Broward News

Hallandale Beach Shoplifter Killed By Police Because of Dispatching Error, His Family Claims

Shoplifting is a crime. But it's not punishable by death.

And yet, after Eduardo Prieto Jr., 32, was caught stealing DVDs for his estranged children from a Hallandale Beach Walmart in September 2012, he was ultimately shot dead by Hallandale Beach Police officers, due to what his family now claims were lies told by Walmart employees and a botched 911 call from the Broward Sheriff's Office.

According to a 911-call recording that New Times obtained, a BSO dispatcher told Hallandale Police that Prieto had used a "gun in the office" at Walmart. However, video evidence that New Times also obtained clearly shows no gun was used. But before Hallandale Police found out the dispatcher's description was wrong, the cops had already fired more than 20 rounds into Prieto's car, killing him.

Now, Prieto's ex-wife, Christina Sam Niego, 30, says she's had to hire lawyers to figure out how a simple mistake cost her ex-husband his life. Niego says she had hoped Prieto could eventually reunite with his two young children — instead, he was shot dead before he had the chance.

"He was so young," she said. "If he had any chance of reuniting with his kids — they didn’t give him a chance to do anything."

Niego has since filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Walmart, the City of Hallandale Beach, and the Sheriff's Office. The suit, filed in September 2014, is wending its way through Broward County Court. In an amended complaint filed January 12, the family claims Walmart employees lied to BSO and told the sheriff's department that Prieto was carrying a gun in order to "instigate a greater reaction to the situation by police."

Walmart and the Sheriff's Office "caused [Prieto] to be given the death penalty for shoplifting," the complaint reads.

The suit comes at a time when Hallandale Beach Police already face charges of recklessness and brutality for the killing of Howard Bowe, an unarmed black man shot dead by a Hallandale SWAT team on May 8, 2014. Bowe's family has also filed a wrongful-death suit against the City of Hallandale Beach.

BSO declined to comment about Prieto's case, since the lawsuit is ongoing. Hallandale Beach Police did not respond to a request for comment.

Walmart has also come under fire for sucking up a huge chunk of 911 dispatch-operators' time and resources. A Tampa Bay Times investigation last month showed that Walmart stores in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, and Hernando counties "logged nearly 16,800 calls" — two calls an hour, every hour, every day — in a single year, mostly for petty thefts and "general disorder." 

"When it comes to calling the cops, Walmart is such an outlier compared with its competitors that experts criticized the corporate giant for shifting too much of its security burden onto taxpayers," the Times said.

But Prieto's death shows how easily just one of those phone calls can cost someone his or her life.

A Walmart spokesperson, Randy Hargrove, provided this statement to New Times:

"Walmart expresses its condolences to the family for their loss," he said via email. "We believe that the facts will show that our associates acted appropriately. We stand behind our associates, deny the allegations and will defend this lawsuit."

Prieto, a Miami-Dade resident, had lived a rough life. According to the family's lawyer, Jamie Sasson, a robber pushed Prieto in front of a subway car when he was young, permanently injuring his right leg. At 18, he was convicted of statutory rape for having a consensual relationship with a 16-year-old girl. In the meantime, he'd met Niego, whom he married. The pair eventually had two children, Shamira and Kaleb.

But money was tight and Prieto developed a marijuana problem, Sasson says. Prieto was working at Burger King, and had started to steal small items in between his work hours. Fed up, Niego took her children and left her husband, hoping that one day soon, he could get his life back together and start caring for his children. He never got that chance.

Niego, who now works in military intelligence, moved cross-country to San Diego. And so, on September 6, 2012, Prieto drove his gray Lexus to a Walmart store at 2551 E. Hallandale Beach Blvd., in order, according to his lawyer, to shoplift some children's DVDs to send to his kids.

In security camera footage, Prieto, wearing an oversized button-down shirt and a camouflage, Army-style hat, was seen pacing around the store's DVD racks. Eventually, he plucked a few titles from the shelf, brought them near his cart, and tucked them into a bag he'd brought with him. But upon walking out of the store, Prieto apparently set off the store's anti-theft alarms, and a pair of employees stopped him and ushered him into a private office.

There, the footage shows, two Walmart employees verbally interrogated Prieto. Sitting calmly, Prieto removed some stolen items from his bag and pants.

In the meantime, a female Walmart employee called 911 at 5:55 p.m. and asked for help.

"Yes, hi, I'm calling from the Walmart store," she said, according to a tape of the call. "We had a shoplifter, but he's, um, like violent, like, fighting. So they want me to call the police." She later added: "He's in the office, but he's like, fighting."

At the time when the original call was made, Prieto was still speaking calmly to the two employees that had detained him.

But eventually, Prieto seemed to get fed up. At 5:57, Prieto reached into his right pocket, pulled out a small pocketknife, and snapped it open. He stepped toward the employees with the knife held at his side. (It's unclear what he might have said.) At this, the security crew stepped out of his way and followed him out to the car. One of the two men called 911 again a minute later.

"I have a fleeing, a fleeing guy with a weapon," the employee said. "He is getting into his vehicle, it's a Lexus." Prieto then headed east down Hallandale Beach Boulevard.

"Where are you located?" the dispatcher asked.

"Walmart!" the employee yelled back.

The dispatcher then asked what happened.

"He was shoplifting, and he had a knife on him," the man responded. "He attempted to use it." The employee later confirmed the weapon was a "pocketknife."

Seconds later, a different Broward Sheriff's officer put out a call to available police units in the area:

"Advising the subject came into the store with a Signal Zero knife," the dispatcher told the cops. ("Signal Zero" is police code for "armed.") "Subject's name is Eddie, he's six-foot in height, white male."

But somehow, the next advisory the Sheriff's Office sent out upped the stakes. The dispatcher said that Prieto had robbed the store with a gun, despite the fact that no gun was ever recovered from the scene.

"Be advised, the subject went into the office, and he had pulled out a gun, so he had a gun in the office as well," the dispatcher told the police.

Via email, Sasson said a transcript of the call he'd obtained said that Walmart employees had told BSO that Prieto was carrying a gun. But, oddly, at no time during the audio recording does a Walmart employee mention that Prieto had a gun.

Eventually, Prieto stopped his car in the parking lot of Acquolina, an Italian restaurant on South Federal Highway. According to the legal complaint, the car was "inching forward" when the police asked Prieto to raise his hands. The cops then said it appeared that Prieto was reaching into his car for some sort of weapon. Sasson, the family's lawyer, instead contends that Prieto was just reaching down to pick up his right leg and pull himself out of the car.

The police then fired "more than 20 rounds" straight into the car, killing Prieto at the scene.

"Shots fired!" one officer shouted over the dispatch.

"Do we need to set up a box for the suspect, or is he in custody?" another responded.

Niego says she only heard about her ex-husband's death through Prieto's mother, Rosalla. When she tried to call Hallandale Police for more information, she says, "we were stonewalled. They didn’t want to give us any information, seeing as I was guardian of the children, and we weren't still married. I should have had rights to find out what happened, but they said the only person allowed to contact them was his mother. But they didn't give her any clear information for next to two months. That’s why we had to get our lawyers involved."

She says her children had hoped to see their father again soon. "At first," she said, "it was hard for them to understand what was happening. Now they just say he’s with God."

But neither she, nor her lawyer, are at peace with the way the shooting was handled.

"They found no gun," Sasson said. "No gun. Someone really fucked up, and this guy lost his life over it."
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Jerry Iannelli is a staff writer for Miami New Times. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University. He moved to South Florida in 2015.
Contact: Jerry Iannelli