Officer Trouble

Golden Beach's problem cop struggles to make a career


For such a tiny municipality, Golden Beach grinds through its police chiefs with alarming frequency. Three since 2001. The latest is Roy Hudson, a burly ex-major from the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Department, who says he was hired in July "to professionalize the department and take care of some of the problems." The problems being mainly that the place has crumbled into a pit of name-calling and accusations (most of it since Michelle's arrival). Three officers have been forced out, and the town manager has fired the town clerk, the town finance director, and a police secretary. Strangely enough, Michelle finds herself in the middle of a work environment as dysfunctional as the family she grew up in.

Chief Hudson wasn't in Golden Beach when Santinello was hired, and adds that if he were she wouldn't be wearing a badge. "My standards right now are that if anyone had been previously terminated [from a law enforcement agency], they don't continue in the hiring process," he says from the department's cramped second-floor office above town hall. He has no idea why the department was willing to overlook her previous dismissal and hire her. "You're asking me to speculate on something I just don't know." But what's done is done, and this matter is over. He noted that Santinello had passed the psychological evaluation required by the department. She also took and passed a polygraph examination. "Since I've been here she's been a hard-working, productive employee."

When Golden Beach hired Santinello on July 1, 1998, the chief at the time, Hernan Cardeno, was aware that she'd been fired by Davie. Presumably being a Hispanic woman compensated for past blemishes in a small department like his, in need of diversity. (Cardeno, who was also interim town manager at the time, told New Times he was bound by a confidentiality agreement with Golden Beach and could not discuss matters further.)

But she did a good job explaining herself to colleagues. "I felt bad for her, and everything she had been through, you know, as a single mother," says Robert Nieman, a sergeant at the time. "She made it sound like the only reason she was fired was because of her mother." Nieman says he befriended Michelle and ended up introducing her to Cpl. Leo Santinello, her future husband. Nieman even went along on their first date to a Panthers hockey game.

But this honeymoon period soon ended. Nieman says he and other supervisors had to reprimand her for a series of petty incidents: filing her nails on duty, personal use of the computer, storming out of an office and slamming the door during a verbal reprimand, abuse of sick leave, and gossiping. "She loves to gossip," says one colleague, who asked not to be identified. "And she likes to get as many people in on it as possible." Cpl. Ray Clark, Santinello's supervisor, sent a January 4, 2002, memo to Nieman -- made interim chief in 2001 after Cardeno was pushed out in a political struggle -- charging that Santinello was spreading a rumor that one officer had a past felony conviction. Another corporal sent a February 3, 2002, memo reporting complaints that "Santinello is constantly talking about how bad this department has gotten ... yet she seems to be the one that constantly continues to start these problems that some of us are affected by."

Santinello, in turn, accused Clark of insulting her daily, calling her fat and unqualified for any job other than McDonald's, and accusing her of sleeping around. She says she complained to Nieman, who told her to "grow a thicker skin." Then she complained to new Town Manager James Vardalis (he failed to answer numerous calls and a visit). A rookie officer had also complained about Clark's verbal abuse, so Vardalis asked Miami-Dade Police to look into the matter. They catalogued the bickering by taking everyone's statement. Vardalis fired Nieman. Clark resigned. Michelle stayed.

Many accuse Vardalis of using Michelle as a convenient tool with which to eliminate people as he redesigns town hall in his own image. Indeed Santinello went on to accuse the embattled town clerk, Rosemary Wascura, of stealing a poster of race car driver Dale Earnhardt from her. Wascura and Santinello had both ordered the posters, although Santinello's was a more expensive version. Wascura was already in trouble for not reporting the town's employee Christmas fund to auditors (Wascura counters that the fund has been in existence for twenty years, long before she started working there, and was widely known, thus she is not responsible for it). She was soon fired. Then after police secretary Angelica Sanchez, who publicly proclaimed her allegiance to the fired Chief Nieman, complained to Vardalis that Santinello had threatened her, Vardalis fired Sanchez. (Santinello allegedly relayed some gossip to Sanchez and then warned her: "If this leaves the room, I will kill you," according to a memo Sanchez wrote about the incident.)

Nieman is furious and has hired a lawyer. "That woman ruined my life. She lied about me," he fumes. "I was a police officer for 23 years. Now my children see me sitting at home in front of the TV and wonder why I don't have a job to go to. And the town is responsible. They knew about her background in the first place."

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