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Worrell confirms she was investigating Osceola deputies before suspension

Suspended State Attorney Monique Worrell confirmed the existence of an investigation into the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office’s handling of several cases, sparked by discrepancies in reports filed after a 2022 shooting that killed a 19-year-old at a Target store parking lot.

In remarks published by The Daily Beast on Monday, Worrell said that her investigation was in its final stages. She said she now fears it will be covered up by her successor Andrew Bain, a former Orange County judge picked to replace her as Orange-Osceola state attorney by Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It was the first time the ousted state attorney mentioned the investigation’s existence, which her office neither confirmed nor denied when it was first revealed by Mark NeJame, whose law firm is representing Jayden Baez’s family along with three survivors who were in Baez’s car at the time of the shooting.

A spokesperson for Bain didn’t deny Worrell’s claims about an existing investigation but said his office is “reviewing cases that can still be filed.” The Sheriff’s Office’s media team didn’t respond to a request seeking comment.

“The State Attorney’s Office does not comment on pending or open investigations — that has been a longstanding standard, as well as the standard under the suspended State Attorney’s administration,” said an unsigned statement to the Orlando Sentinel. “Protecting the integrity of ongoing investigations is critical to ensuring justice can be sought in every case.”

It has been more than a year since Baez was killed in April 2022, after unmarked vehicles surrounded his car in the parking lot of a Target store in Kissimmee after a report of stolen pizza and Pokémon cards worth about $46.

Though the Florida Department of Law Enforcement turned over its report on the shooting months later, it was unclear why prosecutors had yet to announce a charging decision prior to May 16, when NeJame publicly announced the existence of an investigation into the Sheriff’s Office.

“State Attorney Monique Worrell and her team have quietly been acting on this,” NeJame told reporters at the time. “We have learned through our sources and investigation that her office has issued subpoenas to various deputies of the department.”

Left to right, Attorney Mark NeJame; Alejandro Baez, the father of Jayden Baez, and attorney Albert Yonfa, during a press conference, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023.
Left to right, Attorney Mark NeJame; Alejandro Baez, the father of Jayden Baez, and attorney Albert Yonfa, during a press conference, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023. (Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda/ Orlando Sentinel)

Weeks after Baez was killed, NeJame had sounded the alarm about alleged corruption at the Sheriff’s Office, saying in a letter to state and federal officials, “The total extent of the protectionism, cover-ups, and favoritism within the department have begun to surface but are still not fully known.”

Lawyers for Baez’s relatives and use-of-force experts long suspected foul play in the shooting, pointing to reports attributed to different deputies that were signed with the same signature at the same time nine days after the shooting. They also questionedthe sheriff’s claimthat the deputies, who weren’t wearing body cameras, were taking part in a training exercise nearby at the time.

NeJame and legal partner Albert Yonfa publicly denounced the deputies’ tactics in response to a reported shoplifting, referring to Baez and his companions as “guinea pigs” of the Sheriff’s Office.

Sheriff Marcos López has repeatedly defended the shooting by deputies Scott Koffinas and Ramy Yacoub as justified and said he would not change the agency’s tactics.

The lawyers also represent Jean Barreto, who survived being burned alive after Osceola Deputy David Crawford ignited a blaze by using his Taser on Barreto as he lay in a pool of gasoline during an arrest at a Wawa in Orange County. Crawford was later charged with culpable negligence, but Worrell also named that case as part of her investigation into the Sheriff’s Office.

Jean Barreto suffered severe burns after an Osceola County deputy sheriff fired a Taser at him while he lay in gasoline at a Wawa station, igniting a blaze.
Jean Barreto suffered severe burns after an Osceola County deputy sheriff fired a Taser at him while he lay in gasoline at a Wawa station, igniting a blaze. (Courtesy of NeJame Law)

From there, she added, there were several other cases being reviewed as part of a corruption probe.

“As we were investigating, there was all sorts of illegal activity that started coming up: officers signing each other’s reports, getting them notarized in someone else’s name when they signed them themselves, fraudulent documents,” Worrell told the Beast, adding she feared Bain would abandon the investigation.

In a statement the State Attorney’s Office sent to the Beast after its story was published, which a spokesperson provided to the Sentinel in response to questions, the agency argued there was no evidence of a cover-up.

NeJame said he has not officially met with Bain about the cases, but hopes the recently appointed state attorney continues Worrell’s investigation. His legal team filed a lawsuit against Target on behalf of Baez’s family in May, while legal complaints against the Sheriff’s Office are expected to be filed soon.

“I believe that Monique Worrell was being extremely diligent in her investigation into the allegations and I hope that Andrew Bain will carry that baton forward while he’s in office and that the hard work of those investigating is maintained with the same degree of commitment,” NeJame told the Sentinel. “Justice should not be defined by who is in office but must be carried out, regardless of politics.”

Worrell’s concerns come after she was removed by DeSantis, who cited what he and her critics in law enforcement said was negligence in her duties as a prosecutor. DeSantis cited her handling of high-profile shootings, including the deaths of three people in Pine Hills earlier this year, as well as dropped drug trafficking cases among the reasons for her dismissal.

In the weeks leading up to her suspension, Worrell accused the sheriffs in Orange and Osceola counties of conspiring to remove her from office, telling the Beast it was because, “I was prosecuting their cops, the ones who used to do things and get away with them.”

Both López and Orange County Sheriff John Mina have denied the claims.

© 2023, Orlando Sentinel

Source: Orlando Sentinel

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