Taking Heat

About eight months ago, Miami Police Lt. Israel Gonzalez was sitting in his office at the department's downtown headquarters when his boss, Maj. Frank Christmas, burst in and began berating him about the conduct of several officers under Gonzalez's command. At the time the lieutenant was head of the department's homicide unit, where he oversaw nearly 30 detectives and supervising officers.

According to Gonzalez, Christmas wanted a team of detectives to drop a case they had been pursuing. When Gonzalez protested, he says Christmas, commander of the criminal-investigation division, responded with an order: "I told you, you're done with this investigation."

Gonzalez was dumbfounded. This was an unsolved murder. Cops don't simply abandon unsolved murders. But Christmas, it turned out, was friendly with the family of a juvenile witness in the case, and he did not want to expose them to possible retaliation by the murder suspect or his allies. From Gonzalez's point of view, however, his boss's action had the effect of allowing a killer to go free.

Christmas declines to discuss the incident, but his deputy commander at the time, Capt. David Rivero, says it's not true that Christmas ordered a murder investigation be dropped. "We would never do that," Rivero insists, adding that Christmas only wanted to ensure the protection of all witnesses.

Gonzalez isn't alone in claiming that Major Christmas did in fact terminate the investigation. John Campbell was the lieutenant in charge of homicide before Gonzalez. "Christmas told me: I ordered them to drop it. We've got plenty of other murders to work on,'" recounts Campbell, who retired recently.

In addition Sgt. Julio Pino, who led the team of detectives investigating the murder, last month told prosecutors in the public-corruption unit of the State Attorney's Office that Christmas had ordered him to stop interviewing witnesses and drop the case. When Pino and Gonzalez objected, they say, they were transferred out of homicide.

The State Attorney's Office found Pino's account of the affair sufficiently credible to open an investigation into Christmas's conduct. Prosecutors, who began their probe three weeks ago, are attempting to determine whether the major's order constituted witness tampering and obstruction of justice, potential felonies.

The investigation could spell trouble for Miami Police Chief Raul Martinez as well. According to Gonzalez the chief was thoroughly briefed by both Gonzalez and Pino but backed Christmas's decision to terminate the investigation and transfer the officers.

Involving as it does top officials and the crime of murder, such a controversy would be unwelcome at any time by any police department, but for Chief Martinez the timing could not be worse. Only last month he found himself in the awkward position of acknowledging that his department had squandered its credibility and desperately needed to restore it.

On May 8 Martinez stood before a crowd of angry black activists, community leaders, clergy, even the head of the local American Civil Liberties Union. The chief, visibly tense, moved with all the grace of a tangled marionette. He blinked his eyes, jerked his arms, and bobbed his head erratically. He spoke in a kind of urgent chatter. He blinked again.

The civilians had gathered in a conference room at department headquarters to confront the chief and seek explanations for the April 30 fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager. If Martinez felt besieged, it was understandable. Just eight weeks earlier, five Miami officers had been indicted by a federal grand jury and charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly planting false evidence to justify the fatal 1996 shooting of an elderly Overtown resident suspected of dealing drugs. During the encounter police fired 123 bullets.

On May 3 the Miami Herald revealed that a federal grand jury was reviewing a half-dozen additional Miami police shootings, all previously reviewed by the department's internal-affairs unit, which found no wrongdoing.

Meanwhile the department was prompted to initiate several internal-affairs inquiries as a result of a New Times story alleging a pattern of suspected drug-money rip-offs by officers in the department's north district substation in the Model City neighborhood at NW 62nd Street and Tenth Avenue ("Under Suspicion," March 1, 2001).

It seemed that everywhere the chief turned, his department was under intense and embarrassing scrutiny.

At one point during the May 8 meeting of black community leaders, Chief Martinez held up a sheet of white paper and declared, "We need to get back to the point where when we say this is white, people believe us."

Someone in the audience shouted, "You never had that in the first place!"

The chief blinked.

When the meeting ended, Martinez was clearly shaken. He needed to act -- and he did. Later that same day he announced changes to his command staff. He moved Maj. Gerald Darling from his job overseeing field-support services to criminal investigations. Maj. Paul Shepard, an austere, tight-lipped veteran, was removed as head of internal affairs and transferred to field support.

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Tristram Korten
Contact: Tristram Korten