By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Convicted killer Robert Burkell Photo: Broward Sheriff’s Office
Ten years ago, killer Robert Burkell bludgeoned to death his 81-year-old tenant Charles Bertheas, cracking open his aged skull like an eggshell, according to police. The motive: money.
Today, Burkell is in prison for life. But his wife Susan, a Lauderhill resident who authorities say did not participate in the slaying but knew what was happening, is set to inherit more than $214,000 of the victim’s money.
Bertheas’s eight elderly brothers and sisters, who live in France, won’t see a dime. Charles Bertheas designated the Burkells as co-beneficiaries on his accounts at the Bank of America.
Florida law blocks convicted killers like Robert Burkell from receiving property or other benefits because of their victim’s death. The law, however, does not extend to their spouses or consider the murderous circumstances of their crime.
“This is a travesty,” said Broward Assistant State Attorney Peter Holden. “She’s benefiting from her husband’s criminal offense…It stinks.”
“We couldn’t prove she was involved in the murder,” said BSO Detective Tim Duggan. “The only thing we could say was there was no way that she could not have known it was going on. She left moments before it happened.
Mary Susan Burkell, 63, says prosecutors and police have it completely wrong. Her husband was mistakenly convicted of Bertheas’s murder, she said, and now Holden and Duggan are falsely slandering her.
“They said I knew what was happening? What a pair. What a pair,” she said. “No. That’s not correct. They have fantasized over this for so long. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Charles Bertheas, whose skull was crushed
The Florida Department of Financial Services, which has been holding Bertheas’s money, awarded it to Susan Burkell in a final order dated March 21. With the help of a Tampa private investigation agency, SRS International, she filed a claim for the property last August after the department rejected a claim by the dead man’s brother. SRS stands to collect a 20 percent commission.
Marc Bertheas, who is 80 and lives in the Paris suburb of Saint Denis, opposed the award and sought an extension of the state’s 30-day time limit to file an appeal. In a letter to the department postmarked April 19, he stated he needed time to find a U.S. lawyer, explaining that he was not fluent in English and had special medical conditions that limit his ability to communicate with legal counsel.
The Financial Services department rejected Bertheas’s request. The reason: It did not receive his letter until April 23 – the day after the deadline.
“Unfortunately, the referenced time period has expired and the department has taken steps to disburse the underlying unclaimed property funds in accordance with the final order,” Financial Services attorney Kate Pingolt Cotner informed Marc Bertheas in an April 25 letter.
Widower Charles Bertheas died Nov. 23, 2003 on the floor of the converted family room he rented from the Burkells in their four-bedroom home at 9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac.
9107 NW 72 Court, Tamarac, the scene of the crime
Robert Burkell, now 64, summoned police that afternoon after reportedly finding the body. Bertheas had been dead for at least several hours.
Burkell told police he’d last seen Bertheas the night before when they had dinner together at a bar in Sawgrass Mills. He said he thought Bertheas might have hit his head in a drunken fall.
But “a large pool of blood” around the body, and a detective’s observation of “considerable trauma to the victim’s face and head” raised suspicion, court records say. The medical examiner’s office later classified the death as a homicide and attributed it to blunt trauma. The weapon used by the killer to crush Bertheas’s head was never identified.
A motive soon became apparent when it was found that Burkell had “forged a $10,000 check in Mr. Bertheas’s name” the night before the murder, according to Duggan. It wasn’t until later that police learned Bertheas had designated Robert and Susan Burkell as the beneficiaries of accounts containing $280,000 in savings at the time of his death, records say. That included proceeds from the sale of the condo he once shared with his late wife.
No signs of forced entry or a struggle were found at the home, and no valuables were missing. The victim’s DNA was discovered in bloodstains on a bath mat and counter top in the master bath – a location Susan Burkell later testified only she and her husband used. Likewise, two bare sole footprints found in dried blood adjacent to the body were matched to Robert Burkell, the records say.
Burkell was arrested two days before Christmas. It wasn’t his first arrest for murder.
Detective Duggan said that in 1986 Burkell confessed to bludgeoning William Yalden, a Geneva, N.Y. businessman whose body was later found in an Ohio cornfield, “in the exact same manner as he killed Bertheas.” Burkell’s confession was thrown out prior to trial, however, because of a Miranada rights warning issue, Duggan said.
“He definitely got away with that one,” said Duggan.
Things turned out differently for Burkell 20 years later in Florida. While Burkell did not confess to killing Bertheas, he was nevertheless convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. His conviction was upheld on appeal in 2008.
The money in Bertheas’s bank accounts was turned over to the state as unclaimed property in 2005. In 2011, Marc Bertheas tried to claim it, but his claim was denied because he was not a beneficiary.
Burkell’s murder conviction meant he had no longer had a legal claim to Bertheas’ money. Florida law treats killers who stand to inherit from their victims as if they died first.
“Consequently, Susan Burkell is the only beneficiary who is legally permitted to receive the unclaimed property funds at issue,” the Department of Financial Services decided.
Robert Burkell, who has three children by his wife of 40 years, is currently being held at the Broward County Jail while awaiting a ruling on his lawyer’s motion for a new trial based on ineffective assistance of trial counsel. The motion is pending before Broward Circuit Judge Raag Singhal.
On the day she was interviewed, Susan Burkell had not received any payout from the state. How much she will ultimately get is unclear.
For reasons that are not made clear in state records, the $280,000 that was in Bertheas’s accounts at the time of his death had dwindled to $214,221.86 by 2008. Detective Duggan said he’s heard that amount has dwindled further – eaten away by attorney fees.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman Photo: WSVN-Channel 7
Broward prosecutors who declined to charge a Coconut Creek policeman who pulled a Taser on a frightened theft suspect standing in a bathtub never asked the officer under oath why he hadn’t mentioned the incident in his police reports.
Assistant State Attorney Stefanie Newman investigated police allegations that Officer James Yacobellis committed assault and tried to cover it up by falsifying his reports to omit the 2011 bathroom incident.
On Aug. 21 2012, Newman took an hour-long, voluntary sworn statement from Yacobellis. The 55-page transcript shows she did not question Yacobellis about the omission or ask him to answer his department’s allegation that he had falsified his reports.
Likewise, Newman did not ask Yacobellis to respond to accusations from the young man he interrogated in the bathroom, Blake L. Robinson, who claimed under oath that Yacobellis had threatened him with the Taser.
But two months later, Newman offered her own theory to explain Yacobellis’s incomplete police reports in her closeout memo that ended the inquiry without criminal charges.
“There appears to be no intent to hide this fact and the state has no evidence to rebut a contention that this was inadvertently left off the report,” wrote Newman, a prosecutor in State Attorney Mike Satz’s corruption unit.
Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly, who approved the closeout memo, said this week that Yacobellis was under no legal requirement to include in his reports any facts about the bathroom incident.
Public corruption unit chief Timothy Donnelly
“The fact that he omitted any description of what occurred in the bathroom did not make the report false,” said Donnelly. “While (Newman) doesn’t ask him why he never put that in the report, there is no requirement that he put it in the report.”
Nova Southeastern University professor of constitutional law Robert Jarvis called Donnelly’s assertion “laughable.” Jarvis said the facts Yacobellis left out of his reports were clearly important to the state’s criminal investigation.
“They’re not being reasonable,” said Jarvis. “A police report is supposed to be a fair and accurate summary of what took place…It is very easy to see in this case that it is material if you put a suspect in a bathtub and you have a Taser out.”
“This sounds like a very unusual interrogation, and the more unusual it is the more complete a report has to be. It should bother anybody because that is not the way the cops should operate,” he said.
Records show Officer Yacobellis was summoned to Coconut Creek’s Star Pointe apartments on Aug. 15, 2011 to investigate a report of missing jewelry involving several members of the same family. After two suspects were identified, Yacobellis took one of them, Robinson, into a small bathroom for questioning. The door was closed and the sink faucet was turned on full.
Both Robinson and Coconut Creek police Sgt. Dominic Coppola later stated that Yacobellis held a Taser while a frightened Robinson stood in the bathtub. Under oath, Sgt. Coppola testified the Taser was switched on, with its laser beam targeting system emitting.
Coppola said he asked Yacobellis what was going on and Yacobellis replied, “I was telling Mr. Blake (Robinson) here how my report was going to read when he resists and I tase him.”
Newman concluded in her closeout memo that the statement could be either a threat or a response to a threat from Robinson. She then went on to express tolerance for police who display a Taser during an interrogation.
“It is entirely possible that Officer Yacobellis may have taken out his Taser in an attempt to scare Blake (Robinson) into confessing,” Newman wrote. “While this may not have been the best technique to interrogate a suspect, the intent, by all accounts, was certainly to help the victims recover their missing items.
Civil rights advocates, however, called what happened a disturbing example of police misconduct akin to torture.
Broward Public Defender Howard Finkelstein asked the Justice Department this month to investigate the State Attorney’s “long, distressing history” of condoning improper interrogation techniques.
Coconut Police Officer James Yacobellis
In his sworn statement last summer, Yacobellis confirmed he took a compliant Robinson into the bathroom for questioning and said he displayed his Taser only after Robinson started becoming “antsy.”
Yacobellis complained that Sgt. Coppola’s statement about him was riddled with inaccuracies and “lies,” though he offered no reason why Coppola would lie about him. He likewise denied activating his Taser and said Robinson didn’t look scared to him.
Yacobellis complained, too, about Police Chief Michael Mann, asserting the chief had unfairly disciplined him in the past and once threatened to “ruin” his reputation.
Yacobellis said that shortly after the bathtub incident the chief put him on paid administrative leave and ordered him to submit to what he termed a “psyche,” or fitness for duty evaluation by a local doctor.
The doctor found Yacobellis “temporarily unfit,” Yacobellis stated. Prosecutor Newman did not ask him to explain why.
Yacobellis’s union lawyer, Anthony Alfero, stated that another doctor hired by the Broward County Police Benevolent Association concluded “there’s nothing wrong with this guy at all, get him back to work.”
When Newman began to wrap up Yacobellis’s statement without asking him about the false reports allegation Alfero brought it up.
“We don’t know what falsification has to do with these reports,” Alfero said. “If you don’t want to tell us, you don’t have to. But we’re trying to answer the questions so…”
“I think you have. I think you have,” Newman replied.
By Michael Pollick, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Pompano Beach’s Custom Wood Creations
A Broward County Circuit Court jury has levied a $6 million judgment against FCCI Commercial Insurance Co. for breaching a contract and maliciously prosecuting the owners of a Pompano Beach-based woodworking company, Custom Wood Creations Inc.
The jury award includes $4.8 million in compensatory damages and $1.2 million in punitive damages.
During a three-week trial that ended last week, jurors were told that FCCI refused to fully pay a claim for damage suffered during 2005′s Hurricane Wilma to the husband-and-wife team who owned Custom Wood Creations.
FCCI instead sought to implicate one of the victims, Debra Peters, with insurance fraud. FCCI’s special investigations unit filed false and incomplete information with the Florida Department of Financial Services insurance fraud unit, the suit alleged.
Criminal charges alleging insurance fraud were filed against Peters, who was arrested and spent 16 hours in jail, according to Schlesinger Law Offices, which won the case on contingency basis for the Peters family.
The criminal case against Peters was dismissed in April 2008 for lack of evidence.
FCCI senior vice president Cina Welch said the company is “disappointed in the verdict. But, nonetheless, we continue to have faith in the judicial system, and our focus is on settling claims fairly and ethically for our policyholders and claimants.
“Our reputation is paramount to us, so we will consider appealing the verdict,” Welch said.
An appeal could stretch the final settlement of the case by 18 months to three years.
Welch declined to comment on the particulars of the case, citing the possibility of an appeal.
Founded as a workers’ compensation insurance company in Sarasota in 1959, FCCI now writes multiple lines of commercial property and casualty insurance and has 17,000 policyholders and more than $1.75 billion in assets.
FCCI employs 680, including 375 at its Lakewood Ranch headquarters.
Like most insurance companies, FCCI has its own internal fraud investigators. The FCCI Special Investigations Unit “is highly skilled and trained to quickly identify and aggressively combat fraud,” the FCCI website states.
But in this case, the jury said the unit went too far.
“The central thesis of the case was that the SIU, ostensibly designed to root out fraud, had actually been subverted to an ulterior purpose, which was that of a profit center,” said Scott P. Schlesinger, the couple’s Fort Lauderdale attorney.
FCCI had paid a partial claim of $343,000 after Hurricane Wilma tore the roof off the family’s manufacturing plant and damaged valuable machinery, the couple’s attorneys said.
But then, instead of paying the rest of the $1 million claim, FCCI’s special investigations unit sought to get the first check back. Representatives of the unit contacted a detective at the Florida Department of Financial Services and asked the agency to investigate Debra Peters for insurance fraud, the suit alleged.
At first, the state’s detective said there were not enough grounds. But emails revealed in the trial showed FCCI’s special investigations unit prompted the underwriter on the policy to beef up his affidavit.
“The underwriter, relying on what SIU told him, said it was fraud in the application, and had they known, they never would have written the policy,” Hammer said.
That amended affidavit allowed the state detective to file the insurance fraud case against Peters, which was then prosecuted by the Broward County State Attorney’s office.
“That was the core of this case, that the SIU for FCCI was driving this investigation, pushing it, and caused this woman to get arrested. And it was all to save money so they didn’t have to pay the claim,” said Steven J. Hammer, the Schlesinger firm’s lead attorney on the case. “For the next year, she had to face court charges that could have put her in prison for up to 30 years.”
As part of its punitive damages jury form, the six-member jury said that FCCI not only intended to harm Debra Peters, but that the company was motivated “solely by unreasonable financial gain.”
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Herson Hilaire, left, and his brother Hedson were shot to death by Miramar police two years ago
Two years ago, Miramar police shot to death two brothers in a residential parking lot during a nighttime drug investigation.
Now it turns out that one of the men – hit six times – was killed by mistake, according to a Broward County Grand Jury report.
Still, no criminal charges will be filed against the four officers who together fired 49 shots at Herson and Hedson Hilaire after Herson allegedly tried to run down an officer at the Tuscany Apartments complex about 9 p.m. on Feb. 1, 2011.
According to the grand jury, both men’s deaths at the hands of police were justified.
“Officer Marc Moretti, Officer Damaso Espiritusanto, Officer Bosco Neuhaus and Officer Michael Bolduc unintentionally injured and killed Hedson Hilaire while using justifiable deadly force against Herson Hilaire in self-defense or defense of others,” says the 10-page report that publicly identifies those officers for the first time.
Neither of the Hilaire brothers is described in the report as having been armed.
Hedson Hilaire, 33, died in the passenger seat of the blue, 2003 Honda Civic his brother was driving. Herson Hilaire, 28, piled out of the car after the shooting started and ran, only to be gunned down on the street about 20 feet away, the report says.
The grand jury, whose report was made public in October to little notice, wrote that it examined “numerous” physical exhibits and took sworn testimony from 14 witnesses, including civilians. It is unclear from the report whether any of those civilian witnesses observed the shooting.
Officers Moretti, Espiritusanto and Neuhaus appeared voluntarily to testify before the grand jury. Officer Bolduc did not testify. The report does not say why.
OFFICIAL ACCOUNT OF GRAND JURY
Here’s the grand jury’s official account of how the Hilaire brothers died:
Police Safe Streets Unit Officers Bolduc and Espiritusanto were on foot patrol that evening in the apartment complex at Southwest 29th Street and 83rd Avenue.
“From a common area outside a window they observed two individuals through some open blinds, later identified as brothers Herson Hilaire and Hedson Hilaire, engaged in what appeared to be the cutting and packaging of crack cocaine, an activity they recognized from their police training and experience,” the report says.
That alleged drug packaging included handling a “racquetball-sized chunk” of crack by the kitchen sink.
Officers Bolduc and Espiritusanto notified their sergeant and Moretti and Neuhaus. Initially, they planned what’s known in police parlance as a “knock and talk” – knock on the front door and ask for consent to search the home or obtain other information needed to obtain a search warrant.
Before they could do that, however, the Hilaire brothers walked outside and got in the blue Honda parked nearby.
On the police radio, the unidentified sergeant instructed the officers to “casually approach” the suspects.
The four officers “casually approached the vehicle on foot, without guns drawn, as directed by their sergeant. The officers were dressed in tactical uniforms, all black, with ‘POLICE’ in yellow block letters across the front of chest and back,” the report says.
Herson Hilaire, in the driver’s seat, backed out of the parking space, “but instead of proceeding on the roadway and driving away, turned and veered toward the closest officer, Officer Marc Moretti, as he was stepping off the sidewalk curb.”
The report says Moretti had been approaching the car “with one hand held up in the air, palm out, and saying, ‘Hey can we talk to you?’ when that blue Honda Civic suddenly came towards him.”
As he was about to be struck, Moretti “removed his handgun from his holster and began firing it at the driver.” The other three officers did, too.
OFFICER STRUCK BY CAR
Moretti was struck by the car and knocked onto the hood and off onto the ground. The vehicle went through the spot where Moretti had been standing and “hit a tree with sufficient force to topple it and damage the vehicle’s front bumper by indenting and enveloping it around the tree trunk,” the report says. Moretti suffered minor injuries.
The car’s engine, however, continued to rev “with audible sounds of acceleration.”
Moretti was momentarily knocked unconscious on the ground near the car and was not visible to the other officers. Officer Neuhaus yelled, “Let me see your hands. Stop, let me see your hands!” to no response.
Fearing for Moretti’s safety, the officers opened fire again at the driver.
Moretti quickly came to, heard the engine revving, and also began firing.
Second later, Herson Hilaire exited the car and ran. “Stop running, stop running, stop running,” Espiritusanto yelled.
When Herson Hilaire didn’t stop Moretti, Neuhaus and Espiritusanto fired again. He collapsed on the street about 20 feet from the Honda.
His brother, Hedson, was dead in the passenger seat after sustaining “fatal wounds in the crossfire of gunshots directed at the driver,” the report says.
The four officers each fired the same type of service weapon: .40 Smith and Wesson Glock Model 22 pistols.
FOUR OFFICERS: 49 SHOTS
In all, 49 shots were fired: 17 by Espiritusanto, 16 by Moretti, and eight each by Bolduc and Neuhaus.
The driver, Herson Hilaire, was shot seven times, including chest, neck and back. Toxicology showed the presence of a small amount of alcohol, methadone, sinus-cold medication and cannabinoids – a chemical compound found in marijuana.
The report says Herson Hilaire had a “reputation for violence…that bears on the issue of who was the initial aggressor in this event.” The officers who saw him “fleeing in a direction where civilians, including children, as well as other officers had been observed,” would have “reasonably believed” him to be an imminent threat “to whomever he might next encounter.”
Hedson Hilaire was shot six times, including the head and back. Only a small measure of alcohol was found in his body. The grand jury said some of his wounds may have been caused by the same bullets.
The brothers lived in Miami. The grand jury reported that the Honda and the Miramar apartment were both in the name of another individual it did not identify and who could not be located. Phone records showed that person was in touch with the brothers shortly before they left the apartment.
“Evidence of cocaine” was found in the apartment by police, but is not detailed in the report.
Instead, the grand jury said it had accepted “circumstantial evidence” provided by the landlord that the unidentified tenant later returned after the lease had expired and removed the racquetball-sized chunk of crack cocaine from the drainpipe under the kitchen sink.
The report is signed by Grand Jury Foreman Christopher Stella.
By Karla Bowsher, BrowardBulldog.org
Milt Grant in 1964
Milton Grant made millions as he rock ‘n’ rolled Washington DC television, hosting a highly popular 1950s dance show, among other ventures.
“The Milt Grant Show” featured guests like Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Harry Belafonte, who performed for teenagers – girls in circle skirts and petticoats, boys in sport coats and ties – bopped on the dance floor.
But since he died of cancer at age 83 in April 2007, Milt’s legacy has moved from the dance floor to the courtroom. The longtime Fort Lauderdale resident’s fortune – originally worth $58 million – remains hostage to a messy legal estate battle that pits family against family.
Milt Grant’s only son, Thomas J. “Jeff” Grant, has filed estate-related lawsuits several times in two states, including last month in Broward Circuit Court. He contends the professional estate administrators in charge of his father’s three trusts have ignored his father’s wishes and taken sides against him while raking in millions of dollars in fees. He wants the administrators removed and the unjustified fees returned to the estate.
“He would be rolling in his grave if he knew what was happening,” said Grant, 45, of his father.
After his TV show ended in 1961, Milt Grant went on to build Fort Lauderdale-based Grant Communications. In 1966, he launched Washington, D.C. television station WDCA, which he later sold for $13.5 million. He helped start stations in Dallas and Houston, which he ultimately sold for more than $150 million. In 1984, he founded independent WBFS, Channel 33 in Miami.
Today, Grant Communications controls seven TV stations in Alabama, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin, including Fox and CW affiliates.
Along the way, Milt Grant also built two families.
He fathered two daughters with his wife, Shirley Grant, to whom he remained married until his death – although court records state they had been estranged for 51 years. She lives in Maryland, and did not respond to a telephone message seeking comment.
Court records state Milt Grant spent the latter half of his life with girlfriend Tommy Jo Price. The couple never married but had Thomas Grant together. Price died in a Miami Beach hospital in April 2008, a year after Milt’s death. She was 64.
Grant’s November lawsuit accuses Bessemer Trust Company of Florida and Boca Raton lawyer Daniel Mielnicki, his father’s estate planning attorney, of “conspiracy, corruption and greed” that amounted to a breach of fiduciary duty. The complaint asks Judge Speiser to remove Bessemer as trustee and Mielnicki as the legal protector of Milt’s living trust, and seeks money damages to be determined by a jury.
A similar request for a jury trial has been filed in Delaware, where Milt’s two irrevocable trusts are managed.
Among other things, Grant’s complaint contends that his mother was “abruptly fired” from her job at Grant Communications after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Upon her death, Bessemer Trust officials allegedly told him that there was no money in the huge estate to bury her.
“Shockingly, there was apparently enough money for Bessemer to pay its management fees and attorneys’ fees hundreds of thousands of dollars per month,” the complaint says.
Court records show Grant filed a similar wrongful termination complaint about himself shortly after his father’s death. Grant, who sold national advertising for Grant Communications, claimed that his father’s will had provided for his continued employment at a salary of $125,000 a year.
But Broward Circuit Judge Mark Speiser ruled against him – determining that a job was not a property right that could be passed down through a will.
An appeal is pending in Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal.
Court documents filed by Grant’s lawyer state that Grant and Shirley are each projected to receive approximately $20 million from the estate.
But Grant’s new complaint accuses Bessemer of “extravagantly favoring” Shirley.
“Bessemer’s blatant collusion to hide information from Thomas while providing it to Shirley, entering into secret agreements with Shirley and to pay her more money than Milt intended, and actions to divide Milt’s estate for Shirley and Bessemer’s benefit to the detriment of Thomas are multiple reasons to justify the removal of” Bessemer as trustee, the complaint says.
For example, Grant’s lawsuit claims that Shirley, who received $1,500 a month from Milt Grant after they separated, has received about $3 million from estate assets since his death. But Price and Grant, who were financially dependent upon Milt Grant, have received about $250,000 since his death.
Bessemer has filed a motion asking the judge to put Grant’s lawsuit on hold until certain issues in the case are resolved.
“Bessemer Trust believes that Thomas Grant’s claims are unfounded,” said Bessemer in-house lawyer Julian Swearengin in an emailed statement.
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST?
Attorney Mielnicki is accused of having conflicting interests in his dealings with the estate. For instance, the suit says, as an attorney at Greenberg Traurig Mielnicki “drafted an approximate one-million dollar gift to himself” in Milt’s estate plan.
Mielnicki, now a partner in the Boca Raton office of Berger Singerman, had other roles in the estate. He wrote himself in as the trust protector of several of Milt trusts, a post intended to represent the decedent’s intentions. He also chose Bessemer, according to the suit.
“The many hats worn by Attorney Mielnicki is a concern for us,” said Grant’s Fort Lauderdale lawyer, Jennifer Walker. “He was all over the place.”
Mielnicki did not respond to interview requests.
Despite the prolonged legal battle, Grant remains hopeful.
“There’s no guarantees, but I’m very optimistic,” he said.
Milt’s legacy, which includes headlining a TV show with an audience that reportedly exceeded Philadelphia-based Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” continues outside court.
“We were part of the great new beginning of television, and there was just so much energy,” Grant once said to the Washington Post. “It made me fall in love with television and all its powers.”
Karla Bowsher can be reached at email@example.com.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Broward Circuit Judge Michele Towbin-Singer, left, and ex-Judge Marcia Beach
A state appeals court chief judge and three Broward Circuit Court judges lent their names to Bob Butterworth’s private push for a $44.8 million-a-year state mental health management contract, state records show.
The judges are recently resigned members of the board of directors of Broward Behavioral Health Coalition, a nonprofit that teamed up with Miami’s for-profit Concordia Behavioral Health to win the deal.
A multiyear contract is to be signed this week that establishes Broward Behavioral as the county’s new “managing entity” for substance abuse and mental health services.
Three judges who joined the board early on are identified by name and title on bid documents submitted to the Florida Department of Children and Families last winter by Butterworth, a former DCF secretary who is president and chairman of Broward Behavioral. Biographies of the judges were included.
Florida’s Code of Judicial Conduct, however, prohibits judges from lending “the prestige of judicial office to advance the private interests of the judge or others.”
The judges are Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May, Broward Circuit Judges Michele Towbin-Singer and Marcia Beach – who recently retired, and county mental health court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren. Towbin-Singer succeeded Beach in drug court.
Each of the judges resigned from Broward Behavioral’s board this month after a state judicial ethics panel ruled in June that judges may not serve on such boards. Earlier, Butterworth had assured DCF negotiators the judges would not step down.
Fourth District Court of Appeal Chief Judge Melanie May
The last to resign: Judge May, who quit minutes before Monday evening’s board meeting. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
The ethics opinion has not stopped judges around the state from serving on the boards of other DCF managing entities.
For example, in Miami-Dade Judges Steven Leifman and Jeri Beth Cohen serve on the board of the South Florida Behavioral Health Network. Leifman chairs the group.
DCF’s contract award in Broward last March prompted a bid protest from a competing group that claimed the contract had been illegally steered to Butterworth’s group by unnamed state officials. The protest was dismissed, but the corruption allegations were not investigated.
JUDGES’ NAMES MADE AN IMPRESSION
Records show the judges’ presence on the board impressed DCF’s negotiators. Shortly before the contract was awarded last March, negotiators cited the judges as a reason to look favorably on Broward Behavioral’s bid, a review of audio recordings show.
BrowardBulldog.org reported last week that a silent investor in Concordia, Broward Behavioral’s profit-seeking partner, is a deep-pocketed political insider who has given heavily to Gov. Rick Scott’s campaigns.
On Jan. 25, while DCF’s Broward procurement was pending, Concordia shareholder Miguel B. Fernandez gave $125,000 to Let’s Get to Work, an organization raising money for Scott’s 2014 re-election campaign.
Fernandez, a wealthy Coral Gables healthcare entrepreneur, and one of his companies, MBF Family Investments, together have contributed $625,000 to Let’s Get to Work since September 2010, records show.
JUDGES AND ETHICS
The connection of big campaign money to the Broward managing entity contract is particularly problematic for judges who are generally supposed to steer clear of political influence.
But there was another problem.
The June 11 ethics opinion that held judges should not serve on the boards of private, not-for-profit corporations that – like Broward Behavioral – are organized to administer tens of millions of dollars in DCF funds.
A judge in Palm Beach County had sought the opinion from a Florida Supreme Court committee that advises judges so they can steer clear of trouble.
“Of particular concern in the present case is the nature of the managing entity. Viewed one way, the managing entity is a stand-in for an agency of the executive branch,” the opinion says. Judges who serve on such boards “could be said to be involved in the granting of governmental funds and overseeing their use.”
The opinion cited another concern: that judges who serve on such boards could be perceived as conduits or agents for vendors like Concordia.
“Whether or not the (unidentified vendor) is itself a corporation not for profit, a judge should take care not to lend the prestige of judicial office to advance its interests,” the opinion says.
Broward County Court Judge Ginger Lerner-Wren
Judges May, Towbin-Singer and Beach served on Broward Behavioral’s board for months after the ruling. In September, records show, then-Judge Beach even participated with Butterworth in a contract negotiation session with DCF.
Judge Wren was not identified to DCF as a board member until Oct. 1.
BUTTERWORTH WANTS A BETTER ANSWER
Butterworth, a politically connected Democrat and former judge and sheriff, discussed the ethics ruling during an Oct. 9 negotiation session. He said Broward Behavioral’s judges had “been advised they don’t have to resign at this time” and that “every judge to the best of my knowledge” would continue to serve.
The state’s former top attorney also declared that he wanted to go back to the ethics committee with a reframed question in search of a better answer.
“We are attempting to work on an appropriate question to ask the committee and we hope we get a different response,” Butterworth told the DCF negotiators.
By last Thursday, however, the status of at least some of the judges had changed.
Hollywood attorney Larry Davis, a Broward Behavioral board member, informed the DCF negotiators that it was now decided the judges “can’t serve at this point” and that a search was on for replacements.
In an interview Friday, board member and County Commissioner Lois Wexler said that Judges Towbin-Singer, Beach and Wren had stepped down from Behavioral’s board.
Judge May, however, remained on the board. Earlier in the month, Butterworth had told DCF that the Fourth District Court of Appeal “is not covered by the advisory opinion,” but did not explain why.
On Monday, May arrived at Butterworth’s Fort Lauderdale law office about 15 minutes before the meeting and went to his office.
She expressed concern about “the negativity that’s around her participation” on the board, said Wexler.
Shortly after that, the judge resigned.
By Dan Christensen and Robbyn Swan, BrowardBulldog.org
Mohamed Atta (blue shirt) passing through airport security in Portland, Maine on the morning of 9/11. Behind him is hijacker Abdulaziz al Omari
A woman who identified herself as the wife of Mohamed Atta, the 9/11 hijack leader, appeared at the Broward County Courthouse the same day the terrorists struck seeking to clear up Atta’s traffic record.
FBI agents later took Atta’s court file into evidence, and interviewed the window clerk who spoke with his “wife,” according to officials at the Broward court clerk’s office.
It is not publicly known if the agents ever identified Atta’s “wife” or located her for questioning.
There are no reports that Atta, an Egyptian, ever married.
A spokesman for the FBI in Miami declined to talk about the matter late last week.
“No further information is being released at this time,” said James P. Marshall.
Although it is well known that several of the mostly Saudi 9/11 hijackers lived in South Florida and that Atta received a traffic ticket in west Broward, the courthouse appearance has not previously been reported by the news media.
The FBI disclosed it, however, in a once secret chronology of Atta and the other hijackers of American Airlines Flight #11 – the plane that hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center eleven years ago on Tuesday.
“A woman claiming to be Atta’s wife arrived at Broward County Courthouse on 9/11/01 and attempted to clear his record,” the document says without elaboration.
ATTA’S TRAFFIC INFRACTIONS
That day 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, including Atta, used four hijacked jetliners to kill nearly 3,000 people in coordinated suicide attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. One plane crashed in Pennsylvania before it could reach its target in the nation’s capital.
According to the 9/11 Commission report, Atta and Marwan al-Shehhi, the hijacker-pilot of the United Airlines jet that slammed into the World Trade Center’s South Tower, moved into an apartment at 10001 W. Atlantic Blvd. in Coral Springs on April 11, 2001.
On April 26, at 11 p.m., Atta was driving a red, 1989 Grand Prix when he was stopped by deputies manning a Broward Sheriff’s traffic checkpoint in the 6800 block of University Drive in Tamarac. He presented an international driver’s license, the 9/11 report says, but was nevertheless given a citation for driving without a valid license – a criminal violation.
Atta was ordered to appear May 28 at Broward’s West Satellite Courthouse on Pine Island Road in Plantation. Atta failed to appear, and a week later a warrant was issued for his arrest.
On May 2, Atta and Ziad Jarrah, the hijacker later at the controls of United Airlines Flight 93 when it crashed into a Pennsylvania field amid a passenger uprising, went to the Department of Motor Vehicles office in Lauderdale Lakes to obtain licenses.
Law enforcement missed a chance to arrest Atta two month later when he was stopped for speeding by a Delray Beach policeman in a residential neighborhood in the 700 block of Lindell Boulevard. The officer was unaware of the Broward warrant, and Atta got off with a warning.
The state finally suspended Atta’s license on August 23.
Broward Clerk’s supervisor Renea Gaskin was on duty at the courthouse when Atta’s “wife” appeared, apparently minutes before Atta piloted American 11 into the World Trade Center.
“She stated that she was his wife and wanted to take care of any outstanding tickets,” said Gaskin. “I remember her being dressed in Arab garb.”
The woman went away without getting what she wanted. The citation required a mandatory court appearance by Atta.
The woman actually spoke to another clerk who left the office years ago. Gaskin and others there can only remember her first name, Crystal.
Broward Clerk of Courts Howard Forman said the courthouse was shut down a few hours later amid the ensuing confusion and fear.
The Justice Department publicly identified Atta and the other hijackers two days after the attacks. The news set off a shockwave at the clerk’s office.
“It was like ‘Oh my God, It’s his wife! She was just in here to take care of his ticket.’ We were shocked,” Gaskin recalled.
The FBI arrived quickly. Crystal was interviewed. Atta’s file was obtained by Special Agent Theresa Ann Harris, said clerk supervisor Mary Mossey.
Atta is long dead, but the case against him is alive at the courthouse where it is officially classified as “pending.”
A warrant is also outstanding for Atta’s arrest.
“No one closed it,” said Mossey.
Robbyn Swan is co-author, with Anthony Summers, of The Eleventh Day: The Full Story of 9/11 & Osama bin Laden, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
By Ann Henson Feltgen, BrowardBulldog.org
Joe Varon married his caregiver in Las Vegas at age 92. She was five decades younger.
During a 40-year career the late criminal defense attorney Joe Varon defended mobsters and other notorious figures, bragging while not all got off the hook none were executed.
Now his own family – a caregiver turned second wife and his adopted daughter – have spent two years in a messy Broward County court fight over his estate, estimated at more than $1 million.
Court records obtain by BrowardBulldog.org describe the second wife as a gold digger who took advantage of a mentally debilitated Varon and tied-the-knot with him in a Las Vegas marriage ceremony.
On the flip side of the family rancor, records paint Varon’s adopted daughter as an ungrateful child who as an adult forged a family deed on a Hollywood villa and now wants her stepmother’s money and other holdings.
Joseph A. Varon died in 2010 at 98.
Varon & Stahl, which he ran with partner Steadman Stahl, was Broward’s premier criminal defense law firm in the 1970s. Some of the county’s best known lawyers practiced there: David Bogenschutz, Eddie Kay, Harry Gulkin, Dohn Williams, Norman O’Rourke and Glenn Roderman.
As a highly sought defense lawyer, Varon used tough talk and courtroom skills to represent killers, bookies and thieves. His work left him a prominent figure in South Florida legal circles, with a client list that ranged from underworld financier Meyer Lansky and gangsters Vincent “Jimmy Blue Eyes” Alo and Joseph “Joe” Adonis to Fort Lauderdale’s “Catch Me Killer” Robert Erler.
Varon published a book about the Erler case in 1996.
“I’ve never lost a client to the chair,” Varon boasted years ago to then-Sun-Sentinel reporter Buddy Nevins.
Although his legal career was highlighted by Mafiosos, Varon also took up the cause of Sea Ranch Lake’s Roswell Gilbert, an aging husband who gained national headlines for shooting his ailing wife in 1985 in what he claimed was a mercy killing.
The case – which ended with a murder conviction — fueled a national debate over the legal and moral underpinnings of euthanasia.
Varon didn’t mince words, especially about juries.
“The biggest liars in the world are jurors. They want to get on a jury and they’ll say anything they think you want to hear,” he told Nevins. “They’re liars.”
THE SECOND WIFE
Angella Burke McIntyre, 53, entered Varon’s life in 2000 as a health worker assigned to the lawyer’s home to care for his first wife of 61 years, Helen. After Helen died in 2001, Varon hired her to help tend to his needs, according to court documents.
McIntyre, a Jamaican who obtained a green card in 1997, had no savings or cash other than her hourly earnings, according to papers filed in Broward Circuit Court by Varon’s daughter Viki Varon Armstrong, of Dania Beach.
The daughter, who at 55 is two years older than her stepmother, declined comment.
However, Armstrong alleged through an attorney and court records that McIntyre set her sights on Varon, first convincing the him to pay off the mortgage of her $77,000 Miramar home and ultimately controlling his life and wealth.
Records also argue that McIntyre divorced her husband, Robert Pee McIntyre, Jr., in 2003 and a year later convinced an aged and addled Varon to marry her in Las Vegas.
Likewise, Armstrong contends McIntyre unduly influenced her father to spend $600,000 on property in Florida both before and after the wedding, including a parcel in Port Charlotte, two homes in Polk County, another in Marion County, a place in North Lauderdale and a $249,000 house in St. Lucie County.
Armstrong wants the court to award her each of those properties, claiming McIntyre fraudulently purchased them.
Those properties are not part of Varon’s estate.
Armstrong is not contesting Varon’s will, which makes a 50-50 split of his estate between her and her stepmother.
Armstrong’s lawyer, Fort Lauderdale’s Ed McGee, asserts that McIntyre began looting Varon’s assets even before the wedding.
“She bought each property as a single woman [though at the time she was still married to Robert McIntyre] fraudulently using money out of [a] joint account,” between Varon and his daughter, McGee said.
In 2008, McGee said, McIntyre created a living trust that gave half ownership of the various properties to her children.
McIntyre also convinced Varon to buy her three cars, totaling an additional $100,000, McGee added.
McIntyre could not be reached for comment and her attorney, Teresa Abood Hoffman, did not return phone and e-mail messages.
DAUGHTER IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Not surprisingly, paperwork filed with the court by Hoffman paints a different picture.
Armstrong, an only child adopted as an infant, allegedly visited her father only when she needed money. And after her mother died, the records contend, she forged a deed to the family’s 2,300 square foot Hollywood villa in the Emerald Hills neighborhood.
Varon allegedly discovered changes to the villa’s deed as part of a 2002 tax statement.
“He was furious that his estranged daughter had forged his name to this deed,” according to attorney Hoffman.
Varon chose not to file charges against his daughter, but felt Armstrong did not deserve any of his wealth and drafted a new deed giving the villa to McIntyre, Hoffman said.
According to court records, in 2002 Varon hand-wrote in pencil directing that his possessions should go to McIntyre, including specific furniture, art pieces, sculptures and other furnishings.
Varon went on in the letter to state that he didn’t trust his daughter and others to take care of McIntyre following his death. He cited her race as a black woman, among other reasons in the multi-page note.
“Many of my friends and family opposed my marriage because of the color of my wife,” he wrote.
Varon also allegedly said he wanted his daughter’s name stricken from all of his financial accounts.
BETRAYED OR MISPORTRAYED
McGee said his client has been misportrayed.
McGee also said McIntyre repeatedly prevented Armstrong from seeing her father by not answering the door when she tried to visit and cancelling arranged meetings.
“The door was never answered and after the guardianship, similar things took place,” McGee said. Armstrong had no contact with her father and didn’t know the state of his health, he added.
Armstrong didn’t even see him in his final days while in a Wilton Manors nursing home. However, McGee visited the aging Varon frequently and took note of his mental decline.
“In my personal opinion, he had some sort of dementia and he had short term memory problems,” McGee said.
Each time he visited, according to McGee, Varon asked if he had a warrant for his arrest or if he was from the government.
Following her father’s death, Armstrong was quoted as saying her father did not want a funeral.
Hoffman has asked Judge Mark Speiser to dismiss the case against McIntyre.
Speiser appointed a third-party guardian to oversee Varon’s welfare in 2005 at Armstrong’s request after she claims to have discovered that her father’s estate was being drained.
“After the guardianship issue Viki withdrew her name from her father’s financial accounts so that the money could be used for her father’s care,” McGee said in an interview.
Speiser ordered mediation in July of this year to sort out the dispute and determine who gets what. The matter was delayed, however, because McIntyre had recently hired Hoffman to represent her. No date is now set for mediation.
McGee said McIntyre has gone through several attorneys and each time a hearing date was set, she fired her lawyer and hired another firm.
McIntyre “is stringing this thing along,” McGee said.
In the meantime, “she has taken everything out of the [Hollywood] villa even after the judge ordered her to stop. All of [Varon’s] personal stuff in the place was supposed to be secure.”
Ann Henson Feltgen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Clarice Tukes' daughter was murdered; Calvin Sapp lost a sister
The arrest of Jerry Frank Townsend on Sept. 5, 1979 ended the hunt for a brutal serial killer and rapist who had terrorized a predominantly African-American neighborhood in northwest Fort Lauderdale.
But it began an enduring miscarriage of justice.
Townsend spent 22 years of his life in prison until he was exonerated by DNA tests that did not exist when he was arrested. Eddie Lee Mosley remained free to continue to rape and kill until his 1987 arrest and confinement in a state hospital for the criminally insane.
The deaths of 10 women and children who were murdered after Townsend’s wrongful arrest have been linked to Mosley by DNA testing or other evidence.
Now, relatives of three of those victims are calling on longtime Broward State Attorney Mike Satz – who is up for re-election – to finally investigate the actions of police detectives whose testimony convicted Townsend.
“It matters a hell of a lot,” said Clarice Tukes, 72, whose 20-year-old daughter, Arnette, was raped and strangled five months after Townsend’s arrest. “My daughter would still be alive if they hadn’t arrested the wrong man.”
“I want this reopened,” said Jacquelyn D. Miller, the daughter of Geraldine Barfield, whose body was found in a field adjacent to the Immanuel Church of God in Christ near Sunland Park on Dec. 19, 1983. She was 35.
“I’ve carried this with me 28 years. I want Michael Satz to tell me why he allowed this to happen, why a killer was allowed to remain on the streets,” she said.
Broward State Attorney Michael Satz
COMPARED TO JACK THE RIPPER
Satz was in his first term as Broward’s top prosecutor when Townsend was arrested.
The case captured the public’s imagination. A black serial killer police compared to Jack the Ripper. Townsend, they said, had admitted to wanting to “rid the world of prostitutes.”
The victims, however, were not prostitutes.
Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, was led by detectives to confess to a string of rapes and murders he did not do. He was convicted of six murders and a rape in 1980 and sent to prison for life.
In 2009, eight years after DNA proved his innocence, the Broward Sheriff’s Office agreed to pay $2 million over five years to settle a civil rights lawsuit alleging that its detectives fabricated evidence, concealed exculpatory evidence, tampered with witnesses and coerced false confessions out of Townsend.
Miami, where city detectives were accused of similar wrongdoing against Townsend, paid $2.2 million to end another suit before trial in 2008. Taxpayers spent at least $1 million more to pay lawyers to defend the police.
Broward Bulldog reported in 2009that transcripts of Townsend’s Broward trial and hearings contain disturbing evidence of crimes like perjury and the falsification of police reports by BSO detectives and other officers. Several relatives recently saw the story.
Jerry Frank Townsend
For example, BSO detectives testified that Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
But Townsend wasn’t the killer. So the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.
There is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. Whether the law could be enforced regarding original police testimony against Townsend is unclear because today’s statute is somewhat different than what was on the books in the 1980s.
Nevertheless, neither Satz, Broward’s state attorney since 1976, nor the Broward Sheriff’s Office has investigated the actions of the BSO detectives whose testimony sent Townsend to prison, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi.
The settled lawsuit contended those detectives framed Townsend to advance their careers. Schlein has declined to discuss the case. Fantigrassi has said he never lied to convict Townsend.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein retired in 1993 as a lieutenant colonel, later worked for the state and is today an attorney in private practice in Tallahassee.
The lawsuit said Mosley is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders between 1973 and 1987, when he was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook, 54.
VICTIMS AND THEIR FAMILIES
Katrenna Bentley, a hedge fund accountant, was 11 years old the day her grandmother died. She still vividly recalls seeing her battered body on a slab at the Mizell Funeral Home.
“I remember her laying on the table and seeing skin under her nails and hair in her mouth. They said she fought back, bit him in the head,” Bentley said. DNA from that trace evidence was matched two decades later to Mosley.
Katrenna and her mother, Mary Bentley, Emma Cook’s daughter, both said they want the state to investigate the actions of the police who handled the Townsend case.
“Every Christmas I relive this and get a sick feeling in the bottom of my stomach,” said Mary Bentley, 61. “If they had investigated it properly from the beginning they could have caught Mosley earlier and he wouldn’t have ended up killing my mom or the other people. They should pay.”
“I would love to see that happen,” said Calvin Sapp, 68, a semi-retired construction worker and older brother of victim Geraldine Barfield. “It seems like very seldom that people of color get the type of justice that they give everybody else.”
The victims’ relatives are not alone in wanting an investigation.
Broward’s elected public defender, Howard Finkelstein, said, “The fact that these officers were allowed to lie and cheat to frame an innocent man, and then were allowed to go on with their lives as though they did nothing wrong and nothing happened is not only illegal, it’s a sin.”
Finkelstein said Townsend’s case is “the best example” of a local criminal justice system where authorities have for decades often ignored the crimes of police officers that plant evidence or commit perjury to make cases against suspects.
“That they turned a blind eye to such a heinous crime is the exact reason that most minorities in Broward feel they don’t get a fair shake – and they’re right,” said Finkelstein said.
Satz, who rarely talks to reporters, referred a request for comment to a subordinate who said prosecutors reviewed the Townsend case before the DNA tests were done and found insufficient evidence of perjury.
“In regards to the officers involved in that case, we know what it takes to charge someone with perjury,” said Assistant State Attorney Carolyn McCann. “People on the outside don’t know about the elements of the crime. They just think that if it smells bad and looks bad it’s a crime. In a perfect world, that would work. But we have to follow the law and can’t just harass people.”
Broward prosecutors, however, have made little effort to actually make such a case. Asked if her office ever confronted Fantigrassi or Schlein about their graphic testimony at Townsend’s trial, McCann said, “ Not that I’m aware of.”
A study released in May by the National Registry of Exonerations showed that Broward accounted for nine of Florida’s 32 exonerations since 1989 – more than twice as many as any other county in the state. Most of those exonerated defendants were black.
Townsend, who lived in Hallandale Beach at the time of his arrest, is one of two Broward men cleared of murders now attributed to Mosley. Frank Lee Smith spent 14 years on Death Row for raping and killing 8-year-old Shandra Whitehead in her bed in 1985. He died of cancer on January 30, 2000, less than a year before DNA tests identified Mosley as the girl’s killer.
Three weeks before Townsend’s 1979 arrest, Fort Lauderdale Detective Doug Evans identified Mosley – known around his northwest area neighborhood as “The Rape Man” – as the prime suspect in the rape-murders in his jurisdiction. Evans based his case on eyewitness testimony and physical evidence, but the BSO detectives blew him off.
Evans later helped catch Mosley and free Townsend. Before his death in January 2011, Evans told Broward Bulldog that he was disappointed authorities had never investigated police misconduct that had caused Townsend’s wrongful arrest and conviction.
Evans’ friend and colleague, ex-Fort Lauderdale Detective Roy Brown, said, “Doug always pushed for an investigation, always wanted one, but it’s been a hard rock. They let it sleep, they let it lay and they moved on and there’s no justice and nobody is held accountable for it. You’ve got to want to pursue them.
“The public should have a right to know this stuff. A serial killer running around killing people and nobody cared,” said Brown.
Clarice Tukes, whose daughter Arnette was murdered not long after Townsend’s arrest, was Doug Evans’ cousin.
“They knew who it was that did it. They knew Townsend didn’t do it, Mosley did. Doug told the whole family he did it. He said he didn’t know why they won’t take his word. That hurts,” said Tukes.
Her grandson, Dominick Richardson, was three years old when his mother died. He’s grown now, with three children of his own. His daughter Arnette is named in his mother’s honor, Tukes said.
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
A Fort Lauderdale Police internal inquiry into the out-of-state arrest of a street crimes unit sergeant did not follow departmental procedures for conducting such investigations.
Internal Affairs guidelines say investigators should obtain and review police reports, probable cause affidavits, booking sheets and other information about such incidents. Sworn statements are to be taken from witnesses, including the accused officer, “as soon as possible.”
None of that was done after Sgt. Jerald Fuller was arrested on July 19, 2009 when police were called to a “disturbance” at a private home in Somerset, New York.
Departmental rules also state that completed Internal Affairs investigations are to be submitted for review to both an assistant police chief and the chief of police.
Police files do not indicate that was done either.
As Broward Bulldog reported on May 24, Fuller’s arrest was erased from an Internal Affairs report maintained in a police database. The purged report was later released to comply with a Public Records Act request by the Broward Public Defender’s Office.
It can be a crime in Florida to alter a public record, whether a paper report or an electronic database. But state prosecutors declined to investigate, drawing a rebuke from Public Defender Howard Finkelstein, who had asked for a state inquiry.
Copies of the original and changed versions of the report were leaked to one of Finkelstein’s investigators in February. The Public Defender’s Office soon requested the Internal Affairs report from police to defend a suspect arrested by city police.
POLICE ACKNOWLEDGE PURGE
Police Captain Rick Maglione has acknowledged changing the report when he headed Internal Affairs.
He explained he did so to comply with a New York municipal judge’s orders that had dismissed and sealed the case four days after Fuller’s arrest. He did not include that explanation in the file.
Maglione also told Broward Bulldog that he did not seek to obtain New York police or court records to verify the facts surrounding Fuller’s arrest because those documents were “not obtainable” due to the judge’s sealing order.
New York criminal procedure, however, allows both the person accused and police agencies access to sealed records.
Captain Rick Maglione
Maglione said he relied on assurances he got from Fuller’s New York lawyer, George Muscato, and an official he did not identify in the Niagara County, Somerset Town Court, District Attorney’s office
“Everything I had was self-reported (by Sgt. Fuller). I was satisfied with that because I was also assured no crime had occurred,” said Maglione, who is now a top aide to Chief Frank Adderley.
VETERAN COP AND A DISTURBANCE
Fuller is a 19-year veteran and member of the police department’s controversial Northwest Raiders drug unit. He notified his superiors of his arrest.
In his two-paragraph report dated August 10, 2009, Maglione, a former Raider, identifies himself as both the investigator and supervisor on the Fuller inquiry.
It states that a neighbor called the police about a disturbance at a local residence involving Fuller, his brother “and another individual known to the Fuller family.”
“It was initially determined that Sergeant Fuller and his brother were responsible for some minor damage to the other individual’s property,” Maglione wrote.
Basic information such as the address where Fuller was arrested, the time of day of the incident, a description of the damage, and even the criminal charge lodged against him are not included in Maglione’s report.