By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
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
Inside the minuscule Indian Creek Village Hall, some 30 tense bodies were crammed, and more spilled onto the outdoor walkway. Elderly residents dressed in the fashion of twenty years ago. Lawyers in staid suits. Scruffy reporters and even a television news crew, much to the horror of a community that loathes scandal and scrutiny.
At the center of the crush sat the newest member of Indian Creek's Village Council, Leonard Miller. He wasn't sure what all the hubbub was about, but that didn't stop him from proffering an opinion. "I've lived here two and a half years, and spent another two and half building my home, but until now I really didn't know there was a problem with the police department," the wealthy developer told his colleagues at their March 22 meeting. "Maybe I'm naive. Maybe I should have been more diligent about civic affairs. Then again, that may be a credit to the [police] chief and the village manager."
The chief and the manager smiled ever so slightly upon hearing these kind words. Miller, who had joined the council just fifteen minutes earlier to replace a member who had abruptly resigned, was already exhibiting a knack for politics on Indian Creek, the 31-home island kingdom west of Surfside.
True, the police chief was under criminal investigation. True, an outside review of his department, released in February after six months of exhaustive research, had portrayed him as a corrupt incompetent whose twelve-man force was "out of control." True, the scathing report had urged his immediate firing. True, the village manager was a buffoonish character whose administrative demeanor resembled that of a spooked ostrich.
But to residents like Miller, the police chief, Rudy Piedra, and the village manager, Don Lebrun, had both nobly done their duty A namely, to protect the good name of the Village Affluent. To fault them for abusing employees, squandering public moneys, and jeopardizing the safety of the island in the process was, in the end, just so much quibbling. Besides, the true culprits soon emerged.
"It's these dysfunctional employees who started all this name-calling," Lebrun barked. "If we had gotten rid of the bad ones months ago, we wouldn't be talking about this today."
To some people, especially outsiders, this proclamation might have seemed a bit hypocritical. After all, Lebrun, who holds final authority over the firing of police officers, had essentially ignited the scandal by ordering an outside review of the department after half the officers complained about Chief Piedra. In addition, just minutes earlier Lebrun had opened the meeting by urging the council to fire the embattled chief.
Even Miller appeared to be confused by the sudden about-face. "If disgruntled employees is the problem, then why are you recommending that the chief be let go?" he asked Lebrun.
The career bureaucrat quickly hit upon a second scapegoat: the lawyers. It was those nasty, lawsuit-paranoid labor lawyers who recommended that Lebrun dismiss the chief. It wasn't something he felt was necessary. In fact, he and the chief had always gotten along famously, even as a parade of investigators from the State Attorney's Office and the FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had marched into town to probe Piedra's department. "I've seen the chief sit at that computer there and type and type and type," Lebrun offered. "Did you know he has to open all the mail to the police department himself? He has no clerical help. Just him."
The 30-year-old chief, who stood across the room in full uniform, was flanked by two attorneys, one to vouch for his good name, the other to lend assurances that Piedra was not going to be arrested (despite the fact that the Dade State Attorney's Office had not yet finished reviewing its investigation into Piedra's alleged insurance fraud and tax evasion).
The chief himself spoke quietly. He merely hoped that council members had read his "personal rebuttal" to the outside review, supervised by North Miami Beach Police Chief Bill Berger. Piedra's rebuttal branded Berger's 38-page report variously as "biased-plagued," "prejudice-plagued," "false-ridden," "a degenerate attempt at defamation," and alleged that "disgruntled employees have instigated retaliative demoralization of our police department and brought scandal to the Village."
And why would Berger, one of South Florida's most respected police chiefs, take part in such a travesty? "Perhaps envy," speculated Piedra, who has never worked anywhere outside Indian Creek. "I'll supply you with an interesting bit of law enforcement trivia. Were you aware that prior to my appointment as chief of police in 1989, Chief William B. Berger enjoyed the notoriety of being the youngest chief in South Florida?"
Nor did Piedra stand alone. The room was packed with supporters. "I just want to let you know that the problem is not the chief," shouted Sgt. Alfredo Cerda, Piedra's sidekick. Cerda, described in Berger's report as "negligent and inefficient in the performance of his duties," spent much of the meeting blocking reporters from entering Village Hall, which only made sense since he was officially on-duty at the time.
Even residents came to Piedra's defense. "I think Chief Piedra could do a helluva job if he could get some men who support him," said millionaire resident Arthur Appleton. "He should fire anyone who won't get behind him! I don't care if they threaten to sue the village. I'll help pay for the suit! I'm not afraid of lawsuits. I've won plenty of them. I say, 'Give me liberty or give me death!'"