Taking Heat

Maj. Frank Christmas, the Miami Police Department's top in-house investigator, finds himself the subject of a criminal investigation

Over at the State Attorney's Office, the announcement of Christmas's transfer immediately raised red flags. Several prosecutors working sensitive cases in conjunction with Miami's IA unit expressed disbelief. So distrustful were they of Christmas, they felt compelled to take their concerns directly to State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle. The source of that distrust can be traced to a complex criminal investigation begun in 1997.

Christmas was in charge of the department's north district substation while a violent drug gang, the John Does, was operating in that area and brazenly committing execution-style murders in broad daylight. An elite and highly confidential task force of Miami police detectives and FBI agents was formed in 1997 to dismantle the gang and arrest its members. "The idea was: You can't have public executions occurring on a fairly regular basis without some lack in police enforcement," one task-force member told New Times several months ago. The source recently added this: "Frank Christmas was the man in charge of the north end when the John Does were active, and he was just completely ineffective."

Effectiveness may have been the least of the task force's concerns. During wiretapped conversations, some gang members mentioned the name of a female police officer. The contents of that wiretap have not been made public, but four knowledgeable law-enforcement sources say the officer was mentioned as a friend of gang members. At one point a gang member called the officer's phone. That call wasn't recorded, but sophisticated surveillance equipment "trapped" her number. Task-force members briefed Miami's brass, including Christmas, the officer's supervisor. After that meeting investigators did not detect any other calls to the female officer.

While there is no evidence Christmas tipped off the female officer, several task-force members suspect he did. And in law-enforcement circles, even a whisper that someone could be a security risk is enough to bar them from working on cases with federal agents. And so it was with the John Does investigation. Acting on their suspicions, task-force members later attempted to limit Christmas's access to sensitive intelligence.

Christmas vehemently denies he leaked information. Chief Raul Martinez admits he was aware of the task force's suspicions. "I heard after this happened that there was a deliberate attempt to keep him out of the loop," he says, adding that he believes the major's denials. "Why do they link Christmas to that? There were other people at that [task-force] briefing. Christmas is the one who brought information that some officers were too friendly with drug dealers to IA."

Inside Miami police headquarters, the announcement of Christmas's appointment to head IA was greeted somberly. "This is a really stupid, dumb move," one high-ranking officer comments. "There are certain key positions where you don't take any risks, and this is one of them."

On the afternoon of September 14, 2000, as a group of children played outdoors near NW 63rd Street and Thirteenth Avenue, a car drove up. A man got out, pulled a handgun, and shot 23-year-old Wayne Williams in his left side. Police investigators suspect Williams had ripped off street-level drug dealers. His murder, they believe, was retaliation for the robbery.

Williams didn't die until the next day, at which point a team of Miami homicide detectives headed by Sgt. Julio Pino canvassed several blocks of the neighborhood, knocking on doors and handing out business cards. The team -- detectives Altarr Williams, Moises Velazquez, and David Patton -- eventually located a witness, a teenage boy. His family was initially cooperative. The boy's mother mentioned that she knew Major Christmas.

Detectives secretly transported the boy and his mother to the north district substation for questioning. As a precautionary measure, they dressed in street clothes and used a rental car. Police sources describe both mother and son as "100 percent cooperative." The detectives then arranged to meet the woman and her son at headquarters a few days later to take a more detailed statement.

Franklin Eugene Christmas joined the Miami Police Department on May 5, 1970, at age twenty. In those days the force was far from an integrated bastion of brotherhood. Higherups in the department, however, recognized that they needed to promote more blacks. Christmas was hard-working and willing to take orders, an ideal candidate to groom. Before long his personnel file overflowed with commendations.

Then he was arrested.

When the young witness and his mother met with officers at downtown police headquarters, they were unexpectedly recalcitrant. In fact the woman refused to cooperate and wouldn't allow detectives to speak with her son. She again told detectives she was a friend of Major Christmas, but this time in a threatening manner.

A short time later, Christmas confronted Sergeant Pino and angrily told him to drop the investigation because he didn't want the boy and his family endangered, according to what Pino told other officers. Pino asked Christmas to put his request in writing. Instead Christmas went to Lt. Israel Gonzalez, head of the homicide unit and Pino's direct supervisor.

Gonzalez, who previously held the prestigious position of executive assistant to former Chief William O'Brien, has had his share of difficulties in recent years. His wife was murdered during a robbery in December 1999, a trauma from which he is still recovering. A subsequent dispute with his wife's family ended in a temporary restraining order being filed against him. That resulted in his being temporarily relieved of duty. A 1995 shooting of suspected tourist robbers in which Gonzalez was involved is among those cases under review by the federal grand jury.

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