Roger Gonzalez Jr. guides the car full of thieves through the Redland, past the groves of mango trees glowing blood red against the evening sky, toward a beige building with a large yard and a black Mercedes-Benz parked in front. He slows down. His father, Roger Sr., calmly checks the ammunition in his handgun. So do the three other passengers. They've all done this before.
Rosendo Betancourt — a skinny, high-strung ex-con only ten months out of prison — points to the house. Inside, there are 20 pounds of yerba, he says, using Spanish slang for marijuana. A broad-chested, 36-year-old named Antonio Andrew adds, "The shit is in the freezer."
Gonzalez's father barks out the plan: Cut the chainlink fence, get in the house, tie up the pot growers, and steal the $60,000 drug stash. Junior parks the getaway car on a side street and waits behind the wheel. The four others slip ski masks over their faces. Dressed in black, they cut through a mango nursery and approach from the south. They slice through the fence with bolt cutters. Then, weapons in hand, they creep toward the house.
Andrew silently sucks the swampy air through his mask. The only sound is the squelch of his sneakers sinking into the rain-drenched lawn. The four thieves drift through the trees like wraiths.
But hidden among the shadows, dozens of gunmen follow the intruders' every step through the scopes of Colt M4 Commando assault rifles. The robbers don't know it, but their stealth is an illusion; their surprise attack, a cruel joke.
Suddenly, an unmarked van bursts through the back gate with a crack of snapping metal. It tears across the lawn and slides to a halt. A half-dozen men in black gear jump out, shouting. The panicked gangsters scatter. A volley of gunshots explodes, rapid-fire like a string of fireworks.
By the time the ambush ends, the four robbers' lifeless bodies lie scattered across the lawn. Andrew made it the farthest. His bullet-riddled corpse is only a few yards from the fence.
It was a ruthless, professional hit. But the killers weren't pot growers protecting their contraband; they were cops. The whole robbery had been a setup. And Betancourt — a "cooperating defendant" who had helped authorities lay the trap — was among the four dead on the grass.
The June 30, 2011, sting was one of the bloodiest police operations in South Florida history. It was also one of the most controversial. Police have yet to issue a report but admit the robbers never fired their weapons. Betancourt's family claimed police had betrayed the informant. Cops blamed him for disobeying orders.
"He was told not to participate in this action at all," Miami-Dade Police Department Director James Loftus said coldly. The chief showed even less sympathy for the other dead men, arguing they were responsible for a string of violent home invasions. "This group was prone to... duct-taping their victims and even torturing [them]," he said. "This is one criminal enterprise that has been interdicted and dealt with."
Gonzalez's gang was, indeed, armed and dangerous. But a New Times investigation raises questions about the deadly operation that cops used to take down the group. The operation was the third, nearly identical sting to go horribly wrong in the past six years, leaving seven suspects dead, apparently with no shots fired at police. While cops claim the setup was the only way to take out the thieves' savvy ringleader, Roger Gonzalez Sr., they neglect to mention he was out of jail only because he'd worked as their informant.
The other men killed in the raid weren't all the murderous felons Loftus portrayed. Betancourt was trying to turn his life around by ending Gonzalez's crime spree, and Andrew wasn't a violent criminal but a simple-minded car thief. A stray bullet to the head as a child had left him mentally impaired and easily impressionable, his family says. When money from a lawsuit mysteriously disappeared, he turned to a life of petty crime.
"I knew Antonio like the back of my hand," says Ladonna Florence, the mother of his child. "He wasn't a saint. But can't nobody tell me that he was dangerous."
Above all, the bloody, botched operation calls into question the Miami-Dade Police Department's tactics and whether cops were too quick to pull the trigger.
"The police chose the perfect spot, led him there, and then shot him," Ladonna says. "I feel like this was premeditated murder."
It was a February evening in 1988 when Antonio Andrew was shot for the first time.
The handsome 12-year-old was playing basketball with friends in Sherbondy Park, a dusty playground next to Opa-locka City Hall, when a fight broke out nearby. A young man called "Twin," mumbling and shouting erratically, had wandered into the park's karate dojo. Stacey Hill, a postman and part-time karate instructor, had thrown Twin out of his class. An hour later, however, he was back — and angry.
"He's coming," shouted one of Hill's students, bursting through the dojo's doors. "And he's got a gun."
But Hill was packing too. He walked out of the dojo and, he says, fired a single shot into the air. Twin ran off, and Hill thought the incident was over. Then he noticed a boy crumpled on the blacktop, a bloody halo forming on the basketball court. A bullet had struck Andrew in the back of his head.
"I'm not going to say I accidentally shot Antonio," Hill says now, 24 years later. "They don't know who shot him. But I was the only one who turned myself in." Twin wasn't caught. A judge withheld adjudication on negligence charges against Hill and he kept his job at the post office, but he never went back to Sherbondy Park. "That was a dark day," he says.
Andrew never really recovered from that day in the park. The scar left on his skull only hinted at the true damage the bullet had done, and he never received the six-figure settlement he won from Opa-locka. Screwed over by luck and the legal system, Andrew would only make things worse for himself.
"He was a good child until he got shot," says his great-aunt, Johnnie Mae Witherspoon, whose living room wall in Miami Gardens is a patchwork quilt of family photos, including many of Andrew. "That's when his problems started."
After the shooting, Andrew spent a week in Jackson Memorial Hospital. His mother, a pretty woman with pigtails named Carolyn Hill — no relation to Stacey — sat next to him, holding his hand as tubes kept her oldest son alive. The bullet had torn open the side of his head. Doctors told her he might never walk again. Andrew quickly proved them wrong. But his family nonetheless noticed a difference.
"He'd snap real quick," younger sister Jennifer Benbow says. "All of a sudden, he had an anger problem." He would go from laughing to shouting in seconds. And he suffered from terrible headaches after the accident.
"Sometimes he'd call me and say, 'Auntie, my head hurts so bad I can't hardly lift it off the pillow," Johnnie Mae remembers. She helped raise Andrew, who was living with Carolyn and four other kids in a tiny Opa-locka apartment and surviving off food stamps and welfare. Andrew's father, Oscar Andrew, was locked up repeatedly in the '70s and '80s on drug and weapons charges and spent most of Andrew's youth behind bars.
As a teenager, Andrew began disappearing after school. Johnnie Mae and Carolyn began fighting a losing battle to keep him out of trouble. "We would try to talk to him and tell him what to do and what not to do," Johnnie Mae says. "He was so easily impressionable. He would tell me: 'Auntie, I was there, but I didn't do that.' I told him: 'Honey, if you're with the crowd, you're going to get in trouble too.' "
That's what happened January 25, 1992, when 16-year-old Andrew was hanging out with Calvin Dorsett, a 22-year-old who had already been arrested eight times, for car theft and cocaine possession. Dorsett accosted a 69-year-old woman in a parking lot and tore the purse out of her hands. Then he jumped into Andrew's car. Dorsett made off with only $9 but received three years of probation. Charges against Andrew were dismissed.
Andrew was behind the wheel again four months later when an Opa-locka cop clocked his white Chevy at 100 mph on NW 17th Avenue. When officers stopped him, Andrew stepped out of his car but then jumped back in and sped away. A police dog later found him after he ditched the car a few blocks away. The vehicle was stolen. This time, Andrew — still only 17 years old — was sentenced to a year and a day in jail.
When he got out, he met Ladonna Florence, a sassy 15-year-old high school student. The two made an odd couple: Andrew was tall and handsome, while Ladonna was short and curvy, with a sharp wit and sharper tongue. "He was childlike in some ways," she remembers. "He loved playing videogames and basketball. And he would eat cookies and milk for breakfast, lunch, and dinner."
Within a year, Ladonna was pregnant with their first child. But Andrew wasn't ready for the responsibility. Instead of getting an honest job, he stole more cars. In August 1994, he was caught stripping a Jeep Cherokee near Opa-locka Executive Airport. While he was awaiting trial, cops pulled him over for driving a black Chevy without a tag and discovered it too was stolen. Andrew went back to jail for another two years. He missed the birth of his first son, A.J., in 1994. "All he knew how to do was steal cars," Ladonna sighs.
Andrew's crimes were poorly planned, fumblingly executed, and never violent. Each time, he pleaded guilty, served his time, and then quickly re-offended. In 1997, cops caught him breaking into a car in the crowded lot of Traz Powell Stadium during a high school football game. In January 1998, he sold weed to an undercover cop and was sentenced to another two years. "Every time life was getting back to normal, he got arrested," Ladonna remembers.
When tragedy struck again later that year, it wasn't Andrew's fault. While he was in jail, Ladonna gave birth to their second son, Anthony. But the child was diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare type of cancer. Andrew was out in time to watch his son walk and then start to stumble as the cancer ate at the toddler's muscles. "He loved his kids," his sister Jennifer says. "He would have done anything for them."
With no job to pay for Anthony's chemotherapy, Andrew turned back to crime. When cops pulled him over January 25, 2001, for a routine traffic stop, they found a silver 9mm pistol under his back seat. He was sentenced to three years.
Andrew saw his son only once more. On February 6, 2002, a judge granted him a furlough to visit Anthony, then 3 years old. His cancer had returned. As an armed guard waited outside the Miami Children's Hospital room, Andrew signed papers to take Anthony off life support. Then he sat with the comatose child until his two hours of furlough were up. Anthony died later that day.
When Andrew was released in 2004, the first thing he did was ask Ladonna for forgiveness. His mother had died from bone cancer while he was in prison. Ladonna had moved on. But the repeat felon promised to stay out of jail to help raise their surviving son, A.J.
For seven years, he kept his word. He found work as a nightclub bouncer; then he started his own business — a lawn-care service called the Rite Choice. He even began to take care of A.J., driving him to the mall to buy school clothes and teaching him to play basketball.
"For Andrew, seven years without going to jail was a miracle," Ladonna says. "I thought he had turned his life around."
It's still not clear how or when Andrew hooked up with the gang he was with the night he died. What is certain is that the group's ringleader was a violent criminal headed for disaster. Records show that Roger Gonzalez Sr. was an intelligent but ruthless man who masterminded scores of violent home invasions, sometimes targeting drug dealers or crooks — but also robbing innocent families. He threatened rape or murder and even outright tortured victims to force them to reveal the locations of jewelry or safes. And he was training his son to do the same.
Records also reveal another reason police decided to set an elaborate trap for Gonzalez in the Redland: Not only had he been busted in a similar raid years before — leaving him well acquainted with police techniques — but he had also been let out of jail early after working as a confidential informant.
Gonzalez's increasingly violent escapades began 15 years ago in Little Havana. On January 17, 1997, Jessica Rivera answered her front door. A smiling man held out a bouquet of flowers. When she let him inside, however, he thrust a gun in her face. Several more gunmen walked in and threatened to kill her if she didn't open her father's safe. When she couldn't give them the combination, they vanished.
Soon, Florida Department of Law Enforcement officials started to notice a pattern of similar violent home invasions. The same group struck again in March, July, and several times in August. A few weeks later, they used flex cuffs to restrain a woman and threatened to rape her and her daughter. They stole $30,000 worth of her jewelry, according to a police report.
Police quickly determined that Gonzalez — a balding, short, sallow-skinned Cuban immigrant — was the gang's leader. They tapped his phones and started surveillance. Then, in October 1997, they convinced an ex-con named Jesus Marrero to infiltrate the crew. Marrero told the ringleader that he knew of a warehouse where drug traffickers stored 100 kilos of cocaine. Gonzalez cannily evaded the sting — thanks to a spy sent up to the warehouse roof who spotted the SWAT team inside — but he was arrested the next week in Collier County.
In jail, the crook began cooperating with prosecutors and police. Facing more than 20 counts of kidnapping, armed robbery, racketeering, and attempted cocaine trafficking, he signed a deal sentencing him to 14 years and a chance to leave early if he helped the cops.
In 2006, that's just what he did, spending six months helping Miami-Dade detectives with a murder case. He continued working with cops for the next three years on various other cases, cutting nearly five months off his sentence in return.
Miami-Dade will not confirm whether Gonzalez worked as an informant. But it's clear from court records that when Gonzalez walked out of prison August 4, 2010, he had cops and prosecutors to thank for his early release.
He didn't waste much time. On August 30, a Miami woman named Onelia Machado was baby-sitting her infant nephew when an alarm beeped. She left the bedroom to find two men with bandannas over their faces and handguns drawn. They shoved her and shouted in Spanish: "Stay face down on the bed and don't move, or we'll kill you!"
Just as in 1997, the home invasions kept coming. On January 16, 2011, Gonzalez's son, Roger Jr., was released from prison for his own series of robberies. Now working as a team, they targeted drug dealers and criminals, police say, but also tied up innocent families. During one smash-and-grab, the thieves cut their victim's boxer shorts and then slashed his scrotum before stealing his Mercedes SUV. A few weeks later, one of them tried to cut off a victim's finger.
Cops soon caught a break. Rosendo Betancourt had recently finished a three-year sentence for cocaine trafficking. The wiry Cuban had past convictions for stealing cars and threatening witnesses. He also had connections to Roger Gonzalez Sr. Betancourt secretly approached Miami-Dade police and told them the Gonzalezes were responsible for the vicious break-ins, court records show. Cops began wiretapping the father and son's phones and planning how to bust the gang.
After years as an informant, Gonzalez Sr. wasn't going to fall for another warehouse trap. But police thought they could lure him into trying to rip off 20 pounds of pot from a marijuana stash house. On June 30, Betancourt gave him the address in the Redland. The trap was set.
It's a mystery when Andrew got involved. But on June 30, Andrew drove his '93 Oldsmobile from Opa-locka to a secluded ranch two miles southwest of the Redland stash house. There he met the Gonzalezes, Betancourt, and an ex-con named Jorge Lemus.
Andrew and the men piled into a microphone-wired SUV that cops had given Betancourt and drove to the Redland house. Police call what happened next a successful sting. Andrew's family has another name for it: a death trap.
Cops say stings such as the Redland operation take violent career criminals off the streets, one way or another. Gonzalez's crew alone was responsible for 19 robberies in six months, says Miami-Dade Police Maj. Raul Ubieta. The Street Terror Offender Program (STOP) has busted 53 home invasion gangs since 2005, Ubieta boasts.
As head of the Miami-Dade Police Department's robbery bureau, Ubieta ranks home invasions just behind rape and murder on his list of heinous crimes. More than anyone else, he is responsible for green-lighting the sting operation in the Redland. And although he says he can't discuss the details of that deadly night, he insists all the robbers had it coming.
"These guys were armed," he says. "They were going to do a home invasion, a rip. These guys had been involved in torture. Not a one of them was innocent going in. Not a one of them."
But three of those stings have gone wrong, and all in a disturbingly similar way: with suspects getting shot despite apparently never firing at police. In all three cases, cops chose the location and positioned dozens of officers with sniper rifles nearby. Each time, they seemed better prepared to kill than to capture their prey. And the same officers were involved in several of the killings.
The first STOP operation that turned deadly happened September 7, 2006. Detectives staged an elaborate setup. Using a confidential informant, they tricked six career criminals into thinking a tractor-trailer with 80 kilos of cocaine was parked behind a Medley warehouse. The robbers arrived wearing fake FBI and DEA shirts. Two of them, with guns in their hands, approached the truck and screamed "DEA" and "FBI." That's when the real cops opened fire.
Jorge Torres, 21, was shot five times and died at the scene. Joe Guevara, 23, was shot but survived. He and four other suspects were convicted of gun and drug charges. The Special Response Team (SRT) officers who fired their weapons said they saw Torres and Guevara raise their guns as if to shoot. All eight cops were cleared of wrongdoing.
A year later, STOP detectives planned another, nearly identical ambush. This time they targeted a seven-member gang led by three brothers. Again, a confidential informant suggested a drug heist, telling the gang that a tractor-trailer parked in another Medley warehouse was packed with 70 kilos of cocaine. Even better, he told them, the driver would be asleep on the job.
The gang drove in a black Ford Expedition to the warehouse district, where at least two dozen cops were waiting for them. As they pulled into the parking lot, 12 snipers followed them from perches on surrounding buildings. Three Ryder moving trucks were ready to pull out and block the vehicle's escape. But there was no need. The Expedition's driver stopped the SUV and ran up to the cab of the trailer. He had a nickel-plated pistol in his hand and a mask over his face. As soon as he pointed the gun at the cab, an SRT officer hidden inside a metal box on the roof gave the "takedown" command. Lt. Luis Alvarez then stood up and shouted, "Police! Put your hands on your head and don't move."
The man turned and raised his gun. Suddenly, bullets struck him in the head, chest, and abdomen, killing him instantly. Four more snipers — believing they were being shot at — opened fire. They rattled off more than 30 rounds in ten seconds. When one of the would-be robbers climbed out of the Expedition to apparently take refuge behind it, the snipers shot him in the face, stomach, and wrist. When cops later searched his dead body, they discovered he was unarmed. The two other men in the SUV were also shot multiple times but survived.
The two deadly ambushes shed light on what likely happened last summer in the Redland. As Andrew, Gonzalez Sr., Betancourt, and Lemus crept toward the house, there were no warehouses for snipers to perch on. Instead, neighbors say the officers were hidden around and perhaps inside the house. More snipers were in the van that burst through the gate.
As in 2006 and 2007, police apparently didn't wait for the suspects to shoot before opening fire. There is "no evidence that shows that the subjects fired their weapons," a police spokesman tells New Times. Although Miami-Dade police won't explicitly say what happened until they close their investigation, they've never claimed the group shot at officers.
More than ten months of official silence has led to resentment, conspiracy theories, and threats of lawsuits from the relatives of those shot in the Redland raid.
"The cops violated his civil rights," says Jesse Dean-Kluger, an attorney preparing a lawsuit over Andrew's death. "There was no due process. He had the right to be arrested and go through the system. Instead, they basically went out and shot him." He argues that cops led the gang to expect an armed confrontation with marijuana growers. When snipers dressed in black sprang out of unmarked vans, did they really expect the robbers to drop their weapons?
"They set them up for a bloodbath," he says. "Police have guidelines, and it's not to run up and shoot people. This is not Judge Dredd, and those aren't the rules."
Rosendo Betancourt's family members might also file a lawsuit, although they are waiting for the police report before deciding. They feel betrayed by the police who, they say, pledged to protect the informant. "The police promised, 'Don't worry — he's working with us,' " says Grisel Perez, Betancourt's mother-in-law. "Then he was dead. We don't understand how they could have let this happen to him."
Ladonna says she worries about police retaliation as she goes ahead with her lawsuit. "They are the wrong people to have a problem with," she says.
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The mystery over what happened that night in the Redland might be over in a few months, when police release their investigation into the fatal shooting. The lone surviving suspect, Roger Gonzalez Jr., has cooperated with authorities. He signed a plea agreement admitting to at least 11 robberies and was sentenced to 27 years in federal prison on April 13.
But his conviction only rankles the families of those who have no court dates to attend, only tombstones.
"It's not the cops' decision who should be on Earth and who shouldn't," Ladonna says. "Doing crime doesn't give them the right to take somebody's life."