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Thousands in cash missing from Sweetwater police evidence room

Miami Herald Media Co., Miami Herald,
BYLINE: Melissa Sanchez,
Link to Article

Sweetwater, FL

New Police Chief, Jesus 'Jessie' Menocal, left, shakes hands Mayor Jose M. Diaz during a press conference at Sweetwater City Hall on Oct. 24, 2013. David Santiago / El Nuevo Herald

Federal authorities are investigating the disappearance of thousands of dollars in cash from a Sweetwater police evidence room, Sweetwater Mayor José M. Díaz said Tuesday.

Money is also missing from payments made to recover towed vehicles in the city following police arrests, Díaz said.

“As far as I know, it amounts to thousands of dollars,” Díaz said. “I don’t know who was responsible for that money.”

Díaz’s revelations took place at a press conference called to show off a new bicycle patrol — an attempt to erase the “shadows” that have fallen upon the city in recent months.

In August, FBI agents arrested then-Mayor Manny Maroño, together with the mayor of Miami Lakes and two lobbyists, in an undercover corruption operation.

According to a document filed Tuesday in federal court, Maroño and one of the lobbyists, Jorge Forte, plan to change their pleas from not guilty to guilty om one count of conspiring to commit fraud during a Nov. 12 hearing in Fort Lauderdale. Both face up to five years in federal prison.

Meanwhile, authorities are investigating possible links between Sweetwater officers or officials to the towing company, Southland, which operated under a verbal agreement with the city until February. Several sources have said authorities are looking into whether police officers or other officials received kickbacks in exchange for directing business to the company.

State records show that Maroño was the company’s owner until 2009, though he continued to represent it during negotiations in Doral the following year. El Nuevo Herald and CBS4 have been investigating Southland and its connections in Sweetwater for months.

The feds looked at other issues in Sweetwater. In early September, interim Sgt. Reny García and detective Octavio Oliu were suspended from their jobs as part of a federal investigation, sources said. A week before, the FBI arrested detective William García on charges of credit card fraud and identify theft.

Díaz said money missing from the evidence room had been seized during arrests.

The man in charge of supervising evidence at the time the investigation began was Catalino Rodríguez, a longtime officer who resigned on Oct. 7, the same night that he was named city commissioner.

He denied taking any money.

“I don’t know anything about that,” Rodríguez said. “My conscience is clean.”

Rodríguez said that early in October, two reserve officers and a civil employee entered the evidence room without explaining why and began to remove evidence. Rodríguez, who thought they were following instructions from the new mayor, said he felt offended for not having been informed of their actions.

“There were drugs, money, weapons in there,” Rodríguez said. “If thousands of dollars are missing, maybe they should investigate why evidence was removed from the room that day.”

Last week it was revealed that some detectives kept evidence, including counterfeit luxury handbags and clothes, as well as machines for detecting fake currency, in a secret evidence room on an off-site warehouse. A commander who oversaw these detectives has told authorities Maroño authorized the use of the warehouse earlier this year.

Rodríguez said he did not know that this evidence room even existed.

It is not clear how much money is missing from the evidence room at the Police Department, or from the fines collected from individuals whose cars had been towed.

For years, former Police Chief Robert Fulgueira was the person responsible for reviewing the receipts from the towing fees and counting the money. Fulgueira, who resigned last week, did not return phone messages Monday or Tuesday .

According to invoices reviewed by El Nuevo Herald and CBS?4, Sweetwater police would routinely call Southland to tow vehicles after arrests for anything from drug possession to driving with a suspended license.

Before recovering a towed vehicle from Southland, individuals had to first pay the city of Sweetwater a fine of $500 in cash — a fee recently reduced to $250.

According to Rodríguez, individual cash payments were wrapped in a copy of the invoice and deposited in a postal box located inside the department.

Two people had keys to the mailbox: Rodríguez and Fulgueira. According to Rodríguez, Fulgueira was the main person who would process the three to four payments that came in per week.

After counting the money, Fulgueira handed the cash along with the invoice to deputy chief Roberto Ochoa, who then deposited the money with the Finance Department.

But on Oct. 2 Fulgueira separated himself from the process and assigned the review of payments to Ochoa. The deputy chief then established a set of directives to clarify when towing a vehicle is justified during an arrest. Under the new written directives, which have been given to all officers, the vehicle has to have been used to commit the alleged offense and therefore be considered evidence in order to justify a towing.

Ochoa said not a single case has warranted calling the towing company since he took over the job.

The city’s new police chief, Jesús “Jesse” Menocal, said the procedures will help eliminate any confusion among officers.

“When there is no organization, there is always room for chaos and all kinds of dysfunctional practices,” Menocal said. “Rules must be established so that people won’t have excuses for not doing the right thing.”

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