When Jose Ortega Gutierrez woke up bloodied and bruised on Dec. 17, he didn’t know where he was, he later told investigators. The handcuffs that had been secured around his wrists hours before were gone — and so were the two officers who allegedly drove the 50-year-old homeless man to a remote location in Florida and knocked him out of consciousness, prosecutors said.
On Thursday, Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle announced that two former Hialeah Police Department officers, 27-year-old Rafael Otano and Lorenzo Orfila, 22, had been charged with armed kidnapping and battery. Orfila, who was also charged with official misconduct, and Otano were relieved of duty on Thursday and booked into a Miami-Dade County jail. A third person, Ali Amin Saleh, 45, was charged with witness tampering and accused of attempting to cover up the officers’ actions, Fernandez Rundle said.
The case — which comes amid a wave of police scrutiny sparked by the death of Tyre Nichols in Memphis after officers beat him — was an example of “abuse of power and excessive force,” Fernandez Rundle said.
“We will not allow rogue police officers to abuse their powers and to betray the public that they serve,” she said.
Otano’s lawyer, Michael Pizzi, said in a statement to The Washington Post that his client is a “veteran police officer and family man with no record of any misconduct.”
“Officer Otano is being made a scapegoat by a State Attorney’s Office and a Hialeah Police Department with a poor track record of dealing with real police misconduct,” Pizzi said. “This case is a hysterical rush to judgment against a police officer who did not commit [any] crimes and who will be completely exonerated.”
Orfila’s attorney, Robert I. Barrar, also said he expected his client would be exonerated.
“When you look at the entire case and the credibility of the alleged victim, you’ll see that he’s not credible,” Barrar told The Post.
Saleh’s attorney, Stephan Lopez, told The Post that prosecutors “fabricated this entire case.” He said that Saleh and Ortega Gutierrez know each other since the two frequent the strip mall.
“Despite not being friends with the officers, [Saleh] felt compelled to speak the truth to prevent innocent persons from being wrongfully accused of a crime they did not commit,” Lopez said.
In court records, investigators outlined how they believe a call from a shop owner at the strip mall ended with punching and bruising nearly seven miles away.
On Dec. 17, Otano and Orfila were dispatched at 5:13 p.m. to sort out a disturbance at a bakery. There, they found Ortega Gutierrez — “by all accounts a very harmless person,” Fernandez Rundle said, “maybe a nuisance to some of the shop owners.” Though investigators would later find no evidence that Ortega Gutierrez had broken the law, he was handcuffed by the officers and placed in the back of a police car around 5:24 p.m. According to an arrest warrant, Ortega Gutierrez was told by the officers that he was being taken to jail for being drunk and disorderly.
Instead, he told investigators, he was driven — with the car’s emergency lights flashing — to a dark, secluded wooded area. According to court documents, Otano and Orfila didn’t notify dispatch or turn on their police-issued body-worn cameras during the trip; but it was tracked by the vehicle’s GPS system.
When the three men arrived at the isolated area, Ortega Gutierrez told investigators, he was “punched and pushed onto the floor by officers while he was handcuffed.” He would later wake up bloodied, bruised and confused. But as Ortega Gutierrez made his way back to the strip mall where he first encountered Otano and Orfila, he was spotted by an off-duty officer who was walking his dog and eventually called 911 to get him help.
Before Officer Yonny Ferrer arrived on the scene, he received a call from Orfila asking him to not write a report about the incident, investigators allege, “because ‘they’ had dropped off the victim … and had ‘roughed him up.’” Ferrer disregarded the alleged request and wrote a report. Ortega Gutierrez, who smelled of alcohol, was taken to a hospital so his wounds could be treated, the records state. The department’s Professional Compliance Bureau then got involved, and an internal investigation was launched.
Ortega Gutierrez initially didn’t want to cooperate with the investigation, a warrant alleges. But 12 days later, he provided a sworn, video-recorded statement alleging the two officers had attacked him.
He also told detectives that he had been approached by Saleh, who described himself as a private investigator, saying the man had “coaxed” him to sign a pre-notarized affidavit recanting his statement against the officers in exchange for $1,350, Fernandez Rundle said. (State records do not show Saleh as being a licensed private investigator in Florida.) Ortega Gutierrez said he accepted the money because he was homeless and unemployed.
“Ortega Gutierrez advised the Hialeah detective that he does not know how to read English or Spanish that he had no idea what was written in those documents,” the prosecutor said.
Lopez, Saleh’s attorney, said “there’s zero evidence” that any money was exchanged as a quid pro quo for Ortega Gutierrez signing the affidavit.
Ron Book, who has presided for 28 years over the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust, an umbrella organization that advises the county on policy, said he “can’t recall a circumstance this bad” of alleged police abuse against a population that is already among the most vulnerable to violence.
“We repudiate this,” Book said. “The last thing we need is our homeless folks, who are on average over the age of 55 and can’t protect themselves, being afraid of our law enforcement officers.”
Otano and Orfila could face life sentences. Hialeah Police Chief George Fuente said Thursday that he fired the officers as part of the promise he made to “be transparent, professional and responsible” when he was sworn in last year.
“It’s a sad and disappointing day when any officer betrays a badge,” Fuente said. “And it’s extremely disappointing to me it being an officer that wore the Hialeah badge.”