By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
In mid-1998 a handful of federal agents and Miami detectives filed into a room at the FBI's Miami field office for their regular morning briefing. The news awaiting this hand-picked team of cops was enough to make them spit up their coffee.
Those assembled were members of a joint FBI and local task force charged with flushing out the John Does, a violent drug gang running wild on the city's north side. So secretive was their mission that many officers within the Miami Police Department were kept in the dark about the investigation. Apparently with good reason.
After the elite cops settled into their chairs, an FBI supervisor shared disturbing information that had come in overnight. Someone was running surreptitious checks on the license-plate numbers of cars task force members were using in their undercover work.
Great pains had been taken to ensure the task force's secrecy, including the use of various rental cars that would not be recognizable to criminals -- or other cops -- in Miami. Agents had asked the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles to alert them if anyone used the state's computer system to check on the ownership or pedigree of the cars.
Someone was running the plate numbers through the computer, the supervisor reported that day. And they were doing it from a terminal inside the Miami Police Department's downtown headquarters. The conclusion was inescapable and unsettling: Someone within the police department was apparently spying for the John Does.
"It made everybody aware of what we were dealing with," one task force member recalls. "The first time an officer is confronted by corruption from within his own department it is breathtaking. I was unhappy, but it didn't surprise me. We knew we had a security problem within that department." Some believed the problem was rooted in the Miami Police Department's north district substation, on NW 62nd Street and Tenth Avenue, the heart of John Doe territory.
The neighborhood known as Model City was one of the deadliest places in Miami until a few years ago, thanks to the overarching influence of the narcotics trade. During the reign of the John Does in the mid-Nineties, Model City averaged two to three murders per month, many of them public executions meant to send a message to rivals and the community about who was in charge. NW Fifteenth Avenue was so perilous cops weren't allowed to patrol it alone. "We had to go to two-person patrols there; it was just too dangerous," recalls Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez, who was an assistant chief at the time. The danger was underscored in 1997 when a police officer was shot in the head while sitting in his patrol car on NW Thirteenth Avenue.
When the task force first convened, prevailing opinion held that the John Does couldn't possibly act so brazenly without the complicity of at least some of the officers from the north district. "The idea was: You can't have public executions occurring on a fairly regular basis without some lack in police enforcement," says the task force member. "Probably some combination of corruption and Miami officers scared they would get hurt and afraid they wouldn't get backup in a violent situation."
In fact, according to one source, one of the first things Miami investigators told their FBI counterparts when the task force was formed in 1997 was not to trust the north district cops.
As the investigation would later reveal, there was reason to be suspicious. Not only did the task force have to guard against leaks from inside the department, but north district cops were caught on wiretaps talking to drug dealers, and police equipment was found in a John Doe member's car. For investigators it was a galling irony. While the department was engaged in one of its most successful covert missions, one that single-handedly brought down the death toll by 75 percent in the area, the cops had to be on guard against their very own.
The John Does investigation concluded two years ago and resulted in the conviction of 38 gang members. But remarkably, the Miami Police Department has yet to conclude any investigation into the suspicious behavior task force members uncovered about the department's own officers.
For years there have been rumors about corruption in the north substation -- rumors that, in the opinion of many in law enforcement, were never adequately investigated. The John Does case only bolstered that perception.
The intelligence that someone at police headquarters was running computer checks on undercover cars, for example, was turned over to the department's internal-affairs unit, which investigates allegations of misconduct among officers. But no vigorous effort was ever made to find out who was logging on to the computer to run the checks. "We never heard anything more about it," the task force member recalls. And that, say critics within the police force, is nothing new. Confronted with evidence of possible police corruption or wrongdoing, the critics say, department brass appear unwilling to decisively dig for the truth. For whatever reason the Miami Police Department appears to have little interest in policing itself.
New Times interviewed 40 law enforcement officers and federal agents (nearly all of whom requested they not be identified) and criminals, and reviewed hundreds of pages of public records. What emerged was a pattern of suspicious behavior in the north district substation, and an equally disturbing unwillingness on the part of the Miami department to actually investigate its own. New Times met with Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez; Maj. Paul Shepard, in charge of internal affairs; and Maj. Adam Burden, commander of the north district substation, seeking their comments and allowing them time to refute any allegations. They asserted that any problems at the substation involve a select few officers. They also stressed that all claims of misconduct are thoroughly probed. "Many of those allegations were investigated," Chief Martinez said. "It's one thing to have an allegation and another to prove it."
But a series of arrests this past year only exacerbates suspicions about the substation.
In November north district Ofcr. Webert Celestin was charged with stealing money from an undercover agent posing as a drug dealer. In May Ofcr. Damon Woodard, from the same substation, was charged with narcotics trafficking after South Carolina police say they found five kilos of cocaine in his car. In August Soyica Mincy, a civilian secretary in the department's headquarters, tried to lure a north district officer into a conspiracy involving Mincy's boyfriend to steal from drug dealers, according to prosecutors. Instead the officer turned in Mincy.
And in February of last year Danny Felton, a former north district cop once honored as officer of the month, had his police certificate stripped by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement following five-year-old allegations he stole money from an undercover FBI agent posing as a drug dealer.
The department's supervisors dismiss the arrests, saying they represent only isolated instances of corruption and don't reflect the north district substation as a whole. "Those cases are not connected," internal-affairs boss Shepard says. "There is nothing to indicate a conspiracy. And there is nothing to indicate lack of supervision is leading officers to do this. Unfortunately we have a couple of bad apples."
But that's not the way some within the department view things. "The whole attitude is, “Yeah, the north end has a bunch of corrupt cops, but we can't do anything about it,'" says a high-ranking member of the department. "The administration needs to go in there and clean house." (Of the four cases mentioned above, only two investigations were generated from within the department: Celestin and Mincy.)
Questions about other officers remain unanswered, a disservice to the officers if they are innocent and to the department if they are not. "If we get an allegation against a police officer, we owe it to everybody to resolve it," says one veteran investigator with more than twenty years on the force. "But there's very little pressure internally to clean up our own act. I think the administration feels that a certain amount of corruption is unavoidable. But there has to be some institutional ethic -- when there's an allegation of wrongdoing, you need to verify it or exonerate the officer. There has to be an absolute fiat from the chief that this won't be tolerated."
Without the decisive resolution of allegations, a pall can follow officers for the rest of their careers.
Indeed strong tips fed to internal affairs appear to have languished so long they now are useless. Here are summaries of just some of the cases officers say the department knows about, but which still are unresolved:•During the John Does investigation, at least three officers were intercepted on wiretaps talking to and setting up meetings with the gang's leaders, according to several sources familiar with the case. Two years later those officers remain on the job.
•A female officer's telephone number was "trapped," using surveillance equipment, in the phone of a high-ranking member of the John Does. Informants told police the two had a personal relationship, and police listening in on wiretapped conversations heard gang members discussing her by name. The information was passed to internal affairs, which to date has not followed up. The officer is still on patrol in the north district.
•One convict, already in jail for ripping off drug dealers with the help of a Miami cop, has identified for New Times at least two other officers he claims to have worked with to steal dope money from dealers. He says he told the department about the officers (a claim confirmed by other sources), but there appears to have been no follow-up investigation.
•A former north district sergeant, who was implicated by an anonymous phone call that led to the discovery of a cache of drugs thirteen years ago, was once involved in a standoff with Metro-Dade police officers responding to his home after his wife called for help, claiming he was beating her. He's since been promoted to lieutenant.
"The majority of cops are honest," says the veteran investigator. "However, there is a small minority that are hoodlums, they're just criminals. That's a percentage that, however small, we need to deal with. If you don't deal with it immediately, you lose your ability to deal with it in the future. And we're not dealing with this problem."
Chief Martinez disagrees that the problem goes beyond a few bad cops. "I don't think there's a [general] problem," the chief says. "We obviously have some problem police officers."
Maj. Adam Burden took command of the north district a little more than a year ago after working as a lieutenant in internal affairs. He agrees with the chief. "As far as the north district as a whole, I don't see a problem," he says. "There's a problem with those officers arrested."
But information gleaned by New Times and interviews with well-placed investigators indicate that in fact there may be an institutional ethic against cleaning house.
To understand the dynamics at work in the city's north end, as it's commonly called, you need to comprehend the racial tightrope the 1100-man Miami Police Department has walked for years.
The roughly 200 police officers, men and women, working out of the north district substation have one of the toughest beats in the city. It covers three of the northernmost neighborhoods. The Upper Eastside includes Biscayne Boulevard's hooker-strewn corners. Little Haiti and its bustling streets are a testament to free-market drive and ingenuity, but the area is basically poor and has some of the highest violent-crime rates in the city. Model City, at the western edge, is a gritty stretch of public housing tracts and modest bungalow homes, one of the most impoverished sections of Miami.
If you are black and grew up poor in this area, chances are you don't think too fondly of the cops. Whether your family was forced to relocate to grim, barracks-style subsidized housing during the construction of I-95 in the Sixties, or you feel strongly about police brutality, such as the fatal beating of Arthur McDuffie that sent rioters raging against police in 1980, there have been plenty of historic wounds to nurse.
Prompted by the 1980 riot, and others in 1982 and 1989, police administrators made it a priority to swell their ranks with black officers. They also made it a priority to staff the north district station with black officers. Today some cops believe the department's top officials are reluctant to investigate black officers accused of wrongdoing because they fear being labeled racist. Others point out that for years the internal-affairs unit had been primarily white, severely limiting their ability to conduct undercover surveillance in black neighborhoods.
When department veterans hear talk of corruption in the north end, they inevitably invoke the name of Dan Bailey, a charismatic beat cop who for a while was the shakedown king of the inner city. In the Seventies his queen was heroin. Bailey ran a couple of rackets in Liberty City. He took protection payoffs from dealers, charging $50 a week, according to the testimony of some of those dealers. Then he actually partnered with a drug trafficker named Patrick Goodall, who went by the sobriquet Jamaica Patrick.
Bailey would ferry tinfoil packets of heroin to Jamaica Patrick's street distributors, according to witnesses and court documents. Bailey also would act as a bag man, picking up money from the distributors. In one case, after he'd been transferred to Coconut Grove, Bailey ordered one of the heroin peddlers, Walter Williams, better known on the streets as Livercheese, to start selling in the Grove while he was on duty, according to Livercheese's testimony.
But Livercheese had a gambling problem, and in 1978, after Jamaica Patrick fronted him money to buy drugs, the street dealer lost it to Lady Chance. Word got out that Bailey and Jamaica Patrick were after him, so Livercheese sought protection in a most unlikely place: He met with an investigator from the State Attorney's Office. The two struck a bargain, and Livercheese then proceeded to wear a wire and make a series of payoffs to Bailey with marked money. In 1979 Bailey was sentenced to five years for bribery, after a jury acquitted him on another bribery charge. But Bailey didn't give up any other officers and no one was implicated in the investigation.
That Bailey is black, like the command staff and many of the officers in the north district substation, has prompted some to warn that attempting to weed out problem officers could appear racist, and unfairly brandish all black officers as corrupt. Black cops, however, have no corner on the corruption market. The policemen responsible for the department's most notorious scandal to date, the River Cops case, were primarily Hispanic. And before that, in the days when Miami was a cracker town, white cops were notorious for their shakedowns of numbers joints and brutality against black suspects.
"To focus on the north district is unfair. There are a lot of really fine officers up there," Major Burden emphasizes, pointing out that the suspicious activity represents but a fraction of the officers there over the years.
He's right, of course. This is not a black-officer issue, any more than the River Cops case was a Latin-officer issue. It's a corruption issue that puts other cops -- black, Latin, or white -- and the public at risk.
Just before midnight on New Year's Eve 1996, Ofcr. Ricky Taylor and his partner George Russell received a call to provide backup at the scene of a shooting on NW Thirteenth Avenue and 61st Street. As Taylor, a 40-year-old veteran of the department, sat in his patrol car during the first few minutes of 1997 helping to secure the crime scene, a shot rang out from the third-story balcony of a nearby building. A bullet from a rifle fired by Charles Brown smashed into the back of Taylor's head. The police response was swift and intense. A tactical team of 50 officers scoured the area, rounding up suspects and witnesses. Brown would later claim he fired his gun as a New Year's celebration and had not intended to hit anyone. Taylor survived the shooting but was forced to retire on disability.
During the sweep that morning, someone tipped off homicide investigators about a blue Chevy Caprice parked near the scene of the shooting. Police immediately requested a search warrant and popped the car's trunk. Inside were more than a dozen automatic and semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Under the guns was a surprise find -- a bullet-proof vest from the Miami Police Department.
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.
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, “Hey, 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."
For some officers the department's failure to resolve damaging allegations can leave a cloud over them for years. Lt. Kevin McKinnon, a 22-year veteran of the force, was a sergeant in both the north district and Overtown's central district in the Eighties. Two officers who worked patrol in Overtown recall arresting drug suspects in the Eighties and hearing about McKinnon running the streets, often referred to by his street name "Curly Perm" (for the way he styled his hair). The two officers have since been promoted and now occupy key investigative positions within the department. As one of them recalls, "You'd be arresting somebody and they'd say, “So it's okay to arrest us, but not Sgt. Curly Perm? Why don't you do something about him?' It happened all the time. It got to the point where it was embarrassing."
Although McKinnon acknowledges the nickname -- "I've been called that before," he says -- he denies any involvement in drugs or illegal activity.
The 45-year-old McKinnon has a long and checkered history with the department. He joined the force in 1979, after attending Texas Christian College for one and a half years. According to personnel reports, supervisors saw potential in the rookie's energy. But he also had a wild side, and early in his career marital problems would put him in conflict with fellow cops. On July 24, 1982, his then-wife, Linda McKinnon, called Metro-Dade police "in reference to a domestic dispute," according to a police report of the incident. Two officers who approached the house on NW 154th Street reported that McKinnon greeted them outside by yelling "Fuck you! Get out of here!" and wouldn't let them in the house. When they knocked on the door he told them to "quit playing policeman and leave." He also told them he had a gun in his hand.
Eventually more cops arrived and they were able to push the door open. They took a .38-caliber pistol from McKinnon's ankle holster. Linda McKinnon, who was described as having a swollen lip, then stepped forward and told the officers her husband had beaten her and wouldn't let her leave. But she didn't want to press charges. The officers escorted her out.
A month later, on August 16, Linda McKinnon called the internal security office (now called internal affairs), crying hysterically and claiming that her husband had beaten her again. Once more she declined to press charges.
In the end McKinnon received a reprimand and suspension. Today, with laws requiring officers to make an arrest if they witness evidence of injury in a domestic dispute, it's more likely McKinnon would have been taken into custody, possibly ending his law-enforcement career.
By the mid- to late-Eighties, McKinnon had divorced and remarried. In 1988 he was known to fellow officers largely because of his fancy style. He drove a new Maserati "bi-turbo" high-performance sports car, which one auto dealer estimates would have cost between $32,000 and $40,000 then. According to fellow police officers, McKinnon also wore a Rolex watch and took annual trips to Europe. That year he earned around $38,000, not including overtime and off-duty jobs, which in some cases can nearly double an officer's salary. "I work. If I want to buy a car, as long as I can afford it, I can buy whatever I want," McKinnon says today, while declining to comment on his travels or the Rolex. (A 1999 Mercedes-Benz CLK 320 two-door coupe is currently registered in his name.)
Sometime in 1988 an undercover unit received a phone call from an anonymous source. According to five officers with direct knowledge of the events that day, the caller said that Sgt. Kevin McKinnon, identified by rank and name, was at a Liberty City address with a pile of cocaine. Police rushed to the scene, an abandoned duplex building on Tenth Avenue near NW 70th Street in Model City. One of the patrol cars driving to the address actually passed McKinnon in the neighborhood. Everyone at the scene concurs that on a table inside one of the apartments in the duplex was between half a kilo and a kilo of powder cocaine, a bag of crack-cocaine rocks, and little baggies for packaging them. As cops swarmed the building, neighbors standing nearby were asked if they knew to whom the apartment belonged. According to three of the police sources, a young boy piped up before the adults with him could silence him. "He said, “Yeah, that's my uncle, Kevin McKinnon's,'" recalls one of the officers, who is still on the force.
Internal-affairs officers were also at the duplex, as were crime-scene technicians who dusted the drugs for fingerprints. No charges were ever filed in connection with the incident and no records or other evidence linked McKinnon to the property.
In a brief telephone interview, McKinnon confirms that he was implicated in the incident but that he was cleared. He denies any involvement with the duplex or the drugs, and points out that investigators found no evidence he was ever inside the room where the drugs were discovered. "I was found to be not guilty of those accusations," he says. "I know I didn't do it. What more can I do? I'm an honorable person; I don't go that route." Then he adds: "You have to be careful what you write. There are a lot of cockroaches out there looking to ruin people's reputations and besmirch my name."
McKinnon says he believes the police used his name as an excuse to break into the building without a search warrant. According to his theory, a police officer anonymously phoned in his name, giving cops probable cause to enter the building. Police saw him while they were rushing to the scene, he says, because he was working an off-duty security job at an apartment complex nearby on NW 69th Street and Seventh Court. "I actually saw a unit pass by me," he recalls. The episode did not show up in a public-records request of closed internal-affairs cases in McKinnon's personnel file. But police sources point out that when information is considered "intelligence" that might be used later, it usually is not made public.
Internal affairs received another tip in 1988. This one came from Ofcr. Ken Nelson, now a lieutenant, who passed along information he received from a young man who told him McKinnon had pulled him over the night before and stolen a half-kilo of cocaine and $2000. Nelson affirms that he presented his information to internal affairs but declines to comment further. A former internal-affairs officer corroborates Nelson's involvement, though New Times could not learn if internal affairs interviewed Nelson's source. Again this allegation did not appear in any of McKinnon's closed internal-affairs files. "I know nothing about that," McKinnon says.
In 1995 the department promoted McKinnon to lieutenant. He was recently reassigned to the police unit that handles auto thefts.
Some of the most damaging allegations against north district officers come from a civilian named Marvin Griffin. Miami-born and bred, with a grifter's knack for a good hustle, Griffin freely admits he stayed employed for years defrauding drug dealers of their money with the help of police officers.
New Times first wrote about Griffin in a cover story that detailed his 1995 exploits with Danny Felton, a rookie north end cop and former officer-of-the-month honoree ("Behind the Badge,"August 6, 1998). Griffin explained how he would pose as a drug supplier and lure to Miami potential clients from other cities. He would then arrange to pick up his mark, usually at a hotel, and drive him to buy the drugs. The dealer would be carrying a large amount of cash. At a prearranged spot Officer Felton would pull them over and pretend to arrest Griffin. Felton would allow the dealer to flee, leaving behind the money, which the cop and Griffin would then divvy up between them.
Eventually an informant who lived in Griffin's neighborhood tipped off the FBI. Agents set up a sting. They fed Griffin information that a dealer was carrying a large sum of cash. Griffin told Felton. On May 19, 1994, agents caught Felton stealing $10,000 from an undercover officer posing as a drug dealer. When the FBI hauled him in, Felton immediately flipped, signed a confession, and promised to snag more corrupt officers. He wasn't able to deliver on the dirty cops, but he did wear a wire one night and turned on his partner-in-crime Griffin.
Felton told Griffin he had stolen six kilos from a dealer and asked if Griffin wanted to buy the cocaine from him. Griffin said he didn't have any money, so Felton simply gave Griffin the kilos, which were really packets of flour tightly wrapped in plastic. The feds arrested Griffin in April 1995. But as he sat in the back seat of a police cruiser he was able to slip out the door and escape.
During his time on the lam, Griffin says he actually began negotiations with a federal prosecutor named Thomas Mulvihill, who declined to be interviewed for this story. Authorities wanted Griffin to help them snare other corrupt cops. Ultimately Griffin declined to cooperate and became a fugitive. "That's just something I'm not going to do," Griffin says of the request to become an informant. He was caught two years later, on October 25, 1997. After a short trial a federal judge sentenced him to 30 years in prison for a drug deal in which no money or drugs were exchanged.
Meanwhile Danny Felton was never charged. He resigned from the police force and now operates a thriving business as a mortgage broker. Only last year was his certificate as a police officer revoked by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for grand theft, even though he never was formally charged with that crime. The U.S. Attorney's Office never explained why it declined to charge Felton, but the extremely long sentence Griffin received only underscored how arbitrary the drug war can be.
Griffin also worked with Miami-Dade police officer Marvin Baker. Miami-Dade police arrested Baker in May 1999 and charged him with drug conspiracy for his role working with another drug gang called the Boobie Boys. He's since been sentenced to fifteen years in prison.
In the matter of police corruption, Griffin's credentials are firmly established.
New Times wrote to Griffin at the Federal Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison in South Miami-Dade, requesting a meeting. He agreed to be interviewed.
A tall, lean 34-year-old with medium-length dreadlocks held in place by a rubber band, Griffin carries himself with a polite, even shy, demeanor. During a series of three interviews, each of which took place in a small glass-enclosed room in the prison's visitors center, New Times asked Griffin about other officers he worked with to steal cash from unknowing drug dealers.
Griffin claims he worked with half a dozen officers, among them a ten-year veteran of the Miami Police Department named Jacqueline Mesidor, who is 30 years old. When asked why he was willing to talk now, he replied, "I'm thinking about writing a book."
Griffin's allegations are not without corroboration. A friend of his, who also is in prison, told New Times he remembered Griffin talking about pulling jobs with Mesidor, and added that he had seen Griffin and Mesidor meet. In addition a former Miami internal-affairs officer confirmed that Griffin implicated Mesidor when he was contemplating cooperation with the government.
Mesidor denies any involvement with Griffin. "Who? Marvin Griffin? No," she answered when asked if she knew the convict. Griffin, however, did have knowledge of personal details about Mesidor, including the type of car she drove and where she used to live. Mesidor explained that a lot of people knew where she lived because her patrol car was parked in front of her house. "I'm not saying I don't know him," the officer elaborated. "I know a lot of people because I work out here on the street. But what he's talking about, that's just a lie."
These circumstances -- a criminal with a proven history of working with crooked cops accusing an officer of corruption, and the officer, who has a relatively unblemished record, denying the allegation -- are exactly the sorts of cases internal affairs is supposed to resolve. But again the Miami Police Department apparently has not investigated Griffin's allegation to either substantiate the claim or exonerate the officer, leaving Jacqueline Mesidor under suspicion whether it's deserved or not.
Mesidor denies every assertion Griffin made in his account of their alleged history, which began, he claims, with a roadside flirtation. "I was riding down the street one day," Griffin recalls. "She was in her Lexus, I was in my Infiniti. She used her blinker lights to signal me to pull over. I walked over, and I knew she was a police officer. She said, “You know, I'm only a police officer eight hours a day.' I said, “Well, give me your number and I'll holler at you.'" (State motor-vehicle records show that a 1992 red two-door Lexus SC 400 was registered to Mesidor beginning in 1992. At the time she acquired her Lexus the manufacturer's suggested retail price was $37,500. Mesidor then was earning $26,600 as a police officer, excluding overtime and off-duty jobs.)
In short time, Griffin says, he felt comfortable enough with Mesidor to broach the subject of ripping off dealers. She warmed to the idea immediately, Griffin claims, but was wary of getting directly involved. So she gave him the name of a male officer from another department she knew would be interested. Griffin says he contacted that officer and the two of them did a simple job on a visiting dealer from Memphis. The cop pulled over Griffin and the Memphis dealer, searched the car, found a duffle bag full of money, and pretended to arrest Griffin. The dealer was allowed to leave. Instead of dividing up the roughly $60,000 at the scene, Griffin says he took the bag home with him while the cop returned to work. Griffin claims he later made arrangements to deliver the cop's share of money, about $8000, to Mesidor.
"I met Jackie in the parking lot of the Burger King on NW Seventh Avenue, you know, right across from the northside [police substation]," Griffin asserts. "I gave her the money. She said, “Damn, I could have done this myself.' I think I probably called her two to three weeks later."
The first scam he allegedly pulled with Mesidor's help was a variation on his theme. He put up a dealer from Atlanta in the Howard Johnson's on Biscayne Boulevard overlooking Bicentennial Park. Griffin met him in the hotel room and convinced the dealer it was safer to store his money in Griffin's car. "When he did that, I beeped Jackie," Griffin says. Mesidor showed up, Griffin claims, and he retrieved the money from his car and left with her. He then reported his car stolen. Police "recovered" it in the hotel's parking lot. In the end Griffin told the dealer an apocryphal tale of an enraged girlfriend who had seen his car at the hotel and believed Griffin was two-timing her. The fictitious girlfriend then supposedly reported the car stolen. "I told him the car was in her name," Griffin says. The next day Griffin told Mesidor to call the dealer in his hotel room, pretend she was with the FBI, and ask questions about the money agents discovered in the car. The frightened dealer fled back to Atlanta.
Another time, Griffin alleges, a dealer from Sarasota came down to do business. Griffin says he briefed Mesidor on what type of car the dealer was driving and says he told her to intercept them in that car at a designated spot near Northwestern High School. She did as instructed, he claims, and pulled Griffin and the dealer over when they drove past. Mesidor, he says, handcuffed both men and put them in the back seat of her cruiser. Then, he adds, she searched the dealer's car and found a duffle bag in the trunk. For the benefit of the dealer, Griffin hammed it up: "I told her to just bring me to jail, it was all my fault." Mesidor allegedly released the Sarasota dealer.
Afterward, Griffin says, Mesidor drove him to her house. He didn't remember the exact address but he described the drive there as going "up 71st Street, past New Way Towing two or three blocks, then make a right and her house is on the corner of 71st near Sixth or Fifth Avenue." Mesidor did indeed live at NW 71st Street and Third Avenue, four blocks east of New Way Auto Service. Driver registration records place her at that address, and a neighbor remembers her by name as well as by her fancy car. (Mesidor now lives in Broward County.)
According to Griffin's account, they sat in her enclosed porch and emptied out the bag. Along with about $15,000 in $10 and $20 bills was half a kilo of cocaine. Griffin recounts, "I said, “Damn.' I took the money and said I ain't doing anything with that [the cocaine]." Dealing with actual drugs, Griffin says, was too risky for him. He liked to take money and that was it. "She put the half-key in the trunk [of her patrol car]," he claims. Later he met her and gave her $5000 from the rip-off. She reportedly told him she had to turn in the drugs to the police department.
In all, Griffin alleges he did four or five jobs with Mesidor. After his arrest, he says, he mentioned Mesidor to an FBI agent and a federal prosecutor, both of whom declined to comment on the episode. "They told me they already knew about her," Griffin says. Nonetheless Griffin's information was passed on to the Miami Police Department's internal-affairs unit, according to one former internal-affairs officer. "He told us he was working with her," says the officer, "but he got away before we could interview him about it." The officer is referring to Griffin's escape after the Danny Felton sting. Internal affairs had hoped to use Griffin to sting Mesidor, this officer says.
"I don't engage in any foolishness like that," Mesidor protests. "That's not my style. If he made accusations like that, why didn't the city investigate me?"
New Times asked Griffin if there were any other witnesses who could corroborate his involvement with Mesidor. "You talk to Max [not his real name], he'll tell you," Griffin offered. "He's in prison in Georgia now."
New Times visited "Max" five weeks after first interviewing Griffin. Both Max and Griffin say they did not exchange letters or phone calls in the interim (in fact, inmates at both institutions are prohibited from calling other prisons). New Times did not mention Mesidor's name in a letter sent to Max requesting an interview.
Nestled amid the scrub pines along a two-lane country road in rural Georgia is a gray-walled state prison. Rows of nickel-bright razor wire ring the compound like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Max, a baby-faced 33-year-old with gold front teeth, is serving a twenty-year state sentence for cocaine trafficking in Georgia. He agreed to talk with New Times on condition that his true name not be used. "Marvin, he would talk to me about it, how he had this real scheme going," Max recalls. "He was riding around with guys from out of town and having these cops stop him."
Max says Griffin told him about all the cops who were working with him: "The first one he told me about was Danny [Felton]. When he told me I was like, “Whoa.' He called him once and let me listen in on the conversation. He said, “I got something for you.' Like 20 to 30 minutes later, Danny was in the neighborhood."
Max also remembers Mesidor. The reason he remembers is that they both drove the same kind of car, a red Lexus SC 400. "Marvin, he let me know she was another one," Max says. "I see them talking about two times. One time me and Marvin was at a car wash on [NW] 54th Street, around Eighth or Ninth Avenue. This was probably in 1995. She came up there, she was in her Lexus. I remember that because she was admiring my car. And I was like, “Well, they're both pretty cars.' About four days later she came to the neighborhood and talked to Marvin. He told me: “She has a lil' lick for me.' You know, a little something for him to do, a job."
Depending on how you look at it, the year 2000 was either good or bad for the Miami Police Department's north district. Prosecutors charged one officer with trafficking in drugs, another with stealing what he thought was drug money, and a civilian department secretary for trying to lure a policewoman into helping her rob drug dealers. The scandals were good because they showed that after years of rumors, the department was willing to arrest its own in an effort to weed out bad cops. They were bad because they damaged the department's image, especially following the federal indictment of former Chief Donald Warshaw for misspending money from a charity and police pension funds. But at least the department was finally getting some results. (Many of the officers interviewed for this story believe the new aggressiveness is largely the result of Lt. Danny Dominguez being put in charge of the anticorruption division of the internal-affairs unit, a position he assumed a year and a half ago under former Chief William O'Brien.)
In September 1999 the Richland County, South Carolina, sheriff's department received a call from a confidential source tipping off cops to a cocaine-smuggling ring in Columbia, a small city just south of the North Carolina border. Deputies first arrested Darren Ford, according to court records, catching him with about half a kilo of cocaine, on October 1, 1999. Ford led them to Roosevelt Petit-Frere, a Haitian American living in Miami. Following up on Petit-Frere's arrest, deputies searched the home of one of Petit-Frere's accomplices in South Carolina and found a black Ford Mustang belonging to 30-year-old Damon Woodard, an eight-year veteran of the Miami Police Department who was working in the north district. Woodard's Florida driver license was in the car and his Fraternal Order of Police insignia was emblazoned on the license plate, court papers state.
The cops went back to Darren Ford and asked him about Woodard. Ford sang like an opera star, according to an affidavit by Miami internal-affairs officer Julio Pinera. The suspect explained that for at least two years Woodard had been ferrying cocaine from Miami to Columbia in the bumper of his car. "Ford stated that Woodard was one of the drivers to transport the cocaine because, since he was a police officer, he would not be searched in case of a traffic stop," Pinera reported. In fact Woodard allegedly hung his Miami Police uniform in the back seat so it would be visible if he were pulled over. Various law enforcement agencies conducted several months of surveillance on Woodard and Petit-Frere, listening to dozens of phone calls, before finally arresting both men. Petit-Frere was charged in South Carolina while Miami police arrested Woodard on May 20, 2000.
Until recently the only investigations of drug-dealing Miami cops that led to any results originated from outside agencies. The State Attorney's Office handled Dan Bailey; the FBI went after Danny Felton. Now it took small-town police to catch Woodard, even though Miami investigators jumped into the case with gusto, obtaining permission for wiretaps, the first time in recent memory they had been used internally. Still, Miami internal affairs hadn't been able to pull off a hit of its own in the north district.
That changed in August, when the department arrested civilian secretary Soyica Mincy and her boyfriend, Jerome Mike. According to an arrest report, Mincy approached a north district policewoman on Mike's behalf with a scheme to have the officer pull over her boyfriend as he safeguarded a drug dealer's $50,000. The officer went directly to internal affairs. Mincy and Mike now face charges of unlawful compensation.
But Mincy was small potatoes compared to Webert Celestin, a 33-year-old police officer. Internal-affairs cops nabbed Celestin November 17, 2000, as he showed up to rob some drug dealers, according to an arrest report. Not only had internal affairs investigated Celestin; the unit ran its own undercover sting with help from the FBI and DEA. On October 6 Celestin pulled over a man he thought was a drug dealer carrying $22,000. It was actually an internal-affairs undercover officer. Celestin and his codefendant, Evan Lee Colin, who listed his occupation as a mortgage broker, "conspired to conduct a three kilogram [cocaine] for $60,000 drug transaction with agents of the City of Miami Police Department," the arrest report states, adding that both men planned to "take the agents down at gunpoint and steal the three kilograms of cocaine and the $60,000 cash."
Chief Martinez says he's trying to take advantage of the momentum gained in the Woodard and Celestin cases to streamline the process of firing officers accused of wrongdoing. "It was a longer process in the past," he explains. "It's a complicated administrative task to fire someone that used to be in several steps. Now we've concentrated it to one step. We started doing it with Woodard."
Other changes may be coming. Martinez notes that after an officer is arrested, he reviews the background file to see if the department missed any early-warning signs. In both Celestin and Woodard's case, he points out, there was evidence of bad credit history. "Now we're examining if that should make a person exempt [from hiring]," he says. "If you have a pattern of mismanaging money, that's something we should note."
Martinez adds that he's implementing other changes to thwart corruption. He has beefed up internal affairs, hand-picking two seasoned investigators to bring the squad's total to eight. In fact he says his staff is actively recruiting veteran investigators to join the unit. In the past the department relied on officers to volunteer for the assignment. Specifically regarding the north district, Martinez likes to point out that Maj. Adam Burden was a lieutenant in internal affairs before being assigned as the north district's commander a year ago. "Look, to me this is a problem until we get each and every corrupt officer off the force," the chief stresses. "Unfortunately these are difficult investigations. But I will spend money and use resources to do this."
Some under his command hope so. "I've been involved in over 8000 arrests, I've been shot at numerous times in the line of duty, and I still go out there and try and do a good job," says one veteran investigator. Working alongside cops who can't be trusted puts him in danger, not to mention the public. "I just wonder, by being allowed to remain on the force, how many lives they've ruined," he asks.
As for Marvin Griffin, he doesn't understand why the police didn't run an undercover sting on any of the officers he implicated, as they did on him. "It wasn't like it was so hard for me to influence them," he says. "In a lot of ways they influenced me to get involved in this."
After a pause he contemplates department leadership and adds, "I guess they ain't too anxious to do that, huh?"