A band of youths shoot at William Buck when he catches them hot-wiring his blue Dodge van. Buck fires back, wounding one thief with a shotgun blast.
A young thug puts a rusty revolver against Robert Plafsky's head and pulls the trigger when he refuses to surrender his silver Mercedes-Benz. The pistol misfires.
Two teens pistol-whip Myra Halle in a Macy's parking lot before stealing her black XJ-6 Jaguar. "A horrible experience, " Halle, 47, called it.
The robberies were part of a terrifying crime wave in Broward County two years ago -- and most of it was monitored and financed by a squad of sheriff's deputies secretly operating outside the department's theft and robbery units.
Spanning seven months, the anti-theft investigation was code-named Operation Trade Winds. At its conclusion in 1990, Sheriff Nick Navarro hailed it as an unqualified success, saying undercover detectives used a bogus fencing operation to recover $3 million in stolen property, make 70 arrests and break a major car-theft ring.
But a Miami Herald examination reveals the operation was bungled from the start. Hundreds of police records and interviews with law enforcement officers show that the operation fueled a string of robberies and endangered the public. Now, investigators want to know if Broward Sheriff's Office deputies siphoned off stolen goods purchased with tax money.
"The whole thing was a circus, " said BSO organized crime division director Steve Bertucelli.
"I didn't know what the hell was going on, " said Assistant State Attorney Ed Walsh, who worked on the project.
Trade Winds was supervised by Sgt. Ralph Capone, a political pal of Navarro who served as the sheriff's chauffeur during his election campaigns.
A two-year federal grand jury investigation of the sheriff's office is now focusing on the unit and recently issued subpoenas for documents about how BSO handled the operation. Federal agents also gathered BSO lie detector reports for Capone, who failed questions on whether he pilfered property and cash.
The sheriff's office is conducting its own investigation and has refused to release records relating to the operation.
Capone contends he did nothing wrong. "The investigation was clean, " he said.
Capone's squad was supposed to pull criminals off the streets by posing as crooks buying stolen property. In the process, they set off a robbery spree by paying the same teens over and over again for stolen cars, guns and jewelry, according to court records and interviews.
As the U.S. attorney's office investigates, records and interviews obtained by The Herald show that:
* The operation ignored federal guidelines by paying top dollar to juveniles for stolen property. At least a third of the 300 crimes charged in Trade Winds were committed by a handful of teens.
* The operation infuriated prosecutors, who accused BSO deputies of letting violent felons run free, risking the lives of innocent people, many elderly.
* Some of the youths admitted to detectives that they were stealing cars at gunpoint. Still, the deputies sent them back to take more, specifying luxury makes and promising big money, one of the thieves said.
* Trade Winds detectives kept quiet while officers from BSO and other police departments -- unaware of the sting -- frantically tried to stop an escalating number of brazen daytime armed robberies. At one point, Fort Lauderdale detectives followed the robbers' trail to the BSO fencing operation and started spying on it, unaware it was being run by sheriff's deputies.