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Accusing the Accuser

For fifteen years Laura Douglass and her mother made no effort to criminally prosecute the man they claim sexually assaulted Douglass repeatedly during her adolescence. But in 1995, when Douglass learned that Earl Wiggins, who is her uncle, had been hired by the Miami Police Department, she decided she could no longer remain silent, and she went to the police with her allegations. "I do not want [Wiggins] to be able to intimidate people the way that he intimidated me along with the authority of a badge and with the power of a gun," Douglass told investigators in a sworn statement.

Three days after she made her charges, Chief Donald Warshaw fired Wiggins, who had been employed as a police department public service aide and at the time was just ten days shy of graduating from the police academy at Miami-Dade Community College.

Now Wiggins -- along with his wife June -- has sued Douglass and her mother for libel, claiming that the two women falsely accused him in an effort to harm him and ruin his livelihood. The allegations, he says, have been circulated throughout his neighborhood -- the Roads section just south of downtown Miami -- where he has been a well-known civic leader for more than a decade. As a result, he claims, his good name and reputation have been destroyed.

Wiggins has also sued the City of Miami and Warshaw in federal court, alleging that the city violated his constitutional right to due process by firing him without providing an opportunity for him to clear his name.

According to Miami First Amendment attorney Tom Julin, to win the libel lawsuit Wiggins must prove, among other things, that Douglass knowingly and maliciously lied to police and therefore does not deserve the legal protections granted to witnesses or victims of crime that allow them to report their allegations without fear of retaliation through the courts.

Those protections are vital to police work, says Metro-Dade Police Maj. George Aylesworth, who heads his department's legal division. "If people were afraid of getting clobbered in court even if they saw something they really believed was a crime -- putting myself in their shoes, I wouldn't report it." But protection is granted only to those who report a crime in good faith, Aylesworth adds: "That qualified privilege [in reporting a crime] is a societal value so that people will report. The reason it's qualified is so that people won't abuse it by maliciously reporting."

Laura Douglass would not comment for this article. Her mother, Miami attorney Julia Dawson, a prominent member of the National Organization for Women and the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that her daughter's sole objective in going to the police was to prevent others from being victimized. "In my opinion, my daughter's decision to tell Miami police that she was raped and sexually abused as a child was a courageous act," Dawson wrote in a prepared statement. "The ordeal of discussing with strangers the painful details of sexual exploitation was endured in the hope of preventing others from being victimized. I feel my daughter is owed a debt of gratitude for her strength of character and sense of public duty."

Douglass is being represented by Holland & Knight attorneys Dan Gelber and Sandy Bohrer. (Bohrer also represents New Times.) "Her intention was never to publicly embarrass or hurt [Wiggins]," says Bohrer. "She just thought she had an obligation to report it."

The Miami Police Department internal-affairs investigators to whom Douglass reported her allegations asked her to take a voice-stress test, which detects deception by measuring modulations in a person's voice. According to police sources, she passed the examination. (Wiggins failed the same voice-stress test.) The results of such tests are not admissible in court, but as Aylesworth notes, police departments are not required to meet the same standards of proof when dealing with their own employees as criminal prosecutors are required to meet in the courtroom -- namely, that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Douglass first met her uncle Earl Wiggins when he was in his early forties and married to her mother's sister June. Douglass was ten years old at the time. According to her sworn statement, Douglass, her mother, and brother, along with Wiggins and his wife, took a vacation in the Bahamas three years later, in 1980. One evening, she claimed, her uncle treated her to some type of alcoholic drink at a poolside bar. The rest of the family was sleeping when the two of them returned to their rented condominium. "I laid down to sleep [on a sofa bed] or may have passed out as a result of having this rum punch thing, because I was very thin, and you know ... [it] wouldn't take a lot to make me drunk at that age," Douglass related to investigators. "And I woke up in the middle of the night in pain because he was on top of me having sexual intercourse with me. When I woke up, he stopped."

 

The girl, bleeding heavily, fled to the bathroom to clean up. When she returned to the living room, she told investigators, Wiggins allegedly issued a threat: "He said that he would kill me and he would kill my mother and he would kill my brother and that if I sent him to jail ... that he would -- he knows a lot of bad people that he would have them kill me and my family even if he was in jail."

The thirteen-year-old girl, who resided with her father in Virginia, heeded his warning. She said nothing about the Bahamas incident, or other sexual assaults allegedly committed by her uncle during subsequent visits to Miami. Finally, in the summer of 1982, she told her mother, Julia Dawson.

Neither Dawson nor her daughter's attorneys will say why the alleged crimes were not immediately reported to law enforcement officials. But according to Douglass's statement, her mother did tell her sister, June Wiggins. At some point Douglass underwent psychotherapy. She added that she still lives in fear of her uncle. "I'm terrified of him," she told police.

In June 1995, while visiting her ailing grandfather in Palm Beach, Douglass learned that her uncle was attending the police academy. That's when she considered divulging the family's secret of fifteen years, she told investigators. According to Jose Fernandez, the assistant city attorney who is defending Miami, her disclosures could not have led to criminal prosecution because the statute of limitations had expired.

Despite that, Wiggins found himself bounced from the police department so quickly he had no chance to defend himself against accusations he asserts are false, says his attorney, Louis Jepeway, Jr. (Neither Wiggins nor Jepeway will discuss the evidence they claim will prove that Douglass's allegations are false.)

According to Jepeway, the speed with which Wiggins was dismissed led to another problem. Because he was still on probation at the time he was fired, Wiggins should have been informed of his right to something known as a "name-clearing hearing," a procedure available only to governmental employees. (During such a hearing, a fired probationary employee can submit evidence intended to refute the allegations against him, though the government agency is not obliged to act on it. The evidence is merely filed with his personnel records.)

The City of Miami, says Jepeway, never told Wiggins he was entitled to a name-clearing hearing, and then waited fourteen months before agreeing to hold one, only after Wiggins had forced the issue in court. Initially Wiggins accepted the city's belated offer, but then reversed himself. Jepeway says it was too little and way too late. Wiggins's reputation had already been irreparably damaged, at least in part because another prominent resident of the Roads neighborhood allegedly distributed the allegations contained in the police department's internal affairs investigation.

According to the federal lawsuit Wiggins filed against the city this past December, Lazaro Albo circulated the investigative material, which had become a public record, among board members of the Miami Roads Neighborhood Civic Association. Wiggins for years has been a member of the board and has also served as its president. Albo, a well-to-do businessman involved in the cable television industry, is no fan of the neighborhood association, which once bestowed upon him its "Triple Monkey Award" for stringing razor wire around his home and incurring at least $5000 in fines for city code enforcement violations.

Since his arrival in Miami in 1980, Wiggins, a career salesman, has worked hard to clean up his neighborhood. He started the Roads Citizens' Crime Watch group (one of the first in South Florida), helped to preserve the rare hammock of hardwood trees in Simpson Park, and also spearheaded the rehabilitation of Triangle Park near his home.

A law-enforcement enthusiast, Wiggins often befriended cops, and by 1992 his fascination with the profession led him to a job -- the City of Miami hired him as public service aide to perform administrative police tasks. He so impressed his supervisors that they encouraged him when, at the age of 55, he decided to become a police officer. On June 8, 1995, less than two weeks before he was to complete his training at the academy, two internal affairs investigators called him out of class and took him downtown to police headquarters.

They questioned him for several hours about Laura Douglass's allegations and gave him the same voice-stress test she had taken two days earlier. "They said, 'If you don't take it, it's going to make you look guilty,'" Wiggins recalls. A half-hour after Wiggins took the test, an investigator summoned him: "He looked at me and said, 'Wiggins, you failed all of the questions.'"

 

The test results astonished Wiggins, for he had twice taken polygraph examinations -- once while applying to become a public service aide and again when applying to become a police officer. According to a Miami Police Department background investigator, Det. George Martinez, police polygraph examiners routinely ask the following question: "Since your adult life (age eighteen), have you ever been involved in sexual activity with a child?" Had Wiggins shown deception, attorney Jepeway says, he would not have been accepted for either job.

A day after taking the test, Wiggins was summoned again to the police station, where investigators handed him a letter. "They said, 'Wiggins, read this!'" he recalls. "It said, 'You are hereby dismissed from the Miami Police Department,' and it was signed by Chief Warshaw."

In her statement to police, Laura Douglass elaborated on her motive for coming forward after so many years. Learning of Wiggins's imminent certification as a police officer "made me feel that I had a very strong responsibility and that I needed to make sure that I took care of that responsibility, because if I didn't, somebody would be harmed," she said. "I started thinking about the fact that if he had had a gun at the time that he was doing this to me, it would have been much worse.


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