OPA-LOCKA, Fla. (AP) — A Florida city official died in a suspicious single-vehicle crash a day before he was scheduled to surrender in a criminal corruption case involving thousands of dollars in bribes, authorities said Tuesday.
Opa-locka city commissioner Terence Pinder, 43, died Tuesday after the city-owned vehicle he was driving crashed into a large banyan tree, officials said. The tree is located in an undeveloped part of Miami-Opa-locka Executive Airport, far from any major road and surrounded mostly by grass.
Police say they are investigating whether the crash was deliberate and how fast Pinder was driving. He was the Chevrolet Tahoe's lone occupant, said Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Jennifer Capote. She said the crash was discovered about 8 a.m. by a woman walking her dog.
"It does appear he was driving inside the grassy area at the airport," Capote said.
Pinder had planned to surrender Wednesday to face bribery and unlawful compensation charges, said Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. An arrest warrant says Pinder accepted more than $7,000 in bribes to help a businessman establish a recycling transfer station.
It turned out the businessman was working undercover with police, according to an affidavit. Pinder was accused of taking actions at commission meetings to ensure the businessman received preferential treatment.
In one recorded call last December, the businessman wanted to know if he needed to make another payment to Pinder and offered to stop by the commissioner's house.
"If you want to come see me, that's fine. It's almost Christmas. Where the hell's Santa?" Pinder was recorded as saying.
His death is another blow for Opa-locka, an impoverished city northwest of Miami that is under a broader FBI corruption investigation and struggling with its finances. An emergency city commission meeting on the dire financial situation was scheduled for later Tuesday amid talk that the state may have to take over its operations.
"This is a tragedy for Terence Pinder's family and friends, a tragedy for the City Of Opa-locka and a tragedy for the people of Opa-locka that circumstances surrounding the city's operation have gone this far," Rundle said in a statement.
The FBI had previously confirmed a wide-ranging public corruption investigation involving other city officials and lobbyists, although Pinder's case was separate from that probe. Pinder had previously been charged with several felonies in an earlier bribery investigation that ended in 2014 when he pleaded no contest to reduced violations of city ordinances and was placed on probation. Pinder was first elected in 2004.
Still, city officials had nothing but praise for Pinder when announcing his death Tuesday.
"He was known and loved by the young, the elderly and the community at large. He will be missed in the great city of Opa-locka," the officials said in a written statement.
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This story has been corrected to reflect that city officials announced Pinder's death Tuesday, not Wednesday.