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Osceola deputies used shoplifting suspects as ‘human guinea pigs’ before shooting, lawyers say

Osceola County deputy sheriffs fired at a car leaving the parking lot of a Target store in Kissimmee, killing 20-year-old Jayden Baez, after they boxed in and struck his black Audi with unmarked vehicles without announcing they were law enforcement, lawyers representing Baez’s family told reporters Wednesday.

Attorneys Albert Yonfa and Mark NeJame of the Orlando-based firm NeJame Law — who are also representing Joseph Lowe, who lost a finger after his hands were shot several times — called on the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office to release more information about what happened.

“Transparency is not saying ‘we can’t talk about it,’” NeJame said. “If the Sheriff’s Office is being transparent, then show us what you got, as we are.”

Jayden Baez, 20, was identified as the man shot and killed by Osceola County deputy sheriffs on April 28, 2022. It's still unclear what led to the shooting. (Courtesy of Albert Yonfa)
Jayden Baez, 20, was identified as the man shot and killed by Osceola County deputy sheriffs on April 28, 2022. It's still unclear what led to the shooting. (Courtesy of Albert Yonfa)

Sheriff Marcos López, who had not spoken about the shooting since it occurred a week earlier, released a statement Wednesday afternoon in which he revealed that there is no body-worn camera footage of the shooting. The deputies involved, he said, were “performing training exercises in a nearby parking lot” prior to the incident and were wearing tactical gear — but not cameras.

Lowe, 19, and 18-year-old Michael Gómez were accused of stealing pizza and packs of Pokémon cards from Target before getting into the Audi Baez was driving. His lawyers say deputies “moved to box them in” in unmarked cars before shooting at the car “without regard for the safety of the occupants or civilians in the area.”

An arrest affidavit by Deputy Cole Miller, who was listed as an arresting officer, made no mention of training exercises. It’s not clear whether Miller fired at Baez’s car.

The lawyers described Baez and his friends as “human guinea pigs” for the deputies in training, questioning why two deputies who followed Lowe and Gómez on foot didn’t stop them before the young men got into the car to leave the area.

“What sane department would not step in, arrest the boys or tell the boys, ‘Put it back’?” Yonfa said. “What happened here is the officers let the boys leave the store and let them get into a vehicle. This forces a fight-or-flight situation. This is endangering the public right there.”

Baez was killed in the shooting while the other passengers were injured. Lowe, who lawyers said had his hands raised, was shot three times in each hand and had his left middle finger blown off. The lawyers said the group were unarmed and that Lowe claims not to have known they were shot by cops until he was in the hospital.

“If [they had weapons], we would surely have heard about it,” NeJame said.

The lawyers said they are preparing for a “multi-million-dollar lawsuit” against the Sheriff’s Office, calling the shooting “unwarranted, illegal, and unjustified.” They said Lowe is still in the hospital with family while Baez’s family is “devastated” over his killing.

“What is unbelievable is that a situation where the crime punishable is the lowest magnitude possible in Florida results in a 20-year-old who’s dead and a 19-year-old who’s maimed,” Yonfa said. “God help any parents in Osceola County.”

Officers' bullets went through both hands of 19-year-old Joseph Lowe, who says he had raised them to protect himself
Photo of Joseph Lowe's wrapped hands after he was shot by Osceola County deputies on Wednesday, April 27, 2022. The shooting, which killed Jayden Baez, ended with one of Lowe's fingers being blown off, according to lawyers. (Courtesy of NeJame Law)

López, who called himself “a believer in transparency and facts,” did not explain what prompted deputies to fire at the car despite saying he is “aware of the circumstances leading up the shooting.”

“Once the facts of what took place are determined, I will comment,” López said. “However, I am not going to speculate and potentially provide erroneous information to the community when I personally do not know the facts.”

The names of the deputies have not been released under Marsy’s Law. A Florida constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018, Marsy’s Law is meant to protect victims of crime but has been used to shield the names of cops involved in deadly incidents.

The agency has also left unfilled requests for records, including an incident report, and still has not publicly identified Baez as the man killed by deputies. López said he didn’t release the names of the alleged suspects because he “was unaware if they have also invoked Marcy’s Law [sic].”

NeJame told reporters that neither Baez’s family nor Lowe had invoked Marsy’s Law to request privacy after the shooting. And the wording of Marsy’s Law makes clear that it does not apply to “the accused,” which Lowe and Gómez both were.

The agency’s failure to release the incident report, identify the suspects and the man killed in the shooting or provide basic details about what led to the gunfire is well out of line with the practices of all other major police agencies in Central Florida.

Up until Wednesday, the Sheriff’s Office has been referring questions to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating the shooting. But FDLE spokesperson David Fierro said Tuesday that any information other than “the officer-involved aspect of the investigation” would have to come from the Sheriff’s Office.

Many of the previously reported details of the shooting, including the charges against Lowe and Gómez, have come from affidavits filed in court. Baez’s name and the fact he was behind the wheel at the time of the shooting were released by Yonfa on Tuesday.

The shooting carries some parallels to the 2020 killing of Salaythis Melvin, who was shot in the back by Orange County Deputy James Montiel as he was running away after unmarked vehicles pulled up on him and a group of friends in a parking lot at the Florida Mall. Melvin’s family questioned whether he knew the plainclothes officers were law enforcement.

Melvin’s death sparked protests in the weeks that followed, amid the nationwide uprisings against police brutality following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Body camera video, released 11 days after the shooting following mounting pressure from activists, showed Montiel taking a shooting stance before firing at Melvin. Montiel told investigators Melvin had turned his head and had a gun in his hand, a detail Melvin’s family refutes.

Orange-Osceola State Attorney Monique Worrell announced in January that Montiel wouldn’t be charged, since there were no other witnesses and no videos to confirm or refute Montiel’s version of events, aside from body camera footage taken from a distance.

Copyright © 2021, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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