CUBANET ... CUBANEWS

September 5, 2000



Misdemeanor arrest during Elian protest looms large for Miami immigration lawyer

By Luisa Yanez. Sun-Sentinel. Web-posted: 12:13 a.m. Sep. 5, 2000

MIAMI -- Well-known immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra has watched as most of the 435 criminal cases stemming from arrests made in the aftermath of the Elián González raid have been dropped or reduced by Miami-Dade County prosecutors.

But not hers.

Ybarra, 46, of Coral Gables, the most high-profile of all defendants hauled away during an emotional weekend for Cuban exiles five months ago, still is locked in a legal battle that has forced her to hire top criminal attorneys to defend her on two routine misdemeanor charges.

Ybarra said her legal career is in jeopardy. If convicted of a crime, the Florida Bar could launch an investigation into her actions and slap her with a suspension. She also could face a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Ybarra, who has a Spanish-language radio show and is an immigration law guru often interviewed on local TV, faces charges of failing to obey a police officer and resisting arrest without violence. She has pled innocent.

Her crime is no capital case, but Ybarra and her attorneys say the special Broward County prosecutor appointed by Gov. Jeb Bush to try her is treating it like "a first-degree murder case," she said.

"Unusual is not the word to describe the aggressive prosecution of Ms. Ybarra; extraordinary is more like it," said Rick Diaz, one of two high-priced, criminal attorneys Ybarra has hired. "There is no question she is being made an example of."

Ybarra agrees and said there have been acts of vandalism at her home, an effort by someone to teach her a lesson, she said.

"I'm being targeted because as one of the little people. I stood up to the police," she said.

In recent days, Ybarra said disturbing events have been taking place at her home in Coral Gables.

First, her car had a flat tire, and her car battery died. Then dog feces swimming in a pool of blood were left by her front door. "I said to myself: 'Now, don't be paranoid, these are just coincidences,'" she said

Then, a week ago today , things took a menacing turn.

Ybarra said what appeared to be more animal blood was splattered on her front porch, staining her marble doorsteps. Ybarra called Coral Gables police and filed a complaint.

"I feel someone, I don't know who, is trying to intimidate me," Ybarra said. "But it's not going to work."

Ybarra has watched as the cases of others arrested for similar charges on the weekend of the raid have been bargained down. About 20 defendants who committed more serious crimes still are facing court dates.

Last week, charges against the two youngest defendants, Christopher Quintana,11, and his brother Alex, 16, were dropped minutes before trial in juvenile court. The boys had been charged with disorderly conduct. Charges of inciting a riot had been dropped earlier.

In June, similar charges were dismissed against Luis Penelas, the brother of Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Penelas.

But no plea deal has been offered to Ybarra, and her court file is now over 200-pages, most unusual for someone facing misdemeanor charges, her attorney said.

"Ms. Ybarra is not being singled out; I feel there are grounds here for a prosecution," said Broward Assistant State Attorney John Countryman, assigned to the case after the office of Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle expressed a conflict and recused itself.

Ybarra's troubles began on April 25, three days after the raid by federal agents to remove the 6-year-old boy from the home of his Miami relatives, an event that caused emotions to boil in the exile community.

As hundreds of demonstrators sat in jail charged with mostly disorderly conduct, Ybarra said she was touched by callers to her radio show, mostly mothers whose juvenile sons were arrested and couldn't make bond.

"They were pleading for help," she said. "I decided to step in."

After consulting Rundle by telephone, who cautioned her about whom she bailed out, Ybarra decided to lead a fund-raising drive on a Little Havana street corner on "Dead Tuesday," a day designated by exiles to cripple the city in protest over the raid.

With a collection box in hand, Ybarra approached passing motorists. Within minutes, Miami police officers said they told Ybarra to get out of the street, claiming she was blocking traffic.

One thing led to another and as television cameras rolled, Ybarra was seen in a violent tug and pull confrontation over the collection box with Officer Jennifer Pastor.

Eventually, Ybarra fell to the ground and was handcuffed and arrested. Pastor claims in court documents that Ybarra disobeyed the order of another officer. Ybarra said no one ever told her to get out of the street or she would be arrested.

After her release, an angry Ybarra attended a public hearing at Miami city hall where where she joined members of the public who expressed outrage over the mass arrests; she blasted then-Police Chief William O'Brien, who retired over political fallout from the raid.

The Cuban-born Ybarra filed a grievance with Internal Affairs, along with 20 other people arrested. Her complaint is still being investigated, said Miami police spokesman Lt. William Schwartz. Most officers accused of wrongdoing have been cleared.

Diaz, a former Miami-Dade police officer, said his client's criticism of Miami police was at the core of the vigorous push to prosecute Ybarra.

"This is a classic example of a short-tempered, short-sighted officer making a bad arrest and other officers and the department standing behind her to help justify it," Diaz said. Schwartz refused to comment on the allegations by Ybarra's attorney.

In preparation for a trial date set for Sept. 15 in a Miami-Dade courtroom, Countryman has taken the depositions and testimony of about15 witnesses, including 10 Miami police officers and Florida Highway Patrol troopers.

Also questioned were Miami City Commissioner Tomas Regalado and Rundle, who in court papers relays what she told Ybarra over the telephone that day. Don Ungurait, spokesman for the State Attorneys' Office, said Rundle had no comment. If the case goes to trial, she could be called as a witness.

Ybarra has appeared in court three times; motions to dismiss her case have been denied.

As her trial date approaches, Ybarra feels someone is trying to send her a message. At routine hearings in her case, the courtroom is usually packed with uniformed Miami police officers, she said.

Luisa Yanez can be reached at [email protected] or at 954-385-7920.

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