Carmen (Among Others) vs. Carmen (Among Others)

Hialeah residents Omar and Carmen Corzo sue Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell (among others) for violating their civil rights

Omar Corzo admits the allegations in his federal civil rights lawsuit are incredible, even by Hialeah standards. He and his wife Carmen, residents of Dade County's second-largest municipality, accuse a Hialeah city councilwoman and the town's police chief of using their political might to orchestrate a five-year campaign of harassment and intimidation against the Corzo family.

The Corzos claim that Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell, who is also Citizens Crime Watch coordinator for the Hialeah Police Department, used a "Mafia" or "inner circle" of police officers to assist her in a vendetta against the family. They allege Caldwell was permitted by Chief of Police Rolando Bola*os to, in effect, "impersonate a police officer" and to use neighborhood Crime Watch meetings as "tools of political terror." Among specific charges: Caldwell had improper access to police records and criminal background information which she used to intimidate her enemies; she personally handcuffed Omar Corzo and ordered his arrest in 1990; she repeatedly and publicly accused the Corzos of being involved in drugs and prostitution; she told police officers to watch the Corzos' house and "make their lives impossible" and caused them to be subjected to unusually frequent inspections by city officials.

"I know everybody will try to figure out why would I say something like this," acknowledges 33-year-old Omar Corzo, a self-employed jack-of-all-trades. "Why did Carmen Caldwell get involved with something like this? Why did Mr. Bolanos get involved? Don't ask me, because I don't know!"

Caldwell, who is campaigning for re-election to a second term in November, and Bolanos flatly deny the charges and assert the legal action is merely an attack on them and the current city administration launched by their political enemies, several of whom have given depositions in support of the plaintiffs. Those depositions come from Julio Martinez, former acting mayor of Hialeah; Councilman Guy Sanchez; State Rep. Rudy Garcia; and former acting police chief Raleigh Jordan. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and names the City of Hialeah in addition to Caldwell and Bolanos, was filed in November 1993. After numerous postponements, it is scheduled to go to trial June 12 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Wilkie Ferguson, if a defense motion for summary judgment is not granted. A ruling on that motion is expected any day.

The case has shed unaccustomed light on an intense but quiet controversy surrounding the 47-year-old Caldwell. After serving for years as Crime Watch coordinator (primarily in an unpaid capacity, as she does now), Caldwell was elected to the Hialeah council in 1991. She has received countywide awards for her work with Crime Watch; police officers managed and worked on her campaign. Some of those officers now say Caldwell has overstepped her authority. "She started thinking she had police power," says one officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She went from concerned citizen to frustrated cop. It's time she was stopped."

Others argue that Caldwell's only offense is that she spent too much of her time on police matters and in the process became enmeshed in the department's internal politics. "I think she's got more sense than to be handcuffing people and things like that," says an officer who scoffs at the Corzos' allegations. "She's made some enemies, but we'll see during election time how many cops stand out and hand out leaflets and work for her. I know I'll be one."

The Corzos' problem dates back to 1989, when their next-door neighbors tried to cut down a black olive tree in the Corzos' yard because its limbs were dropping leaves on their car. The neighbors, Jose Ojeda and his family, are friends of Caldwell. There followed verbal altercations and frequent calls to the police by both families. The Corzos say they could hear Caldwell and their neighbors denouncing them at Crime Watch meetings held next door or across the street. Omar Corzo accused Ojeda's son of hitting him in the head with a brick and of attempting to run him over. (The Dade State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute in either case.) The Ojedas obtained at least one court injunction forbidding any contact between the Corzos and their family. Meanwhile, complaints about the Corzos seemed to be flooding the police department and other local agencies. After several anonymous calls in 1993 to the city's Building and Zoning and Code Enforcement units, the family began to receive visits from inspectors who were checking into complaints that the Corzos were violating setback requirements -- not to mention "raising pigs," according to one official city citation, and "raising mosquitoes," according to another.

Omar and Carmen Corzo and their thirteen-year-old daughter swear that Carmen Caldwell herself handcuffed Omar one August evening in 1990 after a Crime Watch meeting at the Ojedas'. The police report about that evening's incident indicates that an officer who had attended the meeting stopped Corzo, who had just pulled up to his house in a 1978 Oldsmobile with a cracked taillight. When a computer check revealed that Corzo's driver's license was suspended, he was arrested. The Corzos protest that the report can't be accurate because the car had been towed to their home after being stolen and stripped; it wasn't even drivable, they say.

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