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When the bronze-color Lincoln Continental nosed into the intersection of NW Sixth Avenue and 75th Street on May 19, 1994, Danny Felton was one of the Miami Police Department's most promising young cops -- officer of the month, repeatedly praised by supervisors. But soon after the 23-year-old Felton swung his patrol car behind the Lincoln and flicked on the blue and red flashers, his blossoming career abruptly wilted.
Only Felton knows his motivation for what followed. The driver, who gave his name as "Dave Williams," didn't know. He was a federal investigator posing as a drug dealer. Nor did a confidential street source who helped the FBI set Felton up for the sting. Nor did Marvin Griffin, a hustler who claims Felton was his partner in crime.
Felton resigned from the force in 1995 after police internal investigators determined that he "committed a $10,000 rip-off from an undercover FBI agent," according to a report by the department's internal affairs section. Yet in his exit interview, his bosses said they would rehire him or recommend him for other city employment. Today the former officer works as a state-licensed mortgage broker, has a concealed weapons permit, lives in a $90,000 home in north Miami-Dade, and drives a Lexus. He has never been charged with a crime. And he has never even told his own father the reason internal affairs investigators say he left the police force.
Felton declined to explain the situation with New Times, saying in a short telephone conversation: "I've put that part of my life behind me."
Why Felton hasn't been indicted is a mystery. Even his defense attorney Richard Sharpstein acknowledges that federal charges will likely come soon. Felton signed a confession and was caught on video. One problem may be a promise from FBI agents, which the U.S. Attorney's Office asserts was improper, that Felton wouldn't be prosecuted if he cooperated. Court sources told New Times the feds waited and waited in the hope he would implicate other corrupt officers.
It was a shocking turn of events for the onetime star officer. When Felton was hired by Miami, he seemed to have the kind of radiant moral character a place like his native Liberty City craved. Though poverty, drugs, and violence consumed the neighborhood where Felton grew up, he emerged a success. The son of devout Pentecostal parents, he studied hard in school and became a talented musician. He graduated from Miami Central High School in 1988 and started a career in public service, volunteering for the U.S. Army in 1989, then joining the Miami force. His city personnel file is thick with commendations.
The man who claims he was Felton's accomplice in crime, Griffin, is in the Federal Detention Center in downtown Miami. He was convicted in March for participating in a drug deal that, ironically, went down without drugs or money. At his sentencing, scheduled for August 7, he will face 30 years to life in prison.
Sharpstein declares that Felton is innocent. He argues that his client was cultivating Griffin as a street informant when the FBI stumbled into the case. And that the confession is bogus.
"That statement wasn't written by him," says Sharpstein, who has defended several law enforcement officers before. The two-page confession, which Sharpstein says was penned by an FBI agent and signed by Felton, is "a patchwork quilt of truth and lies.... Danny Felton was clearly, unequivocally manipulated, lied to, and deceived by the FBI."
Sharpstein says if the case goes to trial, he will ask the judge to suppress the confession. Besides, the lawyer argues, no jury would convict Felton knowing that the FBI promised not to prosecute him in exchange for cooperation. In court documents relating to Griffin's case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill stated that "the FBI did not have authority to make such a promise ... and that any such advice is null and void."
Whether or not Felton did anything wrong, one thing seems clear: Felton's tale is one of seduction. Felton claims he was trying to seduce Griffin, a career criminal, into becoming a police informant. Miami police allege Felton was seduced by the lure of the street.
Decay creeps like a vine up the houses on NW Tenth Court in Liberty City -- roof shingles are dog-eared, windows are boarded, and weeds sprout in an empty lot -- until you reach NW 80th Street. There, a low-slung ranch house behind a wrought-iron fence and the tidy white church next door gleam in the sunshine. Both were built in the Seventies by Felton's father Willie, a retired bus driver. The house and church defined Danny's world as he grew up. His parents started that church, his mother preached behind its pulpit until her death in 1992, and Danny played drums in its band. Today the answering machine in his father's house contains the benedictive message "There's one thing you can always remember: God loves you, and the Felton family loves you."
"That church was like a second child in that family," Sharpstein says. "First they gave birth to Danny, then to the church, and that was their world." The church is now leased to a Baptist congregation, according to Sharpstein.