Officer Trouble

Golden Beach's problem cop struggles to make a career

In truth the letter did not cause much of a stir; Santinello had brought a similar one from her mother, to a previous employer, to the attention of Golden Beach when she interviewed for the job.

The mayor gave the new letter to the town manager, who gave it to the police chief, who put it in her file. Their apparent unwillingness to investigate the matter further has irked at least one town council member. "The big question is why was she hired in Golden Beach? Who failed to do an in-depth investigation?" asks the councilman, Dr. Stanley Feinman, a retired dentist. "And why aren't they doing anything now?"

Michelle Santinello has lived through so much turmoil that you can't escape the conclusion that she either has a tremendous propensity for attracting bad luck or thrives on chaos. It strains credulity that the number of confrontations and accusations she's been involved with over the years could all be coincidence, that she could possibly be such a ceaseless victim. Yet Michelle's defenders, including her younger sister, say most of these clashes can all be traced back to one person: her mother.

Andres and Lisette Nogues at the time they were fighting their daughter's accusations in court
Steve Hlavac
Andres and Lisette Nogues at the time they were fighting their daughter's accusations in court
The Nogues family court trial became one of the longest and most costly such cases in the country
The Nogues family court trial became one of the longest and most costly such cases in the country

Still her life had generated a lot of paperwork long before she entered law enforcement. There are police reports, psychiatric evaluations, polygraph reports, and many, many newspaper articles.

Michelle declined to be interviewed for this story. So did her mother. So did Golden Beach Town Manager James Vardalis. So did the police chief who hired her. And so did retired Miami-Dade Det. Ellen Christopher, who spent a year investigating allegations that Michelle's stepfather, Andres Nogues, a pediatrician, molested Michelle's younger sister. In that case, Michelle would be accused of coaching the victim to lie about her stepfather to get him imprisoned. When New Times contacted Detective Christopher, she did not want to relive those days. "I'm not going to comment because I'm afraid what she might do," the veteran cop says about Santinello. "And the people of Golden Beach should be afraid too."

Christopher is no doubt referring to a ten-year-old court case in which Santinello's psychological health was questioned on the stand by psychiatrists. And she is also referring to the fact that Santinello is now a cop.

If only it weren't police work. If only she weren't armed, and her word didn't carry the weight of law, in a job where every reprimand and memo is public information; then maybe none of the questions about her past would continue to haunt her. Maybe her mother would not feel the need to alert her employers. And if she did, maybe it could be ignored. Certainly there would be little reason to write a story about her.

But this is the job Santinello chose, against a lot of obstacles, and, some would say, against common sense.

Although Michelle declined to comment, she did tell New Times to contact her younger sister Aimee. The 28-year-old, who was earlier caught in a bitter tug of war between her mother and Michelle, tried gamely to ferry questions from New Times to her sister. But the method was awkward, and much of the information she relayed from Michelle did not stand up to scrutiny (that her mother's medical license was revoked, that a psychiatrist who examined Santinello years ago was a family friend). Aimee, a sorrowful-looking, petite brunette, has a history of being controlled by her mother, and managed, even manipulated, by her sister. "Well, maybe there is a reason for this story," she sighed one day over lunch at a chicken grill in downtown Miami. "Maybe this will help the truth to come out."

For all Michelle's devotion to being a cop, it has never been easy. In 1994 Michelle Cabot, as she was known then, took a job as a public safety aide in the Hallandale Police Department to escape a string of dead-end gigs she was drifting through -- grocery store cashier, telemarketer. She liked it. In September 1996 she joined the Town of Davie Police Department as a rookie officer. She was aggressive and earned commendations for twice rescuing car crash victims.

But life wasn't without its problems at Davie. She accused one officer of stalking her, and wrote a letter warning him to stay away. She later said the officer was forced to resign. Officials at the Davie Police Department told New Times that is not true. Without giving details, they said the matter was investigated and the officer, whose name we'll omit, is still employed there.

Then Dr. Nogues sent the first of her letters, warning Michelle's employers that her daughter was mentally unstable and had provided false information on her job application. Davie Police Chief Jack Mackie ordered an internal affairs (IA) investigation to find out what the hell was going on.

In the end, the IA investigation concluded Michelle lied on her application, mainly, it appears, to keep anyone from contacting her parents, or perhaps to keep anyone from finding out about her past. She identified her mother as Lisette Rodriguez, a maiden name not used for more than twenty years. Michelle wrote that she had no contact information for her mother because she lived abroad. This was not true -- her mother was living in the same house on SW 87th Avenue in South Miami-Dade she's owned since moving to Miami in 1984. And despite the distance Michelle wanted to keep from her parents, she wrote that she once worked in a "Dr. Nogaus's" office as a receptionist. The address was that of her mother's office. When contacted by a Davie internal affairs officer, Lisette and Andres Nogues helpfully pointed out that they had never employed their daughter as a receptionist in the time frame given, something payroll tax records corroborated. (Michelle has worked there in the past for a couple of days a week.) And the report also could not find any verification that her name was Michelle Cabot. She was born Michelle Cabo in 1969. In school she was known as Michelle Nogues. Her first married name was Porras. Nowhere does the name Cabot come up. "During this investigation Michelle did not provide any documentation, other than a 'Final Judgment Dissolving Marriage' which shows her name being changed from Porras to Cabot. There is no legal document showing that her former name was Cabot," the report states.

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