January 25, 2020
Questions surround hijacked UPS truck chase and fatal shootout with police
 
 
 
 
Armed robbers killed in shootout with police identified
 

In the hours since a high-speed chase took police across Miami-Dade and into Broward County and ended with a barrage of bullets and four people dead in Miramar on Thursday evening, Florida politicians, law enforcement officials and the family members of one victim have started to ask: Was a less violent outcome possible?

Genny Merino, the sister of UPS driver Frank Ordonez, who was taken hostage and died in the shootout, said in a post on Twitter early Friday morning that the police handled the situation poorly.

“Today I lost my brother, because of the [expletive] negligence and stupidity of the police,” she wrote. “Instead of negotiating with a hostage situation they just shot everyone.”

During the chase’s violent finale on Miramar Parkway, a cluster of cars stopped in peak rush-hour traffic became shields for police. Officers ran and ducked around pedestrians, who witnessed over 100 rounds of gunfire that looked like small bursts of light and smoke in the daylight.

At the end, 20 officers descended on three men lying next to the UPS truck that had been hijacked by two armed robbers in Coral Gables, where the driver of the truck was taken hostage. Large smears of blood were visible on the roadway as police, and soon paramedics, rushed in to help the wounded 

Four people were killed, including the two robbers — Miami-Dade County men Lamar Alexander and Ronnie Hill — as well as 27-year-old Ordonez and a bystander, Richard Cutshaw, a 70-year-old Pembroke Pines resident and union representative who was driving a nearby car.

The intersection was undoubtedly crowded, not just with cars, but with pedestrians.

A new bystander video that surfaced Friday showed pedestrians casually crossing Flamingo Road as a hail of bullets began whipping around, hitting a man who was trying to drive away.

“This guy, they shot him and they killed him and he crashed into me,” a panicked voice yells in Spanish in the video. The footage shows a close-up of the crashed car, driven by Cutshaw, who appears unresponsive. 

The footage also shows the motorist yelling for police to help the mortally wounded man. 

“Sir! This guy needs help, man!” the man yells. “He received fire!”

‘IT WAS LIKE THE OLD WEST’

Joe Merino, Ordonez’s stepfather, teetered from sorrow to anger in front of his home in northwest Hialeah on Friday as he recalled the shock of learning of his son’s kidnapping and then of his death. 

Merino said officers showed no regard for his son’s life in the gunfight and wondered why they didn’t try to de-escalate the situation by bringing in a SWAT team and setting up a hostage negotiation. 

“It was like the Old West,” Merino said, demanding accountability from all involved. “I’m going to be the voice for my son. This is not going to be swept under the rug.”

When news of the carjacking first broke, one of Ordonez’s brothers immediately called their mother concerned that it might be Frank. When his mother called Merino, he doubted it. He knew Ordonez was on a delivery route elsewhere after recently being promoted from loading trucks to filling in for drivers when they took time off.

“I said, ‘Honey, don’t worry about it because he’s in Coconut Grove,’ ” Merino told the Miami Herald. “He drives a 24-footer in Coconut Grove, and this is in Coral Gables and it’s a P-500, which is a small-size truck.”

Minutes later, the son called again. To his horror, he recognized his brother on the television screen, crawling out of the carjacked UPS truck before he died in the gunfight.

The five or six officers from the Miramar and Pembroke Pines police departments who opened fire are on administrative leave, per department policies, Broward County Police Benevolent Association President Rod Skirvin said Friday. Eleven Miami-Dade officers also opened fire and have been placed on leave. An officer from the Florida Highway Patrol fired shots, as well.

The FBI, which is leading the investigation into the incident, has offered little information about what happened, including whether Ordonez was killed by police bullets or exactly how Cutshaw was shot.

But some experts are questioning whether police handled the situation appropriately. 

Nelson Quintana, a retired Coral Gables police officer and SWAT member, said police officers should have tried to stop the UPS truck while it was on the highway, away from clogged city streets, using what is known as a “pursuit intervention technique” — nudging the vehicle so it spins out of control and stops.

The hostage in the truck complicated efforts to force the vehicle to stop, but a “pit” maneuver would have been a good approach, Quintana said.

“That way you immobilize the risk of collateral damage to innocent civilians and the commanders on the scene can set themselves up,” he said.

A veteran Miami-Dade officer with years of tactical training, who requested anonymity because he is still on the force, said officers should not have approached the vehicle. 

“They knew there was a hostage in there,” he said. “It was a busy intersection and it was 5 p.m. in the evening. If there’s any kind of danger to the public, don’t do it.” 

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Miami-Dade Police Director Juan Perez on Friday defended his officers’ actions, saying they “tried the best they could and showed incredible courage” in the firefight — even though a hostage and bystander wound up dead in the crossfire.

“We as an agency mourn the loss of these two innocent victims,” Perez said. “We’re obviously sympathetic with the family members. It’s heartbreaking for us.”

Perez insisted that the robbers, Alexander and Hill, were to blame because they opened fire on the officers. 

The two men were both released from state prison in 2017. Alexander was convicted of an armed robbery in Lee County in 2008, and was released in 2017, according to corrections records. Hill most recently finished a year’s prison sentence for a series of burglaries, state records show.

“The people responsible for this incident were the two brazen robbers who went into the jewelry store in the middle of the afternoon, guns blazing,” Perez said.

Perez said officers tried to slow down and stop the UPS truck on the Turnpike and Interstate 75, away from the traffic gridlock, but “the officers were met with gunfire.” He added that “a couple” civilian vehicles were also struck during the chase.

When the truck finally stopped — hemmed in by rush-hour traffic — officers had no choice but to rush in in an attempt to get between the robbers and the other commuters, Perez said. 

“They didn’t want a situation where [the robbers] bailed out and ran into a CVS, or a local shopping center, or even worse, started shooting at people at that intersection,” Perez said. “It was a very difficult situation they were facing. They tried the best they could and showed incredible courage.”

Perez said the investigation has yet to determine whether the bullets that killed the innocent victims came from the robbers or police. 

“The medical examiners will hopefully be able to determine that,” he said.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez told reporters Friday that the FBI investigation will sort out the details of the fatal shootings and the police decisions surrounding them. Miami-Dade is the only county government in Florida without a separate sheriff’s office; Gimenez oversees the department.

“We look forward to the investigation to see what exactly happened,” he said at an event in Homestead, according to a video provided by his office. “If there are any changes that have to be made, we’ll make them, obviously, with Miami-Dade police.”

Gimenez added that the incident never would have happened “if it had not been for the two perpetrators that abducted that young man and led police on this chase that ended in these tragic events.”

He noted that Miami-Dade policy requires an outside investigation, state or federal, whenever a county officer is involved in a shooting. 

POLICE CHASE POLICY

Thursday’s shootout set off a public debate about the right way for law enforcement to handle a dangerous, high-stakes pursuit.

The Florida Highway Patrol’s policy about pursuits mentions the word “firearm” just once, recommending that law enforcement not shoot from or at a moving vehicle except as a last resort. 

“Firearms may be used only under circumstances that provide a high probability of striking the intended objective and without causing harm to innocent persons,” the policy reads. 

Police chases have grown deadlier in the last five years, according to an analysis of federal recordsby the nonprofit news organization FairWarning. In 2017, 416 people were killed in police chases nationwide — the fourth year in a row that the number of people killed in these pursuits increased. 

According to a 2017 analysis by the Miami-Dade Police Department, pursuits in the county are 63% more likely than the national average to end in crashes and 100% more likely to end in injuries. 

State Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, a Democrat who represents Coral Gables, where Thursday’s police chase began following a jewelry store heist, said he’s reserving judgment until learning more information.

But he said he’s concerned about what he’s learned so far, particularly as it relates to video that appears to show officers taking cover behind occupied vehicles.

“Unless we learn a series of facts that is materially different from what the public has seen and been told, it does appear that something, or a series of things, went wrong,” Rodríguez said, calling for a “full investigation of this at every level.”

Rodríguez said there may be reason for a policy review at the state level, depending on how the facts ultimately play out.

“It is premature, but I think a lot of us are open to taking steps to prevent something from happening in the future if there’s a role for the state,” Rodríguez said.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a former Miami-Dade prosecutor, also questioned whether another way could have avoided a shootout on a busy street at rush hour.

“I realize patrol cars aren’t bulletproof, but it’s brazen to use occupied vehicles for cover in an active shooting,” he said.

Miramar mayor and one-time presidential candidate Wayne Messam also posted a statement on Twitter Thursday night, calling the shooting unprecedented.

His goal now, he said, is to “get our city back on track” and “console our community.” 

Other lawmakers were vocally supportive of the police response. U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, who represents Miramar in Washington, tweeted Thursday that he’s “thankful for the rapid response & professionalism of our first responders who were on the scene.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statement: “Two innocent lives were lost in Miramar due to criminal activity and they will be dearly missed by their families and friends. Words of comfort for loved ones fall short under these circumstances. While many questions remain unanswered, we will await the results of the federal investigation regarding this situation.”

Miami-Dade’s response on Friday was in stark contrast to a similar hostage situation that unfolded in January 2003.

That day, an armed gunman hijacked a U.S. mail truck, taking a carrier hostage and leading police on a slow-speed chase through the streets of Northwest Miami-Dade. A stream of police cars followed, but at a distance, while officers kept onlookers at bay and used parked cars to funnel the truck onto certain streets.

Steel spikes were used to deflate the mail truck’s tires. Cops did not rush in. Instead, Miami-Dade’s Special Response Team surrounded the truck at a distance, while a robot delivered a cellphone to the gunman. Negotiators persuaded him to release the hostage and surrender — and no one was hurt.

Since then, however, the police department has been criticized for its response to other high-speed chases.

In December 2003, a suspected armed robber, with a friend in the passenger seat, led Miami-Dade, Miami and Hialeah police on a high-speed chase that ended when the car crashed in Liberty City. A ring of officers surrounded the car, and 23 opened fire — killing both men and wounding two of their fellow cops.

No gun was found in the bullet-riddled car. Many officers mistook their colleagues’ gunfire for shots from inside the car.

THURSDAY NIGHT’S EVENTS 

Police say the incident began at 4:17 p.m. in Coral Gables, when two armed men, later discovered to be Alexander and Hill, tried robbing Regent Jewelers at 386 Miracle Mile. 

Law enforcement authorities say it wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment heist. The men drove a U-Haul truck, rented in Homestead. About 4 p.m. on Thursday, the truck was spotted near the store, possibly casing the business located on a corner of Coral Gables’ ritzy Miracle Mile shopping district.

One of the suspected robbers stayed in the U-Haul truck parked in the alley. The other used a disguise to get buzzed into the store — he wore a light flesh-colored mask and a blue sweatshirt and hat labeled “U.S. Postal Service,” sources said.

Once inside the store, one of the men fired into the floor and the bullet ricocheted, hitting a female employee of the store in the forehead, a law enforcement source told the Herald. Her wound was minor. 

As the men left the store, gunfire broke out between Alexander and Hill and the owner of the store. At least one bullet was fired toward Coral Gables City Hall, across the street. 

Billy Urquia, the Coral Gables city clerk, was in his office when he heard two gunshots, and then the sound of a bullet hitting his window.

“The bullet ricocheted off the wall and landed on the floor,” Urquia said Thursday night. “The last one I heard was the one that came in.”

Urquia said he left the office to find a city security guard already on the phone with police. He estimated the bullet missed him by two or three feet. A photo taken afterward shows the bullet hole looming over Urquia’s computer monitor, just below the window blinds. 

Soon afterward, Alexander and Hill carjacked a UPS truck with its driver, Ordonez, police said. 

Police officers found the UPS truck, which led them on a harrowing chase up Florida’s Turnpike, onto Okeechobee Road and then onto Interstate 75 into Broward County. The robbers shot at police during the chase, the FBI said.

The truck exited the interstate in Pembroke Pines, breaking through a traffic arm into the Century Village community and speeding through rush-hour traffic, followed by a long stream of police cars and helicopters. 

When the truck finally stopped in traffic gridlock, the robbers appeared to open fire on police. 

After the shooting, paramedics rushed to treat the injured men. At least one person was airlifted to a trauma center.

Skirvin, the Broward police union president, said Friday that the Miramar and Pembroke Pines officers who opened fire took “the action that they felt appropriate to end the threat.”

He said he, along with everyone else, is waiting for all the facts to come out.

“Any time our officers are involved in a shooting that results in the loss of life, it is a lifelong traumatic event for them,” he said.