Officer Trouble

Golden Beach's problem cop struggles to make a career

The sun beams overhead and an azure Atlantic is just visible through a verdant screen of palm trees and bougainvillea bushes to the west. Lush topiary covers the east side of Ocean Boulevard as well, shrouding gated spreads that line the avenue like new wedding cakes. On days like this the Town of Golden Beach earns its name, a resplendent sun-kissed community polished as brightly as its name.

Even the town's guardhouse along the northern reaches of Ocean Boulevard above 200th Street is designed like an extravagant ornament on one of the perfectly manicured lawns, a miniature stucco and tile Mediterranean villa; a statement, if you will, that you are about to pass through a portal for the privileged. As decorous as it may seem, the guardhouse is really the vetting point for a community obsessed with its own security. Inside, radios squelch as the town's police officers track the comings and goings of well-heeled residents on a series of small video monitors. They watch the morning exchange as the Mercedes and BMWs of the ruling classes exit the gate and the dusty trucks and compact cars of the household help arrive. Vehicles can be freeze-framed, license plates can be captured. And there's only one exit. Such is the price of peace and safety the residents, who even have their own official Security Council, have come to demand.

Maintaining that peace is not a terribly tall order for the eighteen-person police department. Golden Beach is roughly a mile by half-mile. Less than a thousand people reside there, according to the 2000 census, and they earn a median income of $136,000. The median price for a home is more than $700,000. Suffice to say, the cops in Golden Beach check a lot of burglar alarms and chase a lot of loose dogs.

Most mornings, Golden Beach Police Ofcr. Michelle Santinello will spend part of her shift monitoring the morning traffic from the guardhouse. Santinello is a cherubic-faced 33-year-old with blond-highlighted hair and an olive complexion. Perhaps to offset the youthful impression given by the braces she wears on her teeth, Santinello carries herself publicly with an officious all-business strut.

If Santinello sometimes feels like a glorified security guard she can be forgiven. The running joke in the guardhouse after someone pulls up to the window and asks for directions is for the cops to smirk to each other: "Would you like some fries with that?" But she's struggled hard to earn her short-sleeved midnight blue uniform and 9mm service sidearm. She calls this job her "calling," one she chose out of "fervent conviction." And it hasn't always been easy to keep it.

When she joined the force in 1998, she was working as a security guard for Wackenhut. She was a single mother, going through a ruinous divorce that prompted her to declare bankruptcy. The Golden Beach gig was a blessing. And by most accounts the perky Santinello tackled her new job with enthusiasm. Within eight months the department was sending her to take specialized courses in the criminal justice program at Broward County Community College on subjects like handling confidential informants, drug trafficking, and international money laundering. By 2000 she had been detached to work with a multi-agency drug task force, running surveillance on suspected dopers.

And in those early days on the force she even found love. On August 18, 2000, she married fellow Golden Beach cop Leo Santinello.

It would appear that life in Golden Beach was, well, golden.

Until Michelle became unhappy at work. Soon people started getting fired. Santinello accused one supervisor of sexually harassing her. She accused her chief at the time of knowing about the harassment but doing nothing. She accused the town clerk of stealing a poster from her. And all of those people were either forced to resign or terminated. People who suddenly found themselves at odds with her were left wondering what happened to that cheery woman who signed her memos with a heart and smiley face.

Then the letter came.

This past July Golden Beach Mayor John Addicott received a letter from a Dr. Lisette Nogues, a neurologist with an office in South Miami-Dade County. The letter warned that Michelle Santinello posed a danger to the community. "It is only because of my conscience that I am compelled to write this letter to you," Nogues wrote, describing Santinello as "psychiatrically disturbed with a sociopathic personality disorder, among other diagnoses, who has a history of chronic and serial lying and making false accusations." The letter didn't mention one very pertinent fact that was otherwise clear in the records attached -- Dr. Nogues is Michelle Santinello's mother. "This is very difficult to do ... yet I feel that others need to be protected," Nogues wrote. "... her pathological need for attention is behind the recent accusations leveled at some in the Golden Beach Police Department."

And so the strange saga of Michelle Santinello, née Cabot, née Porras, née Nogues, née Cabo, was about to unfold in serpentine complexity. Was it true that Santinello, who wears a gun to work every day, was a dangerous sociopath? Or was the mother the dangerously obsessed one, out to destroy her daughter's life because of a decade-old sex-abuse scandal, as Santinello counters? Or is the answer somewhere in between? A family of perpetually clashing personalities escalating to some grand internecine climax?

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