Calm, Cool, and Collecting
The script would have sent the folks from Cops into spasms of voyeuristic glee. On September 21, 1989, a lone gunman invaded a quiet patch of Miami Beach suburbia, broke into a physician's home, savagely beat his maid, then engaged two police officers in a life-or-death shootout. Although it was over in a matter of minutes, the brawl left puddles of blood and bullet casings to decorate the doctor's Florida room. Both officers were injured, as was the thief, who escaped only to find himself the quarry of an epic manhunt featuring SWAT teams, police dogs, and more than 100 helmeted troopers.
Media accounts would later detail how panic-stricken pupils at Nautilus Junior High huddled in fear while police captured the suspect, twenty-year-old Christopher Cole, hiding under a nearby shrub. The cops who confronted him were quickly honored as Officers of the Month, and this past November Cole was sentenced to life in prison. An opportune juncture - Cops formula would dictate - for the credits to roll.
Instead, heads may roll. The incident has become the basis of a threatened lawsuit alleging negligence and a cover-up by Beach police. In a required letter of notification sent last month to City Attorney Laurence Feingold, Mayor Seymour Gelber, and Police Chief Phillip Huber, attorney Isaac Mitrani states that his client, Sgt. Daniel Pinder, suffered a gunshot to the stomach fired by fellow officer Michele Kabakoff during the Cole melee. The letter alleges that Kabakoff has a history of panicking under pressure that went ignored by police officials, who also disregarded Pinder's repeated requests that the shooting be investigated.
Kabakoff and her superiors insist there is no basis for a suit. But unless the city shells out $750,000 to Pinder, a once-silent feud between respected, veteran cops might become a courtroom spectacle.
The muddled events of that autumn afternoon began with a silent alarm at 4350 Nautilus Court. Pinder and Kabakoff, the first officers on the scene, entered the home after they saw a toddler inside. There they encountered Cole, who claimed to be the child's baby sitter. Unconvinced, Pinder had begun patting him down for weapons, when Cole wheeled around with a revolver in his hand.
Here the officers' accounts diverge. Pinder says he grappled with Cole for several seconds, saw the child leave the room, and pleaded with Kabakoff to shoot Cole. Then he felt a blast in his abdomen. He figured Kabakoff had shot Cole and that the bullet from her Smith & Wesson .357 had entered him after passing through Cole's body. But a searing pain in his right side and a sudden loss of strength followed, and he realized that he, not Cole, had been wounded. A forensic report later revealed that Kabakoff shot Pinder from a distance of three inches. The bullet ripped through his stomach and lodged in his thigh.
With a last burst of strength, Pinder threw off Cole, hoping to shoot the suspect before he could recover. Instead, Pinder says, Cole grabbed Kabakoff, who was standing with a "blank stare" on her face and her gun barrel down. Pinder got off a shot that grazed Cole's head and knocked Cole and Kabakoff to the ground, behind a couch. Cole landed on Kabakoff and began bashing her with the butt of his gun - which had jammed - while trying to grab her weapon. Pinder fired five more shots before his fingers went numb, hitting Cole twice in the thigh. Cole fled when he saw that Pinder could not reload his gun.
Though bleeding, Pinder issued a detailed description of the suspect and called for emergency medical assistance. He was later airlifted to Jackson Memorial Hospital, where doctors removed twelve inches of intestine, as well as his appendix.
Kabakoff's recollection of the events is substantially different. She emphatically denies she lost her cool. "There was no shot without hitting [Pinder] or the kid," she explains, contradicting Pinder's claim that the child had already left the room. "It was a no-win situation. When I did shoot, they spun around and I hit Pinder." Far from cracking under pressure, Kabakoff says, she mustered Herculean strength to keep Cole from seizing her gun: "The guy had 40 pounds on me and it was all muscle."
Early news accounts of the gunplay were understandably murky. What troubles Pinder is that they remained vague. "It was obvious from the moment this happened who I'd been shot by, but the press was led to believe that police didn't know," says the twenty-year veteran. "That's when I first picked up that something wasn't right."
Kenneth Glassman, Miami Beach Police chief from 1984 until 1990, disputes Pinder's allegation of an improper investigation. "I was asked at the initial press conference if it was possible that Kabakoff shot Pinder and I said, `Yes,'" counters Glassman. "There was never any attempt to cover anything up."
But the department was less than forthcoming. Weeks after the shooting, both officers told investigators that Kabakoff had pulled the trigger. Police also received a ballistics test proving Pinder was hit by a bullet from Kabakoff's gun. Yet three months after the incident, police still maintained to reporters that they couldn't say who fired the shot.
Police spokesmen said both Pinder and Kabakoff had received refresher training in how to prevent a suspect from snatching an officer's gun, but failed to disclose what a later Internal Affairs probe would reveal: that Kabakoff was more than six months overdue on her firearm recertification.
A press release dated January 8, announcing that Pinder had been named 1989 Officer of the Year, stated only that the sergeant had "sustained an accidental gunshot wound to the abdomen." By contrast, the statement placed in his personnel file that same day reveals that "Pinder was shot in the abdomen by officer Kabakoff." This past November the Miami Herald published an article about Cole's conviction, misidentifying him as the person who had shot Pinder.
In December of last year, an Internal Affairs investigation into Pinder's shooting of Cole - standard procedure when a cop shoots a civilian - cleared him of wrongdoing. But investigators never addressed the two officers' conflicting versions of the shooting. "Each one swears they're right. I know, I lived with this for two years," comments David Waksman, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted Cole. "And I don't think either is lying. They're just too traumatized to recall the events exactly as they happened."
Not so, says Pinder. He insists he was lucid throughout the struggle and notes the consistency throughout the statements he has given investigators. Indeed, one colleague who responded to his radio calls for back-up at the scene recalled that Pinder was "so cool and calm, I didn't even know he was shot." The only Pinder testimony contradicted by physical evidence is his claim that Cole shot at him once. Police say no casings from Cole's gun were found at the scene.
Kabakoff, on the other hand, seemed confused when she spoke to police eight days after the incident. At one point, for instance, she said she did not realize Pinder had been hit. Later she indicated she had shot Pinder accidentally, from "one to two feet away." She also was unaware that Pinder had shot Cole, though she was being held by Cole in a choke hold at the time.
Goaded by rumors of sloppy investigating and intentionally whitewashed reports, Pinder says he made several requests for an inquiry into how he was shot and was led to believe one would be initiated after Cole's trial. When the defendant finally pled guilty this past fall, and no further probe ensued, Pinder contacted attorney Mitrani. "Normally police shooting reports are fifteen to twenty pages long," he says. "Mine was two pages."
Former Chief Glassman maintains there was an inquiry as to what occurred - namely the Internal Affairs investigation that exonerated Pinder. "I just don't think it was to Pinder's satisfaction," Glassman says. "He was a victim of a terrible injury that day and it's understandable he has strong feelings."
But until lawyer Mitrani wrote city officials, the dispute between Pinder and Kabakoff - both seasoned pros whose personnel files are thick with glowing evaluations and commendation letters - was thought to hinge solely on the Cole affair. The letter in fact claims "the City has been deliberately indifferent to Kabakoff's history of panicking," and cites two more high-profile examples.
Mitriani's letter alleges that, during a 1985 shootout at the Doral Hotel that left four officers and one drug suspect wounded, Kabakoff "was seen fleeing in the opposite direction while other officers remained on the scene and returned fire." Kabakoff says that's baloney, that she rescued a fellow officer who'd been shot and lugged him back to safety.
The letter also claims Kabakoff panicked twice during the 1988 gun battle that preceded the murder of officer Scott Rakow. Kabakoff allegedly dove for safety in the midst of fray, exposing fellow officer Pat Ryan to fire, and later broke down on the scene. "That's a bunch of shit," scoffs the 43-year-old Kabakoff, who joined the force in 1975. "I ran back to the vehicle to get cover. Ryan was never exposed, he was out of the car at that point. And I never cried."
Pinder is also upset that Kabakoff was moved six months ago from a desk job, where she had worked since the Cole incident, to street patrol, despite his verbal and written warnings that she poses a threat to public safety.
"She's doing a good job, that's why she's out there," explains Major Rocco De Leo, the patrol commander who approved Kabakoff's return to street duty. "Having worked with her out on the street, I don't feel there are any grounds for this suit. She's handled herself very well in some very violent situations, situations that probably 99 percent of those in this department haven't had to face."
But Kabakoff's latest patrol stint has not been without controversy. Officer Lori Wander says she recommended to superiors that Kabakoff be returned to "an inside job" after she twice refused to get out of her car to help Wander question suspects. Wander, whose accusations are included in Mitrani's letter, says police investigators interviewed her last week about the incidents.
Mitrani's letter cites another recent instance in which a subject walked up to the front desk at the police department, told Kabakoff he had just shot someone, and handed her a gun. Kabakoff allegedly failed to search him for additional weapons and told him to sit in the corner. Lt. William Skinner, who witnessed the scene, refuses to comment about it, noting that the incident is currently under investigation.
Kabakoff herself characterizes all the claims as "ridiculous. I've been described as many things, but panicky is never one of them. We don't panic in Brooklyn," the borough native observes. "They can go through my records from the beginning of time with a fine-tooth comb and they won't find anything.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Miami New Times' biggest stories.