Sheriff Ric Bradshaw said Michael Nieto was a ‘very dangerous man’ who shot a deputy in the face. His fiancee says, ‘That wasn’t who he was.’
PALM BEACH GARDENS — In the minutes between her fiancé kissing her goodbye, driving a few hundred feet across Military Trail and dying in a shootout with law enforcement, Heaven Flores gave her toddler a bath.
That’s all she had time to do. That’s how quickly everything happened, she later learned.
From her second-floor apartment, the night of May 16 passed painfully slowly. The 24-year-old mother of two, who’s expecting her third child in December, put her 1-year-old to bed, found the wallet Michael Nieto misplaced under a dresser and lounged on the couch as she waited for him to return from what she figured would be a quick run to the corner store.
Flores says she didn’t hear the gunshots, the sirens or the news conference Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw held by the Abbey Road Plaza south of PGA Boulevard about the “very dangerous individual” tied to the international MS-13 gang whom his deputies killed that night. Bradshaw told reporters the man “immediately” shot a deputy in the face during what law enforcement assumed would be another undercover drug buy, one they hoped would lead to inside information about the notoriously hard-to-infiltrate gang.
Five months later, unanswered questions haunt Flores. She wants to know every detail of what happened because she says that the man Bradshaw described to reporters, the dangerous gang member who decided to go “the hard way,” isn’t the man she had agreed to marry.
Citing open investigations, neither the sheriff’s office nor the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the agency investigating the deputy-involved shooting, has elaborated on what happened that night. Investigations into fatal encounters involving law enforcement take months to complete and involve determining whether the force violated the department’s policy, criminal laws or both.
As is typical with deputy-involved shootings, Bradshaw has spoken publicly only once about the May 16 gunfire, and he did so within hours of Nieto dying.
In the dark of that night, Bradshaw stood illuminated by the TV lights and flashing police lights. He stressed how lucky the deputy who had a bullet lodged near one of his eyes on his 29th birthday was to be alive. He said his office had enough evidence to arrest Nieto after buying heroin, cocaine and marijuana from him in four undercover deals, though he would not say when or where those buys reportedly happened.
Despite allegations from those familiar with the couple that Flores both knew and actively participated in Nieto’s gang-affiliated drug dealings, Flores repeatedly has denied knowing anything about it. She said she was aware of marijuana in their home for personal use, but she swears that was all.
“They made it seem like it was this big El Chapo operation, but it was nothing (like that). They took his life for nothing,” Flores said.
The sheriff’s office has not released warrants for either the home or the car in which Nieto was killed, so five months later, it remains unclear what, if anything, they seized in those searches.
At his news conference that night, Bradshaw passed around a picture of Nieto’s finger, surrounded by broken glass, on the trigger of the gun he reportedly fired at deputies. Then Bradshaw outlined the 32-year-old’s lengthy criminal history.
“Everybody has a past,” Flores said. “That was his past. That wasn’t who he was.”
They’d known each other less than a week when Nieto sent Flores a pile of police records detailing the September 2011 shooting that landed him seven years in prison. He had been released not even two months before they started talking. He didn’t want there to be secrets, she said.
So Flores read about how Nieto shot into his uncle’s Palm Beach Gardens home early one morning as several of his relatives slept inside and how the bullets narrowly missed his young cousins’ beds.
His uncle immediately suspected Nieto was involved. Nieto had sent threatening messages to him and another relative, his uncle told Palm Beach Gardens police.
Nieto, 32, explained to Flores that he felt threatened by his family and wanted to act before they did.
The next week, authorities took Nieto into custody for a psychiatric assessment under the state’s Baker Act. The neighbors weren’t happy he was shooting a long rifle from his West Palm Beach apartment’s balcony.
He spent the next seven years locked up. There, Flores suspects, is where he would have formed any alleged ties to MS-13, though she claims she never heard of any, from him or anyone else, and denies any involvement with the gang herself. The sheriff’s office will not say how authorities determined he was connected to the gang.
Florida Department of Corrections records from Nieto’s stint in prison mention several confrontations with other inmates but make no mention of any gang affiliations.
Flores remembers Nieto retelling the horrors of prison, the fights in which he became entangled to survive.
A man who asked not to be named but knew both Flores and Nieto said he gave Nieto the benefit of the doubt when they first met. He said Thursday he wished he’d had more doubts about Nieto. The man asked for his name not to be used due to fear of retribution.
“To sit there and to paint him as this wonderful guy,” the man said, “it just bothers me. She’s playing the ignorant card now.”
Records show that Nieto had multiple other run-ins with the law for offenses such as burglary, theft, weapons and drugs, though none earned him prison time.
Flores knew that. But she also knew how thoughtful Nieto was, how kind he was toward her children and how much he cared for those whom he loved.
“He’s nothing what the news talked about,” Flores said. “I just want people to know who he really was.”
Who was Michael Nieto?
Born in Texas, Michael Nieto moved to South Florida when he was 7.
He grew up in Palm Beach County. His parents split. He had a younger sister. A grandmother and an uncle, the one whose home he shot into, helped raised him.
That information about his early childhood is gleaned from stories Nieto shared with Flores. Nieto’s mother would not speak to The Palm Beach Post either about her son or his death. While Flores grieves by watching goofy videos of Nieto, his mother can barely speak of him, Flores said.
Flores met Nieto online in August 2018. She said she had updated her profile picture on Facebook and received a flood of new friend requests. Nieto’s was the only one she accepted. She isn’t sure why.
They messaged continuously for weeks and sat and talked for hours when they first got together.
They quickly moved in together and she said he took on a fatherlike role with her two children, 5 and 1. Even after spending the day working constructions jobs out in the sun, Nieto came home and spun them around in his arms, Flores recalled.
Nieto’s two children lived in Georgia with their mother. He visited them three times in the months after he was released from prison, Flores said, and the children planned to spend the summer with him in South Florida.
Ask about his relationship with those four kids and Flores pulls out her phone. The videos explain better than she can.
They danced. They made silly faces. They laughed, a lot.
Then there are the videos of Flores and Nieto. He made sure to document her embarrassed blush and his kidlike grin as restaurant employees sang her “Happy Birthday” this spring, the balloons and flowers he set up to surprise her for Valentine’s Day and his nervous proposal in December.
“He was a great father. He was a great man,” Flores said.
Flores assumed Nieto was going to buy a cigar or a snack at the corner store. He hadn’t been able to find his wallet, so he grabbed change from their coin jar.
Not long after he left, Flores found his wallet. She texted him a picture, teasing him for struggling to find something she spotted in minutes.
He never replied.
Bradshaw said his deputies planned to meet Nieto at about 8 p.m. behind the Abbey Road Plaza on Military Trail to buy narcotics from him in an undercover sting.
That evening, deputies brought the feds along — the FBI and the DEA — in hopes that Nieto would give them information on MS-13. Bradshaw said his office spent months investigating Nieto as part of its investigations into the international gang known for its violent crimes as well as drug and human trafficking throughout Latin America and the United States.
When deputies announced “sheriff’s office” as they approached Flores’ sedan, which Nieto drove across the street that night, he “immediately” fired at least two shots, one into a deputy’s face, Bradshaw said.
Three deputies were behind him. It is unclear how many returned fire, but they shot enough to kill Nieto.
Flores said she called and texted Nieto repeatedly until she fell asleep at about midnight. She woke up shortly afterward to the sound of deputies pounding on her door.
They had a warrant to search the place. She said they didn’t explain why.
She and her tired toddler sat outside their apartment as deputies tore apart the home. No one mentioned that the man she planned to marry, whose child she was carrying, was dead, she said.
Four more hours passed before Nieto’s frantic mother called. Nieto wouldn’t be coming home.
Flores had to reconfigure her life. Her pet grooming equipment, which she used for school and work, was in the sedan Nieto was driving, meaning her livelihood is stuck in sheriff’s evidence, along with her means of transportation.
She’s moved out of the Palm Beach Gardens apartment and in with relatives.
Meanwhile, three of the four investigators who were involved in the shooting and placed on paid-administrative leave have returned to work.
The sheriff’s office will not name any of the four because they were working in an undercover capacity. They were, however, wearing marked sheriff’s office clothing when they approached Nieto. The office did say the deputies had been with the department since December 2006, January 2007, July 2014 and January 2016.
The injured deputy isn’t back to full duty, the sheriff’s office said Wednesday.
For John Kazanjian, president of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, that deputy is yet another example of the dangers law-enforcement officers face when doing their jobs.
“Nowadays I don’t care what unit you’re in. They are all dangerous,” Kazanjian said shortly after the shooting.
In a since-removed Facebook post, the sheriff’s office released a photo of the injured deputy along with other narcotics investigators, holding a quilt someone made for him.
“Gifts from our community and their love and appreciation keep us going during tough times!” the post reads.
Flores’ children are what keep her going.
Not long after Nieto was killed, her daughter flipped her head back, looked toward the sky and started to speak.
“I asked her, ‘Who are you talking to?’ and she said, ‘I’m talking to Daddy,’ and I said, ‘What did he say to you?’
“He said he loves me and to take care of Mommy,” the little girl replied.