The fugitive police were looking for had the same name as the man they cuffed, but it wasn’t him.
Now law enforcement is pointing the finger at each other and no one is taking responsibility for the mistake.
“It wasn’t fun, it wasn’t a game,” Leonardo Silva Oliveira, who was wrongly arrested, told NBC 6 in his first television interview. “My freedom was taken from me for almost a week.”
This Leonardo Silva Oliveira, who goes by Leo, is a 26-year-old cook at a steakhouse. The 26-year-old Leonardo Silva Oliveira police were looking for is a fugitive for a burglary case. The two have the same name, birth month and year, and resemble each other, which was enough for Coconut Creek Police to take the wrong Leo to jail.
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“I get out at 5 o’clock, and at 5 o’clock, there are five police cars waiting for me outside of my car,” Leo said.
Leo was leaving his job on Jan. 20 when he was suddenly swarmed, he said. The first car was unmarked, so he didn’t know what was happening. Then he saw the police uniforms and was told to put his hands behind his back.
“They said, 'Oh, you violated probation,' I was like, 'I’ve never been arrested before,' and he was like, 'Then how are you on probation?' And I was like, that’s my point. I’ve never been arrested before, that’s not me,” Leo recalled.
This Leo has a clean record and a different date of birth, plus, he’s about 100 pounds lighter than the fugitive. Probably the quickest way to tell them apart is that the fugitive has tattoos on both arms, and Leo doesn’t have any tattoos.
NBC 6 reached out to Coconut Creek Police, who declined an interview. They instead sent a statement saying it was the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office case and they were helping out.
“The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office (PBSO) contacted us on January 19th, explaining that they had a warrant (probation violation) for Leonardo Silva Oliveira and that he had an address in Coconut Creek. Officers confirmed that address and found the individual they arrested at his place of employment the following day, January 20th. His name, driver’s license, and social security number, matched everything PBSO sent to us," said a spokesperson for the Coconut Creek Police Department. "One of our officers took a picture of him and sent it to a PBSO deputy, who verified that that was the man they were looking for. We learned on January 25th that his fingerprints didn’t match, and that he was released from jail."
But when NBC 6 reached out to Palm Beach County, the spokesperson said they “Did not have any part of this … Boca Raton PD arrested the subject in question twice. Coconut Creek PD arrested the individual, who I am told supposedly was not the correct person. BSO housed the individual. If the subject in question was in the PBC Jail in the past and if BSO jail compared records with our jail, then that would be our ONLY involvement."
Boca Raton Police told NBC 6 they made the original arrest in 2018, but were unaware of the recent wrong arrest and are now looking into it.
When the wrong Leo was dropped off at the Broward County jail, he thought surely fingerprints would clear his name — but not so fast.
Leo said he was telling everyone they had the wrong guy, but no one would listen, not even the judge, because he was arrested for another county.
“That’s when I started kind of freaking out,” Leo said.
In the meantime, his mother was working to get him out. She called attorney Jose Castañeda, who said this was a big mess up.
Castañeda said he was able to find the real fugitive in less than two hours. He spoke to the fugitive’s father, who verified his son was free and gave him the son’s cell phone number.
“If my lawyer found the real person in a couple hours and it’s their (law enforcement) whole job to do that, that they should have done a way better job to do that,” Leo said.
Once his lawyer stepped in, the fingerprints came back not a match and Leo was released the next day.
“I sympathize and I understand that they (law enforcement) get a lot of this and they are almost numb to it, however, when someone tells you, you have an innocent person or you have the wrong person, there should be — and in addition to that you are showing them why — then there should be a second look, or it should be taken seriously, and there aren't any safeguards for anything like that in our system right now,” Castañeda said.