Behind the Badge

Danny Felton was a decorated cop and local hero. Then drug dealer Marvin Griffin showed up.

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.

As a boy, Felton played in the Miami Central High School symphony and the marching band. "Participation in the church and playing drums consumed most of his life then," Sharpstein says. Felton's high school band leader John Ladson, who now lives in Georgia, adds: "He was one of those kids that always did the right thing. I never knew Danny to do anything wrong. I tell you, it was odd to have a student in both the church and the band. There were a lot of kids from the projects and they were rough. It seemed like the church kids didn't last long."

Felton not only lasted, he thrived, winning several statewide drum solo competitions. "He could play snares, tom-toms, timpani, bells," Ladson recalls. "He was excellent. He must have won over 25 medals. He was really disciplined."

If discipline helped Felton excel in school and band, it must have also aided him when he entered the military in 1989. After his graduation from Central, Felton joined the army and traveled to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for basic training. He served his time, received an honorable discharge, and remained on semiactive duty as a reserve. After returning to Miami he entered the police academy.

This was the ordered progress people had come to expect of Felton. Within months of becoming a police officer, he was racking up arrests. Throughout 1993 he was one of the most active officers in the city's north district, which included his home area of Liberty City. In October, after making 36 arrests, Felton was named officer of the month. "It is my distinct pleasure to bring to your attention the outstanding performance by Officer Danny Felton during the month of October 1993," Lt. David Rivero, commander of the north district's B shift, wrote in a monthly evaluation addressed to Ofcr. Angelo Bitsis. Rivero also called Felton's performance "remarkable." Police Maj. Gwendolyn Boyd told a reporter for the Neighbors section of the Miami Herald: "He's such an eager beaver.... He's a rookie, but he's always out there hustling."

In one case that month Felton chased down two men who tried to flee after crashing a stolen car. In another, he collared a man -- on the run for two days -- who was wanted for beating his pregnant girlfriend.

To the department's top brass, Felton was a gift. In the early Nineties, the Miami Police Department was still smarting from the so-called River Cops scandal of 1985 -- in which two drug dealers drowned while trying to escape a group of dirty cops out to steal narcotics. That embarrassment resulted in about twenty convictions and subjected more than 100 officers to internal discipline through 1995. Hiring officers like Felton, who had grown up in Miami and who had a sterling background, seemed a perfect remedy.

Felton at first lived up to those expectations. Word of his accomplishments reached his childhood haunts. "He was arresting everybody, getting commendations and everything," bandleader Ladson recalls.

Then, according to the confession and the internal affairs report, Felton bumped into a childhood acquaintance named Marvin Griffin and all that changed.

In the Tropicana, a neighborhood bar just down the street from the church, patrons have never heard of Danny Felton. "The boy from the church there? Naw, they keep to theyselves," says one midafternoon drinker nursing a Bud longneck. But some remember Griffin, alias Jody Daboyce, Edward Griffin, and Roosevelt Commings.

One regular recalls Griffin as a tall, slim, well-dressed man partial to slacks and silk shirts who would stop in occasionally for a glass of Hennessy cognac. He would hold low-volume conversations not meant to be overheard, talking only to the people he entered with.

Felton and Griffin couldn't have been more different. Felton was devout, and disciplined -- a high school graduate who basked in the adulation of his school and church. Griffin was slick and street-smart, a high school dropout who sought affirmation at night on the streets.

Griffin was born into a sprawling family of seven children. He attended Miami Central five years before Felton. He was a childhood acquaintance of Danny Felton's older brother Stanley, according to Felton's alleged confession. Sometimes Griffin, who had a bad reputation even then, would stop by the Felton house. "My family knew he was involved in robbing people and narcotics trafficking, so my dad would chase Marvin away," the confession reads. In Griffin's senior year, 1983, his attendance was requested elsewhere -- state prison.

Griffin's juvenile criminal record is sealed, but it's likely he was active. At age seventeen he was charged as an adult with burglary for stealing a purse from a northeast Dade home; a judge sentenced him to four years. Since then he's been accused of at least fourteen other crimes, including a violent robbery in 1986 that earned him four more years in prison. Neither conviction involved drugs.

"Marvin? He was a hell of a fella' around here," one of the bar patrons comments dryly. "He was quiet. He was also smart. It seemed like he always stayed a couple of steps ahead of the police."

Griffin declined through his lawyer Jon May to be interviewed for this story. But he wrote a five-page single-spaced typewritten letter to New Times detailing his exploits with Felton. He describes working with Felton on several drug rip-offs in 1994. In March a jury found Griffin guilty of possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Because of his past criminal record, he faces that minimum 30-year sentence on Friday. Griffin maintains he is not a drug dealer and feels even the minimum sentence is unjust.

In his letter to New Times, dated January 15 but received much later, Griffin recalled the meeting that allegedly initiated his partnership with Felton: "One day I seen Danny in his Maxima car. I stopped him and I asked him would he be interested in buying some rims for his car. Danny answers, Man, I don't have any money to buy no rims. I wished I could. Shit, them crackers don't pay me enough. Hell, I need to be doing what you do, so I can ride around like you guys." Griffin writes that he laughed "bashfully," then said to Felton; "Man, stop playing, you want the rims or not? They fit right on your car." Griffin contends Felton replied, "I'm serious, we don't get paid shit."

Then, Griffin writes, he mulled it over, "until I finally got up the nerve to approach him and ask him would he be willing to participate in rip-offs."

In Felton's contested FBI confession, the meeting is recounted differently. "One day, I ran into Marvin on the street and Marvin told me that I could make a little money if I was interested. He said he had a little something for me and I would just have to do my job as a police officer. Marvin was always saying that he had something big and one day, I said I was interested." Felton does not explain his motivation.

"Cases like this are absolute shockers," remarks Maj. Bill O'Brien, commander of the Miami Police Department's internal affairs section. "I don't know why he would do something like this. He was a young man with an excellent future. All he had to do was continue to do his job and he was on the path to success." O'Brien's section substantiated two findings of misconduct against Felton for the rip-offs. The first allegation was that he stole money from an FBI agent posing as a drug dealer on May 19, 1994. The second was that he had ripped off a real drug dealer four months earlier. "After the conclusion of the joint City of Miami internal affairs and FBI investigation, it is clearly and factually evidenced that Officer Danny P. Felton planned and assisted Mr. Marvin Griffin in money and/or drug rip-offs on two separate occasions," the internal affairs report states.

Sharpstein acknowledges that Felton and Griffin were in contact. But in his version, Felton was only doing some unauthorized undercover work. Sharpstein contends Felton was hoping for a promotion. "He was young, naive, and misguided as to how to advance."

According to Griffin, the first rip-off was easy. He traveled to Atlanta and let it be known in night clubs and on the street that he was a Miami drug dealer prepared to do business. Anyone interested should come to Florida with cash to spend.

On January 6, 1994, the first buyer to take up Griffin's offer arrived, according to both Felton's confession and the internal affairs report. At about 4:00 p.m., Griffin and the customer -- who is not named in either document -- passed NW Eleventh Avenue and 40th Street in Griffin's 1993 cream-color Infiniti. Felton pulled them over.

Griffin's letter doesn't refer specifically to this date. Rather he describes generally how the two would separate drug dealers from their lucre. Felton would request Griffin's license. Griffin would pretend he didn't have it. Felton would tell Griffin to step from the car and lead him to the cruiser. Then, Griffin writes, Felton "would ask me in private where's the money located [inside the car] and does this fellow have any weapons on him?" Next, Felton would "arrest" Griffin and inform the visiting drug dealer that, as a passenger, he was free to go. The dealer would take off on foot, leaving the money behind. Griffin and Felton would split the profit.

According to the internal affairs report, Felton earned $1000 for the charade. (A police incident report says the stop occurred January 6, but the internal affairs report, apparently because of a clerical error, states the date as January 1.)

Griffin thought of the scams as a public service. "In a sense we still did some good, because here was another drug dealer going back to wherever empty-handed," he writes.

Felton's lawyer Sharpstein disputes both Griffin's allegations and the contention that his client profited from the stop. "Any contact made was in a pure law enforcement capacity," Sharpstein snorts contemptuously. "Any discussion of money was Marvin asking to be paid for information."

To his supervisors, the rookie cop continued his hot pace. In March 1994 he led the approximately 200 officers in the north district substation in arrests, prisoners transported to jail, and a half-dozen other categories. His supervisor, Sgt. Cornelius Drane, wrote, "Officer Felton is a probationary employee; however, he has displayed above-average attention to duty." In April Felton again led his sector in arrests. He passed the department's required three months of probation with a backslapping endorsement from Drane: "Felton is a highly motivated young officer. He sets the pace for production in his north district patrol assignment. I recommend permanent police status."

On May 2, while Felton was burnishing his success on patrol to a high gloss, FBI Special Agent Thaddeus Buggs received a tip from a source that "Officer Danny Felton and a drug dealer by the name of Mr. Marvin Griffin had committed several thefts of drugs and money from local drug dealers," according to the Miami internal affairs report. "Agent Buggs advised the [confidential source] to inform Mr. Griffin that a drug dealer was coming to Miami carrying a large amount of money and drugs in his vehicle."

A week later Griffin called Felton again, according to Felton's disputed confession. The con man told the cop that a dealer was coming to town in about two weeks with $10,000 to buy cocaine. The out-of-towner planned to arrive May 19, stay at a Days Inn, and finalize the deal at Jumbo's Restaurant on NW Seventh Avenue and 75th Street. "All I had to do was pull him over," the confession states.

On the designated day, Griffin told Felton to watch for a bronze-color 1988 Lincoln with Florida tag KNV00L, according to the confession and a traffic report Felton later completed. Around 5:00 p.m. Felton parked his cruiser near NW Sixth Avenue and 75th Street and waited. Soon the Lincoln pulled into view. "I can't remember what I stopped him for, but after I looked at his paperwork, I think I arrested him for a suspended license or bad tag," states Felton's disputed confession.

With the Lincoln pulled over by the curb, the six-foot, 160-pound driver tried to persuade Felton to release him, according to an arrest report Felton later filed, and to the confession. Felton replied that he wanted to check the man's driver's license and radioed dispatch. "Can I have a [driver's license and criminal history] check on a black male, first name of Dave, Delta-Alpha-Victor-Echo, last name of Williams, common spelling," Felton said, according to a transcript of that radio conversation. "He has a [date of birth] of 6/23/53." The dispatcher discovered several names under that birth date, some of whom had outstanding warrants. She asked if the man met the description listed on the computer. "I'll ... check these warrants," Felton replied, according to the transcript. "Show me en route to the north station with a black male."

The alleged confession describes the subsequent events: Felton parked the Lincoln in a lot at a nearby housing project. Then he drove "Williams" to the station and dropped him off. Afterward, Felton drove to the KFC on NW Seventh Avenue and 74th Street, where Griffin and a couple of men waited in a black van. Felton gave Griffin the keys to the Lincoln "and told him to hurry up because I had to bring them back to the guy," the confession states. The three retrieved the Lincoln; one of Griffin's associates drove it to a spot on the expressway. Felton watched from a distance as they combed through its interior. Then Griffin called Felton's pager -- his signal they had found the money.

Felton received $2000 for his part in the rip-off, according to the internal affairs report. Some of that episode was recorded on FBI videotape.

Sharpstein terms the May 19 events "an FBI setup." He contends that Felton did not take any money from Griffin. "He didn't take money from Marvin; Marvin was soliciting money from him," he says. "Marvin Griffin convinced Danny Felton that he could provide information that could be used in a law enforcement capacity to arrest criminal violators. The relationship was cop-informant."

On April 12, 1995, nearly a year after the alleged $10,000 rip-off from the Lincoln, Danny Felton was driving at NW 23rd Avenue and 183rd Street when Metro-Dade Internal Affairs Sgt. Charlie Triana, the FBI's Buggs, and Miami Police Sgt. Clyde Rimes pulled him over, according to the internal affairs report. Felton was off-duty. The trio hauled him to nearby FBI headquarters and grilled him. That's when he wrote his confession, according to the internal affairs report.

It seems likely the FBI then offered Felton a deal if he cooperated. Neither details nor timing of the offer are clear from documents obtained by New Times.

A horn honks and music plays. It's April 13, the day after Felton's bust, and the soon-to-be ex-cop pulls up to NW Eleventh Avenue and 79th Street wearing an FBI wire. According to a transcript, here's what the agents heard:

"Marvin!" Felton says. Then there's a pause. "Do you know where I can catch him at?"

"He's over at Reba's house. Know where Reba stay at?" someone from the street shouts back.

"On 75th?"
"Yeah."
Felton takes off for a house on NW Eleventh Avenue and 75th Street belonging to Reba Jackson. At Jackson's house he rouses Griffin from a nap.

"What's up, man? You asleep?"
"Huh?"
"You asleep?"
"Where you been at?" Griffin asks.

"Chillin', man. Shit, you know I got moved, right? I'm in a different spot now," Felton says. "You know I got off patrol? Since the last time on 75th Street? I'm upstairs now."

"You work in the office?" Griffin asks.
"Yeah. Me and my boys, shit, the other day, we did something like that, stopped a guy ..."

Griffin's waking up now. "Yeah?"
"And he had, you know, a couple of blocks [of cocaine] in there ..."
"Yeah?"

"So, uh, we, like, we got some money and some block, but we ain't turn the shit in. You know, I wanted to know if you wanted to, you know, get rid of this shit."

Then the dealmaking begins. Felton asks Griffin if he can sell six kilograms of cocaine. Griffin offers to sell the drugs for $15,000 per kilogram, which he says is about $3000 less than street value.

"All right," Felton says.
Griffin later told an FBI agent he never intended to pay Felton for the drugs. He planned to rip off his partner.

The next day at a north Miami-Dade flea market Felton gave Griffin a gym bag with six kilograms of flour tightly wrapped in plastic, according to court documents from Griffin's trial. Griffin promised to deliver the money as soon as possible. After they parted, police and federal agents swarmed over Griffin, cuffed him, and loaded him into a car. In the chaos, Griffin managed to wriggle free, open the the door, and disappear.

The feds didn't immediately issue an arrest warrant for Griffin because they wanted him to work as an informant, law enforcement sources says. The investigators believed other police officers were involved in the same scam. Griffin met with the FBI once, then backed out of another appointment. The feds got a warrant.

On October 25, 1997, more than two and a half years after Griffin's escape, a Miami-Dade patrol car pulled a car over on NW 28th Place for an improper lane change. Griffin was a passenger. He gave police a fake name, Ken St. Rifle, and said he was in town from Georgia to buy a car. Police found $9204 in cash in his pockets. At police headquarters, officers took fingerprints and discovered his identity, according to the arrest report. He was charged with possession of cocaine with intent to distribute, as a result of the flea-market affair.

Though the feds tried to persuade Griffin to work as an informant even after he was charged, negotiations were unsuccessful, court sources say. The reason is unclear. Either Griffin couldn't implicate other officers or the feds were unwilling to cut a deal acceptable to Griffin and his attorney, Jon May.

After a career hustling the hustlers, Griffin himself had been hustled.
The trial was held in U.S. District Court Judge Ursula Ungaro-Benages's third-floor courtroom in the downtown federal courthouse. It lasted a week. FBI agents testified, a bureau videotape of Griffin meeting Felton in a parking lot was shown, and transcripts of the pair's other meetings were read. But prosecutors never called Felton to the witness stand. Perhaps prosecutor Tom Mulvihill thought the ex-cop's testimony was unnecessary. Or maybe Mulvihill was concerned about the FBI's alleged promise not to prosecute Felton.

May argued that the government improperly enticed Griffin with sham drugs. Mulvihill countered that Griffin believed he was receiving cocaine and was willing to sell it. The jury returned a guilty verdict. After this Friday's sentencing Marvin Griffin will likely spend the rest of his productive life behind bars.

Felton's alleged crimes weren't mentioned in his personnel file because the FBI hoped to snare other officers, say police sources. That file is available to the public. He resigned May 5, 1995. Less than a year later, in January 1996, he got a mortgage broker's license.

Felton's father Willie didn't know the purported reason his son resigned from the department until New Times called to requested an interview. "He told me he was resigning because he was doing undercover work and it was too dangerous."

Ladson, the band teacher, recalls running into Felton's sister-in-law outside a bank recently. "She said Danny resigned from the force because it was getting so dangerous."

In 1996 Felton bought a modest single-story house in Opa-locka. His neighbors there remember him as a quiet, well-groomed man who kept to himself. Every so often a police car would park in his driveway, the neighbors recall.

In 1997 Felton sold that house for $78,000 and bought a house on NW 187th Street and Tenth Avenue.

Despite his conviction, Griffin says he has tried to move on with his life. He recently asked Ungaro-Benages to allow him to marry Jackson in prison: "I've been with Reba for almost ten years. We had been plan to marry, but every time we ready to, something comes up. Well, again, something has come up."

Coincidentally, Felton is also engaged to be married this November, Sharpstein notes. The former officer is ever confident things will continue to go his way. "Just because there's a bend in the road doesn't mean it's the end of the road," he tells New Times before hanging up .

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