Taking Heat

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

About eight months ago, Miami Police Lt. Israel Gonzalez was sitting in his office at the department's downtown headquarters when his boss, Maj. Frank Christmas, burst in and began berating him about the conduct of several officers under Gonzalez's command. At the time the lieutenant was head of the department's homicide unit, where he oversaw nearly 30 detectives and supervising officers.

According to Gonzalez, Christmas wanted a team of detectives to drop a case they had been pursuing. When Gonzalez protested, he says Christmas, commander of the criminal-investigation division, responded with an order: "I told you, you're done with this investigation."

Gonzalez was dumbfounded. This was an unsolved murder. Cops don't simply abandon unsolved murders. But Christmas, it turned out, was friendly with the family of a juvenile witness in the case, and he did not want to expose them to possible retaliation by the murder suspect or his allies. From Gonzalez's point of view, however, his boss's action had the effect of allowing a killer to go free.

Chief Martinez has vowed to restore his department's credibility, an uphill battle
Steve Satterwhite
Chief Martinez has vowed to restore his department's credibility, an uphill battle
Chief Martinez has vowed to restore his department's credibility, an uphill battle
Steve Satterwhite
Chief Martinez has vowed to restore his department's credibility, an uphill battle
Frank Christmas will remain head of internal affairs pending the outcome of the State Attorney's investigation
Frank Christmas will remain head of internal affairs pending the outcome of the State Attorney's investigation
Frank Christmas will remain head of internal affairs pending the outcome of the State Attorney's investigation
Frank Christmas will remain head of internal affairs pending the outcome of the State Attorney's investigation
Lt. Israel Gonzalez languishes on the midnight shift while the man he says allowed a killer to go free was appointed head of internal affairs
Lt. Israel Gonzalez languishes on the midnight shift while the man he says allowed a killer to go free was appointed head of internal affairs
Lt. Israel Gonzalez languishes on the midnight shift while the man he says allowed a killer to go free was appointed head of internal affairs
Lt. Israel Gonzalez languishes on the midnight shift while the man he says allowed a killer to go free was appointed head of internal affairs

Christmas declines to discuss the incident, but his deputy commander at the time, Capt. David Rivero, says it's not true that Christmas ordered a murder investigation be dropped. "We would never do that," Rivero insists, adding that Christmas only wanted to ensure the protection of all witnesses.

Gonzalez isn't alone in claiming that Major Christmas did in fact terminate the investigation. John Campbell was the lieutenant in charge of homicide before Gonzalez. "Christmas told me: I ordered them to drop it. We've got plenty of other murders to work on,'" recounts Campbell, who retired recently.

In addition Sgt. Julio Pino, who led the team of detectives investigating the murder, last month told prosecutors in the public-corruption unit of the State Attorney's Office that Christmas had ordered him to stop interviewing witnesses and drop the case. When Pino and Gonzalez objected, they say, they were transferred out of homicide.

The State Attorney's Office found Pino's account of the affair sufficiently credible to open an investigation into Christmas's conduct. Prosecutors, who began their probe three weeks ago, are attempting to determine whether the major's order constituted witness tampering and obstruction of justice, potential felonies.

The investigation could spell trouble for Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez as well. According to Gonzalez the chief was thoroughly briefed by both Gonzalez and Pino but backed Christmas's decision to terminate the investigation and transfer the officers.

Involving as it does top officials and the crime of murder, such a controversy would be unwelcome at any time by any police department, but for Chief Martinez the timing could not be worse. Only last month he found himself in the awkward position of acknowledging that his department had squandered its credibility and desperately needed to restore it.

On May 8 Martinez stood before a crowd of angry black activists, community leaders, clergy, even the head of the local American Civil Liberties Union. The chief, visibly tense, moved with all the grace of a tangled marionette. He blinked his eyes, jerked his arms, and bobbed his head erratically. He spoke in a kind of urgent chatter. He blinked again.

The civilians had gathered in a conference room at department headquarters to confront the chief and seek explanations for the April 30 fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager. If Martinez felt besieged, it was understandable. Just eight weeks earlier, five Miami officers had been indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly planting false evidence to justify the fatal 1996 shooting of an elderly Overtown resident suspected of dealing drugs. During the encounter police fired 123 bullets.

On May 3 the Miami Herald revealed that a federal grand jury was reviewing a half-dozen additional Miami police shootings, all previously reviewed by the department's internal-affairs unit, which found no wrongdoing.

Meanwhile the department was prompted to initiate several internal-affairs inquiries as a result of a New Times story alleging a pattern of suspected drug-money rip-offs by officers in the department's north district substation in the Model City neighborhood at NW 62nd Street and Tenth Avenue ("Under Suspicion," March 1, 2001).

It seemed that everywhere the chief turned, his department was under intense and embarrassing scrutiny.

At one point during the May 8 meeting of black community leaders, Chief Martinez held up a sheet of white paper and declared, "We need to get back to the point where when we say this is white, people believe us."

Someone in the audience shouted, "You never had that in the first place!"

The chief blinked.

When the meeting ended, Martinez was clearly shaken. He needed to act -- and he did. Later that same day he announced changes to his command staff. He moved Maj. Gerald Darling from his job overseeing field-support services to criminal investigations. Maj. Paul Shepard, an austere, tight-lipped veteran, was removed as head of internal affairs and transferred to field support.

Internal affairs (IA), charged with investigating all allegations of misconduct among officers, is one of the most secretive and powerful units within the department. Now it was in the public and prosecutorial cross hairs for having cleared so many controversial shootings. Although Shepard wasn't in command during most of those events, anyone the chief might appoint to lead IA would have to be above reproach, someone who could re-establish trust and credibility. Martinez tapped 51-year-old Maj. Frank Christmas for the job. (Martinez says the changes among his top commanders amounted to nothing more than a routine staff rotation. Moving Christmas from criminal investigations to IA, though, was widely viewed as a peace offering to the black community. Christmas himself is black.)

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.

"One day I'm sitting in my office and Major Christmas comes in and starts saying I'm incompetent and my sergeants are out of control, and I am not running my unit," recalls Gonzalez, a nineteen-year veteran of the force. According to Gonzalez, Christmas complained that detectives working the Williams murder had detained underage witnesses against their will, had coerced them into identifying a suspect, and had intimidated the main witness -- the son of Christmas's family friend.

Gonzalez says he assured Christmas the interviews were conducted properly and with the utmost care to guard the identity of witnesses. But the major retorted that he was not going to risk the boy's safety any longer. Referring to the murder victim, Christmas reportedly blurted, "The guy's only a doper."

Gonzalez says he responded, "We're not in a position to judge that. We don't pick and choose our victims."

But Christmas was determined. "He says to me: “You're going to cease this investigation now,'" Gonzalez relates. "I said, “We can't do that. We have an ethical and statutory responsibility to investigate, and not you or anybody else can stand in the way.'" Gonzalez then met with Capt. David Rivero, deputy commander of the criminal-investigations division, and explained the situation. "Rivero supported us 150 percent," Gonzalez says.

Rivero acknowledges he tried to mediate between the homicide cops and the major, but he denies that Christmas ordered the investigation be dropped. "Tell someone to stop an investigation?" Rivero asks incredulously. "Never. We're still working on it."


On October 7, 1982, Christmas disciplined his son, Frank Jr., for not doing well in school, according to a reprimand report in the major's personnel file. "While counseling his son, Sergeant Christmas spanked him with a small branch from an Australian pine," the report states. When Christmas returned the boy to his mother's house (the couple lived apart), the youngster was so badly injured she took him to the South Miami Hospital emergency room. The examining doctor determined the wounds were the result of child abuse. Metro-Dade police arrested Christmas and contacted Miami's internal-security unit (now called internal affairs), which conducted its own investigation.

Christmas admitted beating his son. According to the reprimand report, Christmas "was found guilty of child abuse and administrative charges of conduct unbecoming an officer." He was relieved of duty for three months and ordered to take a seven-week domestic-intervention course. Afterward the conviction was expunged, and Christmas resumed his job as police officer.


Some time after their heated conversation in September, Lt. Israel Gonzalez says, Christmas tracked him down at the scene of a murder to ask him to transfer Julio Pino. The sergeant, who has been with the department fifteen years, was a widely respected homicide investigator. His former supervisor, John Campbell, recounts with awe the time Pino identified a skeleton by extracting human DNA from maggots found on the remains.

"Christmas told me: “Either you or Pino has got to go,'" Gonzalez remembers. "I told him: “I'm not going to allow you to damage the reputation of a good man. Over my dead body will I let you transfer him.' I told him I was going to go directly to the chief."

Gonzalez arranged a late-September meeting with Chief Raul Martinez, along with Pino, Christmas, and Christmas's assistant, David Rivero. After Gonzalez and Pino "explained everything from A to Z," as Gonzalez describes the conversation, Rivero spoke in defense of Christmas. Gonzalez, who is 42 years old, says he became upset with Rivero and accused the captain of "chasing his cloverleaves," a derogatory reference to Rivero's ambition to be promoted to major. (Christmas was acting assistant chief at the time and in a position to recommend promotions.) "Izzy flew off the handle," Rivero claims. "He was very insubordinate."

Martinez's response, according to Gonzalez, was to tell the two officers not to expect him to "micromanage" their affairs. He then told Gonzalez he had to learn to be "flexible." Pino declines to discuss the matter in detail, though he corroborates Gonzalez's account of Christmas's actions and what was said at the meetings. "My lieutenant went to bat for me," says 35-year-old Pino. "He's telling the truth."

Chief Martinez has a different recollection. He says he remembers no mention of a specific murder investigation being dropped. "The issue," Martinez recalls, "was Gonzalez saying that Christmas was not letting him run investigations his way and that they were going to transfer Pino."


Even after his arrest, Christmas's rise within the ranks continued. He was promoted from sergeant to lieutenant in 1989 and was assigned to the north district substation, where he was involved with the community and well-liked by many activists. In 1992 someone sent an anonymous typewritten letter to then-police Chief Perry Anderson, asking him to put a stop to "Lt. F. Christmas sexual activity with little young girls." The letter writer claimed to be an employee of the department. "When he was married to a fine beautiful lady name Jonne [sic] he was living with a girl name Angie. During that time he was sexually involve with her niece," the letter stated. "She was about 15-16 at the time." The letter, which is contained in a department investigative report, then named several people with knowledge of the alleged affair.

The anonymous letter prompted an investigation by internal affairs, the results of which confirm that Christmas had a girlfriend named Angie Lambert and that Lambert had a niece named Velda. "Ms. Lambert said she has heard from family members that Frank has had a sexual relationship with Velda for many years," the investigative report states. "She believes that Frank is currently living with Velda, who is now in her early twenties." Lambert also told internal-affairs investigators that during their relationship, she never had reason to believe Christmas had sex with Velda or any other minors. Velda was sixteen or seventeen years old at the time. Christmas's ex-wife, Joanne, told investigators in 1992 she believed Christmas was then living with Velda. A friend of Christmas, Arthur Washington, then an executive assistant in the department, told investigators: "Lieutenant Christmas always had a lot of girlfriends, even when he was married to Joanne."

Investigators noted that Velda could not be reached. Christmas was never interviewed, and eventually the investigation was dropped. Subsequently Christmas married Velda.


Following the meeting with the chief, Christmas got to work on transferring Pino. First he claimed Pino was a problem employee who was on probation, a disciplinary action taken before Lt. Israel Gonzalez became head of the homicide unit. "When I first got here to homicide, Christmas tells me he's having problems with Pino's team," Capt. David Rivero recalls. "They had a low clearance rate [solving cases], and he wanted to break them up."

But John Campbell, who was the lieutenant in charge of homicide before Gonzalez, says that's not true. Pino was one of his best detectives. In fact, adds Campbell, Pino was so good at eliciting confessions from murder suspects that officers working under him were not getting the experience they needed. So Campbell instructed Pino to give other detectives a chance to interview suspects. As a result the murder-clearance rate temporarily dropped. "We solved all those homicides; it just took us longer," Campbell says. "That was my decision in order to train the rest of the staff."

Christmas apparently was referring to that episode when he claimed Pino was on probation. "Pino came to me and asked me to tell Christmas that he was not on probation," Campbell explains. "And I did. And that's when Christmas said to me: “I ordered them to drop that murder investigation. We've got plenty of other murders to work on.' I said, “Frank, we don't do that.'"

By November Christmas had succeeded in removing Pino and Gonzalez from the homicide unit. Gonzalez was transferred to the patrol division, where he currently works the midnight shift. Then, in late December, Pino was transferred to the local FBI office as the department's liaison -- against his wishes. He's since been reassigned to the patrol division on the midnight shift. Two of the three detectives working the Wayne Williams homicide case -- Altarr Williams and Moises Velazquez -- also were transferred to midnight patrol. Only David Patton remains in homicide.

"It's an injustice what's happening to Frank Christmas," complains Rivero. "All the facts are completely wrong." (Rivero says Gonzalez was moved because of his insubordination during the meeting with the chief, not as retaliation.)


On May 21 prosecutors in the State Attorney's Office convened a meeting with Pino to discuss the Williams murder case. That's when he told them the investigation had been dropped on Major Christmas's orders. Pino even produced a tape recording of the witness's mother telling officers that Christmas had promised to remove her son's name from the witness list and that the family wasn't required to cooperate with police.

"He recorded a conversation he never should have," Rivero fumes. "And he sat on it for a long time." Rivero suggests that act might amount to withholding evidence. Further, he adds, what Christmas allegedly told the witness's mother "is standard operating procedure in murder investigations. That's how we get witnesses to cooperate."

Subsequent to his meeting with prosecutors, Pino was summoned to the department late at night to provide a statement about the tape. The officers who interviewed him were from internal affairs. Rivero hedges when asked whether Pino is under investigation. "First of all," he says, "they need to investigate Frank Christmas and clear his name."

Clearing the major's name could be problematic, especially for prosecutors who work with the Miami Police Department's internal-affairs unit. The investigations are so sensitive that even the perception of risk is enough to inhibit cooperation. As one source within the State Attorney's Office says, "We feel Christmas's appointment [as head of IA] casts concerns over the security of pending investigations."

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...