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Bill Hames walked into Judge Alan Gold's federal courtroom on January 28 and all heads turned. Many did a double take. Hames seemed so ... frail. He's a slender five-eight, his face taut, hair gray gone white. Twice during his testimony the jury asked him to speak up because his voice was so soft.
This was the legendary Miami cop known as Wild Bill? Revered among rookies for his battle scars and bravery? The man didn't match the legend. "First time I met Bill I was on patrol and we were making an arrest at a drug hole," recounts one officer. When a subject became belligerent, the cops radioed for a K-9 unit to calm the scene. "A couple minutes pass and this unmarked car pulls up. This guy I had never seen gets out, doesn't say a word, walks right up to the subject, and whacks him across the head with a flashlight. The subject goes down cold. Then this guy just marches back to his car and drives away. I turn to my partner and say, 'Who the hell was that?' and he says, 'That's Bill Hames.'"
In 1979 Hames faced off an angry crowd in Overtown by jumping on top of his police car, pumping his shotgun, and addressing the crowd "in a discourteous and challenging nature," according to a reprimand.
Clearly the man in court was not the same brawling crime fighter from two decades ago. In 2000 he confessed to federal agents that he knew fellow police officers planted guns at the scene of a fatal shooting and that he subsequently lied to investigators about it. In court he testified against the cops who were with him that night. In exchange he hopes for leniency and a chance to keep his retirement benefits.
The trial of eleven Miami cops accused of planting evidence and lying to investigators is scheduled to conclude within days. Hames and former officer John Mervolion were the prosecution's star witnesses, though their effectiveness has yet to be determined. Defense lawyers called Hames a drunk and a liar. He agreed (he's been through rehab). The dailies said he was lackluster, implicating himself more than the defendants. But for Hames all that's beside the point. He told the truth and shed light on an agency that had escaped accountability far too long.
If this trial is about the Miami Police Department confronting its past, 55-year-old Bill Hames is that past. He was an alpha-male street cop during the Seventies and Eighties, back when the public's priority was violent crime; tolerance ran high for police tactics that got the job done. But when priorities changed and that tolerance evaporated, he was left stranded.
Hames chose to plead guilty to a felony and cooperate out of self-preservation, it's true. But friends say he also did it to come clean. He spent a lot of time in denial as an alcoholic. His fight to stay sober coincided with his decision to tell the truth.
It's fair to say Bill Hames came of age ducking bullets and has spoiled for a fight ever since. Even before the raucous car chases, gunfights, and drinking in Miami, there was Vietnam.
At age nineteen he left Homestead, where he grew up, to join the U.S. Marine Corps. He hit the jungle as a radio operator assigned to a small communications unit that called in air strikes and naval cannon fire. In Vietnam that was a dangerous job. Operators wore a backpack with an antenna, an inviting target.
"Bill was in a lot of combat," says his friend and former police partner John Campbell. "I think he went through a lot of terrible situations that are with him to this day." At one point Hames told Campbell he took a three-day leave and when he returned his unit was gone. "He was told they were all killed. This was his new team. No time for mourning, just move on.
"That's tough for a twenty-year-old to deal with," Campbell continues. "I think one of the things that Bill suffers, probably to this day, is survivor's guilt."
Hames brought those demons to his police work when he joined the force in 1972, and initially they helped him. Patrolling Overtown was a picnic compared to combat. "By the standards of most reasonable cops, you'd say Bill was fearless, almost reckless," recounts Campbell.
The two were frequent patrol partners beginning in the mid-Seventies. "I don't mind telling you we were really good at it," Campbell says. "We were both obsessed with police work then. You wake up and it's police work, you go to bed it's police work. Our whole existence revolved around the police department and catching bad guys." And to blow off steam at the end of the day, they'd have a few drinks.
Campbell and Hames are as close as brothers, a bond forged in shared danger. One night in the late Seventies a man firing a rifle from a rooming house pinned Campbell behind a tree. Hames, he says, drew the guy's attention, then shot and wounded him. Another time, Campbell recalls, he saw Hames run into a burning crack house in search of people. "When he came out the hair was burned off one side of his head." Those incidents stick in Campbell's mind -- this was a guy who risked his life for others.