MIAMI (AP) -- Federal prosecutors say a plot to cover up the deadly police shooting of two unarmed purse-snatchers turned into a sinister habit for a circle of veteran Miami street officers.
Two retired officers pleaded guilty to conspiracy this week and have given prosecutors a sordid glimpse of the law on Miami's mean streets. Based on their information, 11 others were arrested Friday on an indictment alleging coverups in four police shootings that left three men dead.
Prosecutors say it began in November 1995 over lunch at a barbecue restaurant the day after the two purse-snatchers were shot as they fled.
U.S. Attorney Guy Lewis described the officers' meeting as: "How do we get our stories straight?" He said they settled on the color of two "throw-down" guns they had planted at the scene and which hands the victims held them in.
"The truth was they never had guns, the guns were planted by officers, and then the officers lied to investigators," Lewis said as he outlined the indictment charging the 11 officers with a plot to obstruct justice and violate civil rights.
"They lied about their roles in the shootings, they lied about what they saw, they falsified reports, they tampered with crime scenes," Lewis said. He said officers also stole weapons in unrelated cases for use as plants to justify later shootings.
All 13 officers were veterans assigned to SWAT, anti-drug or street crime units at the time of the shootings. One rose to the rank of lieutenant and assistant to a former chief.
The 15-count indictment describes their alleged roles and coverups:
--Arturo Beguiristain reported finding guns at three of the four shootings and fired shots during a SWAT drug raid that killed a 73-year-old man. The man's 14-year-old granddaughter cowered nearby as officers fired 123 rounds into the apartment.
--Officer Jesus Aguero, the only officer among them thrown out of the department, fired shots in two of the shootings and pocketed guns in two arrests for later use at crime scenes.
--Retired officers John Mervolion and William Hames, the two who pleaded guilty to conspiracy, were there when the purse-snatchers jumped off a highway overpass and ran. The retired officers said they noticed Antonio Young and Derrick Wiltshire were empty-handed but still reported seeing them with guns.
After Young and Wiltshire were both fatally shot in the back, the indictment says Aguero knelt beside Young and said: "How does it feel to rob white people? Well, now you are going to hell and die." It says Aguero fired into the pavement to get a bullet to ricochet into Young's front.
According to the indictment, an internal affairs investigator recognized the gun reported to have been found near Wiltshire's body as one he had given earlier to indicted Officer Jose Quintero.
Four months later, 73-year-old Richard Brown was killed in the SWAT raid. No drugs were found in the home, and the city later paid a $2.5 million settlement to Brown's family. The indictment says several officers lied about seeing a gun in Brown's hand.
One month later, in April 1996, Aguero shot at a suspect but missed. According to the indictment, after the shots were fired and the suspect was arrested, Beguiristain retrieved a gun Mervolion had been carrying in his trunk, placed it at the scene and then reported finding it there.
In the fourth case, in June 1997, a homeless man holding a Walkman radio was wounded in the leg by police who thought he was holding a gun. According to the indictment, Aguero brought out a gun that he had been holding onto for 16 months and that Hames had cleaned of fingerprints. Mervolion said he saw Aguero plant the gun.
All but one of the 11 indicted officers were freed on $100,000 bail. If convicted, they face five to 25 years in prison. Mervolion and Hames face up to five years but get no prison time for helping investigators.
Defense attorneys dismissed the allegations as more spectacle than substance.
"It's like a rerun of everything we've seen before. It's a lot of hype," said attorney Janice Sharpstein, who represents two officers.
Miami Mayor Joe Carollo said Friday he had urged the Justice Department to launch a "top to bottom review" of the Miami Police Department. He said he expected more charges.
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