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Shoplifting charges dropped for teens shot by deputies outside Kissimmee Target

Video released by the Sheriff's Office showed the black Audi driven by Jayden Baez, 20, accelerating into unmarked vehicles as they surrounded him. (Orlando Sentinel)


Prosecutors have decided not to bring formal charges against two teens accused of shoplifting from a Target in Kissimmee before being shot by Osceola County deputy sheriffs in the store’s parking lot, an incident that sparked a firestorm of criticism against the Sheriff’s Office.

Court records show prosecutors deemed the case against Joseph Lowe and Michael Gómez, who allegedly stole $46.16 in pizza and Pokémon cards from the store on West Irlo Bronson Memorial Highway on April 27, “not suitable for prosecution.”

The decision to drop the charges is the latest chapter following the controversial shooting, in which deputies shot and killed 20-year-old Jayden Baez as he tried driving away from unmarked agency vehicles that attempted to box him in. Lowe and Gomez were injured in the shooting, with Lowe losing a finger after being shot three times in each hand.

A fourth passenger in the car, a minor whose name has not been released, was uninjured.

The Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office said the decision “comes as a result of our office’s review” of the arrest, while Sheriff Marcos López on Friday said he was told it was Target that no longer wished to pursue charges. A Target spokesperson didn’t reply to an email seeking confirmation.

“We respect their decision not to move forward with the criminal justice process,” López said. An investigation into the shooting by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is ongoing.

Attorneys Mark NeJame and Albert Yonfa of NeJame Law, the firm representing Lowe and Baez’s family, said in a statement they are “gratified and thankful” for the decision by prosecutors.

“The unnecessary militaristic actions of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office caused the maiming and death of these young men over the theft of Pokémon cards and a pizza,” the statement said. “It is the deadly actions and policy of the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office that must be focused on and addressed.”

Asked for comment, a spokesperson for Sheriff Marcos López said the sheriff had reached out to the State Attorney’s Office “to confirm the charges have been dropped” before issuing a statement. López’s agency had not issued the statement as of Thursday evening.

I have learned the charges against Joseph Lowe and Michael Gomez have been dropped due to representatives of Target no longer wanting to pursue charges. We respect their decision not to move forward with the criminal justice process. However, the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office remains committed to responding, investigating, and holding all individuals who commit crime responsible for their actions.

The shooting drew the ire of many in the community as the Sheriff’s Office refused for more than a week to release many details about what happened, including Baez’s name, while protecting the identities of the deputies involved under Marsy’s Law, a Florida constitutional amendment meant to protect crime victims that has been used to shield the names of law enforcement officers involved in deadly incidents.

Inaudible surveillance video overlooking the parking lot showed the deputies’ unmarked cars pulling in to block Baez and the others from fleeing.

Within seconds of deputies arriving, Baez was shot dead. And though López insisted they identified themselves to the group, their emergency lights were off until just after Baez began to peel out.

López also told reporters the deputies were part of a tactical training exercise nearby, and reports indicated a deputy was aware of the alleged shoplifting in real-time, though no efforts were made to stop Lowe and Gómez before they left the store.

None of the on-scene deputies were equipped with body or dashboard cameras, so no other video of the shooting exists.

NeJame has repeatedly lambasted the Sheriff’s Office over the shooting, saying Baez and the others were “human guinea pigs” for the agency’s training session, the details of which have not been released. Policing experts have called the incident a “tactical nightmare,” questioning the decision by deputies to allow an alleged petty theft case to end in a hail of bullets.

NeJame also questioned the timing of the reports written by the deputies involved, which appeared to have all been submitted at 3 p.m. on May 6, nine days after the shooting. None of the reports indicate who fired at Baez’s car. Agency policy requires a “minimum of two sleep cycles” before deputies who shoot someone can give statements.

“So all these deputies gave their statement at the same time on the same day [nine] days later, and they all suspiciously left out the information about the shooting,” NeJame said at the time. “Does that not suggest collaboration?”

NeJame Law also represents Jean Barreto, a man who suffered burns on three-quarters of his body after an Osceola deputy tackled him to the ground and stunned him with a Taser as he lay in a pool of gasoline, sparking an eruption of flames.

Deputy David Crawford, whose legs were also burned, was accused of criminal culpable negligence by his own agency for the incident, but no formal charges have been filed.

He is currently on paid administrative leave.

© 2021, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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