Kiem Huynh, Dunkin’ Donuts customer: fatally shot in the back during a holdup Thanksgiving night.
And Thursday, Miami-Dade County police Officer Gustavo Hernandez: shot in the face while serving a search warrant. The bullet blew off part of his lower jaw, knocking out several teeth.
By themselves, those murders and other shootings may appear to be isolated South Florida crimes, a blip in a region where violence is too often routine.
But together, they are part of a troublesome and growing trend, according to law enforcement authorities. And statistics show that robberies and other violent crimes are on the rise.
“It clearly shows the caliber of criminals is getting more brazen, more violent,” said John Rivera, president of Miami-Dade County’s Police Benevolent Association, the police union.
From the region’s top police officials to prosecutors and public defenders, there is growing unease about the shoot-first mind-set that has infected criminals in South Florida and across the nation.
“There seems to be an indiscriminate, callous disregard for human life that is shocking and stunning,” said Public Defender Howard Finkelstein. “It’s almost that they believe violence is a respectable way to resolve conflicts.”
Their crimes make headlines and destroy lives. And in some instances, authorities say, it appears that the killing is just for killing’s sake.
The root causes run the gamut from societal pressures — both in the home and on the streets — to a growing coarseness in pop culture, said Broward Sheriff’s Office Lt. Col. Danny Wright, who has witnessed the changing dynamic first-hand.
Finkelstein thinks advancements in technology — from text messaging to MySpace — have changed the way people communicate. And it’s not for the better.
“While a lot of patterns in crime are cyclical, I am gravely concerned that many of this generation have either lost — or never had — the ability to bond with fellow human beings,” he said.
Finkelstein’s office has been involved in defense of the five men who authorities say are behind last month’s series of robberies at Broward and Palm Beach County Dunkin’ Donuts shops.
The viciousness of the shootings shocked even the most veteran police, as the men behind the robberies were not content to just scare and steal.
Instead, they looked to “up their body count,” as one suspect put it — indiscriminately shooting defenseless, prone customers on their way out. Thus far, police say they have attributed at least two killings to robbers’ murderous whim. Four other people were injured.
True, South Florida has seen periods of extreme violence — the Cocaine Cowboys in the 1980s, for example — but that rage of violence was largely a means to a criminal end.
What is going on now is different, BSO Sheriff Al Lamberti insists.
“[Prison] is not a deterrent anymore,” Lamberti said. ‘These [Dunkin’ Donuts robbers] weren’t upset because they couldn’t pay their rent or their 401(k)s went down. These are just cold-blooded thugs.”
While law enforcement senses an escalation, precise data on violent crime are mixed.
Murders in Broward this year have declined from last year, while they are up 8 percent in Miami-Dade, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. But robbery is up 13 percent over the last three years in Broward, and up 11 percent in Miami-Dade.
Like Lamberti, Miami Police Chief John Timoney has noticed a change in the criminal mind-set. Timoney blames the trend on the proliferation of assault weapons on the streets.
Whether people with homicidal tendencies seek out such firepower or the weapons trigger an aggressive response in those who hold them, Timoney said the constant factor is AK-47-style weapons, which he would like to see banned.
“These are weapons of war,” Timoney said. “They have nothing to do with protection.”
The change in culture is also due in part to the growth in gang activity in this area.
Recently, the Los Angeles-based Crips and Bloods have tried to gain a foothold in Broward and Miami-Dade, according to the FBI. James Herard — the alleged self-confessed gunman behind the Dunkin’ Donuts robberies — and his cohorts are all Crips, authorities believe.
In response, the FBI’s Miami field office has recently increased its number of gang squads from one to three.
When asked what is most troublesome about the area’s rash of gang crime, FBI Supervisory Special Agent Kevin O’Rourke said simply: “The vastness.”
“The violent-gang criminal activity knows no territorial, racial, ethnic or cultural boundaries and affects all the citizens of South Florida,” he said.
In Opa-locka, police recently arrested nearly three dozen members of two gangs said to be responsible for a flood of drugs and violence. Authorities also nabbed 40 guns in the raid.
Like the FBI, local police are adapting to the times.
BSO and Fort Lauderdale police both have bulked up their street crime units, the nitty-gritty police who tackle crimes in progress, drug enforcement, burglaries, thefts and prostitution.
But every time police officers adapt, they inadvertently provide criminals with new information about how police do their job.
The thieves who hit the armored truck at Dadeland did so despite the presence of Grinch Busters, Miami-Dade police who patrol shopping centers during the holiday season. Grinch Busters were on duty the day Alvarado was killed, and they were among the first to respond to the shooting.
On the streets, crack dealers once kept dozens of hits in their pockets; now they know that they need to hide them from narcotics agents.
Killers once used 9mm handguns. Now they fire off rounds with AK-47s.
Ultimately, the escalation could reach a breaking point, leaving people afraid that even a trip to a coffee shop could cost them their lives.