Last week the Golden Beach Town Council voted to hire a new police chief -- Greg Feldman, from the South Miami Police Department. He'll be the fourth in three years, not including current stopgap chief Bobby Cheatham. I wish Feldman luck. He's going to need it. The last chief in Golden Beach scrammed after only eight months. The previous chief was fired. The one before that -- forced out.
I know this luxe little town by the sea, with its multimillion-dollar homes and celebrity residents (Eric Clapton lived there while working on his album 461 Ocean Boulevard, and fashion photographer Bruce Weber is around a lot) is proud to have its own eighteen-man PD. But really, given the near-total departmental meltdown that's gone on recently, the council should think about taking the cops' guns away before someone gets hurt. At least confiscate the bullets.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the place. But somehow this speck of pricey beachfront became a naturally occurring petri dish of unchecked power. It seems it was random, like the relentless confluence of cars trapping you without warning on the Dolphin Expressway....
Let's recap. The police department's been topsy-turvy ever since Town Manager James Vardalis charted a collision course in 2002 by proposing that his job and the police chief's position be combined: He volunteers for the role. Shortly afterward a young officer named Michelle Santinello accuses a corporal of sexually harassing her. She also says the chief at the time, Robert Nieman, knew about the situation and did nothing. Nieman calls Santinello an out-and-out liar. Vardalis, nonetheless, uses that opportunity to bounce both men. (Santinello, as great an accuser as Madame Defarge in A Tale of Two Cities, made accusations against a handful of other town workers too, but let's just stick to the cops.)
Enter Lisette Nogues, a neurologist, and Santinello's mother. She hears about the havoc in Golden Beach and sends a letter explaining that her daughter is "psychiatrically disturbed with a sociopathic personality disorder ... who has a history of chronic and serial lying and making false accusations." She shouldn't carry a weapon, Mom says, and adds that her daughter's "pathological need for attention is behind the recent accusations leveled at some in the Golden Beach Police Department."
Nogues is determined to keep her daughter from a life in law enforcement. When the Town of Davie Police Department, in Broward County, hires Santinello in 1996, Nogues urges them to examine her background. Davie ends up firing Santinello for lying on her application. Santinello confesses she misrepresented things to keep her mother out of her life. But the tactic also successfully kept past evidence of emotional and psychiatric problems from turning off her employers.
The root of this interfamilial squabble dates back to the early 1990s, when mother and daughter famously locked horns. Santinello accused her stepfather of molesting her teenage sister and sought custody of her siblings. It turned into one of the longest and ugliest family court cases in Dade County history. Eventually the parents prevailed when the alleged teenage victim recanted, and said Santinello coached her during the proceedings. (In an end twist, years later, the victim recanted her recantation.)
All of this, of course, is tabloid fodder for newspapers. Back in December, I wrote a story for New Times about Santinello ("Officer Trouble," December 12, 2002). In it, cantankerous Golden Beach councilman Stanley Feinman, a retired dentist, demanded the police department investigate Santinello's background to see if she was mentally fit for the job. He also wanted to know if she lied on her Golden Beach police application.
A week later, on December 18, three Golden Beach officers, including Santinello's husband Leo, arrested Feinman while he was sick in bed with a cold. They hauled him to jail in his pajamas, as if he were Dillinger.... His sin? Weeks earlier, Feinman argued with some town workers about public records, then brushed past one of them as he angrily left town hall. Because of that, he was charged with battery! The complainant, Nina Birnbach, told police that Feinman "shouldered into my right side and struck me in my right arm as he pushed past." For this Feinman spent nearly ten hours in jail -- battery and disorderly conduct. (The "troublemaker" was out of town and unavailable for comment.) No doubt about it, Feinman's been a pain in the town's ass for a while, frequently on public record issues. But battery?
The officer who penned the report, John Retureta, wrote that when he entered Feinman's house he smelled "marijuana," and that Feinman acted as if he was under the influence of some narcotic. But no wacky tobacky was found, and Feinman was never tested for drugs (he said he had incense burning). It seemed odd to try to "document" this unproven charge. The report also highlighted Retureta's dismal clerical skills: He misspelled several words, including "cannibis" for cannabis and "order" for odor, and he mistakenly marked the charge as a felony, not a misdemeanor -- which it would have been if proved guilty.
Well, if anybody would know about drug use, it might seem to be Officer Retureta. A week after he arrested Feinman, the department fired him when a drug screening found an "illegal" substance in his system -- allegedly cocaine, of all things.
A month after that, police Chief Roy Hudson quit only eight months into the job. He had no other work lined up. He was publicly reticent about his reasons, but rumors were that Golden Beach was just too screwy for him. Then Vardalis quit to take the manager's job in North Bay Village.
What was happening? Fleeing management. Rogue cops. Jailed reformers. Suddenly sedate Golden Beach was rocking like a jungle government enduring a putsch.
But alas, thrill junkies, there are signs a clean-up phase has begun. On May 2 the town grabbed Bobby Cheatham, former second-in command in the Miami PD, out of retirement to bring some order to the place. He's only temporary. Not interested in a permanent slot. So the council hired South Miami's Feldman (who couldn't be reached).
On May 14 the State Attorney's Office finally dropped the charges against Feinman. A closeout memo from prosecutor Robert Whittel noted: "I decided not to file an information charging Dr. Feinman with Battery. The victim and witness were blocking Dr. Feinman in a hallway; I was not convinced Dr. Feinman intentionally struck the defendant." Although Whittel did defend the cops by stating: "There is no doubt in my mind they believed there was probable cause to arrest Feinman." For causing a commotion at town hall and bumping into somebody? Sounds to me like an attempt to protect the cops from a wrongful arrest lawsuit.
"This case should never have been filed in the first place," scoffs Sam Rabin, Feinman's lawyer. "There was never a crime! This was small-town politicians and small-town police officers trying to create a crime." He adds that for such a small place, Golden Beach seems to have an inordinate number of calamities.
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The town is also responding to Feinman's inquiries about Santinello. "Based on continuing concerns about Corporal Santinello's background, there may be a new review by Chief Cheatham, per the instructions of the mayor," says interim Town Manager Lisa Aronson.
Feinman, meanwhile, has opted out of public life. This past February his term on the council expired.
He did not run for re-election.