Community gathers as Immokalee family announces lawsuit against CCSO deputies




  • In US
  • 2022-08-12 17:18:26Z
  • By Naples Daily News

Nicolas Morales Jr. had harsh words, spoken through tears, for those responsible for his father's 2020 death.

"I feel like police should protect people, not kill innocent people," he told the Daily News and The News-Press at a news conference announcing a lawsuit against three Collier County Sheriff's deputies and Sheriff Kevin Rambosk in the shooting death of Nicolas Morales in Immokalee.

Morales, 37, was shot dead by one of the deputies and "mauled" by one of their K-9 dogs. An internal investigation cleared the responding officers and the State Attorney's Office ruled the shooting justified.

His son was among the nearly 20 attendees meeting at the federal courthouse in downtown Fort Myers on Thursday to announce the civil lawsuit.

Some wore white shirts with Morales' picture that read "Justice for Nicolas;" others bore signs displaying the message in English and Spanish.

'There has been no justice': Family to file lawsuit against CCSO deputies in 2020 fatal shooting

And: Collier Sheriff's citizen watchdog panel refuses to meet or be subject to public scrutiny

Morales' relatives and acquaintances were among those who addressed the crowd Thursday.

Jesse Andrade comforts his stepbrother, Nicolas Morales Jr.
Jesse Andrade comforts his stepbrother, Nicolas Morales Jr.  

The family filed the federal lawsuit in Fort Myers against Cpl. Pierre Jean, Cpl. Nathan Kirk, and Deputy Brian Tarazona.

Morales was a farmworker and a father. His young son,is now an orphan.

The 78-page complaint alleges Rambosk perpetuated a culture of violence and impunity within the sheriff's office, failing to discipline officers who needlessly beat, Tase and shoot civilians.

"Fruition is the right word," said Alexa Van Brunt, the lead attorney representing the family and director of the Illinois office of the MacArthur Justice Center. "We've worked on this case to put it together for well over a year."

They've gathered evidence and compiled the facts not just about what happened to Morales, but also a pattern of abuse Van Brunt says is present in the sheriff's office.

"It's a gratifying day, but it's also the start of a long process," Van Brunt said. "A long fight in court."

One of the other attorneys representing the Morales family in the case, Chris Lomax, managing attorney at Lomax Legal, echoed Van Brunt.

"This is the first public step in the right direction, and a long journey toward justice," Lomax said. "We understand that the path to justice is often torture and we recognize that means maybe some difficulties that lie ahead, and challenges, but we're ready to step forward."

Both attorneys said they were impressed by the community's support and the power the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has had throughout.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is a worker-based human rights organization focused on social responsibility, human trafficking and gender-based violence in the workplace.

They've supported the family throughout the process.

Officer promoted despite repeated mistakes

Their complaint also alleges the sheriff promoted Jean, the officer who shot Morales, despite him being denied employment by neighboring Lee County Sheriff's Office.

Jean failed out of the Collier County Law Enforcement Officer Academy and has a long, documented history of poor performance, failing to operate well under stressful conditions and unable to state the sheriff's office's lethal force policy, the release stated.

Nicolas Morales Jr.
Nicolas Morales Jr.  

Early Sept. 17, 2020, Morales was suffering from a mental health crisis and wandering around his neighborhood. A neighbor at Farm Workers Village called 911 saying a man holding a shovel, later identified as Morales, was trying to get into her home.

Within 21 seconds of deputies' arrival, Jean shot Morales three times, a department analysis showed. Kirk unleashed his K-9 German shepherd, mauling Morales while he was injured on the ground and calling for his mother, police reports indicated.

Morales died from his injuries shortly after arriving at a hospital.

Deputy shooting, aftermath leaves impact on family

The complaint claims the younger Morales suffers extreme mental and emotional pain due to the deputies' actions.

"For me, how I felt, was like surprise, shock to find out that my father had passed away through a cruel way," Morales said as he tried to find the words. "It changed a lot because now he's not here on this world and I don't have anybody like my dad to be with."

The suit adds that the day after his father died, deputies removed Morales from school and detained him for hours.

Morales then moved to Texas to live with his guardian, his stepsister, the complaint says.

"It's been hard having to deal with my brother and his emotions, and all the stuff that comes with the death of a dad," his stepsister, Marisol Andrade, told the Daily News and The News-Press as she hugged him.

Andrade briefly paused as she cried, tucked into her stepbrother's shoulder.

"To deal with him sad about his dad and there's nothing I could do," Andrade added after a brief pause as she wiped tears.

Andrade is hopeful as the case makes its way to court.

"That they don't get away with what they did to his dad," she said. "And that they know his life mattered, not just to us, but to other people in the community," Andrade said.

She also reminds the community about the effects of mental health and how that impacted their family.

"Mental health is real and I know he was going through a crisis, that he didn't deserve this," Andrade said.

Andrade added she's grateful for the community's support.

"We're super grateful for all the lawyers and everybody in the community that support Nicolas," Andrade said.

What happened:

  • Collier County Sheriff's Office: Deputy shoots, kills Immokalee man who was holding a shovel

  • 911 call audio: Woman says man killed by Collier deputy tried to enter her Immokalee home

  • Immokalee man shot and killed by Collier deputy was single father, longtime farm worker

  • 'We deserve to know what happened': Family, community demand transparency in case of man killed by deputy

  • Family of Immokalee man shot, killed by deputy raising money for burial, support for son

  • State Attorney's Office: No charges vs. Collier deputy who fatally shot Immokalee man

Nicholas Morales-Bessannia is pictured with his son.
Nicholas Morales-Bessannia is pictured with his son.  

Family and friends were also present.

"On one hand, it's shocking when you find out this happened to someone you knew, but on the other hand, I'll have to say I wasn't surprised due to the history of abuse we all know," Miguel Estrada, a longtime acquaintance of the family involved with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, told The News-Press and the Daily News in Spanish.

Estrada says he's hopeful justice will be served, but added the road was unnecessary.

"We think there's no need to reach this point when the situation could've resolved much sooner," Estrada said.

Andrade called for reform within the sheriff's office.

The lawsuit alleges that deputies used excessive and unreasonable lethal force while on duty and failed to follow clear policies governing the need to de-escalate and treat people in mental health crises with special care.

Demographic issues a concern

Van Brunt said demographics play an important role in the case.

"Collier County is primarily white, very wealthy; Immokalee primarily nonwhite and mostly Spanish-speaking or indigenous language," Van Brunt said. "I don't think it's an accident that this brutal act that we're hearing about today happened in Immokalee."

The complaint also claims the sheriff's office failed to conduct a "real" investigation into the shooting incident, exonerating each officer in contravention of the evidence and allowing them back on the streets within weeks.

The State's Attorney relied on the sheriff's office "sham criminal investigation" in not pressing charges against Jean nor Kirk. No one has faced consequences for Morales' shooting death, the lawsuit says.

In February 2021, the State Attorney's Office cleared the officers in Morales' case.

The State Attorney's Office completed a review of the shooting and determined Jean's use of force was legally justifiable.

Karie Partington, spokesperson for the Collier County Sheriff's Office, said in a statement they can't comment on pending litigation.

Lomax said they haven't set a goal for the suit.

"We can't quantify the damage in this case," Lomax said. "It's impossible. So we will be getting into the details of what we're seeking at the appropriate time."

It could be between 20 and 22 months until the case gets a court date.

Tomas Rodriguez is a Breaking/Live News Reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. You can reach Tomas at TRodriguez@gannett.com or 772-333-5501. Follow him on Twitter @TomasFRoBeltran.

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: Family sues Collier deputies over fatal 2020 Immokalee, Florida shooting

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