Drug dealers pedal their bicycles up and down the street, sneaking down narrow hallways and hiding in the bushes, waiting for their next deal, or their next victim to shake down, beat up or rob. Doors are pitted with bullet holes, and the children spend their days on a rusty playground, or in the evenings, acting as lookouts for dealers.
This squalid theater in the heart of Opa-locka’s Arabian Nights-themed city, an apartment complex known as the “Back Blues,” has been home to some of the most dangerous drug traffickers in South Florida.
When the FBI launched a sting at the notorious drug den, and later tied its players to a fatal 2010 armored car heist, they discovered to their surprise that one of the alleged operatives at the helm of the Back Blues narcotics ring was an Opa-locka police captain.
Capt. Arthur Balom, 44, accepted bribes, provided the armored car killer with a bulletproof vest and helped sabotage the FBI’s drug sting, according to allegations made in court documents.
The probe that led to Balom’s arrest is only one of many state, federal and local investigations into possible corruption within the Opa-locka Police Department, which has the reputation of being among the most troubled law enforcement agencies in the state.
“I’m 79 now and I’m not going to jail for nobody,” said Clarance Patterson, who as city manager of Opa-locka was in charge of public safety, including the police department. “The things I was being asked to do, I just wouldn’t do. I’m not saying anybody asked me to do anything illegal, but the city and the police department have some serious problems and need cleaning up.’’
‘Confidential’ inquiry that wasn’t
In January 2011, Patterson launched what was supposed to be a “confidential inquiry” into complaints he had been receiving about the department. The complaints ranged from mundane gripes to serious criminal allegations. Among them: that officers received sex from female suspects in exchange for leniency, that officers stole evidence, and that politicians asked for favors and otherwise meddled in departmental hiring and firing.
But the inquiry, which was handled by the city’s human resources director, became public and, within weeks, all the officers who participated, as well as the human resources director, were fired.
Patterson abruptly resigned shortly thereafter, in June 2011, telling commissioners that Vice Mayor Dorothy Johnson had called his wife and claimed Patterson was having an extra-marital affair. Johnson admitted calling his wife, but denied she said anything about an affair. For Patterson, who served just 16 months on the job, it was enough.
“They were essentially hiring people and firing people to satisfy certain elected officials, and that’s not good,’’ Patterson said.
The city, which was built in 1925 by millionaire aviator Glenn Curtiss, was modeled after the children’s fantasy The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, complete with Moorish buildings crowned with soft domes, pastel-colored turrets, mosaic arches and castle-like parapets. But over the past 50 years, its storybook veneer has crumbled under the weight of poverty, politics and crime.
Court documents, internal affairs files, police reports and Florida Department of Law Enforcement records obtained by The Herald over the past six months show:
After Patterson ordered the “confidential inquiry” into many of these matters and received the litany of complaints, he turned the findings over to FDLE to investigate. At about the same time, participants in the inquiry — including four sworn police officers — filed a whistleblower suit in federal court. Over the past several months, they have given sworn depositions against city commissioners, the police chief and the chairman of the city’s powerful Civil Service Board, which has a say in who gets hired in the city.
Among the allegations: A police major and former deputy police chief claim that Chief Cason ordered Maj. Vincent Robinson, a 15-year-veteran, to fix a ticket that had been issued to a relative of John Riley, a former mayor and commissioner who heads the city’s Civil Service Board. Robinson and former deputy police chief Adam Burden said that Cason called them into her office and berated Robinson for failing to take care of the ticket. They said she was clearly angry, swearing at Robinson before ordering him to pay a portion of the ticket. Robinson said he feared for his job, so he withdrew $100 from his own account and drove to Riley’s home.
He said he handed Riley the cash and that Riley said “Thank you,” and shut the door in his face.
Both Riley and Cason categorically denied the incident ever happened.
“Not only does it not make sense, but I have no knowledge of any member of my family receiving a ticket in Opa-locka,’’ Riley said.
Cason said the plaintiffs involved in the lawsuit have serious credibility issues and the officers, she said, have blemished records from previous departments where they were employed.
“They fabricated, lied, they stole files, they went to the media with cases. They have violated every content of the law that there is,” she said of the officers.
“My clients were not terminated for stealing files, or doing anything illegal,’’ said Alex Pearlberg, the lawyer who filed the whistleblower lawsuit on behalf of Burden, Robinson, former Internal Affairs Capt. Larry Riley (no relation to former mayor John) and Officer Tara Lazier.
“My clients were trying to make a difference... and look what happened to them.’’
Future chief’s failed drug tests
Cason, hired in 1984, had 22 disciplinary actions before 1991, when she was fired for testing positive twice for cocaine, once on Jan. 3, 1991, and again during another test the following day. She was rehired in 1999 after reaching a settlement with FDLE that allowed her to keep her police certification. The Herald was unable to obtain copies of the settlement, but Cason maintains the tests were tainted. The city could not find her personnel records since she was rehired.
She was promoted to chief in 2008. Cason said she is working hard to improve the department’s reputation despite enormous pressure. She also said she’s not surprised her files have disappeared, asserting her antagonists probably stole them to use against her.
Most recently, Cason was suspended last year by Patterson, who learned that she had failed to report an accident in her city vehicle. She allegedly broke a mirror when she was backing out of her driveway, but left the scene and failed to call an accident investigator as required by a policy she instituted.
Cason contends the accident was so minor that she considered it an “incident” that didn’t warrant a full-blown accident investigation.
Cason believed Patterson and others were using the incident to try to force her out of the department. She is also suing the city, alleging that the department retaliated against her because she discovered that Tamika Miller, the commissioner’s daughter, claimed $20,000 in overtime she wasn’t entitled to during a six-month period from October 2010 to April 2011.
The younger Miller, who was hired in 1996, has a stormy history with the city, but her career has still managed to flourish. She has a record for carrying a concealed firearm, and misdemeanors for shoplifting and check fraud, according to FDLE. She also has a long list of complaints against her by city employees and community members, who allege that she bullied and threatened them.
In 2000, Miller had a dispute with a woman inside an Opa-locka beauty salon. According to the police report, she asked a city code enforcement officer to take her home. There, she appeared to grab a weapon and tuck it inside the front of her pants. She asked the colleague to take her back to the salon, where she jumped out, and, according to witnesses, marched into the salon brandishing the .38 caliber firearm. The witnesses implored Miller to calm down and put the gun away, and she complied, reports indicate. She later claimed that she never had a gun. She was placed on court probation but kept her city job.
Miller has since risen to chief of code enforcement, earning $57,000 a year.
Pearlberg, who represents Miller as part of the whistleblower suit, said his client “certainly had some issues with some of her co-workers, most of that, however, was quite a while ago.’’
‘Par for the course’ in Opa-locka
He said the overtime issue happened when Miller used her sick time while on maternity leave, but continued to be asked to work on payroll and crime statistics during her leave.
“She collected her sick time and they kept giving her work,’’ he said.
“I’m not going to say Tamika’s job had nothing to do with her family’s ties to the city, that’s par for the course and part of the problem in Opa-locka.’’
Tara Lazier, another police officer, claims she was fired after she told city officials conducting the inquiry that in 2008, she was present when another police officer, Lawrence Holborow, removed his shirt and left the station with two women he had encountered on duty. A complaint to internal affairs by a second officer claimed that he later released the women in exchange for sex.
Holborow denied any misconduct, saying the women were never arrested and he and another officer simply drove them home.
Capt. Larry Riley was in charge of the department’s internal affairs when the complaint came to light last year. In his sworn deposition, he claims that Cason ordered him to not investigate Holborow, the department’s local representative for the Police Benevolent Association. Riley was also fired following the inquiry.
Cason told FDLE she was not aware of the complaint at the time, since she was an assistant chief, not head of the force.
Ultimately the complaint was expunged from Holborow’s record because the statutory time for the investigation’s completion expired.
Holborow’s file contains letters from at least six police agencies indicating that he has a criminal record, that he has, at times, impersonated police officers when he was not one and that he has failed polygraph tests, psychological exams and more than a dozen background investigations. He was terminated from the Wilton Manors and Fort Lauderdale police departments, and resigned from The Miami-Dade School District Police for violating moral character standards, state records show. He became so belligerent during a background interview with the city of Miami Police Department that he was thrown out of the building.
He was also terminated from the New York City Police Department after they found out that he had a criminal record for possession of a loaded firearm and impersonating a police officer in Plantation in 1984. Holborow said the arrest never happened. The report from NYPD said the arrest record was subsequently sealed, and the Broward state attorney’s office later confirmed it had no evidence of it.
Holborow, hired in Opa-locka five years ago, said he has been persecuted at a variety of departments over the past 14 years.
“We all make mistakes. Would I do certain things differently? Yes. But I’m not a bad guy. Eventually all the stuff will be purged. I’m not proud of it, but it’s not like I went out and got drunk or did drugs. All I’m trying to do is clean it up,’’ he said.
Leader of the clean-up crew
Opa-locka’s new deputy chief, Antonio Sanchez, has been systematically going through every officer’s file in an effort to weed out bad cops. He was surprised when told of Holborow’s history, and said he has not yet gotten to his file.
“This administration is committed to higher standards,’’ Sanchez said.
A former assistant chief in Biscayne Park, Sanchez was hired in January and has faced some tough criticism, especially from Miami-Dade’s Police Benevolent Association.
Among the worst headaches for Sanchez: Sgt. German Bosque, who has been portrayed in multiple news articles as the cop with the most voluminous disciplinary file in Florida. Recently he has had three more internal affairs cases added to his previous record tally of 42. He remains relieved of duty with pay. The department has unsuccessfully tried to fire him five times during his 20-year-career. Bungled internal affairs probes, politics and a powerful police union have all helped him stick around. Last week, he was recommended for termination a sixth time.
John Rivera, president of Miami-Dade’s PBA, which represents the officers, says that Bosque, with six commendations during his two decades with the city, is the most decorated officer in Opa-locka history.
Rivera said Sanchez is firing officers or forcing them to resign without affording them their right to due process.
But Holborow, the PBA rep, said Sanchez has been fair and, in fact, has raised morale in a department where even good cops have been ridiculed. He has instituted training, which the force sorely lacked, and often works the streets alongside rank-and-file officers, many of them rookies whom he helps guide.
“We never had this before in Opa-locka. Two years ago, this place was a madhouse. Now, we are embracing the changes,’’ Holborow said.
Investigating the investigator
But some fear that Sanchez’s “hit list” has been too harsh. Among those he relieved of duty was Officer Michael Steel, who served as head of internal affairs for just over a year. He has five internal affairs probes against him in the pipeline but insists he is being used as a scapegoat, and was often ordered to hire unqualified applicants, including the mayor’s son.
“I know my client has said he had an untenable situation. He was responsible for doing the background investigations into individuals and it was apparent to him that there were some people who weren’t terribly concerned with the results of the background investigations,’’ said Steel’s lawyer, Donald Slesnick.
Johane Taylor, the mayor’s son, was hired as a police officer despite failing his police exam twice and having a criminal past involving domestic battery. According to court records, he was accused of shooting his then-girlfriend in the stomach with a pellet gun when she was pregnant. As part of a plea deal, the case was dropped when Taylor agreed to undergo anger-management counseling. Internal affairs under Steel objected to hiring him, but he was brought on board anyway.
His tenure didn’t last. Taylor resigned earlier this year when he faced an internal affairs probe into another domestic violence complaint.
His mother, Mayor Myra Taylor, declined to comment on any issues involving her son or the police department.
Rivera, arguably the most powerful law enforcement officer in the state, provided The Herald with documents spanning 25 years of Sanchez’s career. Sanchez worked as an officer for the cities of Sweetwater, Hialeah Gardens and Biscayne Park. His internal affairs complaints range from unauthorized high-speed chases to criminal mischief involving a dispute 25 years ago in which his ex-wife claimed he broke the front window of her home and glued all its locks. The accusations brought by his ex-wife were not sustained.
The PBA’s own documents conclude that Sanchez was often the target of police administrators jockeying for power. Biscayne Park’s background check, which tracked Sanchez’s whole career, concluded his internal affairs complaints were largely the result of tainted investigations and false allegations.
Sanchez declined to comment on his own history. Sanchez said the fact that Rivera is targeting him is proof of the effectiveness of his efforts to disinfect the department.
Because of all the turmoil within the department, he admits fighting crime has often taken a back seat.
The city’s most notorious crime haven, The Triangle, is still among the grimmest, drug-soaked spots in the city, replete with boarded-up buildings, piles of garbage and broken street lights. Despite a bold plan announced last year to transform the barricaded area into a model, family-friendly neighborhood renamed “Magnolia North,” little has changed.
New name but familiar trouble
Last month, two people were murdered and three others wounded in a barrage of gunfire during a street party. Only six officers were on duty to patrol the city that night, which, on a normal weeknight is often so busy that officers have a hard time keeping up with routine calls, let alone double-murders.
Sanchez said there are decent families living in The Triangle, trying to raise children and earn an honest living. The neighborhood, like other troubled ones in the city, is a “work in progress.”
An elected fixture in the city for 14 years, Taylor said the city gets a bad rap. Its crime rate has dropped in recent years, she says. And she points out that it will take time to revitalize the city, which is roughly 5.5 square miles and has about 18,000 residents.
“There are other cities with worse problems than Opa-locka,’’ she said.
Pearlberg, who has other cases involving firings in Opa-locka, says that FDLE should have taken over the department a long time ago.
“I don’t understand why FDLE hasn’t closed that place down. They should enter an order that Miami-Dade take over and staff it themselves because it’s not going to change there.’’
In an earlier version of this story, Glen Curtiss' name was misspelled. We regret the error.