Witness: Police fired first bullet in wild Florida shootout that killed 4 last year

©Miami Herald

Amy Beth Bennett/Sun Sentinel/TNS

MIAMI — Attorneys representing two innocent men killed during a Wild West-like shootout between police and jewel thieves a year ago blasted law enforcement on Thursday, accusing investigators of withholding information — including ballistic tests that would show who fired the fatal shots in a skirmish that played out on live television.

Michael Haggard, representing the family of UPS driver Frank Ordonez, who was killed sometime after his truck was hijacked by the thieves and taken on a two-county chase, said a witness in an adjacent vehicle, Carlos Lara, has told them police fired the first of what turned out to be nearly 200 bullets during the shootout on a crowded road.

“It was absolutely pure recklessness. There was no tactical strategy. They tried to box in two kidnappers and used civilians as human shields. They went in guns blazing without any regard for human life,” Haggard said. He has already filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Ordonez’s family and said he intends to do the same for the family of Rick Cutshaw, a 70-year-old union organizer who was killed in the crossfire,

Haggard said he believes that Ordonez, 27, who had been taken hostage in Coral Gables by armed robbers Lamar Alexander and Ronnie Hill, both 41, was still alive when the shootout began at a Miramar intersection.

“We don’t know yet what bullets killed him because we don’t have the reports,” said Haggard.

Troy Walker, the special agent in charge of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s investigation into the shooting said his top priority is to conduct a full and impartial investigation. He said some information has been provided to the families.

“However, providing specific information during an active investigation makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine exactly what happened. More importantly this case will be presented to the Broward County grand Jury; therefore we do not want to compromise the integrity of the investigation,” said Walker in a statement. “We continue to ask for patience as the investigation moves forward. All investigative information (case reports, interviews, videos and forensics) will be available once the case is closed.”

It was the Thursday after Thanksgiving last year when local television stations interrupted afternoon broadcasts to show several law enforcement agencies chasing a UPS truck from the Coral Gables area north to a crowded intersection in Miramar. Alexander and Hill had tried to rob an upper end jewelry store in Coral Gables, one of them posing as a postman and firing a bullet into the ground inside the store that ricocheted off an employee’s forehead. She lived.

The suspected robber ran to a waiting U-Haul. The store manager and an employee gave chase and fired their own guns at the truck, blowing out windows. Alexander and Hill soon ditched the U-Haul and hijacked Ordonez’s UPS delivery truck. Police chased the truck north on the Turnpike and onto I-75 and finally the streets of Southwest Broward County. When the truck became stuck in traffic at a Miramar intersection, officers, some using vehicles trapped on the road as shields, surrounded the UPS truck on a traffic-choked Miramar Parkway — leading to the wild shootout.

Alexander and Hill were killed in the gun battle. But so were Ordonez and Cutshaw, who was trying to drive away from the chaos when a bullet that went through his back windshield struck him. In all, 19 officers fired their weapons, 13 of them from Miami-Dade, the rest from Pembroke Pines, Miramar and the Florida Highway Patrol.

Almost 11 months after the shootout, law enforcement agencies have released very little information. The FBI took the lead, the FDLE is investigating the police shooting and Broward County prosecutors are expected to convene a grand jury to decide if criminal charges are warranted.

Beyond complaining about the length and transparency of the investigation, Haggard said law enforcement should have tried to de-escalate the situation instead of igniting it and he said the police work surrounding the investigation was sloppy. At one point he held up a plastic bag filled with bullets he said Lara found on the hood of his vehicle.

“He found them the next day on the hood of his car,” the attorney said.

Ordonez’s mother, Luz Apolimario, said all she wants is justice for her son’s death.

“I’ll feel like this for the rest of my life,” Apolimario said in Spanish during Thursday’s news conference. “I see the girls (her granddaughters) all the time. It’s hard. The oldest one feels it and asks for her father.”

Jasmine Martinez, who shared two young daughters with Ordonez, also spoke publicly for the first time. She said it remained hard to discuss his death with her four and six-year-old daughters because they still can’t completely comprehend what happened.

“My two young daughters loved their dad,” she said. “That’s my focus at the moment and for the rest of their lives.”


©2020 Miami Herald