<![CDATA[NBC 6 South Florida - Team 6 Investigators]]>Copyright 2018https://www.nbcmiami.com/investigations http://media.nbcnewyork.com/designimages/NBC+6+LOGO+GOOGLE.png NBC 6 South Florida https://www.nbcmiami.comen-usSun, 27 May 2018 21:23:23 -0400Sun, 27 May 2018 21:23:23 -0400NBC Owned Television Stations <![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.”

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<![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.”

<![CDATA[Tragedy Exposes What Can Happen Following Death on Water]]> Thu, 08 Feb 2018 15:57:16 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/fire+tragedy.jpg

Jill Malott has been haunted by the tragic death of her parents while they were on what was supposed to be a dream vacation.

“I still have nightmares about being in the cabin with them and trying to get them out,” said Jill.

Christy and Larry Hammer were retired educators from Nebraska who loved to travel. Their daughter says they wanted to take a cruise on the Amazon River. She says they researched and chose a cruise on the 31-passenger La Estrella Amazonica ship in Peru.

Surveillance video from the first night of the cruise shows smoke pouring into the hallway from the Hammer’s cabin. A watchman is seen pacing back and forth in front of the couple’s door. He eventually gets help, but those who come don’t appear to have any equipment or gear to fight the fire.

In the final frames, smoke fills the hallway.

The Peruvian Navy investigated what happened and wrote in its report that more than 20 minutes elapsed before anyone got into the Hammer’s cabin to help them.

The Navy’s investigation concluded that the fire in Cabin 27 was caused by a short circuit in an extension cord given to the couple by the crew to power a breathing machine they used to prevent sleep apnea. The investigation also found that crew members were not trained, no emergency drills were held, there was no access to firefighting gear and there were no working smoke alarms on the ship.

“We learned very quickly that there was a myriad of safety violations that killed them,” Jill said. “They believed they were buying a trip on a boat that was U.S. owned and they believed it was going to exceed safety standards and that’s not what they got.”

International Expeditions is the travel company the Hammer’s children say sold them the trip. It’s based in Alabama and frequently charters trips out of Miami International Airport.

International Expeditions (IE) sent a statement saying, “All of us at IE continue to be deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life of two guests…”. But the company added the ship was “owned, operated, crewed and managed by” a foreign company.

“When safety violations end up killing people, there’s no recourse,” said Jill now left with anger and sadness. “So many things I wish my sister and I and our kids could experience with them and that’s gone.” Jill and her Miami-based attorney, Brett Rivkind, say they’re in mediation with the company, but say they are frustrated at a 1920 maritime law that limits compensation for loved ones.

“This Death on the High Seas Act limits the amount of recovery for survivors to almost nonexistent recovery,” said Rivkind.

He says because of the law, damages are only paid to dependents of those who died. Jill and her sister don’t qualify.

“You are limited to funeral expenses,” said Rivkind.

Cruise victims advocate Ken Carver believes the law unfairly limits compensation to what the person who died earned from their employment. He says the surviving family members of seniors or kids are slighted.

“If you are a minor or a retired couple the death on the high seas act says your life has no economic value,” said Carver.

A high seas challenge Jill is left navigating while dealing with the tragic death of her parents.

“We were shocked when we lost our parents and the shock has just got worse,” she said.

The Cruise Line Association tells us that the operators of the Amazon cruise are not part of its group. However, they say cruising is one of the most heavily regulated sectors of the travel and hospitality industry and that allowing for greater recovery, including reforming the Death on the High Seas Act, could unnecessarily burden an already crowded judicial system, increase insurance costs and add costs to cruising, making it less affordable.

<![CDATA[Surveillance Cameras Capture Teen’s Assault on Cruise Ship]]> Wed, 07 Feb 2018 00:38:37 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/cruise+ship+assault.jpg

It was supposed to be a fun vacation with her two sons, but a mother of two says their fun trip changed abruptly when her youngest son was cornered and attacked.

"The vacation was a kind of celebration,” said Tonya, who NBC 6 is only identifying by her first name. "It's been a devastation."

The family boarded the Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas out of Fort Lauderdale in 2015. And she says the trip was good until near the end of it.

"The two boys decided that they would want to stay out a little later," Tonya said.

Surveillance video on the ship shows the attack. In it, you can see two passengers entering the library, Arturo Martinez and Jason Lawson, both from Toledo, Ohio. The video shows the men cornering the teenager, whose identity we’re protecting, before pinning him against the bookcase.

The victim’s older brother appears distraught on the video, rushing out of the library. Another teen is seen running away. The video shows Martinez taking off his shirt while still having the boy cornered. Lawson can be seen keeping passengers out of the library.

The portion that shows what Tonya describes as the worst of the attack was edited out of the video provided to NBC 6 after it was entered into evidence in the case.

"He physically punched him, choked him, smothered his face in the pillow, pulled his clothes off, was on top of my son," Tonya said about the attack.

The boys reported the attack to security, who called Tonya. Broward Sheriff’s Office deputies investigated when the ship arrived at Port Everglades.

A detective interviewed Martinez about what happened. In the interview with police he’s heard saying, "A lot of trouble I’m in."

Martinez was sentenced to three years in prison for lewd and lascivious behavior with a child under 16. Lawson was given a two-year prison sentence for child abuse.

Both men are now in the custody of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Lawson was angry over what he said was an inappropriate comment the 13-year-old victim made to his daughter, according to Robert Marlove, the attorney who represented both men when they were first arrested.

"While the men got on the ship with no ill intent, alcohol was involved and poor judgment was exercised," Marlove said.

In a statement Royal Caribbean wrote, "We maintain a zero-tolerance policy toward any criminal activity on our ships. We immediately notified authorities about this 2015 incident and we worked closely to assist law enforcement during their investigation."

"It’s an unenforceable situation where you have unlimited drinks – a floating city – crimes occur and there is no police," said Ken Carver, head of the International Cruise Victims Association.

Carver’s daughter disappeared at sea and since losing her, he has been fighting for better security on board ships.

"A third of all the rapes on cruise ships are on minor, if you can believe that," Carver said quoting statistics from a 2013 cruise ship crime report prepared for Congress. Read the full report here (PDF).

Since 2016, cruise lines have been required to report more crimes committed on board to the FBI. In 2016-2017, 69 percent of crimes committed on board were sex assaults.

Miami maritime attorney Brett Rivkind is the 13-year-old boy’s attorney. He doubts cruise passengers get a full picture of risks on board cruise ships.

"There's been some suggestion that the reporting and the information is not completely accurate," Rivkind said.

Rivkind is representing the family in a lawsuit against Royal Caribbean.

In legal filings, attorneys for the cruise line said the ship’s crew has no duty to monitor the cameras and that they are not responsible to warn passengers about a danger that is not foreseeable.

"A cruise line is not required to supervise its passengers at all times to ensure no harm befalls them," the court record reads.

The Cruise Lines International Association, a trade organization representing the various cruise lines, defends the industry’s overall safety record saying that crime is rare on cruise ships and is a tiny fraction of corresponding crime rates on land.

Tonya says she wants people to be aware of what happened to them and questions what you see in promotions for the cruise lines.

"Definitely a false sense of security because you’re given all these fun pictures and fun things to do that your kids can do all you see are people having fun, but there are no warnings that this can happen," she said.

<![CDATA[MDX Loses Toll System Lawsuit; Total Costs Could Reach $78M]]> Tue, 06 Feb 2018 00:43:35 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/mdx+toll+road+lawsuit.jpg

For five years, the Miami-Dade Expressway Authority insisted it was not at fault for the botched open road tolling system that began in 2010, a debacle the authority claims cost it millions in potential revenues.

Instead, it blamed its contractor, saying Electronic Transactions Consultants Corp. misled MDX about its abilities and intentionally underbid the contract to design, develop, install and operate the toll enforcement system.

ETC sued MDX in 2012 for breach of contract and bad faith, claiming MDX made it impossible for it to do its job.

MDX then counter-sued and terminated much of the contract, prompting ETC to add a wrongful termination count to its lawsuit.

After hearing both sides in a three-week trial in October, Miami-Dade Circuit Judge William Thomas last month sided with ETC, denied all of MDX’s claims, and handed the toll agency a bill of $53.3 million, for damages incurred by ETC and interest.

But MDX’s final costs could be much higher, when you consider:

• $7 million the authority has spent so far on its own attorneys fees and costs in its losing legal cause;

• $9 million it claims it lost in revenues due to the botched toll collection project; and,

• $8.6 million sought by ETC for its attorneys fees and costs, which the judge found MDX is liable for, though he has not yet determined an amount.

Add it all up and – unless something changes through legal maneuvering, appeals or a settlement – it all adds up to $78 million.

That is an amount equal to more than four months of the agency’s net toll revenue.

Plus interest on that $53.3 million is piling up at the rate of 5.53 percent (or $2.95 million per year) for as long as MDX declines to pay up.

The board met in secret with its lawyers last week to discuss the matter as allowed by the state's Sunshine Law when dealing with litigation.

An MDX spokeswoman said the agency "strongly disagrees" with the ruling and is considering its legal options, but otherwise declined to comment.

But Judge Thomas had plenty to say in his order finding MDX at fault, saying the agency "misled" bidders and "suppressed" key information, acting "in bad faith or dishonestly."

"Strong words," remarked Mike Piscitelli, one of the attorneys for the contractor, ETC. The judge, he added, "found they misled us."

Indeed, Judge Thomas found there was "very little presented by the defense witnesses" during the non-jury trial that he "can trust and believe" on a key issue.

"ETC was willing and able to perform its obligations under the contract, but was prevented from doing so by MDX," the judge found, adding MDX failed to follow the very deadlines and schedules it spelled out in the contract with ETC. "MDX did what it wanted to do, when it wanted to do it, without any regard for how its actions would impact ETC or each parties’ contractual obligations."

In addition to now being ordered to pay damages, interest, and both its and ETC’s legal fees and costs, MDX has already suffered a substantial financial impact from problems with the open-road tolling project, according to testimony from an MDX damages expert.

The inability to properly identify and bill non-SunPass transactions – through what’s called the toll-by-plate process – cost the agency more than $9 million in uncollected revenues from tolls and fees, according to the expert, Robert Stone, who testified he has billed MDX nearly $1 million for his work and testimony.

Unable to collect millions, the agency had to book "huge write-offs," of more than $4 million in lost revenues, and impose $4 million in cost reductions, according to trial testimony.

As NBC 6 first reported in 2014, vehicles without SunPass had been using the toll roads, but not paying tolls.

"We were flying blind. We were in the dark," testified Steve Andriuk, MDX deputy executive director and director of toll operations. "I couldn’t tell if it was working."

The agency was so late in sending out citations for deadbeat drivers, hearing officers began throwing out the citations because speedy-trial and statute of limitation deadlines had lapsed, testimony revealed.

"They used our roads, but they didn’t have to pay for it," Andriuk told the court.

But, in the end, the debacle was the fault of MDX and not its contractor, the judge found.

That’s in part because, when it sought bids for what turned out to be a $55 million project, MDX misled bidders by suppressing the number of vehicles that would use the toll roads without SunPass, the judge found.

Documents submitted to potential bidders showed MDX expected non-SunPass transactions would total only 6.4 percent of transactions, but the actual rate ranged from 22 percent to 25 percent, according to Thomas’ order.

"ETC had to process approximately 76 million more apparent violation transactions than stipulated in the contract," the judge stated, noting such a high volume "changed the entire nature of ETC’s operations."

Not only did MDX "mislead" bidders by "suppressing" the actual anticipated violation rate, Judge Thomas wrote, but its actions were "dishonest, capricious, or in bad faith."

"MDX knew that 6.4 percent was an insufficient rate of apparent violations and any argument to the contrary is simply not credible," he wrote in his order.

In addition to finding MDX breached its contract and wrongfully terminated ETC, the judge found MDX acted in bad faith. He ruled against MDX on all of its counterclaims against ETC.

The ruling is vindication of sorts for ETC, begun in 1989 by an engineer as a sole proprietorship, according to its attorney, Piscitelli.

Due largely to debt caused by unpaid bills on the MDX project, the owner was forced to surrender majority control of his company to an Italian conglomerate, Piscitelli said, adding the legal ordeal "has been horrible for the company."

Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez joined the board a year ago and says he found out about the judge's order last week.

"The new board is going to take a look at it and see what steps we're going to take and make sure it doesn't happen again in the future," Gimenez told NBC 6 Investigator Tony Pipitone.

He says he was told by the board's treasurer that there are reserves to pay the costs, if it comes to that. And he said the board plans to pay without raising toll prices. However, the frequent driver reward program could be cut or eliminated for a time.

Gimenez says, in the meantime, the board should look at holding someone accountable for what happened.

"I want to see who was responsible for what and then take the appropriate action that it never happens again," he said.

MDX would not say whether it will appeal the judgment, but has already contracted with another law firm to prepare for and handle appeals in the case. That firm’s already been paid nearly $390,000.

Photo Credit: NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA[Fake Online Reviews? Here's How to Spot Them]]> Fri, 02 Feb 2018 07:49:02 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Online+Computer+Laptop+Person+Typing+Generic.jpg

It’s probably a big part of your shopping routine: checking out online reviews before you make a purchase, visit a restaurant or consider a contractor.

But can you trust them?

But it turns out some five-star reviews are not what they appear to be.

Consider the online recommendations attributed to one "Scott Hubbard."

The real Scott Hubbard helped NASA send probes to Mars and plumb the depths of space for signs of intelligent life.

"I’ve been involved in that and been looking for life elsewhere in the universe for 45 years," he told NBC 6.

But rather than finding alien life in the stars, he found deception in the five-star reviews attached to his picture and last name on what he says is a fake Google profile – one used to give glowing reviews to businesses across the country.

"I was truly surprised," he said – and none too happy. "My first reaction was to be angry. Because this is, sort of, a form of identity theft."

NBC 6 found the California man’s name and face attached to five-star reviews across Florida and the nation – including a review for M3 Artificial Grass and Turf in Medley.

The company’s owner, in an interview outside his offices, told NBC 6 he had no knowledge of anyone misleading his potential customers with fake reviews.

"Misleading people about what?" responded Juan-Carlos Mereles. "I have no reason to."

Asked how Hubbard wound up online as one of his most satisfied customers, he said, "How am I supposed to know?"

The Federal Trade Commission has taken an interest in fake online reviews.

"Fake reviews are illegal. To buy or to sell a fake review is illegal," said Mary Engle of the FTC, noting the agency can cite and fine companies that mislead consumers. "We see ourselves as traffic cops – trying to keep the worst violators off the roads knowing that we’re never going to prevent all speeding."

Mereles said he uses other companies for "reputational marketing."

Asked if the presence of Hubbard – who is not a customer – among his five-star reviewers suggests his reputational marketer may be deploying fake reviews, Mereles said, "I pay for a service" and questioned how he or anyone could know whether they were fake.

Just ask Scott Hubbard, who said, "I have never bought any artificial turf in Miami, Florida."

Nor has he used M3’s painting operation in Fort Lauderdale – though it is also lauded by a review attached to a Hubbard profile.

"You should have your guard up," warned internet consultant Jason Brown. He tracks fake online reviews and says millions of them mix real people and real photos with fake names and fake feedback.

He lists some suspicious review activity on his website, reviewfraud.org.

"There are just countless businesses all across the United States that are falsifying reviews," he said.

Yelp.com estimates 25 percent of the reviews on its sites are bogus or biased.

While there’s usually no proof businesses benefitting from fake reviews are behind the fakes, there is money to be made from good reviews.

A Harvard study found restaurants see a revenue spike of 5 to 9 percent when an online rating increases by just one star.

As for Mereles’ companies, they do have real-live satisfied customers; we found no lawsuit against him or his companies.

But there are some suspicious profiles offering big props to M3 businesses.

Someone supposedly named "Barbara Stevenson," who’s given 13 five-star reviews from Fort Lauderdale to Paris, uses a picture of a Czechoslovakian karaoke performer.

And "Elizabeth Helsley," a dead ringer for a teen actress from the movie "An American Doll," posted two glowing mentions of MS businesses, as well as blinds stores in Morocco and a search-engine optimization service in Portugal.

"That’s awesome. Maybe she’s a world traveler?" Mereles suggested, though adding he cannot recall if she was ever a customer.

"I don’t recall any names," he said, adding, "I have plenty of customers. I’m not going to give you my customer list."

But one name apparently not on it: Scott Hubbard, who hopes whoever is behind fake reviews would cut it out, warning, "In the end, you will be found out!"

To help identify fake reviews, open the user’s profile to see all the reviews. If they are vague, but 100 percent positive, take those posts lightly.

And check where the reviews are going. If the same reviewer is active in multiple cities for the same product or service, that could be a red flag.

Photo Credit: Getty]]>
<![CDATA[Judge Won't Allow Cocaine Cowboy Reference Used in New Trial]]> Fri, 05 Jan 2018 19:01:21 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/mickey+munday.jpg

A federal judge Friday gave prosecutors an opportunity to use some of a former cocaine smuggler’s words against him in a new mail fraud conspiracy case – but they must avoid using at least one phrase in front of the jury: cocaine cowboy.

In a series of pretrial rulings, US District Judge Robert N. Scola Jr. said the government could try to introduce some of the comments Michael "Mickey" Munday made after his 1999 release from prison about his long-ago days as a pilot and smuggler during South Florida's cocaine cowboy era – but "without bringing out 'cocaine cowboys.'"

Usually, someone’s criminal past cannot be used against him to prove a new and different crime, unless that defendant chooses to testify.

And Munday’s attorney, Rick Yabor, successfully objected to some of the statements being available to the government to use against Munday in the mail fraud trial, set to begin Tuesday.

But prosecutors won on most points, arguing Munday’s statements about his prior criminal activity transporting cocaine can be relevant evidence because he allegedly used some of the same means – relying on tow trucks, for example – in the car title-washing scheme that led to his current indictment.

The judge allowed, for example, a 28-second clip from Rakontur Films’2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” in which Munday talks about using tow trucks as a cover to avoid law enforcement – but, the judge added, the government “does not have to tell the jury this is from the movie ‘Cocaine Cowboys.’ …. We can sanitize out ‘Cocaine Cowboys.’”

Also not allowed: portions of a 2013 interview Munday did with NBC 6 anchor Jawan Strader, during which Munday recounts telling Medellin cartel leader Pablo Escobar he was “stupid” and describes his prowess at avoiding police.

The judge did, though, allow comments Munday made in other settings about how he was good at evading detection, including when he said, “I was a ghost.”

Also allowed: his bragging about his logistical skills by saying, “I’m really good at transportation. If it flies, rolls or floats, I turn out to be really good.”

In this case, he is charged with conspiracy and mail fraud as part of a scheme to fraudulently obtain and re-sell cars after passing them through sham auctions in an attempt to erase their histories with “clear titles.”

He and his co-conspirators are accused of doing that to more than 150 vehicles, costing financial institutions and other lenders who were owed money on the cars more than $1.7 million.

The rulings Friday do not necessarily mean all the statements will come into evidence — the government still needs to lay the proper legal groundwork at trial, including authenticating Munday was the author of social media postings it wants the jury to see.

Also, depending on how the trial unfolds, the phrase "cocaine cowboys" could somehow get in front of the jury, as the judge said he was "trying to minimize 'cocaine cowboys' being used."

In any case, Munday could face going back to prison, after spending nearly 10 years there in the 1990s after pleading guilty to his role in smuggling hundreds of kilos of cocaine for the Medellin cartel

Munday’s attorney tried to argue actions from 30 years ago were too distant to be brought up in this trial, but was largely overruled, In court papers, his attorney noted it’s been 30 years since his indictment with nothing more serious than a parking ticket. They argued it would be too prejudicial to use his past to imply he’s guilty of conspiracy and mail fraud.

But, for now it appears, at least a portion of his past will be part of a trial that could send him back to prison in the future.

<![CDATA[Prosecutors Want To Use "Cocaine Cowboy's" Words Against Him]]> Sun, 07 Jan 2018 09:41:54 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/212*120/010718cocaine.PNG

Federal prosecutors once again have their sights set on a key figure in South Florida’s “cocaine cowboy” era – and this time they are trying to use his own words against him to help put him back in prison.

Michael “Mickey” Munday is set to stand trial next week on conspiracy and mail fraud charges stemming from a stolen car fraud ring.

Usually, someone’s criminal past cannot be used against him to prove a new and different crime, unless that defendant chooses to testify.

But Friday, prosecutors will ask a judge to let them reveal some of Munday’s statements about his prior criminal activity because, they claim, it is relevant evidence that tends to show he had criminal intent when he allegedly conspired to traffic not in cocaine – but stolen cars.

“The defendant’s notorious past activities in drug trafficking, specifically the transport of contraband, is directly relevant to his recruitment into, and his statements and activities as part of the title-washing scheme,” prosecutors wrote in their motion. Title-washing is a way to erase the history of a stolen car so it can be resold with an apparently clean title.

Munday pled guilty in 1991 to smuggling cocaine into South Florida during the heyday of the 1980s cocaine cowboy era. He was released from a 10-year prison sentence in 1999.

After appearing in the Rakontur Films documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” Munday gained some notoriety and frankly discussed his days as a cocaine smuggler, including in a 2013 interview with NBC 6.

“Before it was all over with, I was getting paid $5,000 a key and I would make runs of between 400 and 500. So the last trip I did, I would gross, I grossed two and a half million dollars a trip,” he told NBC 6 anchor Jawan Strader.

Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said his candor may have left him in trouble.

“He’s helped them to build their case,” Weinstein said. “What he’s been saying for years is he was smarter than everyone else, smarter than the people who he was codefendants with, smarter than law enforcement.”

“Well those words are going to now come back to haunt him,” Weinstein continued, adding if prosecutors succeed, “they’re going to show that he in fact knew what his current class of co-conspirators were doing, how they were smuggling vehicles, what code words they were using to evade detection.”

While smuggling cocaine is different from washing titles on stolen cars, Weinstein said the judge could find the so-called prior bad acts are so closely intertwined with the government’s current case, they can be introduced into evidence even if Munday does not testify.

“The government is going to say the product is different, but it’s not the product we’re looking at -- it’s the methodology,” Weinstein said.

A call to Munday’s attorney seeking comment was not returned.

But in court papers, they note Munday has made it 30 years since his indictment with nothing more serious than a parking ticket and argue it would be too prejudicial to use his past to imply he’s now guilty of conspiracy and mail fraud.

Federal prosecutors once again have their sights on a key figure in South Florida’s “cocaine cowboy” era – and this time they are trying to use his own words against him as to help put him back in prison.

Michael “Mickey” Munday is set to stand trial next week on conspiracy and mail fraud charges stemming from a stolen car fraud ring.

Usually, someone’s criminal past cannot be used against him to prove a new and different crime, unless that defendant chooses to testify.

But Friday, prosecutors will ask a judge to let them reveal some of Munday’s statements about his prior criminal activity because, they claim, it is relevant evidence that tends to show he had criminal intent when he allegedly conspired to traffic not in cocaine – but stolen cars.

“The Defendant’s notorious past activities in drug trafficking, specifically the transport of contraband, is directly relevant to his recruitment into, and his statements and activities as part of the title-washing scheme,” prosecutors wrote in their motion. Title-washing is used to erase the history of a stolen car so it can be resold with a clean title.

Munday pled guilty in 1991 to smuggling cocaine into South Florida during the heyday of the 1980s cocaine cowboy era. He was released from a 10-year prison sentence in 1999.

After appearing in the Rakontur Films documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” Munday gained some notoriety and frankly discussed his days as a cocaine smuggler, including in a 2013 interview with NBC 6.

“Before it was all over with, I was getting paid $5,000 a key and I would make runs of between 400 and 500. So the last trip I did, I would gross, I grossed two and a half million dollars a trip,” he told NBC 6 anchor Jawan Strader.

Former federal prosecutor David Weinstein said his candor may have left him in trouble.

“He’s helped them to build their case,” Weinstein said. “What he’s been saying for years is he was smarter than everyone else, smarter than the people who he was codefendants with, smarter than law enforcement.”

“Well those words are going to now come back to haunt him,” Weinstein continued, adding if prosecutors succeed, “they’re going to show that he in fact knew what his current class of co-conspirators were doing, how they were smuggling vehicles, what code words they were using to evade detection.”

While smuggling cocaine is different from washing titles on stolen cars, Weinstein said the judge could find the so-called prior bad acts are so closely intertwined with the government’s current case, they can be introduced into evidence even if Munday does not testify.

“The defense is going to say the product is different, but it’s not the product we’re looking at -- it’s the methodology,” Weinstein said.

A call to Munday’s attorney seeking comment was not returned.

But in court papers, they note Munday has made it 30 years since his indictment with nothing more serious than a parking ticket and argue it would be too prejudicial to use his past to imply he’s guilty of conspiracy and mail fraud.

<![CDATA[Lawsuit Reinstated Against Officer Who Shot Teen]]> Wed, 13 Dec 2017 19:53:03 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/121317+Tony+Investigates.png

Nearly six years after 16-year-old Sebastian Gregory was shot by a Miami-Dade police officer who mistakenly thought he was reaching for a gun, his family’s lawsuit is being partially reinstated by a federal appeals court.

Three judges from the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta found sufficient factual dispute about the officer’s actions that early morning of May 28, 2012 to warrant a jury trial.

Both sides are asking the full court to rehear their arguments: the officer seeking a full dismissal; Gregory’s family asking the county be reinstated as a defendant.

A federal judge in Miami had dismissed the case against the county and Officer Luis Perez, finding “it was reasonable (for Perez) to believe his life was in peril” before he opened fire on Gregory, who was walking along a Kendall sidewalk at 3:30 a.m. in what Perez felt was a suspicious manner.

Perez said he saw a bulge in Gregory’s pants that he thought was a firearm and – having previously arrested Gregory carrying a bat and two knives – feared for his life when, he said, Gregory made a quick move to touch the bulge. It turned out to be from a small bat Gregory said he carried for protection.

Gregory survived and claimed he followed Perez’s instructions to get on the ground, adding that he never moved his hands toward the bulge. But after Gregory gave an interview on Colombian television, Perez cited the report to argue Gregory had admitted he did in fact reach toward the bulge. Citing that interview, the trial court dismissed the case.

But the appellate panel found that interview, conducted and reported in Spanish, was not as definitive on that crucial point as the trail judge inferred.

“A jury issue exists as to whether Gregory moved his hands toward the bulge on his hip and thus posed an immediate risk of serious bodily harm to Officer Perez,” the appellate judges found, remanding the case for trial on three counts against Perez: excessive force, battery and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

The appeals court did agree that another count, claiming Perez’s action cost the parents the companionship and affection of  their son, was properly dropped at the trial level.

Perez has already been cleared by the state attorney’s office, which found the use of force was justified. And in court papers, his position is clear: he did nothing wrong in reacting to what he perceived was a deadly threat from a known juvenile criminal suspect who had possessed weapons in the past.

But the civil rights lawsuit is a separate matter.

If the case does go to trial, Sebastian Gregory will not be there to see it.

In January 2016, he left the family home, bought a bottle of alcohol, drank from it and hanged himself from a tree.

To Andres Gregory, Sebastian’s father, it was, in part, a sign he had failed as father.

“When this happened, you as a father feel, ‘I didn’t do my job. I didn’t complete what I have to do,’” he said.

But he blames the shooting for putting his son on the path to suicide.

“He tried, he tried very hard, until he decided not anymore, not to go any more. He just decided that was too much for him,” Andres Gregory said.

When the medical examiner was bringing his son’s body out of the woods, he said he was allowed to touch the body bag. “And I just say, ‘Love you. Sorry for everything that happened,’” he recalled.

If the case makes it back to district court, family attorney Michael Feiler said a new count for wrongful death will be added.

“The effect of what happened to him, when he went through the pain he suffered, ultimately led to him taking his own life, which never should have happened,” Feiler contends.

Citing the ongoing litigation, Miami-Dade police declined to comment on the case on behalf of the agency and its officer, as did the county attorney’s office.

As they wait for the legal details to be worked out, Gregory’s parents attend public meeting about police-community relations.

In them, they wear tee shirts displaying a drawing their son made. It shows a stick figure firing a gun into another that lay on the ground, surrounded by blood.

The captions read: This was me when I was 16. All I see is pain. All I feel is loneliness.

<![CDATA[New 'Smart' Bikes Causing Parking War in South Florida]]> Mon, 11 Dec 2017 19:58:33 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/121117+south+florida+smart+bike+rental+bike.jpg

They’re hard to miss – bright green bikes popping up on street corners across South Florida. People are calling them the Uber of rental bikes.

You can use your smart phone to locate one, pay a dollar to ride it, and you can park the bicycle anywhere you want when you’re done. That’s causing a parking war in one local community.

In the past six months, the Village of Key Biscayne, North Bay Village and Miami Shores have contracted with the California-based company called LimeBike for the new bike sharing service.

Unlike typical rental bikes, the new rentals on wheels don’t have a lock or docking station.

When a rider is finished, they can park the bike where they went, shut off the app and go on their way.

The Village of Key Biscayne was the first to use the bicycles and now has more than 400 throughout the area.

"You get cars off the road and people out and about, it’s a win-win," said Mayor Mayra Pena Lindsay. "It’s the next generation."

However, in communities across the country, the dockless bikes have been found "parked" in many bizarre places.

In Seattle, they’ve been tossed into the water. In North Carolina, one was found on the roof of a home. And in Key Biscayne, one was found in the bay.

They’re not only getting tossed into hard to reach places.

Some cyclists have chosen to ride them from the Village of Key Biscayne to Miami Beach, a city that has a contract with a different bike company.

"Some individuals thought it would be fun to drive over to Miami Beach, it was too much work to bring them back so they were left there and I don’t think they were too happy about it," said Mayor Pena Lindsay.

LimeBike is in charge of maintaining the bicycles and putting them back where they belong.

This summer the City Manager of Miami Beach sent a letter to commissioners calling the LimeBikes “rogue” and “illegal” and told commissioners the city would be issuing citations to the company.

The NBC 6 Investigators found they’ve fined the company more than 30,000 dollars in the past four months.

A bulk of the fines came from repeat offenses.

A 3rd time offender can receive a violation of $10,000 for what the city calls "right-of-way violations."

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for LimeBike said they’re fighting the citations.

'We do not believe we violated any laws and are challenging the citations," the spokesperson said.  "We are in discussions with the city attorney to determine whether we can resolve these issues, and are hopeful that a resolution can be achieved."

The spokesperson also said "… it is also great to see how the local communities have embraced LimeBike."

While some communities are testing out the new “smart” bikes, the Mayor of the Village of Key Biscayne says the program has been so successful, that they’re going to use the bikes on a permanent basis.

She said there are no upfront costs to the Village, and the company handles all of the maintenance.

NBC 6 reached out to code enforcement officials in Miami Beach but they would not speak on camera. They did say they could consider testing out the bikes as part of a pilot program in the future.

Photo Credit: Dan Krauth/NBC 6]]>
<![CDATA[Missing Pieces: More Firearms Stolen in South Florida]]> Tue, 21 Nov 2017 00:36:53 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/generic+handgun.jpg

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

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

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

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

And those guns often turn up at crime scenes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, more often, steal from them.

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

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

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

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

The victim was a Miami-Dade police officer.

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<![CDATA[Governor Reviews North Bay Village Commissioner Controversy]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 19:36:27 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/212*120/052217+north+bay+village+commissioner+douglas+hornsby.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This controversy has divided the commission. 

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

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

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

Switkes also gave Commissioner Jose Alvarez a warning too.

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

Alvarez says he denies involvement.

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

One person suing them is resident Laura Cattibriga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics rules prohibit elected officials from doing that.

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

<![CDATA[Pregnant & Addicted: 3 Mothers’ Stories About Getting Clean]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 20:26:06 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/112017+Addicted+Moms+1.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The addiction doesn’t always involved heroin.

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

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

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

However, all three relapsed months after giving birth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Commissioner Controversy Heats Up]]> Thu, 16 Nov 2017 20:08:49 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/hornsby+and+switkes.jpg

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

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

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

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

FDLE told us it’s investigating that claim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s exactly what Mayor Kreps is worried about.

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Cars Catching Fire When Off Prompt Recall]]> Wed, 15 Nov 2017 23:46:42 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/bmw+caught+fire+when+off.jpg

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

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

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

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

Her BMW caught fire back in October of 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the vehicles impacted in both recalls:

2007 -2011 models



328i xDrive







X3 3.0si

X3 xDrive30i

X5 xDrive30i

Z4 3.0i

Z4 3.0si

Z4 sDrive30i















328i xDrive

335i xDrive




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

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

<![CDATA[Firefighters Have Unmet Emotional, Mental Health Need: Study]]> Sun, 25 Feb 2018 11:39:05 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/fdny1234.jpg

In his more than 25 years as a firefighter in Stamford, Connecticut, Capt. Jacques Roy thought he could handle anything – until the smoke cleared from a devastating fire that killed three children and their grandparents.

“I was the guy who couldn't hack it. I was the guy who needed help. I never thought it would be me. But it was me,” says Roy.

Roy and his team were among those who pulled bodies from the ashes of the fire on Christmas Day 2011 at the home of fashion executive Madonna Badger.

“When we respond to a call, we always have to suppress our emotions and use our logic and our past experiences to perform our job,” he explains. “If they’re very strong emotions, sometimes we never get to process them. So we wind up with fragments of an incident left over.”

For Roy, the fragments of that day sent him into a spiral of anger and sleepless nights, an experience NBC New York discovered is common among firefighters – and can often be worse.

In partnership with the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), NBC New York and NBC Bay Area sent a confidential online survey to thousands of firefighters to hear directly from them about the impact of post-traumatic stress on their lives, and to learn what services are available when they need help.

From across North America, 7,000 firefighters responded, overwhelmingly reporting that stressful or traumatic experiences on the job have impacted their mental health. Among the struggles they say are directly connected to the job: 19 percent have had thoughts of suicide, 27 percent have struggled with substance abuse, 59 percent have experienced family and relationship problems and 65 percent are haunted by memories of bad calls.

The IAFF says the survey is unprecedented and highlights a critical need.

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

“It may seem contrary to everything you think of yourself, or want to believe,” says Roy, who recovered from his trauma through intensive therapy. “But we're human. We're not superheroes."

"We suffer from the same challenges the general public does -- financial issues, marital issues. 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," he said. 

But firefighters say getting mental health assistance can be tricky. Of those who responded to the survey, 81 percent said they feared being seen as weak or unfit for duty if they asked for help. Additionally, 71 percent say they have not used services provided by their department’s employee assistance program (EAP) for mental health issues related to their job. Of those who did use their EAP, 63 percent did not find it helpful.

“We’re going to take a hard look at this survey to determine what is it we’re doing right and more importantly, where are the gaps. What programming do we need to provide to make sure our members get the help they need?” says Brinkley.

The IAFF provides a vast array of services, the centerpiece of which is its Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery. The residential facility near Washington, D.C. treats union members struggling with substance abuse and related issues like PTSD.

“We don’t typically trust outsiders,” says Brinkley, explaining that the facility is staffed by firefighters and professionals who’ve received intensive training. “Having someone there who understands what we’ve been through is incredibly powerful.”

Another powerful tool are the teams the IAFF dispatches to disasters and tragedies like the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

“Our intent is to get out and reach the members that have been affected, let them know what some of the signs and symptoms are that they are going to be experiencing and what services are available to them,” says Brinkley.

Members of the New York City Fire Department Counseling Services Unit, which has evolved and grown since 9/11, are often called to join IAFF teams in the field.

“The phone's ringing off the hook at the [Counseling Services Unit] because they know that we're here and that we want to be helpful,” says FDNY Capt. Frank Leto. “So it’s small departments from all over the country that are asking if they can have our protocols, can they have what we've developed. And the answer is always yes.”

But the goal is to get firefighters help where they live. That’s why the FDNY Counseling Services Unit also travels the country, training departments on what to look for and how to handle firefighters who are struggling.

“It's when the media goes away, it’s when everything quiets down that our members start to struggle,” explains FDNY Lt. Angelo Sacco. “We operate well in emergencies. It's when everything quiets down that things get difficult.”

Please visit the IAFF Recovery Center for mental health resources for firefighters. 

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<![CDATA[Phone Sex Operator Helps Police in Child Porn Cases]]> Fri, 17 Nov 2017 11:51:03 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/216*120/111517+willard+phone+sex+package.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Barriers Preventing Cars Into Stores Not Always Required]]> Tue, 14 Nov 2017 13:13:15 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/Storefront+crashes+resized.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” replied Lila.

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

But there’s a catch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Some FPL Customers Say Post-Irma Bills Higher Than Expected]]> Fri, 10 Nov 2017 18:12:59 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/electric+smart+meter.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<![CDATA[Expired Defibrillators Found in Schools]]> Thu, 09 Nov 2017 01:06:15 -0400 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/RODJEANY+PIERRE+LOUIS+PHOTO.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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