A Brotherly Imbroglio
On October 12, 1998, Hialeah police officer Rolando Bolanos, Jr., filled out an arrest report on case 98-42048. It states that 63-year-old Valerio Gonzalez entered the station soused and turned himself in for drunk driving. Bolanos administered a Breathalyzer test, read Gonzalez his rights, and locked him in a cell.
Bolanos charged Gonzalez with driving under the influence. But he had not seen the man behind the wheel of the car, which would have invalidated the arrest under Florida law.
By the next shift the arrest report and the case number had disappeared from the files, say three fellow Hialeah policemen who wouldn't give their names. They claim someone illegally concealed the incident to protect the 26-year-old Bolanos from the mistake. The reason, according to the officers: He is the son of Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolanos, Sr. One of the policemen even purloined documents to show to New Times. Two references to the DUI arrest on one document were slathered over with Wite-Out and Gonzalez's name was crossed out on a log sheet. "It's wrong," one of the officers fumed. "It's unethical."
Of course it was also illegal for the officer to steal police files. But he and his colleagues are desperate to expose the Bolanos family's allegedly unethical actions.
Rolando Jr.'s lawyer Sam Rabin maintains that despite the arrest documents, Gonzalez was never charged. The drunk man was allowed to sleep off his stupor at the station. A department spokesman couldn't even find the case number in the computer system. Although the truth is elusive, one thing is certain: There are crippling divisions inside the police department of Miami-Dade County's second largest city.
The Gonzalez bust is only the latest problem for the Bolanos family. The Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office (SAO) is investigating a claim that Rolando Jr. and his brother Daniel Bolanos, age 22 and also a Hialeah police officer, methodically pummeled a 23-year-old welder this past November. Yoel Pacheco says he was trying to break up a fight when the brothers arrested him, drove him to an abandoned parking lot, donned gloves, and beat him bloody. Though police charged Pacheco with resisting an officer with violence, the SAO declined to prosecute.
Pacheco's lawyer Alan Soven contends his client is not alone. He told New Times recently that eight other men have complained that one or both Bolanos brothers beat them without provocation. Soven says he plans to sue the city on behalf of all nine.
Among Soven's clients is Cairo Gutierrez, an unemployed Nicaraguan, who complained that Rolando Bolanos, Jr., and another officer clobbered him in May after a traffic stop. "That day, they tried to kill me," says Gutierrez, who was charged with battery against a police officer. His case is pending.
Another man, Jorge Bustamante, a former Peruvian policeman, told the Miami Herald this past December that the brothers beat him so badly he has still suffers from blurry vision. He asserts the pair dragged him from a hotel bar because he argued with a bartender. Police charged Bustamante with battery against a police officer and resisting a police officer with violence. The case is pending, according to Bustamante's lawyer Bernard Butts.
Chief Bolanos and his sons, all of whom have received numerous commendations, declined to comment for this story. Rabin, Rolando Bolanos, Jr.'s lawyer, says his client is a hardworking and aggressive police officer. "I don't believe there's any evidence he or his brother committed any crimes," he adds. Michael Band, Daniel Bolanos's lawyer, refused to discuss specifics of the accusations against his client.
Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez's only comment on the probe was this statement faxed to New Times: "Presently both the state attorney and the Hialeah Police Department Internal Affairs are conducting an investigation. Since Chief Bolanos cannot supervise the internal affairs investigation, I have assumed that responsibility."
To many inside and outside the Hialeah department, the brothers' employment has been flawed from the start. Most of the critics won't go on the record, fearing reprisals. The three officers who met with New Times allege that Chief Bolanos often intervenes on his sons' behalf. They question that behavior, citing the state's anti-nepotism law, which requires public officials to avoid hiring, managing, or giving special treatment to their relatives.
The officers provided a memo the chief sent to two lieutenants this past April, requesting "on a personal note" that they monitor Daniel Bolanos before he gets "himself hurt or somebody else." The memo clearly violates the intention, if not the letter, of the law, according to the critics. It also indicates the father was concerned about his son's behavior before the first brutality complaint surfaced.
None of this surprises FIU political science professor Dario Moreno. "This shows how the Martinez political machine works," he says. "Bolanos has been one of Martinez's most loyal lieutenants. It's a machine that rewards friends and punishes enemies. The appearance is that Martinez is repaying the chief's loyalty [by hiring his sons]."
Adds one of the anonymous officers: "This investigation into the chief's sons, this is not surprising to any of us. Everybody was saying, 'Hey, these guys get into a lot of fights.'" As a result, he contends, other officers don't want to work with them. If one of the brothers does something illegal, other officers are scared to report it to superiors for fear the chief will retaliate.
Declares another officer: "Even the supervisors are afraid to discipline the chief's sons."
Rabin says the accusations against the Bolanos family come from jealous cops with a vendetta. And in fact, one of the sons was disciplined for ignoring a direct order. Police spokesman Frank Gonzalez says there is nothing wrong with the Bolanos' arrangement at the Hialeah headquarters. "Police work often runs in a family," he says. "It's not unusual for family members to work in the same department."
Rolando Bolanos, Sr., a 47-year-old Havana native raised in New Jersey, has been in law enforcement for three decades. After attending Union College in New Jersey, he joined the U.S. Army in 1970 and served as a military police officer, according to an interview he gave New Times several months ago. After his 1973 discharge, he became a cop in Jersey City, New Jersey. In the mid-Seventies he came to South Florida on a murder investigation and fell in love with the subtropics. In 1977 he quit his New Jersey job and joined the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). He spent the next decade at FDLE and eventually rose to the status of special agent in charge of South Florida. He even earned a master's degree in public administration from FIU.
In 1987 Raul Martinez hired Bolanos as police chief. The two made a formidable team. Martinez is a savvy politician who was re-elected after being convicted on corruption charges in 1990. (He gained a new trial on appeal, which ended in two hung juries. The Hialeah City Council recently voted to reimburse Martinez $1.2 million dollars in back pay for his suspension.) Like his boss, Bolanos is known as a strong disciplinarian who does not take challenges to his authority lightly.
That led to problems with the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which represents most of the city's 300 officers. In 1992, after the PBA won lucrative retirement benefits, Bolanos angered the force by tightening the purse strings, claiming the benefits package left no money to buy modern office equipment. In 1995 he tried to limit pay raises.
When John Rivera took over as PBA president that year, he tangled with Bolanos. The pair's differences soon degenerated into a personal feud.
The contract impasse dragged on for three years. During that time Rivera's PBA waged an aggressive campaign that included plastering posters and billboards all over Hialeah calling for Bolanos's removal.
While the roots of the turmoil are in a contract dispute, its effects have branched into day-to-day issues. In the past few years, officers have complained of Bolanos's dictatorial management style and his penchant for squelching opposition.
Publicly Martinez and Bolanos argue they want to work with the force. Privately the chief launched an internal campaign to discredit vocal union members, say six current and former Hialeah officers. The chief prohibited some cops from wearing beepers and required all of them to turn in radios at the end of their shifts. Then he ordered electronic tracking devices installed on patrol cars and fired three policemen for napping on the job. Bolanos said he was cracking down on crooked cops. Rivera said the chief was union-busting.
"Basically any officer associated with the PBA gets targeted," says one officer. "Internal Affairs will follow you from call to call until you stop to get a cup of coffee. Then they write you up for an unauthorized stop."
The chief argues that he has not singled out union members in his effort to improve performance.
Predictably the PBA endorsed Martinez's political rival Herman Echevarria in the 1997 mayoral campaign. Union members took to the streets with anti-Martinez T-shirts and bullhorns, chanting "Raul, cobarde" (Raul, coward). Police brass drew criticism from some on the force for using internal affairs officers to videotape the campaigning.
Despite the opposition, Martinez won re-election easily.
Also in 1997 seven white Hialeah cops, all veterans with fifteen to twenty years of experience, sued the city in federal court, alleging they were not promoted because of racism and politics. An Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed with the suit claims "there is a distinct pattern of discrimination against non-Hispanic officers who are not politically allied with the mayor." The case is scheduled to go to trial in June, according to the officers' lawyer, Michael Feiler.
If the senior Bolanos thought his sons would be unaffected by the union controversy, he was mistaken. After the brothers were hired in October 1997, they never escaped the suspicion among colleagues that they received special treatment.
Rolando Bolanos, Jr., is an ex-Marine married to a fellow Hialeah police officer, Mayelin Bolanos. Daniel Bolanos, single and still living at home, served on the Hialeah Gardens force in 1996 before becoming a Hialeah cop. "When I worked with him, he wasn't out of control," recalls a Hialeah Gardens officer, who won't give his name. "Danny was quiet here, maybe because he didn't have the backing. He had a couple of car accidents, but nothing out of the ordinary."
Hialeah had openings for the Bolanos brothers because of a series of departures that decimated the Hialeah force. As tension mounted between the union and the city, at least 50 officers left to retire or join other local forces. Some of those who departed took significant pay cuts.
Frustration caused by these changes may have prompted someone to go after Daniel Bolanos. In January 1998 the younger brother entered his cruiser after placing a prisoner in the back seat. At some point after starting the car he was hit in the face with pepper spray. Bolanos Sr. told the press it appeared someone had rigged a pepper-spray canister to the car's ventilation system.
But officers who claim to be familiar with the incident say it was a practical joke. Someone sprayed the irritant onto the door handle. "Cops do this to each other all the time," argues one of the anonymous officers. "It may be stupid, but we play jokes. Someone may put fingerprint powder in an air vent, or toss a water balloon. It's a way of seeing what you're made of. In this case we found out. [Bolanos] went running to daddy."
Rolando Bolanos, Jr., has had somewhat more success than his brother. He almost immediately impressed his superiors. After just over a year on the force, he was selected for Field Training Officer school, a choice assignment according to several officers. Some Bolanos critics claim favoritism: "I know guys with twenty years on the job who got turned down for FTO school," says one officer.
This past November Rolando Jr. was selected as Hialeah's officer of the month for stopping several burglaries in progress. The rookie racked up 271 arrests his first year. (His brother came in second among all patrolmen with 201 arrests.) The department maintains Chief Bolanos didn't participate in the selection process.
But the chief did write a December 8 memo nominating his son as the PBA officer of the month for all of Miami-Dade. (Because the two awards are distinct, it is possible to win both.) "Officer Rolando A. Bolanos's actions are worthy of special recognition," the father wrote to union chief John Rivera. Bolanos Jr. was ineligible for the countywide award because he is not a PBA member.
A Hialeah supervisor, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says Rolando Jr. won the city's award fair and square. "Look, the department's a mess in a lot of ways, but as far as I know, [Bolanos Jr.] is a good cop."
Indications are that Daniel Bolanos wasn't doing as well. In a confidential memo obtained by New Times, the chief requested that two lieutenants pay special attention to the younger brother:
"To: Hernandez, Carlos M., Garcia, James
From: Bolanos, Rolando D.
Subject: Danny Bolanos
Date: 4/27/98 Time: 11:15 a.m.
Gentlemen: On a personal note. I know that Danny is going to be a great cop some day and I know that he wants to do good by the Department and me. But, I am concerned that he may be a bit hyper. Please speak to him and 'tone him down somewhat' so that he does not get himself hurt or someone else. Thanks on behalf of Abbey [Danny's mother] and myself."
Hialeah spokesman Frank Gonzalez declined to comment on the memo.
This past June Daniel Bolanos was chasing a truck he suspected was stolen. By radio his supervisor ordered the young officer to quit the pursuit. (Police departments throughout the county forbid officers from participating in high-speed chases unless violent crime suspects are involved.) Bolanos apparently ignored the order seven times, according to an internal review. "Danny did everything right except that he disobeyed a lawful order by failing to disengage and return," Chief Bolanos told the Herald. Though police brass recommended 80 hours of suspension, the penalty was reduced to 40 hours.
Chief Bolanos's role in the discipline is unclear. Under department policy he reviews all disciplinary action, but Mayor Martinez issues the final orders.
Yoel Pacheco's case represents the most highly publicized threat to the Bolanos brothers' careers. The following description of Pacheco's alleged beating is drawn from his statement to state prosecutors:
On November 29, 1998, at about 3:00 a.m., Pacheco received a call from his cousin. She complained that her husband was drunk and arguing with her. Pacheco then drove to his cousin's house with his wife. After someone called the police, the Bolanos brothers arrived in separate patrol cars. One of the brothers asked whether there was a problem. Pacheco replied that he was taking care of the situation. Then Pacheco claims he heard an officer call his wife a liar. He countered that she was telling the truth.
Pacheco says that one of the brothers told him to shut his mouth. When Pacheco announced he was leaving, Rolando Bolanos, Jr., handcuffed him and tossed him into a cruiser.
Next, according to Pacheco's statement, he was transported to an empty, unlit parking lot. Rolando Bolanos, Jr., put on gloves and advised Pacheco they were going to fight. Then Daniel Bolanos drove up. Pacheco noticed the other Bolanos brother also slipping on gloves. The officers proceeded to punch and kick Pacheco until both his eyes swelled shut. One of the brothers stamped on his head with a boot.
The police report Rolando Jr. filed that night does not mention a stop at a parking lot. According to the document, the brothers returned to the station with Pacheco. As they were transferring him to a cell, Pacheco "pulled away his free arm, and began to throw punches. Defendant [Pacheco] then backed up into a corner and began screaming 'I'm going to kill you.' Myself and Ofcr. D. Bolanos ... attempted to restrain the defendant."
A week later the SAO opened an investigation.
On a December 4 application for several search warrants, the SAO labeled Rolando Jr.'s arrest report "false." Judge Robert N. Scola, Jr., granted the warrants and prosecutors confiscated Daniel Bolanos's black boots and a red handkerchief. They also took the rear seat, rear floorboard and right door panel from Rolando Bolanos, Jr.'s police cruiser, along with two pairs of rubber gloves and a black watch. "If they match Pacheco's blood on any of those items, they're in deep trouble," Pacheco's lawyer, Alan Soven says.
Defense lawyers Sam Rabin and Michael Band say they are confident the investigation will show the brothers acted lawfully.
On January 8, while prosecutors were investigating Pacheco's claims, the brothers were involved in another allegedly violent conflict. Jorge Bustamante, a 34-year-old Domino's Pizza manager with a 1996 conviction for petty theft, was arguing with a bartender at the Ramada Inn in Hialeah. He claims the brothers marched in, pushed him to the ground, handcuffed him, and dragged him outside.
Bustamante's lawyer, Bernard Butts, says he has gathered the following testimony: Three witnesses say they saw the brothers beating a handcuffed Bustamante. One Ramada employee contends he heard fists pounding Bustamante. And a bar patron describes how he followed the cops outside only to be threatened with arrest.
The Hialeah police department argues that Bustamante became confrontational. They charged him with battery against a police officer and two counts of resisting an officer with violence. The case is pending.
Cairo Gutierrez's story differs somewhat from those of Pacheco and Butts. The 41-year-old says the cops pulled him over on the evening of May 21. He and an eighteen-year-old female friend were cruising slowly around the Seminola neighborhood, allegedly searching for a man selling a bike. Police say the area is known for drug sales.
Ofcrs. Daniel Bolanos and Carl Zogby charged Gutierrez with resisting arrest. They released the driver. Gutierrez says the officers then beat him while he was handcuffed. Hialeah's internal affairs investigated the claim and, citing medical examinations that didn't show any injuries, decided the allegations were unfounded.
In mid-February the department removed the brothers from patrol pending the outcome of the state attorney's investigation. So far prosecutors have subpoenaed several officers and reviewed dozens of arrest reports filed by the Bolanos brothers, according to police sources.
When state prosecutors heard about Pacheco's accusations, they took over the investigation. "We wanted to avoid the appearance of impropriety," attests William Altfield, the assistant state attorney handling the case. He declined comment on specifics of the probe.
The department couldn't be trusted to conduct an impartial investigation, adds Pacheco's attorney Alan Soven. FIU's Dario Moreno points out that the state's anti-nepotism law was meant to prevent such situations.
Florida statute 112.3135 mandates that no public official in a state, county, or city agency can "appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, or advancement ... [of] any individual who is a relative of the public official."
"The anti-nepotism statute in Florida is pretty weak and people have gotten around it in a host of ways," Moreno says. "It's become a joke." The law, he adds, was enacted to "give the appearance of fairness. Government jobs are sought after, they can be highly lucrative, and [it's the public's money]."
One prominent example of the steps some government employees will take to avoid violating the law occurred in 1993, when Katherine Fernandez Rundle became state attorney. Rundle's husband, then-Assistant State Attorney Chris Rundle, resigned to avoid being supervised by his wife.
The Hialeah City Attorney's Office maintains there was nothing wrong with the Bolanos brothers' hiring. Mayor Raul Martinez has the final say on all personnel decisions.
On February 11 Chief Bolanos and Mayor Martinez swore in 23 new Hialeah police officers. It was the largest cadet class in department history. The officers sat straight and solemn in the city hall auditorium. Relatives and soon-to-be fellow officers filtered in. In the hallway banquet tables held soda and trays of pasteles and croquetas. From the podium Chief Bolanos smiled benignly and welcomed his new charges. "It is my honor at this time to introduce my friend, your boss, the mayor of Hialeah ..."
Martinez, in a pressed suit, stepped up and swore in the officers. Then he told them: "When we started the hiring process I was told no one wanted to work in the city of Hialeah. But we have not, and will never, lower our standards. This is not just the biggest class, this is the best. I'm proud to have you here.
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