Omar Corzo admits the allegations in his federal civil rights lawsuit are incredible, even by Hialeah standards. He and his wife Carmen, residents of Dade County's second-largest municipality, accuse a Hialeah city councilwoman and the town's police chief of using their political might to orchestrate a five-year campaign of harassment and intimidation against the Corzo family.
The Corzos claim that Councilwoman Carmen Caldwell, who is also Citizens Crime Watch coordinator for the Hialeah Police Department, used a "Mafia" or "inner circle" of police officers to assist her in a vendetta against the family. They allege Caldwell was permitted by Chief of Police Rolando Bola*os to, in effect, "impersonate a police officer" and to use neighborhood Crime Watch meetings as "tools of political terror." Among specific charges: Caldwell had improper access to police records and criminal background information which she used to intimidate her enemies; she personally handcuffed Omar Corzo and ordered his arrest in 1990; she repeatedly and publicly accused the Corzos of being involved in drugs and prostitution; she told police officers to watch the Corzos' house and "make their lives impossible" and caused them to be subjected to unusually frequent inspections by city officials.
"I know everybody will try to figure out why would I say something like this," acknowledges 33-year-old Omar Corzo, a self-employed jack-of-all-trades. "Why did Carmen Caldwell get involved with something like this? Why did Mr. Bolanos get involved? Don't ask me, because I don't know!"
Caldwell, who is campaigning for re-election to a second term in November, and Bolanos flatly deny the charges and assert the legal action is merely an attack on them and the current city administration launched by their political enemies, several of whom have given depositions in support of the plaintiffs. Those depositions come from Julio Martinez, former acting mayor of Hialeah; Councilman Guy Sanchez; State Rep. Rudy Garcia; and former acting police chief Raleigh Jordan. The lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages and names the City of Hialeah in addition to Caldwell and Bolanos, was filed in November 1993. After numerous postponements, it is scheduled to go to trial June 12 in the courtroom of U.S. District Judge Wilkie Ferguson, if a defense motion for summary judgment is not granted. A ruling on that motion is expected any day.
The case has shed unaccustomed light on an intense but quiet controversy surrounding the 47-year-old Caldwell. After serving for years as Crime Watch coordinator (primarily in an unpaid capacity, as she does now), Caldwell was elected to the Hialeah council in 1991. She has received countywide awards for her work with Crime Watch; police officers managed and worked on her campaign. Some of those officers now say Caldwell has overstepped her authority. "She started thinking she had police power," says one officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "She went from concerned citizen to frustrated cop. It's time she was stopped."
Others argue that Caldwell's only offense is that she spent too much of her time on police matters and in the process became enmeshed in the department's internal politics. "I think she's got more sense than to be handcuffing people and things like that," says an officer who scoffs at the Corzos' allegations. "She's made some enemies, but we'll see during election time how many cops stand out and hand out leaflets and work for her. I know I'll be one."
The Corzos' problem dates back to 1989, when their next-door neighbors tried to cut down a black olive tree in the Corzos' yard because its limbs were dropping leaves on their car. The neighbors, Jose Ojeda and his family, are friends of Caldwell. There followed verbal altercations and frequent calls to the police by both families. The Corzos say they could hear Caldwell and their neighbors denouncing them at Crime Watch meetings held next door or across the street. Omar Corzo accused Ojeda's son of hitting him in the head with a brick and of attempting to run him over. (The Dade State Attorney's Office declined to prosecute in either case.) The Ojedas obtained at least one court injunction forbidding any contact between the Corzos and their family. Meanwhile, complaints about the Corzos seemed to be flooding the police department and other local agencies. After several anonymous calls in 1993 to the city's Building and Zoning and Code Enforcement units, the family began to receive visits from inspectors who were checking into complaints that the Corzos were violating setback requirements -- not to mention "raising pigs," according to one official city citation, and "raising mosquitoes," according to another.
Omar and Carmen Corzo and their thirteen-year-old daughter swear that Carmen Caldwell herself handcuffed Omar one August evening in 1990 after a Crime Watch meeting at the Ojedas'. The police report about that evening's incident indicates that an officer who had attended the meeting stopped Corzo, who had just pulled up to his house in a 1978 Oldsmobile with a cracked taillight. When a computer check revealed that Corzo's driver's license was suspended, he was arrested. The Corzos protest that the report can't be accurate because the car had been towed to their home after being stolen and stripped; it wasn't even drivable, they say.
Omar Corzo complained to then-Mayor Julio Martinez, but the mayor responded that he had no leverage with the police department and suggested the Corzos go directly to Chief Bolanos. (Martinez, who was engaged in a bitter feud with Bolanos during his term, admits in his deposition that he had "lost control" of the police department and that efforts on his part to curtail Caldwell's police-related activities were thwarted by the chief.)
The Corzos and their four children trooped to the chief's office for an emotional meeting in November 1990. Accounts of the meeting differ, although both Omar Corzo and one officer who was present agree that Corzo and the officer wept. The Corzos contend that Bola*os told them they were being investigated for involvement in drugs and prostitution as a result of information gathered by Caldwell. The chief denies saying any such thing. The outcome of the meeting did seem to promise better times ahead, though: The Corzos were assured the police would not take sides, and a departmentwide memo was issued urging impartial conduct by any officers dispatched to the neighborhood.
But according to the Corzos, that didn't put a stop to the harassment from neighbors or from Caldwell herself. The Corzos sought help from numerous agencies, including the FBI, the Dade State Attorney's Office, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (regarding the zoning complaints). No one believed them. They met with politically active local citizens who had beefs with city government. They contemplated taking legal action, but visited at least twenty lawyers over the course of several months before Alexander Kapetanakis, a Miami criminal defense attorney, agreed to take the case on a contingency basis.
Kapetanakis says he didn't believe the Corzos until after he'd had a private investigator make some inquiries. "If what they were saying was true, it was very scary," the lawyer says. "If it wasn't true, they were out of their heads." After two weeks, during which the investigator spoke with several police officers and others who claimed to have witnessed questionable behavior by Caldwell, Kapetanakis decided to back the Corzos.
"This isn't like a normal civil rights case," he says. "This is a political case. There's not a lot of case law where the aspect of civil rights is invoked to defend against politicians' abuse of power."
University of Miami law professor Donald Jones, a constitutional scholar who hasn't read the Corzo lawsuit, agrees it appears unusual for a federal action, partly because the alleged reasons for violation of civil rights don't fall under normal categories of equal protection, such as sex or race. Jones thinks the case is probably sound under the Constitution's due-process provisions, which, as he puts it, forbid using political power "to abuse an individual you don't like." But, adds the professor, "This is local politics at its worst. You've got all these hornets running around trying to kick the hornets' nest into federal court, God help them."
Councilman Guy Sanchez, who is a member of a council minority that generally opposes policies of the administration and who has supported Raul Martinez's perennial mayoral opponent Nilo Juri, has aligned himself with Julio Martinez behind the Corzos. In his deposition, Sanchez asserts that he, too, has been a victim of defamation efforts by Caldwell. In one instance several years ago, he alleges, his boss at the time confided that Caldwell had urged him to fire Sanchez because she'd learned he suffered from mental problems, had a criminal record, and was a homosexual -- all of which he says are false. She made the same comments to several police officers, Sanchez states, during his 1993 election campaign. Sanchez also testified that he has witnessed Caldwell giving orders to police officers.
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Caldwell denies that she has ever given orders to or intimidated police officers, or that she made any of the statements Sanchez attributes to her. "The whole thing has been a vendetta against the chief and me. Look at when this started: when politics was at its height, right before the 1993 elections, at the same time there was a war between the chief and Julio Martinez."
A former Florida Department of Law Enforcement bureau chief in Miami, Bolanos was installed as chief by Raul Martinez in 1987. There's nothing improper about Caldwell's use of a police radio or her access to public information contained on police computers, the chief insists. Further, he has never seen any indication she has abused her access to the police department nor the forum of Crime Watch neighborhood meetings. "I accept total responsibility for her actions," he concludes.
"[The defendants] want to make this a political thing," counters Omar Corzo, "but we're not going to let them get away with it in court. This is something that nobody should have had to go through. You have no idea how impotent you feel, like you're going to die."
Caldwell is equally confident she'll be vindicated. "The mental anguish alone they have put me through has been horrendous," she stresses. "How do you defend yourself from lies when [the plaintiffs] only interview people who have something against the police and the administration? I'll have my day in court. My whole philosophy has been that the truth will set you free.