Sentencing date not immediately set
MIAMI (AP) -- In the biggest Miami police scandal in a generation, a
federal jury convicted four officers of corruption Wednesday for
planting a gun on an unarmed homeless man and lying about it to
protect their colleagues.
The officers, all assigned to elite undercover teams, were charged
after four police shootings in the mid-1990s left three people dead
and another wounded. One of the victims, an elderly drug suspect,
died in a hail of more than 100 bullets.
The police ruled all the shootings justified and state prosecutors
declined to bring charges, a point made repeatedly by defense lawyers
during the 11-week trial.
Federal prosecutors, however, said the defendants thought they were
"untouchable" and they called two retired officers who said a cover
story was cooked up one day over lunch a day after one shooting.
A sentencing date was not immediately set.
Outrage over police shootings led to the chief's resignation last
November, policy changes, the creation of a civilian review board and
millions of dollars paid out to settle lawsuits. But the trial was
closely watched to see whether any officers would actually be
The shootings happened between 1995 and 1997, a time when Miami was
under international pressure to crack down on roving gangs of armed
robbers preying on tourists.
It was the city's worst police scandal since the 1980s, when rogue
cops peddled cocaine they stole from drug traffickers. In that case,
more than 100 officers were arrested, fired or disciplined.
This time, prosecutors said the defendants -- all drug, robbery and
SWAT officers -- felt they were "above the law."
The men were charged with conspiracy to obstruct justice for
allegedly plotting to plant guns on unarmed suspects, misleading
investigators and lying under oath to protect each other.
The four officers were convicted of obstruction and conspiracy in the
1997 shooting of a Daniel Hoban, a homeless alcoholic. Hoban was
wounded in the leg by defendant Jorge Castello, who thought the man's
Walkman was a gun being used in a robbery.
Castello and Officer Jesse Aguero were convicted of conspiracy and
obstruction for planting a .45-caliber handgun near Hoban. Officers
Art Beguiristain and Oscar Ronda were convicted for their rolls in
All the officers were acquitted of wrongdoing in a shooting involving
a 72-year-old drug suspect who was killed in a barrage of 123 bullets
as his 14-year-old great-granddaughter crouched feet away on their
bathroom floor. The girl was not wounded and later won a $2.5 million
settlement from the city.
Five of the officers were also acquitted of covering up the shooting
deaths of two robbers gunned down after they made a dramatic leap
from a highway overpass while fleeing police. In another incident
resulting in acquittals, one of the officers fired three shots at a
purse-snatching suspect, missing each time.
'Code of silence' broken
None of the defendants took the witness stand, but two other officers
broke the police "code of silence" and testified against them in
hopes of leniency on the same conspiracy charge. Among other things,
the two men described a lunch meeting at which the officers mapped
out a cover story after the killings of the two purse thieves.
The government also produced circumstantial evidence to support the
idea of an unspoken pact among the officers to cover for each other.
"That was the remedy. That was the way of doing business in bad
shootings," prosecutor Allan Kaiser said as the trial wrapped up.
Defense attorneys dismissed the prosecution theory as ridiculous and
They said the retired officers, John Mervolion and Bill Hames, were
testifying in desperation to get light sentences and keep their
pensions. They pointed out that Hames was an alcoholic who quit the
force after holding a gun on a bus driver in an off-duty drunken
And even though prosecutors asked the jury to focus on what happened
after the shootings, the defense said all of them were legitimate.
"The justifiable use of force and deadly force laws have been in
existence for years," attorney Richard Sharpstein said. "All of these
shootings were well within those parameters."
In all cases, prosecutors said weapons were planted near the victims,
including two handguns seized in arrests but never booked as evidence
in the police property room. The defense said police reports of armed
suspects were correct in each case.
The trial began on the same day the city installed a new police
chief, former Philadelphia Chief John Timoney, who was hired to turn
around the scandal-plagued department.
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Timoney replaced Raul Martinez, who led the city's shooting review
board for five years before becoming chief in 2000. Martinez quit
after a series of stories in The Miami Herald questioned review board
rulings that called most police shootings justified.