By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
One late afternoon in early November 1998, Ralph Wilson was patrolling in West Perrine when he saw a woman frantically waving her arms. He pulled his cruiser over and listened as she angrily recounted a scene she'd witnessed a week before: Two white cops were manhandling, beating, choking, and handcuffing a protesting black teenager. Then they made the kid sit in the rain while they filled out their paperwork, before hustling him into their patrol car and speeding off. It wasn't an unusual sight in the high-crime nabe, but it was wrong, the black woman told the black officer. She'd been waiting for a chance to tell someone she felt "comfortable" with.
"I told her to file a complaint, when this cruiser pulls up across the street and parks," Wilson tells New Times. Inside were Ofcrs. Brian Mustacci and Alfredo Palacio, fellow cops Wilson knew from his home station in Cutler Ridge.
"The lady about dropped when she saw them," says Wilson. "She said, “Those were the guys right there!' She was like, “I gotta go,' and made a beeline into her house."
Wilson says he began walking toward the police cruiser, but that Palacio and Mustacci dug out. Surprised, he jumped into his car and followed them until they finally pulled over.
Mustacci and Palacio were extremely belligerent: "They were like, “Who the fuck do you think you are? What are you doing talking to her? Are you trying to get someone to complain about us?'" Wilson recalls. "They called me a “community activist.' I just laughed."
When his shift ended that evening, Wilson told his supervisor, Sgt. Albert Christensen, about his encounter with the woman, Palacio, and Mustacci. But Christensen seemed less than sympathetic: "[Christensen] accused me of trying to get some [sex] on duty," asserts Wilson. "He asked me if that was “my honey, my squeeze, my girlfriend.' I was like, “No, no, man. I didn't do anything wrong.'"
While he was trying to explain himself, Wilson remembers, Palacio and Mustacci came into Christensen's office and called him a racist for soliciting complaints against them. That was enough for Wilson. He told Christensen he wanted to file a complaint against the two. The sergeant talked him out of it, saying, according to Wilson, that Palacio and Mustacci were "checking on his well-being" when they drove up while he was talking to the black woman, and by inference, that they were trying to remind him of his need to show solidarity with the Miami-Dade Police Department.
But from that day on, Wilson contends, he became known as the thing cops have little patience for: an inside whistleblower. His punishment, he says, was a departmental witch-hunt with a definite "piling on" quality. Less than a week following his confrontation with Mustacci and Palacio, Wilson says his reports began disappearing, so that his paperwork became a nightmare, and then his supervisors began riding him about it. Next, officers refused to answer his back-up calls, and when he complained, he was verbally harassed. When he filed a complaint with Christensen on November 15, 1999, and again on December 5, 1999, the insults turned racial. Wilson, commended sixteen times for performing well during his twelve years on the job, next went to Christensen's supervisor, Lt. Robert Brown. He told Brown that Christensen was ignoring his situation (nothing had happened three weeks after his latest complaint), and that he thought it would be best if he were transferred to another squad. He tried to explain that the harassment he'd endured and his fear that other officers weren't backing him up could put his life in danger. But, according to Wilson, Brown turned him down, saying, "You need to resolve problems on your current squad." Twice more, Wilson requested to be switched. Twice, he was denied.
On January 6, 2000, Wilson was patrolling when he received an urgent call. A man thought to have shot and robbed two people a few days before had struck again and was running down a street not far from his location. Switching on his emergency lights, Wilson took off. A half-hour later he spotted the suspect at SW 113th Avenue and 224th Street, a Goulds neighborhood.
The six-foot 225-pound Wilson jumped out of his car and chased the perp, eventually tackling him. They wrestled, making enough noise to rouse neighbors, some of whom came scrambling out of their houses, screaming and hitting Wilson until the armed man wriggled free. In Goulds, cops are seen as the bad guys.
Wilson called for backup. It was Brian Mustacci who came to the scene, specifically assigned to block the suspect's escape. But when Wilson looked around, he couldn't find Mustacci. When other officers, arriving late, finally arrested the suspect, Wilson was furious. "I looked ... he left," growls Wilson. "I was really mad. He was my support. I was totally vulnerable. That guy was armed, you know? Without my backup, I was at serious risk."
Wilson approached Sergeant Christensen, also on the scene, and told him Mustacci had abandoned him. Christensen called Mustacci, and the three met a few blocks from the arrest site.
"I started to explain what had happened," Wilson asserts. "And then Mustacci said, “It don't matter what you say, because you're just a low-life, ass-fucking nigger! The sergeant ain't gonna do nothing!'"
According to Wilson, Mustacci then placed his hand on his holster in a threatening manner. In the suit he subsequently filed to get his job back, Wilson claims that Christensen told Mustacci not to address him in such terms but that Mustacci repeated the slur. Wilson reported the incident to Lts. Robert Brown and Ed Howett, but nothing much was done about Mustacci's alleged behavior. (Mustacci's Internal Affairs profile reveals he was cited for "discourtesy" to Wilson. It also shows he was cited for using excessive force seven times since 1994; Palacio had six similar citations since 1995. Neither man, nor any of the police officers in this story hostile to Wilson, could speak to New Times because of pending legal actions.)
Deciding that complaining to supervisors was a waste of time, Wilson filed a race-discrimination complaint with Internal Affairs relating to the January episode. Wilson's reinstatement suit alleges that Christensen threatened Wilson with "retaliation if [Wilson] approached IA about problems occurring in the squad." The investigative unit is still "looking into" the complaint.
Beginning as early as March 1999, Wilson claims he was continually harassed and intimidated. He became the subject of an IA investigation that accused him of falsifying a time sheet. Internal Affairs later determined the probe was baseless, according to Wilson's suit. That same month, the suit alleges, Sgt. Jeffrey Lampert began calling Wilson "schizophrenic" in front of other officers, suggesting that Wilson's "split personality had led" him to make false complaints against Sergeant Christensen and Lieutenant Brown. (Lampert's IA record shows fifteen citations for using excessive force since 1993, including four citizen complaints involving sprains and one bone fracture, but Lampert has never even been sanctioned.) On May 21, 1999, Wilson found in his mailbox a pornographic photograph of a nude white woman on her knees with writing across the front that read: "Stupid nigger, suck less dick, eat more pussy ..."
The next day, Wilson says he came to work ten minutes late, missed roll call, a mandatory meeting in which assignments are given out for the day, and was ordered by Sgt. Nelson Aloy to escort a suspect from a holding cell with another officer.
"I was waiting for the other officer when Aloy comes over. He starts yelling at me for being late and then not doing what he told me to do. We're in each other's faces, and I bump him with my belly. He claims I assaulted him. There's no way. I'm a big guy, but I didn't hurt him with my stomach! I guess I was ready to blow. I'd taken a lot of crap by that point," Wilson admits.
He was suspended for twenty days with pay and instructed to remain at home during his shift hours and check in with his supervisors at the beginning and end of his shift. By June 9 he was back at work.
"When I came back nothing had changed. Same harassment, same old," he asserts.
Wilson continued to work but also lodged a complaint July 8, 1999, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The agency responded by approving his right to sue the police department -- a move that didn't go over well with his colleagues. He says he endured taunting for the rest of the summer but never would have guessed what was in store for him on September 12, 1999.
As he was driving home around 2:00 a.m. from a Miami dance club, Wilson noticed a police car in the lane opposite him in his neighborhood -- an area Cutler Ridge cops routinely patrol. He says he was blinded by a bright light -- a spotlight manipulated by Ofcr. Enrique Sanchez. In a deposition taken later by Wilson's attorneys, Sanchez said Wilson was driving fifteen to twenty miles per hour in the 35-mile-per-hour residential area, and that he suspected the driver of "casing the neighborhood." Sanchez stated that Wilson then sped away at up to 70 miles per hour. Sanchez followed the car but admitted that he never turned on his emergency lights.
"We knew that was impossible," says attorney Dan Lurvey, who represented Wilson in the subsequent criminal case. "If you look at those streets and all the turns he would have had to make, there's just no way he could have been going that fast."
Sanchez radioed other officers that he had lost Wilson's car. Ofcr. David Lillard heard the alert and found Wilson minutes later. In his deposition, Lillard admitted that Wilson hadn't committed a traffic violation, but pulled him over anyway.
"He came over to the car," Wilson recalls. "And I was like, “You know who I am, right? I'm Ralph Wilson. I work with you.' He said he knew who I was. [Lillard] asked me: “Why are you giving us a hard time?'"
By that time, Sanchez had arrived, along with Ofcr. Calvetta Phillips. According to conflicting depositions, none of the officers asked for Wilson's driver license or ran his car's Miami-Dade police tag. Lillard testified that he told Sanchez, "It isn't worth it," meaning that they should let Wilson go without citation. The officers agreed and Wilson drove away. Before Phillips left she told Lillard and Sanchez that she thought Wilson no longer worked for the department. Suspecting Wilson had misrepresented himself as a cop, Lillard and Sanchez went after Wilson again.
When he saw the police cars coming, Wilson remembers feeling shocked and scared: "There were two police cars behind me, and I could hear sirens in the distance. I didn't know what was going to happen."
Officer Phillips deposed that she arrived on the scene in time to see Sgt. Alex Ocariz searching Wilson's car. Sitting handcuffed in a nearby cruiser, Wilson watched Ocariz retrieve a gun from under his driver's side seat. "He said, “Look what we have here!'"Wilson recounts. "My gun and holster were in my trunk. He must have taken it out."
Because Wilson's gun wasn't holstered or reasonably secured, he could be charged with carrying a concealed firearm. He was arrested and placed in a holding cell at the Cutler Ridge station for seven hours. An officer not involved in his arrest took him to the Miami-Dade County Jail at 1:00 p.m. Formally charged with fleeing and eluding a police officer and reckless driving -- misdemeanors -- Wilson, whose wife posted his $1500 bail that night, returned to work the next day.
Two months passed before Wilson and his attorney appeared in Miami-Dade County court to deal with the misdemeanor charges, only to discover that the State Attorney's Office also wanted to charge the cop with a "concealed-weapon" felony. Police charged with a felony are immediately dismissed from the force without pay, and this was Wilson's fate on November 30, 1999. Meanwhile he attempted to file complaints with Internal Affairs against Sergeant Ocariz for planting the gun but was told that he must have an attorney present.
"That not only goes against their standard operating procedures," attorney Michael Feiler says. "But it's absurd. They are supposed to take complaints from anyone at anytime."
Wilson was notified that he was fired June 14, 2000. Because he hadn't yet been to court on the felony charges (his case was postponed nine times until October 2000), he questioned why he had been fired. Wilson says he met with Miami-Dade Police Director Carlos Alvarez, who informed the fired cop he was unaware that Wilson had filed a litany of internal affairs complaints against officers over the past two years.
"He told me he would investigate," says Wilson. Two days later he received a letter confirming his termination.
The first good news Wilson had heard in months came when, after nine postponements, he finally went to trial in October. The State Attorney's Office dropped all charges against him for what Assistant State Attorney Joshua Weintraub admits were "too many inconsistencies by different officers of what happened that night."
Attorney Lurvey says he won the case largely because of Ofcr. Calvetta Phillips's deposition. She testified that she saw the gun in a holder with the snaps in place beneath the driver's side seat. Yet the holster wasn't listed in a property receipt like all other items taken from the car.
"It was our position that the gun was planted in the driver's side," says Lurvey.
Also Phillips said Wilson behaved "calmly" when he was pulled over, not "erratically" and "temperamentally" as Lillard and Sanchez maintained in their depositions. Sgt. Pete Vasquez called Wilson a "respectful," "knowledgeable," and "down-to-earth regular guy."
For all that, however, Wilson is off the force and without his benefits and pension, trying to support his three children on a meager six-dollar-per-hour salary. (He's working at a home for the disabled and is separated from his wife.) He wants his career back and his tormentors punished, and to that end is pursuing a civil case against the Miami-Dade Police Department, not scheduled until next spring.
Wilson's attorneys, Michael Feiler and Martin Leach, say there is a good chance the department will settle, but even if he is reinstated with back pay, Wilson will need to be transferred. Sgt. Albert Christensen, his chief antagonist and a 31-year Miami-Dade police veteran, was demoted to an officer rank for using "improper procedures" last April, but it's unclear if the demotion was directly related to Wilson's problems with the South-Miami Dade squad.
"When you talk about matters of discrimination within a police department, it's disappointingly common," says Feiler. "What it comes down to is police culture that's resistant to change."