30 years later, new details about killing of Miami Springs cop come to light

JUNE 17, 2021 06:00 AM
UPDATED JUNE 17, 2021 06:38 PM

Cecilia Stafford, widow of former Miami Springs Police Officer Charles B. Stafford, with daughters, Natalie and Katherine, at a 2011 memorial. THEO KARANTSALIS FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Miami Springs Police Officer Charles Stafford was shot dead on June 11, 1991, after he chased a suspect along the Airport Expressway near Liberty City. He was the first and only officer from the department who died in the line of duty.

“Let us never forget the sacrifice that he made,” Miami Springs police officer Janice Simon wrote in a social media post this past week that memorialized the 30-year anniversary of Stafford’s death.

The 45-member police department held the annual Charles B. Stafford Memorial Golf Tournament on June 11.

Meanwhile, new details about Stafford’s death have come to light, thanks to information from archived depositions, radio transcripts, and court records that were revealed after a public records request by the Miami Herald was filed.

In 1994, Merrit Sims, a Miami Northwestern Senior High graduate, was convicted and sentenced to death for Stafford’s murder, according to Florida’s Commission on Capital Cases.

Miami Springs is a three-square-mile city just north of Miami International Airport, population 13,917, that is about 95 percent white, the Census says.

The city came under fire, last year, when Black Lives Matters protesters marched downtown on the anniversary of Staffords’ death, decrying a history of racial profiling by its officers — none of whom are black.


“We’re, uh, eastbound on 112, approaching 27,” Stafford said, as he tailed Sims who was driving a 1978 two-door Cadillac, according to a Miami-Dade police radio transcript obtained by the Herald.

Then 25-year-old Sims was cruising his white Cadillac Coupe de Ville along Northwest 36th Street, near Kenmore Drive, on his way out of Miami Springs, when Stafford, 28, went “Code 3” and hit his lights and siren.

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Believing Sims was driving a stolen car, Stafford signaled him to pull over on the exit ramp, Florida Supreme Court records said. Sims had borrowed the car from his cousin after leaving the Goombay Festival, in Coconut Grove, and when he failed to return the car on time, it was reported stolen.

Sims beat Stafford in the head with his radio, robbed him of his Glock model 19 pistol, and shot him twice in the chest with silver-tip bullets, court and police reports said.

The blood-stained Cadillac was found by police near Liberty City’s historic Hampton House.

Stafford’s last call to police dispatch was at 8:49 p.m. on Jun. 11, 1991, as he and Sims exited a few miles away near Northwest 27th Avenue.

Former Miami Springs police officer Donald Pessolano was a backup officer who arrived at the scene, just south of Liberty City, about 10 minutes after Stafford’s last radio transmission.

“He [Stafford] didn’t respond to me talking to him, other than he appeared he was trying to breathe and grasping for air,” Pessolano said in a 1991 sworn statement to Miami-Dade homicide detectives.

Sims was later arrested in California.


While he admitted shooting Stafford, Sims claimed he did so in self-defense after Stafford had “choked him, used racial epithets, and repeatedly threatened to kill him,” court records said.

With aid from lawyers, including Benjamin Waxman, Sims’ conviction was reversed in 2007 by the Florida Supreme Court because his former defense attorney had failed to object after a K9 cop testified that Sims may have had drugs in the car.

In 2011, Stafford’s family avoided a retrial after Sims accepted a plea deal that will keep him in prison until Feb. 18, 2037, when he turns 71.

Sims, now an inmate at Charlotte Correctional Institution, in Punta Gorda, did not reply to a letter sent by the Herald seeking comment.


Stafford was a Hialeah native who worked as a prison guard in North Florida before joining the Miami Springs force. He served on the department for 20 months, and he remains the sole Springs police officer killed while on duty.

The City of Miami Springs has named a park after Stafford.

And a bronze plaque mounted outside the city’s police station reads: “In memory of Officer Charles B. Stafford who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving his community in the line of duty.”

This article was produced with the assistance of the Florida Center for Government Accountability, a nonprofit legal and journalism program advocating public access to local government.

Theo Karantsalis can be reached at bellsouth.net.