Under Suspicion

Despite a history of corruption in its north district substation, the Miami Police Department won't get tough with its own cops

An investigation would later reveal that the officer to whom the vest was assigned had returned it to the police property room. After prolonged use, perspiration and ultraviolet rays weaken the vests' structure and they are exchanged. Once turned in, they are supposed to be destroyed. Instead someone from within the department had stolen it, and it later wound up on the streets. "We never found out who did that," says an officer who was part of the search party that found the vest.

Taylor's shooter, police later discovered, was a member of the John Does, to whom the guns also belonged. The vest was the first link between the gang and the Miami Police Department.

It was a few months after Taylor was shot that Miami's investigations division decided to go after the John Does. The city contacted the local FBI office, which agreed to cooperate in a joint task force. At its peak the task force consisted of seven Miami investigators, nine FBI agents, two Miami-Dade detectives, and occasional help from the DEA and ATF, mainly in the form of sophisticated surveillance equipment.

A north district rogue's gallery (from top): Police say Miami officers Damon Woodard, Webert Celestin, and department secretary Soyica Mincy all tried to make money from the drug trade
A north district rogue's gallery (from top): Police say Miami officers Damon Woodard, Webert Celestin, and department secretary Soyica Mincy all tried to make money from the drug trade

From the outset the federal involvement was kept hidden from nearly everyone in the Miami department. FBI agents were given Miami Police jackets to wear and issued Miami Police ID cards. Informants were interviewed in safe houses, even though the task force was ostensibly working out of Miami Police Department headquarters at 400 NW Second St. "If we had an informant, we couldn't bring them to the police department because we didn't want anyone to know we were using them," says the task force member. "We'd take them to a motel room, or we used warehouses we were renting for props or to do interviews."

Task force members' paranoia proved prescient in mid-1998, when they discovered a mole was running the undercover auto-license tags. A short time later their worst suspicions came true. While listening to wiretaps on the phones of John Does leader Corey Smith and his second-in-command, LaTravis Gallashaw, the task force cops encountered police officers phoning the drug lords.

The taps never captured police officers overtly discussing criminal activity with the gang leaders, according to sources familiar with the contents of the conversations. (While monitoring wiretaps, agents can only legally keep listening if the conversation is overtly criminal. If not, the cops must turn off their wiretap equipment for at least 30 seconds, then check back in. This is called "minimizing." It's a criminal violation not to minimize a conversation.)

"We intercepted some north district officers, about three, and there were one or two more we weren't sure about on the wiretaps," recalls the task force member. "But the calls were not provably criminal in nature, so we had to minimize. The cops' calls were like, ďHey, what's going on? Nothing. Great, I need to talk to you. Let's meet at such-and-such place. Okay, great. Bye.' You could infer from the calls that there was an improper relationship with a doper." (It remains unclear whether the task force tried to observe any meetings between cops and dealers.)

So it's understandable why, in late 1998, investigators and agents were reluctant to cooperate when a ranking officer from the north district called the task force seeking intelligence on the John Does to share with north district patrol officers. Right or wrong, the task force didn't trust the officer, even though his request appeared legitimate. "We felt we couldn't trust him because of his associations," the task force member says. The officer had been seen in some inner-city bars frequented by the dopers, according to the task force member. There was nothing illegal in that, but the investigators were on high-security alert.

"We know the bad guys are talking to the same policemen we'd be giving information to, so no way," another official involved in the John Does investigation says of the request for information. "This was a strictly need-to-know situation." But the ranking officer persistently called every week. Finally the task force decided to put on a show.

Members created an organizational chart using color photographs of the gang's hierarchy, complete with names, nicknames, even houses where the gang allegedly hid its drugs. It was an impressive presentation except for one thing: "It was all bogus," the task force member says. Real names of gang members were given, but their positions within the John Does were deliberately misstated. In some cases the names of people already jailed were used. The houses pictured were abandoned. Two criminal investigations were deliberately mixed. (No innocent people were included, the investigator assures.) "We knew the bad guys would get this as quickly as we put it out," says the task force member. "We wanted them to be hysterical when they looked at this, and think we were incompetent."

Though there is no evidence that any of the information leaked to the street, all the precautions -- the fake charts, the paranoid secrecy -- did pay off. In 1999 authorities began arresting members of the John Does and prosecuting them in federal court. But there has been no substantial inquiry into the suspect police behavior. Without providing any specifics, Chief Martinez says, "We have ongoing investigations as a result of the John Doe investigations. We're actively working on them."

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