(FLORIDA) — Two former south Florida police officers handcuffed a homeless man last month and drove him to an isolated area where they beat him unconscious, prosecutors alleged Thursday.
According to Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Hialeah city officers Rafael Otano and Lorenzo Ofila, who have since been fired, were responding to a disturbance at a bakery shortly after 5 p.m. on Dec. 17, when they encountered 50-year-old Jose Ortega Gutierrez, a homeless man who often roamed the area and was familiar to the officers.
Ofila, 22, allegedly handcuffed Ortega Gutierrez and placed him in the back of his marked police car, said Fernandez Rundle and claimed surveillance footage from the area provided no evidence that supported detaining him.
Instead of booking Ortega Gutierrez into the local jail, Ofila and Otano, 27, allegedly drove him six miles, with their emergency lights flashing, to “an isolated and dark location, against his will,” Fernandez Rundle said at a news conference.
Once there, the officers allegedly threw Gutierrez, who was still handcuffed, to the ground and beat him, she said, noting that Gutierrez later testified he woke up alone, un-handcuffed, and bleeding from the head.
An off-duty Hialeah officer walking his dog noticed Gutierrez walking back after the incident and called 911, as was described during a press conference. An internal investigation into the incident soon commenced.
Prosecutors also arrested Ali Amin Saleh, who they allege tried to provide cover to Ofila and Otano by offering Gutierrez money to withhold his testimony about what happened to him.
Gutierrez told investigators that Saleh offered him more than $1,000 and pressured him to sign an affidavit that stated the officers did not assault him, even though he cannot read, Rundle said.
Ofila and Otano were each charged with armed kidnapping, which could bring a penalty of life in prison, and one count of battery. Ofila was also charged with official misconduct.
“There’s been a horrible miscarriage of justice,” Michael Pizzi, Otano’s attorney, told ABC affiliate WPLG. “This case will be tried in a court of law and at the end of the day, it is our expectation that Mr. Otano will be exonerated and get his job back.”
It was not immediately known whether Orfila or Saleh have retained lawyers.
Saleh was also charged with one count of witness tampering.
“We will not allow rogue police officers to abuse their powers and to betray the public that they serve,” Rundle said.
Hialeah Police Chief George Fuente added: “Let these arrests send a clear message to everyone who wears a badge, that swears to uphold the oath, that we will not accept anything less than an unblemished integrity from those that entrust us to serve and protect.”
“As Mayor I have worked closely with Chief George Fuente to create a department that is not only professional, but meets the standards that the residents of Hialeah deserve, demand, and expect. The actions of these officers fails to meet these expectations,” Hialeah Mayor Esteban Bovo Jr. said. “The officers involved violated numerous established policies and procedures. Therefore, after consulting with Chief Fuente, I have terminated their employment with the City of Hialeah. The actions of these two officers are not a reflection of the Department as a whole,” he continued.
The mayor also expressed his support for the city’s police department.
“I want to reiterate my support of Chief Fuente and his efforts to revitalize our Police Department. I also want to reassure the residents of our great City that we will continue to improve our Police Department by investing in more training and education for our officers,” he said.
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