The Slap of Luxury

Fontainebleau Hilton security chief Chuck Collado isn't a cop. He just acts like one.

It was a sight that would make any hotel manager blanch, especially one at Miami Beach's tony Four Points Sheraton Hotel on New Year's Eve. Seven security guards from the neighboring Fontainebleau Hilton sprinted past the front desk. They were chasing two people who had allegedly stiffed the Fontainebleau's bar. The guards collared their suspects at the elevator.

Four Points general manager Armando Valdes wrote a terse note to Leo Salom, his Fontainebleau counterpart: "Leo, please understand that we are happy to cooperate fully with you and your staff, but the sight of seven uniformed guards running through my pool area and lobby was one of concern. I had several guests gather and question me as to the goings-on. From what I was told the bill amounted to $4.99 and a charge of trespassing at your pool area."

The 1998 incident wasn't the first time Fontainebleau security officers had been accused of employing overly aggressive tactics. Four former employees told New Times the hotel's security director, Cleto "Chuck" Collado, hit people on several occasions between 1995 and 1997, often while they were in handcuffs. One Chicago tour operator alleges Collado slapped him and slammed him into the hood of a car. An internal hotel memo dated October 27, 1997, cleared Collado of brutality, but reprimanded him for violating hotel policy by carrying a police baton. The document notes that another security guard had handcuffed a ten-year-old boy, but cleared Collado of blame.

Collado denies he ever hit anyone while working at the hotel. "Never, never, never," he says. Then he refers all questions to hotel spokeswoman Lisa Cole. In a written statement to New Times, Cole asserted the Fontainebleau security staff is "at all times professional and courteous."

Handcuffs, batons, and allegedly slaphappy guards are not images that one associates with the Fontainebleau. The resort's huge trompe l'oeil on Collins Avenue is a Miami Beach landmark. Just the name conjures images of its days as one of America's premier resorts. Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, and Charlton Heston, among many others, stayed in its plush rooms. Designed by legendary Miami Beach architect Morris Lapidus, the structure is world famous.

Given the hotel's prominence, it's clear the place needs a disciplined and discreet palace guard. Enter Collado, the 47-year-old director of security for the 1200-room Fontainebleau. With a staff of more than 35 people, Collado is the equivalent of a small-town police chief. Or if the allegations are correct, maybe he's more like a Green Beret.

The Fontainebleau's sentries are considered in-house security, which means they require neither state licenses nor training. They are not allowed to carry firearms, but they can use reasonable force to defend themselves.

Former security guard Eric Spiers asserts that Collado sometimes used unreasonable force. On September 18, 1997, Spiers, now age 25, sent a report to resident manager Greg Rowell cataloguing two beatings he witnessed. He also cited others he had heard about. In the eight-page, single-spaced memo, he claimed Collado carried a loaded .38-caliber pistol on the premises as well as an asp, an extendable baton used by police. (Fontainebleau regulations prohibit employees from carrying weapons in the hotel.)

The first thrashing described by Spiers allegedly occurred on January 28, 1995. He and another guard responded to a call about a suspected ticket scalper in the lobby. They put the suspect in handcuffs and took him to Collado's office. "At this time Collado slapped the prisoner repeatedly," Spiers wrote in his report to Rowell. "After Mr. Collado beat the prisoner ... [the guards] brought him to the lower north garage where they searched his vehicle.... Mr. Collado then grabbed the prisoner and slammed him face down on another vehicle in the garage. I was told to kick the prisoner if he moved while he was laying on top of the car."

New Times tracked down the alleged scalper, Harley Sroka, who works as a tour operator in Chicago. Sroka was in town for the 1995 Super Bowl with a group of clients. "Yeah, he slapped me and threw me against a car," Sroka says. "I was scared for my life. I thought he was going to kill me."

On January 30, 1995, Miami Beach police charged Sroka with ticket scalping (and drug possession). All charges were eventually dropped. Sroka never complained to police. He says he was just glad to get away.

Spiers also claims to have witnessed Collado punch a high school senior in the stomach after the young man mouthed off to the security director following a 1995 prom at the hotel. "I was told to leave after Mr. Collado began to hit the prisoner," he wrote. Spiers couldn't name the victim or the exact date. He mentioned in his report that a now-deceased Miami Beach police officer was there, though he couldn't recall who.

On October 27, 1997, Rowell replied to Spiers. The hotel investigated the allegations against Collado, Rowell wrote, and found the director carried an asp. Management warned him not to bring it to work. But the hotel could not find sufficient evidence that Collado beat people or carried a firearm while on duty. (Collado has a state permit to carry a handgun.)

Nathan Fuentes, a former Fontainebleau guard who was dismissed in 1997 for leaving his post, confirms Spiers's claims. "Yeah, I saw him hit people on a couple of occasions," he told New Times. Fuentes believes he was fired for reporting Collado's behavior to management. Fuentes also recalls confronting a trespasser in the pool area in 1997. The man struggled and hit one of the guards. After security led the man to Collado's office, Fuentes says, "Chuck just hit the guy really hard in the head, and then he said, 'That's how you hit someone without leaving a mark.' I was shocked."

Another former guard, who asked for anonymity, recalls a similar incident in 1996. He claims to have arrived in the pool area as backup for a colleague who had detained a trespasser. The man became unruly. Seven guards arrived, handcuffed the suspect, and led him to the security offices. Collado took the man into an interview room and shut the door. "I heard the guy getting slapped, and I heard him being pushed against the wall, and Chuck saying 'You think you're tough?'" the former guard says.

The ex-guard, who was also fired for leaving his post, adds, "I think security guards should be able to defend themselves. But I don't think you should hit someone when they're defenseless and in handcuffs."

A fourth ex-guard, who also requested anonymity and acknowledges he was fired after a confrontation with a supervisor, claims to have seen Collado hit an unruly trespassing suspect on the head with a radio after the culprit started screaming. "[Collado] hit him pretty hard in his hair," the ex-guard says. "No blood came out. Then he asked for my handcuffs and put them on the guy, and he lifted the guy's arms up by the chain."

The ex-guard also claims to have seen a colleague handcuff a ten-year-old boy who had been causing trouble in the hotel's game room. The hotel probed this incident. "[B]ased on our investigation, it appears that Mr. Collado was not at the hotel when [the officer] supposedly handcuffed the boy in question. Upon being advised of this incident, Mr. Collado met with [the offending guard] and advised him that, under the circumstances, handcuffing the boy was against the hotel's policies. Mr. Collado then took away the handcuffs of all nonsupervisory members of the Security Department."

Spiers and the others maintain that Collado's gung-ho style inspired his staff to such excesses. Dissatisfied with the hotel's investigation of Collado, Spiers contacted the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI in 1998. After receiving no reply, he contacted New Times.

At least one former employee thinks the allegations against Collado are wrong. Alex Villasuso, who left the Fontainebleau this year as a security supervisor after eight years, defends his former boss. "I know there was a little group that wanted Chuck out of the Fontainebleau. But during the time I was there, no, I never saw anything like that," he says in reference to the beatings. Villasuso now works for another security company.

Collado holds security officer and private investigator licenses. Records show he's never been charged with a crime in Florida, nor have he or the hotel been sued in connection with any of the incidents cited by the four guards. "In my opinion, Mr. Spiers is a disgruntled employee," asserts the Fontainebleau's Lisa Cole. She produced a June 16, 1999, letter from Miami Beach Police Chief Richard Barretto thanking Collado for his professionalism and assistance in a case.

And Spiers may have an ax to grind. In 1997 he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against Collado and the hotel, claiming that he was discriminated against because he is not Hispanic. The EEOC ruled Spiers had grounds to sue, but so far Spiers has not pushed the matter in the courts. Spiers quit the Fontainebleau in January after five years there. "I'm just saying what I saw," he says. "I'm telling the truth."

tris_korten@miaminewtimes.com

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