By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Three hours before he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, Lauderhill Police Officer Elijah “Eli” Rodgers wrote a four-paragraph goodbye.
Then he emailed it to several hundred of his fellow city employees – from City Manager Chuck Faranda on down.
“For those who know me as a friend or co-worker, they know I am a good person who strives to work hard and do the right thing. Unfortunately, some who become (sic) jealous began to weave a web of lies to discredit and try to ruin my career,” Rodgers wrote.
“I want to apologize to all my fellow co-workers for the negative publicity and hope someone listens now.’
The date was Feb. 24, 2011. Rodgers, 31, had just learned Broward corruption prosecutors were preparing a warrant for his arrest the next day on charges of official misconduct and falsifying official records. He took his life after an hour long stand off with police at a friend’s home in Pembroke Pines.
Broward Bulldog used Florida’s public records law to obtain Rodgers’ email, and other documents about what happened.
Newly released police and prosecutors records show that two of Rodgers’ colleagues in Lauderhill’s troubled Crime Suppression Unit who provided information to prosecutors – Officers Thomas Yopps and Raymond Ranger – were fired in December and January for violating departmental rules regarding honesty and competency.
The city did not announce the firings, and police officials have not publicly acknowledged problems with the Crime Suppression Unit.
Both men contend they did nothing wrong and are appealing their terminations.
Dead cop names colleague
In his suicide note, Rodgers singled out Yopps. He mentioned no one else by name.
“The lies that Thomas Yopps (police officer) told stated I lied in a police report. I tried to explain to the State Attorney’s office and told them about the hostile working environment to no avail,” he wrote. “Yopps is a bad person who could unravel all the hard work every department in the city has worked so hard to accomplish.”
A report on Rodgers’ death by the Fraternal Order of Police suggests the enmity was mutual.
The report by Lauderhill FOP Lodge 161 Vice President Michael Gordon says a half-dozen officers reported hearing Yopps say Rodgers was a “dirty cop” and that he was going to “get” him. And when Rodgers killed himself, Yopps “placed a Grim Reaper license plate on the front of his police vehicle,” the report says.
In an interview this week, Yopps said he bore no hatred for Rodgers. “I respected him as a person,” he said. He added, however, that he was “extremely shocked, extremely pissed off and extremely upset” when he learned what Rodgers had said about him in his final declaration.
Yopps referred other questions to his attorney, Pompano Beach’s Johnny McCray Jr. McCray did not return phone messages.
The FOP report strongly criticized Lauderhill police brass for “poor judgments and decisions” that “led to a series of very serious consequences” that likely could have been avoided with proper management.
“Shockingly, not one person on the command staff who had knowledge and failed to act…is being held accountable for their failure and that is a travesty,” the report says.
“Even the City of Lauderhill’s management in some small way is to blame by promoting staff into ranks that they were not ready to assume from a lack of proper training and/or lack of well-rounded experience perspective,” the report says.
John Puleo is ex-Officer Ranger’s FOP representative. He said command staff can expect to be questioned when his client’s case is aired.
“It’s going to arbitration in about four or five months,” said Puleo. “Higher-ups knew what was going on and nobody did nothing.”
Police Chief Andrew Smalling, who became chief last September, did not return phone messages seeking comment.
Criminal case opened
The criminal case against Rodgers, an Iraq War veteran, began in October 2010 after Lauderhill Assistant Chief Michael Cochran enlisted help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, according to a Lauderhill Internal Affairs report.
The report does not say what caused Cochran to seek help at that time. It does, however, say that for as long as a year top police officials had considered Rodgers problematic.
At one point, then-Police Chief Kenneth Pachnek even tried to enlist “several outside police agencies to conduct a proactive investigation” of Rodgers. He was unsuccessful, but the report does not say or explain why Rodgers was nonetheless allowed to remain in the Crime Suppression Unit that was formed in 2009.
Under a grant of immunity, Yopps provided the information that led to the affidavit seeking Rodgers’ arrest.
The State Attorney’s memo that closed the case following Rodgers’ suicide says the case involved an unlawful drug possession arrest in November 2010.
Rodgers reported at the time that during a traffic stop in the city at 440 W. Sunrise Blvd. he found a single Methadone pill in the lap of a male passenger. But Yopps, his partner that day, later told prosecutors that wasn’t true and provided a different version of events. Prosecutors said independent witnesses corroborated Yopp’s account.
Other incidents surface
The memo by Assistant State Attorney Tim Donnelly says prosecutors were investigating two other criminal allegations when Rodgers killed himself.
One case involved an allegedly falsified police report in which Rodgers was suspected of concocting a confession from a defendant. Another had to do with an incident in the Lauderhill Police holding cell area while Rodgers and Ranger were processing an individual charged with possession of marijuana.
“Ranger stated that Rodgers weighed the evidence, whereupon, he made a comment to the effect that it was only a misdemeanor based on weight. Officer Ranger further stated that when he turned around he saw Officer Rodgers adding what appeared to be marijuana to the baggie and then said ‘we’re okay, now it’s a felony.”
More allegations and observations about Rodgers are detailed in the city’s 91-page Internal Affairs report.
The report says that for a while in 2009 Yopps kept a list of Rodgers’ transgressions.
“Every time Rodgers violated someone’s rights or did something that was not right, Officer Yopps would jot it down,” the report says. “On December 18, 2009… Yopps stopped documenting violations because he got tired of doing it.
Ranger told FDLE Special Agent Novia Maduro in October 2010 that he would often assist Rodgers searching cars during traffic stops.
“Officer Ranger would not locate illegal contraband, but Officer Rodgers would do a second search and locate narcotics,” the report says.
Ranger told investigators about overhearing Rescue Medics talk about how they once saw drugs stashed underneath Rodgers’ bulletproof vest tumble out after he was involved in a traffic crash.
The report says that after providing some information, Ranger balked at further cooperation.
Agent Maduro noted that Ranger “has personal knowledge of multiple incidents in which (Rodgers) allegedly engaged in inappropriate behavior while on duty; however, it appeared that Officer Ranger failed to notify the appropriate authorities in fear of agency reprisal.”
Rigged arrests out there?
After Rodgers killed himself, allegations of misconduct began to swirl involving Yopps, Ranger and other members of the Crime Suppression Unit. Chief Pachnek ordered the internal investigation.
In his January 30 termination letter to Ranger, City Manger Faranda accused him of failing to notify supervisors when he witnessed Rodgers’ misconduct and “deception” in his interviews with investigators.
Faranda cited Yopps for multiple failings regarding two arrests by Rodgers in which Yopps signed arrest paperwork even though he knew “the crimes for which they were arrested had not occurred.”
“The fact that you signed the affidavits with the full knowledge that the arrests were unlawful is extremely disconcerting,” Faranda wrote.
Internal affairs investigators deemed as unfounded similar alleged violations leveled by Yopps against another Crime Suppression Unit member, Detective Alexis Iwaskewycz.
The official reports do not address the number of people who may have been wrongly arrested by Rodgers or other Crime Suppression Unit members. But the FOP report by Michael Gordon says that if police supervisors had better followed established policies, events including Rodgers’ suicide might have unfolded differently.
“How many people were arrested and charged with crimes they did not commit will never be known but I am certain others might exist and not all can be blamed on just Officer Rodgers,” said Gordon.