The Van Buren File

From deep within the Miami Police Department comes a convoluted tale of sketchy videotape, allegations of official misconduct, and two tickets to the Stanley Cup finals

The internal affairs bureau of the Miami Police Department is no comedy club. It is a cramped office decorated with faded travel posters, harsh fluorescent lights, and ancient metal desks. Amid piles of paperwork somber detectives slog their way through the hundreds of citizen complaints filed every year. These are deadly serious investigations of possible police brutality, theft, corruption, and other crimes. Most allegations are hard to prove. Some complaints are groundless misunderstandings while others are crude attempts to smear an honest officer. The workload is punishing, yet the detectives are not without a sense of humor. If you want to make them laugh, you can: Just mention the name David Van Buren.

Van Buren filed an internal affairs (IA) complaint in 1996, alleging that two Miami police officers arrested him without cause, beat him up, and then stole two Florida Panthers hockey tickets from him, most likely for their personal use or resale. As part of his complaint Van Buren submitted a videotape of interviews with friends who witnessed the arrest. "Check out how this guy appears to be reading from a script," instructs the commander of internal affairs, Maj. Paul Shepard, as the first eyewitness stumbles through his account. When the parade progresses to other shaky testimonials, Shepard leans back in a chair and allows a smile to stretch across his face.

"Can you hear his voice in the background?" he asks with a snicker. "He has all these guys refer to him in the third person even though he's the one operating the camera."

Van Buren watches the "missing" videotape featuring Thomas Laura on the walkie-talkie
Michael Steinbacher
Van Buren watches the "missing" videotape featuring Thomas Laura on the walkie-talkie
"This complaint," says Chief O'Brien, "is bulllllllllshit"
Michael Steinbacher
"This complaint," says Chief O'Brien, "is bulllllllllshit"
Attorney Miguel de la O had no problem turning over the credit card statement that internal affairs claims never to have seen
Michael Steinbacher
Attorney Miguel de la O had no problem turning over the credit card statement that internal affairs claims never to have seen
The "missing" videotape shows Van Buren resisting arrest, followed by postincident closeups of the damage inflicted upon his wrist and hairline
The "missing" videotape shows Van Buren resisting arrest, followed by postincident closeups of the damage inflicted upon his wrist and hairline

Not surprisingly, Van Buren's complaint went nowhere. IA detectives identified him as a ticket broker with three arrests for a minor strain of scalping known as "vending without a license." They noted in their report his refusal to hand over key evidence to support his claims. There were no visible injuries from the alleged beating. And with barely suppressed guffaws they determined that the two $65 Panthers tickets Van Buren says were stolen from him were actually four cheap Florida Marlins tickets he was probably trying to pawn off on unsuspecting hockey fans.

The officers, Thomas Laura and Jeffrey Locke, were cleared of misconduct. Locke has since been promoted to sergeant. The internal affairs bureau was headed at the time by Maj. William O'Brien, who has also climbed in rank -- to chief of police. Speaking from a conference room in his office, O'Brien initially remembers the case only vaguely. "From what I recall," he says with a quiet chuckle, "what we had there was a scam artist trying to, well, pull a scam. I don't know if [Van Buren] was getting screwed himself or if he was about to screw someone else."

The laughter infuriates David Van Buren, a 38-year-old resident of Coconut Grove probably best known, if known at all, as the Alligator Guy. Five years ago Van Buren's eight-foot-long alligator Gwendolyn escaped from a pen in his garden. Trappers found the domesticated pet in a neighbor's back yard and turned him (Gwendolyn is actually a he) over to Florida wildlife officials. As punishment state prosecutors sought to lock Van Buren in a pen of his own for 60 days. Gwendolyn, it was announced, would be executed.

Van Buren beat the rap. A judge dismissed charges after learning that none of Van Buren's neighbors were worried about the gator, who is so housebroken he sometimes sleeps in Van Buren's bed. Gwendolyn received clemency. Under a welcome banner and accompanied by champagne toasts from dozens of supporters, the alligator returned to a new outdoor pool ringed by an eight-foot-high concrete fence. A steady sardine diet has helped him grow another two feet.

In Gwendolyn's honor, Van Buren named his business Alligator Sports. For a fee he packages hotel rooms with tickets to major concerts and sporting events nationwide. Last month Van Buren hit Boston to work baseball's all-star game. Already he's taking orders for the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia. Even though some people refer to him as a ticket scalper, he's not ashamed of his profession, and points out that the simple resale of tickets is not a crime.

What about the three arrests for vending without a license? As did Gwendolyn, Van Buren beat the rap every time. He's never been convicted of anything.

Is his success in the courtroom clouding his judgment? Maybe. This past June Van Buren filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Miami, charging that the confiscation of his hockey tickets violated his privacy rights as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment. Other allegations contained in the lawsuit include common-law battery and false imprisonment. In response a bemused assistant city attorney has asked that six of the seven charges be dismissed and that the remaining minor charge be clarified.

"He doesn't like to turn and walk away," says Shawn Van Buren, explaining why her husband continues to offer up his reputation for further battering. "If he's wronged in any way he will stand up for himself. He will not just roll over and let these guys do whatever they want."

Van Buren concurs: "When I feel something is right, I don't back off. And I know I'm not wrong about this. I know I am right. I am absolutely positive."

THE NARRATIVE ACCORDING TO VAN BUREN'S LAWSUIT

Van Buren says that on the afternoon of June 8, 1996, he decided to treat his wife to that night's Panthers game because she's a big fan, because the team was playing in the Stanley Cup finals, and because it was the one-year anniversary of their engagement. He ordered two nosebleed seats at $65 apiece from Prime Tickets & Tours, a company listed in the BellSouth Yellow Pages and owned by an acquaintance. He says he paid for the tickets with his American Express credit card.

About an hour before the game began, Prime Tickets proprietor Steve Rosen met Van Buren at a downtown grocery store a couple of blocks from the Miami Arena. Rosen handed over two blue Ticketmaster tickets to that evening's game, according to Van Buren.

"As Van Buren was putting the tickets in his pocket, a patrol car from the City of Miami Police Department screeched to the curb in front of the store," states the lawsuit. Uniformed Ofcr. Thomas Laura demanded that Van Buren give him the tickets. Van Buren protested, saying he had no reason to hand over tickets he had legally purchased.

"Van Buren then became concerned that all [Laura] wanted to do was steal his tickets since he obviously had no reason to arrest him," according to the lawsuit. "Nevertheless Van Buren did not think that Laura would actually arrest him. As a result Van Buren put the tickets in his underwear and put his two hands in front of him and said, 'Then go ahead and arrest me. I'm going to the game with my wife. She's right there and they're my tickets.'"

Laura arrested him.

According to the lawsuit, Laura and at least one other unidentified officer "beat [Van Buren] to get [him] in the car." Laura then drove him to the arena, where he parked across the street by the railroad tracks. The lawsuit alleges that Laura then told Van Buren if he did not hand over the tickets he would drive Van Buren to the nearby Overtown neighborhood and he and other officers would "beat the shit" out of him.

Ofcr. Jeffrey Locke ambled over. Laura told Locke that Van Buren had refused to relinquish the tickets. Locke allegedly made comments that indicated to Van Buren the officer wanted the tickets for his own use. The quotes are ambiguous. "We'll do whatever we have to," Locke purportedly said. "And the game is starting soon ... needs the tickets right away."

The final scene: "Locke began pulling Van Buren's pants off and looking in his underwear.... Fearing the worst, Van Buren gave Locke the tickets [that were] hidden in his underwear." Without saying a word to Van Buren, Locke allegedly ran toward the arena with the two tickets.

THE NARRATIVE ACCORDING TO THE INTERNAL AFFAIRS FILE

Ofcr. Thomas Laura was working off-duty at the Miami Arena when he recognized Van Buren and Rosen as known ticket scalpers. From his squad car he observed Van Buren waving tickets in the air. A Latin male approached and was about to give him money.

Laura arrested Van Buren, put him in his squad car, and drove to a place near the arena where there were other officers. He met up with Locke, who was also working off-duty and to whom Van Buren voluntarily handed the tickets. Locke gave them back to Laura, who subsequently placed them in the police department's evidence room.

But there was something strange about ...

THE TICKETS

Van Buren claims he purchased from Rosen two tickets to a Florida Panthers vs. Colorado Avalanche playoff hockey game. But Locke and Laura both told IA investigators under oath that Van Buren handed over four tickets, not two. And they were not to a Florida vs. Colorado hockey game but to a Florida vs. Colorado baseball game.

"The tickets taken from Mr. Van Buren were baseball tickets, the Florida Marlins versus the Colorado Rockies scheduled for August 15, 1996," concludes the internal affairs report. "Based on Mr. Van Buren's and Mr. Rosen's past records of arrests for scalping, the preponderance of evidence indicates they were attempting to sell the baseball tickets as tickets for the hockey game to unsuspecting citizens."

A photocopy of four tickets is included in the internal affairs file. They are clearly Marlins tickets, general admission to "AT&T Phone Card #2" night. Three of the tickets cost $1.50 each; one cost $4.00. Coding on the tickets indicates they were purchased June 2, six days before the arena arrest.

As unbelievable as it sounds, Van Buren and his attorney, Miguel de la O, filed the federal lawsuit without knowing about the Marlins tickets evidence. They both claim to be shocked by the news. "This is the first I heard of it," says de la O, who operates a modest private practice on Coral Way in Miami. "It didn't come up in [criminal] court, where the case was dismissed for lack of prosecution. No one at internal affairs ever told us about it. And if he was trying to sell baseball tickets to hockey fans, why wasn't he charged with fraud?"

The arrest report filed by Officer Laura does not say. In fact it doesn't say anything at all about tickets, only that Van Buren was charged with vending without a license and resisting arrest without violence.

Chief of Police O'Brien, who has recently brushed up on the case, clarifies that when Laura saw Van Buren stuff the tickets in his pants, the officer had no idea they were bogus tickets -- if that's what they were. "Trying to put the elements together into a fraud charge was never a viable alternative," the chief says.

THE CREDIT CARD STATEMENT

According to the internal affairs report, Van Buren did not provide a copy of his American Express credit card statement proving purchase of the tickets, even after several requests. "Not providing a receipt of the alleged transaction is a clear indication that both Mr. Van Buren and Mr. Rosen have been less than truthful in their statements," the report notes.

"That's bullshit!" Van Buren shouts when informed of the report's contention. "We gave them two sets of copies! That's an absolute total fucking lie! You can quote me on that. I handed them right to [then-] Major O'Brien, right in his hands. Miguel sat in his office and we handed them the paperwork right there. We put it in his hands."

O'Brien denies ever receiving a copy of the American Express receipt in question. "That's absolute bull," he says, echoing Van Buren. "I was the commander of internal affairs. As a major I wouldn't receive evidence. I literally wouldn't get handed stuff."

Attorney Miguel de la O had no problem providing New Times with a copy of the American Express statement. It records that on the day of the game, June 8, 1996, Van Buren purchased tickets from Prime Tickets & Tours for $130. The statement does not say how many tickets he purchased or for what specific game. A handwritten sales receipt from Prime Tickets included in the internal affairs file states that Van Buren purchased two Panthers tickets on June 8 for $130. In a sworn statement, Steve Rosen told internal affairs investigators that he sold Van Buren two tickets to the Panthers game, in either section 204 or 214 (he couldn't recall), and in either row T or V. The tickets, he said, were part of a package that included dinner for two at Cisco's Cafe in Virginia Gardens.

"We went over [to internal affairs] voluntarily," de la O explains. "We went over there. They didn't contact us against our will. Why would we not give them that stuff?"

THE VIDEOTAPE

A small segment of the arrest was captured on videotape by Van Buren's wife. The brief footage consists mostly of Van Buren standing in front of Thomas Laura's police car while Laura orders him to sit in the back seat. At one point Laura whispers something in Van Buren's ear, prompting Van Buren to command his wife to turn off the camera.

According to Van Buren's lawsuit, Laura whispered that he was going to take the camera and "shove it up [his wife's] ass." As noted in the internal affairs file, Laura says he told Van Buren that taping was fine with him because it was Van Buren who was "acting inappropriately."

In the internal affairs report, Van Buren is chided for failing to provide a copy of the videotape to the police department. As with the American Express statement, Van Buren insists he gave internal affairs a copy of the tape -- not once but twice. "They called me up and told me they lost it, so I gave them another copy," he says. "Then they called me up again and said they had lost that one too."

Van Buren claims he gave the first copy of the tape directly to William O'Brien. The police chief denies receiving a copy.

The videotape in the internal affairs file, the funny tape of suspicious witnesses that detectives probably still talk about at parties, is not a tape of the arrest. In his statement to IA, Officer Laura said he hoped the arrest tape would be found because it would completely exonerate him.

That's probably because ...

THE RODNEY KING TAPE IT AIN'T

In his sworn and tape-recorded initial complaint to internal affairs, Van Buren detailed how he was beaten to "within an inch of [his] life." At one point he explained how Laura and at least one other officer assaulted him.

"All of a sudden," he recalled, "I'm just lying across the back of the police car.... I may have blacked out or just gotten fuzzy or something because all I know is I was being hit in every direction. It started from behind and all of a sudden it was from the side and the front and on top." Van Buren claims to have been punched in the thigh and struck in the head with a club more than ten times.

Yet his main piece of evidence, the videotape of the arrest, does not support his allegations. Besides the scenes of his actual arrest, which show no violence, Van Buren is seen on tape the day after the incident. No head wounds are visible. The most severe injury is a handcuff raspberry on his right wrist. The internal affairs detective noted in his report that after being arrested and taken to jail, Van Buren was not admitted to Ward D, the security ward of Jackson Memorial Hospital where injured prisoners are treated.

"I went to see a doctor later," Van Buren expounds. "He said I have a multiple contusion laceration on the left wrist or right shoulder, with something neurological on the right side. He referred me to Golden Glades radiology for x-rays and -- it's hard to read this guy's writing -- it looks like skull or scalp multiple something contusion to the cervical spine or something or other."

For the short time he appears on camera during the arrest, Officer Laura is merely standing next to Van Buren, asking him to sit in the police car.

VAN BUREN'S CREDIBILITY

Van Buren may have gotten fuzzy about more than just his head wounds. In an interview regarding the Panthers tickets incident, a detective asked Van Buren if "anything like that ever happened to you before where you had tickets taken away from you?"

Van Buren paused to think for a full ten seconds. "Probably," he finally admitted before pausing again. "I think maybe on several occasions. One specific occasion I can remember and I can remember several occasions not so clearly where somebody wanted to take my tickets and I refused and went inside the game."

Van Buren needn't have labored so strenuously in search of an example. At the very time of the interview he was in litigation against the City of Miami concerning 41 tickets to a football game at the Orange Bowl, tickets a police officer had confiscated from him in 1993. After the arrest Van Buren was acquitted in court on charges of vending without a license. Van Buren filed suit to recover the face value of all 41 tickets. He eventually won that lawsuit and the city paid him $1544 for the tickets plus legal costs.

ROSEN'S CREDIBILITY

Van Buren says he looked at the tickets the moment he received them from Steve Rosen. "I looked at them right away," he remembers. "I saw that they were in section 240, row T, and we talked about what lousy seats they were. [Rosen] asked what I expected at the last minute, and noted that I was still getting the best deal in town."

Van Buren's wife Shawn reports a slightly different story: "Things happened so fast," she says of the arrest, "Dave didn't even open the envelope."

Chief O'Brien wonders if Van Buren was unknowingly slipped bogus tickets. The man who could clear up things a bit declines to discuss the case. "This happened three years ago," says Steve Rosen. "I don't want to get involved."

Rosen was just as reluctant to speak to the internal affairs bureau. In a tape-recorded sworn interview with Det. Willie Hill, Rosen claimed ignorance of any details of Van Buren's arrest. Hill expressed skepticism.

Hill: You have to realize it's kinda unusual if you had a client or friend or anybody ... to just disappear and not want to see what's going on. You just walked [away].

Rosen: The gentleman [Laura] told me to leave and that's what I did. I left.

Hill: You didn't notice any other actions then by the officer or anyone else that occurred?

Rosen: No, sir.

Hill: Did you see the wife filming the arrest then?

Rosen: No.

Hill: [Did you] see a video camera at all?

Rosen: No, I didn't.

Like Van Buren, Rosen has a record of arrests for scalping and vending without a license; Laura told IA investigators that he's arrested Rosen several times himself. Rosen, though, has never once been arrested for selling bogus tickets, and has no convictions on his record. "I tell the truth," Rosen announced to internal affairs, begging to conclude the interview. "And that's all I say, you know?"

THE POLICE OFFICERS' CREDIBILITY

Any issues of trustworthiness regarding Van Buren and Rosen are at least matched by the mixed reputations of Thomas Laura and Jeffrey Locke. The personnel files of both officers are stocked with commendations; both have earned officer-of-the-month awards. But both have also been reprimanded for lying. Locke, a fifteen-year veteran, was recommended for termination from the force in 1990 for lying to a lieutenant about a telephone conversation, a recommendation that was later rescinded by the city's civil service board.

He was again reprimanded in 1995: "Officer Jeffrey Locke has, on several occasions, demonstrated a complete disregard for his duties and responsibilities as a Miami Police Officer," wrote Sgt. Frank Pichel. "He has lied and shown disrespect towards his supervisor and has solicited state employees to render false information in an attempt to conceal his untruthfulness. Despite numerous attempts to correct his misfeasance, Officer Locke continues to demonstrate contempt towards his supervisor, departmental orders, and rules and regulations."

In this case it was recommended that Locke be suspended for 120 hours. He sued the city. In a 1998 settlement in which he admitted no wrongdoing, he was suspended for only twenty hours and received his promotion to sergeant.

In 1991 Laura, who joined the department in 1981, was arrested, suspended with pay, and charged with perjury in an official proceeding for lying after another officer allegedly hit a bar patron in the face with handcuffs. He was never prosecuted and was returned to active duty.

In 1993 Laura was disciplined again concerning an off-duty job in Coconut Grove. According to the reprimand, the incident involved a familiar co-worker: "Officer Laura clocked in Officer Locke's time card that evening at approximately 19:07 hours even though Officer Locke was not present and was not scheduled to work the off-duty job until 22:00 hours."

Not only have Locke and Laura worked the same off-duty jobs together, they were teammates on the department's football squad. In the investigation of Van Buren's complaint, both officers were interviewed by internal affairs separately, a month apart. Like all officers investigated by IA, they were allowed to view the complaint in advance. Van Buren alleges this allowed them to coordinate their stories.

Laura and Locke declined to talk to New Times. Chief O'Brien recognizes the checkered history of both officers, but stresses they can still perform professionally. "The fact that an officer has had disciplinary problems in the past does not mean he is not a good officer," O'Brien says.

THE POLICE OFFICERS' CREDIBILITY, PART 2

Detectives open a file, contained in a manila folder, every time a citizen files an internal affairs complaint against a Miami police officer. So many complaints have been filed against Laura and Locke that it takes two U.S. Postal Service crates to hold all the folders. "There must be 40 or 50 files for the both of them," says an IA employee, explaining why it took more than a week to prepare the files for public viewing. Some of the charges against the officers are minor accusations of discourtesy. One woman who had her purse stolen, for instance, accused Laura of ignoring her pleas for help so he could hold hands with his girlfriend. The manager of the Publix supermarket at 4870 Biscayne Blvd. asked that Laura not be assigned off-duty work at the store after he allegedly took an apple without paying for it. A whistleblower busted Laura for using his police squad car to attend a real estate seminar.

Several other internal affairs complaints are more serious. Among them:

•The mother of Laura's child alleged that on July 4, 1997, during a custody dispute, "Laura grabbed her left arm, grabbed her neck, and pushed her against a wall." She added that "she is in fear for her safety and that of their child."

•In August 1992 the owner of an Overtown grocery store claimed that after responding to a customer dispute, "Officer Locke, for no apparent reason, punched [the owner] in the eye." After being handcuffed the owner allegedly was pushed to the floor and kicked. He is currently suing the City of Miami and four officers, including Locke and Laura, for damages in excess of three million dollars.

•In April 1988 a man named Henry Stevens filed a complaint claiming that $60 disappeared from his wallet after he was arrested by Locke and Laura. Det. Willie Hill closed the case as inconclusive because "the facts ... were not sufficient enough to prove or disprove" the allegation.

•A man named Arthur Brown alleged that Ofcrs. Jeffrey Locke and Ariel Rojas stole $1100 from him during his arrest on August 7, 1990. The case was dropped because Brown couldn't be located for a follow-up interview.

•In March 1992 a woman named Lorene Milton alleged "that while being searched for a weapon by Locke, he lifted her dress in public and touched her inner thigh; and after she was in custody she discovered her gold chain missing." She did not follow up on the complaint and the case was closed with no action taken.

•According to Eduardo De La Cruz's March 1992 statement to IA "as he was driving home he was stopped by Officers Ariel Rojas and Jeffrey Locke. [He] also stated that the officers put him in the back seat of a police car and searched his vehicle. Mr. De La Cruz went on to say that he had $4000 in cash in the back seat of his vehicle in a paper bag. Mr. De La Cruz alleges that the officers took the cash. The officers then took [him] to his apartment and broke in, without his permission, using a crowbar. The officers then searched the apartment, came back to the police vehicle, and took [him] back to the original stop and released him." Evidence was inconclusive; although IA investigators found a crowbar in the trunk of Locke's squad car, they did not find any sign of forced entry at De La Cruz's apartment. When De La Cruz could not be located for follow-up questions, the case was closed with no action taken.

•Also in 1992 a man named Angelio Socorro alleged that after he got into an argument with Locke at the Baja Beach Club in CocoWalk, "his watch was taken and not returned to him." Locke was cleared of the charge because Socorro "never advised Locke that his watch was missing at the time of the arrest."

•In April 1993 a man named Charles Addison was arrested by Ofcrs. Ariel Rojas and Jeffrey Locke for possession of cocaine and for carrying a concealed firearm. According to the internal affairs complaint he subsequently filed: "He ... had in his possession at the time of the arrest the sum of $350. After being released from the Dade County Jail he came to the Miami Police Department Property Bureau to retrieve his property. Upon arriving he found out that there was only $112 in the Property Bureau, not $350. He claims that there is $238 missing." The IA detective couldn't locate Addison for a follow-up interview and the case was closed with no action taken.

•In September 1993 Genaro Recinos was arrested for DUI by Ofcrs. Ariel Rojas and Jeffrey Locke. From the IA report: "According to the complainant, he was searched by one of the officers, who removed $320 from him. Mr. Recinos added that when he was released from the Dade County Jail, he did not recover his money." In a follow-up interview, Recinos backed away from his original allegation by claiming that neither Rojas nor Locke took his money. Both officers were cleared.

•In November 1991 Douglas Fishman filed a complaint in an effort to retrieve the money he thought was owed him. An admitted scalper, Fishman tried to sell Locke six tickets above face value for a University of Miami vs. Florida State University football game scheduled to be played in Tallahassee.

The sale took place at Monty's seafood restaurant in Coconut Grove, where both Locke and Laura worked off-duty jobs. According to Fishman, Locke was wearing a Monty's T-shirt and blue jeans, and did not appear to be a cop. After agreeing to buy two $25 tickets for $250, Locke introduced Fishman to an unidentified friend, who inspected four more tickets. When the friend was told the tickets would cost him $125 each, he identified himself as a police officer and, according to Fishman, demanded that he be sold the tickets at face value or he would arrest Fishman and confiscate the tickets.

"Mr. Fishman stated he believed at that time that he could not walk away with the tickets and that he had to sell them at face value to avoid arrest," states the IA report. He sold six tickets in all to Officer Locke, and only for their total face value of $150. Afterward he was escorted to a police vehicle, where the second officer entered his name, driver license number, and social security number in a notebook. Several times during the incident, Fishman claimed not to believe Locke was a police officer, according to the IA report. Fishman was never charged with a crime.

The IA case was closed when Fishman withdrew his complaint: "Mr. Fishman stated that his initial motive to file the complaint was an attempt to recover the money from the sale of the tickets. However, after contemplating his motives, he concluded that he no longer wished to pursue the investigation."

The second police officer at Monty's that day was never identified. Fishman, who apparently has left Miami, could not be reached for comment.

GATOR BAIT

Just as he didn't know about the Marlins tickets evidence when he filed his federal lawsuit, Van Buren didn't know about Fishman or any of the other IA complaints lodged against Laura and Locke. The sheer number of complaints and the fact that most of the investigations were inconclusive fuel his overall dissatisfaction with the internal affairs bureau. "If you have a problem with the police department, don't go to internal affairs," he almost shouts. "That is the last place. Do not go there! Go and hire an attorney. The internal affairs bureau is a cover-up squad."

Reaching for a cliché, he claims that any day now a "smoking gun" will appear to prove his innocence and the cops' guilt. He offers several leads, none of which check out. First he suspects that photocopies of the four Marlins tickets were planted in the internal affairs file and were never actually logged in as evidence at the police department's property room. That's not the case; records show that Laura logged in the tickets on June 8, 1996, the day of the arena arrest.

Learning this, Van Buren speculates that Laura must have turned in the evidence to the property room after the fact, and postdated the log-in entry. An examination of the evidence logged in before and after the tickets should prove his suspicion. Again, not so. The three pieces of evidence logged immediately before the tickets and the three logged after were all dated June 8, just like the Marlins tickets.

As if this would deter Van Buren, who now suspects that the baseball tickets may be evidence from a separate arrest of another scalper. "If you pull my actual arrest form at the criminal court," he says, "I'd bet you anything that the arrest number does not correspond to the arrest number used when the Marlins tickets were logged in to the property room."

He shouldn't have bet. The numbers on file at the criminal court exactly match the numbers on file in the property room.

Okay, Van Buren says finally, what about Miles Guy, a friend of his arrested by Laura in 1995 for selling Chicago Bulls tickets outside the Miami Arena. Van Buren bailed him out of jail. "If you go to the property room right away, before they know you're coming, you'll see that [Laura] never turned in tickets or money," Van Buren asserts. "If [Guy] was supposedly selling tickets, how come there wasn't any money turned in?" The property receipt for Guy's arrest indicates that Laura turned in both tickets and money, disproving Van Buren's hypothesis. (Guy did not return repeated pages left at a number provided by Van Buren.)

"This complaint," concludes Chief O'Brien, "is bulllllllllshit. I talked to Laura about [the Van Buren] case this afternoon. I asked him if there was anything he would have done differently. He said only one thing. He wishes he'd been assisted by another officer besides Locke."

Despite all the leads he provided (however dubious), Van Buren is wary of publicity. So certain is he of his eventual vindication that he didn't even want to cooperate for this story. "I don't need attention from the press right now," he said when first contacted. "I'm going to win in court no matter what you write."

Mostly he's worried about his gator.

"I feel if something about Gwendolyn pops up, I'll completely cut you off," he warns. "If Laura or Locke find out that I'm the one who owns Gwendolyn, they're likely to say, 'That fucking scumbag, let's give his alligator a loaded fish for a snack.' For them to retaliate against a helpless animal is a realistic possibility.

"You don't think they're capable of doing it?" he asks incredulously. "Look how they covered up this whole thing. From my perspective, these guys committed armed robbery and extortion. Period. They threatened my life. They beat me to within inches of my life in some abandoned lot. They sold my tickets or gave them to a friend. They are flat-out banditos of the worst kind. They have to hide behind the shield."

When he speaks he's not laughing at all.

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