December 15, 2019
Women and girls said a Hialeah cop sexually assaulted them. The chief gave him a raise
 
 

In 2015, a teenage girl told investigators that Hialeah Police Department Sgt. Jesus “Jesse” Menocal Jr., a decorated patrol officer and SWAT team member, stopped her while she was walking home, told her to get into his police truck and ordered her to perform oral sex.

She was 14 years old.

The girl said Menocal threatened her with arrest if she refused and said she would “disappear” if she ever told anyone what happened, according to interviews she gave to Hialeah police and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office. “I did what he wanted,” the sobbing girl said. Shaking as she recounted the assault, the girl was asked why she seemed afraid. “Because he is still out there,” she responded.

The 14-year-old was among four women and girls who accused Menocal, 31, of sexual assault,including one woman who said he handcuffed her and sexually assaulted her while masturbating in his police truck, according to hundreds of pages of law enforcement public records obtained by the Miami Herald.

The veteran cop was found to have brought another eight women and girls into a Hialeah police station without filing any reports, a violation of department procedure.

Menocal denied the allegations of sexual battery and misconduct, which were brought to the attention of Hialeah police starting in June 2015.

Internal affairs investigators gathered evidence that he had committed “unlawful sexual activity” with minors, a second-degree felony, and had broken more than 20 departmental rules and policies. The evidence was handed to Hialeah Police Chief Sergio Velázquez and the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office — but neither the police chief nor prosecutors acted to punish him.

Far from disciplining Menocal, whose well-connected family has held high-ranking positions in South Florida law enforcement, Velázquez gave him a raise — and moved him back onto the SWAT team as a coordinator. Months later, while Menocal was still under internal affairs investigation, he was back patrolling the streets.

Meanwhile, state prosecutors didn’t think the women and girls — some of them believed by police to be victims of human trafficking engaged in sex work — would appear credible in court and declined to charge Menocal on counts of sexual battery, false imprisonment and unlawful compensation. In a close-out memo, a prosecutor referred to three of the victims as “gang” members, describing one as a “bi-polar chronic runaway,” and noted a lack of corroborating evidence. 

Charles Nanney, a retired 31-year veteran of the Miami-Dade Police Department and former head of its special investigations division, told the Miami Herald that the volume of complaints, the similarity of the victims’ stories and the manner in which Menocal consistently violated standard operating procedures should have at least prompted the police department, if not prosecutors, to take firm disciplinary action.

“When you have multiple victims and they are all making similar allegations, that’s a lot of smoke,” Nanney said.

While Menocal was not charged by the state attorney’s office or disciplined by Hialeah’s police chief, he is now under investigation by federal authorities who are building a criminal civil rights case against him.

Reached by phone, Menocal said he could not discuss the allegations and said he has not been told he is the target of a federal investigation. He told internal affairs that the accusations were retaliation for his police work, particularly his and another detective’s take-down of a human trafficking ring.

“I was arresting everybody,” Menocal said in a sworn statement to internal affairs in 2016. “I was arresting them, stopping them from making income. I was arresting them from getting high, getting drugs, from committing any crimes to make any money off of.”

So far he has faced almost no repercussions.

On June 14, 2015, hours after a 17-year-old minor told Hialeah police that Menocal had detained her and made her strip in a camera-less room at a police station, he was “relieved of police powers,” removed from the SWAT team and placed on paid administrative assignment at home, according to his personnel file. The 17-year-old, Maley Dacosta, told investigators that Menocal pulled her car over and took her to the police station. Then he asked her if she was a virgin or had any sexually transmitted diseases, made her remove most of her clothing under threat of arrest and demanded sex, she said. She refused and he released her, telling her “I’m a cool cop,” according to her sworn statement.

In early October 2015, his file shows, Menocal was brought back to the office — nearly a year before the final draft of an internal affairs report was submitted to Velázquez, the chief, on Sept. 8, 2016. Hialeah police records show Menocal was reassigned as a SWAT coordinator while remaining on administrative assignment. His return to SWAT restored a 5 percent pay bump.

He was also recommended for a merit raise.

“No outcome has come as of yet from the criminal investigation and merit step [raise] is being recommended,” Menocal’s supervisor wrote on March 29, 2016.

Velázquez signed off on the 4.5 percent raise weeks after.

By July 12, 2016, Menocal was back on the street, according to a commendation letter he received from Velázquez for conducting a traffic stop and helping apprehend an armed suspect.

“We can’t give him a break anymore. He has to pay for what he’s done. Not just to me, but to everyone,” Dacosta, now 22, told the Herald in a recent interview. “I was 17. My whole teenage perspective came crashing down because of that one police officer.”

A spokesman for Hialeah police told the Miami Herald that the chief did not sustain the internal affairs findings that Menocal committed unlawful sexual activity with minors — only that he violated departmental rules and policies. The spokesman would not specify which ones nor confirm on what date exactly Menocal returned to active duty.

But Menocal is under scrutiny from a more powerful law enforcement agency: the FBI.

FBI agents and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami are gathering evidence that Menocal illegally detained women and underage girls, pressured them for sex and then released them without charges, which would be a violation of their civil rights, sources familiar with the investigation told the Herald. Both the FBI and federal prosecutors declined to comment.

A federal grand jury has issued subpoenas for both Hialeah police records and witnesses, including at least two Hialeah police officers familiar with Menocal’s alleged misconduct, the sources said. The federal case was opened in recent years to determine whether Menocal violated the civil rights of his alleged victims by using the authority of his badge “under color of law” to coerce them into sex.

Eddie Rodriguez, the spokesman for the Hialeah Police Department, said that Velázquez did not discipline Menocal because the FBI took up the case.

Rodriguez denied that Velázquez, who refused an interview request from the Herald, had protected Menocal in any way.

“Once the case was reopened, Hialeah police began working hand in hand with federal authorities,” Rodriguez said. “Pending the federal grand jury results, Sgt. Menocal will be disciplined as deemed appropriate.”

Rodriguez did not address a question about why Menocal was apparently brought back to duty and given a raise before the internal affairs investigation was even finished.

‘VERY TROUBLING’

Menocal, who joined the department in 2007, met his alleged victims on his beat. As a patrol sergeant, his duties included driving around the city’s known hubs of prostitution looking for potential victims of sex trafficking whom he was supposed to help. Civilians in his district knew him as “Sarge.”

Months before Dacosta came forward, two male suspects in a case told a Hialeah human trafficking detective named Rosalyn Byrd that Menocal was abusing a sex worker in his district, Suzy Betancourt, 30, according to a sworn statement Byrd gave to internal affairs.

“[Betancourt] was building ... trying to get the courage to build up a case against him, because he would make her show her breasts and her vagina to him,” Byrd told an internal affairs investigator looking into Menocal.

Byrd told her sergeant, Manny Colon, in January 2015 but the sergeant said the male suspects had to file a complaint themselves, according to her sworn statement. The men do not appear to have done that — and neither Colon nor anyone else from the department’s command staff seems to have pursued the issue.

After Dacosta came forward in June 2015, internal affairs detectives Frank Peñate and Hilda Reyes interviewed Betancourt. Byrd was able to locate two other alleged victims, records show, and they were interviewed by internal affairs. Reached by reporters, Byrd and Peñate declined to comment. Reyes could not be reached.

Betancourt died in November 2015 — five months after being interviewed. She fell out of a moving car, a death that Miami-Dade police ruled an accident but that her family and friends found suspicious. In her sworn statement to investigators before her death, she told them explicitly that Menocal threatened to kill her if she ever told anyone what happened.

A fourth alleged victim, a young adult woman, told police Menocal pulled her over and pressured her for sex.

Menocal did not report stopping any of the four female victims.

The victims who spoke to police said they feared Menocal because he was a law enforcement officer. Some were believed to be working willingly or unwillingly as sex workers, making them especially vulnerable to coercion by law enforcement.

Investigators also discovered video footage showing that Menocal brought eight other women and girls into the police station. They were unable to identify and contact those women and girls. Menocal did not file reports on any of the incidents.

In the summer of 2016, after the investigation was referred to the state attorney’s office, Assistant State Attorney Johnette Hardiman decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge Menocal. In a memo closing out one of two investigations into Menocal, Hardiman seemed to cast doubt on the credibility of three of the victims, describing them as “gang” members and calling one “a bi-polar chronic runaway.”

After her encounter with Menocal, the girl described as a runaway — who was not even in high school — weighed down her shirt with a rock and threw it into a lake, which police divers were unable to recover, the memo said. The underage victim told investigators that she threw away the shirt because Menocal had ejaculated on it during oral sex and she felt humiliated.

In the memo, the prosecutor concluded that “none [of the women] claimed outright force or threat, just authoritative pressure” from Menocal, an armed police officer. In the end, Hardiman found there was not enough corroborating evidence — such as witnesses or DNA — to charge Menocal with a crime. “None of the girls could give more than a vague date range for the incidents,” Hardiman wrote in a close-out memo.

“Very troubling — regrettably insufficient [evidence] to establish proof of guilt,” Jose Arrojo, then chief assistant to the state attorney and now executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, wrote on the memo.

“The matter will be handled administratively by the City of Hialeah Police Department,” Hardiman concluded.

But it wasn’t.

Velázquez, the Hialeah police chief, did not discipline Menocal despite formally sustaining the internal affairs complaint on Sept. 14, 2016. The chief later gave Menocal a full-time assignment at Miami Dade College’s police academy. 

Menocal continued to patrol the streets of Hialeah until Dacosta filed a lawsuit against him and the city of Hialeah earlier this year, according to the Miami New Times.

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernández declined to say much about the case playing out in his city.

“There’s a criminal investigation and I have to be very careful because I don’t want to say anything to jeopardize a criminal investigation,” Hernández said in a brief phone interview.

Meanwhile, when the Miami Herald asked the state attorney’s office for the investigative records documenting allegations of Menocal’s misconduct — including statements from three of the four alleged victims — the office said they had been lost. After repeated demands from reporters, the state attorney’s office reacquired most of the documents from Hialeah police and turned them over. The city of Hialeah had not fulfilled a Herald request for those same records by the time of publication.

Ed Griffith, the state attorney’s spokesman, said Hardiman reviewed all of the Menocal evidence before deciding not to charge him. He said that her decision was based on the lack of “credibility” of Menocal’s accusers and whether a jury would believe them — not on doubts that their allegations were truthful.

He said the prosecutor referred Menocal’s case to the civil rights section of the Justice Department in Washington, D.C., in 2016 after Hardiman declined to bring charges.

Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernández Rundle, who is seeking her eighth consecutive term in 2020, has made combating human trafficking a priority for her office. Surveys of trafficking victims and sex workers in cities around the nation say they are frequently a target of intimidation and abuse by police officers.

Maria Haberfeld, a professor of policing at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City said that given the nature of the allegations against Menocal, she was “frankly flabbergasted” he was not disciplined.

“I have studied policing for two decades and I have never heard of anything like this,” Haberfeld said.

Velázquez’s failure to discipline Menocal, despite sustaining charges against him, sent a message to the rest of the department that “anything goes,” she said

That wasn’t the only failure in the way authorities handled the case, according to Yasmin Vafa, an attorney and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based human rights organization Rights4Girls.

Vafa said the state attorney’s office displayed a “fundamental lack of compassion and understanding about the nature of child sex trafficking cases” by not treating the victims as credible.

“These victims are often not seen as sympathetic by police or prosecutors,” Vafa said. “But in reality they are our most vulnerable kids, runaway and homeless youths, children from minority and impoverished communities. It’s the reason traffickers and abusers prey on them. ... There’s no one looking out for them or caring about them and they’re the least likely to be believed if and when they do come forward. They are prime targets.”

“If this were a white girl in a nice Miami school accusing her school resource officer of rape, I think the prosecutor would have handled the case completely differently,” Vafa said.

The Menocal family has deep roots in local law enforcement, including at the highest level. Menocal’s father, Jesús Menocal Sr., became the chief of Sweetwater’s police department twice — first in the 1990s and again in 2013 during an FBI investigation into allegations of police abuse of power and fraud. The Hialeah cop’s uncle, Ignacio, was a Miami police officer who was once investigated, but not charged, in the mid-1980s for suspected ties to drug traffickers. During an internal affairs probe, investigators found that Jesús Menocal Sr., while not yet a police officer, may have also been involved with his twin brother and the traffickers. That discovery put the kibosh on Jesús Menocal Sr.’s application for the Miami force. Ignacio would later join his brother as a cop in Sweetwater. 

Father and son run a business called Menocal International Training, where they teach tactical rifle courses and one-on-one firearm training. Jesús Menocal Jr. has also sought permission from the Hialeah Police Department to work as a model. He joined the police department shortly after graduating from Christopher Columbus High School. Before that, he worked as a sales representative at Hollister, a greeter at Walmart, a men’s fragrance vendor at Macy’s and a security guard at Kmart.

Starting in 2013, Menocal began working as a contract instructor at Miami Dade College’s School of Justice, teaching SWAT tactics and firearms training.

In response to questions from the Herald, an MDC spokesman said the school had not been told of the allegations — despite television reports about Menocal’s alleged misconduct that aired in 2015 — and had terminated his contract this month after being contacted by reporters.

“It is important to note the Hialeah Police Department never informed the college of any concerns nor issues,” said spokesman Juan Mendieta. “This individual is not an employee of the college, but a contractor.”

DISTURBING PORTRAIT

To the outside world, Menocal was a model officer. A married father of two, he was consistently rated “excellent” on Hialeah police evaluations and became a sergeant in 2013. He earned just over $100,000 in 2018 in base pay and overtime, and won awards for combating human trafficking, narcotics and guns. In 2015, he was named officer of the month and officer of the quarter “due to his discovery, investigation and breakup of a human trafficking operation.”

That image was cast in a new light in the summer of 2015 when local television news stations WSVN and CBS4 began reporting on Maley Dacosta’s then-anonymous allegations.

Menocal told investigators in a “factual proffer” that he detained Dacosta because he thought she might be a victim of human trafficking. He suspected the passenger of the car, who Dacosta said was her girlfriend, was in fact her trafficker. Both Dacosta and the passenger, a woman in her 20s, told investigators that they were in the area where Menocal stopped them because the adult woman had to pick up a check she was owed. Both said they got lost.

In his proffer, Menocal did not explain why he failed to file a report on the incident.

In the close-out memo, the state attorney’s office noted that Dacosta had not initially told detectives that she was featured in an ad on Backpage.com, a now-defunct website commonly used to advertise sexual services, including trafficked women. Prosecutors felt this showed inconsistency in her statements. The memo also referenced another later allegation of sexual assault made by Dacosta and not involving Menocal where prosecutors felt there was not enough evidence to charge.

In June, Dacosta filed a lawsuit in her own name against Menocal and the city in state court.

While Menocal has not responded to Dacosta’s lawsuit, the city of Hialeah sought to transfer Dacosta’s suit to federal court and moved to dismiss the case in October.

Attorneys for the city argue that his employer, Hialeah, is legally immune from liability for its employee’s alleged “wanton, willful and malicious acts,” according to the dismissal motion. The city lawyers also argue that Hialeah cannot be held liable for Menocal’s conduct because it was “committed while [he was] acting outside the course and scope of his employment.” The motion does not address the veracity of the claims.

After Dacosta complained, Hialeah police detectives approached the three other women and girls based on tips they’d heard about Menocal’s alleged misconduct, according to police records.

One, a woman in her mid-20s, told investigators that she was in a car with a group of friends when Menocal stopped the vehicle. He told her to get into his police vehicle, and then he drove her to a nearby back alley. The two got out of his car and he immediately started kissing her, she told detectives. He then pulled out his penis and forced her to touch it. She pulled her hand away. Then he demanded she perform oral sex, which she declined. The two got back in his vehicle and he dropped her off at a nearby park.

Another, Suzy Betancourt, told police that Menocal took her aside during a raid of a house party. He asked her if she was a prostitute and began flirting with her before offering to give her a ride home, according to Betancourt’s sworn statement. She was intoxicated and agreed.

The two were in Menocal’s police truck together, about three to four blocks from her house, when Menocal stopped the car and handcuffed Betancourt, she said. He then tried to removedher pants and pulled down her shirt to expose her breasts. Betancourt said she felt “scared and intimidated.” Menocal then touched her genitals inappropriately while exposing his penis and touching himself, Betancourt said. The encounter ended when Menocal got a call over his radio.

Betancourt said two other similar incidents took place where Menocal stopped her and abused her.

On one occasion, she told police, he told her that “if you ever say anything, I will find you and I will kill you.”

Five months after speaking to Hialeah detectives, the mother of two died after falling out of a moving vehicle on Nov. 21, 2015. The medical examiner determined that she died from blunt force injuries to the head and torso.

Miami-Dade Police Department traffic homicide detectives said Betancourt, who had been drinking and doing drugs, jumped out of the moving vehicle — although three men riding in the car gave inconsistent statements as to whether she had been arguing with one of the men, which side of the car she was riding on and whether she had warned them that she was going to jump, police records show.

Her brother, Gerardo Betancourt, believes the investigation didn’t go deep enough. Gerardo said a mortician at the funeral home told him Suzy’s body didn’t show signs of the “road rash” typically suffered when someone falls out of a car.

In the months before her death, Suzy was battling substance abuse issues. Gerardo ran into her late one night at a McDonald’s in Hialeah. She was intoxicated, Gerardo said, and he asked her to leave and come home with him.

She said she couldn’t leave but told him she was working on “taking down somebody big” who was hurting children.

“She told me that what she was getting involved with,” Gerardo said, “was going to leave her dead.” 

Jesus Menocal, Jr

Image result for jesus menocal