Slime and Schemes Simmer in Surfside
On March 2, 2004, a crisp spring morning around 9:00, Surfside Police Det. John Davis left the station in a blue Crown Victoria. Accompanied by a fellow officer and three agents from the Florida Department of Revenue, he headed for a four-bedroom, two-story house on a corner lot at 1116 88th St. It featured a back-yard vista of the Intracoastal Waterway.
The bald, heavy-set cop knocked on the wooden French doors leading to a lush courtyard. "Surfside Police," Davis called out. "We're here to execute a search warrant."
The owners, Daniel and Brigitte Degrave, a middle-age French couple who had come to Miami-Dade in 1998, waited on a patio bench beneath a tree while the revenue agents scoured their home and office.
"Why are you doing this to us?" Brigitte asked Davis.
"You're the subject of a criminal investigation," he replied.
"For what?" Daniel asked incredulously.
"The Florida Department of Revenue and the Town of Surfside believe you defrauded them of sales tax revenue," Davis explained.
Seven hours later, agents carted away financial statements, bank account information, business records, and computers belonging to the Degraves. Thus began a saga that would show this sleepy beachside community is a hotbed of police dissension and tax fraud; and it would raise the specter of international money laundering.
Forty-three-year-old John Davis was born and raised in Miami. He attended Christopher Columbus High School, where he starred on the varsity football team, and then left for college. He returned home in 1985 to follow in his father's footsteps. William "Bill" Davis was a Miami Beach detective who would later become Indian Creek Village's police chief.
John Davis was hired by the Miami Police Department in 1986, when it was reeling from the Miami River Cops scandal, in which more than 100 officers were arrested, fired, or disciplined. Seven months later he married Loretta Ann Kendrick. Soon they had a son and a daughter.
In three years at Miami PD, Davis received 13 commendations and was named officer of the month three times. But he wasn't the perfect cop. Davis was reprimanded on nine occasions for insubordinate behavior and minor disciplinary offenses between 1988 and 1989. For instance, in early June 1989, he was cited for allegedly taking four hours to respond to an incident and for showing up late for roll call.
On June 18, 1989, 33-year-old Jerome Jean-Pierre, who was convicted of a misdemeanor for obstructing a police officer in 1988, accused Davis of punching and kicking him, as well as slamming his head onto a patrol car. At the time, Davis was arresting Jean-Pierre for armed robbery. Two cops corroborated Jean-Pierre's story, but another said Davis only kicked the arrestee in response to an attack.
Prosecutors cleared Davis of criminal wrongdoing, but internal affairs investigators substantiated excessive force charges, so he was fired. An employee review board later examined the charges and changed the records to say Davis had quit.
In February 1993 Davis and his family decamped to Hannibal, Missouri. Then the couple separated. In an incident that would come back to haunt Davis at Surfside, his wife claimed he kidnapped their three-year-old son April 19, 1994, and that he was carrying a 9mm pistol. Police helped her recover the boy. Davis was not arrested.
Three months later, he and his wife reunited, and the clan returned to Miami. Over the next few years, he worked for six hotels, a rental car agency, a security guard company, and a homeowners association.
The whole time, he pined to return to law enforcement. The Miami Beach Police Department rejected him twice. The U.S. Border Patrol declined his application. The Drug Enforcement Agency also passed. But then, in March 2000, the tiny Biscayne Park Police Department hired him part-time. There he excelled.
Two years later, Surfside's then-Police Chief Lawrence Boemler gave Davis a full-time job. Soon he became one of the department's most efficient cops. In 2003, Davis was named the town's officer of the year after he played a lead role in tracking down Reginald Watkins, a 44-year-old heroin user who had robbed 10 banks in six cities (including Surfside).
The same year Davis discovered child pornography on a drug suspect's computer. Then the Secret Service designated the cop, along with 29 others from Miami-Dade and Broward, a special deputy U.S. marshal. He would become involved in a federal electronic crimes and fraud task force. It seemed the problems at the Miami Police Department and in his personal life were behind him.
In 2005, Davis was voted president of the Surfside police union. But the cop wasn't universally loved. Boemler sometimes used him to investigate fellow officers.
In one case, Davis confirmed that Surfside Ofcr. Ralph Castro, on his day off, got into a scuffle with a bouncer and an off-duty Miami Beach cop at Mango's bar on Ocean Drive. Davis also verified that shift supervisor Manuel Crawford, while on duty, had driven a drunk officer home. Castro was fired. Crawford, who passed away earlier this year, was busted down to an administrative position.
Before his death, Crawford befriended the man who turned the tables on Davis: the Degraves' longtime friend and one-time business partner Jay Senter.
On August 25, 2003, Davis was following up on a call about suspicious activity at 9525 Carlyle Ave. After arriving at the house, he spoke with Alain Guillerm, a French tourist, who said he and his family were renting the place for a week from Brigitte Degrave of Miami Rental Management Inc.
One week later Boemler instructed Davis to investigate the Degraves' real estate transactions in Surfside. According to Davis's investigative report: "The concern of Chief Boemler was that possible criminal activity was taking place with the number of homes purchased by the Degraves within the jurisdiction."
Davis learned the Degraves bought their Surfside home on the Intracoastal in 1999 for $335,000. (Today the property is worth at least $1.9 million, according to the county appraiser's Website). Davis also discovered the couple had purchased 14 properties in Surfside between 2000 and 2003, flipping seven houses for a combined $725,000 profit during the same period.
"They sold some of the homes to French investors who never stepped into the U.S.," Davis explains during an interview with New Times. "Then the Degraves would manage the assets for them."
The Degraves were renting out five of the locations as week-long vacation villas through Miami Rental Management and Morgansoft Inc. Both list Brigitte Degrave as the sole corporate officer.
On November 4, 2003, posing as a tourist, Davis rented the house at 9525 Carlyle Ave. for one week. He checked out on November 10, paying $3642.50. "When I reviewed the receipts, I saw they charged me 13 percent sales tax," Davis says. "So I called the Florida Department of Revenue. They had never heard of [the Degraves'] companies.... I suspected the Degraves weren't paying their taxes."
Four months later, state revenue investigators Philip Christian and Edward Tetterton met with Davis and Boemler at the Surfside Police station, where they decided to move forward with a criminal investigation into the Degraves. In a December 12, 2006 memo to Surfside Police Chief David Allen, Davis wrote, "With regards to the possible money laundering case of approximately $7.5 million by the Degraves' shell companies ... that case has been presented by me to ICE.... Due to an investigative conflict, [it] will be forwarded away from my team."
Then came the March 2, 2004 search of the Degraves' home by Davis and state revenue agents. The officers seized the couple's computers and every document related to their real estate business and two companies. Information about the Degraves' 15 personal and business bank accounts was also subpoenaed.
After reviewing the records, the state investigators determined that Morgansoft and Miami Rental Management produced $501,347.39 in sales revenue from August 2000 to March 2004. According to a Florida Department of Revenue investigative report, the Degraves failed to pay $34,408.18 in state sales tax and $26,359.45 in resort tax money to Surfside.
As the only corporate officer for both companies, Brigitte Degrave faced a felony count of grand theft, says Bill Kostrzewski, the Miami-Dade assistant state attorney assigned to the case. Instead Kostrzewski offered a deal in which she avoided jail by pleading guilty on behalf of Morgansoft — and paying the state $45,000. She accepted. (Surfside didn't require anything of the Degraves.)
"The goal was to recoup the money," the prosecutor says. "I believe the plea deal was a fair way to resolve it." Kostrzewski adds he never detected a personal bias from Davis against the Degraves: "John is an intense guy. Whether it's a small or big case, he will see it to the end."
There might have been more to the Degraves' affairs. In a December 2, 2004 memo to his supervisor, Kostrzewski wrote, "It appears that the 13 or so Degraves properties were bought using illegal funds or funds illegally transported from France. The French have begun an investigation."
Moreover the state revenue report revealed the Degraves had deposited $7.5 million, about a third through foreign wire transfers, into their bank accounts between 2000 and 2004. During the same 43-month period, the Degraves had withdrawn $7.4 million. "Analysis of the bank accounts and corporations run by the Degraves shows monies coming in and going out immediately, without an apparent business purpose, indicating possible money laundering," Kostrzewski wrote. "IRS and the ICE Task Force has been notified."
As the state case neared conclusion in late 2006, Davis was detached to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement task force. According to an April 26, 2007 memo he wrote to Chief Allen, Davis provided his ICE supervisor, Debbie Morrissey, with a copy of the state revenue report. He claimed the agency had opened a criminal probe into the Degraves.
Morrissey declined to comment for this article. The Degraves' criminal defense attorney, Robert Amsel, says neither federal investigators nor prosecutors have contacted him about his clients in the past three years. "I am not aware of any federal investigation into the Degraves," Amsel says. "Nor have I seen any sign of one."
Davis says he also wanted to find out more about the Degraves' friend and business associate Jay Senter: "I also identified him as a possible target because one of the bank accounts [mentioned in the state revenue report] was for the company he and the Degraves were partners in."
Surfside Town Commission meetings are tame affairs, generally dominated by discussions about garbage rates and illegal home conversions. But this past August 13, a tall, slim middle-age man with penetrating blue eyes and close-cropped gray hair approached the podium. "My name is Jay Frederick Senter, and I am not going to give my address," he said. "You know I lived here for almost three years. I voted here. I am not living here anymore out of fear. In fact I was advised by the former police chief not to live here."
The object of Senter's fear? Davis. For the past three years, ever since the Degraves search, Senter has waged a campaign to remove the burly cop from the town's police force. And he has allies: Surfside Mayor Charles Burkett and Town Manager W.D. Higginbotham.
On August 22 New Times met Senter at his hideout. It is a one-bedroom unit on the 10th floor of a North Miami condo building with a stunning view of Bay Harbor Islands, Bal Harbour, Surfside, and Miami Beach. On his glass-top dining table, Senter laid out several piles of documents that portray Davis in a negative light, including copies of his Miami PD disciplinary files; portions of Davis's Surfside background questionnaire, in which he supposedly lied about past transgressions; and recent internal affairs reports that conclude Davis is a bad cop.
Senter is a New York native who moved to California in the late Seventies to begin a career as a music publisher and producer. He even had a production credit on Helen Reddy's hit "I Am Woman."
In 1997 Senter and his French-born wife, Eva, moved into the Palm Bay Club, a condominium in Miami. There he met the Degraves. Soon he partnered with the French couple in a firm called Atlantic American Trust Inc., which was dissolved in 2001, according to state corporate records. "We enjoyed a brief, successful business partnership," Senter says. "When I divorced my wife, we went our separate ways but still maintained our friendship."
When the Degraves moved to Surfside, Senter says, he would drive across the causeway to visit them. In September 2003, he began provoking town officials by openly disobeying a law that prohibits people from feeding feral cats on the beach. Senter's love for felines is no secret. He has three cats — Dickens, Smokie, and Layla — the last a black-and-white kitty Senter rescued off Surfside's sand dunes. "Since I did not live in Surfside," Senter attests, "town officials called me an outside agitator."
Senter and two other cat activists were cited nine times at $100 a pop by the town's code enforcement officers. He challenged the citations, and Surfside spent at least $15,000 on Miami law firm Adorno & Yoss to fight him in April 2004. The town eventually forgave Senter's debt.
Around the same time, Senter decided to help the Degraves fight both the criminal charges and the town's efforts to shut down their rental business. "The only way I was going to help Dan and Brigitte was to be there," Senter says. "I had to be there so I could talk to people at town hall and get information."
Among the city employees Senter befriended was Lt. Manuel Crawford, whom Davis had once investigated. A framed photograph of Crawford in uniform sits on Senter's fireplace mantle. "Manny never gave me a piece of information, but he encouraged me to dig into Davis," Senter says. "So I did."
Senter claims Davis has been lying for years. "He says he was allowed to resign from the Miami Police Department," Senter seethes. "But in fact he was fired. He says he has never been detained, but in 1994 he was pulled over and searched by six cops for kidnapping his son."
In mid-2005 Senter found an ally in Charles Burkett, who was gearing up for a 2006 mayoral run. Initially Burkett was reluctant to meet with him and the Degraves, Senter says. "Charles thought they were bad people," he says. "Eventually I wore him down. I showed him how Dan and Brigitte had been wronged by Davis and the previous town administration."
During town commission meetings prior to the 2006 election, Senter, Burkett, and Howard Weinberg, the town's vice mayor, who was part of Burkett's 2006 slate, often took the podium to accuse town officials, including Davis, of wrongdoing.
Burkett calls Senter a "virtuous" person and an "agent of change." He adds, "Mr. Davis ran the department. By most every account I have ever heard, it functioned mostly through intimidation and fear. I was very concerned about his relationship to all that had been going on and was also concerned about what his potential was for coming after all of us."
Shortly after assuming power, Burkett appointed Senter chairman of the town's personnel appeals board. A month later, the new chairman filed a formal complaint with then-Police Chief Shawn O'Reilly. He alleged Davis had fudged some facts on his job application and claimed overtime he hadn't worked. O'Reilly forwarded Senter's complaint to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which cleared Davis.
Yet things got progressively worse for the cop.
On August 28, 2006, an officer named Woodward Brooks made a blockbuster allegation: Davis had asked for help in planting drugs on Senter and trapping Vice Mayor Weinberg on a DUI.
A few days later Davis and Brooks were ordered to turn in their badges, guns, ID cards, and keys and were placed on administrative leave with pay. Over the next year, the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office and the Miami-Dade Police Department investigated Brooks's claims and other alleged misdeeds Davis committed. The town also contracted Robert Franklin, a private investigator who had conducted internal probes for the Bal Harbour Police Department, to review the officer's work. The reports state that Davis:
• was "not serious" about setting up Senter and Weinberg, according to a State Attorney's Office memo declining to charge Davis with a crime.
• might have violated Surfside's sexual harassment policy by telling police dispatcher Marian Valino she needed "a real man like him" and making other inappropriate comments.
• lied on his job background questionnaire several times, including when he answered "none" to a question asking him if he had ever been arrested, stopped, or temporarily detained by a police department.
• used the town's computers and his take-home car for personal use.
• made "unwelcome personal advances of a sexual nature" to Melanie Grove, a Miccosukee Police officer who had been dismissed by Surfside in 2005.
In conclusion, Franklin — who was paid $35,000 — commented, "Davis's credibility inevitably must be called into question."
Of course Davis's boss, Chief O'Reilly, had a credibility problem too. In March he retired after 15 years on the force to avoid being fired for reasons including lying about using his town computer to access his personal Yahoo account.
After reviewing the complaints, the new Surfside chief, David Allen, on August 19 stripped Davis of his sergeant stripes and cut his $73,340 annual salary by $16,000; then, several weeks later, Allen recommended firing him. Questioned about the decision, the new chief notes that Davis had been reprimanded four times in the past year for discourtesy to fellow officers and insubordination. "Every allegation against Davis came from police officers and employees here," Allen continues. "The investigations speak for themselves."
John Davis is dressed in a dark navy suit just before noon September 13. He and his union representative, Joe Puleo, are standing in the parking lot across the street from Surfside Town Hall. The two men have just left an hour-long meeting discussing Chief Allen's recommendation that Davis be terminated.
Puleo, a scruffy and boisterous man, lights a cigar and takes a puff. "They are totally frustrated," he says of the town officials. "That meeting was a joke."
Puleo says Franklin's reports are filled with inaccuracies and unsubstantiated innuendo. "They want to make a case where it doesn't exist," he says. "We have even offered to take a polygraph. It is so obvious they are going after him."
Their motivation, Davis claims, is his recommendation that federal prosecutors look into the town's political leaders' misdeeds. Those leaders, he says, encouraged the complaints against him. He claims he never sexually harassed Grove or Valino, nor did he lie on his job application. Davis does not deny accessing his personal e-mail account and typing instant messages to female friends on his town-issued computer.
"I'll admit I'm a hard-ass, and I was tough with some of my colleagues," Davis says. "But I never acted inappropriately with female co-workers.
"It's no coincidence all these complaints were filed after Burkett came to power and he put Senter on the personnel appeals board," he adds.
Responds Burkett: "Mr. Davis's assertion that he was targeted by me is very misplaced.... My job as mayor was to recognize that our police department was broken and that we needed new and effective leadership to fix it. That was my goal, and that's what got done."
The Degraves, meanwhile, are no longer together. This past June 22, they divorced. Daniel lives at the house on 88th Street, and Brigitte moved into one of their other remaining properties, a three-bedroom home at 8927 Garland Ave.
Daniel Degrave, a handsome Frenchman with blondish-white hair, says their lives were completely destroyed. "My wife left me because of this mess," he says during a recent meeting in his living room. "She couldn't take it. We lost everything."
He insists they are not criminals — despite the claims in Kostrzewski's 2004 memo. "After three, four years, they found nothing," Degrave says. "What proof do they have? None. There is no price on what I have lost."
Davis simply wants to return to work. "I really don't care who the mayor is, who the police chief is, who the town manager is," he says. "I just want to enforce the law without passion or prejudice."
In Surfside that seems unlikely to happen.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.