‘We miss her’: Teens’ parents sue Homestead police after 2021 deadly canal car crash
Parents of two of the three teenagers killed in a 2021 crash in Homestead announced Monday that they are suing the city’s police department because, they say, cops chased the car that their kids were in and failed to render aid after it plunged into a canal.
Terence Valdivia, 14, was ejected from the front passenger seat and Rihanna Vargas, 14, was trapped in the back seat of the submerged car. A third passenger, Jeremiah Calderon, 16, also perished in the crash. A 15-year-old behind the wheel survived.
The wrongful-death lawsuit claims the officers violated the city’s pursuit policy, which prohibits cops from engaging in high-speed chase for minor offenses. The police department, however, has said officers were far away when the crash occurred.
“It was not considered a chase,” Capt. Fernando Morales, a Homestead police spokesman, told the Miami Herald in 2021.
In a press conference on Monday outside the Miami-Dade County courthouse, one of the attorneys representing the parents of Valdivia and Vargas blamed the police for the teens’ deaths.
“City of Homestead police officers chased a car full of teenagers, caused that car to crash in a canal, and left the kids there to die,” attorney Joni Mosely told reporters.
Two years after the crash, the teens’ parents are still heartbroken about what happened during the early morning hours of Feb. 13, 2021.
“No parent should ever have to bury their kid,” Norma Vargas, the girl’s mother, told reporters at the conference. “It’s one of the worst feelings of the world. We miss her.”
“It’s hard every day when I got to go to work, and picture my only son, my only boy, has gone,” added Alayn Hernandez, Valdivia’s father.
Morales declined to comment about the lawsuit on Tuesday.
“Our hearts and condolences go out to the family and friends of the deceased,” Morales said. “As customary with open litigation, the Homestead Police Department will not be making any comments until its completion.”
As for the teens’ parents, they say they want to hold police officers accountable for their actions.
“We just want the police department to own up to their responsibility,” Vargas said.
Was there a police chase?
The attorneys and Homestead police say it all started with a traffic stop, but they don’t seem to agree with how exactly things played out that morning.
According to the attorneys, the teenager driving his grandmother’s black 2019 Toyota Camry was seen making a right turn at a red light without coming to a complete stop. They say an officer then initiated a traffic pursuit traveling eastbound from 1200 NE Eighth St. at around 3 a.m. until she lost sight of the car.
An hour later, attorneys say, a sergeant spotted the vehicle and began an “extended high-speed pursuit” westbound onto East Palm Drive. As the road began to curve, the 15-year-old driver lost control of the car — jumping the curb before going airborne, striking several trees, and landing in a canal on the 2900 block of East Palm Avenue in Homestead.
READ MORE: Three killed when car fleeing from police crashed into canal, Homestead police say
What’s worse, the attorneys say, is that the sergeant saw the car as it sank into the canal and “did nothing to intervene or render aid.”
“Three of the teenagers tragically lost their lives at the hands of Homestead police because the driver allegedly committed a minor traffic infraction,” the attorneys said in a news release.
But police gave a different version of what happened.
Days after the crash, Morales, the police spokesman, told the Herald that the Camry cut off one of his police officers while she was patrolling the streets at around 3 a.m.
“It was very blatant and on purpose,” Morales said at the time.
The car sped off, too fast for the police officer, who gave up and stopped the pursuit, Morales said.
READ MORE: Driver may face charges after fleeing Homestead cops, killing three teen passengers in wreck
About an hour later, a Homestead police sergeant saw a vehicle matching the description of the teens’ car that was stopped on Speedway Boulevard. According to police, he activated his lights, pulled up behind the car, and got out to walk up to the car. But the car sped off. The sergeant, police said, radioed what happened, got back into his patrol car and tried to catch up, Morales said.
On Palm Drive, the teens’ car “blacked out” — meaning it turned off its lights to try and avoid police — and may have lost control while trying to turn, police said.
Morales said the sergeant was blocks away when the teens’ car fell into the canal and that he did not see or hear the crash.
Morales said the sergeant pulled over a different dark-colored sedan at the Keys Gate Charter School moments after the wreck because he believed it was the car that had fled.
But the people in the sedan said they had just heard a “loud bang” in the area by the canal. Officers went to investigate and found the submerged car — with the three dead teens. The injured driver was found later in nearby woods.