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
"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."
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
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
But money was tight and Prieto developed a marijuana problem, Sasson says. Prieto was working at Burger
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,
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.
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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."
"They found no gun," Sasson said. "No gun. Someone really fucked up, and this guy lost his life over it."