Rosendo Betancourt didn’t know it, but he had less than four hours to live.
On his left wrist, surveillance video would show what appeared to be an ordinary watch.
But, in fact, it was a device — provided by Miami-Dade Police — designed to record all that was said in his presence as he lured armed home invaders into a trap, telling them a county-owned house surrounded by department snipers and assault teams actually contained drugs and money.
But by 9:15 that night, June 30, 2011, Betancourt would be dead, shot more than 20 times by officers who would swear he made a sudden move toward a gun in his waistband — 70 seconds after video shows he surrendered, hands raised, and dropped to the ground as instructed by officers.
And that watch that doubled as an audio recorder?
It would disappear by the time Betancourt’s body was processed the next day by the medical examiner.
Now, NBC 6 Investigators have learned, the Miami-Dade police officers involved in the operation are part of a criminal investigation into whether officers tampered with that evidence — the watch that vanished after video shows Betancourt wearing it hours before he was killed.
The ongoing criminal investigation was disclosed Wednesday in a federal court hearing involving a lawsuit filed by Betancourt’s family against his three killers and the county they serve.
Also disclosed, for the first time, by an attorney for the county: none of the officers who killed Betancourt and three of the home invaders he lured to the Redland will be disciplined by the department.
Lawyers for Betancourt’s family assert the watch was destroyed by officers after they realized the department had killed the informant who was helping police nab a gang of dangerous home invaders.
“The only conclusion is it had to have something on it that somebody thought never needed to see the light of day,” said attorney Andrew Hall, who represents the family.
The lawsuit, set for trial in June, claims Betancourt’s death was the result of an unofficial Miami-Dade police “policy, practice, procedure or custom” of luring suspects to staged crimes and then “deliberately executing” them without benefit of trial in violation of their civil rights.
Attorneys for Betancourt’s family argued the recording device may have picked up evidence that would contradict police claims that the 39-year-old Betancourt never identified himself as an informant in the minute prior to being killed.
Police say the device could only record for two hours and, therefore, would have stopped recording around 6:30 p.m. that day. A review of video by NBC 6 Investigators shows Betancourt wearing the watch at 5:16 and 5:23 p.m.. He was killed at 9:15 p.m.
“Destruction of evidence is proof of guilt, even if it didn’t have anything on it,” Hall said. “Fact of the matter is the person who destroyed it thought it did.”
Asked who he thinks destroyed it, he replied, “Well, none of the dead people did. The only other people were the shooters.”
But that assumes Betancourt was still wearing the watch when he was killed, and police have speculated he may have disposed of it before then.
The hearing this week was called because attorneys for the county refused to give Betancourt’s attorneys several pieces of potential evidence: specifications of the watch; records of the criminal investigation into its disappearance; and records of the internal Professional Compliance Bureau (PCB) investigation into the entire incident.
But U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Chris McAliley overruled the county’s objections on all counts.
She ordered the county to give the plaintiffs documents that would show how long the watch could record, and whether that recording time would be extended if the watch could be turned on and off.
McAliley also overruled the county’s objections to giving the plaintiff records of both the PCB investigation and the previously undisclosed criminal investigation into evidence tampering. The judge gave the county until March 30 to give those documents to the plaintiff, but also ordered they be kept confidential, sealed from public view, unless the court later rules otherwise. The records would become public under state law when the investigations are completed.
Miami-Dade police have refused to reveal any information about their PCB investigation of the Redland killings – what assistant county attorney Erica Zaron told the court was “one of the most significant shooting cases in Miami-Dade police history” -- saying it would be a crime to discuss what they claim is an ongoing investigation.
But, under questioning by attorneys and the judge, PCB Capt. Frank Aschenbrenner testified Wednesday that still uncompleted internal investigation led to a criminal investigation into whether police personnel were involved in the disappearance of the surveillance watch. One or more MDPD officers “may have violated the law,” Aschenbrenner testified, though he added that has not been determined.
Once that investigation is complete, Aschenbrenner testified, it would be turned over to the state attorney, which will decide whether “they file criminal charges against any employee or not.”
He said no statements about the suspected evidence tampering had yet been taken from any officers who may be subjects of the investigation.
The criminal evidence tampering investigation began during the PCB review of the Redland shooting investigation, after the state attorney ruled in March 2014 that no criminal charges would be brought against the police officers, Aschenbrenner testified. Prosecutors found only one of the four killings legally justified.
Citing “a number of unusual, counterintuitive, suspicious, and/or disturbing factors” – including the disappearance of the watch -- they said they could not determine whether officers were justified in killing Betancourt and two others. Still, they found, no charges were warranted because there was insufficient evidence to contradict officers’ claims they feared for their lives when they opened fire.
Aschenbrenner testified the PCB investigation into whether officers in the Redland shootings violated policy or procedure is largely completed, awaiting only the signature of police director J.D. Patterson, or direction from Patterson to conduct further investigation.
Even though Patterson has not yet signed off on the determination that there be no discipline, assistant county attorney Zaron told the judge officers will not be disciplined.
“I don’t think I have words to describe how sad that is because it’s terrifying to the citizens of our county,’ Hall said, reiterating the lawsuit’s argument that lack of discipline tells officers they can use excessive force without consequences. “I basically reinforces that mentality among some police officers.”
Betancourt and the three would-be home invaders were shot to death after they approached the house.
MDPD teams were ordered to move in before the suspects entered the house, a deviation from the operational plan.
Two of the suspects started to run after a police van got stuck trying to enter the property after an MDPD sergeant failed to unlock the fence gate, as the plan called for.
Officers also said their actions were influenced by hearing a gun shot as they drove up to the house, but prosecutors determined there was no such gun shot.
A police sniper announced on his radio channel that one of the invaders had a long rifle, but no such rifle existed, prosecutors determined.
Before the informant and three suspects were killed, a fifth man was arrested in a getaway vehicle -- one police had given Betancourt, as the plan was for him to remain with it and not approach the house for the staged home invasion.
But records reveal police were told by Betancourt he was being forced to carry a gun and go along with the invasion crew.
There was confusion among officers that night about whether Betancourt had, indeed, left the vehicle. The commander of the operation was told Betancourt may not have stayed with the vehicle and, therefore, “we have to treat him like he might be in that field” headed toward the house. But the commander never stressed to his assault teams to be careful they did not encounter the informant among the suspects.
Subsequent to the killings, that commander, then-Lt. Calvin James, was promoted to major.
Radio transmissions also reveal members of the team that killed the four men were advised on radio: “Heads up. Listen to this. … these guys (the home invaders) are adamant about the source participating in this thing.”
Without admitting liability, the county last year settled with the families of the other three men killed for a total of $600,000.
In addition to alleging a custom or practice of excessive force and of failing to discipline officers who have used excessive force, the lawsuit accuses the county of failing to train their officers in how to interact with confidential informants.