MIAMI – On June 1, 2012, Lukace Kendle arrived for his 11 p.m. shift at Club Lexx, steering his Chevrolet Avalanche into the parking lot. Girls in skimpy tops and short skirts teetered on high heels as men with low-slung pants clustered around cars.
Standing beside his truck, Kendle began strapping on his gear for the night – a black bulletproof vest with two clips and a shiny metal badge, a holster with a nightstick, black gloves, a Glock 19 and a 17-round magazine.
The smell of marijuana and sweetly smoking barbecue clung to the humid air, drawing customers from the neighborhood as well as the club.
What happened next left one Club Lexx patron paralyzed and another dead. And it exposed the underbelly of the armed security industry, where guards often work for little pay and without proper oversight from the state.
That violent night in Miami also reveals how regulators in Florida and across the country have approved guard licenses without conducting mental health evaluations or checking for evidence of substance abuse. Only four states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and New Mexico – require armed-guard applicants to undergo a mental health evaluation, which is standard for law enforcement officers before being stationed on the job.
Club Lexx – or Rol-Lexx, as longtime regulars call it – is a concrete fortress on a busy six-lane road just off Highway 924, also known as the Gratigny Parkway, in Miami. The strip club operates on full alert, with at least 10 surveillance cameras and a security guard manning the door who searches bags and pats down patrons as they arrive.
Inside on most nights, customers mingle with dancers around a dimly lit bar and pool tables. Some dancers wear bikini tops and thong underwear, but most perform naked. The club draws a lot of police activity, and the parking lot is patrolled by at least four armed guards every night.
“We never said a word to this guy. … The only thing I remember was opening my car door and him telling me to put my hands up.” — Shooting victim Michael Smathers
After parking his truck and getting organized, Kendle noticed two men inside a gray Ford pickup backed into the space next to his own truck. Kendle – a former 190-pound bodybuilder nicknamed “Juice” – later said they were watching him menacingly and rolling what he thought was a joint.
Kendle, who was 26 at the time, walked over to greet two colleagues from Force Protection Security, then went back to his truck to retrieve his cigarettes, he later told police. Kendle said he was approaching his truck when the two men, both of whom were African American, opened their doors simultaneously.
Kendle, who is white, told police that one of the men shouted, “I’m gonna kill you, nigga,” while the driver, Michael Smathers, looked like he “might have been pulling something upwards.” He also said both men appeared to be making motions with their hands.
In an interview, Smathers said neither he nor his friend Kijuan Byrd said anything to Kendle. Smathers said he opened his car door and the guard told him to put his hands up. He said he did what he was told.
“There were no words even exchanged,” he said. “We never said a word to this guy at all. The only thing I remember was opening my car door and him telling me to put my hands up.”
Kendle pulled his Glock out of his holster and began shooting.
The shots came quickly – at least a dozen, according to an autopsy report and statements Kendle later made to police.
Patrons fled, some ducking behind cars as the shots blasted across the busy parking lot. The outdoor barbecue near the entrance was suddenly abandoned, people now huddling on the ground. Turning to look, they saw a muscular man dressed all in black shooting into the side of the parked pickup.
“Who’s popping fireworks?” Tiffany Harris, who was waiting to buy a rib sandwich at the barbecue stand, said with a laugh. But when she looked behind her, she saw Kendle firing his gun into the truck.
“That’s when I ducked down,” she said, according to a police report of the incident.
Kendle fired at least three times into the windshield and continued along the driver’s side, striking Smathers four times. Then he directed his attention to Byrd in the passenger seat. Byrd, 29 years old and a father of two, fell from the car onto the asphalt, grasping for cover underneath the pickup.
“I pursued the assailant,” Kendle later told the police. “And when I got into a position to fire, I did again.” Kendle couldn’t see Byrd’s hands and didn’t hear gunfire, he said, but “I feared for my life.”
He kept shooting. In total, Kendle shot Byrd eight times – at least four times in the back – as he crawled toward safety underneath the truck, according to the autopsy report. Kendle told police he thought both men were armed.
Smathers also fell out of the car onto the ground.
Security guard Juan Lopez ran over to provide backup but noticed, to his surprise, that Smathers did not have a gun, Lopez later told police. He holstered his weapon, then felt a tug on his foot.
“Help,” moaned Byrd, grabbing Lopez’s shoe from underneath the car. Byrd didn’t have a gun, either.
Dozens of people poured out of the club, surrounding the bloody scene. Lopez and another guard, Brian Rodgers, tried placing pressure on Smathers’ wounds.
Kendle called 911.
“How you doing?” he greeted the dispatcher in a calm, steady voice. “There’s a shooting at Club Rol-Lexx.”
“Where’s the gunman now?”
“I am the gunman,” Kendle said. “I’m the security officer here.”
Mental health unexamined
Byrd was dead by the time he arrived at the hospital. Smathers would remain in critical condition for weeks, paralyzed from the waist down. He spent months in a hospital bed.
On June 8, 2012, seven days after the shooting, police arrested Kendle on murder and attempted murder charges.
In December of that year, while in jail, Kendle was diagnosed with impulse control disorder and antisocial personality disorder. A year later, after he demanded to represent himself in court, another court-ordered psychiatrist concluded there was a “substantial likelihood” that he had a mental illness. She diagnosed him with a delusional disorder.
Two months later, two additional court-ordered psychiatrists diagnosed Kendle with unspecified schizophrenia spectrum, alcohol use disorder, specified personality disorder with antisocial and narcissistic features, and what they described as an “other psychotic disorder,” court records show.
It’s not known whether a psychiatrist would have diagnosed Kendle with the same mental health conditions had he been subject to an examination before he became an armed guard in 2011.
Kendle’s mother, Cris Kendle, says that her son was the victim in the Club Lexx shooting incident and that it was his time in isolation at the Miami-Dade County jail after the shooting that made him mentally ill. Lukace Kendle asked officers to put him in isolation for his own protection, reports show.
“My son has been terrorized in our system. And for what?” she said. “He is completely innocent of these two attackers. He is the victim, my son is the victim in this whole thing.”
Jail reports show Kendle frequently started fights with other inmates and destroyed jail property. At one point, he went on a fast, refused to wear clothes and threatened to kill himself and an officer.
Amid a public uproar over the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin, Kendle compared himself to the shooter, George Zimmerman, and told a psychiatrist that his arrest was a conspiracy created by the black community.
Kendle has maintained that he thought Smathers and Byrd were armed and that he was defending himself, and he repeatedly has refused to go to court, see his family or meet with his attorneys. He told his mother that he would not agree to meet with her until he saw her on the news picketing for his release on the courthouse steps.
“I don’t want a trial; it’s just a charade,” he told the judge during a hearing in April.
“He was always paranoid … always complaining about his head hurting … always looking over his shoulder. Apparently, he never wanted anybody behind him.” — Guard Juan Lopez
On his armed-guard license application, Kendle disclosed that he had a criminal history. But he did not mention the alcohol-related problems that resulted in his discharge from the U.S. Navy or his past addiction to crack cocaine, cited later by his mother in court documents. He’d been arrested for marijuana possession and disorderly intoxication, requiring him to complete a treatment program. In jail, he’d later deny any history of drug or alcohol abuse.
Federal law prohibits substance abusers and individuals who have been judged mentally defective or committed to a mental institution from possessing firearms. Yet in the security industry, few states make any real attempt to bar armed guard applicants who abuse drugs or alcohol or who have diagnosed mental health conditions that show a predilection for violence.
Kendle initially agreed to an interview with The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN, but in November, the court deemed him mentally incompetent to stand trial, and he was involuntarily committed for treatment. A doctor treating Kendle denied the interview request. The trial has been delayed.
The shooting at Club Lexx was the culmination of years of violence and disruption in Kendle’s life.
In 2008, he befriended a small-time drug dealer in Miami and started partying and getting into fights. In 2010, another drug dealer struck him in the face with a brick, breaking four bones and leaving a scar across his face, according to Kendle’s interview with Miami-Dade County detectives. Kendle didn’t report the incident to police at the time.
The next year, Kendle decided to become a guard. His parents bought him a gun, which was registered to his father, and Kendle began working as an armed security guard.
In July 2011, after partying at a club until 4 a.m., Kendle went to smoke weed at the house where he had been attacked, and the dealer who had struck him with a brick was there. As Kendle sat on the porch, someone snuck up behind him and hit him in the back of the head, according to police reports.
When he regained consciousness, he saw the dealer screaming at him, holding a metal bar in his hand. Kendle staggered away and was airlifted to a hospital. When he returned for his car the next day, he discovered his gun had been stolen and reported the incident to police.
Fearing retaliation, Kendle moved temporarily to Pennsylvania, where court records show he got into further trouble. Between September 2011 and February 2012, he was arrested three times and convicted of driving under the influence, public drunkenness twice and retail theft.
The convictions might have disqualified Kendle as an armed guard. But the state never found out about them.
“For those that happened outside of Florida, it’s very hit or miss. Sometimes we get notified, sometimes we don’t,” said Erin Gillespie, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, adding that the agency is proposing legislation to fix the problem early next year.
Kendle returned to Florida, where the court had issued a stay-away order against the drug dealer who attacked him. Kendle had changed, his family and co-workers said.
“He was always paranoid,” security guard Juan Lopez recalled in an interview. “He was always complaining about his head hurting. He was always looking over his shoulder. Apparently, he never wanted anybody behind him.”
A life cut short
When Arlene Byrd got to the hospital on the night her son was killed, she couldn’t believe the number of bullet holes that riddled Kijuan’s body. The bullets scorched his skin between his tattoos – including three in the names of his daughter, his grandmother and his mother.
She worked for Miami-Dade County alongside Trayvon Martin’s mother and aunt, and she’d helped organize a fundraiser for the Martin family after the teen’s high-profile shooting death. She’d thought: “That could have been my son.”
Now, she realized, it was.
The killing infuriated the Byrd family. During an April 4, 2014, court hearing, Byrd’s father, Donald, became enraged.
“You murdered my son, man, for nothing! He was trying to get away from you. You, you – he was trying to get away from you, man. You kept shooting him while his back was under the truck. You kept shooting him, man. You kept shooting him in his back! … He was trying to get away from you, and you murdered him, man!”
The outburst stunned the courtroom. Arlene Byrd sobbed in her seat. Kendle gazed passively as Shamara Byrd pulled her father out of the room.
Smathers was left permanently paralyzed from the waist down. He lives in a bedroom in a duplex with his father, sister and niece and rarely leaves the house, except for doctor’s appointments. An aide comes to attend to him six days a week. She has become one of his closest friends.
He struggles to understand the shooting that left one of his best friends dead.
“For me to wake up and find out he’s already been buried – I didn’t believe it. I did not believe it, “ he said. “What is the reason behind the shooting? I don’t know. I can’t explain it to myself.”
Security firm under investigation
The shooting brought unwanted attention to Kendle’s employer, Force Protection Security, whose owner, Belgrave Arellano, had been investigated by the state four times before the shooting.
Arellano had been a security guard for years before starting his own firm in 2007. He advised his $12-an-hour guards to be aggressive with drunken clubgoers, according to Lopez, one of his former guards.
Paychecks sometimes were late, and Arellano did not pay benefits or overtime, former employees said.
A former guard also complained that Arellano was hiring armed guards who were untrained and unlicensed. When he received the state’s request to review his payroll records for evidence, Arellano told state investigators that he destroyed them.
Instead of suspending or revoking his license, the state let Arellano keep it in exchange for a $250 fine. The investigation was closed.
Speaking to a CNN reporter, Arellano’s attorney described the state’s investigations as minor. “He is not some guy who doesn’t know what he is doing. He was in the Army,” said attorney Doug Jeffrey.
Arellano declined to speak with CIR about his business, except to say about the Kendle case: “We’re deeply sorry, and we offered our apologies to the family. Our attorneys are handling it. … I’m not going to make comments about something I wasn’t there for.”
The Kendle case was not the first time one of Arellano’s guards had hurt someone with a gun.
Luis Fonseca was working at a nightclub in Miami in September 2011 when patron Robinson Almonor punched a local rapper, Bengy Chery, in the back of the head. Almonor was ordered to leave the club, while Fonseca escorted Chery and his fiancée, Tranise Myrthil, to their car, according to police reports.
In the parking lot, Fonseca noticed Almonor driving toward them. He later told police that he heard the sound of a gunshot and shattering glass.
Fonseca began shooting, according to police reports, emptying all 18 rounds from his Glock handgun. Myrthil and Chery both were struck by bullets, as was Almonor’s burgundy Pontiac, which struck the couple. They tumbled onto the hood. Fonseca jumped out of the way and continued shooting as Almonor sped away. He was not hit.
Both of Myrthil’s collarbones were broken, and her body convulsed as blood poured out of a deep cut on her back. The bullet that struck Chery was lodged in his stomach. He bled heavily from a cut on his head.
Fonseca holstered his gun and rushed over to Myrthil to check her pulse. He didn’t know he had shot them.
“Breathe. Calm down,” he said to slow Myrthil’s breathing, according to police reports. He spotted a squad car and told the officer to call an ambulance.
Paramedics rushed Chery and Myrthil to the hospital. Both survived. Fonseca was questioned by police that night.
“I wanted to say, ‘Get out of the way,’ but I just couldn’t,” Fonseca told detectives.
“And do you know how many rounds hit that vehicle?”
“Do you know where your rounds hit?”
State law requires security guards and their employers to report shootings to licensing authorities. Florida is among the strictest of the states that mandate gun discharge reports. Authorities investigate each shooting and determine whether the guard was justified in using a gun, needs more training or should have his or her license revoked.
But neither Fonseca nor his employer, Arellano, reported the shooting to licensing authorities, according to the state. No news outlets wrote about it. The state remained unaware that it had occurred.
Almonor was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. They listed Fonseca, who was not arrested, as a witness and victim. Fonseca – who could not be reached for comment – kept his license.
In an interview, Myrthil said that after the shooting, she was forced to leave school and stayed indoors for months. But she doesn’t blame Fonseca. “I don’t think he had any bad intent. He may have thought he was trying to protect us.”
Facing several lawsuits in recent years, Arellano shuttered Force Protection Security and began operating another firm, Camelot Protection Group, full time. Camelot’s license expired in October. A new security company, operating at Camelot’s business address with Force Protection’s phone number, is now advertising job openings for armed guards.
CNN senior investigative producer Scott Zamost and CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin contributed to this story. It was edited by Robert Salladay and Narda Zacchino and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.