Phone Frenzy

What would you do if a stranger called you constantly, ringing you up as often as once every eighteen seconds, calling as late as 1:45 in the morning? What would you do if that caller were a cop?

A troubled seventeen-year-old runaway from Bay Harbor Islands recently found himself in this odd and oddly creepy conundrum. His pursuer, a lieutenant once nominated for officer of the year in this posh, normally quiet community, claimed he was just trying to get the boy to turn himself in, to go back home. An internal investigator didn't buy that explanation.

Uber-wealthy yet low-key, Bay Harbor Islands (population: 5093) is the Nicky Hilton to nearby glitzy Bal Harbour's Paris Hilton. The median income is one of the highest in the state, and the crime rate is one of the lowest. Among the slogans being considered for the 60-year-old town: "Calm Waters, Bright Skies" and "A Tropical Oasis."

With a flawless record during his more than six years on the beat here, Lt. Curtis Johnson, age 41, was considered one of the department's best cops. That was until last spring. What began with a simple missing person's report — a father concerned about his runaway son — quickly spiraled into something entirely different.

On April 4, a day after reporting his son missing, the father filed a complaint claiming the boy had sent him a threatening text message (prosecutors elected not to pursue the case). There had been a spat, something about the boy's relationship with an older woman, according to one officer familiar with the family. Soon after he ran away, the boy had used his cell phone to send home a text message: "You son of a bitch, if you bother Fernanda and me, I will kill you." Johnson wrote up the initial report. The charge was listed as "harassing/threatening telephone calls." Irony was around the corner.

That evening, Johnson began making calls to the boy from a phone in police department headquarters, according to phone records obtained by internal investigator Assistant Chief Duncan Young. With the speaker on, Johnson rang the boy repeatedly using speed dial, other officers told Young. He called 32 times in four hours. The calls resumed the following day around 3:45 in the afternoon. Johnson called the boy 31 times during the next eight hours, making nine of the calls after his shift ended at 11:30 p.m. He made one last call around 1:45 the following morning, bringing the total to 64 calls in less than 31 hours.

Johnson has said he reached the boy a "few" times, urging him to turn himself in, but declined to comment for this story. Police withheld the boy's name because he is a minor, and the father's name because it would reveal the boy's identity.

The scope of Johnson's calling frenzy came to light when John Robertazzi, the detective assigned to the runaway case, learned what the lieutenant was doing. Walking through the office April 5, Robertazzi heard the boy on the speaker phone saying, among other things, "Leave me alone," "Get a life," and "Don't you have anything better to do?" Johnson was laughing and "appeared to be amused by what he was doing," Robertazzi later testified in a written statement. Robertazzi told Johnson to knock it off and said he was making it unlikely the boy would ever cooperate. Sgt. Joseph Locke told Young he, too, had seen Johnson making calls and had heard the boy's voice on the speaker. Johnson was laughing as he made the calls, Locke said. When asked whether he was calling the runaway, Johnson said yes, according to Locke, and that he was "messing" with the boy and "rang the kid all night."

Dispatcher Anthony Zebrowski and Ofcr. James Fierro offered a somewhat different account. Zebrowski said he hadn't heard or seen Johnson making any calls on either of the days in question. Fierro said he had seen Johnson making calls but didn't know what they were about and that Johnson's demeanor had appeared "professional."

Johnson didn't exactly exonerate himself when, on July 17, he stood in the doorway of Young's office with his head hanging down. "I could kick myself," Johnson said, according to Young. "It was a stupid thing to do."

Later that day, with Dade County PBA attorney Brendan Coyle at his side, Johnson met with Young for questioning. He admitted to the calls but said he couldn't remember how many he had made, only that they were "numerous." He emphasized his intent had been "to try to get [the boy] to come in, to get him out of the system as a reported runaway juvenile." Asked whether he had said anything to the effect of "messing" or "fucking" with the boy, Johnson pleaded a lack of memory. Young's report of his interview with Johnson concludes dryly: "When asked if this method of making calls seemed normal, Lieutenant Johnson replied, öNo, sir.'"

Coyle could not be reached for comment.

In a scathing memo sent after the interview, Young said it was clear Johnson had "intended to annoy and harass" the boy, calling the lieutenant's actions "shocking" and "appalling." Young recommended that Johnson be fired.

Instead Bay Harbor Islands Police Chief John Ross suspended Johnson without pay for the week of September 11-15. Ross, a 29-year veteran of the Miami Police Department, described the series of events as "unfortunate" but also defended Johnson. "I can only say he's a hands-on guy. I think he was trying to solve a problem."

Ross said he had chosen to keep Johnson on the force in light of his otherwise unblemished record. He suggested that docking Johnson's pay was a punishment harsher than any court would have meted out (the boy has not pressed charges). "If you think about it, he's been fined about $1500," Ross said.

Although the boy had been relatively cooperative with police during previous runaway attempts, according to Robertazzi, he no longer responded to the detective in the weeks after Johnson's calls. Police found the boy in Miami Beach shortly after the internal investigation wrapped up, according to Chief Ross, returning him to his parents and bringing the case to a close.

A few days later, the boy ran away again.