Claudia Costa was driving her Ford Explorer north on Interstate 95, after picking up two girlfriends in Fort Lauderdale. It was shortly after 4 a.m. on a Thursday in December 2007. Traffic was light. Costa’s friends had been clubbing. The swimsuit model and Playboy playmate was the designated driver.
Suddenly, she saw two headlights barreling straight toward her. Costa cursed, then braced for a collision. Upon impact, the Explorer spun around and smacked another car, which kept going north. The SUV came to rest up against the median.
If getting hit by a wrong-way driver wasn’t shocking enough, what happened next was even more jarring. An occupant of the wrong-way car, a 2006 Lexus 250 IS, didn’t check if they were OK, didn’t offer assistance, and didn’t call 911. He climbed out of the crunched car, scampered down an embankment, hopped a fence and vanished into the night, leaving the three women to wait for paramedics and police.
“As far as he knew, we were dead,” Costa said.
Costa had no way of knowing this, but the man in the car that had slammed into her was himself a police sergeant – after a boozy night on the town with his fellow Miami Beach officers. Or that when law officers searching for the runaway rider spotted him wandering along Andrews Avenue in Oakland Park – caked in mud, reeking of alcohol, keys to the Lexus in his pocket – they would chauffeur him home rather than test his blood alcohol or toss him in jail.
Later, when a state trooper would try to investigate the Miami Beach sergeant’s behavior, he was dismissed by some of the officer’s colleagues. Finally, when that trooper detailed these difficulties in a probable cause affidavit – saying Miami Beach officers had lied, ignored subpoenas and failed to return his calls – he would encounter the wrath of the Beach’s top cop, Carlos Noriega.
In recent months, the Miami Beach Police Department has gained unwanted scrutiny for the exploits of several officers, including one who ran over two people during a drunken ATV joyride; two who were fired for roughing up gays, and several others who gunned down a motorist on Memorial Day weekend, firing scores of times in a fusillade posted on YouTube.
The saga of Sg. Jesus “Jesse” Barrenechea has gotten less attention, although it dragged out nearly three years and involved multiple officers. What follows is a full accounting of that case, based on official court transcripts, police reports, sworn depositions and interviews.
HOLIDAY GET-TOGETHER ON THE BEACH
In the wee hours of Dec. 6, 2007, Barrenechea, 28, had been out on the town with several officers and their dates. First stop was Table Eight, a restaurant on Ocean Drive. The group included Barrenechea, his date; Miami Beach police officer Matthew Atwell and his date; police officers Michael Veski and Michelle Sayegh and officer Anthony Loperfido and his wife.
After dinner, Barrenechea left with his companion, telling everyone to meet him at The Forge. Although nobody wanted to go to The Forge, nobody wanted to offend Barrenchea, supervisor of the squad. Loperfido and his wife, who live in Homestead and faced a long ride home, reluctantly showed up. Veski and Sayegh tried to bow out, but got a call en route to his North Bay Village condo saying Barrenechea was upset and they’d better come back, which they did.
The party continued, with the officers and their dates sipping drinks while perched on a couch. About 4 a.m., Loperfido and his wife said their goodbyes. Sayegh and Veski went outside, ostensibly for air, and quietly hit the road, hoping their absence would not be noticed. But it was. Once again, they got a phone call summoning them back.
By the time they arrived, there had been some kind of confrontation, possibly physical, between Barrenechea and the valet over the sergeant’s car keys and whether he was OK to drive home.
To resolve the matter, Sayegh took the wheel of Barrenechea’s Lexus and the sergeant got into the passenger side of Veski’s red Nissan Versa. They planned to drive him home to Davie then return to Veski’s condo.
Only it didn’t happen that way. Somewhere on the Julia Tuttle Causeway, Barrenechea became insistent that he could drive himself. The two cars pulled over and Sayegh exited the Lexus and got into Veski’s vehicle, leaving Barrenechea and his car on the side of the road.
Not long after, the Lexus was rumbling down I-95, going the wrong direction.
MANY UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
Eleven days later, Florida Highway Patrol Cpl. Richard Nardiello was assigned to the case. An experienced traffic homicide investigator, Nardiello is also a Navy veteran who received FHP’s highest DUI honor, the Hurd-Smith Award, three times for making more drunk-driving arrests than any other trooper. His assignment was to reopen a possible insurance-fraud case involving the crash. But Nardiello quickly realized that the initial investigation was sloppy and inadequate and that he’d have to piece together the case from scratch. Also, that the crash possibly involved criminal wrongdoing more serious than insurance fraud.
There were many unanswered questions, such as:
- How much alcohol had Barrenechea consumed that night?
- If the valet was convinced that Barrenechea was unfit to drive, shouldn’t his fellow officers – trained to spot and arrest drunk motorists – have exercised similar judgment?
- How did Barrenechea’s car end up heading south in the northbound lanes?
A wild card in the deck was the possibility that someone else was behind the wheel when the crash occurred. Barrenechea did have a date, although she is never named in any of the police reports and nowhere is there a mention of her leaving. In interviews later, none of his fellow officers professed to know who she was.
But shortly after the accident, Barrenechea told GEICO, his insurance company, he had been a passenger in the crash car. He said he could remember handing his keys to someone but he was too drunk to remember to whom. He said someone had cut them off or they had hit an object. He collected $24,000 on the claim. But GEICO was suspicious and so was internal affairs, which was also trying to get information on the crash.
The first step: Nardiello wanted to confirm whether Barrenechea was driving the Lexus when it crashed. Both front-seat air bags had deployed, and it wasn’t clear who was with him in the car. Nardiello had the airbags tested for DNA and then compared it to oral swabs taken from both Veski and Barrenechea. The DNA on the driver’s side airbag matched Barrenechea. Veski’s DNA was on neither airbag.
Beyond that bit of physical evidence, getting answers was tough, even though the witnesses were officers trained to remember minute details and testify with clarity and precision months after an event.
Nardiello, who would not discuss his investigation with The Herald, wrote in his report that when he initially approached Veski about making a statement, the officer refused, lecturing him about wasting the taxpayers’ money. When Nardiello persisted, Veski told him to get a subpoena. Sayegh too demanded he get a subpoena. Alex Bello, president of Miami Beach police Fraternal Order of Police, contacted Veski and Sayegh, who both declined to comment for this story.
Subpoenas were issued, but Veski and his lawyer skipped their first appointment, Nardiello wrote. He added that two Beach officers working off-duty details at The Forge that night also ignored subpoenas.
Hoping to apply pressure from the top, Nardiello said he called their boss, Chief Noriega, with whom he’d had a cordial conversation at the start of the inquiry. Nardiello said in his report he left messages both at Noriega’s office and on his cell phone, but heard nothing back.
Veski and Sayegh finally sat for depositions months after the crash – on April 24, and May 9, 2008, respectively – but by then their recollections were foggy. Veski didn’t know if Barrenechea had been impaired, didn’t know why he was called back to The Forge, didn’t know why he was driving Barrenechea home and didn’t know if there might have been a second person in Barrenechea’s Lexus when they left it and him on the side of the causeway.
Sayegh offered similar answers. She had not seen Barrenechea take a drink and had no inkling why she and Veski had been called back to The Forge that second time. She had no clue why she ended up driving Barrenechea’s car and why Barrenechea rode in Veski’s. She could not specify where they had pulled to the roadside to switch cars, although it was in the area of the city she patrolled, Nardiello stated in his report.
She did not recall any conversation between her and Barrenechea as he exited Veski’s car and strode toward his own. She did not see any signs of impairment as their paths crossed. She did not glance back to see if Veski got into his car and drove away.
Nardiello, in his final report, concluded that both Veski and Sayegh had perjured themselves.
There was one other witness who might shed light on Barrenechea’s behavior that night: the valet who had balked at giving him his keys, setting in motion everything that came afterward. On May 9, the same day he deposed Sayegh, Nardiello went to The Forge to interview Frank Valluerca. He was three days too late. Earlier that day there had been a funeral for Valluerca. The 23-year-old had died of a bullet wound to the head from a 9mm Glock that his brother had purchased the day before.
He’d been having girlfriend problems and was on probation for a drug arrest. The medical examiner classified his death as a suicide.
AS THE CASE SLOWLY UNRAVELS
On June 19, 2008, almost seven months after the crash and shortly after Nardiello completed his probable cause affidavit; Barrenechea surrendered and was handcuffed in the parking lot of the Broward County jail. The charges: leaving the scene of an accident with injuries, insurance fraud and grand theft. Nardiello was there in the pouring rain as Barrenechea was escorted into the lockup. Barrenechea bonded out hours later.
Barrenechea was not charged with drunk driving, although he most definitely appeared intoxicated to Broward Sheriff’s Deputy Tally Brown. No one had seen him behind the wheel of his car, and when he was stopped as he ambled down Andrews Avenue, he would answer no questions. He’d admitted only his name and only after deputies presented him with an image of a driver’s license with his photo on it. He was briefly cuffed by Deputy Mitchell Lyden, then uncuffed.
Even had someone seen him behind the wheel, there was no proof he was drunk. Before Barrenechea was driven home by FHP Sgt. Richard Glass, the law officers saw no reason to test his blood.
As for the keys in his pocket? Suppressed by a judge.
The DNA on the airbag, from when the bag hits the driver’s face? At the salvage yard, the car had never been sealed. Between the crash and the DNA test on the airbags, Barrenechea had access to the Lexus. That made it theoretically possible that he left the DNA after the crash.
As for telling GEICO that he wasn’t behind the wheel? The company said it would have had to pay the claim regardless of who was driving.
Jeff Marcus, chief of felonies for the Broward State Attorney’s Office, said Costa, who by then had moved to California, had suffered minor injuries but was on the mend. Her work schedule was making it difficult for her to return to Florida to testify. The Miami Beach police officers who wouldn’t give statements without a court order led to more delays, Marcus said.
“Those problems, in addition to the circumstances of that night – that an officer drove him home – made the case difficult to prosecute,” Marcus said. He said the case wasn’t handled any differently by his office because Barrenechea was a police officer.
“I know how readers would think it’s a police officer, there must be a cover-up. But that’s not how it works. We did everything we could,” he said.
In the end, Barrenechea was sentenced to two years’ probation as part of a no-contest plea on a single charge of leaving the scene of an accident with injuries. Everything else went away.
Barrenechea, who was still getting paid months after the accident, went on unpaid leave at the time the charges were filed. At the time of the sentencing, he would be allowed to resign in lieu of dismissal and collected a $61,000 payout – his contribution to the police pension fund.
He remains on probation until November 2012. He did not have to surrender his police certification, although that comes under review at a hearing on October 26.
“Even though you can look at a case and say ‘I know this happened,’ the question is ‘can you prove it?’ ” said Richard Weinblatt, a law enforcement expert and former police chief who testifies about police ethics and misconduct. “Did the officers at the time screw up? Perhaps. You can explain this stuff innocently, and you can come up with a dastardly explanation.”
The police officers Nardiello accused of lying were found to have done nothing of the sort by their department. Internal affairs decided that Nardiello had presented “nothing of evidentiary value” to substantiate his claim that they remembered more than they were letting on.
Sayegh was cited, however, for driving her patrol car from her Miramar home to Veski’s condo that night while off duty, a rule violation. She received a written reprimand.
Barrenechea could not be reached by The Herald and his lawyer, Daniel Lurvey, declined to comment.
THE INVESTIGATOR GETS INVESTIGATED
There was one other bit of unfinished business. Chief Noriega felt Nardiello had maligned him and his department in the probable cause affidavit that that cited the alleged perjury, and detailed the unreturned phone calls and the subpoenas that went unheeded. The day after Barrenechea surrendered, Noriega fired off a “formal letter of complaint” to the major in charge of Nardiello’s troop, accusing Nardiello of malice.
He was infuriated by Nardiello’s suggestion that Noriega and his department had been less than cooperative. He said he could find no record of the supposed call to his office that Nardiello said went unreturned.
Noriega said that not only did he speak to Nardiello early on, but that Noriega’s wife had given Nardiello’s wife the chief’s cell phone number. The spouses were co-workers at a local hospital.
The complaint by Noriega triggered an internal investigation at FHP. Nardiello was grilled for an hour and a half by FHP internal affairs. In a transcript filled with exclamation points and sharp exchanges, he faced blistering criticism for the way he wrote his report. Nardiello stood his ground, saying the references to alleged departmental stonewalling were relevant.
Ultimately, an examination of Nardiello’s cell phone bills showed two phone calls to Chief Noriega. One was to the chief’s office line on May 9, 2008. The other was at 7:22 p.m. that same day, to his cell phone.
Nardiello was cleared.
Noriega, scheduled to retire at the end of November, said Friday that had he received any messages from Nardiello he would most certainly have returned them. He said considering that the probe lasted nearly three years – Barrenechea pleaded no-contest and was sentenced on Nov. 31, 2010 – Nardiello should have continued to try to reach him. Noriega was adamant that from the moment he became chief in 2007 he has shown a determination to weed out bad cops.
As for Barrenechea, Noriega called his actions “a disgrace.” The chief said that, despite the weakness of the State Attorney’s case, he would have fired the sergeant had he not quit.
Because of the holes in the case, both the state attorney and Miami Beach police internal affairs decided there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Veski or Sayegh, Noriega said. Both officers, Noriega pointed out, were off-duty at the time of the incident.
“The perception and appearance was there,” Noriega said, “but the state attorney could find no merit to allegations that they were untruthful.”
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