 2-3 days. So, by the time an inspector would go to a station, there would be new fuel.

Garcia made his complaint to the state almost two weeks after his car broke down.

“It was already too late,” said Garcia.

He’s one of three drivers who filed complaints about the Shell station at 6135 Lyons Road in Coconut Creek. A state inspector took gas samples after Garcia complained. All samples “passed” with no sign of contamination.

The gas station manager declined to discuss the complaints from Garcia and others with us.

When we contacted Shell, a spokesperson told us the station is privately owned.

In a statement, the spokesperson said, “… while the name on the sign reflects the brand of the motor fuel being sold on the premises, the convenience store and the day-to-day site operations are the legal responsibility of the wholesaler, site owner and/or operator. Our Retail Account Manager has been in contact with the company that supplies fuel to the site.”

Garcia said even though his car is running smoothly again, he’ll always be concerned when fueling up.

“There’s no way to know, you have to trust the station, and hope the gas is clean and ok,” he said.

If your vehicle dies soon after filling up with gas, you should notify the gas station owner immediately and file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs so they can test the station’s gasoline.

<![CDATA[Broken Promises of Sales Tax Hike Loom Over Transit Debate]]> Mon, 31 Jul 2017 17:57:03 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/miami+dade+train_473426_2017-07-31T155247.261.jpg

As Miami-Dade County once again wrestles with the future of mass transit, broken promises from the past could cast a long shadow over the debate.

In 2002, voters approved a half-penny sales tax increase after being promised a revolution in mass transit throughout the county.

The tax has raised more than $2.8 billion.

But the overwhelming majority of the promised projects never materialized.

Here’s some of what the original Peoples’ Transportation Plan was supposed to fund, and the progress 15 years later:

• 89 more miles of Metrorail -- instead, there are four additional miles

• 1,191 buses -- currently 815

• 70 percent increase in transit service miles – there’s been a 7-percent increase

• 17-mile elevated line roughly parallel to the Dolphin Expressway – never begun

About $1 billion of the money intended to fund the projects has instead been diverted to pay operations and maintenance costs for projects not covered by the PTP.

"This is the greatest story of mismanagement of a special tax in the history of this county certainly," county commissioner Xavier Suarez told the NBC 6 Investigators.

That’s a far cry from what then-Mayor Alex Penelas envisioned at a 2002 transit-tax victory party: "Thirty years from today people will look back … and say that was one of the most important decisions we made in the county."

Fifteen years later, its importance may be the bad will it has produced among those who feel betrayed.

At a recent meeting of the board that plans the future of transit in the county, county commissioner Joe Martinez openly mocked the Metrorail system as "Metrofail," saying, “My executive assistant, she rides Metrofail every time she comes downtown." In response to snickers produced by his comment, he added, "Yea, it goes from where you don’t live to where you’re not going. It’s Metrofail."

Asked whether voters were sold a bill of goods back in 2002, Charles Scurr, executive director of the citizens’ trust that oversees the spending, said, "I think they’ve all been very consistent in saying that the PTP was overpromised and that is in fact correct."

But, he added, "We’re working on the solution and hopefully the community will come together and we’ll make some progress."

He notes some promises were kept: senior citizens can ride anywhere for free; Metromover is free for all; cities have received more than $500 million for their projects, such as popular free trolleys; traffic signals are being modernized; and Metrorail was extended 2.4 miles from Earlington Heights station to near Miami International Airport.

That spur cost $506 million – more than $200 million a mile -- and $400 million of it came from the tax. Originally, the tax was going to cover only $125 million and federal funds were expected to make up much of the difference.

As Scurr recalls, "The funding mix changed. There was a great anticipation back in 2002 there would be federal funding for all those projects. That federal funding has not materialized."

That is partly because county transit mismanagement and the failure to sufficiently fund operations and maintenance costs of the entire transit system caused federal transportation officials to deny the county federal funds.

It got even worse during the Great Recession, as the county voted in 2009 to tap the tax money -- $900 million to date -- for maintenance and operations costs for projects, many of them not included in the original plan.

Current Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez is grappling with the is pushing to spend more than $500 million to begin acquiring right of way for transit corridors to the north and the south. But instead of trains on rails, he’s promoting a newer technology – train-like vehicles that, like buses, move along the corridors on rubber tires. Like trains, though, ticketed passengers would board at grade level from air conditioned stations spaced out along the routes.

"It’s a virtual train," Gimenez said. "You don’t need to have a rail."

As the county decides whether to adopt Gimenez’s plan or something else, the mayor knows the 2002 tax vote looms. “What happened is they over promised. A half a cent did not generate the amount of money they needed to complete the projects.”

And, he said, there is clearly not enough money to do what was promised. "My job is to be realistic. What is the money we have? What is available?"

But to Suarez a rubber-tired vehicle traversing city streets is a bus by any other name – and he’s not going along for the ride.

“It is inconceivable that now we’re being told that the best we’re going to have are buses in three years, more buses,” he said.

Suarez also wants to take $50 million out of general funds for at least each of the next two years to pay back the trust for some of the operations and maintenance funds that have been diverted from it.

Gimenez notes Suarez does not specify what programs he would cut – whether public, safety, or parks or something else – to fund that plan.

"Let’s quit trying to demagogue this and be populists," he said. "I’m not a populist. I’m a realist. Let’s stop talking. Let’s move forward."

As for whether anther tax could be contemplated to pay for that way forward, Scurr said, "I don’t think that’s in the plan right now. I think the objective is to try to achieve some results and once those results are achieved then I think there might be some discussion about going go back to the taxpayers."

<![CDATA[Five Reasons for Rising Aggravation When Flying]]> Thu, 27 Jul 2017 11:27:25 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/122816+plane+generic+flight+generic.jpg

You don’t have to go far to see video of the latest airport or airline drama. Viral videos are showing problems on airplanes and inside terminals.

And the videos you’ve seen may be just be a small portion of what’s really going on.

"Well for every video that comes out, we think there’s probably hundreds, if not thousands of ones that are somewhat similar that did not get on video,” said Paul Hudson, the head of FlyersRights.org.

Hudson can list what he calls a "perfect storm" of problems leading to aggravation at airports.

Long Delays

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average delay at Fort Lauderdale airport was 74 minutes in May 2017, the most recent data available. The airport ranks near the bottom compared to other airports' on time departures and arrivals. Miami International’s ranking is slightly better. Still the average delay there in May 2017 was 69 minutes.

Outdated Air Traffic Control Systems

Carriers like American blame antiquated air traffic control systems. Airlines even suggested irate passengers contact Congress to encourage updates to the system.

Shortage of Air Traffic Controllers

The head of the union for air traffic controllers at MIA says South Florida and other parts of the country don’t have enough workers to adequately staff the towers. Billy Kisseadoo says it’s especially a problem at peak travel times.

“What we’ll have to do is curtail the amount of services that we give, close up positions, combine positions, put restrictions on that will make air traffic delays more likely,” said Kisseadoo.

The Director of Miami International Airport says they have little to no control of the FAA’s equipment or hiring, but MIA is trying its best to help passengers get to their destinations on time.

"Moving forward, one of the things we are doing as we speak to additional carriers, is incentivizing them to come at off peak hours,” said MIA director Emilio Gonzalez.

Baggage and Extra Fees

More travelers complain about baggage than any other aspect of flying, according to the US Department of Transportation. A more recent complaint has been having to pay nearly the same for a carry-on bag as you would a checked bag.

Hudson says the extra fees are allowed because there is no restriction on what is included in a fare.

"So, you could advertise the airfare for a dollar and everything else could be extra," Hudson said. "Believe it or not there is no definition of what airfare means."

Photo Credit: Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA[Private School Changes Leadership Before it Even Opens]]> Wed, 19 Jul 2017 17:56:57 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/071917+odyssey+academy+tamarac.jpg

Concerned about Haitian youth winding up in the criminal justice system, Pastor Caleb Deliard was inspired to create something to help young people find the right path: a private school called Odyssey Academy.

"I believe that the pathway to success in life is through education," said Deliard, pastor of Victory of Grace Church in Fort Lauderdale and president of the Broward League of Evangelical Pastors.

But, it turns out, he needed a bit of an education himself when it came to Yudit Silva, the woman he said was going to be principal of Odyssey Academy in Tamarac.

Silva had signed an affidavit to help Odyssey get a city permit so it can open, as planned, in September.

And her husband had signed on as a director of the corporation that would own the school.

But a few days after the NBC 6 Investigators showed Deliard an audit of a charter school Silva once led, Pathways Academy Charter School in Lauderdale Lakes, Deliard said he decided to sever ties with Silva.

“Knowing that, I believe that opened my eyes to make sure these things don’t happen to Odyssey Academy,” Deliard said.

The “things” he’s referring to: Under Silva’s leadership, Pathways Academy was found to have falsified teacher’s signatures, misspent money, failed to pay bills and federal payroll taxes, and overstated enrollment figures, receiving nearly $50,000 in overpayments from state funds, according to an audit by the Broward School District.

Citing "financial mismanagement" and violations of law, the school board voted in April 2016 to revoke Pathways’ charter – a decision upheld in January by a state administrative judge after the school appealed. The school ultimately voluntarily relinquished its charter and converted to a private school, which is now closed.

Andrew Ramjit was a Pathways administrator for about two months in 2015 before he quit and reported the abuses to the state.

"Funds were being misused, things weren’t in place for the teachers. It was pandemonium in the school every single day," Ramjit told the NBC 6 Investigators. "Bills weren’t being paid. There was an IRS lien on the school."

Public records and the school’s audit confirmed those allegations and more.

The IRS has filed more than $82,000 in liens against the company that ran the school, Silva of South Florida Inc., claiming it did not properly report or pay payroll taxes, such as amounts withheld from employees’ paychecks and the employer’s portion of social security and Medicare taxes.

Earlier this year, the school was evicted from its Lauderdale Lakes site and Silva of South Florida Inc. was ordered to pay $48,000 in back rent, but it has not done so, according to court records. The state judge who upheld the school’s charter revocation said Silva was president of that company during the relevant time period.

The company and Silva are also being sued for $19,000 by a leasing company that claims they failed to pay all that was owed for computer equipment. Neither the company nor Silva has filed an answer to that complaint.

Asked if the same people who ran Pathways should run another school, Ramjit said, "Absolutely not. I wouldn’t send my children to their school."

Ramjit said children’s education should be the top priority of a school but with Pathways “it was all about the money.”

NBC 6 attempted to reach Silva by calling and messaging phones listed for her and her associates and for a lawyer who represented Pathways in the fight against charter revocation, but no calls or texts were returned. Nor did anyone answer several knocks on the door of Silva’s home, which also serves at the corporate address for Silva of South Florida, Inc.

Photo Credit: NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA['Gray Death': New Lethal Heroin Mix a Concern ]]> Tue, 11 Jul 2017 22:40:10 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Gray+Death+Heroin+Mix.JPG

It looks like concrete and it can kill a person in one small dose.

A new lethal combination of drugs called “Gray Death” has been linked to overdoses around the country and investigators fear it could be making its way to South Florida.

“If I did a little bit more than I did, I would’ve died,’ said 19 year old Madison Smith.

She spoke to the NBC 6 Investigators while in a detox program.

Smith started out experimenting with pills and alcohol at a young age. Last month, while on the west coast of Florida near Tampa, she decided to experiment with something much stronger.

“We decided to buy a 40 dollar bag of heroin,” said Smith.

She thought it was heroin. It wasn’t. She believes what she took was a combination of Gray Death.

“It was kind of light gray, I have never done it before so I didn’t know too much, I just did a tiny bump of my pinky.” That tiny bump almost killed her.

“It’s hard to explain,” Smith said. “My legs and my arms kind of felt like noodles, I’ve never taken a drug that has made me feel this kind of way,” she said.

Investigators say Gray Death often includes a killer cocktail of opioids: heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil and a synthetic opioid called U-47700.

Police said the lethal combo has been responsible for deaths in Ohio and Georgia. DEA agents in Miami tell the NBC 6 Investigators the drug may have made its way to South Florida. They’re investigating a few possible cases and are having the chemicals tested to find out what exactly is inside. It could take weeks before the results are back.

"It’s not heroin anymore, it’s becoming way more expensive and the synthesized things like Grey Death are becoming a lot cheaper,” said Smith.

Addiction therapists said the drug could be even deadlier.

“Chances are you will overdose immediately,” said Dr. Robin Barnett, an addiction expert at Reawakenings Wellness Center.

In Miami Dade and Broward Counties, 1,037 people died of a drug overdose just last year. And that’s before the new lethal “Gray Death” combo. Many of the overdose cases involve heroin mixed with another drug like fentanyl or carfentanil.

“They are not actually out there seeking it, it’s just showing up in the drugs that they are doing,” said Dr. Barnett.

Madison checked herself into a South Florida Rehab Center.

“I brought myself here, it was by choice,” Smith said.

It’s a choice she’s glad she was able to make.

“It was either come here or died on the street,” Smith said. “And now I feel like I actually have hope.”

<![CDATA[Plastic Surgery Clinic Allowed to Reopen a Week After Death]]> Thu, 08 Jun 2017 18:21:47 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/gretel+jardon.JPG

A special magistrate ruled in a hearing Thursday that Seduction Cosmetic Center in Doral can reopen after being shut down last week.

Code compliance officers in the city of Doral ordered the clinic to close last Thursday, a few hours after the death of Lattia Baumeister. The mother of six stopped breathing after a Brazilian Butt Lift Procedure.

Autopsy reports show she died of a fat embolus in her lungs.

City officials inspected the Doral facility after her death and found the center didn't have proper city permits for six doctors, two operating rooms and two massage therapists.

It's the first time a city has taken action against a clinic after a death since the NBC 6 Investigators uncovered women dying after plastic surgery.

City officials said since then the owners have met with city workers and submitted the proper paperwork to be able to reopen.

The owner, Gretel Jardon, didn't have any comment after the hearing, but her attorney did.

"The Jardons and the staff at Seduction Cosmetic, their thoughts and prayers are with the family of Ms. Baumeister but besides that we have no comment today," said attorney Robert Fine.

The clinic filed paperwork for a permit for Dr. Osak Omulepu. He's the surgeon who performed the procedure on Baumeister. The attorney said Omulepu no longer works there. 

The Florida Board of Medicine says he's not allowed to perform plastic surgery procedures in the state. The state made this request of an appeals court following the death. Dr. Omulepu is appealing a decision by the Board of Medicine to revoke his medical license. 

His attorney argued known complications of surgery led to the death and two previous cases where he was accused of committing malpractice.

<![CDATA[Tougher Tests Fuel Teacher Shortage, Educators Say ]]> Wed, 07 Jun 2017 17:38:53 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/teacher+test.JPG

In a classroom at Miami-Dade College’s InterAmerican Campus, 10 aspiring teachers are learning how to document the special needs of what they hope will be students in classes they will one day lead. 

But, in addition to the desire to teach, nine of those 10 students share something else: they failed at least one of the tests required to be certified to teach in Florida.

Three years ago, the state made the certification tests much harder, part of the federal Race to the Top program’s emphasis on improving teacher effectiveness.

The Florida Department of Education says the test was made more rigorous because it “is committed to ensuring that Florida's students have access to high quality educators at every step along their education journey … and the teacher certification exams are essential to ensuring their teachers have the skills and knowledge necessary to help them succeed.”

But one effect of the harder tests, educators tell NBC 6, is fewer students passing, exacerbating what is already a shortage of experienced, well-qualified teachers.

If the state wanted to make it harder to teach, they succeeded.

Just look at the change in average pass rates for the two years before and after the tests were toughened: general knowledge essay and reading -- down 30 percent; K-6 language arts and reading -- down 38 percent; and middle grade English – down up to 60 percent.

“The tests are harder and the passing scores are higher, so it’s a double whammy for students,” said Dr. Susan Neimand, dean of MDC’s College of Education. “They get slapped on both sides of their face.”

So how hard are these tests?

TEST BREAK: Try to answer this question: (Correct response below, and just before the next TEST BREAK question)

DIRECTIONS: Choose the sentence in which the modifiers are correctly placed. 
A.   While protesting the Vietnam War, clashes between Chicago police and demonstrators resulted in over 175 arrests at the DemocraticNational Convention.
B. While protesting the Vietnam War, Chicago police arrested over 175 demonstrators during clashes at the Democratic National Convention.
C. While protesting the Vietnam War, over 175 demonstrators were arrested for clashing with Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention.
D. While protesting the Vietnam War and clashing with the Chicago police, over 175 demonstrators were arrested.

The Florida Teacher Certification Exam includes four sections in its general knowledge test, including the English language skills portion from which the questions above is drawn.

Claudia Hernandez, an MDC junior majoring in exceptional student education, has failed to pass the essay portion twice. In 2014, 93 percent of test-takers passed the essay; in 2015, after the change, 63 percent passed.

“Well, it’s embarrassing,” she said after class recently. “I’m a very capable person.”

The Miami High graduate has worked in a museum for a decade, educating underprivileged kids, and tutors some of her peers. She wants to teach because, she said, “I love learning, am a lifelong learner, extremely enthusiastic about science in particular.”

But she is perplexed by the higher failure rates. “I know a lot of my classmates are struggling and they are intelligent people, they are capable people and that exam does not reflect how you’re going to be as a teacher.”

Dean Neimand agreed.

“I absolutely think it’s totally unfair,” she said of the tougher tests. “I think the test is rigged to be very, very tricky.”

TEST BREAK: So, was that first question tricky? The Answer was C: While protesting the Vietnam War, over 175 demonstrators were arrested for clashing with Chicago police at the Democratic National Convention.

Now for a little harder one:

DIRECTIONS: Choose the option that corrects and error in the underlined portion(s). If no error exists, choose "No change is necessary."

These two brands of (A) inexpensive laundry detergent both performed
(B) fantastic on those (C) terrible stains.

A. inexpensively
B. fantastically
C. terribly
D. No change is necessary

The FDOE said the new, harder tests, are aligned with the goal of improving teacher effectiveness.

“There’s no correlation between passing a test and being an effective teacher,” Neimand said. “People who would potentially be excellent teachers are being discouraged from going into the teaching profession.”

People like Christopher Sanchez, who just retook the English portion for a third time.

“I was spending hours and hours and hours studying and when I took the exam I didn’t pass anything, I was very downhearted.”

But he continues to try, paying $150 each time he takes a retest.

“I do believe in testing,: he said, “but to this extent where we’re spending hundreds of dollars.”

The harder the test, the more money they spend and, ultimately, the more money paid to Pearson, the company FDOE contracts with to produce, administer and grade the tests.

It’s now on track to be paid $57 million by FDOE since 2012, an amount boosted, its contract notes, by the “escalation in rigor.”

“This is all about making money,” Neiman said, “The test provider is making a fortune off of the students.”

Pearson said it is just doing what its client, the state, is requesting – and the state agrees.

TEST BREAK: The previous answer is B, “fantastically.” This one may take some mad math skills.:

A child has 26 pennies, 15 nickels, 21 dimes, and 18 quarters in a coin bank. When the child picks up the bank, a single coin falls out. What is the probability that the coin is a quarter?

A. 3/16
B. 9/40
C. 21/80
D. 26/80

Forty-three percent of test-takers failed the mathematics portion on the general knowledge test in 2016.

Besides discouraging potentially good teachers and costing struggling students more money, the new, harder tests also contribute to what Neimand calls Florida’s “critical teacher shortage.”

A study by the Learning Policy Institute ranks Florida among the worst in promoting an environment that attracts enough qualified teachers. The ranks among the worst in the share of classrooms led by inexperienced or uncertified teachers. When new students fail the certification test, they cannot teach – but certain college graduates can be hired without certification for up to three years.

Oh, and that last answer is B: 9/40.

<![CDATA[Doctor Can't Perform Plastic Surgeries After Woman's Death]]> Tue, 06 Jun 2017 17:46:01 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/102616+omulepu+pic+at+hearing.jpg

A doctor who is appealing the revocation of his medical license is no longer able to perform plastic surgery procedures days after a woman died after surgery, according to the state.

The Florida Board of Health made the request to restrict Dr. Osak Omulepu from operating Monday. The request was made to the First District Court of Appeals - the panel that would make the ruling regarding Dr. Omulepu's revocation.

Thursday, Lattia Baumeister, 30, died at the hospital soon after having an emergency during a Brazilian Butt Lift surgery. She died of a fat embolism, which is when fat gets in the blood stream and causes a person to stop breathing.

According to her family, Baumeister leaves behind six children. The family has set up a fundraising effort to help her children.

The Florida Board of Medicine voted to revoke Dr. Omulepu's medical license in April. 

Omulepu's revocation came out of two cases that happened on the same day in May 2015. Two women say he punctured their internal organs during Brazilian Butt Lift operations. 

The court ruled Omulepu was allowed to continue operating without restrictions while he appeals that decision.

In the latest request to restrict his license, the state says Omulepu "has not taken responsibility for his actions and sought to absolve himself of responsibility for the serious injuries he caused his patients by claiming an informed consent form protected him."

The court agreed to prohibit him from performing plastic surgery procedures and allow other procedures only if a board-certified doctor was present.

Dr. Omulepu's attorney, Monica Rodriguez, is requesting that Omulepu be able to perform plastic surgeries but only with a board-certified doctor in the room.

The court has not yet ruled on that change.

<![CDATA[Mayor Calls for Investigation in Commissioner Controversy]]> Wed, 24 May 2017 20:02:26 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/212*120/052217+north+bay+village+commissioner+douglas+hornsby.jpg

The mayor of North Bay Village wants an independent investigation into a controversy swirling around a commissioner.

Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps made the request for an investigation by the Miami-Dade State Attorney's office after learning what the NBC 6 Investigators discovered about Dr. Douglas Hornsby's past.  

Hornsby was convicted in a felony in 1992 but signed voter registration applications twice checking the box that indicated he was not a convicted felon.

Commissioners in North Bay Village have to be a registered voter to serve. And to be a registered voter, you can’t have a felony conviction or you have to have had your right to vote restored. Both voter registration applications were filled out before Hornsby had his voting rights restored in 2005.

Hornsby was appointed in January 2017 to the commission.

At a recent meeting, Hornsby told fellow commissioners he needed time to speak. It was then he admitted he had a drug conviction in Tennessee. He said he was making it public that he had a conviction for selling cocaine in 1992 because he and his wife were receiving threats he called blackmail.

“This is somebody outside that's doing this to get me… off the commission or to vote another way,” Hornsby stated at the meeting.

Hornsby says he recently started getting the threats by mail and over the phone. He says they were designed to ruin his political and medical career and his marriage.

“I started getting letters --poison pen letters. Anonymous letters describing I was going to be outed to tell the public I was such a terrible person,” he said during the meeting.

The police chief, Carlos Noriega, says Hornsby's accusations launched an investigation into what’s being called "extreme politically motivated crimes." He says those investigations involve FDLE and even the FBI.

Mayor Leon-Kreps says she wasn't aware of the specifics of Hornsby's past until told by the NBC 6 Investigators.

According to public records in Tennessee, Hornsby had a drug conviction in 1992 in Shelby County, Tennessee that sent him to prison. After being released, he was on parole until 1999.

Because of the felony conviction, he lost his right to vote. But that’s not what Hornsby said previously at the meeting.

“I have never lost my right to vote," he said at the meeting. “I've voted for years in Tennessee and then 20 years here in Florida."

Officials in Tennessee told us Hornsby had his right to vote restored in 2005.

But Miami Dade Elections provided his voter registration application dated in 1998 while he was still on parole in Tennesse.  The box is marked that the applicant isn't a convicted felon. Another application from 2004 when Hornsby moved to North Bay Village has the same box marked.

Attorney Herbert Erving Walker III, a former prosecutor and now defense attorney reviewed the public records obtained by the NBC 6 Investigators.

“He's voting fraudulently," Walker said. “There appears to be a clear conflict between what you have--the date that you have the restoration in Tennessee in 2005 and two forms from the Miami Dade Elections Commission that show 1998 and 2004 being signed by this individual indicating that he either wasn't convicted or was already restored. There's obviously a conflict."

The issue for Hornsby now is what’s on the voter registration application. The form says it’s a felony to be dishonest when filling it out.

Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps is worried. “My concern is the cloud over the Village," she said. “What you have told me is very serious.”

The Mayor is concerned about a vote of confidence the Commission took for Hornsby at the same meeting where he first spoke about the issue. The vote was based on the City Attorney's recommendation.

At the meeting, City Attorney Robert Switkes said the vote was needed “...to reappoint if that's necessary Commissioner Hornsby and ratify everything that's happened since he was appointed because the legal conundrum just gets larger and larger.”

“My concern is also why we have to reappoint him and ratify his nomination to the seat if he had already been nominated,” the mayor said.

The NBC 6 Investigators have tried repeatedly to talk to Dr. Hornsby by phone, email and visits to his home and work. The email to him was returned by the police chief who said he would answer our questions. But Chief Noriega said since the matter is under investigation, he can’t say much about what’s going on other than he’s making progress.

The NBC 6 Investigators notified the Miami Dade County Elections Department who said they are sending the information to the State Attorney's Office.

Mayor Leon-Kreps hopes Dr. Hornsby can help clear things up.

"We are going to have to give Commissioner Hornsby the opportunity to explain it to the residents, to all of us," she said. "We need clarification and full discloure. The residents are owed that. We need to be upfront and tell it like it is." 

<![CDATA[More Skimmers Being Found Despite Efforts to Prevent Them]]> Tue, 23 May 2017 09:34:07 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/skimmer+security+tape.JPG

Eli Portnoy worried something was wrong when he went to pump gas at the station near his Miami Beach neighborhood.

"I actually played with the terminal to make sure it was loose of all things,” Portnoy said.

But he didn’t see anything amiss so he went on to fill his tank.

Within two days he got a call from his credit card company questioning some charges that were made. Charges he says he didn’t make. He soon realized his credit card information was compromised and he was able to trace it back to his neighborhood gas station.

"So I started doing homework and realized that there were other people that allegedly had their card stolen at the same location and I felt compelled. Someone needed to do something," he said. "The question is what's the solution? And I don't know what it is other than using cash."

Skimmers continue to be found in gas pumps across Florida. 128 skimmers have been found statewide through mid-April 2017. That’s on pace to surpass last year’s total when 219 skimmers were found.

State lawmakers passed a law to try to prevent these crimes. It went into effect in October 2016. It required gas stations to have security measures including a sticky seal that would notify workers if someone had tampered with the pump.

“If the door opens, the seal breaks,” said Miami-Dade Economics Crime Detective Marcos Rodriguez explained. “Once you pull the seal off, it says void.”

The NBC 6 Investigators obtained the list of the stations where state inspectors have found skimmers this year but didn’t find security in place. At three locations we checked, there still weren’t seals on the pumps last week.

But what’s more alarming is that at more than half of the gas stations where the state has found skimmers, security tape was properly in place.

Det. Rodriguez says thieves are sometimes stealing the tape or bringing their own to replace it.

“What they’ll do is, they’ll come, rip the seal out, put in the skimming device, and put the duplicate seal over the pump,” he explained.

He also says the department is seeing thieves being more creative with the skimmers they use. That includes a skimmer that looks nearly exactly like where the card gets inserted.

He says even someone who knows what to look for would have a hard time seeing it.

“You won’t even see the hanging wire,” he said.

He said thieves are even using Bluetooth technology to retrieve the credit card information without having to open up the machine.

“It gives them the ability to quickly come by and download whatever numbers the skimming device has inside,” he said.

He recommends against using a pump with a seal that’s been tampered with or a pump that doesn’t have one. He also recommends using a pump closest to and in sight of a clerk. He also says to pay inside rather than at the pump.

<![CDATA[Doctor Credentials: Issues with Online Advertising]]> Mon, 22 May 2017 18:40:48 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/plastic+surgery.JPG

South Florida is one of the top spots for plastic surgery in the country.

Women learn about doctors through their slick online advertisements and websites. But the NBC 6 Investigators found sometimes looks can be deceiving when it comes to a doctor’s online credentials.

Experts say a doctor’s credentials and training matters because it’s that education that helps keep patients safe.

Florida has state rules that prohibit doctors from advertising anything that’s “false, deceptive, or misleading.”

But what the NBC 6 Investigators discovered caused some local doctors to change their online appearance just hours after hearing from NBC 6.

The NBC 6 Investigators have reported on the plastic surgery complications involving Heather Meadows, Shabriya Hill and Crystal Call. One died and two others were hospitalized for days. All three women went to a doctor who, at the time of their procedures, was described as a “board certified MD” online.

But Dr. James McAdoo is not an MD, he’s a DO, an osteophathic physician that is still a doctor but with different training from different certifying boards.

“For people like me, when I see board certified, I say ‘Okay, he’s board certified,’ I didn’t know there are different boards,” said Call who was hospitalized after undergoing a Brazilian Butt Lift procedure.

The NBC 6 Investigators found the “MD” title next to Dr. McAdoo’s name on three different websites dating back to 2015.

Dr. McAdoo’s attorney told NBC 6 Investigators it was not the doctor’s error because he doesn’t maintain or manage the websites.

He also said, in an email, the doctor is board certified by the American Osteopathic Board of Surgery.

“Do your homework and when I say do your homework, go through the boards, make sure you know exactly what you’re looking for,” said Call.

The NBC 6 Investigators randomly searched through the online profiles of more than a hundred doctors who do plastic surgery in South Florida and took the findings to Dr. Steven Rosenberg who sits on the Florida Board of Medicine.

“It may be an honest mistake but the patients are being misled and that’s a concern,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

Board Certifications

Dr. Anthony Hasan performs cosmetic surgery in South Florida. His company’s website described him as “board certified in dermatology.”

However, the American Board of Dermatology told the NBC 6 Investigators they have no current record of him.

Dr. Hasan’s attorney said it was a “mistake” and that he is not currently certified due to an issue with his medical license. He said the doctor plans on reapplying for certification soon and deleted the certification from the website.

An online profile for Dr. Decio Carvalho, a Brazilian trained local doctor who performs cosmetic procedures, showed he’s a “licensed and board certified cosmetic surgeon.”

At least it stated that until an hour after the NBC 6 Investigators contacted him because he couldn’t be found as having been certified by any state-recognized board.

The company deleted his profile from the website. Dr. Carvalho has not responded to NBC6’s repeated calls, emails and a visit to his office over the past two weeks.

“If you’re board certified you must say what you’re board certified in,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

State Requires “Disclaimer”

Dr. Rosenberg said in medicine, it's important to be accurate in titles and credentials.

State rules require doctors to include a disclaimer on any advertising that lists board certification from a board that’s not recognized in Florida. The disclaimer reads: “The specialty recognition identified herein has been received from a private organization not affiliated with or recognized by the Florida Board of Medicine.”

“If they run an ad with that kind of certification they need to put a disclaimer in there that this is not a recognized board,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

Another doctor, Dr. Patrick Abuzeni in Miami, was listed on a company website that described him as certified by the American Board of Cosmetic Surgery.

However, it’s not an approved board recognized by the State of Florida. Dr. Abuzeni’s profile did not include a disclaimer.

The doctor did not return NBC 6 Investigators repeated calls and emails, but the clinic where he works took down his biography a few hours after NBC 6 reached out. However, there’s still no disclaimer on the doctor’s personal website.

Researching your Doctor

Dr. Rosenberg said he believes the advertising can confuse patients.

“Of course, we encourage people to go the Florida Board of Medicine’s website, it’s very user friendly and it’s easy to look up a physician’s license,” said Dr. Rosenberg.

However, the NBC 6 Investigators discovered an issue with that website information as well. The information is self-reported by the doctors themselves.

For example, the website lists Dr. Hasan as board certified in Dermatology, which he’s not currently.

The Board does investigate issues with advertising, but a complaint has to be filed with the state first. Discipline can range from a warning to action being taken against a doctor’s license. The NBC6 Investigators found a case of a doctor getting disciplined for misidentifying himself as being board certified back in 2007. He received a $9,500 fine.

Experts say you should go to a doctor that’s certified by a state recognized board like the American Board of Plastic Surgery.

Here’s a complete list of boards recognized by the Florida Board of Medicine.

  • American Board of Facial Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery
  • American Board of Pain Medicine
  • American Association of Physician Specialists
  • American Board of Physician Specialists
  • American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians
  • American Board of Vascular Medicine
  • American Board of Allergy and Immunology
  • American Board of Anesthesiology
  • American Board of Colon and Rectal Surgery
  • American Board of Dermatology
  • American Board of Emergency Medicine
  • American Board of Family Medicine
  • American Board of Internal Medicine
  • American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics
  • American Board of Neurological Surgery
  • American Board of Nuclear Medicine
  • American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology
  • American Board of Opthalmology
  • American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery
  • American Board of Otolaryngology
  • American Board of Pathology
  • American Board of Pediatrics
  • American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation
  • American Board of Plastic Surgery
  • American Board of Preventive Medicine
  • American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology
  • American Board of Radiology
  • American Board of Surgery
  • American Board of Thoracic Surgery
  • American Board of Urology

When it comes to osteopathic physicians, you can find more information here. The American Osteopathic Association has more than a dozen specialty certifying boards which offer certifications in more than 100 specialties.

<![CDATA[Field of Broken Dreams Extends to Garages]]> Thu, 18 May 2017 09:06:13 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/half+full+marlins+stadium.JPG

As the Miami Marlins owner considers offers to buy the team, the public that funded the bulk of the $600 million stadium and garage complex is bracing for one final insult: a delay in any sale beyond March of next year. After that date, local governments would receive no share of net profits. 

That was part of the deal owner Jeffrey Loria cut with Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami, in exchange for the governments taking on a debt load of more than $2.6 billion – including all the interest that must be paid over the decades. 

Under the agreement, the share of net profits that would be paid to the governments from any sale decreased from 70 percent in 2009 to 5 percent. It drops to zero after the stadium’s been open for six years. That date would be March 31, 2018, according to a county spokesperson. 

County Mayor Carlos Gimenez looks at the history of the public involvement in Marlins Park and sees a field of broken promises. 

But Gimenez, whose opposition to the stadium deal when he was on the county commission helped propel him to the mayor’s seat, added, “I never believed them anyway. Stadiums, for all the claims that are made, are not about economic development.” 

But this deal has helped Loria’s personal economics, as he fields offers reportedly of around $1.3 billion for the team. 

“Mr. Loria is going to pocket hundreds of millions of dollars off basically what started out as a $30 million investment,” Gimenez said. 

The exact amount of any profit sharing is unknown, because key factors – such as sale price, existing team debt, transaction costs and taxes – are unknown. 

The team declined to comment on any aspect of the potential sale, including whether it would seek to close the deal before April 2018. 

One factor that is known: the team will be valued at $500 million in the calculation used to determine the total profit. So, if the team sells for $1.3 billion, the gross profit would be $800 million. But five percent of a much smaller sum – the net proceeds -- would be shared by the city and county after transaction-related expenses and taxes are deducted, according to the agreement. 

With a deadline looming for the public to share in that investment, Gimenez is concerned about one last blow. 

“The final insult is if it’s somehow crafted so it closes after April first, so that there would be no sharing in this revenue,” said Gimenez. “We’re the majority partners in this deal in this stadium. We own this stadium.” 

And the City of Miami owns parking garages, including more than 57,000 square feet of retail space that was envisioned as bustling commercial real estate feeding off the crowds and excitement of the stadium. 

But the crowd sizes -- projected by the team in an economic analysis paid for by the team as it tried to persuade the public to fund the stadium – never materialized. 

The NBC 6 Investigators found the team projected it would attract 12.8 million fans over its first five years in the stadium; in fact, it drew 9 million – the smallest crowds in the National League. 

That economic analysis estimated the team and its fans would generate about $300 million a year in economic activity, producing $780,000 a year in sales tax revenue just for the City of Miami. 

Over five years that would mean $3.9 million for the city in sales tax revenues based on projected crowds. But if the 30 percent miss on crowd size is comparable to the overestimation of sales taxes, the city’s share of sales tax revenue has come up short by nearly $1.2 million over the first five years. 

And that’s not all the city has missed. 

The retail spaces in the ground level of the garages owned by the city have also been a disappointment, said city commissioner Frank Carollo, who was not on the commission when it approved the stadium deal in 2009. 

“Well the retail we had issues at the beginning,” he said. “No doubt about it’s been slow, it’s been a very slow process.” 

The city has actually spent more paying would-be tenants to fix up the spaces they promise to rent -- $1.6 million, plus future credit of more than $1 million to an as-yet unopened microbrewery – than it has collected in rent ($452,000 since October 2014). The tenant improvement allowances and rent credits are common provisions in leases, when the tenant is spending money to turn the landlord’s space into something suitable for commercial enterprises. In the city garages’ case, the property is turned over as a “cold, dark shell,” basically what it sounds like: empty space with dirt floors, no air conditioning, no interior walls, no indoor plumbing or electrical connections. 

Five years after opening, most of the garage retail space remains closed to the public. And what is open is not exactly a thriving entertainment hotspot: a dialysis center and a primary care medical center occupy 92 percent of the space currently open to the public. The rest is a Subway restaurant and what was a cigar shop, but is now a cafeteria – something the city says is an unpermitted use under the owner’s lease which will result in a notice of default being served this week. 

One sign of hope: Nightlife Brewing Company is preparing to open in a few weeks in about 10,000 square feet of space in a garage that fronts on NW 7th Street. In exchange for spending at least $900,000 fixing up the space, the microbrewery will pay no base rent for two years. Combined with more credits in the following five years, the total rent abatement will total more than $1 million over seven years.

<![CDATA[Heroin Deaths Spike as Pills Harder to Find]]> Mon, 15 May 2017 20:19:16 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/heroin+and+pain+pills.JPG

As South Florida comes to grips with an opioid epidemic, many who've been down the path to heroin addiction recall the same first step: abuse of prescription pain killers.

"It’s the same pattern with almost 99 percent of the people we see here," said Marc Romano, director of medical services for Delphi Behavioral Health, which owns Ocean Breeze Recovery in Pompano Beach. "They start out with the prescription pain pills and then they move to heroin because it's easier to get and cheaper."

It wasn’t always that way.

South Florida was once home to a booming — though illegal — market in prescription opioids, such as Vicodin, Percocet and Oxycontin.

A crackdown on the so-called pill mills beginning about seven years ago led to dozens of arrests of doctors and clinic owners.

And its success in stemming the flow of pharmaceutical opiates was felt all along the eastern United States.

In rural Connecticut, 15-year-old Britney Cornelison was bored and hanging with a risky crowd when she first tried OxyContin because “that’s what was going around at the time.”

"I kind of just escaped," she said. "It was a nice way to let go for a while."

And then it wasn’t.

"It definitely turned bad very fast," she recalled.

As supplies of pills dwindled and prices soared, she turned to heroin at age 19.

"It was just stronger. You didn’t need as much of it to get where you wanted to get," she said. "That’s what it was really about for me was the effect. It was just how much more messed up I could get."

Eventually, she landed in rehab at Ocean Breeze, where now — age 24 and clean more than two years — she is a case manager.

At her side at times, Matt Danner, once a commercial fisherman in New England, until his addiction led him to Ocean Breeze, where he’s now an admissions coordinator.

He tried OxyContin around 2002.

"Everybody always had it,” he recalled. “They were cheap, but I saw the price go from $50 a pill to $60 to $70 to eventually $80 a pill. You’re doing two pills, three pills a day, it becomes harder to support your habit."

Next came heroin.

"For about $20 for the day I was as high as I would’ve been off of $200 worth of pills," he said.

Romano and Ocean Breeze’s program helped both Cornelison and Danner, 32, reclaim their lives.

But Romano, a psychologist, says a steady stream of young addicts keep arriving at his door on Atlantic Boulevard, an area once at the heart of Broward’s pill mill heyday.

A map of opioid overdoses prepared by the county reveals 24 deaths last year within a mile of the Ocean Breeze offices.

NBC 6 Investigators used the data behind county map to create another that highlights where deaths are concentrated: nine, for instance, in or around just two low-budget motels near the Turnpike and Coconut Creek Parkway.

Another two dozen within a mile of Old Dixie Highway and Sample Road — the very same intersection where a pill mill once stood.

"They cracked down on it, but the individuals with addictions are still here,” Romano said. “They had to get that fix somewhere and what they did is they turned to cheaper, more available heroin.”

Heroin that is now sometimes laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 10 times stronger than heroin, or carfentanyl, which is 10 times stronger than that.

That potency is driving the surge in opioid deaths in Miami-Dade and Broward, medical examiners' office records show.

Last year, the two counties reported heroin was present in or the cause of 282 deaths, compared to just 18 in 2011 — a 15-fold increase.

Fentanyl, which was reported separately in deaths beginning in 2014, was found in 474 deaths in the two counties last year — up from just 75 in 2014.

And the NBC 6 Investigators found while those opioid-death numbers soar, the number of prescriptions for opioids in the state is decreasing.

A state database of prescriptions shows doctors wrote more than 1.2 million fewer prescriptions for hydrocodone and oxycodone in the year ending June 2016 than they did four years earlier.

When shown the research, Romano said a causal relationship between fewer pills and more heroin deaths would be a reasonable inference.

"People are not getting access to prescription pills, which are probably a little safer if you will, because you know what you’re getting," he said. "We got all these people hooked on prescription pain pills, opiates, then we took it away, but they still need something."

The answer, of course, is not to go back to the days when pill mills handed out drugs like candy to anyone who claimed to be sick.

Physicians being more careful in how they prescribe the drugs, with a goal of preventing addiction, is one key step, he said.

But once addicted, users can seek treatment that replaces heroin with other drugs that, over weeks, lessen that effects of opiate withdrawal, as they then transition into therapies designed to help them maintain sobriety.

Or at least try to.

Romano has seen his share of relapses and deaths.

"This is something people have a profound drive to get and nothing will getting their way," he said, recalling asking one woman why she kept returning to heroin. "Her response was, 'I'm in love with heroin.' Not 'I love doing it. I love the effects.' But, 'I’m in love with it.' And then she added, 'If I could marry it, I would.'"

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<![CDATA[Landlord Accused of Getting Paid Twice for Same Apartments]]> Wed, 10 May 2017 18:48:23 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/MIA+edward+daniel+landlord.JPG

A landlord who owns 11 buildings will no longer be able to do business with Miami-Dade Public Housing after an investigation concluded that he had been violating HUD regulations.

Edward Daniel receives about $120,000 a month in Section 8 vouchers from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, according to his attorney. 120 tenants live in the 11 buildings he owns throughout Miami-Dade, Miami Beach and Hialeah.

“The most egregious or most disturbing was the fact that he accepted payments from two housing authorities for the same unit for extended periods of time,” said Michael Liu, Miami-Dade Public Housing Director.

For almost two years, HUD investigators have been looking at Daniel’s business practices after the NBC 6 Investigators inquired about a tip with allegations of serious irregularities going on at a building in Miami that had been approved to receive Section 8 vouchers.

Isabel Soto called NBC 6 because she was being evicted. She says she was unknowingly subletting from one of Daniel’s Section 8 voucher tenants for $600 a month.

A HUD spokesperson said they couldn’t find substantial documentation to prove her case, but said her testimony led them in a different direction.

“You know, as the old saying goes, maybe when there’s smoke, there’s fire,” said Liu. “Unfortunately, we found some bad fires there.”

In a letter to Daniel, the county wrote they discovered that every month for seven months, he accepted $650 vouchers from Miami-Dade, while at the same time, accepting $652 vouchers from the Hialeah Housing Authority for the same unit.

It went on to say he did the same for four months with another unit in Miami Beach.

Reports show he accepted a $619 voucher from the county, and a $692 voucher from the Miami Beach Housing Authority simultaneously.

“It’s the taxpayer’s money,” said Liu. “It’s your money, my money.”

There was one allegation Soto made that wasn’t disputed by Daniel.

He had been charging some Section 8 tenants for reserved parking – something that’s not allowed by the HUD. His attorney told NBC 6 that Daniel has agreed to return that money, which amounts to less than $7,000. It’s part of a settlement with the U.S. Attorney’s office.

As for the HUD’s investigation, Director Liu says he has seen enough.

“We will no longer approve of any leases with this landlord,” Liu said.

Daniel declined to speak with NBC 6 on camera.

But in a statement, his attorney, Bill Tunkey, wrote in part, “Over the years, there have been multiple occasions that an apartment came vacant - tenant dies, tenant moves elsewhere, etc. - and promptly the housing authority would get a call or an in-person visit from Ed alerting the housing authorities that there was a change of tenant. Our often-understaffed, hard-working housing authority personnel did their best to expeditiously update their records, but sometimes these updates didn't get entered to the payment database before the following month's payment to the Daniel's had already been sent. As soon as Ed realized that an overpayment situation still needed correction, he repeated the alert. Usually in a phone call; sometimes in person. Regardless, once the housing authority had entered the correction into its payment database, it reconciled the debits and credits in their mutual account, deducted any such overpayments from the next month's payment of rents, and squared up the account.”

Daniel’s attorney described him as an old school businessman who made calls instead of sending e-mails or certified mail. He told NBC 6, as part of their settlement, he plans on hiring an accountant to help him with his financial affairs.

As for the Section 8 tenants, they will be allowed to stay in Daniel's units until their leases expire. After that, they may be required to find other units that accept their vouchers because HUD will no longer be approving new leases with Daniel.

<![CDATA[Living in Fear: Driving Without a License]]> Tue, 09 May 2017 09:32:38 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/driving+without+license.JPG

They break the law just about every time they leave their home: undocumented immigrants in South Florida getting behind the wheel without a valid driver’s license.

While no one knows exactly how many of the estimated 500,000 undocumented South Floridians drive, these motorists can impact other drivers. Without a license, some of those drivers could be driving without insurance.

One Colombian mother who has been driving in Miami without a license for ten years agreed to talk to NBC 6 if we would protect her identity and not use her or her family’s real names.

“It’s a risk but many people have to drive because they have to go to work,” said Maria.

Maria has been living in South Florida for 17 years. She moved to the United States seeking political asylum. Maria and her husband are under a deportation order.

Maria says she one reason she drives is to get to her job on time as a makeup artist. More importantly, she says driving helps her create a more normal life for her children.

Her son, Jose, 20, is legally living in this country through the Dream Act and her younger child is a US-born citizen.

She says she and her husband, who has also been driving without a valid license, have been driving even more carefully recently.

“I don’t want to be in an accident,” said Maria.

Maria’s son, Jose, fears what would happen if his mom gets in an accident or is stopped by police while driving.

“Every day when they leave the house I feel worried because whatever little thing they can get stopped,” said Jose, “You don’t know what that cop might say, ‘Oh, we’re taking you in because you don’t have your license’.”

If his parents were to be deported, he would be responsible for his younger brother and grandmother.

“It’d be very difficult to study and work and put food on the table for them,” said Jose.

While there is no way to know how many undocumented immigrants are driving, NBC 6 has learned that when an unlicensed driver is stopped in Florida, the state assigns them a number. Florida has generated more than 200,000 numbers to drivers between the ages of 18 and 65.

Some states are trying to combat the problem by allowing undocumented immigrants to get driver’s licenses. In California, more than 865,000 undocumented immigrants already have one.

The Florida Highway Patrol says the law in Florida has not changed.

“If you are stopped driving without a valid driver’s license, you violated the law,” said Joe Sanchez, a spokesperson for the Florida Highway Patrol. He says they look for an immigration hold. If one is found, they must contact immigration. But he says that that doesn’t happen often.

“If we stop you and you are an illegal immigrant and you don’t have an arrest warrant and you don’t have a warrant on immigration, we basically just write you a ticket,” said Sanchez.

Daniel Gonzalez, an attorney with The Ticket Clinic, says in just one of their 11 Miami-Dade offices they receive about three calls weekly from unlicensed drivers who have been stopped by police.

“They are genuinely afraid,” said Gonzalez. “You can’t live in this city without driving. I get that. So they’ll continue to drive whether they have a license or not.”

Gonzalez says one or two tickets wouldn’t have impacted an undocumented person in the past. However, that could change now.

“Criminal tickets could have immigration consequences,” said Gonzalez.

Mayra Joli, an immigration attorney says that undocumented immigrants shouldn’t take the risk and drive without a driver’s license.

“You cannot be driving because that is the easiest way to get in contact with an officer,” said Joli. “You’re not going to have anything to show and eventually you’re going to end up where? In ICE custody.”

Maria knows the risk and says she stopped driving when she first received her deportation order. Despite that fear she says she slowly started to drive again. “I have to work. I have to take my child to school,” said Maria.

And Jose understands why his parents still drive.

“They do it so we can live in this house and so we can eat every day,” he said.

This family doesn’t have to worry about driving for now. Since NBC 6 interviewed this family their situation has changed.

Maria and her husband are no longer driving without a license.

They each had a driver’s license years ago when they applied for political asylum.

However, when the asylum was denied, they couldn’t renew the license.

Their attorney told NBC 6 both have been allowed to renew their licenses a few weeks ago. The family continues to fight the deportation orders.

<![CDATA[Kids Gaming Site is Breeding Ground for Predators, Mom Warns]]> Mon, 08 May 2017 20:41:22 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/roblox+video+game+warning.jpg

A Louisiana mother is sounding the alarm about a popular online gaming site for kids, telling NBC 4 New York's I-Team she believes her son was "groomed" by a sexual predator who was lurking in the virtual adventure world.

The 8-year-old boy met the alleged predator on Roblox, a gaming community which boasts nearly 50 million users a month. It also allows players to chat with each other, which is how the boy was allegedly targeted.

The mother says the alleged predator portrayed himself as a child in the virtual world, and became “play partners” with her son after repeatedly finding him the same games.

The conversations quickly escalated with questions about the boy’s school, his home address – and then photos.

Photo Credit: NBC 4 New York]]>
<![CDATA[Dog Rescue Charity Settles with State]]> Mon, 01 May 2017 19:03:30 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/011717+abandoned+puppy+dog.jpg

A Broward County charity that has rescued thousands of abandoned dogs will be allowed to continue operating, but must tighten some of its policies and pay a $5,000 fine.

The group, 100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida, was accused by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services of misspending money and misleading the public about its supposed all-volunteer status. In December that agency proposed imposing a $10,000 fine and repealing the group’s charity status, claiming $98,758 in charity money was spent for what “appears to be … personal use.”

But the group appealed, claiming all that money was spent on charity business and it continues to deny the allegations.

After months of negotiations, the group and the state last month signed a settlement agreement that requires payment of a $5,000 fine, as well as modifications in how the group does business.

The charity must pay for an audit of all its records going back to its incorporation in 2012 and, if discrepancies are found, must amend tax returns. If any of the money spent was not a legitimate business expense, it must be treated as compensation to founder and president Amy Roman, the settlement states.

The state questioned what it said was $30,000 in loans provided to the Roman to help her purchase a vehicle. Roman did put $30,000 down on a 2011 BMW X5 luxury SUV in July 2013, according to records subpoenaed by the state. The charity also paid nearly $6,900 in payments for an auto loan on the vehicle, which was titled in Roman’s name and not the charity’s.

In a response to the state, the group’s attorney, Jeffrey Neiman, said the loans for the car from the charity totaled $20,000 – money repaid by Roman by April 2014 – and that the other $10,000 referenced by the state was the amount of a bonus Roman received from the group in 2013, though it was not ratified by the board until February 2014.

“The organization felt that purchasing a vehicle to use in rescuing animals and conducting adoption and promotional events was essential to the work of the organization,” Neiman wrote to the state.

The group issued a statement blaming “a few disgruntled and misinformed individuals” for raising the allegations.

Roman said Monday, “I’m glad it’s done and we can continue with what we have been doing.”

The state investigation was a difficult period for the charity, she said.

“You grow and you learn and you tighten up ship and we’re very pleased.”

<![CDATA[Trump Policy Shift Impacts Non-Criminal Immigrants]]> Sat, 29 Apr 2017 04:40:59 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/ice+arrests+generic.JPG

When it comes to illegal immigration, President Donald Trump’s tough talk is resulting in action by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers.

And it’s especially affecting undocumented people with no criminal records.

In Florida and Puerto Rico, the number of undocumented immigrants with no criminal background arrested by ICE in Trump’s first two months in office is 310 percent higher than it was over the same period in 2016.

In 2015 and 2016, about 15 percent of the people ICE arrested in the region between Jan. 20 and March 13 had no criminal background; that share has more than doubled, to 33 percent, under President Trump.

But the statistics, provided by an ICE official, also show the current year’s criminal-noncriminal ratio is almost identical to what it was in 2014 under former President Barack Obama – about a third of those arrested in 2014 and in 2017 were not criminals.

Obama changed ICE priorities for 2015 and 2016, focusing their efforts more on people who have criminal backgrounds.

But Trump’s executive order and a subsequent memo from the Secretary of Homeland Security broadened the mission for ICE agents, giving them to a green light to detain anyone who is in the US illegally.

Impact of the changes has not yet shown up in deportation numbers: about 55,000 people have been deported in the first three months of both 2016 and 2017.

But it takes time for many of those arrested to make their way through the deportation process, immigration lawyers say. So the final result of the renewed enforcement effort may not show up for some time.

But Carolina Maluje, an immigration attorney in Miami, says he has already seen a change in attitude among ICE employees.

“The attitude has been we have a new sheriff in town,” she said, recalling how one client was “badgered” by an ICE officer during an annual check-in, told “they were going to call child services because she came in with her children.” The family was allowed to leave, but Maluhe said it was unnecessarily traumatic.

Another client who she said did not have a deportation order or detainer, was turned over to ICE after he was stopped for speeding, but did not have a license.

He was held for two months before he could get a bond – something she said would have been easier to obtain pre-Trump.

“He’s a family man, has two U.S.-citizen children, has been in the United States almost 20 years, has his own business, owns his own property,” Maluje said.

Reminded that her client was apparently here illegally, she said “there’s still recourse” for such people.

The recourse happens in immigration court, which in Miami is backlogged so badly some people in court this month are being told to come back in August 2018 for their next hearing.

<![CDATA[Once Judged Too Disabled for Prison, Man Pleads in Killing]]> Wed, 26 Apr 2017 18:30:13 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/register+holsendorff+III.JPG

Register Holsendorff III could have gone to prison for a minimum of 10 years in 2005, after his arrest on three armed robbery charges.

But he persuaded doctors and a judge he was so severely mentally disabled, he was not competent to stand trial.

So, after several years in a state hospital and group homes, he was back on the streets in July 2012 where he would commit another crime: murder.

But, this time, a Miami-Dade circuit judge wasn’t buying his supposed mental incompetency.

The most compelling ammunition against him: his stellar – some might say, miraculous – behavior while in a group home.

The man -- who some doctors said lacked the ability to be personally independent and socially responsible -- managed to stagger group home visiting hours for his wife and girlfriend so they didn’t cross paths, according to the home manager. He even diverted his disability check from the group home so he – and not the group home – could cash it.

In essence, Judge Monica Gordo found in 2013, Holsendorff was faking it -- trying “an unsophisticated attempt to malinger” to get out of the 2005 armed robbery and other charges.

This time, the court would not let it happen again, after he killed a man in what police say was an argument over money or a woman.

Wednesday, Holsendorff pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, agreeing to a 20-year prison sentence, with 10 years of it mandatory for use of a firearm. He will be sentenced in August.

He told Judge Alan Fine he was “feeling good” after getting a morning dose of Haldol for what he said was bipolar schizophrenia.

His attorney, Alan Greenstein, said there was no doubt he suffered from some mental illness, but after Judge Gordo ruled he had bene malingering in the past and was, instead, competent to stand trial, he said the plea deal was a “fair resolution.”

“The state of the state’s case – I’m not saying they couldn’t prove it, but both sides had something to argue,” said Greenstein, adding, “and the fact Mr. Holsendorff had a history, whether he’s malingering or not, he certainly had a history of mental illness.”

Holsendorff, 36, has a record of at least eight felony arrests since he was 19.

While some doctors had claimed he was what the law calls “mentally retarded,” Judge Gordo noted that should have been diagnosed as such before he was 18.

Instead, she noted, “The first credible report of the defendant suffering from intellectual disability was when he was 25 and facing charges that would subject him to a lengthy prison term.”

Had he been convicted and sentenced to the minimum mandatory for those armed robberies, he would not have been free to murder in 2012.

<![CDATA[Court Allows Brazilian Butt Lift Doctor to Resume Surgery]]> Fri, 21 Apr 2017 18:40:49 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/osak+omulepu.JPG

Dr. Osak Omulepu will be allowed to continue performing Brazilian Butt Lifts and other cosmetic procedures while he appeals the Florida Board of Medicine’s decision to revoke his license.  The 1st District Court of Appeals granted what’s called a “stay” Friday afternoon, meaning Dr. Omulepu can continue practicing while he fights to get his license back.

Earlier this week, the Florida Board of Medicine filed paperwork to officially revoke the license of Dr. Osak Omulepu.

Department of Health officials said the doctor was "reckless" in performing Brazilian Butt Lift procedures on two women in 2015. Both women were hospitalized with life-threatening conditions. 

On May 15, 2015, mothers Nyosha Fowler and Donna Mcrae traveled from out of state to Miami to undergo Brazilian Butt Lift procedures. That's where fat is taken from a patients stomach or back and injected into their butt.

An administrative judge ruled Dr. Omulepu committed malpractice by improperly using the metal instrumented to inject fact, along with record keeping violations. The doctor struck McRae's liver and Fowler's bowel. Both women were hospitalized and Fowler said she still has trouble walking two years later.

During a recent medical board hearing, Dr. Omulepu's attorney argued hitting an organ is a known complication that is covered in the consent form signed by patients.

The Brazilian Butt Lift procedure is growing in popularity around the world. A series of NBC 6 Investigations into the surgery sparked a worldwide study that found the risk of dying is up to 20 times greater than any other cosmetic procedure. The study also issued new recommendations to doctors, encouraging them to not insert instruments too deeply into the body to avoid veins and organs.

<![CDATA[Plastic Surgery Center Changes Ownership After Recent Deaths]]> Thu, 27 Apr 2017 17:26:23 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/042017+eres+plastic+surgery+center.JPG

Eres Plastic Surgery, a clinic that has been at the center of numerous NBC 6 Investigations, has closed down. Another company, Imagenes Plastic Surgery, is expanding and has started to use a clinic space on SW 8th Street in Miami that Eres had used.

A spokesperson says Imagenes has hired many of the same doctors and staff members who had worked at Eres.

It’s the third name and ownership change for the SW 8th Street location in Miami in less than a year. It’s been called both Vanity Cosmetic Surgery and Eres Plastic Surgery in the last year.

As of now, the spokesperson said the Eres location in Hialeah on W. 49th St., that had previously been called Encore Plastic Surgery, will remain closed.

NBC 6 Investigators have been reporting on women from across the country who have traveled to the Eres, Encore and/or Vanity clinics in Hialeah and Miami in the past year to have cosmetic surgery and died.

Some of the women who have died recently include Ranika Hall, a new mother from Kansas City. She died in March after going to the Eres location in Hialeah for a Brazilian Butt Lift.

Heather Meadows, a mother of two, died last May at the same Hialeah clinic when it was called Encore.

In September 2016, Maria Christian died at the SW 8th St. clinic in Miami after undergoing a tummy tuck procedure. When she died, it was called Vanity Cosmetics but just over a week later, the name was changed to Eres.

An attorney who recently filed a lawsuit against Eres Plastic Surgery, Vanity Cosmetic Surgery, Encore Plastic Surgery and its owners has claimed the owners changed names to avoid problems.

A spokesperson for Imagenes tells NBC 6 they’re doing a complete “overhaul” of the facility they are now occupying and are making many positive changes.

An attorney for Imagenes contacted NBC 6 after this story was first published and reiterated that this is a complete ownership change and the business move was not done to avoid problems.