As Hurricane Irma bore down on South Florida in the summer of 2017, a group of Miami firefighters working at historic Charles Hadley Park Fire Station 12, thought it would be funny to draw penises on framed family pictures of a co-worker who wasn’t at the station that night.
That much was admitted by witnesses, police said. But what no one would admit to: Who draped a noose over the pictures that were found two nights later by the black lieutenant whose family members were on the framed photographs.
On Tuesday, in a case that drew national attention, four firefighters — all of them long since fired — were charged for their suspected roles in the incident. The arrests were announced at a mid-day press conference by Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. At her side were members of the black firefighters union, the head of the local chapter of the NAACP and Lt. Robert Webster, whose family’s pictures were defaced.
Webster, emotional at times during the briefing, said although no one was charged with a hate crime for leaving the noose — prosecutors could not prove who did it — the gall of the incident and the history it dredges up remained fresh on his mind.
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“To everyone everywhere who heard of this and said enough, I hear you,” Webster said. “To those who wish to destroy and poison, know you don’t stand a chance.”
Charged with defacing the photographs were firefighters Harold Santana, Kevin Meizoso, Justin Rumbaugh and Lt. Alejandro Sese. Sese was charged with one count of witness tampering for trying to cover up the crime, a single count of petty theft and three counts of criminal mischief. He was taken into custody Tuesday. The other three were charged with single counts of criminal mischief with a promise to appear in court.
“Every single one of us thinks of firefighters as heroes,” said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. “So this is a very sad reality to see all this boorish, callous, abusive behavior that happened to a member of this special brotherhood.”
The state attorney said none of the firefighters were charged in connection with the noose, which investigators suspected was placed there as a racially motivated message to Webster. Nooses evoke the terrible history of the lynchings of black people in the South.
Under state law, some charges can be “enhanced,” and their penalties stiffened, if prosecutors can prove prejudice.
“The evidence is that they did this for reasons other than racial motivation,” Fernandez Rundle said.
Sese’s attorney, Pablo Tamayo, said in a statement that his client had nothing to do with the noose.
“Mr. Sese finds such a racist act reprehensible, and condemns anyone who could have done such a thing,” Tamayo said, adding that his client has cooperated with investigators and has been “unfairly and publicly smeared” by the 17-month probe.
“He welcomes the opportunity to defend himself in court against these false criminal charges filed against him, and to begin the process of restoring his outstanding reputation.”
According to police and witness accounts, the firefighters were speaking on the patio of the station at 1455 NW 46th St. on Sept. 8, 2017, two nights before Irma tore through the Florida Keys, when Sese said he’d found a group of Webster’s pictures and decided they needed to be defaced. When he met initial resistance, Fernandez Rundle said, he told the other firefighters he was only joking.
Yet Sese left and returned with the pictures, witnesses said, calling the other firefighters “cowards” and insisting nothing would happen if they drew on the photographs. The firefighters relented, took the photos out of the frames and drew on them. Sese then returned the pictures to where he found them, police determined.
The next night on Sept. 9, Miami Beach Fire-Rescue Lt. Jose Morales, who had been assigned to the station in preparation for the storm, told police he saw the photographs, but that he had no recollection of seeing a noose. Then on Sunday Sept. 10, as Irma struck the keys, Webster went to work and saw the defaced photos. He alerted his chain of command, who notified police.
The firefighters were let go two months later. Also let go was their commanding officer Capt. William Bryson, though he was never charged with a crime. Fernandez Rundle said Sese was charged with witness tampering for a gathering at Meizoso’s house after the incident in which he urged the firefighters to keep to a single story.
“There was no direct testimony on who was responsible for the noose,” the state attorney said. “We were not able to get any testimony that would allow us to utilize [the] hate-crime [enhancement].”
Ruben Roberts, president of the Miami-Dade chapter of the NAACP, spoke of the changed climate across the country since the last presidential election. And he said the point the perpetrator was trying to make by leaving a noose was clear for all to see.
“Research the history and understand what the significance of the hangman’s noose means,” said Roberts. “It’s not a prank. It’s something more sinister than that.”
This story has been updated to include a statement from Sese’s defense attorney.