A Miami-Dade jail officer assigned to a lauded boot-camp program extorted tens of thousands of dollars from cadets to fuel her gambling habit, prosecutors said on Friday.
Christy Laster, 35, was arrested Friday on an array of felony charges, including bribery, extortion and grand theft.
The arrest is a stunning blow for Miami-Dade Correction’s military-style program that for years has received acclaim for straightening out young offenders facing criminal charges. The program is so well regarded that it was chosen to be chronicled in Rock & a Hard Place, an upcoming HBO documentary produced by movie star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
The cadets filmed last year by HBO are the same ones believed to have been victimized by Laster outside the presence of the cameras.
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As part of the program, cadets spend four months in a locked-down facility at the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, undergoing tough physical drills while taking vocational classes. In the second phase of the program, they are allowed out to work and go to school, usually paying $10 a day to the county for supervision.
Part of Laster’s job was to collect the supervision fees, not as cash, but in the form of cashier’s checks or money orders.
In August, a cadet named Keno Bridgewater reported the alleged thefts to a sergeant and an internal investigation began.
In one case, according to an arrest warrant, Laster picked up a cadet named Xavier Barquin, who was a cook at Buffalo Wild Wings. She took him to a check-cashing store to cash his paycheck of nearly $500. Barquin handed over the money believing “he could not tell her ‘no,’ ” and because she promised to reduce other fees he might have owed, the warrant said.
In another case, Laster is accused of forcing cadet Manuel Cordero to pay more than $8,000 or she would have him re-arrested and kicked out of boot camp, the warrant said. He was forced to pawn jewelry to pay her over $3,000, prosecutors said.
In all, Laster is believed to have stolen over $20,000 from 19 cadets last year, prosecutors said.
An examination of her financial records showed Laster was a “regular customer” at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, where she had gambling losses of nearly $40,000, police say.
“As a case manager, Officer Laster appears to have taught a hypocritical lesson to all of these cadets who were trying to go straight,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle said in a press release. “Now, it seems to be her time to learn the price that criminality exacts.”
It was not yet known if Laster has an attorney.
In recent years, the boot camp program has frequently been targeted but survived budget cuts by the county. Last month, the son of a Canadian diplomat — involved in a botched robbery that resulted in two dead during a gun battle — was accepted into the boot-camp program.
The program has had occasional blemishes.
One year ago, a cadet named James Dukes, who was filmed as part of the HBO documentary, slipped away from a work release trash-pickup, only to be arrested hiding in a building closet nearby.
In February, a cadet named Irwen Pressley, 17, was arrested and charged with murder in the slaying of 6-year-old King Carter, who was shot in the crossfire of a gunfight in North Miami-Dade.
Pressley, who had earlier been charged with an armed robbery, was on work release as a cadet in the boot-camp program. He was tracked to the shooting scene by the GPS ankle monitor worn as part of the program, prosecutors say.