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Witness describes I-95 crash horror: Pursuit began with improper right turn
It began, the police report says, with an “improper right turn” by a Chevy Suburban on an Opa-locka street corner in the wee hours of Wednesday. A police officer saw it and switched on his lights and siren.
The driver of the SUV hit the gas and the chase was on.
When it was over, four people were dead, innocent victims in a chassis-shredding, wrong-way crash that shut down Interstate 95 for hours.
Willie Dumel, identified by authorities as the driver of the wrong-way vehicle, was taken to Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood for treatment of two broken legs.
The crash rekindled questions about the wisdom of engaging in chases involving non-violent offenders — although Opa-locka officials said the officer quit pursuing when the SUV entered the interstate going the wrong way. The city added that a gun was flung out of the SUV, and that the gun had been recovered near the crash scene.
The tragedy also brought unwanted new attention to an Opa-locka department plagued by a roster of rogue cops, supervised by an ever-changing cast of chiefs.
The officer involved in the pursuit, Cpl. Sergio Perez, is on administrative leave pending an investigation of his actions preceding the crash, which occurred just north of Ives Dairy Road in extreme North Miami-Dade at about 1 a.m.
The four victims were traveling south in the southbound lanes of I-95 when they were met by the Suburban traveling the wrong direction. Their names had not been released Wednesday evening.
The crash, and at least part of the pursuit, happened well outside of Opa-locka’s jurisdiction.
Opa-locka’s new police chief — hired little more than a week ago — said his thoughts and prayers were with the victims’ families.
“If you were anyone with a human heart, your heart would bleed out for them,” Chief Jeffrey Key said.
Perez, 26, an eight-year veteran, told investigators that he broke off the chase. Opa-locka Assistant City Manager David Chiverton said that parallel probes were under way into the accident and the pursuit.
As in most Miami-Dade police departments, Opa-locka policy permits officers to launch a pursuit only after a “forcible felony’’ — which include serious crimes such as a murder, rape or a robbery in progress.
Chiverton said the sequence of events is still sketchy. The 911 dispatch tapes, which would likely shed more light on what happened, were not released Wednesday evening.
The vehicles were mangled so violently that even veteran police officers were stunned.
“Let me just say that I’ve been doing this for about 25 years, and this is one of the worst accidents that I’ve seen,” said Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Joe Sanchez, who was on the scene immediately after the collision.
The force of the impact sheared the SUV’s engine from its chassis, ejecting it
several yards away and into the middle of the southbound lanes of I-95. The driver, who carried stolen identification, was transported to Memorial Regional, where he underwent surgery on the broken legs.
The name on the stolen ID was released by police and ended up in initial media reports as the driver. That person then contacted Opa-locka police to say he wasn’t involved — that he was the victim of ID theft months earlier.
Dumel, 26, of Miami, has been charged with fleeing and eluding police, but is expected to face charges of vehicular homicide.
He has a lengthy rap sheet. FDLE records show arrests for marijuana possession, traffic infractions, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon.
The victims, all from out of state, included two women and two men, all in their 20s to early 30s. FHP said two of the victims were in the U.S. Navy.
“We’re having a difficult time notifying family because they knew each other but lived in different places,’’ Sanchez said.
The incident began at Northwest 22nd Avenue and 144th Street in Opa-locka. Perez, noticing a suspicious vehicle, activated his lights and siren in an attempt to pull over the SUV. A preliminary police report noted the “improper right turn.’’
The suspect entered I-95 at the Golden Glades interchange, heading north in the northbound lanes. He exited at Ives Dairy Road (203rd Street), with the officer still in pursuit. At Ives Dairy, the SUV went west, then north on the southbound exit ramp. At that point, according to Chiverton, Perez cut off the chase. Moments later, he said, the driver threw a gun from his vehicle as he barreled north in the southbound lanes.
A driver behind the minivan said he saw the impact.
“First there was fire and then smoke — you couldn’t see a thing. Then, out of the smoke, came the blue [SUV]. It flew into the air and spun around before coming to a stop,” said Jeff Kopelman, a North Miami Beach resident.
Rescue crews were able to remove two bodies from the minivan before it was towed to the medical examiner’s office with the other two bodies still trapped in the wreckage.
“Every department has rules involving pursuits,’’ Sanchez said. “Ours is one of the strictest. Our policy is it has to be a felony, not a traffic stop. And the sergeant can cancel the chase based on the dangers involved.’’
Miami Gardens Police Chief Matthew Boyd, president of the Dade County Association of Police Chiefs, said most departments model their pursuit policies on those set by the association.
“If it’s not a forcible felony we cannot pursue,’’ Boyd said.
He added that Miami Gardens police were monitoring the chase as it happened, but were not called to assist.
It wasn’t clear whether other officers — from Opa-locka or other departments — participated in the chase.
Kopelman said he did not see any police officers chasing the SUV, though police cruisers responded to the scene almost immediately after the collision.
Miami Herald photojournalist Walter Michot and staff writer Nadege Green contributed to this report.
If you witnessed the pursuit or crash, call The Miami Herald at 305-376-4636 or email dadenews@Miami Herald.com.