<![CDATA[NBC 6 South Florida - Team 6 Investigators]]>Copyright 2018 https://www.nbcmiami.com/investigations http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/NBC+6+LOGO+GOOGLE.png NBC 6 South Florida https://www.nbcmiami.com en-usSat, 18 Aug 2018 00:42:28 -0400Sat, 18 Aug 2018 00:42:28 -0400NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Patients Turn From Opioids to Medical Marijuana]]> Thu, 09 Aug 2018 05:14:32 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Opioids+and+Medical+Marijuana+5.png

Rosemary Maseri was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis years ago.

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

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

She says her treatment quickly turned into addiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Weiner currently sees 800 patients on cannabis.

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It's not fair," she said.

<![CDATA[Growing Pains for Medical Marijuana in Florida]]> Wed, 08 Aug 2018 18:47:06 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/marijuana+leaves.jpg

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

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

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

For him, the struggle is personal.

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

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

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

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

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

Farmers: "We Can't Grow Fast Enough"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dispensaries Running Out of Marijuana

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

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

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

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

New License Applications Accepted Soon

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Broward Schools Set New Rules on Medical Marijuana]]> Wed, 08 Aug 2018 10:16:24 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Arianna+taking+her+medication.png

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

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

Doctors gave Arianna two years to live.

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

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

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

She gives her cannabis oil drops three times a day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Woman's Death Leads to Doctor's Restricted License]]> Wed, 08 Aug 2018 11:38:42 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/VALLS+LONDON+DUAL+PICTURE_5653239_2018-08-07T183446.108.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

London died of what's called a fat embolism.

NBC 6 Investigators uncovered ten women who died after getting fat in a vein while undergoing the same procedure.

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

They're trying to make the procedure safer.

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

<![CDATA[Doctor’s License Remains Unchanged After Woman's Overdose]]> Thu, 02 Aug 2018 00:03:16 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/olya+langille+overdose+death.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Parikh told police they were snorting cocaine and smoking marijuana.

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

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

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

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

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

He also remains able to prescribe opioids and medical marijuana.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Dying For a Bigger Butt: Doctors Take Action After Deaths]]> Mon, 30 Jul 2018 23:38:04 -0400 Aesthetic Surgery Journal in March of 2017.
Aesthetic Surgery Journal in March of 2017.
<![CDATA[Doctors Take Action After NBC 6 Investigation]]> Mon, 30 Jul 2018 23:53:21 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/225*120/072618PICTURE1+%281%29.jpg

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Officer Who Shot Teen Did Not Violate His Civil Rights: Jury]]> Thu, 19 Jul 2018 12:26:04 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/121317+Tony+Investigates.png

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

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

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

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

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

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

The jury quickly found his actions were reasonable.

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Trampoline Parks Injuries on the Rise]]> Wed, 18 Jul 2018 19:04:25 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/girl+sitting+on+couch+with+trampoline+injury.jpg

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

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

But Alexandra, 13, now says life has changed.

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

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

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

Today, her scar is still visible.

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

Alexandra’s experience is not unique.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Karob admits that he didn’t read the waiver.

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

And that decision could cost him.

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

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

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

The wording is not a coincidence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: William Ruggiero, family's attorney
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<![CDATA[Man Acquitted of Shooting Woman During Robbery]]> Fri, 13 Jul 2018 18:35:38 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/michaelcolonmug.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[No Charges for North Bay Village Cops After Hurricane Party]]> Fri, 13 Jul 2018 12:07:21 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Officers_Face_No_Charges_for_Hurricane_Party.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walker says Florida law should be changed.

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Victims Of $26 Million 'Scam' May Recover Fraction Of Losses]]> Tue, 10 Jul 2018 21:05:51 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/scott+cooper+court+departure.JPG

The 70-foot yacht has been repossessed.

The Swiss bank accounts emptied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Couple Upset When Tip About Bank Robbery Doesn’t Net Reward]]> Tue, 10 Jul 2018 23:36:49 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/female+bank+robbery+suspect+cristina+rossi.jpg

You hear it all the time: call Crime Stoppers!

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

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

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

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

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

“We saw what occurred with the bank robbery and we saw it on NBC 6 on the website,” the man said. “We watched the video and when we watched the video the person that did the robbery looked very familiar.”

So, they say they called Wilton Manors Police, the Broward Sheriff’s Office and the FBI. They say they also submitted a tip on the app for Crime Stoppers of Broward County and got a code to track their tip.

Six days later, the bank robbery suspect was back on NBC6.

The FBI reported Cristina Rossi had been arrested.

She’s since been charged with bank robbery.

The federal court records outline a timeline of what happened. Prosecutors allege she entered the SunTrust Bank on Powerline Road in Fort Lauderdale at 1:39 p.m. with a note written on a piece of notebook paper that read “I Need To Feed my 5 Kids DO NOT PANIC put all The money in a Bag No Die PAKS I Need all The money NO sudden moves Keep Hands where I can see Them.”

The charging form goes on to say that after a teller asked the woman to remove her hat and glasses, the woman left the bank without taking any money.

Federal prosecutors allege the same note was handed to a teller at the Wells Fargo in Wilton Manors at 2:15 p.m. The teller handed over $1,253.

Rossi has pleaded not guilty to the federal charges she faces.

After the arrest, the couple who contacted NBC6 said they were expecting a call about reward money for the accurate tip they provided.

“Okay, so are they going to call us because we gave them the information,” the husband wondered.

When no call came, the woman called Wilton Manors Police to find out about the reward.

“They basically just said no, there is no reward,” the husband said.

Wilton Manors told us the couple’s tip was accurate and they had given the information to the FBI.

“We were able to reach out immediately to the lead investigative agency and provide them the information that was given to us by that caller,” Assistant Chief Gary Blocker said.

But Wilton Manors wasn’t offering a reward as the case was under federal jurisdiction.

Only Crime Stoppers would be likely to offer a reward for the right tip. The original news release sent out by the FBI urged anyone that recognized the woman to call Crime Stoppers.

“Your tip has to be the tip that leads the police to make an arrest that holds up,” Paul Jaworski, the president of Broward Crime Stoppers said.

The federal indictment indicates that tips were used to identify Rossi as the suspect.

One came from a probation officer who supervised a woman who “served time” in federal custody with Rossi. The woman reportedly identified Rossi. Prosecutors say another probation officer who himself supervised Rossi also identified her from the photos.

The FBI also said it got a tip from someone who knew Rossi from Piper High School in Sunrise.

The charges don’t list the tip from the couple as one that was used to identify Rossi.

Jaworski says the couple did something wrong when calling in the tip that would disqualify them from getting a reward.

He says because they called the police department from an identifiable number means they are no longer anonymous and cannot collect a Crime Stoppers reward.

“If they have called the information into the police first, for example, that would disqualify them for a Crime Stoppers reward tip because their identity is now known,” Jaworski said.

Crime Stoppers in Broward, Miami-Dade and Monroe counties report giving out $280,465 in rewards since 2015.

They received 37,334 anonymous tips in that time period.

1,004 of those tips lead to rewards.

That’s 3.3 percent of tips leading to rewards.

In addition to remaining anonymous, a person who provides a tip to Crime Stoppers has to be the first one and the information has to help lead to an arrest.

“If it’s the same information from two different people we might look at it from a time factor,” Jaworski said. “Who called in first?”

Jaworski says it can take weeks, even months for a reward to be paid out.

The couple who provided a tip about the bank robbery felt let down that they didn’t get a reward.

“We wanted to keep the community safe but you know, we wanted the reward as well,” the man said. “And then to find out, thanks for doing what you did. Awesome. Pat on the back, and that’s it, you know, we were a little upset.”

They told us they don’t want what happened to discourage anyone from calling when they can help police.

Now they they could have improved their chance of collecting a reward by contacting Crime Stoppers first and letting them contact the law enforcement agency that’s investigating.

The FBI and the local agencies involved in locating Rossi told us they appreciated the public’s help and want the tips to keep coming.

They recognize that reward money isn’t the motivation for many.

In Miami-Dade, only 44 percent of the available reward money was collected. More than half was not picked up.

Crime Stoppers believes that’s because most people just want to do the right thing.

<![CDATA[TriRail, Brightline Risk Missing Train Safety Deadline]]> Tue, 03 Jul 2018 18:53:58 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/train+trirail.jpg

The Federal Railroad Administration is warning two South Florida commuter railroads they are at risk of missing a mandated deadline to install a critical safety system onto their trains.

Both Brightline and TriRail were informed last month that they appear to be falling behind schedule to fully implement a technology called “positive train control” by the end of the year.

In 2008, Congress gave railroads until 2015 to install the technology, which overrides humans to correct their errors before trains can derail, collide with other trains or work crews, or steer onto the wrong tracks.

But railroads protested and the deadline was moved to Dec. 31, 2018.

Now some railroads are proposing substitute systems to appease the FRA, which they could later ask to extend the deadline to Dec. 31, 2020.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimates hundreds of lives lost in derailments, collisions and accidents would have been saved over decades had PTC been in use.

“It is sad to see accident after accident that could have been prevented by PTC,” NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt said. “It is frustrating to go to accident after accident that could have been prevented if someone would have implemented an NTSB recommendation.”

Labor unions, whose workers are most often at risk of accidents, agree.

“I’m embarrassed, I’m hurt, I’m frustrated … when I hear again and again of an accident that could’ve been prevented by PTC,” said John Tolman, vice president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen.

And those who ride the rails also can’t understand why the life-saving technology is not yet in place,

“Yeah, they need to get on the ball like yesterday, like ASAP,” said Shamika Innocent, as she waited for her mother to arrive at a Hialeah train station. “My mom’s life is in their hands.”

But once again some in the railroad industry are angling for a delay in the mandated PTC implementation.

They complain there are too few vendors and suppliers who produce and install the systems and that the FRA may not have enough employees to inspect and certify all the systems by the end-of-the-year deadline.

Before they may seek an extension of the deadline to 2020, Brightline and TriRail have proposed substitute criteria to the FRA’s proposed schedule.

Brightline last month requested it be allowed to have the system fully running on only 10 miles of its 67-mile commuter rail system – about 15 percent of its track. FRA said that request is under review.

TriRail took another approach, proposing to install PTC on all 72 miles of its track, but only testing it at first on trains that are not occupied. FRA has approved that request.

But the agency says both operations will still be required to have all PTC hardware in place by the end of the year and train all employees, before it can request a delay to as late as December 2020.

The NTSB is not thrilled about the possibility of more delays.

“Any delay in implementing positive train control, from a safety perspective, is unacceptable,” Sumwalt said.

But it’s not the NTSB’s call.

Even the FRA cannot shut down a railroad that misses the deadline, a spokesman said. It can issue fines, but the agency told Congress it has not yet decided if it will exert that authority against those railroad show miss the deadline.

AMTRAK and most of the largest freight-heavy railroads are on course to have PTC installed on time, according to FRA data.

Brightline, which is operated by Florida East Coast Industries, said in a statement they “are working closely with the Federal Railroad Administration to meet critical milestones during the implementation of Positive Train Control that meet statutory requirements.”

TriRail said it still expects to meet the end of the year deadline, but the process has not been quick, easy or cheap.

“In 2015, a lot of people didn’t realize that positive train control is not something you can just get off the shelf,” said Mikel Oglesby, TriRail deputy executive director. “As everyone learned and we moved forward, it costs more than expected.”

For TriRail, the original estimate of $20 million doubled to $40 million.

As for sanctions from the FRA, Oglesby said the agency is not too concerned.

“Well, the good news is since we’re on schedule and on target, we’re not even thinking about that, but should it come to that point, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

The American Public Transportation Association says the commuter rail industry has made significant progress over the past year to implement PTC. APTA says it’ll cost the industry more than $4.1 billion to implement PTC which it says diverts funds from other infrastructure and safety priorities. It says the industry has faced “significant financial constraints and technical challenges in implementing PTC.” It says one problem is a limited number of vendors qualified to meet the demand of both the passenger and freight lines.

<![CDATA[Giant 'Darknet' Bust Yields 40 Arrests, $20M+ in Guns, Drugs]]> Thu, 28 Jun 2018 15:36:25 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/180*120/Darknet+Raids.jpg

Authorities arrested 40 people and seized more than $20 million in guns, drugs, cars, gold and cryptocurrency after a massive, year-long undercover operation targeting underground activity on the Internet.

The sprawling operation involving vendors on the "Darknet" led to the seizure of  more than 100 guns, more than $20 million in Bitcoin, more than $3.6 million in US currency and gold bars, and prescription pills and drugs, including Xanax, Oxycodone, MDMA, cocaine, LSD and marijuana. 

Homeland Security Investigations agents from New York posed as a money launderer on underground market sites and exchanged hard currency for virtual currency.

The operation led to the opening of dozens of cases against vendors around the country and to more than 90 active cases around the country.

“The focus of this operation was not only to infliltrate the dark net marketplaces but to really focus our efforts on the bad actors," said Angel Melendez of Homeland Security Investigations. 

Agents from HSI and postal inspectors conducted a series of subsequent arrests and the impending prosecution of more than 35 Darknet vendors.

“The Darknet is ever-changing and increasingly more intricate, making locating and targeting those selling illicit items on this platform more complicated. But in this case, HSI special agents were able to walk amongst those in the cyber underworld to find those vendors who sell highly addictive drugs for a profit,” said Acting HSI Executive Associate Director Benner in a press release.

The investigation is ongoing.

Photo Credit: USDHS]]>
<![CDATA[Former North Bay Village Manager Being Investigated]]> Wed, 27 Jun 2018 20:34:54 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/216*120/rollason.PNG

The new man tapped to help lead Miami-Dade County Emergency Management has been the subject of an inquiry by Florida's Chief Inspector General.

Frank Rollason was the manager in North Bay Village before he resigned in January. He was appointed last week to the position of assistant director at the county department.

Village Mayor Connie Leon-Kreps says his time in North Bay Village didn't end well.

"A lot of issues are still being sorted out and evaluated and investigated," Connie Leon-Kreps told NBC 6. "He wasn't a fit for the Village as evidenced by his departure with no notice."

In a document the NBC 6 Investigators obtained, an attorney with the Inspector General's office requested public records from the North Bay Village Clerk. The February request is for documents about "any and all investigations into the acts or omissions of Frank Rollason as related to allegations of official misconduct" dating back to January 2015.

Rollason's time as village manager includes what was seen on surveillance video during Hurricane Irma. The video shows coolers being brought into the village hall. An officer is seen using a plastic cup to block the view of a camera. It was like this for nine hours. A fellow officer filed an internal complaint that officers were drinking during the time that the camera view was obscured. He wrote that his co-workers were too drunk to respond to calls for help. Six officers were given a written reprimand and docked leave time they had accrued. Rollason approved the discipline.

"It does look awful," Leon-Kreps said. " No city wants to know that their police are drinking alcohol during a time of emergency."

Rollason's new boss, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is coming to Rollason's defense.

"Some police officers did something they shouldn't have been doing and they got disciplined," Gimenez said. "Frank, as the village manager, disciplined them. And then, that's the end of the story."

Another North Bay Village incident steaming from Hurricane Irma has been reported to the federal government for investigation.

The current administration alleges that, under Rollason, the village improperly submitted claims to be reimbursed by FEMA for $250,000 in overtime.

NBC 6 reached out to speak to Rollason but he chose not to comment.

The Miami Dade Mayor's Office told NBC 6 they were not aware of any of the investigations or allegations in public documents concerning Rollason and North Bay Village. After reviewing the documents, Mayor Gimenez said he has complete confidence in Rollason.

"I know his character and so I knew these accusations were basically false," Gimenez said. "It didn't cause me concern. I have confidence in Frank. He's been a great public servant. He's served in a lot of different capacities in this town, in the city. I'm sure he'll do a great job as the emergency manager for the county."

The Governor's office doesn't discuss ongoing investigations and wouldn't say where it is with the Inspector General's probe into Rollason.

<![CDATA[Stolen Money in Youth Sports Often Goes Unreported]]> Tue, 26 Jun 2018 23:44:04 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/miami+xtreme+youth+football.jpg

For mom Denice Pozo, football practice is a family affair.

“There was a time when we had four football games in one day,” she said. “To us, football is life.”

Her four boys have played for Miami Xtreme Youth Football Inc. - one of the largest youth football leagues in Florida.

Pozo says the sport has taught them some valuable life lessons like discipline, athleticism and camaraderie.

But in 2013, Miami Xtreme members got an unexpected lesson.

The league’s former treasurer was accused of taking nearly $50,000 from the organization’s bank account.

The charges were dropped after he completed a diversion program and paid some of the money back.

Richard Raphael, the league’s current president, admits that this was not the group’s first case of embezzlement.

“I have learned that approximately three individuals had previously stolen money from the league and those incidents had gone unreported,” he said.

“It’s very sad. You would like to think that this is sacred. Right?” Pozo says. “You don’t steal from children.”

What Miami Xtreme dealt with is a problem facing youth sports leagues across the country.

According to police and court records reviewed by NBC6 Investigators, there have been at least 16 cases of thefts in Florida youth organizations totaling more than $500,000.

NBC6 Investigators reviewed dozens of police and court records. Using information from the Center for Fraud Prevention, we identified at least sixteen cases of embezzlement and fraud across Florida totaling more than $500,000. Click on the icons in the map to see a description of the cases in the state.

“I’ve seen some of these embezzlement cases essentially bankrupt an organization,” says Erik Carrozza, the co-founder of the Center for Fraud Prevention.

His non-profit organization tracks embezzlement in youth sports nationwide. According to his group’s analysis of 255 cases nationwide, youth sports leagues have lost at least $17 million to theft over the past decade.

Carrozza says it’s hard to say how big the problem is since there’s no central governing body and the person accused of the theft is often a familiar face.

“A lot of these cases of embezzlement don’t get reported because the remaining board members may be reluctant to prosecute because these are community members. There’s children involved,” he said.

Last year, Mike Hyatt from the Greater Central Florida Youth Soccer League, faced that dilemma.

He noticed money was missing from the league’s scholarship program, which helps local kids pay college expenses. At the time, his friend, Lauren Lemay, was the league’s treasurer.

“She was giving us excuses on why scholarships checks were not going out. She tried to blame it on her mailman losing her mail, teams and clubs not paying us on time what they owe,” he said.

Hyatt decided to go to the bank and review the organization’s account.

“I came to find out that she had opened two accounts posing like my position - president of the league,” Hyatt said.

According to the arrest affidavit, Lemay took nearly $60 thousand from the league’s funds. The money was allegedly used to buy cell phones, gift cards and evens stays in out-of-town hotels.

“After reviewing the list, there are some things that are actually legitimate charges that the board of directors did together,” Lemay told us in her first interview about her arrest.

While police and Hyatt say Lemay admitted to taking the money in a controlled phone call, Lemay said she doesn’t recall it.

“I don’t remember that controlled call,” she said. “I was never informed that I was in a call.”

Police reports show they obtained surveillance video of the former treasurer at the bank withdrawing money from the accounts in question.

She has pleaded not guilty to the charges in court and told us she believes she was framed. 

Hyatt said Lemay repaid $10,000. Police reports confirm the money was repaid. Lemay now says she was extorted to pay that money.

Hyatt tells us he's surprised to hear her extortion allegation.

"If you were innocent of taking money, would you pay back $10,000? For any reasons under any circumstances? If we were extorting her then she could have taken it to the police," Hyatt said.

The mother of two is now facing theft and fraud charges. Her trial is set for later this summer.

Meanwhile, Carrozza says thefts from youth sports are often similar.

“These aren’t sophisticated criminals and the techniques that they’re using to steal money from these associations are very simple,” he said. “They’re writing checks to themselves or paying personal bills with the association’s checking account. I’ve also seen abuse with debit cards and credit cards.”

Miami Xtreme has taken several steps to prevent fraud in their organization including doing background checks on all volunteers, making invoices available at meetings and giving multiple board members access to inspect bank accounts.

The league’s president tells us that he hopes these steps help to keep the focus in the right place.

“At the end of the day, it’s about these kids and providing services to these kids,” Raphael said.

This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Releases of Potential Evidence Begin to Tell Story]]> Fri, 22 Jun 2018 18:57:07 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/Judge_to_Review_Parkland_Gunman_s_Confession.jpg

As bits of potential evidence in the case of State vs. Nikolas Cruz trickle out of the Broward state attorney’s office, a narrative is beginning to emerge, one that could play out as the beginnings of a prosecutor’s opening statement.

First, there were the cellphone videos of the killer coldly detailing his plans, evidence of premeditation and a heinous, atrocious and cruel plot – the underpinnings not just of a murder conviction, but also a death sentence.

Then, two weeks ago, the state released the testimony of the first person to encounter the killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14, campus security monitor Andrew Medina. He described how he radioed ahead to a colleague to warn him that “crazy boy” was heading toward his building.

Friday, while waiting for a judge to decide how much can be released of a 12-hour videotape of Cruz in custody, the state moved the narrative along to its next phase – the statement of the monitor Medina radioed and a student who saw Cruz unpacking his assault rifle in the building’s east stairwell.

Cruz told the freshman who was on a bathroom break “you better get out of here, something bad is about to happen,” Chris McKenna recalled for police the day after the shooting. “And then he just, he told me to run. So I ran.”

Just seconds earlier, the security monitor in charge of that building, David Taylor, had walked down the west stairwell after being alerted by Medina of the then-trespasser.

“I believe he made eye contact with me. I looked at him and he immediately made a right turn into that far east stairwell,” Taylor told detectives.

Thinking Cruz was heading up the east stairs, Taylor said he climbed the west stairs, expecting to cut him off on the second floor.

But the killer had other plans.

His gun now loaded, Cruz turned back down the first-floor corridor and began firing.

Hearing the shots, Taylor told police he took cover in a second-floor closet.

McKenna, meanwhile, alerted Coach Aaron Feis who, after taking McKenna to safety, responded toward the sound of gunfire, opened the west doors to the building and was almost immediately killed.

Cruz, 19, is charged with 17 counts of first-degree murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. The state is seeking the death penalty. It is releasing bits of potential evidence in response to public records requests, which must be honored once the materials are turned over to the defense.

Medina, Taylor and others at the school have said they knew Cruz was trouble before he was removed from the campus in February 2017.

“He’s been in trouble,” Taylor told a detective in his statement. “Not like fights or anything but like, just odd stuff like swastikas all over his backpack and on his folders.”

<![CDATA[Parkland Tragedy: Comprehensive Timeline]]> Tue, 19 Jun 2018 17:38:13 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Parkland_Tragedy__Comprehensive_Timeline.jpg

The NBC 6 Investigators combined police radio, 911 calls, witness statements, a sheriff’s animation and Scot Peterson’s Today Show interview into a second-by-second account of the crucial minutes of February 14, 2018.

See and hear for yourself where Peterson was and what he and others were doing and saying as a killer stalked the hallways of the 1200 Building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.

And consider the crucial minute, as Peterson was outside the east doors of the building while the killer reached the second floor on the west side and began walking east.

It shows Peterson had about one minute to enter the building before the shooter made it to the third floor, where six of the victims died.

<![CDATA[Broward Sheriff Says BSO Bailiff Was Threat to Courthouse]]> Tue, 05 Jun 2018 19:27:01 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/broward+county+courthouse+sunburst.jpg

A longtime Broward County Sheriff’s Office court bailiff had his 67 firearms confiscated by deputies last month after, co-workers claimed, he threatened to unleash violence on them and the public at the county courthouse.

Franklin Joseph Pinter, 60, was relieved of duty and of the firearms, ammunition and his concealed weapons permit after a judge granted the sheriff’s request for a temporary risk protection order.

A law allowing law enforcement to seize weapons from people suspected of being a danger to themselves or others was enacted in the wake of the Parkland school massacre and it is being used more in Broward than anywhere else in the state.

Pinter, contacted at his Hollywood home last week, declined to comment on his co-workers’ concern about their safety or the court’s decision to issue the temporary protection order. He can argue at a final hearing next week that he is fit to regain possession of his weapons. His attorney did not return a call seeking comment.

But an affidavit filed in support of the order describes comments and behavior that led one co-worker to say “he’s the kinda guy that could shoot a lot of people.”

Bailiffs are civilian employees and not authorized to carry firearms in the courthouse.

But one of Pinter’s co-workers said Pinter showed him one of his handguns in a courthouse garage and had stated he previously bought an AR-15.

Twice within the last six months, according to the affidavit, Pinter was seen standing above the courthouse atrium overlooking the lobby with one arm extended as if holding a long rifle.

Last month, “Pinter pointed at individual people in the lobby while saying the words, ‘pow, pow, pow’ … and said, ‘Easy prey. I can take everybody out,” a fellow bailiff told a sheriff’s investigator, who prepared the affidavit.

Another colleague said six months ago he saw Pinter “leaning over the railing of the atrium simulating he was shooting people in the lobby on the first floor,” according to the affidavit.

“'Pinter’s behavior has been deteriorating and his anger has increased,’" it quoted the coworker as saying.

According to the affidavit, Pinter: told one co-worker, “All you rats should be exterminated;” threatened to “blow torch” others; and told a third “I’m going to exterminate you,” while pointing an imaginary long gun at him.

Pinter was suspended for three days in 2012 after an internal affairs investigation found he sexually harassed a jury clerk in the courthouse, according to sheriff’s records.

He was terminated in 2014 after another internal investigation found he viewed pornography on his personal tablet at work in full view of a female judicial assistant. An arbitrator in 2015 upheld the finding of “unbecoming conduct,” but found the termination too harsh, and Pinter was reinstated in November 2015 without receiving back pay, according to sheriff’s records.

Currently, he is “temporarily relieved of duty, pending a fit-for-duty evaluation,” the sheriff’s office said in an email. He is still receiving his salary of $48,530 a year.

When deputies showed up at his home on May 25 to seize his weapons, he voluntarily gave them up, according to court records.

Previously, a co-worker told investigators, Pinter had told him “nobody will take my guns. Not over my dead body.”

<![CDATA[Medical Malpractice Complaint in Brazilian Butt Lift Death]]> Thu, 24 May 2018 23:54:38 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Heather-Meadows.jpg

Two years after Heather Meadows died following a Brazilian Butt Lift in Miami, the Florida Department of Health has filed a complaint against the doctor who performed the procedure. The complaint alleges Dr. James McAdoo committed medical malpractice.

In May 2016, Meadows traveled from her home in West Virginia to Encore Plastic Surgery in South Florida to undergo the popular cosmetic procedure. Her friends and family members told NBC 6 Investigators the mother of two found the clinic online and chose it due to the affordable price.

"This is something she wanted to do for herself, to make herself feel better,' said Meadows' longtime friend Suzanna Wilson. Meadows had given birth to her second child two months before the procedure.

"She was scared. This was her first surgery ever in life," said Wilson. "She asked me to pray for her and she told me that she loved me, those were her last words."

The medical examiner’s report shows Meadows died of a fat embolism. That’s when a piece of fat gets into a vein, travels to the lungs and causes a patient to stop breathing.

The NBC 6 Investigators found it’s what has killed at least eight mothers in South Florida in the past five years. The women all had different doctors and went to different clinics. 

The Florida Department of Health has filed a medical malpractice complaint against James McAdoo.

The administrative complaint in Meadows’s case claims Dr. McAdoo failed to perform a complete physical exam before surgery, didn’t slowly and carefully inject fat into Meadows’ body and hit a deep vein in her backside.

The complaint also lists the time frame between when Meadows gave birth prior to her procedure. The Department of Health says patients are supposed to wait at least three months.

Dr. McAdoo is one of two South Florida plastic surgeons the state has taken action against.

Dr. Osak Omulepu had his license revoked after two of his patients had their internal organs punctured during Brazilian Butt Lift operations and another patient died in June of 2017. He’s currently appealing the revocation with Florida’s 1st District Court of Appeals. 

"I want this to stop, we want to save the next woman’s life," said Wilson.

The clinic where it happened, Encore Plastic Surgery, has since shut down. But Dr. McAdoo is still practicing. His attorney reacted to the complaint in a statement to NBC 6:

"Due to issues of patient privacy, Dr. McAdoo cannot comment publicly on the allegations contained within the Administrative Complaint filed by the Department of Health. Dr. McAdoo does not agree with the allegations contained within the Complaint, and fully intends to contest these issues through the appropriate administrative process."

If the doctor formally disputes the allegations, a hearing will be held to determine whether or not he was at fault and what, if any, disciplinary action he could receive.

The Meadows family settled a civil lawsuit against Dr. McAdoo and is currently suing the facility where it happened. An attorney for the owner told NBC 6 Investigators they have "no comment about the case."

<![CDATA[FIU Bridge Collapse Raises Questions About Troubled Bridges]]> Tue, 22 May 2018 18:53:04 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/ne+23rd+at+rio+canal.jpg

Take a peek under the 25 bridges in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that the state has rated "structurally deficient" and you might be taken aback by what you see.

Plywood or boards shore up concrete patches, rebar is exposed and there are plenty of cracks seen under the bridges that are given that lowest rating by bridge inspectors.

But none of that suggests the bridges will collapse any time soon, according to Miami-Dade County bridge engineering manager Dennis Fernandez.

"Structurally deficient means that the bridge, one of the elements of the bridge is in poor condition it does not mean the bridge is going to collapse," he said.

Of course, experts also said the FIU pedestrian bridge that collapsed on March 15, killing six, was safe.

But that was a uniquely designed, under construction bridge that included "fracture critical" members – meaning the failure of one such member could lead to collapse because it lacked redundant design elements. There are nearly 400 bridges in Florida that contain fracture critical members, according to FIU.

The failure of the FIU bridge occurred as a work crew was re-stressing one of two post-tension rods that ran through one of those fracture critical elements, a diagonal truss that joined with the deck on the northern end of the span. The work was ordered after cracks were found in the concrete near where the failure occurred.

When it comes to existing bridges, the most recent structural failure in South Florida came in October in Palm Beach County on a bridge that was not rated by inspectors as poorly as structurally deficient.

A section of concrete and railing fell from a bridge on U.S. 1 over the Earman River in North Palm Beach, leading to a shutdown of the span while it was re-inspected and repaired. It is now rated structurally deficient. Florida's Department of Transportation said corrosion in steel rods in the bridge had gone undetected.

The rating is assigned to bridges that have decks, superstructures, substructures or culverts and retaining walls in poor or worse condition, or have the worst ratings for structural conditions or waterway adequacy. It does not mean they are unsafe or in danger of collapse.

But they are supposed to be repaired or replaced within six years.

One of the bridges identified as structurally deficient – on Northeast 23rd Avenue over the Ibis waterway in Lighthouse Point – has been on the list for at least six years and has not been repaired or replaced sufficiently. The city’s public works department failed to return several calls seeking an explanation for its failure to adequately repair or replace the bridge.

Of the 25 bridges on the FDOT list in Miami-Dade and Broward, the busiest is on Oakland Park Boulevard in Lauderhill, over the C-13 canal. More than 53,000 vehicles a day cross the bridge.

It and another bridge on Stirling Road over the C-10 canal were added to the list in November. FDOT said in a statement it “prioritized the identified repairs of these bridges due to the design similarities to” the North Palm Beach bridge that suffered the partial structural failure in October.

In Miami-Dade, the busiest is on a section of the 79th Street Causeway entering North Bay Village, with about 23,000 vehicles a day.

In Miami-Dade, FDOT contracts with the engineering firm Louis Berger to inspect 362 bridges every two years, 18 of them fracture critical.

After the FIU bridge collapse, FDOT singled out Louis Berger as not being properly prequalified to do the design review work it was hired to do for that bridge’s design-engineering team.

But the firm is properly prequalified to oversee bridge inspections, FDOT said.

A Louis Berger spokeswoman declined to comment on its bridge work, citing litigation and investigations of the FIU bridge collapse.

Fernandez said he is satisfied with the safety of the bridges, even those rated structurally deficient.

“It only tells you, it’s a flag telling you have an element in poor condition and you need to correct it,” he said. “Once you correct the problem, the bridge will not be structurally deficient anymore.”

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<![CDATA[Despite Overdose Deaths, New Drug Law Goes Unused]]> Mon, 21 May 2018 19:10:24 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/cindy+dodds+and+kyle.jpg

More people are dying in South Florida from a drug overdose than gun violence. A local mother who lost her son to drugs helped push for a new law to prosecute drug dealers, but the NBC 6 Investigators found it hasn’t been used yet.

Cindy Dodds’ son, Kyle, died of a drug overdose in September of 2016. He drove to Overtown, a neighborhood near downtown Miami, ingested a drug and died on the sidewalk.

The drug he took was mixed with fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetics that can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Kyle’s addiction started, after getting prescribed pain medication for a shoulder injury he got playing high school football.

“It started with a legal prescription from a wonderful doctor who did his job,” said Cindy Dodds.

Cindy helped push for a new law to be passed in Florida that allows prosecutors to charge drug dealers with felony murder, if they sell a synthetic drug that leads to an overdose.

The bill had the backing of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle.

“Clearly we had to do something,” said Fernandez Rundle. “We couldn’t prosecute anyone, any of the dealers or the suppliers of those drugs, because they weren’t covered in the state statute.”

They’re covered now. It became law in Florida in October 2017.

Since then, 79 people have died in Miami Dade County alone due to an overdose of synthetic drugs. NBC 6 Investigators found not a single drug dealer in South Florida has been charged under the new law.

Tying an overdose to a particular drug dealer can be difficult. In Kyle Dodds’ case, his cell phone disappeared, there was no bag of drug evidence found and no witnesses who came forward.

The Miami-Dade State Attorney said the law is changing the way evidence is sought after moving forward.

“Before we had some cases but didn’t have the law,” said Fernandez Rundle.

“So now when we start to gather the evidence, we look at who sold it, are their fingerprints on a baggy, what was the amount, who was with them.”

Meanwhile, Cindy Dodds is doing her part in the fight against drugs.

She’s visiting schools and telling her son’s story.

She recently went to Kyle’s former high school, Westminster Christian Academy, to give a talk in front of the high school students.

She says it was an emotional reunion.

“I have a big mouth,” said Dodds. “We’re pretty much unstoppable when we lose our kids.”

Dodds showed a video of her son and told students, “Kyle sunk in shame, don’t live in shame or fear. People love you.”

In addition to speaking to schools, Dodds also helps educate workers at the state attorney’s office about the dangers of drugs and what her son experienced.

The new legislation also strengthens the penalties for people who carry and traffic synthetic drugs.

<![CDATA['Dirty Money' Impacting South Florida Real Estate Market]]> Wed, 16 May 2018 20:09:40 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/TERRI+SANCHEZ+TEACHER+AT+HOME.jpg

Terri Sanchez dreams of owning her own place in her hometown of Miami. But the single mom and teacher, who works extra jobs to make ends meet, says that goal seems out of reach.

“No, it’s impossible now,” says Sanchez.

She says part of the problem is all the cash in the market.

“I made a few offers. They were all turned down over cash offers,” says Sanchez.

She’s not alone. Forty-five percent of home sales in Miami-Dade in 2017 were cash deals, according to real estate research firm ATTOM Data Solutions.

But real estate agents like Alicia Cervera de la Madrid, a member of the Miami Association of Realtors, love this cash market.

“It’s a more stable market and it’s a healthier market. So that’s a good thing,” says Cervera.

But some of the cash raises the suspicion of John Tobon, deputy special agent with Homeland Security Investigations.

"A lot of that money comes from illicit sources,” says Tobon.

And he says the dirty money makes everyone pay higher housing prices.

“The initial response to all of this influx of money is, ‘Oh this is great,’ but I think we are starting to see why this is bad,” says Tobon. “It is bad because unless you can come up with $600 or $700 thousand cash, you cannot buy or legitimately compete for a home in the greater part of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.”

Nobody knows how many properties have been bought with dirty money but Tobon says there’s a lot of money available from black markets around the world such as Russia, Colombia, and Venezuela.

“The amount of money--its hundreds of billions,” says Tobon.

The US Department of Treasury says Venezuela’s vice president is an example of the problem. Tareck El Aissami is accused of being a drug kingpin and using Venezuelan businessman Samark Lopez Bello as a front man to launder drug revenues. The Venezuelan government denies it.

The US government blocked a handful of million-dollar properties in Miami for alleged links to Lopez Bello, who denied the allegations posting on his website that the sanctions appear to be “politically motivated.”

To combat dirty money the Treasury Department now requires title companies in South Florida and other hot real estate markets to share more information on buyers who make transactions of $1 million or more.

Those buyers can stay private using a perfectly legal process of making the purchase through a limited liability company or LLC.

Separating good buyers from bad ones isn’t easy as many people use LLCs to buy properties.

The NBC 6 Investigators reviewed local property records and found that in 2017 in Miami-Dade, at least 11,690 residential properties in Miami-Dade were purchased by or transferred to an LLC. That number has almost doubled in last five years.

“Those sales require the collection of additional information to help us identify who is behind the beneficial ownership of those LLCs involved in those transactions,” says Tobon.

The Treasury found nationally nearly one in three of the $1 million plus purchases involved a person or company that had been the subject of a previous suspicious activity report. Although that doesn’t necessarily mean the deal was dirty.

“I believe that most of the money that’s coming into the country is clean money,” says Cervera.

She believes too much regulation could hurt good buyers and do little to curb the problem.

“So if you put a light on a spot on a specific geographic area, the bad guys will move to another area. It’s pretty simple because what they’re trying to do is launder bad money,” says Cervera.

Terri Sanchez realizes her battle against other buyers won’t be easy either—and it just may mean giving up the teaching career she loves for a better paying job.

“It’s a constant battle,” says Sanchez. “It’s coming to a point where I have to think about my future.

<![CDATA[Business of Addiction: Drug Addicts Tempted to Relapse]]> Mon, 14 May 2018 19:34:42 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/AP_18129675600281.jpg

South Florida has been known for years as the recovery capital of the country but it has been a community plagued with corruption and abuse. A recent crackdown on the industry has led to a handful of sober homes getting shut down and dozens of people arrested. But the new oversight brings a whole new set of problems.

The crackdown’s making it more difficult for addicts to get the legitimate help they need. Plus, other states are trying to lure patients from South Florida.

Getting Paid for Treatment

Addicts have been known to move between treatment centers multiple times, sometimes for money.

Isaac, 23, says he’s been to more than two dozen treatment centers across the country before settling in South Florida. He says he’s now been sober seven months. His addiction: cocaine and heroin.

“I’ve been to 25 different treatment centers and I finally got it right this time,” said Isaac.

He tells NBC 6 he’s been paid three times to go to inpatient drug treatment centers in California for his addiction. He believes those payments are an incentive to relapse.

“At the most, I’ve been paid 2,500 dollars,” he said.

Isaac says patient brokers linger outside of treatment centers and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings trying to persuade people like him to move to a different facility to get the insurance money.

“I finally realized I can’t keep relying on people and getting paid to go to treatment centers because it’s just keeping me in the same cycle of getting high,” said Isaac.

Rehabbing Rehab in South Florida

After paramedics were called to so many overdose deaths in South Florida over the past few years, a Sober Homes Task Force was created to look at ways to reform the system and put better safeguards in place.

In 2017, lawmakers passed a new law strengthening restrictions on patient brokering and deceptive marketing practices for rehab centers.

“It’s not as prominent in the state of Florida, it’s being cleaned up,” said Isaac.

Now, other states like California are recruiting patients in South Florida. They don’t have the same laws in place, which has created a new problem with it comes to patients trying to get reimbursed for legitimate drug treatment.

Battling Insurance Companies

“Insurance has certainly been a big uphill battle,” said Dr. Dawn Silver, of Comprehensive Wellness Centers.

Dr. Silver said the insurance companies typically reject about half of the claims for patients.

“It’s certainly serving a disservice to the client and the community for legitimate facilities like ours as whole to have that be the predicament we’re all in,” she said.

Before, she says many doctors fought to get 28 days of inpatient addiction treatment covered by insurance.

“I’m begging for two days right now with insurance companies,” said Dr. Silver.

Therapist Rachel Simpson-Marquez Trying says trying to get insurance claims processed put her practice out of business last month.

“They had been abused, so the fight was on,” said Simpson-Marquez about insurance companies.

She shut down her treatment center in Oakland Park that was geared towards the LGBTQ community. It’s a center she opened after losing her own brother to addiction.

“We were chasing money morning noon and night,” said Simpson-Marquez. “They just sat and denied everything over and over and over again.”

She’s now working on opening a smaller private practice in Broward County geared toward keeping sober patients clean.

Doctors Push for Change Nationwide

Most of the doctors and therapists in South Florida agree the new laws and scrutiny are better for the industry as a whole, but also say it’s making it difficult for legitimate patients to get the help they need.

“We want to streamline the entire industry, not just Florida but nationally,” said Dr. Silver.

As for Isaac, he finally found the help he needed at a center in Florida.

He’s been sober for more than seven months, got a job and a place to live.

He’s now working on removing the tattoos he got while he was addicted.

“People look at me with disgust or fear and honestly it bothers me,” he said.

He wants the outside of his body to match how he’s feeling on the inside.

Photo Credit: AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli, File]]>
<![CDATA[Police Officer Shares Story of Addiction Worsened by the Job]]> Thu, 10 May 2018 23:42:33 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/051018+Miami-Dade+Police+Department+logo.png

Body camera video captured Miami Dade Police Sergeant Mehran Sawal stumbling and failing a sobriety test after crashing his squad car last May.

It was his second arrest for drunk driving in three years.

He quietly retired from the department and is fighting the DUI charges in court.

He wouldn’t talk to NBC 6 about his arrest but one of his co-workers reached out to us after learning about Sawal’s arrest.

He wanted to share his struggle with addiction.

“I just found myself drinking more and more,” said the South Florida police officer who we are only identifying as Carlos.

“As a police officer, we go to the worst scenes in the world and we handle them. There’s nothing you can throw my way that I can’t handle but I couldn’t stop from putting a bottle into my mouth.”

Carlos says he is not alone.

“I have talked to officers from the middle of the state down and it is out of control. Male and female from all different races - they all have an issue,” he said.

According to a recent publication by Psychology Today, police officers are nearly three times as likely to suffer from addiction as others in the general public.

For Carlos, the drinking got worse after he responded to a call of a teen who crashed her family car into a canal and died.

“I was there when the divers came out. I was there when her body and her clothes were inventoried,” he said holding back tears. “She took her last breath with me.”

The veteran officer says he was haunted with nightmares afterward and turned into alcohol to deal with the pain.

“I drank until I blacked out every single day of my life for three years,” he says. “I just found myself in a deep hole and I had no idea how I had gotten there.”

Dr. Scott Allen, a psychologist with the Miami Dade Police Department, has spent three decades researching PTSD among law enforcement officers.

“The vast majority of the time police officers who respond to a traumatic incident with a child, those officers have some type of a trauma reaction,” he said.

Therapy is not mandatory in the department but Dr. Allen says officers are feeling more and more comfortable with seeking help.

Carlos urges officers to take action before they end up in a crash or taking a sobriety test.

“It doesn’t make you less of a man. You can share your emotion. You can cry and you still serve the public,” he says.

<![CDATA[Ex-Officer Fights Charges of Drunk Driving in Squad Car]]> Thu, 10 May 2018 20:05:13 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/South_Florida_Police_Officer_Was_Arrested_for_Second_DUI.jpg

A Miami Dade Police Department Sergeant was off-duty and in his squad car on May 27, 2017, when witnesses say he blew through a stop sign hitting a car.

Twenty-six-year veteran officer Mehran Sawal was the officer behind the wheel. He’s now charged with driving under the influence.

The driver of the car that was hit had to be taken to the hospital where he told responding officers what happened.

“He didn’t have his lights on, not even his headlights, not even his cop lights,” the injured driver said. “It just came like a big bus – BOOM – and just took me out.”

Body cam video from that night shows Sawal failing a sobriety test and being arrested.

The arrest form listed his breath test results at .211, more than twice the legal limit.

He retired from the department soon after his arrest. County records showed he made $190,000 with overtime in his last year. A trial on the charges he faces has been delayed and is currently scheduled for June. Neither he nor his lawyer would discuss the case.

The NBC 6 Investigators discovered the arrest in May 2017 was his second arrest in three years. In September 2014, a Winter Garden, Florida police officer pulled Sawal over for swerving and driving with his lights off. A partial breath test in that arrest showed his blood alcohol level at .231, nearly three times the legal limit.

The arresting officer wrote Sawal had to be “held while standing up” and that he admitted he’d been in that situation before.

“I’ve gotten a lot of breaks,” Sawal is heard telling the arresting officer recorded on dashcam video.

“You’ve gotten a lot of breaks from this?” the officer asked.

“I have,” Sawal answered.

“How many?”

“Two,” Sawal answered.

“Those first one and two breaks didn’t scare you away from doing this?” the officer asked.

Sawal eventually entered a plea of no contest to a charge of reckless driving. He was put on probation.

Sawal’s file at the Miami-Dade Police Department includes a recommendation to fire him because of the 2014 arrest. He ultimately got a 20-day suspension. He told internal affairs he went to addiction treatment, saw the department’s psychologist, and was seeking additional treatment.

<![CDATA[Officers Accused of Drinking on Duty During Hurricane Irma]]> Thu, 10 May 2018 14:48:52 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/051018+north+bay+village+police+investigation+hurricane+irma.jpg

Months after Hurricane Irma roared through South Florida, surveillance video from inside the North Bay Village Hall is now the subject of an internal police investigation into whether officers and others were drinking on duty during the emergency conditions.

The video, exclusively obtained by the NBC 6 Investigators, shows a police officer blocking a surveillance camera with a red cup. That officer and others are under investigation for drinking after the camera view was blocked.

The allegation and supporting documents were forwarded to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for review.

In a letter dated April 27, 2018, FDLE Director Scott McInerney wrote to the current North Bay Village Manager that allegations of employee misconduct should be handled by the police department.

In addition, McInerney wrote the Department of Justice should be forwarded a separate issue – that FEMA claim forms that may have been improperly filed. The claim forms would allow the village to be reimbursed for overtime for the officers and others during the storm.

Surveillance Video

A North Bay Village internal affairs timeline of the surveillance video states that at 5:08 p.m. on Saturday, September 9, an officer is seen with a “white Styrofoam cooler and a possible case of beer” exiting an elevator. At 5:09 p.m., the officer is seen with the items entering a room set up for sleeping.

Six hours later while Irma’s winds were howling and the rain was pouring, an officer is seen on camera moving the cooler down a hallway and placing it on a conference room table. Then, the officer is seen using a plastic cup to block the camera. The picture is obscured for two minutes. The cup falls off and the officer is seen using another cup to cover the camera again. The timeline shows the block was "successful" and from 11:25p.m. to 8:14a.m., no images were seen on the camera.

A patrol officer filed a complaint with internal affairs about what happened that night.

In it, he says a supervisor "organized an alcohol-fueled party with fellow officers while on duty for impending emergency conditions due to Hurricane Irma." The complaint goes on to say the supervisor "encouraged other officers to get inebriated" and the situation "jeopardized the safety of North Bay Village citizens and the surrounding communities since we are their first responders."

FEMA Reimbursement for Overtime

About $258,600 was paid out in overtime wages to more than 60 North Bay Village employees.

The highest amount paid to one person was $12,170. North Bay Village included the allegations that these overtime wages were improperly submitted to FEMA for reimbursement.

Village leaders now believe some employees were not eligible for the pay because they were either salaried or non-essential workers.

"To hear that there maybe people improperly celebrating on community time during a state of emergency and potentially spending public dollars is of great concern to me,” said North Bay Village Commissioner Laura Cattabriga who joined the commission after Hurricane Irma. “I think every community needs to know that they have the resources to fight a storm and to recover after a storm and we really can’t afford to have misuse of these funds because it is critical that we do the essential activities."

The Fraternal Order of Police chapter that represents these officers would not comment on the allegations and directed questions to the Village Manager and Village Attorney.

<![CDATA[More Sexual Harassment Complaints Filed]]> Wed, 09 May 2018 19:14:44 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/PRECIOUS+DENNIS+AND+SON.jpg

Since the #MeToo movement started last fall, local, state and federal employment offices have reported an increase in calls from people filing sexual harassment complaints. The NBC 6 Investigators found a formal complaint can take more than a year to be investigated and more than half of the complaints filed are thrown out for lack of evidence.

Florida has the third highest number of sexual harassment complaints with 688 filed last year.

The state ranks just behind Texas and New York, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Of those complaints, 56 percent were found to not have enough evidence and were tossed out.

The process to file a complaint can be complicated.

If someone feels they’re a victim of harassment, they are encouraged to file a formal complaint with a local, state or federal employment agency like the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency then investigates to determine if there’s enough evidence to take action against the employer or for the complainant to take legal action.

That’s what former corrections officer Precious Dennis did.

She filed a complaint against her employer three years ago and she’s still involved in the case now.

“I would like to see justice for what happened, I was wrongfully terminated,” said Dennis, who was fired from her job at the Everglades Correctional Institution.

Dennis filed a lawsuit against the Florida Department of Corrections in 2015 claiming she was sexually harassed then retaliated against for making a complaint.

Dennis claimed her supervisor called her names like “babe, baby, sweetheart and honey” on a daily basis. She also claimed her supervisor invaded her personal space.

“I could feel his breath on the top of my lip,” she said. “It’s not like it happened one time and that’s it, that’s every time I’m on shift and by myself in my office or station.”

Dennis says she filed an internal complaint about his behavior and that’s when she says her problems escalated.

Soon after, she was written up for wearing false eyelashes at work – something she denies doing.

A few months later she was terminated before her year-long probation period ended.

She believes it was in retaliation for speaking out.

“It makes you feel like men with higher power feel like they can do something and it’s ok, “ said Dennis.

The Florida Department of Corrections told NBC 6 they can’t talk about current court cases.

But they released a statement saying, “The Department has absolutely zero tolerance for sexual harassment of any kind.”

The Department of Corrections filed a motion asking the court to throw out the case, saying Dennis failed to prove her allegations.

They also stated that calling someone names like “baby” doesn’t create a hostile work environment and said Dennis can’t prove she was retaliated against for filing a complaint.

That motion is hasn’t yet been decided, and the lawsuit is working its way through the legal system.

The State of Florida has spent more than $11 million to settle sexual harassment cases over the past three decades. More than half of those cases involved the Department of Corrections which is the state’s largest agency.

<![CDATA[Squatter Complaint Uncovers $11.8M Fraud Case in Broward]]> Wed, 09 May 2018 10:36:59 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/bso+sheriff+operation+tomb+raider.jpg

What began in June 2016 as a complaint of squatters living in a Weston home culminated Tuesday in the arrest of six people in what police call an $11.8 million scheme to defraud.

Among the victims: dead people.

That’s why Broward Sheriff’s Det. Chris Bradley says the agency dubbed the case Operation Tomb Raiders.

“They prey on homes that were in distress, disabled individuals and, unfortunately in this case, deceased home owners,” Bradley said.

In a 79-page affidavit, Bradley alleges six people – led by 48-year-old Illya Livingstone Tinker – identified distressed properties and then forged both owners’ and notaries’ signatures on deeds transferring the property to entities they controlled.

In some cases, they rented the properties to unsuspecting tenants, sold them to others for cash or moved in themselves or employees to live for free, according to police and court records.

“Of the 44 homes that were stolen, 18 of them belonged to deceased home owners,” Bradley said, just minutes before he, other members of the money laundering task force and SWAT teams fanned out before dawn in Lauderhill to arrest the suspects.

They also executed a warrant to search the offices of Global Management Consulting Group, the business police say was the center of the scheme.

The six charged – including Tinker’s wife Patricia, 44, son Darren, 23, and office manager Gillian Solomon, 49 – face 151 counts of grand theft, ID theft and filing false documents, part of an organized scheme to defraud that police say began in 2010.

The others arrested – Catherine Lichtman, 56, and Mircho Murdjeff, 58 – are charged in connection with their actions involving their business, Prestige Home Buyers, also known as American Family Real Estate & Investment Co., according to the arrest affidavit.

Tinker denied the allegations, including any knowledge of how forged signatures were being used to transfer properties.

“It’s not true, sir,” he said, standing in handcuffs outside the house he and family shared in Lauderhill.

It turns out, the charges state, that same house was stolen by fraudulent, forged deeds after the owner died in 2013. Now valued at about $330,000, Bradley said, the Tinker family got it for a literal steal, paying nothing.

Bradley, a BSO detective assigned to a multiagency money laundering task force, said the victims – including survivors of some homeowners who died – are just seeking justice.

“It’s a nightmare ,” Bradley said, “All the victims that I’ve spoken to over the last two years, they’re frustrated with the system, they don’t understand how this can happen and, more importantly, they want justice.”

If convicted of the charges, justice for the defendants could be harsh. Some of the counts carry 10-year minimum mandatory sentences.

<![CDATA[Women Say Strip Clubs Turned Them Away Without Men]]> Tue, 08 May 2018 11:11:57 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/women+suing+strip+clubs.jpg

Heather Cox and her wife, Sonia Otalvaro, wanted a fun night out when they went to Dean’s Club in North Miami Beach. But they say they never got past the front door.

“We said, ‘Yeah, we want to come in,’ and they said, ‘You can’t,’ and I was very confused by that answer," recounted Cox. "So I asked again, ‘What do you mean we can’t? You have to be accompanied by a man’ they said."

The couple, who was visiting from San Francisco, says they called an attorney to sue the club for violating Miami Dade County code that prohibits discrimination based on “gender or sexual orientation.”

“It’s blatant discrimination. I can’t get into the club because I’m not with a man. What?” said Cox.

According to the lawsuit, Dean’s said, “It is a company policy not to allow unescorted ladies in our club without first seeking management approval."

“They were targeting a specific part of the population and you can’t. They were targeting unaccompanied women,” said Matthew Dietz, the attorney Cox and Otalvaro hired.

Dean’s Club says they do not discriminate and that they have the obligation to screen visitors to protect the business and their customers.

“What happens here is that because it is a gentleman’s club there are concerns that it may attract people such as prostitutes or women who are upset looking for their husbands or their boyfriends. And there have been incidents,” said Eduardo Rasco, the attorney for Dean's Gold.

Rachel’s, an adult club in Orlando, seems to share the same concerns. Two women shot video of a club manager explaining why they were not allowed in. 

On the video the manager tells them, "We don’t let females in by themselves because we don’t know if you’re looking for your husbands or boyfriends. We don’t want a domestic situation, all right. That’s why we’re not going to allow you in here by yourselves.”

Anita Yanes and Britney Smith, who recorded the video, filed a lawsuit against Rachel's. They are also represented by Dietz.

“I felt embarrassed. I mean it never happened to me before,” said Yanes.

Smith says she’s actually been allowed in the club before with a male friend and this was the first time she was denied.

“I was completely embarrassed and felt humiliated,” said Smith.

Rachel's did not want to talk on camera about their policy but a manager defended the practice saying that it’s common among clubs in the area.

An online search shows similar complaints including a woman who sued a club in Los Angeles when she wasn’t allowed in. It ended in a settlement.

As for Dean's, Rasco tells us they have now “revamped the ways they filter out undesirables.”

Two female producers for NBC 6 went to Dean's Club to see if that was the case. Both were allowed into Dean’s and four other strip clubs in South Florida with no problems.

That’s what the four women who are suing say they want to see at gentlemen’s clubs everywhere and hope their lawsuits are part of that change.

“I hope this will shine a light on other establishments that are doing the same things,” said Smith.

“Do the right thing be true gentlemen and treat people equally because the definition of a gentleman is a man who acts honorably and so treating people in the way we were treated is not honorable,” said Otalvaro.

The attorney for Dean's says that the day the women visited, the employee did not follow the company's policy correctly, because it says employees should not turn away unaccompanied women but they should call a manager on duty.

<![CDATA[Broward Police Using New Law to Seize Guns]]> Thu, 03 May 2018 00:06:04 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/CHIEF+JUDGE+JACK+TUTER+BROWARD.jpg

Still reeling from the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High, Broward County law enforcement agencies are leading the state by far in using sweeping new powers to take away guns from dozens of citizens they claim are dangerous.

Thirty-six risk protection orders, or RPOs, have been filed in Broward – more than three and a half times as many as the next busiest judicial circuit, covering Pinellas and Pasco counties.

The judge considering them said local police are reacting, in part, to their proximity to the mass shooting that spurred the law, which took effect March 9.

“I think a lot of it is directly attributable to the shooting at the high school,” said Chief Judge Jack Tuter.

Tuter has granted all 36 petitions on a temporary basis; only one person – a federal air marshal – has successfully challenged an order, persuading Tuter during a final hearing to reinstate his rights to possess firearms.

The Broward Sheriff’s Office has sought almost half of the orders in the county. The agency has been criticized by the public for failing to Baker Act Nikolas Cruz before he could legally purchase a weapon used to kill 17 people at the Parkland school, and for one or more of its deputies failing to quickly act to confront the shooter as the massacre unfolded. Florida’s Baker Act allows for someone to be committed for a mental evaluation and it can prevent someone from being able to purchase a gun.

Asked if its aggressive use of the new law was a reaction to any agency failures perceived by the public, a spokesperson would not concede any failures have been conclusively identified.

“For us it’s not about the numbers,” said spokesperson Keyla Concepcion. “It’s about utilizing the tools at our disposal to ensure the safety of our community. Risk protection orders were a much-needed tool for law enforcement. Our deputies are exercising due diligence by making sure they’re filed in cases where it’s deemed appropriate.”

The people who have risk protection orders filed against them range in age from a 14-year-old boy who classmates claimed “wanted to kill someone to see how it feels” to a 63-year-old man who, court records state, was “seeing spirits” and purchased two shots guns and two handguns, insisting “I can buy as many (firearms) as I want.”

The places put at potential risk include five schools, four public buildings and stores, two churches and a mall.

Two workplaces – Port Everglades and an automobile lot – were also named as places of risk in the court records.

Two of those cited had connections to the Markham Park target range.

One was a county parks employee who police claimed threatened a Sunrise restaurant, saying he "hears female voices in his head telling him to kill people." He was fired from his parks job after police contacted his employer, a parks spokeswoman said, adding the county is doing all it can to keep the range a safe place.

The other was an 18-year-old high school student, a competitive skeet shooter now unable to compete as he awaits a final hearing where his attorney will argue he should get his gun rights back. Classmates said they were concerned he fit the profile of a school shooter and Fort Lauderdale police sought the order after, they said, he wrote an essay describing a home invasion and murder at the home of a girl who did not return his affections.

Another high school student drew concern and had her firearms rights taken away because police say she was obsessed with the Columbine High massacre.

"Some people have actually had weapons at the house, others have not," Tuter said, "Some are suffering from mental health issues or crises when they call."

Two-thirds of the petitions went to people with mental health issues that authorities believe made them a danger to themselves or others, according to court records.

People like Nelson Olmeda, 60, a Davie man who threatened to "shoot up" a Sunrise Sam's Club, a store employee testified. Bi-polar and Baker Acted three times, according to court records, Olmeda had recently owned firearms and had a Florida concealed weapons permit, his ex-wife testified. Tuter revoked his gun rights for at least one year.

Another man was reported to police by Henderson Behavioral Health after he said he wanted a firearm to kill himself. That is the same mental health provider that decided Cruz was not a danger to himself or others in September 2016, despite evidence he’d been cutting himself and demanding from his mother that he get an ID so he could buy a firearm.

Had Cruz been Baker Acted, it is possible further legal steps could have been taken to make him ineligible for purchasing firearms, including the one he used at Stoneman Douglas.

Only a few of the petitions filed under the new law were directed at people charged with crimes.

"There are a lot of bad people in the community who wish to threaten their neighbors and neighborhood and are using weapons to do that," Tuter said.

One man who police say threatened another person with a gun is Jerron Smith, 31. He had been charged with several felonies in recent years, but was never convicted – so he was still legally allowed to possess firearms.

But when he used one to allegedly shoot at an acquaintance, he was arrested and the Broward Sheriff’s Office successfully sought to revoke his gun rights. When they showed up to collect his firearms, including an AR-15, Smith refused to cooperate and was arrested for violating the order – a separate criminal charge on which he is now being held without bond.

Tuter, left to sort out who is a threat and who isn’t, said judges are being asked to anticipate what someone is going to do.

"We're asked to predict human behavior to some extent. Will this person really pose a danger? Is this person just blowing off smoke and saying things they shouldn’t be saying? Or do they really pose a danger to themselves or others?" he said.

The only person to successfully regain his rights is Rene Rios, 38, a federal air marshal.

In February, he opened fire four to five times with his service handgun in his house at what he thought were two home invaders; in fact, he was hallucinating, he testified at his final hearing.

"If you asked me now, I believed two individuals were literally in my home trying to hurt my family and I believed in my heart I was trying to defend them as best I could," he testified.

In fact, he said he now realizes, he was suffering from psychosis due to a sudden withdrawal from alcohol and sleeping pills he’d been taking for years to cope with his job’s demanding schedule.

Unable to get help through work programs to ween himself off the drugs, he said, "I got to the point where I was tired of being sick and tired so I took two weeks off to try and do it myself."

It did not go well.

“I came home with the kids and found Rene in the bedroom talking to himself,” his wife, Roxannie testified.

Asked whom he was speaking with, she answered; "At that moment, God."

After the gunfire, she called Miramar Police. Officer Damaso Espiritusanto testified when he approached Rios, he repeated his claim about home invaders.

“He told me that one was dead inside of the house and the other male had fled,” the officer recalled.

Rios was Baker Acted and entered a 28-day in-patient treatment program.

His wife supported him in court, telling Judge Tuter, “Despite what happened that day, I am not afraid when I’m with Rene, nor do I think he presents a threat to me or my children.”

The judge agreed, saying, “The court finds the incident in question is an isolated incident, the respondent entered successful medical treatment, the respondent does not pose a threat to himself for others.”

He dismissed the temporary risk protection order. And while he could not order Rios to stay away from weapons, Tuter did advise him not to retrieve his weapons unless he was placed back on duty.

Rios testified his security clearance had been revoked and the air marshal service was seeking to fire him.

The agency would not comment on that. But spokesman Thomas Kelley told NBC 6: “The safety and well-being of all of our federal air marshals is paramount to TSA. We take any allegations of inappropriate behavior very seriously and act accordingly.”

As for Rios, he told NBC 6 there are “a lot of things I still have to think about, as far as my job and my career, and to move on from this moment.” His priority now? “Just to move on and get my life back. That’s it.”

This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Investigating Homes for Mold]]> Mon, 30 Apr 2018 23:44:13 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/unhealthy+at+home.jpg

We spend more time at home than anywhere else, which can be a problem if your own home is making you sick and you don’t even know it.

South Florida has high temperatures and humidity all year round, making it a great destination to live and play. But it also makes it a perfect breeding ground for mold. Mold you can see, and mold you can’t.

A Miami researcher believes there’s something everyone in Florida has in their homes that can be the root of the problem – your air conditioner.

Silvia Quiles of Miramar is a homebody. She loves where she lives, but when she’s at home, she’s never far away from a box of tissues. She continuously blows her nose and scratches her eyes.

“There’s something in the air inside the house,” said Quiles.

She has to go outside to get fresh air to feel better. She visits the doctor for her itchy eyes, but hasn’t gotten any answers. She also, has been searching for dust and hasn’t found any.

“I worry about that, but I don’t see any indication,” said Quiles.

Patients, Homes Studied

After two years of feeling like a patient in her own home, help rolled into her town home. Researchers with the University of Miami are swabbing their way through her house and testing the quality of her air on a regular basis After taking a mold sample this winter, researchers found mold in her home. Professor Naresh Kumar, PhD,  doesn’t believe Quiles’s mold is harmful in low quantities, but he’s trying to determine where it came from.

“Some types of molds are bad, like black mold,” said Professor Kumar.

He’s testing hundreds of homes like hers and he has a theory that points to a place people can’t easily see – behind the air conditioning vent.

Air Conditioner Concerns

“The air conditioning systems that we use in Miami, they were not designed for Miami environments,” said Kumar.

Most air conditioning units in South Florida aren’t lined with metal, they’re lined with fiberglass. With the humidity and moisture, it can be a breeding ground for mold.

Mike Dexter has seen moldy air ducts repeatedly over the years. He’s in the business of cleaning them.

“By the time you see it on your ceiling or vents, it’s already too late,” said Dexter. “It spreads like cancer throughout the system, once it takes root it’s easier to distribute through the system.”

You’ll find fiberglass in most Florida homes because it’s cheaper than metal, it doesn’t rust and it’s easier to install than metal.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) admits there’s “substantial debate” about the type of air duct to use, but doesn’t recommend one over the other. It’s up to the builder to decide.

Researchers don’t know the cause of Silvia’s mold yet but they’re giving her recommendations to improve the quality of her air and they’re watching closely to see if her health improves.

“I think it’s going to benefit me and lot of people out there, that have the same problem,” she said.

Things you can do at Home

There are test kits you can buy from hardware stores for less than ten dollars to test for mold in your own home. If it comes up positive, you can then send then sample to the lab for an additional cost to determine what type of mold it is. But cleaning up mold can be an expensive task, so can trying to prevent it in the first place.

Professor Kumar recommends keeping your air conditioner set at 72 degrees or lower and your humidity under 60 percent. He says even though it can be costly, the cooler conditions will help prevent mold from growing in your home.

As part of the research study, hundreds of homes will be tested in South Florida over the next few years. Patients will be checked in on continuously to see if the conditions in their eyes improve. Researchers are focusing on the patients’ eyes, because they say they will be most affected by mold and allergens. Plus, eye health can be indicative of other problems throughout the body.

<![CDATA[Your Workplace Could be Making You Sick]]> Mon, 30 Apr 2018 22:55:37 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/sick+building+syndrome.jpg

If you have itchy eyes, a runny nose or a cough that won’t go away, you might not have a cold - where you work or live could also be making you sick. Some doctors and patients are calling it a silent epidemic.

"It's invisible, you can’t see it, touch it, smell it or taste it," said Alan Bell.

Bell’s a former Broward County prosecutor. He’s used to getting to the bottom of crime cases but he had a difficult time solving his own medical mystery. It took him months to find out the cause of his illness.

"I started going to the doctors and they said, 'Well, it will get better' and it didn’t, it got worse," he said.

Months later, Bell said he discovered the new building he was working in at the time in Broward County was making him sick.

Sick Building Syndrome

"The new carpeting, the new glue, the new paints, the new ingredients were circulating around in the air," he said.

The new products can form what’s called Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. They’re gases that are emitted into the air. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says they can have short and long term health effects.

"What I discovered is that I wasn’t alone," said Bell.

The EPA has a name for it – Sick Building Syndrome. It estimates three in ten new or remodeled buildings may have excessive complaints about indoor air quality. Complaints range from chest tightness to muscle aches. They say many of the problems arise from not having enough indoor ventilation.

There is help, but it can be difficult to find. If you believe you work in building that could be making you sick, you can make an online request with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health to have it investigated. However, the NBC 6 Investigators found that rarely happens. Thirteen work places have been investigated in the past decade in Florida. When NIOSH does investigate, the results can take years to get back. The NBC 6 Investigators reached out to every local, state and national health and employment agency and all of them said they don’t keep statistics on the specific number of people who claim to have Sick Building Syndrome.

New Device Could Help Detect Problems

Using a federal grant, University of Miami Professor Naresh Kumar says he has developed a solution to help detect if you work in a building that could be making you ill. Dr. Kumar helped created an electronic monitor that can measure in real time the levels of VOCs in the air. The device alerts someone when harmful levels are detected.

"A brand new building can be a living hell," said Professor Kumar.  "An extremely high amount of VOCs can cause many, many disorders."

He’s working to get the cost down so the devices can be used just like carbon monoxide detectors.

As for Bell, after he found the cause of his illness, he became an environmental advocate and devoted his life to helping others avoid what happened to him.

"Nobody is immune from this," said Bell. "It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor or black or white or Jewish or Muslim, it doesn’t matter we are all equally at risk."

In addition to VOCs being an issue for many new or remodeled buildings, Professor Kumar believes there’s something inside almost everyone’s home in South Florida that could also be making them sick. Tune into NBC 6 News at 11 p.m. Monday for that story.

<![CDATA[Ex-ICE Agent Helps Keep Convicted Felon from Being Deported]]> Thu, 26 Apr 2018 19:34:53 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/split+screen+reneau+and+devaney.jpg

When it comes to identifying priorities for deportation, Steven Reneau checks several of the Trump administration’s boxes.

He’s a convicted felon – for importing cocaine, no less.

His immigration status had expired, leaving him no right to be on American soil.

So when ICE agents picked him up outside his Broward County apartment in January, his wife and children had good reason to fear they would never see him again in the United States.

But then an unlikely ally came to the family’s aide – and ICE had second thoughts.

Jack Devaney spent more than 25 years arresting and deporting people for the U.S. government.

When it comes to protecting the borders, Devaney is no bleeding heart.

“I believe in the president’s ‘build a wall’ and deport criminal aliens. I believe in that,” he said.

But he also believes in the government keeping its word to those who risk their lives to help them.

And that’s exactly what Reneau did, Devaney said, after the feds in 1999 intercepted 20 kilos of cocaine from a ship at Port Everglades before it could get to Reneau’s apartment in North Miami Beach.

Instead, Devaney and his partners showed up on Reneau’s doorstep carrying a large quantity of counterfeit cocaine and asking a simple question: Is this yours?

Reneau invited them in and “we talked for about 10, 15 minutes and he agreed to cooperate with us and share with us his part in this drug smuggling conspiracy,” Devaney recalled.

It was a conspiracy reaching back to Reneau’s home county, Belize – a western Caribbean transshipment point for Colombian cocaine – and a drug trafficking organization the DEA alleged was headed by two brothers, Andrew and Floyd Brown, according to court records.

To help prove it, Devaney and crew relied heavily on Reneau, who led them to co-conspirators and recorded conversations the DEA tried to use to have the Browns extradited to the US for prosecution.

“You had conversations with Reneau and the Browns, basically implicating them in that drug smuggling conspiracy,” according to Devaney. (33)

Over six years, he estimated, Reneau helped them locate a Belizean fugitive, convict money launderers and provide enough other intelligence to support dozens of deportations to Belize.

“Technically, we made an agreement for him to work with us,” Devaney said.

But in exchange, the feds agreed to work with Reneau, helping him get a visa for cooperating witnesses, and perhaps a green card – permanent residence in the US – after he did his two years in prison for importing cocaine.

Reneau did his time, but Devaney retired in 2012 without filing the necessary paperwork to protect Reneau from deportation and Reneau’s case lingered.

“This went from agent to agent, assistant US attorney to assistant US attorney,” he said. “I can say it just fell through the cracks.”

Until January, when Reneau’s wife heard a knock on their door.

“I opened the door and I saw Steve standing at the side with three men there. One of them spoke to me he said, ‘We’re from ICE,” she recalled.

As she told NBC 6 Investigators in the days after Reneau was taken to a detention center, she feared the family would never see him again. Their young son would cry and ask, “Where’s Daddy? When is he going to come back?” she said. “I just tell him Daddy’s going to come home soon.”

The family feared Reneau would not survive if returned to Belize, because his role in the cases against the Brown brothers was widely reported there. The DEA’s extradition request was denied after the Belizean supreme court ruled the recordings Reneau made with the Browns were inadmissible.

“I personally believe he’ll be murdered if he’s returned to Belize,” Devaney said.

So when Reneau contacted him in January to say he faced being sent back to Belize, Devaney spring into action, He contacted the acting director of ICE by email, seeking to have the government follow through on what it had promised many years before.

And, much to Devaney’s surprise, acting ICE director Thomas Homan responded to his email, promising to look into it.

A few days later, ICE agents retrieved Reneau from a Monroe Country detention center and drove him back to the same doorstep where his wife last saw him weeks earlier.

He is now able to stay in the US while seeking a visa - the type offered to witnesses in cases like his.

Reneau’s wife said he was told not to discuss his situation publicly, so the family has declined to comment since his release.

But Devaney said he’s happy to so far keep his end of the bargain made with Reneau 18 years ago.

“I guess technically Steven Reneau does not belong in the United States, however, he cooperated with the US government and there was a deal made with Steve.”

<![CDATA[NTSB Focuses Collapse Investigation on North of FIU Bridge]]> Wed, 21 Mar 2018 19:06:19 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/032118+FIU+Bridge.png

It emerges on dashcam video about one-fifteenth of a second before the FIU pedestrian bridge collapses – a puff of some kind and what appears to be a protrusion from the deck level of the north side of the structure.

And then it all comes tumbling down.

Whether it’s concrete or steel or something else, the National Transportation Safety Board announced Wednesday it is focusing on the area where that anomaly is seen -- where the last diagonal truss meets the deck and the vertical support beam on the north end of the span.

They are taking for examination and testing “sections of the floor, the canopy, a vertical member and a diagonal member … from the north end of the structure … in the area of where the failure occurred,” the agency said.

Also being shipped to the Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center in McLean, VA: the actual tension rods and hydraulic equipment found in the rubble as well as items nearly identical to those being used in order to test them. The equipment was being used to adjust the tension in rods that passed through the northernmost diagonal truss at the time of the collapse.

Earlier, the subcontractor had done the post-tensioning adjustments to two rods that pass through the diagonal truss at the southern end.

They moved to the north end, adjusted one rod there and were working on the second rod in that truss when the span failed and collapsed, NTSB said.

The original design called for those stress adjustments to be completed before SW 8th Street was reopened to traffic early on the morning of Monday March 12. The road was closed that weekend so that the span could be moved into place.

While the design called for tension to be added to the trusses on the north and south ends during that transport, the force was supposed to be reduced to zero after the bridge was put into place – and it was, according to one source close to the project.

But then cracking was observed – something chief engineer W. Denney Pate of FIGG Engineering reported on Tuesday to Tom Andres, a Florida Department of Transportation state structures design engineer. Andres did not get the voicemail until the day after the collapse.

But an FDOT consultant helping oversee the project was aware of the problem and how Pate was proposing to address it, according to FIU.

But no one called for the road to be closed again when the stress adjustments were being done, with Pate saying he determined the work would not create a safety issue.

Six people died in the collapse including an employee of subcontractor VSL, the firm doing the post-tensioning work.

<![CDATA[Bridge Project Responsibility of FIU, Not State]]> Mon, 26 Mar 2018 10:38:56 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/179*120/GettyImages-932800980.jpg

The pedestrian bridge that collapsed at Florida International University was not being run by the Florida Department of Transportation despite it crossing over a state road. The proper and safe completion of the project was the responsibility of the team FIU hired to design and build it, according to FDOT.

The state revealed the company selected to do an independent, secondary review of the project was not pre-qualified by FDOT for the service it was hired to do.

That company was selected by what's called the design build team made up of the designer and contractor.

The bridge designer was Tallahassee's Figg Engineering and the contractor is Munilla Construction Management of Miami. 

FDOT says the two companies were under contract with FIU and it was that team's responsibility to hire a firm to conduct an independent, secondary review. 

The state identified the firm that's not FDOT pre-qualified as Louis Berger. Because the design of this bridge was unique, that's the reason they state said a secondary review was required. No reason was given why Louis Berger wasn't pre-qualified for this work. The firm does do other business with FDOT. Emails to company representatives weren't immediately returned.

The primary inspection was being done by Bolton Perez and Associates of Miami. FDOT says they are what's called the CEI or Construction Engineering & Inspection team. 

The pedestrian walkway was built at an off-site location and put into place over SW 8th St. on Saturday morning, March 10. It was being built to provide a safer way for people to cross the busy road between the FIU campus and Sweetwater.

FDOT says it played a role in traffic control for the Saturday event as well as other duties including acting as a pass-through for federal funding, providing $57,000 of the $16.5 million project, reviewing compliance of the terms of the agreement and authorizing FIU to build the bridge over the state road. FDOT says FIU and its contractors are "solely responsible to inspect and maintain" the bridge at the university's expense.

Photo Credit: Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA['Lots of Blood. Please Help!': More Parkland 911 Calls Out]]> Wed, 14 Mar 2018 23:04:25 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Officer_Suspended_Over_Inaction_During_Parkland_Shooting.jpg

A full minute after the shooting started at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, a 911 dispatcher got the first call from inside the school.

“Please help! Please help!” the young woman said quickly into the phone.

The 911 operator asked if anyone was injured.

“Yes! Yes! Lots of blood. Please help!” the teen said.

Dozens of more calls poured into the Coral Springs Communication Center.

Wednesday, Coral Springs released a few of the calls made by students and teachers in the school. The calls show the brave, but terrified voices of students who were trying to get help for wounded classmates. And the calls show the calm but caring voices of 911 operators having to maintain their composure as they heard the grisly details of the attack as it unfolded.

“Help me, please,” begged one girl who said she was in room 2016 of the freshman building on the high school’s campus. “He's shooting at us, please.”

The 911 operators are heard trying to find out specific details about the shooter’s location.

“Can you hear where the shots are coming from?” one operator asked.

“It was in the hallway they were shooting into the classroom,” a teacher answered. “It came through the door it went in his seat.”

Students on the first floor described hearing shots being fired on a floor above them.

“Do you actively hear gunshots right now still?” an operator asked. “You still hear gunshots?”

“Yes,” the student whispered. “It sounds like it’s coming from upstairs.”

The operators also tried to keep students helping their classmates.

In one call that lasted more than 16 minutes, an operator talked to a girl who was helping a student who had been shot in the head.

“Listen to me, he’s still breathing right?” the operator asked.

“ I don’t know I can’t tell,” the student answered. “The one across from me is not.”

“Don’t worry about the one across from you. Let’s focus on the boy next to you, ok?” the operator said.

“You’re doing great, ok? You’re doing awesome.”

“I’m hyperventilating and freaking out,” the girl answered.

<![CDATA[Firefighters Create Group to Deal with Mental Health]]> Mon, 26 Mar 2018 19:21:39 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/firefighter+generic+with+flame.jpg

It’s not always easy to get a firefighter to open up about what they’re feeling.

Some Miami firefighters are trying to change that.

“The problem we run into is how to take the hat off so to speak,” said Kiel Silvia.

Silva has been a firefighter paramedic with the city of Miami for more than a decade.

He has been trained to help others in life-threatening situations, but there’s something he didn’t get training for – his own mental health.

It’s a problem he ran headfirst into three years ago after two of his fellow firefighters committed suicide.

“It hit me personally, they both were friends of mine and at the time, it was very tough to process,” said Silvia.

Picking up a paintbrush and painting was the only way he knew how to deal with what he was feeling at the time.

“I can just let my mind wander,” he said.

But he also took action.

He helped create a group called Headstrong Heroes. It’s a non-profit that helps firefighters like him deal with post-traumatic stress. It’s a group he runs with fellow firefighter Raul Cernuda.

First responders experience a lot of trauma on the job, and many struggle with how to process what they see on a day-to-day basis.

“Some of our members will call us the hug squad, or something like that, because they’re uncomfortable dealing with the emotional aspect of it,” said Cernuda.

As we first reported in February, NBC News surveyed firefighters across North America and found many of them are uncomfortable. Nineteen percent of the 7,000 who responded said they’ve had suicidal thoughts.

“For me, it was the whole reason why I got involved,” said Silvia. “Our motto and our mission statement is when those who serve others find themselves in a dark place, we will be the beacon of light.”

They do peer-to-peer counseling behind closed doors. The survey found more than half who responded admit they’ve been haunted by traumatic situations.

“That’s our whole thing, to get guys to tell their stories and be able to either overcome their denial of what they’re feeling, to get in touch with what they’re feeling, and to see it in a different light.”

<![CDATA[Jail Records Reveal Cruz Behavior Behind Bars]]> Wed, 07 Mar 2018 13:24:41 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/nikolas-cruz-audiencia-herencia.jpg

Newly released jail records offer a look at the "restless" and "awkward" jail life of Nikolas Cruz, the teen who is being held on 17 counts of premeditated murder in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School last month.

On every shift, deputies observe Cruz in his protective custody single cell at the Broward County Jail. The "behavior observation reports" obtained by NBC6 detail his appearance, behavior, communication, thinking, socialization and daily activities between Feb. 17 and Feb. 24.

Many deputies wrote that Cruz kept his head cast down, made little eye contact, responded in a slow, soft voice but was cooperative. Early on in his stay, deputies wrote that Cruz sat with a blank stare.

Several days later, deputies wrote that Cruz was “restless” and “tossing and turning” instead of sleeping.

On the day of a Feb. 20 court hearing, the deputy wrote that Cruz “appeared to break out in laughter both during and immediately following” a visit with an attorney, marking that episode as “awkward” behavior.

Cruz once refused to eat a provided meal. But on all other days, the deputies observing him indicated that he ate normally. One meal was listed as including two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, an apple, cookies and juice.

The records also indicate Cruz made only request during that time period, and that was to read the Bible. That request came on the same day the report lists he had a family visit.

The section marked “Thinking" is blocked out in the reports. No reason was given for the redaction, but the section appears to refer to the state of Cruz's mental health.

The jail visitor log shows that Cruz's attorneys are his most frequent visitors, as well as investigators and a psychologist, NBC News reported.

The revelations come as James and Kimberly Snead, who had taken in Cruz after his mother died, testified before a grand jury Wednesday in a closed-door session. 

Photo Credit: Getty Images, File]]>
<![CDATA[First Responders Haunted by Trauma, Fear Asking for Help]]> Wed, 28 Feb 2018 15:44:25 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Firefighter+227.JPG

First responders are known for being tough and brave and as we’ve seen in Parkland over the past few weeks – they’re also human.

“We have to remind ourselves at the end of the day we did the best we could, we helped who we could,” said Lt. Frank Pekora, one of the first firefighter paramedics who responded to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14.

Numerous police and fire officials rushed to the scene of the mass shooting before it was secure and rushed injured students to the hospital.

“It’s a lot to process,” said Lt Rohan Neita of the Corals Springs Fire Department. “I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing.”

According to a new NBC News survey, when any emergency is over, first responders need to do a better job focusing on themselves.

NBC News stations teamed up with the International Association of Firefighters for a confidential mental health survey. More than 7,000 firefighters responded from across North America. The survey was done before the Parkland tragedy.

The results show almost all firefighters experience stress on the job and three quarters are left with unresolved issues.

Some of the key findings include:

  • 19% have had suicidal thoughts
  • 27% struggled with substance abuse
  • 65% are haunted by memories of traumatic situations
  • 81% believe asking for help will make them seem week or unfit for duty

“We suffer from the same challenges the general public does – financial issues, marital issues,” said Jim Brinkley, Director of Health and Safety for the IAFF. “Now you compound that with the horror that we see every day, day in and day out, it adds up and eventually takes a toll.”

Lt. Pekora says he was training at a fire station near the school when he received the call to respond. He rushed the first patient to the hospital.

“We tried to refocus what he was thinking about, made sure he called his parents so they knew he was alive and just tried to keep him calm,” said Lt. Pekora. “I learned a very long time ago that I have to separate these experiences from my life or they are going to haunt me for a very long time.”

The survey shows a majority of firefighters don’t ask for help out of fear it will make them appear weak or unfit for duty.

“What this study does is really bring home the numbers that we already knew were out there, that firefighters are suffering from PTSD and other behavioral health disorders,” says Brinkley. “And more importantly, there’s a stigma attached to seeking help."

Parkland’s first responders were offered counseling to help them cope with what they experienced. Many said, they took advantage of the service.

“We have guys that come by the stations to talk to us, ask us how we’re doing,” said Lt. Neita. “Everyone’s going through tough times right now.”

In South Florida, there is help available for first responders who need assistance processing what they experience on a daily basis. A nonprofit called Headstrong Heroes gives peer-to-peer counseling and other services. It was formed four years ago after two firefighters committed suicide. For more information, click here.

The International Association of Firefighters also offers mental health resources.

This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Timeline Casts Doubt on Some Claims About Broward Deputies]]> Mon, 26 Feb 2018 22:05:08 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Updated_Timeline_of_Parkland_School_Tragedy.jpg

As criticism flows on the Broward County Sheriff’s Office over its response to the Stoneman Douglas shooting, the school resource officer who failed to go into the building while students were being killed is fighting back.

In statements released Monday by his lawyer, now-former deputy Scot Peterson said the first information he received about the Feb. 14 attack was “a call of firecrackers” heard on campus.

After running toward Building 12, he said he recognized they were gunshots, but thought they were being fired outdoors, according to the statement.

Sheriff’s training, he said, dictates that “in the event of outdoor gunfire, one is to seek cover and assess the situation.”

So Peterson says he took up a “tactical position” in a corridor between two buildings, about 40 yards from the east side of Building 12.

The first backup officer he saw was from Coral Springs police and, Peterson said, that officer also did not go into the building. Instead, he took up a tactical position behind a tree with his rifle, Peterson recalled.

BSO has been criticized after some responders claim they saw three deputies taking cover behind their cars, reportedly in some cases while shots were being fired in the building.

But Sheriff Scott Israel has said other officers did not make it to the scene until after the firing had stopped.

At one point, Peterson spoke on police radio about a “perimeter” – possibly, Israel said, leading some responders to believe they were to stay outside at that point to set up a perimeter.

One eyewitness account to the early stages of the attack said it appeared to him Peterson had his attention frozen on the 1200 Building – and not on finding the source of what he now claims he through was outdoor gunfire.

Brendan Huff, a senior who ran toward the building after his girlfriend texted him about the shooting, said he saw Peterson taking cover behind the wall in that corridor, pointing his handgun at the closed door of Building 12, as if preparing to fire if the shooter emerged from those doors.

“He was taking cover behind that wall with his gun drawn, pointing it towards the 1200 building,” Huff said. “You could hear gunshots going off in the freshman building so I figured maybe they were shooting at each other.”

If Peterson ever thought the gunfire was from outside, Jeff Bell, president of the union representing Broward deputies, said it would not take long to realize the shots were fired inside.

“While that may be true for the first one or two rounds, when you’re approaching round 100, 110 and 120 – you’re going to know where those gunshots are coming from,” Bell said.

Just when other officers arrived as back up is not yet publically known.

But based on sheriff’s and Coral Springs records, this is where the timeline stands as of this moment on Feb. 14:

2:21:22 -- Shooting Begins.
2:22:40 -- Coral Springs Gets its First 911 Call.
2:27:37 -- Cruz, Done Firing, Drops Rifle and Starts to Flee.
2:28:16 -- Coral Springs Fire/Rescue on Scene.
2:28:35 -- Radio Traffic Reveals One Victim Being Assisted Outside by an Apparent BSO Deputy.

That is the exact same second the shooter ran outside Building 12, blending in with terrified former classmates to escape.

Twenty-five seconds later – at 2:29 – two apparent Broward deputies say on the radio they are going into a building – Building 13, they say.

It may not have been the building where the dead and wounded were by then lying, but it is clear from radio traffic that at least those deputies did not stay outside and take cover behind their vehicles, as some have alleged about other BSO deputies.

<![CDATA[Student Watched Deputy 'Just Standing There' in Parkland]]> Fri, 23 Feb 2018 20:33:17 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Student_Says_He_Witnesses_Officer_Inaction_in_Parkland.jpg

Less than three minutes after the first shots were fired – shots he did not hear -- Brandon Huff and his classmates streamed out of buildings on the south side of Stoneman Douglas High after a fire alarm sounded.

He strolled toward the parking lot, until he saw this text from his girlfriend, Jess:

“there’s a gun. i love you,” she texts at 2:24.

“what baby,” he responds.

“baby there’s a shooter in my room.”

Huff dropped everything and sprinted to Building 12, on the northern edge of campus, where Jess was hiding in the corner of a first-floor classroom.

“I ran straight down to where her classroom, to where the shooter was, because I was going to do everything I could to help her … plan to try to just stop the shooter,” Huff told NBC 6 Investigators.

But as he neared the building, the sound of gunshots piercing the air, he said he saw a sheriff’s deputy – one he recognized as school resource officer Scot Peterson – taking cover behind the wall of stairwell in an adjacent building, pointing his firearm at a closed door to the building where Nikolas Cruz was committing mass murder.

“I thought he was aiming it at somebody and you could hear gunshots going off in the building, the freshman building, over and over,” he said.

But none of those shots were fired by Peterson or any other law enforcement officer.

As a security guard ushered Huff to safety in the auditorium, he took note of the deputy’s actions – or inaction.

He “was just standing there,” occasionally talking on his radio, he said. “He seemed alert. But I mean, he wasn't moving. He just was stuck there and he was not moving.”

Peterson resigned Thursday after Sheriff Scott Israel suspended him without pay and launched an internal affairs investigation into why he did not do what he was trained to do: enter the building and confront an active school shooter.

That investigation will also look into whether other deputies also did not go in to confront and kill the shooter.

From his vantage point, Huff said, “I think if he would've went in there, he could've saved the majority of the lives.”

That, of course, is impossible to say.

But Huff and others in the Stoneman Douglas community are seething at the failures of the sheriff’s office.

“It upsets me that people were getting shot in there, you know children -- freshmen -- who were just starting high school, seniors who were about to finish high school, staff of the school … who weren’t armed, they didn’t have a gun… and they were running in there shielding kids from bullets, you know, getting -- they lost their lives in the process, they were trying to help and he was just standing there.”

Among those killed after going in– coach Aaron Feis and athletic director Chris Hixon.

Huff’s girlfriend did survive uninjured, but two students in her classroom were shot to death.

<![CDATA[Expert: Planned Changes to School Buildings a 'Good Start']]> Fri, 23 Feb 2018 19:47:49 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/214*120/How_Schools_Will_Become_Safer_Following_Parkland_Shooting.jpg

A lot of parents are taking a look at their child’s school to see what’s being done to protect kids and what security improvements can be made to make them safer in light of the recent mass shooting in Parkland.

In Broward County, voters passed a “Smart Futures” bond back in 2014. It’s an 800 million dollar project to make improvements to all public schools in the county.

NBC 6 went through the files, school by school, and found the school system is spending a majority of the bond money on renovating school buildings.

Starting next year, Marjory Stoneman Douglas high, where the shooting happened, will be receiving new windows and a new air conditioning system. The only bond money scheduled to be spent on security is for a new fire alarm system for the building.

“They have good intentions and they’re doing the best they can with the resources provided to them,” said Randy Atlas, of Atlas Safety and Security Design of Fort Lauderdale. It’s Atlas’s job to plan and design buildings to prevent mass tragedies from happening.

NBC 6 found money for security at Broward schools, in most cases, is being spent on a new main entrance. Dozens of schools from Coconut Creek High School to Banyan Elementary are getting one. The school system is designing a single entryway that all students and visitors must enter. Atlas said, it’s a good start.

“The front door is a critical security component, it needs to be break resistant it may or may not need to be bullet resistance,” said Atlas.

Many of the bond improvements will be taking place over the next three years.

<![CDATA[Stoneman Suspect's Former Friend Reported 'Alarming' Signs]]> Fri, 23 Feb 2018 17:39:32 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/022018+nikolas+cruz+ariana+lopez.jpg

A student who says she reported warning signs about the suspect in the Parkland school tragedy more than a year before last week's mass shooting said her friendship with him quickly turned to fear in the years leading up to the massacre.

Ariana Lopez said she was friends with Nikolas Cruz when he first joined Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School three years ago, but the friendship quickly deteriorated.

"I knew that something like this would happen," Lopez told NBC 6. "He made it very clear to other people that he was dangerous."

Lopez said she watched and worried as Cruz posted disturbing photos to social media, including a collection of rifles and a fascination with shooting and killing animals.

"The way that he talked about hunting so often and like the misery of the animals was just very alarming," she said.

Lopez, 17, said Cruz's behavior eventually showed up in the classroom.

"He used to sell knives at school and stick them in his lunch box, sometimes it was just a brown paper bag he’d bring around and he’d say 'hey guys, wanna but some knives?'" Lopez said. "Nick was not a kid that was bullied, he was not a kid that was harassed, he did the bullying and the harassing. He instilled fear in innocent people for fun."

Lopez said Cruz began to threaten her and other classmates.

"Him verbally assaulting us, talking about killing us, doing things to our corpses, killing our parents, friends and family and all of this was right there," she said. "As a teenager I shouldn’t have to look over my shoulder and see some creepy kid that I know because he’s talking about killing me."

The threats were reported to the school numerous times by Lopez.

"A ridiculous amount to the point where my parents and I actually had a conversation where they told me I’d need to stop because I was going to the office almost every single day because it didn’t stop," she said.

Lopez said the school counselors recorded her concerns and encouraged her to report anything alarming. But Cruz remained a student until he was expelled for getting into a fight.

Officials with Broward County Schools didn't immediately comment on Lopez's claims but said they are receiving a high volume of media requests and are working to respond as quickly as possible.

As students fled the school on Wednesday, Lopez locked herself in a closet and waited. When she emerged she learned that many of her friends were killed and her former friend, Cruz, was the suspect.

"I shouldn’t have to sit in a closet with 50 other kids because we think we are going to die, no kid should have to go to school being scared that they’re going to get shot by someone they know or don’t know," she said. "I want this stopped because my friends shouldn’t have to go to school and stand in front of each other to block each other from bullets, I shouldn’t have friends that are in the hospital because their friend who died covered them."

Cruz, 19, is facing 17 counts of murder in the shooting. Lopez said she was attending two funerals Tuesday.

"I don’t want to be angry because then he wins, I don’t want to be upset because then he wins, I don’t want to blame anyone or point fingers because that's just how they win and I can’t do that right now," Lopez said.

Photo Credit: Getty Images, NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA[DCF: Parkland Suspect Was Taking Medication at Time of Probe]]> Fri, 23 Feb 2018 17:34:54 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/GettyImages-920795764.jpg

The Florida Department of Children and Families released further details after a judge granted an order to unseal a confidential report into Parkland school shooting suspect Nikolas Cruz’s past that details him cutting his arms on social media and stating his intention to buy a gun.

DCF released the details Monday night. The agency said its Adult Protective Services division was called on Sept. 28, 2016, to investigate allegations that he was being victimized by his mother.

DCF said it found "no indicators of abuse or neglect as alleged" after an investigation involving mental health counselors, school personnel and law enforcement who had contact with Cruz.

The department also said that Henderson Behavioral Health, an independent organization, told DCF that Cruz was receiving mental health treatment services and that he was taking medication.

DCF said it they received reports that Cruz did not own a firearm at the time, adding that Cruz lived with his mother and regularly attended school.

“DCF is absolutely heartbroken and disgusted by last week’s tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Once we learned that the shooter had involvement with the agency in 2016, we immediately began the process of asking a court to release these records detailing DCF’s only involvement with this person. We also conducted a thorough review to confirm that all processes and procedures were followed. In these investigations, DCF relies on the expertise of mental health professionals and law enforcement and these records show that DCF took the steps to involve these partners in investigating this alleged abuse. Cruz was receiving mental health services before, during, and after our investigation was closed, he was living with his mother, and attending school. Our focus will continue to be on working with our partners to best serve Florida’s communities.”

DCF emphasized that the investigation it carried out was "the only direct interaction DCF had with this individual."

The investigation was opened after Cruz argued with his mother, according to the report. Lynda Cruz, who died in November 2017, was concerned. Video was found of Cruz cutting his arms and posting about it on Snapchat.

The summary of the report shows DCF investigated Cruz, who had just turned 18, as a “vulnerable adult due to mental illness." The report said he "...was on Snapchat cutting both of his arms,” and had “plans to go out and buy a gun."

According to the report, his mother said his behavior was the result of a breakup with a girl she said was cheating on Cruz.

The report also indicated that in 2015, Cruz had a book bag with hate signs including "I hate n----s."

According to the report, Cruz admitted to a counselor “that he was feeling depressed.” His mother had told investigators that he suffered from ADHD and autism.

The report also showed a crisis clinician from Henderson Mental Health determined Cruz was not a risk to himself or anyone else. “No other referrals or services were needed,” the Florida Department of Children and Families concluded.

After three months of investigating, the report was closed finding “no indicators to support the allegations of inadequate supervision or medical neglect.”

DCF petitioned for the full report to be released.

"We don’t want to be the one party at the table, who looks like they’re hiding something or got something to hide, because we absolutely do not," attorney John Jackson, who is representing the Department of Children and Families, said at a hearing over the report.

A Broward County circuit court judge ruled the public has a right to know the details of the full investigation and ordered the documents be released after redacting the names of DCF workers.

Cruz, 19, is facing murder charges in last week's shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that claimed 17 lives.

Photo Credit: Getty Images]]>
<![CDATA[Lottery Shuts Down Some Retailers Linked to Online Sales]]> Mon, 12 Feb 2018 20:09:54 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/masked+lottery+winners.jpg

Aura Dominguez Canto got the call of her life last July while home in Panama.

“I’m happy to say you won $30 million last night,” the caller said.

“Oh my God. Oh my God,” Dominguez Canto repeated, adding she was in shock.

But when she got to Tallahassee in August to collect her $21 million cash payout, there was a problem.

She claimed in a lottery security affidavit she bought her ticket at a Panhandle package goods store where the winning ticket was printed.

But she had never set foot in the store.

She next wrote: “I asked my friend, Darian, to please buy it for me.” But when asked for Darian’s contact information she did not have it on her.

Suspicious, lottery security started investigating the ticket sale before paying her the winnings.

An attorney Dominguez Canto used called lottery security later that evening to reveal she actually bought the ticket through TheLotter.com, an online lottery service.

Lottery security drove to the package store in Campbellton, where the owner admitted he used a laptop, printer and scanner provided by TheLotter.com to receive orders, print out play slips, and then scan images of the tickets printed from the retailer’s machines to send back to TheLotter.com office in Israel.

The next day “Darian” showed up at the lottery headquarters and introduced himself as Darian Stanford, an Oregon attorney who has represented TheLotter.com. He explained how TheLotter.com works and how he helped Dominguez Canto come into physical possession of the winning ticket printed out in the Panhandle.

Stanford told the state TheLotter.com allows players outside the United States to buy tickets from lotteries based in about 20 countries. It makes its profits by charging its customers more than the face value of the tickets – in some cases 50 percent more than the ticket would cost if bought in person, plus a service fee.

As for Dominguez Canto’s ticket, it took two weeks – as lottery security consulted law enforcement to determine if any criminal laws were broken – but eventually, lottery officials determined it was valid and Dominguez Canto was the rightful winner of the $30 million Florida Lotto jackpot ($21 million cash option).

The owner of the store that sold the ticket was not as lucky.

In November, the lottery terminated its retailer contract, telling the owner in a letter the revocation was necessary “to ensure the integrity, security, honesty or fairness” of the lottery. Terminals were removed from the Campbellton store and three others owned by the same corporation.

The NBC 6 Investigators found machines still humming at other outlets whose tickets wound up being sold through online lottery sites.

Florida law allows someone to enter a store and buy a ticket for someone else. (If it didn’t Powerball office pools would be a thing of the past.) But in Florida, you cannot buy a lottery ticket online.

The lottery says the decision to terminate a retailer sometimes depends on how far it can prove the owner or his employees go in assisting the online lottery outlets.

Consider, for example, the Pine Island Chevron in Davie.

It has sold three winning $1 million Powerball tickets that were ultimately purchased on TheLotter.com.

One of the winners was part of the record-setting $1.6 billion drawing in January 2016.

An analysis of lottery records by NBC 6 found that Chevron was the highest-grossing Powerball outlet in the state as the jackpot grew over the 10 week period leading up when the winning ticket was sold. The store sold more than $1 million in Powerball tickets during that time frame; the second-busiest outlet, City Discount less than a mile away in Cooper City, sold $435,000 during that period.

The day after Dominguez Canto showed up in Tallahassee, Florida Lottery security realized Pine Island Chevron had sold winning tickets that wound up with customers of TheLotter.com – so it sent an agent there to investigate.

“Past sales reports indicate they were previously using TheLotter.com to sell Florida Lottery tickets,” the investigator concluded. But, he added, there was no evidence the current owner is “engaged in any activity that would jeopardize his Florida Lottery contract at this time.”

The owner, Isaac Golan, told NBC 6 he has was unaware tickets printed there wound up being sold through online lottery services.

Asked why he was selling so many tickets during the Powerball frenzy of 2015-2016 – more than twice as much as anyone else in Florida, including high-volume stores near the Alabama border – he said, “Well, I’m a good businessman, I don’t know what to say.”

He also said he was never questioned by lottery security about how tickets printed in Davie wound up with three million-dollar winners from the United Kingdom, El Salvador and Australia who bought them through TheLotter.com.

Lottery security also erroneously noted Golan did not own the store when two of the tickets were sold in 2016. Golan said – and public records confirm -- he purchased it in 2013 – not 2017, as lottery security stated in its report.

Without any proof employees were currently actively in cahoots with an online lottery, the state continues to allow tickets to be sold at the Pine Island Chevron.

Not so in Hollywood, where Perfect Liquor and Wine had its lottery agreement terminated in 2017 after security found its tickets being sold on another online lottery site.

When security visited in February 2017, the manager admitted he would feed stacks of play slips into the terminal for a courier. The courier who left him with the play slips would pay him through a pre-paid debit card.

Lottery security seized the card and discovered $1.7 million had been deposited on the card over the previous three years.

That was enough for the lottery to yank that license, while allowing another store owned by the same company to continue selling tickets in Tamarac – as long as the manager from Hollywood does not work at the Tamarac location.

The only sure winner in the lottery is the state – which collects billions in revenues – and the retailers, who get 5 percent of sales as a commission. The Pine Island Chevron has been paid more than $600,000 in commission from 2013 through 2017, according to lottery records.

In a statement to NBC 6, the lottery said it “follows the law. Retailer’s contracts with the lottery include requirements and prohibitions that could prohibit doing business with courier services like TheLotter.com, depending on the courier service’s business model. However, there is no provision in Florida law prohibiting courier services generally.”

If the legislature proposes to change the law, the lottery said, “We will be happy to work with the Legislature on this issue.”