By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Eventually LeBrun did solicit an independent review, on the advice of his labor attorney. In doing so, he characterized disgruntled subordinates as the department's major problem. The investigative team, headed by North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger, quickly realized how divided the police force had become. Berger was told about Kay's disruptive role, as well as Cerda's aggressive nature, and Berger recommended that Kay be placed on administrative leave to avoid a potential donnybrook.
Two months later Cerda reportedly provoked a fight with one of Kay's comrades, a beefy martial-arts expert named Rudy Vidal. The scrap grew so violent that the chief radioed for emergency assistance.
"Boys will be boys," LeBrun chirped to reporters, anxious to downplay the fracas.
The chief immediately banished Vidal from the island, and two weeks later fired him. Cerda, who filed criminal charges against Vidal for battery, ostensibly was suspended as well, and forbidden from dressing in his police uniform. But he was back in uniform the next week, standing beside the chief at the graduation of police academy cadet Jose Martinez.
Had she known what lay in store, Marylou Woods says she never would have agreed to delve into Indian Creek Village. But Woods, a lieutenant with the Miami Police Department, figured helping Berger compile his review would take a month, tops. "We were asked to make some adminstrative suggestions," she says. "Basic stuff like where the fire extinguishers should be placed."
It was immediately apparent that fire extinguisher placement was not the foremost issue in Indian Creek. "Once we got in there, it became obvious the chief was the problem, not disgruntled officers," Woods says. "I looked over LeBrun's notes and I thought, This guy has buffaloed me. I remember telling Berger, 'Hey, I think we've been led in the wrong direction here.'"
Kay and his allies felt the same way. Skeptical of LeBrun's desire to clean up the corruption, a few were even accusing the village manager of complicity with the chief. Rather than wait for Berger's "administrative" review, they took their case to a number of outside agencies: the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the Dade State Attorney's Office.
On July 27, 1992, Kay and three other officers met with George Alonso, an investigator for the State Attorney's Office. While Kay's meeting with LeBrun had centered on Piedra's supposed incompetence, he presented to Alonso documents suggesting that the chief was guilty of tax evasion and insurance fraud. That evidence included an invoice showing that the chief helped Cerda avoid paying sales tax on more than $500 worth of home-security equipment by shopping for the merchandise in uniform and using the city's tax-exempt identification number. The officers alleged that the chief had also sold his cellular phone to an acquintance, then reported it stolen 90 minutes later. The FBI also seemed intrigued by the officers' testimony, though for reasons that would only later become clear.
This left Chief Berger and Lieutenant Woods in what amounted to an investigative logjam, third in a line of agencies probing the department. Rather than jeopardize potential criminal cases, they bided their time. In October the FBI arrested Francisco Fuentes, a patrolman with the department, for possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Piedra had hired Fuentes a year earlier A despite a background of traffic violations that included suspensions of his driving privileges A and put him in charge of applicant background investigations. Ronny Kay claims he and another officer both warned Piedra that Fuentes was allegedly involved with drugs, but to no avail. Only after the stunning arrest of Fuentes, who is scheduled to stand trial April 19, did Berger's team begin working in earnest.
By this time the department had become a veritable battleground. The chief lashed out at his enemies for their role in the perceived mutiny, filling their personal files with reprimands. The disgruntled officers countered by sending a letter to village council members, likening the chief to Fidel Castro and requesting an audience with the council. (They were denied.) One anonymous jokester posted a cartoon on the station bulletin board announcing Manuel Noriega and deposed Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates as Piedra's potential successors.
Camilo Hernandez says he grew worried about his physical well-being in August, after Cerda assigned him to work marine patrol under a broiling sun, without food or water for seven hours. The next day Hernandez was diagnosed as suffering from heat exhaustion. The day after that he retained an attorney.
By December Hernandez was the only member of Kay's clique still in uniform. Rudy Vidal had been fired, Kay assigned to his house, and Richard Manser, a fourth complainant, had been suspended for sleeping on duty A an allegation detailed by the chief in a five-page memo.
At an evidentiary hearing held before LeBrun in late January, Manser denied any misconduct and argued that the chief had fabricated the claim in retaliation. Piedra's statement did little to discredit this impression. He steadfastly refused to provide his testimony under oath, and contradicted his own written account of the incident several times. He neglected to mention, for instance, that his friend Cerda had been with him when they allegedly spotted Manser asleep.