When Yoinis Cruz Peña crashed his motorcycle into an I-95 retaining wall, flew off an overpass, and died May 27, 2018, the friends who biked alongside him said he had been chased off the highway by Miami police officers.
At first, Miami Police Department spokespeople claimed they had no knowledge a chase had occurred, and the city’s police union accused Cruz Peña’s friends of lying. But earlier this year, Miami’s Civilian Investigative Panel (CIP), an independent board of local residents who review complaints against cops, uncovered damning evidence suggesting Miami cops contributed to Cruz Peña’s death. Some panel members even called the police response a “cover-up.”
Now the panel has uncovered additional evidence that raises further questions about MPD’s response that day. Cruz Peña’s wife, Yailen Gonzalez, was on the back of his bike the entire time — and while she told investigators that two Miami cops were chasing their bike and cornered them into the wall they hit, the traffic homicide report written by Officer Alfred Hernandez grossly misrepresented sworn statements she gave the cops that day.
“Staff finds Officer Hernandez’s representation of what Ms. Gonzalez stated in each of her three statements does not always correlate with the proper or any of the statements she provided,” CIP investigators wrote. “Additionally, we find it is the information Officer Hernandez left out of his Traffic Homicide Report, that appears to mischaracterize what Ms. Gonzalez stated.”
In July, the CIP uncovered some astounding facts about the case, including that basic crash evidence did not wind up on official reports, that MPD’s internal affairs unit seemingly hid or ignored evidence that Miami cops were conducting a traffic-enforcement operation nearby that day, and that a GoPro camera Cruz Peña wore on his helmet allegedly collected no crash footage and somehow recorded only after he hit the ground.
Despite the fact that police said they responded to the crash one minute after it occurred, MPD has never named any officers who might have chased Cruz Peña that day — even though his fellow bikers recorded video of what they say is at least one Miami police car traveling at more than 100 mph and “buzzing” the motorcyclists. MPD even claimed it has no GPS data matching any of its cops to the crash location that day. Internal affairs — the division inside the police department that investigates citizen complaints — claimed it was unable to identify any of the officers involved in the incident, which began when Cruz Peña, Gonzalez, and other members of the Dade County Riderz pulled out from Whiskey Joe’s Bar & Grill on the Rickenbacker Causeway that day.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, survived the crash despite sustaining a broken femur and pelvis. Police investigators spoke with her at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center mere hours after the crash. Officer Hernandez summarized her statements thusly:
On Sunday May 27th, 2018, the group decided to go to Whiskey Joe’s on Key Biscayne to have lunch. She stated the driver ate lunch and drank a Red Bull. She denies he drank any alcoholic beverages. She stated as they were leaving, they saw a police car and thought that the police officer was there for them. She stated that they were one of the first ones to leave but they pulled over to wait for some friends. Once the friends passed by, she noticed the police car was behind their friends. The victim sped up to catch up to his friends and when they drove into the curve, they were thrown off.
But CIP staff members noted in July that the recordings of Gonzalez’s statements included far more information than what officers had written. For one, she told the cops there were multiple cars involved that day, but Hernandez refers to only a single cruiser in his report. Oddly, Gonzalez also did not discuss eating or drinking anything, but Hernandez wrote she denied ingesting alcohol.
Gonzalez said she remained conscious throughout the incident. At one point in the interview, Hernandez himself asked if there were “two police cars” following her and her husband, and she stated that two more cops then appeared.
“They were pushing us over [to] the side,” she told Hernandez from the hospital. She added, “Once we had to go over [to] the side. We were going here, and they were basically cornering us. And it was stuck to us. And that’s when, when my husband was close to the curve, and I don’t know what happened in the curve. That we flew, the bike stayed up.”
The police report, however, made no mention of multiple cop cars or Gonzalez’s contention that any officers had cornered them just before the bike crashed into the retaining wall. Gonazlez said she felt a “bump” before her husband lost control of the bike.
Hernandez reinterviewed Gonzalez less than two hours later. She again told him there appeared to be three or four cop cars involved and that one officer had been “bumper to bumper” with the bike right before it crashed. Again, those statements did not appear in Hernandez’s recounting of the events. In a third interview, Gonzalez stated the cops never turned on their sirens or instructed her husband to stop.
One-third of police chases end in crashes, and those incidents often involve innocent bystanders or people attempting to evade low-level charges. So, for decades, cops have been instructed not to chase suspects at high speeds unless the pursuit is absolutely necessary. MPD, for example, instructs officers to engage in high-speed pursuits only when a violent felony has occurred.
After the scathing July CIP meeting in which various panel members called the police response “incompetent,” “shoddy,” seemingly flawed “by design,” and possibly a “cover-up,” MPD said it would reinvestigate the case. The new probe remains ongoing. In the meantime, CIP staff this month recommended sustaining “negligence of duty” violations against Hernandez. The full panel will vote on those charges next Tuesday.