A Cop Comes Clean
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.
Campbell still marvels at the stats they compiled. In one sixteen-day period they racked up 48 felony arrests; in more than half they caught robbers in the act. But their hard-charging tactics involved numerous altercations. "I took a step back and decided this was not a good future for me," Campbell says. "I could see that times were changing and people didn't want to hear about violent cops. Whether I agreed or disagreed, the public was against that style of police work. I didn't want to give up police work and I didn't want to go to jail, so I decided to go into investigations. I didn't want to become a victim of that conflict between police culture and the greater community culture."
Campbell continues: "I tried to convince Bill. I told him: 'Listen, we get into too many fights, we shoot our guns too much, we need to stop.' He didn't want to hear it. He felt that if every use-of-force was justified, then it shouldn't matter if one person has fifty and another person has two. I told him I didn't think that was realistic. He was very idealistic that way. He tended to see things in black and white."
Campbell went on to lead the homicide unit. Hames, for the most part, stayed on the street. He paid a price for that decision.
On the night of November 7, 1995, Hames and several other officers shot and killed two of four fleeing men they'd seen commit a smash-and-grab at the I-395 entrance ramp downtown. Department guidelines at the time allowed officers to fire at suspects if they'd just witnessed a violent felony. Still the officers allegedly brought two guns to the scene and planted them on the two slain men, apparently to forestall public outcry. Hames later lied to investigators by claiming he saw guns in the suspects' hands when he fired. He didn't.
The matter lay dormant for years. During that time Hames, who always drank heavily, allowed his alcoholism to overcome him. His police career ended in 1998 when he confronted a bus driver during a traffic dispute. Hames, who was drunk, threatened to shoot the driver. He was forced to resign.
Not long afterward Hames and the other officers involved in the I-395 shooting received a "target" letter from the feds essentially inviting them to come talk. "Bill called and said, 'What do you think I ought to do?'" Campbell remembers. Both men were retired by then. "I knew in my heart, but I had to ask him: 'Can they indict you for something?' And he said, 'Yes.'"
At the time of that conversation Hames had already gone through Alcoholics Anonymous, where it was impressed upon him that he must take responsibility for his actions. "Bill was trying to live up to this," Campbell says. "We talked about that. Also Bill told me, and I believe him, that he has felt guilty about lying about that gun ever since it happened. It was just wrong."
But Hames struggled with the prospect of incriminating his colleagues. Who would claim his loyalties: the justice system or fellow cops? When he couldn't make up his mind he decided to go with the truth. Says Campbell: "He took to heart that the truth speaks for itself and will just have to do. Bill made his decision in the evening, he called me and said, 'Okay, I'm going to cooperate.'" Campbell says he was proud of him. "He told me later that was the first night in weeks he slept well."
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