MIAMI SHORES — The wife of a veteran Miami police officer died after she was trapped for much of a sweltering afternoon in the back seat of his patrol SUV at the family’s Miami Shores home, authorities confirmed on Monday.
Investigators are treating the death of Clara Paulino, 56, on Friday as a horrific accident. Detectives suspect that Paulino — as her husband slept inside the home after finishing a midnight shift — climbed into the backseat of his marked Ford Explorer SUV in search of something, then could not escape when the doors somehow closed and a self-locking mechanism kicked in.
As the temperature outside soared well over 90 degrees on Friday, Paulino spent several hours stuck inside the SUV until her family discovered her body after 5 p.m., according to one law-enforcement source. Miami-Dade detectives found her fingerprints all over the inside of the SUV.
“Clearly, she was panicked and trying to get out,” the source told the Miami Herald.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office is still investigating, and has not ruled on a cause or manner of death. Paulino, according to a law enforcement source, had a history of medical problems that may have contributed to her death inside the SUV.
Her husband, Aristides Paulino, 58, is a 25-year veteran who has worked the midnight shift in the Wynwood neighborhood for most of the past two decades. The couple married 38 years ago.
Their son, also named Aristides Paulino, said Monday that the family wasn’t ready to talk about his mother.
“We haven’t even buried her yet, and it’s a lot of pain,” he said.
Sources told the Herald that it appeared officer Paulino had finished his overnight shift and returned home in the late morning, going straight to sleep. He apparently left the SUV unlocked in the driveway of the family home, sources said.
Clara Paulino, it appeared, climbed inside her husband’s patrol vehicle sometime after 1 p.m., sources said. A partition between the back seat and the front seat prevented her from getting to the horn and she did not have her cellphone with her to call for help, sources said.
“It’s literally a cage,” said one Miami police officer familiar with the vehicle.
Her husband and one of their sons found her body inside the police SUV around 5:30 p.m. What prompted her to go into the back seat — and what she may have been looking for — remained a mystery on Monday.
The case is being handled by Miami-Dade’s homicide bureau, which investigates all unnatural deaths in Miami Shores.
“It’s very preliminary,” said Miami-Dade Police Lt. Carlos Rosario, a spokesman. “There’s still a lot of work to be done. But right now, it’s an unclassified death.”
Hot-car deaths are not unusual, but almost always involve young children left inside a vehicle by a caretaker. It is, however, extremely rare for anyone to die after being in the back of a sweltering law-enforcement patrol car.
Because the back seat is generally where suspects are kept, police cars have long featured mechanisms that prevent someone from opening doors and windows from the inside.
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“That’s standard option with most law enforcement vehicles so that a detainee can’t get out of the back of the vehicle,” said Stephen Mitchell, the general services bureau director for the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, who handles the department’s fleet of police cars. “You have to lift the handle from the outside.”
Mitchell, who is on the “Fleet Advisory Committee” of the Florida Sheriff’s Association, said it’s also standard for partitions to be placed over back-seat windows. “To keep folks from kicking them out,” he said.
Similar cases are rare.
In July 2007, accused murderer Christopher Walls was accidentally left inside a corrections van next to the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center for nearly three hours. He survived, however, when a passing corrections officer noticed him in the parked van, which was off and did not have the air-conditioning running.
Last year, a former Mississippi police officer was sentenced to 20 years in prison for manslaughter after she left her baby strapped into the back of her patrol car while she had sex with her supervisor at his house. The baby died after being left in the heat for four hours. The car was running, but the A.C. was not blowing cold air, authorities said.