Lord of the Gadflies

In 1991 Keith Wilson became the only man to have a false-arrest complaint upheld by the county's Independent Review Panel. He just made history again.

In other memoranda, Wilson took aim at Haywood's commander, Jimmie Brown, for what he viewed as an equally serious offense. That same spring Wilson had attended a meeting of black leaders at which Brown spoke. At one point during his speech, Wilson wrote, Brown had stated: "What I would do if a brother was selling drugs to another brother, I would blow his brains out." According to Wilson's letter, the Metro cop had also encouraged fellow blacks to stop burning down their own neighborhoods and instead "go over to the airport district and throw Molotov cocktails."

Wilson also availed himself of his right to file a complaint about Brown with the IRP. This one was thrown out. The panel noted that three witnesses who had attended the meeting "stated that the comments attributed to Chief Brown were taken out of context and did not reflect his message."

On August 15, 1991, in separate court actions, Brown and Haywood sued Wilson for libel, identifying his memos as false and defamatory documents distributed with the intent of damaging their reputations. Acting as his own counsel, Wilson spent months battling attorney Michael Palahach, who represented both officers. At one point Wilson named Palahach in a bar complaint, alleging "unprofessional and unscrupulous intimidation tactics." Though the bar complaint was unsuccessful, Wilson didn't lose the lawsuits. Both plaintiffs dropped their complaints a year after filing. (Neither Brown nor his attorney, Palahach, will comment about the suit or Wilson's allegations. Haywood could not be located for comment; Metro-Dade's police personnel office says she no longer works for the force.)

The real drama, however, took place outside the courtroom. On the morning of December 18, 1991, two Metro-Dade detectives knocked on the door of Wilson's Liberty City home, waking him, as he recalls, from a deep sleep. One of the officers, Judith Gable, asked him point-blank if he had ever threatened Jimmie Brown's life. To this day Wilson can barely contain his anger when he speaks about the interrogation. "I told them that as a former police officer I would never make such a threat," he says. "I also told them that I didn't believe anyone had made such a threat. I knew I was being set up."

Wilson still contends that Brown concocted the threat in order to use it in his libel suit. As Gable later acknowledged to internal affairs investigators, Wilson expressed concern that his reputation was being maligned. But she denied Wilson's contention that she promised to include his suspicions in her report.

Of course, Wilson knew the power of the public record. Later that day he repeated his accusations several times over the telephone A to two Metro-Dade police officers and to a records specialist. The latter, Connie Alvarez, wrote up a supplemental report that included Wilson's statement, which she forwarded to the detective division. A week later, when Wilson requested a copy of the report under Florida's Sunshine Law, he was told no such document existed.

Police investigators later found that Chief Jimmie Brown had ordered an assistant to destroy the report. Brown's explanation: At the time he thought the document duplicated information in Gable's report. But he admitted he could not be sure of that, because he had not actually read Gable's report.

Wilson still believes Brown and several of his subordinates were trying to set him up, and alleges that they intentionally destroyed the one document that shed light on their "vile conspiracy." Cloak-and-dagger theatrics notwithstanding, IRP files and police investigative records indicate that the death threat seemed improbable from the start. Metro-Dade police, for example, never questioned the fact that the tip about the threat came from a man named Nelson Perry, a private investigator who was working for Brown's attorney. An ex-cop, Perry himself claimed that the information had come to him third-hand. The FBI and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did not see fit to investigate, but Metro-Dade decided to question Wilson about it anyway.

The IRP's Wesley Pomeroy says he isn't interested in any of Wilson's conspiracy theories; they merely serve to obfuscate the real issue. "I believe it was inappropriate and bad judgment on the part of Brown to have anything to do with [Wilson's] complaint against him," says Pomeroy, measuring his words carefully. "I also believe that although the panel doesn't get involved in disciplining officers, there should have been discipline in this case. Someone in Brown's position should have known better than to destroy a public document. He made a mistake in violation of a state statute and he received no punishment whatsoever. The perception left is that the senior command staff are not accountable for their mistakes."

Under Florida law, unintentional destruction of a public document is a noncriminal infraction punishable by a fine not exceeding $500. Intentional destruction of such a document is a first-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $1000.

Keith Wilson maintains that lack of police accountability is not a perception but a fact. And he promises to remain vigilant. "When [detective Gable] was asking me about the death threat, she kept telling me not to worry, that it was just routine," Wilson says. "My position was that any time a cop asks you if you've threatened a senior commander with death, you'd best worry. Turns out I was right. I don't ever want to be that right again.

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