By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
That's been the routine since Kay visited LeBrun, back in July of last year, to complain about Police Chief Rudy Piedra. Kay had been delegated by a group of younger officers to speak with the village manager. He presented LeBrun with a satchel of papers A personal notes, copies of the police logbook, memos, invoices A that documented the chief's alleged misdeeds.
It was not the first time the department's integrity had been questioned. Indeed, within the broader police community, Indian Creek officers have long been considered "butlers with badges," serving at the beck and call of the residents whose hefty property taxes pay their salaries. The cops' primary function is to keep undesirables off the 300-acre island. Three officers work a shift, one at the entry bridge, another cruising the village's single street, and the third circling the island in a boat. With no real police work to be done, and minimal financial benefits, few talented police cadets apply with Indian Creek.
State authorities nearly decertified the department during the mid-Eighties for administration violations that included failing to re-train officers. One of Lebrun's first moves as village manager was the recruitment, in 1989, of Lewis Mertz, a retired captain from Coral Gables, to whip the place into shape. Mertz stayed all of six months before taking a position in Key West. Unable to attract a more qualified candidate for the chief's job, LeBrun promoted Rudy Piedra, a 27-year-old sergeant who had never worked at another department.
Initially Piedra showed signs of promise. But he soon began to stock the department with friends, most of them, like him, young Latins. "I'd come to him with an application on someone who was clearly unqualified and he'd say, 'This guy's okay. I know him,'" recalls Robert Seitz, an officer who conducted background checks for Piedra before being fired in 1990. "He told me point-blank that he wouldn't hire black or female officers."
In 1991, for example, Piedra hired Jose Martinez, an applicant who had admitted to using drugs, flunked a polygraph, and been deemed "marginal" by a psychological profiling firm. He then allowed Martinez to work as a full-time officer while still a trainee.
Piedra was generous and personable to those he trusted, most notably Sgt. Alfredo Cerda, with whom he had played baseball at Miami Lakes High School. Despite a background that included two misdemeanor arrests, the hot-tempered Cerda A who would come to be known as "the terminator" by his subordinates A soon became Piedra's major-domo.
As the chief and Cerda settled into their roles, abuses of power became more blatant and more frequent. Even friends took note. A few of the more idealistic officers also took offense. "He just didn't care about good police work, about protecting the residents," says Camilo Hernandez, a high school pal whom Piedra recruited to join the department in the summer of 1990. "He had the feeling no one could touch him."
Hernandez, who still works in Indian Creek, says the chief would routinely deploy on-duty officers to play softball with him, Hernandez included. Other cops would brag about on-duty fishing expeditions. Piedra himself could occasionally be seen enjoying a round of golf at the island's exclusive country club. And his favoritism grew more pronounced. Certain cops would call in sick, or report late to work repeatedly, with no punishment. Others, such as Ronny Kay, whom Piedra perceived as a threat, would be reprimanded for seemingly picayune violations, such as failing to report a broken chair.
Officers were forbidden from issuing traffic tickets to residents, and eventually the chief took their ticket books altogether. Piedra's cronies also earned big money as off-duty security guards for Saudi Prince Turki bin Abdul Aziz A despite a village ordinance forbidding the practice. Hernandez says Sergeant Cerda even tried to bribe him to keep him quiet about the work. Worried that he would be implicated in the misconduct, Hernandez began documenting what he saw.
Morale dipped as 1991 turned to 1992, and the cramped police station attached to the island's guardhouse fell into such disrepair that disgusted patrolmen calledin officials from the Occupational Safety and Health Admin-istration, who found numerous violations.
The low point came in May of last year, when Martinez started a shoving match with a fellow officer, Lewis Mertz, Jr., son of the former chief. Mertz was suspended without pay and eventually resigned. Martinez, a trainee, received no punishment. "We could see that anyone who didn't fall in with the chief was going to get it," Hernandez says.
In early July, half a dozen officers held a hurried meeting during a shift change and elected Kay to visit the village manager. LeBrun urged Kay to present him any evidence of wrongdoing. The two men sifted through documents for four hours on July 7, and LeBrun vowed to look into the allegations. A few days later the manager took action A he turned over the material to Chief Piedra.
"The chief went nuts," Kay recalls. "He called all the guys in one by one and threatened to fire them. We had figured LeBrun was going to conduct his own investigation, not report back to the chief."