She lives in a five-room tract house in one of Miami’s poorer neighborhoods. But one luxury that Alice Young can seemingly afford is a stoic faith that right will eventually be done. It has been almost seven years now since Young’s son Antonio and his friend Derrick Wiltshire, both 19, were gunned down by Miami police after a purse snatching. The police insisted the shootings were justified, despite compelling evidence that the two youths had been unarmed and fleeing when they were killed. Young didn’t buy that account then and gives it even less credence today. “They said they gave justice, like the police were God,” says Young, 44, who is disabled and unemployed. “But God has the last say-so.”
In the meantime, though, much to her relief, the courts in Florida also have a voice. Last September a federal grand jury indicted 11 former and current Miami police officers on conspiracy charges in one of the country’s largest municipal police-corruption cases in recent memory. In late February five more indictments were handed down. The accused cops were all members of an elite crime-busting squad nicknamed the Jump Out Boys for its aggressive pursuit of suspects. According to the indictments, the cops lied, used excessive force and planted evidence—so-called “throw-down guns”—at crime scenes, including the Wiltshire and Young shooting. Further, a report last month in the Miami Herald disclosed that the indicted cops had been the subject of 293 allegations of beatings, theft and other misconduct. “This is painful,” said Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez, “but this is something we have got to go through to get better.”
The incident involving Wiltshire, a forklift operator, and Young, a construction worker, remains one of the most disturbing. Their families do not deny that the two young men were looking for trouble on the night of Nov. 7, 1995, when they joined two other friends to go joyriding. Around 8 p.m. they drew up next to a Chevy Corsica occupied by a couple from Ecuador. In an instant, one of the friends had hopped out, smashed the window of the other car and grabbed the woman’s purse. The four youths then sped off. Unfortunately for them, a team of Jump Out Boys had witnessed the crime and gave chase. As the six officers later told it, when the suspects’ car came to a halt, the four tried to escape—with Wiltshire and Young shooting at the police. According to the officers, they returned fire to save their own lives, killing the two young men.
From the start, however, the cops’ story didn’t seem to add up. At least two witnesses said that no guns had been used in the smash-and-grab. What’s more, there were no fingerprints on either of the guns found at the scene, nor did tests show that either suspect had fired a weapon. But perhaps most telling to the victims’ families was the fact that both Wiltshire and Young had been shot in the back. “How could any of the officers have been in fear of their lives?” asks Jeffrey Jacobs, a lawyer for the Young family. Nevertheless, a departmental investigation absolved the officers of any wrongdoing. After that, Alice Young felt helpless. “No money, not rich,” she says. “Who’s going to listen to me?”
It was a question that Janeka Brown found herself asking a year later. Shortly before midnight on March 12,1996, seven SWAT team members burst into the tiny apartment that Brown, then 14, shared with her father, Richard, 72, a retired house painter with no criminal record. The authorities were looking for drugs. What they found was Richard, who had been asleep, stumbling toward them in the darkness. The cops opened fire, letting loose a total of 122 rounds. When the fusillade ended, Richard lay dead. At least five police maintained that Richard had shot at them twice before they fired back; they said they had found a gun in his hand. But Brown insisted her father had not been armed that night. Once again Internal Affairs cleared the officers, who included members of the Jump Out Boys. Two years ago, however, the city of Miami did pay $2.5 million to settle a wrongful-death suit brought by Brown, now the mother of two young children. Not that she, or the rest of her family, considers that justice. “I still want to know why this man—a sweet, innocent man—is dead for no reason,” says Brown’s grandmother, Charlie Mae Ellis.
In that sense, Daniel Hoban was lucky, since his encounter with the Jump Out Boys left him with only a nasty wound in the leg. It was the evening of June 26, 1997, when Hoban, who was then homeless, was joking around with a friend on a street in Coconut Grove, nudging his buddy with his foot. Several officers, including Jump Out Boy Rolando Jacobo, later declared they thought Hoban was assaulting the man and had brandished a gun. They fired four times, hitting Hoban.
But several witnesses backed up Hoban’s story that he was only carrying a black Walkman, which disappeared from the scene—replaced by a .45-cal. pistol. And as for the gun, the only fingerprint found on it matched that of Officer Jesus “Jesse” Aguero. All charges were dismissed against Hoban, who eventually received an $18,000 settlement from the city. “I’m not angry at anyone,” he says, “I’m just angry that we live in a world where things like that happen.”
With the Hoban shooting, however, the tide began to turn against the Jump Out Boys. Investigators found that the gun in that case had been seized during a police drug search in 1996—which suggested it had been kept as a throw-down gun. “This was premeditated,” said William O’Brien, former Miami police chief. “A gun was stolen and carried for some time to use to frame somebody.”
This time the department got tough. Prosecutors indicted Officer Jacobo for falsifying police records. He was convicted and served 10 months in jail. Believing he had been made a scapegoat, Jacobo began to speak out after his release about what he said was a pattern of police abuses. “I’d already lost my job and my pension,” Jacobo, 42, told PEOPLE. “I got pissed off.”
By last year two other former Jump Out Boys, officers John Mervolion, 47, and William Hames, 54, had decided to accept plea deals and testify against their onetime colleagues. Hames, for instance, told authorities that Wiltshire and Young had been unarmed, and that he had wiped fingerprints off the throw-down gun in the Hoban incident. At a plea hearing last September a federal prosecutor described how, the day after the Wiltshire and Young shooting, Mervolion met with the other officers involved at a barbeque restaurant, where they allegedly agreed to a cover-up.
The indicted officers have all maintained their innocence, pointing out that the various incidents have all been reviewed and cleared by Internal Affairs. Officer Aguero was acquitted last year in state court of planting the gun in the Hoban case, though his trial took place before Hames came forward. As Richard Sharpstein, who represents two of the indicted officers, put it, “This is old, recycled dirty laundry hung out to dry on a new line.”
Even if that is true, critics of the Miami police are pleased that the charges are getting a fresh airing—and that the testimony of officers Mervolion and Hames could make a difference. The trial of the indicted Jump Out Boys is not scheduled to start until early next year. For now, the families of those who found themselves in the crosshairs of the police sense that vindication may at last be at hand. Says Derrick Wiltshire’s mother, Rhoda, 53, citing the Book of Isaiah: “No weapon formed against me shall prosper.”
Siobhan Morrissey, Steve Ellman and Kristin Harmel in Miami