Boys Will Be Boys
In 1997 the Hialeah Police Department hired as officers a convicted car thief and a man rejected by the City of Miami Police Department as a result of admitted steroid use. Somehow the background checks Hialeah conducted did not uncover this information. In a sworn statement, Hialeah Police Chief Rolando Bolaños, Sr., said he was unaware of the two men's histories. With 342 officers under his supervision, such a lapse might be understandable if not for one complicating factor: The two cops are Chief Bolaños's sons.
Rolando Bolaños, Jr., pleaded guilty to a charge of grand theft auto, a felony, when he was seventeen years old. Police in Miami-Dade County also arrested him for assault, again while he was a juvenile. In addition Bolaños Jr. pleaded guilty in Georgia to a charge of drunk driving.
Rolando's younger brother Daniel sought to join the Miami Police Department three years ago but was rejected because he admitted taking illegal steroids within five years of his application.
Chief Bolaños, who has headed Miami-Dade County's third-largest police force for the past twelve years, claims not to have known these details and other information that should have disqualified at least one son, if not both, from joining his department. His purported ignorance was revealed last summer during interviews with prosecutors from the public corruption unit of the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office (SAO) who were investigating brutality complaints brought against the brothers. New Times recently obtained transcripts of those interviews.
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The brutality complaints date from late November 1998, when Yoel Pacheco, a 23-year-old Hialeah resident, was attempting to break up a domestic quarrel between his cousin and her husband at the couple's house. In response to a call, the Bolaños brothers rushed to the home in separate squad cars and ordered Pacheco to leave. A police report states that Pacheco disobeyed their order and became unruly, an assertion Pacheco has denied.
Rolando Bolaños, Jr., arrested Pacheco and placed him in his patrol car. According to SAO investigators, Bolaños, who was 26 years old at the time, then drove to a parking lot, where his 22-year-old brother Daniel joined him. The brothers donned gloves and, Pacheco says, severely beat him.
After Pacheco's allegations were made public, eight other individuals came forward to claim that one or both of the brothers had beaten them as well. The SAO launched an investigation and discovered corroborating evidence, such as a boot print on Pacheco's head that matched footwear belonging to one of the Bolaños brothers. In July of last year, a grand jury indicted the brothers on felony charges of official misconduct and battery. Their trial is scheduled to begin February 22. (The Bolaños brothers have denied Pacheco's allegations and maintain that he injured himself by intentionally banging his head against a wall as they were jailing him.)
Shortly before the indictments were issued, the SAO's public-corruption prosecutors Joe Centorino and William Altfield met twice with Chief Bolaños. The sworn testimony they elicited from him raised troubling questions about the propriety of the chief hiring his sons and whether he conspired to cover up their alleged crimes after the Pacheco incident. The State Attorney's Office did not gather enough evidence to sustain criminal charges against the chief, however, and closed the case last week.
Still, the tone of the interviews clearly unnerved Bolaños. "From your line of questioning," he said at one point, "I think I sit here as your subject in this investigation. You will forgive me if I feel very strongly about that." Centorino and Altfield didn't respond to the chief's indignation. Instead they enlightened him about his sons' criminal histories.
According to the prosecutors, in early 1989 Rolando Bolaños, Jr., was arrested in Dade County for aggravated assault. On March 22 prosecutors dropped the case. Bolaños was a juvenile at the time and records of that incident remain sealed.
A few weeks later, on April 12, 1989, Bolaños Jr. was arrested again, this time for breaking into a Cadillac dealership in Broward County. Although still a juvenile (he was a few months shy of his eighteenth birthday), he was charged with grand theft auto, a felony. In July of that year, he pleaded guilty after agreeing to a deal in which he testified in federal court against a car-theft ring with which he was involved.
Altfield confronted the chief: "Were you aware that he gave a confession to committing a variety of other auto thefts?"
"No," he responded. "You are absolutely flabbergasting me at this point. You need to talk to his mom. I'm sure she would remember."
Altfield continued: "On April 12th of 1989, at approximately four in the morning, were you aware that Rolando Bolaños, Jr., gave a confession -- and a very lengthy and detailed statement -- as to his involvement? ... Were you aware that he admitted to making $35,000 to $45,000 [stealing cars]?"
"No, absolutely not," Chief Bolaños replied.
The junior Bolaños was sentenced to probation and placed in "community control," which required him regularly to check in with a probation officer, according to Altfield. The chief professed ignorance of all this and claimed he had never chanced to speak with a probation officer who called his house, where his son was living at the time.
His son's felony arrest and budding criminal career may have escaped the police chief's attention, but at least he was aware the boy was having problems. "My son and I had a strained relationship," the elder Bolaños explained. "I wanted him to go into the military. I wanted him out of the house. I didn't want him in the streets." In April 1990, a year after the auto-theft arrest, Bolaños Jr. joined the Marine Corps.
According to the SAO's investigation, however, even the military couldn't control him. In March 1994, while stationed in St. Marys, Georgia, Bolaños Jr. allegedly attacked a man, who complained to police. Officers obtained a warrant for Bolaños's arrest, but before they officially charged him, the case was dropped. In another incident later that year, St. Marys police did arrest Bolaños on a misdemeanor charge of driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty and paid a $445 fine. Chief Bolaños said during the interview with prosecutors that while the drunk-driving arrest showed up when Hialeah police conducted a background check on his son, the battery complaint and arrest warrant did not. (At most large police departments, such as City of Miami and Miami-Dade County, even a simple arrest is enough to disqualify an officer candidate from being hired.)
In late 1996 Rolando Bolaños's brother Daniel applied for employment with the City of Miami Police Department. Chief Bolaños recounted to prosecutors that his son said the Miami department offered him a job, but he declined because he was more interested in working in Hialeah.
Assistant State Attorney William Altfield pointedly noted that the record reflected differently: "Were you aware that he was disqualified by the City of Miami ... for steroid use?"
Chief Bolaños: "No."
Altfield: "He was disqualified on 1/06/97 regarding use within -- I think it says the last five years.... Did he admit to you about the steroid use?"
Chief Bolaños: "Absolutely.... It was when he was sixteen, seventeen years old. He was still in high school. He was on the varsity baseball team."
The brothers' qualifications aside, their employment with the Hialeah Police Department was problematic in another way: It barely skirted Florida's nepotism law prohibiting public officials from hiring and supervising immediate family members. Chief Bolaños claimed it was Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez's decision to hire the brothers as police officers. "I had a discussion with the mayor," the 48-year-old chief recalled. "The mayor wanted to know how Danny was doing. I told him he was fine; he was in the process of applying for the City of Miami. He said he wanted Danny to come over with him. I said okay."
Then the mayor asked about Rolando Jr. "He told me to have him apply, too," the chief said. "[The mayor] would call the personnel director and he would have them put in the process." The city attorney's office studied the issue and advised that it did not appear to violate the nepotism law, because the mayor officially hires all police officers.
Neither questionable backgrounds nor nepotism laws presented insurmountable problems for the brothers, but the fact that they are the chief's sons was another matter. Even before they were charged with a crime, they were suspected of being coddled by their father. In an April 1998 memo first published in New Times ("Brotherly Imbroglio," March 4, 1999), the chief instructed two lieutenants to keep an eye on Daniel: "Please speak to him, and tone him down somewhat so that he does not get himself hurt or someone else."
Critics of Chief Bolaños say the perceived protection his sons enjoyed emboldened them to behave with impunity. "This investigation into the chief's sons -- this is not surprising to any of us," one Hialeah officer told New Times last year. "Everybody was saying, 'Hey, these guys get into a lot of fights.'"
After the SAO launched its probe, the perception that the sons were being protected only increased. That's when the chief came under suspicion of rewarding officers who supported his sons' version of events. For instance Chief Bolaños recounted how the sergeant on duty the night of the Yoel Pacheco beating later was transferred to a position on the popular narcotics squad, even though he had violated procedures by not calling paramedics to tend to Pacheco's wounds. According to the chief, his son Rolando Jr. told Sgt. Gary Galle: "'Hey, sarge, this guy is banging his head on the cell and he's got a cut on his head but he's refusing rescue.' Galle said, 'If he doesn't want rescue, fuck him.'"
Prosecutor Altfield asked the chief if it was a violation of department policy not to call paramedics and for the sergeant not to respond to an injured prisoner. "Absolutely," the chief affirmed.
Altfield continued: "Shortly thereafter he was given the assignment of narcotics?"
Chief Bolaños: "Yes, sir."
Altfield: "Would you agree with me that this is a coveted position by many officers?"
Chief Bolaños: "Oh, absolutely."
Altfield: "Why is it, then, that you had given Sergeant Galle that assignment, being that he is the youngest sergeant in seniority, knowing ... he was derelict in his duties?"
The chief answered that it was simply a matter of assigning personnel to vacant positions. "I understand how it's possible that one could perceive that it was favoritism in return for some quid pro quo," Bolaños shot back. "I disagree with ... the implication. That's not the first time I have done that."