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BSO sting put public in danger

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.

"They had a damned problem, " said prosecutor Walsh, who alerted other police agencies about the BSO operation. "What if one of these guys went out and killed someone?"

The operation opened in November 1989 in the bustling Lauderdale Lakes Industrial Park. Five undercover deputies worked for "C&C Traders, " wheeling and dealing in stolen property from a double-bay garage.

Most of the customers came from Fort Lauderdale -- young thieves hungry for money. Willie Gibson, then 17, was a ringleader. He had plenty of pals, among them Mitchell Gibbs, Quinton Hannah, Jackson Morris and Darrin Walls, all 18 at the time.

Gibson, now serving a 12-year sentence, said he thought he was working for the Mafia. At the start, he said, one of the men gave him $1,000 and asked for a favor.

"He told me to bring in my friends, young boys who could steal cars, " Gibson said in a telephone interview. "All of us knew each other. We grew up and got drunk together."

The sheriff's operation kept Gibson and his friends rolling in money for months, paying as much as $2,200 for a stolen car.

"They kept telling us to keep on bringing in the cars, " Gibson said. "Anybody would do it for that kind of money."

Between November 1989 and February 1990, they sold at least 30 cars to the BSO squad. After each sale, deputies let them leave, though they knew some of the cars had been stolen in robberies. The thieves bragged to undercover deputies about waving chrome-plated pistols and threatening to shoot motorists.

With a seemingly endless source of cash, the teens became more daring and more dangerous, sticking up motorists in mall parking lots, outside stores and even in the shadow of the county courthouse.

The BSO warehouse was quickly stuffed with stolen cars. Sgt. Capone decided it was time to prosecute some cases.

Assistant State Attorney Walsh was called to Trade Winds' headquarters on Jan. 24, 1990. Walsh is a gatekeeper at the state attorney's office. He decides whether police have proved their cases.

He was stunned. Though Trade Winds had been in business nearly three months, there was not enough evidence to file a single case. The BSO files lacked basic documents needed to win arrest warrants -- sworn statements from detectives and victims, and police incident reports.

Walsh said Capone refused to get statements from victims, arguing they might compromise security. But without the statements, Walsh said, he couldn't show property was stolen.

The next danger sign came Feb. 13. Walsh found a BSO report that said one of the thieves admitted using a firearm during a heist. Walsh warned the deputies that the department could get sued if an innocent victim was hurt.

He said his warnings were ignored; the robbers remained on the street.

Capone insists that Walsh said it was all right to simply send anonymous tips to CrimeStoppers, hoping other deputies would make the arrests.

That didn't happen. Instead, the crime wave became more and more violent. By the last week of February 1990, Gibson and his pals were stealing as many as three cars a day.

Feb 26: Gertrude Fuchs is sitting in her 1989 Nissan Maxima outside a Publix in Lauderhill when Gibson and Gibbs put a pistol to her face. They sell the car to sheriff's deputies for $375.

Feb. 27: After stealing Bernard Greslin's 1990 Toyota Supra in Oakland Park, Gibson goes to the BSO warehouse and shows an undercover deputy the .357 Smith & Wesson revolver he used in the stickup. Gibson collects a $700 check.

March 2: Gibson robs David Altieri's Nissan 300ZX at gun point. Selling price: $175.

March 3: Walls pistol-whips Halle outside the Macy's in Plantation. He is captured soon after -- by Plantation police.

Mid-March: Gibson and some of his pals commit eight more robberies, each time putting guns to the heads of their victims, and each time selling the stolen cars to the sheriff's squad.

The sheriff's own auto-theft investigators and Fort Lauderdale police were puzzled over the crime wave. They were the kind of tinder-box crimes that detectives like to snuff out fast.

Capone said he knew fellow officers were struggling to solve the cases, but didn't want to blow the unit's cover. He phoned in an anonymous tip, he said, when a BSO auto-theft unit issued a bulletin with a composite sketch resembling Gibson and an accomplice.

The secret operation began to unravel on March 22, the day several of the teens got into a gunfight with Buck, when he caught them hot-wiring his van outside his West Broward home.

Prosecutor Walsh read an article about the battle the next morning -- and recognized the name of one suspect who was arrested. He was a steady customer of Trade Winds.

"At that point, I knew there was real danger, " Walsh said. "I said, 'Yeah, this is an undercover sting operation, but I can't let people sit in the dark anymore.' "

About the same time, Fort Lauderdale detectives caught up with Gibson. He confessed. Detectives were furious when Walsh told them the BSO undercover unit was running the fencing operation and knew about Gibson all along.

Under pressure, Navarro called in a trusted aide, Bertucelli, to rescue the investigation.

"The case was falling apart, " Bertucelli said last week. "They didn't have a sense of who would be arrested and who would not. They didn't know what they were doing."

After Trade Winds shut down in early June, the sheriff's office spun some publicity out of it.

Standing in front of TV cameras and reporters, Navarro announced the operation's conclusion. Dozens of stolen guns were displayed on a long table. Navarro said 70 suspects committed close to 300 crimes. He said nothing about the problems getting the crooks behind bars.

Navarro and Capone sent a letter to police chiefs, telling them that they had recovered property stolen in their cities.

The letter proclaimed Trade Winds a success that sent a strong message to South Florida's criminals.

"Crime does not pay, " the letter said.