Authorities confirmed that the wife of a veteran Miami police officer died after being cornered for much of the hot afternoon in the back seat of his four-wheel drive vehicle at the family home in the Miami Shores.
Investigators are treating the death of Clara Paulino, 56, on Friday as a horrific accident. Investigators suspect that Paulino – while her husband was sleeping indoors after finishing their midnight shift – climbed into the back seat of the Ford Explorer SUV looking for something, and then couldn’t escape when the doors somehow closed and the self-locking mechanism took off.
With the temperature outside rising over 90 degrees, Paulino spent several hours stuck inside the SUV until her family discovered her body after 5 p.m., according to a law enforcement source. Miami-Dade investigators found her fingerprints all over the interior of the SUV.
“She was clearly panicking and trying to get out,” the source told the Miami Herald.
The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner’s Office is still investigating, and has not finalized the cause or method of death. According to a law enforcement source, Paulino had a history of medical issues that may have contributed to her death inside the SUV.
Her husband, Aristides Paulino, 58, is a 25-year-old veteran who has worked on the midnight shift in the Wynwood neighborhood for most of the past two decades. The couple has been married for 38 years.
Their son, also called Aristides Paulino, said Monday that the family was not ready to talk about his mother.
He said, “We have not buried her yet and this is a great pain.”
Sources told the Herald that Officer Paulino appeared to have finished his night shift and returned home late in the morning, and fell asleep immediately. Sources said he left the SUV apparently unlocked in the corridor of the family home.
The sources said that Clara Paulino apparently got into her husband’s patrol car after 1 pm. Sources said that a barrier between the back seat and the front seat prevented her from reaching the horn and she did not have her cell phone with her to seek help.
“It’s a cage in the literal sense of the word,” said a Miami police officer familiar with the car.
Her husband and one of her sons found her body in the sports police car at around 5:30 pm. What prompted her to sit in the back seat – and what she might have been looking for – remained a mystery Monday.
The case is handled by the Miami-Dade Homicide Office, which is investigating all unnatural deaths in the Miami Shores.
“It’s very preliminary,” said Miami-Dade Police spokesman Carlos Rosario. “There is still a lot of work to be done. But for now, it’s an unclassified death.”
Hot car deaths are not uncommon, but there are often young children left in the car by the caregiver. However, it is extremely rare for anyone to die after being in the back of a very hot patrol car.
Since the back seat is generally where suspects are kept, police cars have long-standing distinct mechanisms that prevent anyone from opening doors and windows from the inside.
Said Stephen Mitchell, director of the Public Services Bureau of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office, which deals with the department’s fleet of police cars. “You have to raise the handle on the outside.”
Mitchell, a member of the Fleet Advisory Committee at the Florida Mayor’s Association, said it’s also customary to place bulkheads over backseat windows. He said, “To prevent people from expelling them.”
Similar cases are rare.
In July 2007, accused killer Christopher Walls was accidentally left inside a corrective vehicle next to Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center for nearly three hours. However, he survived when a corrections officer in passing noticed him in the parked truck, which was parked and had no air conditioner running.
Last year, a former Mississippi police officer was sentenced to 20 years in prison for manslaughter after she left her baby tied in the back of her patrol car while she was having sex with her supervisor at his home. The child died after being left in the heat for four hours. The car was running, but the AC was not blowing cold air, authorities said.