South Florida

Two Miami cops get drastically different sentences for protecting drugs in FBI sting

Schonton Harris, left, a veteran Miami cop, was sentenced in April to more than 15 years in prison by a federal court judge. She was accused of protecting drug dealers and selling a police uniform and badge for use by a purported hit man. To her right are Kelvin Harris and James Archibald, two Miami cops Schonton Harris is accused of recruiting into the racket. They were convicted at trial in June and sentenced Friday, Sept. 6.
Schonton Harris, left, a veteran Miami cop, was sentenced in April to more than 15 years in prison by a federal court judge. She was accused of protecting drug dealers and selling a police uniform and badge for use by a purported hit man. To her right are Kelvin Harris and James Archibald, two Miami cops Schonton Harris is accused of recruiting into the racket. They were convicted at trial in June and sentenced Friday, Sept. 6. Miami

Although a federal judge found that two convicted Miami police officers lied as witnesses at their trial, she gave the cops drastically different punishment at their sentencings Friday for providing protection for drug traffickers in an FBI undercover investigation.

Kelvin Harris, a veteran officer, was sentenced to 27 1/2 years in prison, and James Archibald, a comparative rookie, got 10 years, ending a long-running investigation into corruption in the Miami Police Department’s northern district station.

U.S. District Judge Cecilia Altonaga told both disgraced officers that their testimony was “not truthful” during separate hearings attended by dozens of family members and supporters.

But in the end, Altonaga slammed Harris while going softer on Archibald, mainly because Harris was the more guilty party and was found to be possessing a gun during the police drug-protection scheme.

In late June, a 12-member Miami jury reached guilty verdicts for the two Miami officers after about seven hours of deliberations following testimony by both officers — making statements under oath that were starkly contradicted by undercover audio and video recordings.

Harris, 53, claimed improbably at trial that he was working as an undercover cop during the course of the FBI sting operation, even though he accepted $10,000 in bribery payments and made no personal record of his investigative activities.

On Friday, Harris still insisted that his testimony was truthful, after he apologized to the judge, his family and the community.

“I could not understand how I allowed myself to get caught up in something like this,” Harris told the judge. “[But] my testimony in court was truthful.”

Archibald, 33, asserted at trial that he didn’t really know he was protecting drug shipments at first and only realized it later on. Archibald testified he only stayed in the racket because he felt his life was threatened by another veteran Miami officer, who was also a target of the undercover probe. Still, Archibald also accepted $6,500 in payoffs and gave an incriminating statement to FBI agents on videotape after his arrest last October.

On Friday, Archibald, the son of a Miami pastor, apologized while invoking his faith in God. He said nothing about his testimony.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Harry Wallace repeatedly said at the sentencing hearing that both officers lied as witnesses. Wallace sought 20 years in prison for Harris and 15 years for Archibald. Harris’ defense attorney, Roderick Vereen, and Archibald’s lawyers, Sabrina Puglisi and Michael Grieco, urged the judge to give them more lenient sentences.

At trial, the federal jurors found both officers guilty of accepting cash bribes for protecting what they believed was cocaine during the FBI sting operation last year.

Harris, who served on the force for 26 years, was convicted of conspiring to possess with intent to distribute more than five kilos of cocaine, punishable by up to life in prison. It carried a mandatory-minimum sentence of 10 years. Harris was also found guilty of attempting to possess with intent to distribute cocaine three times and possessing a firearm three times between September and October 2018. The three possession convictions carried a mandatory minimum of five years each to run consecutively, for a total of 15 years.

Archibald, who was on the force for only two years, was also convicted of the conspiracy drug charge and one count of attempting to possess with intent to distribute cocaine. But he was found not guilty of a second count of attempting to possess with intent to distribute and two counts of possessing a firearm during that same time frame.

A third officer, Schonton Harris, 51, the ringleader who was on the Miami force for 20 years, cut her losses in January when she admitted that she accepted a total of $17,000 for using her badge and firearm to help carry out a series of criminal activities, including protecting and moving loads of what she believed to be cocaine.

She pleaded guilty to the first count in her indictment, conspiring to possess with intent to distribute controlled substances. In April, Altonaga punished her at the high end of the sentencing guidelines, or more than 15 years.

Schonton Harris was initially singled out as a likely target in the sting operation after Miami police internal affairs investigators and the FBI confronted officer Catina Anderson, 45, in April of last year about running a small-time protection racket for opioid dealers and extorting a bookie. She received $1,500 in bribery payments.

Anderson pleaded guilty to an extortion charge this spring and received four years’ probation.

At Friday’s sentencing, Kelvin Harris’ lawyer, Vereen, pushed for a lower sentence for his client, saying he was not as culpable as Schonton Harris, who recruited him, and Anderson, who was the initial cooperating witness.

“This was not a real drug deal that was going down,” Vereen said, referring to the sham cocaine used during the FBI sting operation. “This all started with Catina Anderson.”

Wallace, the prosecutor, challenged Vereen’s interpretation. “These may not have been real drugs, but this was a real conspiracy,” said Wallace, who prosecuted the case with Jessica Obenauf.

One of Archibald’s attorneys, Puglisi, argued that her client testified truthfully at trial. “There clearly is evidence of a threat,” she said. “This woman threatened him.”

But Wallace sharply disagreed. “The statement that he was threatened by Schonton Harris is unbelievable,” he said. “His motivation for doing this was not duress; it was for the money.”

At trial, the feds’ cooperating witness, Anderson, took intense heat from Harris’ initial defense attorney, Jonathan Schwartz, and Archibald’s lawyers, who accused the government witness of lying on the stand and entrapping their clients. Grieco and Puglisi argued that their client was not predisposed to join the drug-protection racket and was set up by Anderson, who suggested that Schonton Harris “get him.”

But Anderson ultimately withstood the accusations because she was wearing a recording device during her interactions with the other three cops.

“The same story I told today is the same story that happened,” Anderson said during a critical point in her testimony. “I can’t change [my testimony] because everything was recorded.”

All four Miami police officers worked in the North District Substation in Model City, which has been besieged with corruption problems investigated by the city’s internal affairs unit and the FBI. Kelvin Harris was assigned to desk duty because of a domestic violence issue, while Archibald was a neighborhood resource officer. Schonton Harris and Anderson worked patrol duties.

In the FBI sting operation, undercover investigators flipped Anderson to recruit Schonton Harris, who, in turn, recruited Kelvin Harris and then Archibald. The two Harrises are not related.

The most compelling undercover evidence was gathered by the FBI during two drug-protection schemes on Sept. 28, 2018, and on Oct. 11, 2018.

In the former incident, all four officers collaborated in protecting undercover dealers moving two suitcases of cocaine from a Greyhound bus station to two hotels, the Yves and Extended Stay, near Jackson Memorial Hospital, prosecutors said. The jury found Kelvin Harris guilty of this crime, but not Archibald.

In the latter incident, Schonton Harris and Archibald helped carry two coolers containing cocaine from the Crandon Park Marina on Key Biscayne to two local hotels, the JW Marriott in Miami and the Courtyard Marriott in Coral Gables. Kelvin Harris and Anderson provided protection. The jury found both Kelvin Harris and Archibald guilty of this crime.

At one hotel, Archibald was shown pulling a cooler on rollers into an elevator, and then he and Schonton Harris were shown together meeting with an undercover drug dealer in a room with bricks of cocaine spread out on a bed, according to videotaped evidence.