By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
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?
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.
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 Timesto 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.
Many people fudge facts on their job applications. But police departments are vigilant about employees who might lie because the reports they write become evidence and legal instruments, and not only could their alteration jeopardize a case, it could result in charges filed against the officer.
So Michelle was summarily dismissed for lying, and the Davie IA report was sent up to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement's Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission, which certifies police officers. It held a hearing, at which Michelle pleaded no contest. She did send a three-page letter:
"I will stand before you humbled and exposed with nothing to hide. I will answer any questions you have of me to the best of my ability and will gladly clarify any statement made against me," she wrote. "I stand before you the victim of an intentional reprisal [a reference to her mother alerting her employers to look into her past] ... don't dismiss my dream that I've worked so hard to achieve."
The FDLE put Michelle on probation for nine months and allowed her to keep her certificate as a police officer.
To understand why Michelle's mother would pursue her daughter so relentlessly, you need to know about the "Case From Hell," a decade-old family saga that at the time devolved into the most tortured and time-consuming custody battle in Dade County history, and one of the most expensive such litigations in the country. New Times, the Miami Herald, Dateline, and Court TV all covered it extensively. It was a case in which Michelle played a crucial role. For one thing, she wanted her brothers and sisters (there were seven still living at home) taken away from her parents and put in her custody, according to court records, prompting authorities to explore her past to gauge her suitability as a foster mother. Much of the following information was culled from psychological evaluations and police reports from that case.
What Lisette Nogues and her attorney fought to point out during the ordeal was that Michelle was emotionally and psychologically troubled. Entered into the court records were psychiatrists' reports as well as documentation of a series of bizarre incidents from her past that suggested a pattern of deceitful and self-aggrandizing behavior. Enough, at least, that the press summed her up as a "troubled older sister" (Miami Herald, 1992).
The Nogues family is a sprawling household of nine children. Lisette had six kids, including Michelle, from two previous marriages when she wed pediatrician Andres Nogues in 1980. He adopted his new wife's children and the couple had three more of their own. Lisette Nogues was by all accounts a strict mother, a taskmaster, and a devout Catholic. Theirs was a house steeped in Catholic ritual and its attendant baggage -- guilt. She prohibited her children from dating, insisted they attend confession, and delivered spankings to those who misbehaved, according to court records. (Michelle would allege in court her mother doled out actual "beatings" with belts.) Lisette was a Cuban refugee, raised by relatives after her mother died while she was still young. These childhood traumas formed a personality severe, controlling, and determined enough to get through medical school, part of the time as a single mother, ultimately a woman haunted by the fear of losing control, especially over her family. The supreme irony, of course, is that her desire to keep the family together through that control is what would break it apart.
By 1983 the family had moved to Richmond, Virginia, where Lisette was a medical resident in a local hospital. Andres took care of the family. They had a large Southern house with a front porch and a back yard where they kept several pet rabbits in a locked cage. To their neighbors they would seem like a typical big, Catholic, Latin family. But the sheen of normalcy was abruptly smeared in November 1983 when the rabbits disappeared and were later found mutilated. Michelle, who was in high school at the time, reported finding an envelope in her school locker containing a severed rabbit's paw and a note asking, "Have you seen your rabbits lately?" according to a police report of the incident. Not long after, more of the missing rabbits were found dead on the Nogueses' back porch, their hind legs broken, their eyes gouged out. The family hastily buried the carcasses. The day after the pets were interred Michelle claimed to have found another note along with a severed ear from one of the previously buried rabbits in her locker. Unbeknownst to her, police and school officials had been investigating the first incident. They even set a trap for the perpetrators by surveilling Michelle's locker. When Michelle received the second note, officials had not seen anyone but Michelle using the locker. Eventually both police and school officials concluded that Michelle "was responsible," according to what principal Carroll Cloninger told Metro-Dade Police in a report. Henrico County Police Ofcr. Frank Curran said in that same report that they concluded Michelle had "made some stuff up" and "was involved."
Michelle denied it. Authorities wanted her to take a polygraph, but her parents would not allow it. Lisette Nogues has said that at the time she was "in denial" that her daughter could do something like that. Michelle's parents took her out of school, believing she was in danger, and roughly a year later the family moved to Miami.
Years later, in retrospect, Lisette Nogues said she believes the rabbit incident was the first clear indication that her daughter was showing signs of mental illness. Lisette told one psychologist she believed Michelle inherited a sociopathic disorder (cruelty to animals at a young age is one sign) from her biological father, whom she said had such a disorder as well as a criminal history.
Michelle has described the rabbit incident differently at different times. In 1989 she told a psychologist, "It was obviously someone from school. It [the note] was placed in my locker. It was someone not very bright because they misspelled my name." In 1997 when a Davie IA officer asked her if she "remembered a case involving the mutilation of pet rabbits," she replied that she "remembered something to that affect [sic], but doesn't remember specifics." Then in her 1998 letter to the FDLE she apologized for "honestly not remembering the incident of one of my pet rabbits being killed by presumably a neighbor's dog, which I did not consider a crime."
In Miami Michelle doted on her siblings, especially her sister Aimee, five years her junior. The two were described as being inseparable, and Aimee has said she looked up to Michelle with awe. Lisette had started her own practice and Andres was doing his residency at Miami Children's Hospital, so Michelle was the default babysitter for the brood. She cooked for them, dressed them, and took them to the movies.
Michelle would allege both in testimony and in court records that after the move to Miami her mother, whom she had considered "perfect" and "loving," would suddenly become a raging tyrant, whose temper flared at the slightest provocation. She said her mother would beat the children with hairbrushes and cut their hair off to punish them. But Lisette countered that it was her daughter who changed. Starting in 1985, Michelle repeatedly called police to say that men were following her, breaking into the house, or lurking nearby. On September 4, 1985, for instance, she told Metro-Dade Police that while she and her siblings were watching TV she heard a noise and saw a man in a white T-shirt hiding in some bushes outside. Police canvassing the area did see a man with a white T-shirt mailing an envelope down the street but couldn't connect him to anything suspicious. A month later she called police because she heard footsteps on the roof, then saw a man running away. Police searched the area with "negative results." By the third report, police were getting suspicious: "Victim states two prior burglaries took place. On each occasion the suspect was seen, nothing was taken. (Validity of the story is questionable.)" Still Michelle continued calling the cops, only now the fears were more dramatic. A few weeks after the report warning her stories were "questionable," she called police after finding blood splattered in the house (no explanation was ever found). A few days later on November 1, 1985, she called the cops again, saying she believed someone was inside the house. These reports continued into 1987, when she called police and said a Hispanic man was following her and her siblings while they were at the mall. Always when police searched, they found nothing.
Finally her mother, believing her daughter was becoming hysterical, took Michelle in 1987 to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Alberto Iglesias, who testified in court he had been referred by a colleague and had never met the family before. (Michelle's sister Aimee insists that Iglesias was a friend of the parents and in cahoots with the mother to make Michelle appear crazy.) Iglesias's reports, written in Spanish and referred to in the Metro-Dade Police report and court records, note that Michelle has a propensity for creating a heightened sense of drama and for lying. At one point Michelle told Dr. Iglesias that her stepfather, Andres Nogues, had molested her when she was younger, mostly just fondling while she was asleep. On January 23, 1987, she was taken to Troopers, a Miramar-based polygraph facility, to determine the veracity of that claim. The polygraph examiner concluded: " ... it is the opinion of the Examiner, that the subject's polygrams do contain specific reactions to the pertinent questions. There is deception indicated."
Polygraph examiners at Troopers also tested Andres Nogues. There was no deception indicated in his test. The results of the polygraph tests were cited in Metro-Dade Police records.
Things in the Nogues household deteriorated from there. Michelle ran away at one point and married her teenage sweetheart Rick Porras. But the separation from her siblings gnawed at her, and eventually she sent a letter to her mom apologizing for her past behavior, including "the lies" and the "pain" she had caused, according to court records. Lisette assumed this was a reference to the allegations Michelle had made against Andres. Michelle said in court it was a ploy to get back in the house. Michelle and Rick, both unemployed, were allowed to return to the fold to live in a guesthouse on the Nogueses' sprawling property in the southwest part of the county. Eventually the young couple moved out on their own.
The saga that would pit mother against daughter for perpetuity began one night in September 1989, when fifteen-year-old Aimee ran away to her sister's house and accused her stepfather of sexually abusing her over a period of three years. She claimed that she and Andres had had both anal and vaginal sex numerous times. Metro-Dade Police Det. Ellen Christopher investigated and, based on Aimee's claims and a medical examination, arrested Andres Nogues at work at Miami Children's Hospital. State workers immediately removed the seven children still at the Nogues home and placed them with Michelle and her then-husband Rick Porras. The ensuing investigation was twofold. Miami-Dade Police began looking into whether Andres Nogues repeatedly sexually molested Aimee, as she claimed. Meanwhile family court tried to determine if the Nogues parents could retain custody of their children.
Detective Christopher's investigation soon found problems with Aimee's story. On two occasions she recounted, when her father supposedly had sex with her, Andres was working a 24-hour shift at the hospital. She failed to describe his penis accurately -- it had a scar on it. She did not tell police that she was sexually active with boys. A spare room at the house where she and Andres supposedly had sex was so filled with junk that an exterminator stated he couldn't open the door all the way to get inside. Doctors who examined Aimee at the Rape Treatment Center reported that she had chlamydia, a sexually transmitted disease. Andres and Lisette both volunteered to take chlamydia tests, which not only came back negative for the disease, they came back negative for the antigens the body produces when it is exposed to the disease. Doctors determined it was highly unlikely Andres could have had sex with Aimee in the time frame she gave. Andres also volunteered to take a polygraph test and passed. Michelle, now Aimee's guardian, and others would not allow Aimee to take a polygraph.
In fact Michelle and Aimee's court-appointed representatives fought bitterly with police when it appeared they had questions about Aimee's accusations. Detective Christopher would accuse them of trying to thwart her investigation by blocking access to Aimee and coaching her in what to say to them.
Finally Aimee recanted. She told detectives that she made the allegations at Michelle's bidding to get out of her mother's strict household. On October 31, 1990, a full year after Aimee first made her allegations, Detective Christopher closed the case with a finding of "unfounded." The Nogueses still had to fight on in family court for another two and a half years to win back custody of their children. By then their careers were in shambles and their finances plundered by the lengthy court battles.
When the whole episode appeared to be over and all questions answered, Aimee surprised everyone. In 1994, after the judge ordered the family reunification, she held a press conference in which she recanted her recantation. She played cassette tapes she made of a conversation with a man she said was her stepfather, recounting having sex with her and negotiating to have sex with her in the future. Andres Nogues denied it was him and called for the FBI to do a voice analysis.
But nothing was ever done with the tapes, which were problematic for prosecutors because they were made illegally. There were also questions about the statute of limitations. In the end the tapes were never tested, and no more polygraphs were given to see who was lying. Without that there was no way to explain the disparity between the evidence police compiled, such as the chlamydia and the polygraph tests, and the tapes. Twice burned, authorities and journalists declined to get involved again. All the assembled truth-gatherers despaired of ever uncovering the truth from this family. The layers of deception just ran too deep.
It didn't change the disturbing facts of Michelle's life that came to light from the episode.
One legacy of that era is at least two mental health diagnoses Michelle underwent as she pushed for custody of her siblings; they became part of the record of the case. In 1989, while police were still investigating the sex abuse allegations, Michelle met with Iris Bruel, a staff psychologist for family court. She was administered a series of tests. "Nothing in the present data indicates limitations in Ms. Porras' ability to provide appropriate care for her younger siblings. Casual observation of her interactions with the children gives the impression of a calm, well-organized and attentive style of managing this group of children."
In stark contrast is the report written by Dr. Diane Schetky, a psychologist from Maine brought down by the court in 1992 to evaluate the family, at a point when state workers were accused by the Nogueses and police of losing their objectivity and blindly siding with Michelle. First Schetky interviewed Aimee, who told the doctor that "she had idealized Michelle" and was "easily influenced and believed the lies and things Michelle told her." Schetky continued: "Aimee thinks she succeeded in being convincing about her allegations because she was really describing sexual experiences with others and applying them to Andres. Aimee thinks the problem was not her mother but rather that Michelle turned her against her mother."
Schetky then interviewed Michelle.
"I see Michelle as the key to understanding this convoluted case," the psychiatrist wrote. "There is ample documentation that she shows narcissistic, histrionic, and antisocial traits.... Her history is further suggestive of Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome [in which a caregiver fabricates a medical disorder in children in order to get attention for themselves]. She had a vivid imagination, at times may be delusional, and seems to believe the stories she has woven. She is also convincing in what she tells others and is masterful at manipulating."
Today Aimee stands by her assertion that Andres molested her, and that her sister is guilty of nothing more than sometimes trying to be the center of attention.
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."
It's a tough stigma for a police officer to be constantly accused of lying. And it has Golden Beach councilmember Stanley Feinman, an ardent critic of Vardalis, flummoxed. "It still concerns me as a councilman that the residents of Golden Beach may be in jeopardy," he says. "She should willingly go through a psychiatric examination to show she is a competent police officer. Then we'll be fine."
But Chief Hudson says he's not interested in opening up any new inquiry into Santinello's background. She was cleared for employment, including the psychological evaluation, before he got there, and that's it. Besides, it might mess up his plans to "professionalize" the department.
One step in that plan took place on October 31, 2002, when he promoted Santinello to corporal, along with colleague Ray Bruzos, the position left open when Ray Clark resigned. The blurb in the town's Golden Beach News notes that they are "the first officers ever promoted to this rank after undergoing a professional and thorough multi-agency promotional process."