By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
The script would have sent the folks from Cops into spasms of voyeuristic glee. On September 21, 1989, a lone gunman invaded a quiet patch of Miami Beach suburbia, broke into a physician's home, savagely beat his maid, then engaged two police officers in a life-or-death shootout. Although it was over in a matter of minutes, the brawl left puddles of blood and bullet casings to decorate the doctor's Florida room. Both officers were injured, as was the thief, who escaped only to find himself the quarry of an epic manhunt featuring SWAT teams, police dogs, and more than 100 helmeted troopers.
Media accounts would later detail how panic-stricken pupils at Nautilus Junior High huddled in fear while police captured the suspect, twenty-year-old Christopher Cole, hiding under a nearby shrub. The cops who confronted him were quickly honored as Officers of the Month, and this past November Cole was sentenced to life in prison. An opportune juncture - Cops formula would dictate - for the credits to roll.
Instead, heads may roll. The incident has become the basis of a threatened lawsuit alleging negligence and a cover-up by Beach police. In a required letter of notification sent last month to City Attorney Laurence Feingold, Mayor Seymour Gelber, and Police Chief Phillip Huber, attorney Isaac Mitrani states that his client, Sgt. Daniel Pinder, suffered a gunshot to the stomach fired by fellow officer Michele Kabakoff during the Cole melee. The letter alleges that Kabakoff has a history of panicking under pressure that went ignored by police officials, who also disregarded Pinder's repeated requests that the shooting be investigated.
Kabakoff and her superiors insist there is no basis for a suit. But unless the city shells out $750,000 to Pinder, a once-silent feud between respected, veteran cops might become a courtroom spectacle.
The muddled events of that autumn afternoon began with a silent alarm at 4350 Nautilus Court. Pinder and Kabakoff, the first officers on the scene, entered the home after they saw a toddler inside. There they encountered Cole, who claimed to be the child's baby sitter. Unconvinced, Pinder had begun patting him down for weapons, when Cole wheeled around with a revolver in his hand.
Here the officers' accounts diverge. Pinder says he grappled with Cole for several seconds, saw the child leave the room, and pleaded with Kabakoff to shoot Cole. Then he felt a blast in his abdomen. He figured Kabakoff had shot Cole and that the bullet from her Smith & Wesson .357 had entered him after passing through Cole's body. But a searing pain in his right side and a sudden loss of strength followed, and he realized that he, not Cole, had been wounded. A forensic report later revealed that Kabakoff shot Pinder from a distance of three inches. The bullet ripped through his stomach and lodged in his thigh.
With a last burst of strength, Pinder threw off Cole, hoping to shoot the suspect before he could recover. Instead, Pinder says, Cole grabbed Kabakoff, who was standing with a "blank stare" on her face and her gun barrel down. Pinder got off a shot that grazed Cole's head and knocked Cole and Kabakoff to the ground, behind a couch. Cole landed on Kabakoff and began bashing her with the butt of his gun - which had jammed - while trying to grab her weapon. Pinder fired five more shots before his fingers went numb, hitting Cole twice in the thigh. Cole fled when he saw that Pinder could not reload his gun.
Though bleeding, Pinder issued a detailed description of the suspect and called for emergency medical assistance. He was later airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors removed twelve inches of intestine, as well as his appendix.
Kabakoff's recollection of the events is substantially different. She emphatically denies she lost her cool. "There was no shot without hitting [Pinder] or the kid," she explains, contradicting Pinder's claim that the child had already left the room. "It was a no-win situation. When I did shoot, they spun around and I hit Pinder." Far from cracking under pressure, Kabakoff says, she mustered Herculean strength to keep Cole from seizing her gun: "The guy had 40 pounds on me and it was all muscle."
Early news accounts of the gunplay were understandably murky. What troubles Pinder is that they remained vague. "It was obvious from the moment this happened who I'd been shot by, but the press was led to believe that police didn't know," says the twenty-year veteran. "That's when I first picked up that something wasn't right."
Kenneth Glassman, Miami Beach Police chief from 1984 until 1990, disputes Pinder's allegation of an improper investigation. "I was asked at the initial press conference if it was possible that Kabakoff shot Pinder and I said, `Yes,'" counters Glassman. "There was never any attempt to cover anything up."
But the department was less than forthcoming. Weeks after the shooting, both officers told investigators that Kabakoff had pulled the trigger. Police also received a ballistics test proving Pinder was hit by a bullet from Kabakoff's gun. Yet three months after the incident, police still maintained to reporters that they couldn't say who fired the shot.