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.