<![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-usMon, 19 Feb 2018 07:18:21 -0500Mon, 19 Feb 2018 07:18:21 -0500NBC Owned Television Stations <![CDATA[Lottery Shuts Down Some Retailers Linked to Online Sales]]> Mon, 12 Feb 2018 19:09:54 -0500 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.”

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<![CDATA[Tragedy Exposes What Can Happen Following Death on Water]]> Thu, 08 Feb 2018 14:57:16 -0500 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.

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<![CDATA[Surveillance Cameras Capture Teen’s Assault on Cruise Ship]]> Tue, 06 Feb 2018 23:38:37 -0500 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.

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<![CDATA[MDX Loses Toll System Lawsuit; Total Costs Could Reach $78M]]> Mon, 05 Feb 2018 23:43:35 -0500 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 06:49:02 -0500 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 18:01:21 -0500 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.

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<![CDATA[Prosecutors Want To Use "Cocaine Cowboy's" Words Against Him]]> Sun, 07 Jan 2018 08:41:54 -0500 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.

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<![CDATA[Lawsuit Reinstated Against Officer Who Shot Teen]]> Wed, 13 Dec 2017 18:53:03 -0500 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.

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<![CDATA[New 'Smart' Bikes Causing Parking War in South Florida]]> Mon, 11 Dec 2017 18:58:33 -0500 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]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 23:36:53 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/213*120/generic+handgun.jpg

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

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

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

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

And those guns often turn up at crime scenes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, more often, steal from them.

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

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

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

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

The victim was a Miami-Dade police officer.



This story uses functionality that may not work in our app. Click here to open the story in your web browser.]]>
<![CDATA[Governor Reviews North Bay Village Commissioner Controversy]]> Mon, 20 Nov 2017 18:36:27 -0500 https://media.nbcmiami.com/images/212*120/052217+north+bay+village+commissioner+douglas+hornsby.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This controversy has divided the commission. 

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

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

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

Switkes also gave Commissioner Jose Alvarez a warning too.

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

Alvarez says he denies involvement.

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

One person suing them is resident Laura Cattibriga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ethics rules prohibit elected officials from doing that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The addiction doesn’t always involved heroin.

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

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

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

However, all three relapsed months after giving birth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FDLE told us it’s investigating that claim.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s exactly what Mayor Kreps is worried about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her BMW caught fire back in October of 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the vehicles impacted in both recalls:

2007 -2011 models

328i

328xi

328i xDrive

525i

525xi

528i

528xi

530i

530xi

X3 3.0si

X3 xDrive30i

X5 xDrive30i

Z4 3.0i

Z4 3.0si

Z4 sDrive30i

2008-2011

128i

2006-2011

323i

325i

325xi

328i

328xi

330i

330xi

335i

335xi

M3

2007-2011

328i xDrive

335i xDrive

335is

2009-2011

335d

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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” replied Lila.

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

But there’s a catch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johnson says his doctor calls his survival a miracle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He explained that only known numbers are allowed to connect.

Calls from unauthorized numbers are dropped and unable to connect.

911 calls are able to be completed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mathis has completed his suspension and remains on the department.

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

NBC 6 Investigator Myriam Masihy showed him the results.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thompson says Narcan has saved his life three times.

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

Paramedics doubling up on the drug

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addicts called it “amazing”

Nicole Hawkins knows firsthand the effects of heroin and Narcan.

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

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

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

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

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

Saving Lives at a Growing Cost

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

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

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

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

The costs are chipping away at the agencies strapped budgets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rojas said he doesn’t know what to expect.

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It took 15 minutes to get the air conditioning restored.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batiste did not return a message seeking comment.

Silva has also declined to comment on her role.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It was already too late,” said Garcia.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The tax has raised more than $2.8 billion.

But the overwhelming majority of the promised projects never materialized.

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

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

• 1,191 buses -- currently 815

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Delays

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

Outdated Air Traffic Control Systems

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

Shortage of Air Traffic Controllers

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

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

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

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

Baggage and Extra Fees

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Addiction therapists said the drug could be even deadlier.

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

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

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

Madison checked herself into a South Florida Rehab Center.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how hard are these tests?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dean Neimand agreed.

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

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

Now for a little harder one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The court has not yet ruled on that change.



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

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

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

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

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

Hornsby was appointed in January 2017 to the commission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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