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Five years later, death ruled accident now a homicide

For five years, Adrienne Miranda has been on a crusade to prove that the death of her son — crushed under a Bobcat earthmover while on the job, his body face-down in the dirt under a hot summer sun — was no accident.

The mother from Lutherville has made claims of shoddy detective work and has alleged a sweeping coverup by authorities who don't believe a crime was committed against her 19-year-old son, Joseph A. Miranda.

She has irritated and at times angered a cadre of police, prosecutors and bureaucrats. She has sent endless emails, insisted that meetings with officials be recorded, provided names of people she felt needed to be interviewed, taken the police and others to court, lobbied the news media and picketed a state's attorney.

Miranda makes no apologies. Despite rulings from prosecutors in three counties and two police agencies that her son's death in July 2006 while working at a Hampstead landscaping company was a tragic accident, she has pushed on, ignoring repeated declarations of "case closed."

She accuses Baltimore County's top prosecutor of "preventing us from getting a fair trial and justice for Joseph." She wrote in one of several emails to The Baltimore Sun of her "continued torment, agony and living hell" and of her hope that the truth "for my precious son will be revealed and exposed."

Then, in August, Adrienne Miranda's persistence paid off. Baltimore County police were forced to add Joseph's name to their annual tally of killings — officially the 18th of 2011 — after the state medical examiner determined that he died "at the hands of another."

Her son's death was ruled a homicide.

The pathologist concluded that it was impossible for the young man to have been killed the way police said he was — slipping off the Bobcat and falling between the wheels as the skid loader lurched forward. Rather, the medical examiner concluded, Miranda was likely pushed or knocked to the ground just before the driver backed over his head.

"There is no plausible explanation as to why Mr. Miranda was in a face down position, while run over by the Bobcat," the assistant medical examiner wrote to the Baltimore County state's attorney. It was one of several factors discovered over the course of years that caused him to rethink the case.

"As the death was caused by the action of another person," the examiner wrote, "the manner of death is best re-classified as a homicide."

For a grieving mother, the surprise ruling breathed new life into her campaign to get someone charged criminally in the death of her son.

But the ruling was by no means an end to her quest for answers.

In fact, Baltimore County police and prosecutors said the medical examiner's ruling changes nothing. Scott D. Shellenberger, the state's attorney for Baltimore County, said there will be no further inquiry, no arrest, no grand jury, no trial, no criminal charges.

"I respectfully disagree with the conclusion now reached by you that Mr. Miranda's death was at the hands of another," he wrote the assistant medical examiner who handled the case, Dr. Zubiullah Ali.

In an interview after the new ruling, Shellenberger said, "The incident doesn't rise to the level of a crime."

After graduating from Towson High in 2005, Joseph Miranda worked at Watson's Nursery on York Road, nearly across the street from where he lived and grew up on Melton Road. He wanted to be a landscape architect.

A few months later, he took a job at Outside Unlimited, a large commercial and residential landscaping and irrigation company that at the time employed 175 workers sculpting gardens and lawns at homes, private businesses and university campuses. Its owner did not respond to repeated request for an interview.

Miranda took a liking to many of the Hispanic laborers, to whom he would give rides when he saw them walking to work. He often told his mother, "I'm going to be real hungry tomorrow, make me 10 sandwiches." They were for the immigrant workers.

On July 20, 2006, at the end of his shift, Miranda, then a foreman, had to load 20 trees into a truck to be planted the next day at Windsor Mill Middle School. He approached Paul Christopher Godwin, who was watching Antonio Rubio maneuver a Bobcat, loading dirt from a pile into a dump truck.

Miranda wanted to use the earthmover.

Godwin, then a 19-year-old from Sparks, told him no. Rubio had just begun loading and they wanted to finish their task.

And that's where the two witness accounts diverge.

Godwin's account shifts during a series of police interviews and doesn't match the version given by Rubio, a 48-year-old from Mexico who knew little English and spoke with detectives through an interpreter.

The divergent accounts are contained in hundreds of pages of police reports and other documents reviewed by The Baltimore Sun and obtained from the Baltimore County Police Department through a Public Information Act request.

In his initial written statement, Godwin said Miranda motioned for Rubio to stop loading dirt, climbed up to the cab of the red-and-white Bobcat and tried to forcefully pull him out. Godwin said he pulled Miranda off and took him to the side, but Miranda ran to the earthmover again, jumped onto the front wheel and grabbed the handlebar as the driver went forward. Godwin told police that "it appeared as if … his foot slipped off."

In a more detailed interview with police later, Godwin told police that he and Miranda had engaged in a "pushing contest" over use of the machine.

But years later, in September 2010, while being questioned by an attorney hired by Miranda's parents as part of a civil suit, Godwin said state police had mischaracterized the "pushing match." He said they gave each other "the one-two," which he described as playful boxing match between buddies.

He again said Miranda climbed onto the Bobcat's wheel and slipped.

Godwin, through his attorney, Jeffrey P. Hanes, declined to comment for this article.

Police interviewed Rubio in Spanish shortly after the incident, and then again three months later. Police said landscape officials wanted him to have an attorney present, but Rubio declined. After that interview, Rubio went back to Mexico, and subsequent attempts by police and by lawyers for Miranda's family to find him have been unsuccessful.

Rubio never mentioned in either interview with police any attempt by Miranda to pull him from the Bobcat. What Godwin described in some interviews as an angry and agitated exchange, Rubio portrayed as casual banter.

"Let me borrow your machine," Rubio quoted Miranda saying.

"OK, I am almost done," Rubio said he answered.

The state police report says that to Rubio, "it appeared that Miranda agreed and began to walk toward the rear. Rubio stated that he watched through the cage until Miranda had passed the rear wheel and was not able to see him anymore. … He continued to back up. Rubio advised that is when he determined the accident happened."

Several workers told police that Rubio, upon learning what happened, was distraught, beating his chest and calling out in Spanish for a priest.

Adrienne Miranda had worked as a marketing director for a nonprofit helping children with disabilities. She lived in a comfortable house in Lutherville, where she raised her two sons, Joseph and Robert Miranda Jr.

After Joseph died, she gave up her career at age 50 and exhausted her home equity line of credit to investigate her son's death. She fought stress and exhaustion, describing her schedule as "all day, all night." She sent more than 5,000 emails to attorneys, police, prosecutors and other investigators, all signed, "Adrienne Miranda (Mother of Joseph)," and with the line, "Truth and Justice for Joseph must prevail."

When a judge threw out a lawsuit alleging negligence by the state police and 42 other law enforcement officials, she wrote her own 35-page legal brief and compiled a 240-page exhibit. An appellate court refused to hear the case. Undaunted, she successfully pushed state lawmakers to pass a law that requires a notification on all death certificates that people can challenge a medical examiner's findings.

And when she learned through the medical examiner that a state police trooper had given him crime scene photographs and conflicting statements from witnesses, she immediately sought out the report from the trooper, who was advising the original investigation.

She wrote seven letters to state officials before she got that report. When she finally read it, she concluded that the trooper shared her doubts about the case and suspicions that it had been closed prematurely.

In his report, Trooper Richard T. Bachtell wrote that he sought in October 2006 to administer a lie detector test to Godwin, noting that Godwin had told three different police officers three different stories. But such a test was never given.

Bachtell also wrote that Ali, the assistant medical examiner, told him after reviewing the photos and statements "that it was likely the Bobcat was moving backward, the victim was prone, and the rear tire ran over him." Bachtell wrote: "This information was not consistent with initial belief that the victim had fallen between the two left side wheels."

Ali then changed the cause of death from accidental to undetermined.

Nonetheless, state police closed their investigation in July 2007, concluding Miranda died in an "industrial accident" with "no signs of foul play."

Miranda said she believes that Bachtell's bosses ignored his concerns and prematurely ended the investigation. Bachtell, through a state police spokesman, declined to comment.

The spokesman, Gregory M. Shipley, described Bachtell's role in the case as advisory — the primary detectives were in the Westminster barracks. He said Bachtell told him that he "was never pressured to do or not do anything during his participation in the investigation."

Prosecutors in Carroll County, where Outside Unlimited is located, agreed with the state police that the death was an accident. Prosecutors in Frederick County reviewed the case, and they reached the same conclusion.

Still, Adrienne Miranda wasn't satisfied. She sent letters to Baltimore County prosecutors requesting a site survey to determine precisely where her son had died. The survey found he died in the back lot of the Hampstead company — in Baltimore County.

Baltimore County police opened a case in November 2007.

Police say they conducted a thorough investigation, including interviews with a list of people suggested by the mother. In January 2008, Baltimore County police detectives met with the assistant medical examiner, Ali, who told them about the reports and photographs he had received from Bachtell, the state police trooper.

In the end, Baltimore County police closed their investigation and ruled it an accident.

But Adrienne Miranda alleges that detectives actually did nothing more than a cursory review of the state police file. She notes that by then, most of the immigrant workers, including the driver Rubio, were gone.

Shellenberger, the top prosecutor in Baltimore County, would not comment for this article and referred to a statement issued by county police. The statement reiterated that Miranda "attempted to jump onto the machine while it was in operation" and "slipped and fell."

Only one authority, the assistant medical examiner, remained on the case along with Adrienne Miranda. And Ali took a new tack: He wanted to see what the driver of a Bobcat could see. So in February 2008, he visited Outside Unlimited.

With a police escort, Ali sat in the seat that Rubio had occupied in the same model Bobcat. He also spent 50 minutes watching experienced drivers maneuver the machine, to see what obstructed their view and how it turned. He determined that driver sightlines were obscured and that clues from the scene contradicted statements from witnesses.

Ali sent a letter detailing his concerns to Shellenberger, but at that time he didn't have enough to change the cause of death.

Meanwhile, Adrienne Miranda had filed a civil wrongful-death lawsuit against a long line of defendants, including the landscaping company, Godwin, Bobcat and companies that supplied parts for the machine. She settled the suit this year, the terms of which are sealed.

As part of the case, her attorney took the deposition from Godwin in September 2010.

That was the information Ali had been looking for.

The medical examiner wrote Shellenberger in June, noting the conflicting witness statements and that tire track marks in the dirt proved the Bobcat was moving backward.

He also said it would have been impossible for Miranda to slip between the narrow space between the tires without sustaining additional injuries. "His lower extremities, especially his feet, ankles, and legs would have been severely injured," Ali wrote. They weren't.

Adrienne Miranda hopes the decision to declare the death a homicide will push authorities to take another look. As of last week, she was still sending emails to the medical examiner's office, pushing, prodding for more information.

And she keeps a penny at the end of a necklace — a single coin found in her dead son's pocket — which she says she'll never take off.

She won't stop sending emails. "I will be his voice."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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