Mark Nathan Overton, a revered law enforcement figure who defied the image of the tough, hard-nosed cop, quoting Sun Tzu’s The Art of War while developing innovative approaches to police work that transformed two troubled agencies, died on Thursday in a long-term care facility in Miami Lakes after months in a coma.
The 54-year-old physical fitness buff never recovered from a heart attack he suffered on July 4 after exercising with his wife, Esther, clinging to life while his family held vigils at his bedside.
“He had such fight in him,” said his son, Marc Overton, 24. “I really thought and felt he’d overcome this.”
A law enforcement officer for nearly three decades, he rose to prominence last year when he launched an internal probe that exposed one of the most corrupt undercover sting operations in the country.
After taking the job as Bal Harbour chief, Overton discovered the cops turned the investigation into a cash enterprise, spending lavishly on travel and dining while picking up suitcases stuffed with drug cash to launder for some of the most dangerous groups in the Americas. The unit, which did not make a single arrest, is now the target of a federal grand jury probe in Chicago.
“It was a sting operation,” he said, “but there was no sting.”
For much of his career, he worked to improve the image of police at a time the profession was under intense scrutiny. He brought in bean-shooting guns that immobilize suspects instead of killing them and urged his officers to get out of their patrol cars and intermingle with the public.
Adept at the martial arts, he spent years as a training officer in Hialeah while rising through the ranks, helping to direct the careers of scores of officers now serving throughout South Florida.
In the months after his heart attack, the chief was bound to his bed while hundreds of people streamed in and out of his hospital room, sharing stories with family members of how he had impacted their lives.
“I’m in awe just hearing how he helped them or inspired them or encouraged them,” said Esther, who met her husband when she was 17 and he was 20. “He taught me to have that blind faith. He had that gift,” she said.
His son recalled the first time he saw his father in full uniform. The younger Overton had gone to school without his favorite toy, Woody from the movie Toy Story. “We used to live in Sunrise and I went to school in Miami Lakes,” recalled Marc, now a law student at Northeastern University in Boston.
“[He] drove all the way from Hialeah to Sunrise, then to Miami Lakes just to drop off that toy. I don’t know if it was a coordinated effort, but it was the first time I ever saw him in full uniform. He gave me a big hug and left. That was the type of dad that he was.”
Raised by his grandparents in a modest home in Hialeah, Overton was exposed to a world of immigrants, storefront churches and crime in working-class neighborhoods — a foundation that shaped his philosophy and allowed him to see humanity even in the most dangerous communities.
On the wall in his office was a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., delivering his dream speech in Washington.
Miguel de la Rosa, a Bal Harbour captain and friend since the 1980s, said the chief was inspired by King and others like him because they “stood up for the small people, without fear.”
Shortly after he was named Hialeah chief in 2007, he helped change a department that was demoralized by low staffing, high crime and clashes between management and the union. Overton began expanding a community police program into five areas, all with their own commanders.
“He gave the commanders autonomy and resources to act like the area’s police chief,” recalled de la Rosa. “That way, the unique problems in each neighborhood could be addressed. He put a heavy emphasis on training.”
By the time Overton left in 2012, the crime index dropped by double digits, records show.
He was was a man of unquestioned integrity. There are people who didn’t like what he was doing, but they are the ones who have the most to lose.
Antonio Sanchez, a longtime police commander in Miami-Dade
He was elected president of the Miami-Dade Police Chiefs Association and served as oversight chair of the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force. He was also a member of the Miami-Dade Fellowship of Christian Peace Officers.
Jorge Alessandri, president of the fellowship, said Overton was driven by a faith that created an “unwavering fairness and incredible righteousness” in his dealings with his officers and the public.
He spent two years in Miami Beach as a deputy chief before he was hired in Bal Harbour in 2014. Over the next two years, the chief led an internal probe into the troubled task force, despite opposition from some village officials who didn’t want the publicity.
Overton was undeterred, saying it was more important to unearth the dealings of the unit so that the department could move forward.
“He was was a man of unquestioned integrity,” said Antonio Sanchez, a longtime police commander in Miami-Dade. “There are people who didn’t like what he was doing, but they are the ones who have the most to lose.”
While he was overseeing the investigation, Overton turned to his own brand of community policing, putting more cops on bikes and even on golf carts in the upscale coastal community of 3,500 people.
In the end, the move to bring officers closer to the community improved morale and helped restore much of the the trust that had been lost over the task force scandal.
“He had established credibility to an organization that had lost all credibility,” said Jorge Gonzalez, the village manager who had hired Overton previously for the deputy chief’s job in Miami Beach.
“He lived and breathed police work. When I hired him, I asked him what he did outside of work. What was his passion. He told me his family, faith and police work. It wasn’t about going to Dolphins games. It wasn’t about playing golf. It was his family and police work. He felt that was his calling. In a very short period, he left a lasting impression on people.”
He is survived by his wife, his son, and a daughter, Bianca, a senior at Florida State University.
The funeral Mass will be at 10:30 a.m. on Monday at Immaculate Conception Church in Hialeah. Burial will follow at Vista Memorial Gardens in Miami Lakes.
A 5K walkathon will be held on Saturday, Nov. 5, at Nikki Beach to help offset medical costs. The entry fee is $25 per participant.
Miami Herald staff writer Charles Rabin contributed to this report.