An inmate handcuffed inside a medical transportation van Wednesday managed to steal a gun from the twice-retired, 76-year-old sheriff’s deputy at the wheel, kill him with it and drive off, authorities said.
Michael Mazza was recaptured four hours later at a pawn shop, the deputy’s gun still on him, Broward County Sheriff Al Lamberti said. The 40-year-old suspect confessed to the shooting, the sheriff said.
Mazza, dressed in a suit and tie, was on his way to the second day of trial on charges of bank robbery and eluding police. He had been complaining of a back problem, which is why he was in the medical van, but it’s not clear if that was a legitimate claim, sheriff’s spokesman Elliott Cohen said.
Deputy Paul Rein talked to his wife on his cell phone just before 8 a.m., then set out on the routine transfer from a county jail, Lamberti said.
Minutes after departing, Mazza fought through a partition separating him from Rein, the sole officer in the vehicle, the sheriff said.
Rein died at a hospital shortly after he was found bleeding in a Pompano Beach parking lot just after the attack. He was not wearing a bulletproof vest and had been shot once in the chest, the sheriff said.
He had other injuries, including a broken finger and bruises, suffered in the altercation with Mazza, Lamberti said.
Mazza was charged with first-degree murder and escape, and was to be transferred to a maximum-security jail in Miami-Dade County after appearing before a judge Wednesday.
“We all just feel it’s probably better he be housed at another facility outside of Broward County,” Lamberti said.
Schools locked down
Mazza was already serving one life sentence for armed robbery and faced another in a trial under way at the Broward County Courthouse. Authorities initially speculated accomplices may have helped him escape Wednesday, but Lamberti said they had no evidence of that.
Traffic backed up for miles and schools were placed on lockdown as authorities launched a manhunt. The van was found 20 miles away in a Fort Lauderdale restaurant parking lot.
Investigators still were trying to figure out Mazza’s steps, but a man who refused to give his last name said he met Mazza at another pawn shop, and Mazza asked for a ride. He wasn’t wearing handcuffs, said his name was Tony and said he didn’t care where they went, the man said.
“He said he just had an argument with his wife, and he left from up state,” said the man, who gave his name only as Mark. He refused to give his last name as he grew more anxious about being interviewed. “He was sitting down at a store, all exhausted and everything ... and his leg was messed up, hurting.”
Mazza by then had changed out of the suit into a T-shirt, shorts and sneakers. They went to a soup kitchen and got something to eat, the man said, and then to the Hollywood pawn shop. Mazza stayed in the car, and when the man went inside, he saw Mazza’s picture on television and realized his passenger was a fugitive.
“I freaked out,” he said.
He went outside and took the keys from his car, then he and the manager called 911.
Defense requests mistrial
Mazza was on trial in a Feb. 28 bank robbery after which he led police on a short chase before he crashed his car into another vehicle, injuring himself and two others, authorities said.
Mazza’s attorney, Maurice Graham, requested a mistrial Wednesday morning in court, where he and prosecutors listened to radio updates about the manhunt. Graham did not immediately return a phone message or e-mail from The Associated Press.
A person who identified herself as a relative of Rein’s declined to comment when reached at his home.
Meyers: 'It hasn't sunk in yet'
Rein’s ex-wife, Mollie Meyers, described him as a 5-foot 7-inch “little strong guy” who retired from the U.S. Postal Service at age 55 and began a second career in the sheriff’s department. He served as a Broward deputy from 1987 to 2000; the department lured him out of his second retirement in 2003.
“He was a typical father, a typical husband, working very hard for his family,” she said. “Sometimes he held down two jobs to provide for his family.”
She said she and Rein split up seven years ago, and both remarried after being wed for 49 years. They had two grown sons, one of whom recently retired as a police officer in Davie. A stepson works for the Coconut Creek police department.
“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Meyers, 75, said of Rein’s death. “I couldn’t tell you how I feel.”
Meyers said she rarely worried about Rein’s safety because his job involved dealing with inmates, not working the streets. However, she said her ex-husband should not have been alone with Mazza.
“There should have been another deputy with him,” Meyers said.
Inmate: Deputy treated me with dignity
Rein’s file includes numerous letters of commendation, including one from an inmate who said Rein “treated me with a little respect and dignity” when the deputy transported him in 1997.
Rein is the fourth South Florida law enforcement officer and the third Broward deputy shot in the last three months.
Deputy Maury Hernandez was shot in the head Aug. 6 during a traffic stop. He was released from the hospital Oct. 25. Sergeant Chris Reyka, 51, was fatally shot as he was looking for stolen vehicles behind a drug store Aug. 10. His killer is still being sought.
In September, Miami-Dade County police officer Jose Somohano was fatally shot by a gunman who ambushed him and three other officers. The suspect was killed by officers hours later in Broward.