Biscayne Park village leaders mum over absent police brass

04/04/2014 5:02 PM

04/05/2014 10:13 AM

The little hamlet of Biscayne Park has been cloaked in intrigue this week by the suspension of the Police Department’s three highest-ranking officers.

Police Chief Ray Atesiano, Capt. Lawrence Churchman and Cpl. Nicholas Wollschlager have all been absent since March 27, leaving the department’s eight remaining cops without their commanding officers.

No one in Biscayne Park — best known for its log cabin Village Hall and a police department with a propensity for issuing traffic violations — is talking.

Village Attorney John Hearn did not return phone calls. The village’s five elected commissioners also did not return calls or said they didn’t know much and were told not to comment.

Atesiano’s attorney and the police union confirmed the suspensions — but had no information about what triggered them.

Responding to inquiries, Village Manager Heidi Shafran forwarded an email link warning that anyone releasing information about an on-going police investigation could be charged with a first-degree misdemeanor because such cases are exempt from public records laws.

“There’s so much I cannot say,” she said, adding she was confident she could bring in additional support to bolster the department.

Shafran said she has hired a private security consultant to investigate possible misdeeds. A Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office spokesman said that prosecutors were unaware of any on-going investigation into Biscayne Park police officers.

Michael A. Haber, an attorney representing Atesiano, said that his client was called into the village manager’s office late last week and told the chief was suspended with pay. Haber said he’d received nothing in writing mentioning a suspension or any alleged wrongdoing.

“I’m waiting patiently for correspondence to figure out how we’re going to respond,” Haber said. “We need the allegations in order to respond to them.”

Wollschlager and Churchman couldn’t be reached for comment.

Atesiano is a 27-year veteran cop now serving his third department. He joined Biscayne Park in December 2012 after a stint with Sunny Isles Beach police. Wollschlager won a prestigious award in October, being named Police Officer of the Year by Miami-Dade Crime Watch.

John Rivera, president of Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association, which represents Wollschlager and Churchman, said the two have scheduled a sit-down with PBA attorneys next week, but for now he doesn’t have a clue why they aren’t working.

“I don’t know what it’s about,” said Rivera. “They claim they don’t know what it’s about.”

Though Florida’s public records laws are considered among the most liberal in the nation, the exemption clause relating to police investigations has left usually talkative elected leaders and administrators mostly mute.

Commissioner Fred Jonas said the administration briefly discussed the issue at Tuesday’s commission meeting — but didn’t say much else. The village clerk’s office said a video of the meeting wouldn’t be available until next week, and the minutes won’t be ready until next month.

“I’m not to discuss it with anybody,” Jonas said. “There’s very little I know at this point. I’m telling you what my marching orders are.”

Village Crime Watch head Chuck Ross, whose wife is a village commissioner, also was mum. “I don’t have anything to comment on that.”

Mayor David Coviello, a partner at Shutts & Bowen law firm in Miami, said, “I have to refer you to the manager on this one.”

Commissioners Roxanna Ross and Barbara Watts didn’t respond to phone calls. And Commissioner Robert Anderson said “our attorney advised us not to comment.”

Biscayne Park is a quaint residential community of oak-lined streets, nestled between Miami Shores and North Miami. It has no commercial business and its 3,000 residents in 1,200 homes cover the vast majority of the village’s $2.3 million budget through property taxes.

The Police Department, with 11 full-time officers, has a budget of almost $1 million. Most of that money comes from property taxes, but the village’s 2013-14 budget also shows expected revenues of $54,000 from fines and forfeiture fees.

To outsiders, the village is perhaps best known for the iconic log cabin that sits in a large open field and that is home to Village Hall and police headquarters. A knock on the Police Department’s door Thursday went unanswered.

With very little crime, village police have adopted a particularly tough stance on speeders. Signs throughout the village read: “Don’t even think about speeding.”

A year-end police report in 2012 touted how village officers had issued 5,187 traffic tickets and made 733 arrests — 351 of which were traffic-related.

The sudden disappearance without explanation of Biscayne Park’s top three officers, especially the chief, has some residents perplexed.

“I don’t have any problems with him [Atesiano],” said Steve Bernard, a former commissioner. “I don’t think anybody does. It’s just bizarre.”

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