Six days before Christmas 1998, a prostitute named Tamika found herself in the back of a Miami police squad car in west Little Havana. At the wheel was an all-too-familiar cop. A month earlier, Tamika had watched as 29-year-old Officer Omar Paez had detained another prostitute and, instead of arresting her, had fondled her breasts and vaginal area.
Soon, Paez took Tamika to what he would later admit was his favorite spot for sex: a secluded part of the Ransom Everglades Middle School campus in Coconut Grove. There, he told her to take off her clothes, turn around, and "spread her buttocks open," according to an internal affairs investigation. He tried to sodomize her but was unsuccessful. Instead, he made her give him oral sex. He then wiped his penis with some Wendy's napkins and threw them to the ground.
Tamika went straight to the nearest police station. Investigators found the napkins, and the semen matched Paez's DNA. The officer was fired in 1999, but because of the "credibility issues" surrounding a criminal case where the main witness was a prostitute, prosecutors didn't press charges.
During nine years on the Miami force, Paez had racked up six citizen complaints of abuse — allegedly smashing a female suspect's head against a patrol car in 1994 and grabbing the back of a male suspect's head and slamming it against the ground in 1997. Each time, it was his word against the complainants', and internal affairs had cleared him or found the evidence "inconclusive."
Then, in 2008, Paez — who didn't respond to two phone messages seeking comment — snagged another policing job in the tiny, wealthy hamlet of Golden Beach. Three years later, he found trouble again when state authorities nailed him for defrauding taxpayers in an alleged scheme involving off-duty work.
Stunningly, Golden Beach — whose homeowners or regular vacationers have included Ricky Martin, Bill Gates, and Paul Newman — hasn't suspended Paez. The town has allowed him to keep his badge, gun, and $46,787 annual salary while awaiting trial. Though he's confined to desk duty, he still receives an unmarked police car to take home. The same goes for one of Paez's codefendants, Yovany Diaz. Another Golden Beach officer, Roberto Barrio, was also allowed to remain on duty while he awaited trial for felony battery and false imprisonment charges. He was finally fired only after being convicted in 2010.
Paez and his fellow officers' penchant for professional rebirth is emblematic of a huge problem in Florida. Trouble cops who shouldn't have badges invariably find employment in small departments where the pay is more modest and hiring procedures are lax.
Golden Beach Mayor Glenn Singer blames former police chief James Skinner, who resigned last May, for bringing on Paez and other bad officers. "Our hiring policies have changed dramatically," the mayor says. "They probably would not have been hired today."
As for why Paez and Diaz are allowed to remain on duty despite the felony charges: "The total value [of defrauded public money] is less than a thousand dollars," Singer says. "The state has not given sufficient evidence to terminate these officers with cause. Believe me, if money was taken from Golden Beach, they will be suspended without pay or terminated."
The mayor's figures are off: According to the State Attorney's Office, the three officers' thefts cost taxpayers closer to $4,800 in bogus wages.
It's ironic that such accused or convicted criminals patrol a cloistered town — population at last count: 921 — obsessed with safety. In 1981, seven years after Eric Clapton named an album 461 Ocean Boulevard after his favorite getaway there, Golden Beach sealed all entrances except one. They manned the front gate with a guard. The Associated Press explained that "the idea is to keep out criminals, curious tourists from nearby hotels, and any Haitian refugees who might land at this Northeastern Dade beach in their flight from poverty."
If you've ever taken the scenic route to Broward County, you've likely passed through Golden Beach. About 25,000 cars per day traverse its 1.3 miles of Collins Avenue. Shiny police SUVs line the only public street, giving the place a totalitarian motif. One officer, Robert Ruggiero, recently made news when he threatened a resident for filming him. "I promise you, I will arrest you for a felony," he told an amateur videographer last September. But it's not illegal to videotape cops in Florida, and with a tarnished on-duty record, Ruggiero probably shouldn't have a badge anyway. In 2001, as an officer for Miami Dade County Public Schools Police, he admitted to punching a handcuffed high-schooler in the mouth, drawing blood. He resigned from the schools police force but kept his state certification. The officer, by the way, has also worked for the Pahokee, Center Hill, and North Miami departments.
Until he resigned last May after the three arrests of his officers, Golden Beach PD's Chief Skinner was best known for accidentally discharging his weapon — twice — as chief of the Coral Gables force. He first shot a locker in a Kendall L.A. Fitness. Then he capped a toilet in a police station bathroom. He resigned from Coral Gables in 2003 in the wake of the second shooting.
Overseeing this Police Academy-esque circus: Town Manager Alexander Diaz. In 2009, this municipal luminary demanded of an officer who pulled him over for drunk driving: "You don't know who I am? I am the city manager, bitch!"
When ten-year police veteran Tammy Valdes joined the force in September 2008, she expected to retire in the sleepy burg where a typical dispatch has an officer chasing down a lost pooch. Instead, she found herself exposing an embezzlement scheme involving fellow officers. "It's a white-glove community," she says, "but the people who live there don't know what's going on."
Outspoken and incongruously glamorous for a cop, Valdes issued complaints that led to the FDLE investigation of her former department. She claims she was fired for busting down the blue wall of silence, and in February 2010 filed a still-ongoing lawsuit.
Soon after being hired, she was given a job in officer payroll, which is where the trouble began. Time sheets belonging to a cop named Lynn Dean Peters "were a mess," she says. The hours didn't add up, and she suspected he was collecting town pay for time he was actually working an off-duty job at a construction site.
She first went to Capt. Joseph Barasoain. "He said, 'Don't worry; I'll take care of it,'" Valdes says. "He blew it off."
So on November 20 and November 23, 2009, Valdes says, she met with human resources director Lissette Perez and Town Manager Diaz separately about her concerns. On November 30, she was fired. The cause, according to her personnel file: She violated "chain of command" by carbon-copying superiors on an email to a fellow officer.
Valdes says a letter to Mayor Singer, warning him of criminal activity in the police department, was ignored. (The mayor says if he received such a letter, it was probably immediately forwarded to Chief Skinner.)
In December, Valdes met with Miami-Dade County state attorneys. They were markedly more interested: In January 2011, after a yearlong investigation, prosecutors charged Peters, who is currently 46 years old, with organized fraud, grand theft, and insurance fraud. Besides allegedly working off-duty at the same time he was clocked in, Peters is also accused of lying about a squad car accident in order to secure insurance money for his injured police dog.
Three months later, Paez and Diaz were arrested for working security jobs during hours they claimed to be on duty at Golden Beach. Skinner resigned, ultimately to be replaced by former Miami Beach chief Donald DeLucca.
Peters has been suspended with pay while 42-year-old Paez and 34-year-old Diaz remain on duty. Their trials are scheduled to begin in May. In the meantime, they are paid more than a combined $145,000 annually, courtesy of Golden Beach taxpayers.
Tammy Valdes can't believe she spends her days sitting around her home, virtually unemployable because of her pending litigation against Golden Beach, while the cops she helped expose have kept their jobs. "They should not have their badges," she seethes. "They should not be police officers."