CLEARWATER — Augusto Morales Pérez stood by his nephew’s hospital bed and thought about the younger man’s dreams.
Baudilio Morales Velásquez journeyed from Guatemala to join his uncle in Clearwater nine months ago, desperate for work. He needed to pay off his mother’s medical bills and hoped to eventually save enough money to buy land back home for his six kids.
Soon, his life support would be switched off. The uncle came to say goodbye.
His nephew died on Aug. 31. He was 31.
Now Morales Pérez wants answers. How did an encounter with Pinellas sheriff’s deputies leave his nephew in a coma for 13 days and ultimately cost him his life?
Morales Pérez can imagine what may have happened: His nephew didn’t speak English or much Spanish. He must have panicked in the darkness and tried to run, thinking the deputies were actually immigration agents coming to deport him.
For local immigration advocates, this incident highlights a concern they have long been trying to get Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to address:
The sheriff says immigrant communities can feel safe with local law enforcement. But what are deputies doing to win the trust of those who live in constant fear of the Trump administration’s detention and deportation policies?
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When Morales Velásquez and his 14-year-old son showed up on his uncle’s doorstep last winter, he needed a job right away.
Like most Central American migrants who use smugglers to reach the United States, Morales Velásquez had to pay off thousands in debt before he could start sending money to his family back in Guatemala.
Morales Peréz lives at the Southern Comfort mobile home park on U.S. 19 N, amid a growing community of migrant workers that has fueled Clearwater’s restaurant industry. His own home was already bursting with family members, so he helped his nephew and his son find a room in dorm-style trailer at a neighboring mobile home park.
He also found Morales Velásquez a job as a dishwasher at the same Chinese restaurant where he worked as a cook. The boss was decent and there were always extra hours to pick up.
They fell into an easy rhythm. Every morning, the two men biked to the restaurant together. Every evening, the uncle left work at 9 p.m., and the nephew at 10 p.m. Tuesday nights, they attended church.
The night of Aug. 18, Morales Pérez said his nephew stopped by on his bike shortly after 10 p.m. to say goodnight.
“Hey uncle, you got home okay,” his nephew said.
“Sí, cuidate, mijo,” the uncle responded. “Yes, take care of yourself, son.”
The next morning his nephew didn’t show up for work. When Morales Pérez called his phone, a deputy answered. He said they had this conversation:
“Was your nephew drinking last night?” the deputy said.
“No,” his uncle said. “We had just left work."
He said the deputies brought him to their office. They showed him a picture of Morales Velásquez at Bayfront Health St. Petersburg hospital, hooked up to tubes and monitors. His nephew was in a coma.
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Deputies said that on Aug. 18 they they received a 911 call at about 10:14 p.m. from a 25-year-old man at the Southern Comfort mobile home park who was intoxicated and having trouble communicating.
When deputies arrived, the man told them someone attacked him and then fled on a bike.
Soon after, deputies spotted Morales Velásquez. He was on a bike. They tried to stop him for questioning.
At first he cooperated, deputies said, but then he tried to run. They chased him and used an electroshock weapon to stun him. Morales Velásquez “continued to resist deputies and was handcuffed before losing consciousness,” according to the Sheriff’s Office. It’s unclear how he was injured.
Deputies took him to the hospital. His son was placed in foster care.
Morales Pérez doubts the attacker with a bike could have been his nephew. He had just seen him shortly after 10 p.m., around the same time the incident is said to have occurred. And how did his nephew end up so badly injured that he suffered severe brain damage?
Language was likely a problem. Morales Velásquez was originally from Huehuetenango, Guatemala. He grew up speaking Mam, a Guatemalan indigenous language, and did not speak English or much Spanish.
He also didn’t have legal documents. In the dark, he might have been confused by the deputies commands or believed they were agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Morales Velásquez was not under arrest when he ran. The Sheriff’s Office said the investigation is still open and would not say whether he was the man on the bike that deputies were looking for, or if he would have faced any charges had he survived.
The county medical examiner’s office will conduct an autopsy and determine a cause of death. The deputies’ actions and decision to use an electroshock weapon will be examined by the Sheriff’s Office.
“I have no idea what happened,” Morales Pérez said. “That’s why I have doubts."
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Advocates say encounters like this between deputies and immigrants fuel mistrust and fear in immigrant communities.
It’s bad enough that the president regularly calls for stepped-up deportations and cheers immigration raids, they say. In Pinellas County, immigrants also hear about their local officials collaborating with ICE.
Earlier this year, Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri helped push for a controversial new state law requiring Florida law enforcement agencies to honor detainer requests from ICE.
The law primarily applies to jails, not deputy interactions, and Gualtieri has tried to reassure immigrants that they should still feel comfortable bringing their concerns to local law enforcement.
“Our job on the street, as the police, has nothing to do with enforcing immigration law," he said at a meeting with the Hispanic community at Centro Cristiano El Shaddai, a Clearwater church, on May 28.
But rumors fuel misinformation and fear. Advocates say many immigrants only heard one message: Deputies will bring you straight to ICE.
“These people are so scared because of all the things that are being said about the sheriff collaborating with ICE," says Ana Lamb, the president of a local council of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “I am trying to motivate people to have a voice and talk to law enforcement — But deputies have to have more cultural sensitivity."
Some law enforcement agencies invest in programs to build stronger ties with immigrant communities. The Clearwater Police Department, for example, has its own Hispanic outreach center.
The Sheriff’s Office said it encourages deputies to learn Spanish and tries to arrange for interpreter services whenever they can, sometimes through a hotline. But when responding to fast-moving situations, that’s not always possible, said Deputy Charles Skipper, an agency spokesman.
Language barriers "can slow down communication, but we overcome it,” he said. “We are patient with that.”
In a pinch, deputies sometimes rely on neighbors or residents’ English-speaking children to help translate, he said. However, the Department of Justice has advised against using children and bystanders as translators and puts the burden of translating on local police agencies.
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Morales Pérez fears for the future of his nephew’s wife and six children.
Morales Velásquez was meant to be his family’s anchor in America, their hope to lift his family out of destitution in Guatamala’s highlands, a region where indigenous communities have been displaced by corporate dam projects. Around 70 percent of the population is chronically malnourished and three-quarters live in poverty, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID.
Morales Velásquez had years of work and wages ahead of him. Instead, his family is now deeply in debt. They still owe smugglers about $2,600 for his trip to the U.S. — and they have no idea how they can afford to bring his body home.
Morales Peréz wishes the Sheriff’s Office would help repatriate his nephew’s body, but the agency says they have no policy to address that. In the meantime the family, with Lamb’s help, started a GoFundMe campaign.
On Aug. 28, the doctors told Morales Pérez that his nephew’s brain damage was so severe that he had almost no chance of recovering.
With a heavy heart, he consulted with his nephew’s family and signed the papers to end life support.
He didn’t know how long it would take before his nephew died. Doctors said it could be hours or days.
Morales Pérez wanted to stay by his nephew’s bedside. But he couldn’t.
He was already late for work.