Before arrest in civil-rights case, Florida police chief touted perfect crime-solving rate
The indictment was damning enough: A former police chief of Biscayne Park and two officers charged with falsely pinning four burglaries on a teenager just to impress village leaders with a perfect crime-solving record.
But the accusations revealed in federal court last month left out far uglier details of past policing practices in tranquil Biscayne Park, a leafy wedge of suburbia just north of Miami Shores.
Records obtained by the Miami Herald suggest that during the tenure of former chief Raimundo Atesiano, the command staff pressured some officers into targeting random black people to clear cases.
“If they have burglaries that are open cases that are not solved yet, if you see anybody black walking through our streets and they have somewhat of a record, arrest them so we can pin them for all the burglaries,” one cop, Anthony De La Torre, said in an internal probe ordered in 2014. “They were basically doing this to have a 100% clearance rate for the city.”
In a report from that probe, four officers — a third of the small force — told an outside investigator they were under marching orders to file the bogus charges to improve the department’s crime stats. Only De La Torre specifically mentioned targeting blacks, but former Biscayne Park village manager Heidi Shafran, who ordered the investigation after receiving a string of letters from disgruntled officers, said the message seemed clear for cops on the street.
“The letters said police were doing a lot of bad things,” Shafran told the Herald. “It said police officers were directed to pick up people of color and blame the crimes on them.”
Beyond the apparent race targeting, the report — never reviewed in village commission meetings — described a department run like a dysfunctional frat house. It outlines allegations that the brass openly drank on duty, engaged in a host of financial shenanigans and that the No. 2 in command during the period, Capt. Lawrence Churchman, routinely spouted racist and sexist insults.
Amid the probe, Atesiano abruptly resigned in 2014. Afterward, there was a stark change in village crime-busting statistics.
During his roughly two-year tenure as chief, 29 of 30 burglary cases were solved, including all 19 in 2013. In 2015, the year after he left, records show village cops did not clear a single one of 19 burglary cases.
Village leaders say they have since overhauled the department, calling the ousted police chief’s actions “appalling.”
Atesiano, 52, has strongly denied the allegations. He pleaded not guilty in the federal case and is now awaiting trial on charges of civil-rights violations. Two of his former officers, Raul Fernandez and Charlie Dayoub, also have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial. Sources say they are cooperating against their one-time boss.
The federal case doesn’t raise allegations of racial profiling, but records show the false charges were filed against a black Haitian-American teen identified only as T.D. in the indictment. Whether or how many other blacks might have been targets is unclear. State and local arrest records differ somewhat, but of the 30 burglary arrests documented in 2013 and 2014, nearly all were of black males.
But at least one other case is under review in an ongoing investigation: the arrest of a black transient man, Erasmus Banmah, 35, who was charged with five vehicle burglaries on the same day in February 2014. Each was dropped immediately by prosecutors when Biscayne Park cops failed to cooperate, records show.
Commanders dispute allegations
Both Atesiano and Churchman, who was not named in the indictment, deny pressuring officers to make unwarranted arrests or to target blacks. In 2014, they disputed the officers’ allegations to the village’s outside investigator and they repeated that defense to the Herald.
The former chief argues he demanded diligence from his officers, not illegal actions, His attorney pointed blame at Atesiano’s former underlings for any resulting problematic arrests.
“Encouraging, or even demanding, that public employees raise their performance levels to meet the citizens’ expectations is not an invitation for those public employees to cut corners or falsify documents,” his defense attorney, Richard Docobo, told the Herald.
Ana Garcia, who served as village manager when Atesiano was first elevated to chief in January 2013, said the federal charges of framing a teen conflicted with the chief’s reputation in the village. She left the role before Shafran took over while Atesiano quietly stepped down in April 2014.
“Everyone thought highly of him,” Garcia said. “This comes as a total shock, not only to me but everyone in the community.”
Biscayne Park’s little police department has been on the radar of state and federal prosecutors for years.
With a population of just over 3,000 residents and less than one square mile in size, the little village has produced an outsized share of scandals, most surrounding its cops.
The department of about a dozen sworn officers — once housed in a historic log cabin but now based at village hall — was long infamous for ticketing speeders. But over the last decade, the department has also seen an officer arrested on charges of holding his wife hostage, a troubled officer sued for excessive force and another officer charged with beating a suspect.
At the helm was Atesiano, a burly and mustachioed officer who was hired in 2008 and worked his way through the ranks while penning a column in the village newsletter warning residents to beware of trespassers and to report people crossing the railroad track.
Atesiano had come to the village after an earlier case involving a doctored arrest record. In 2006, Atesiano, then a sergeant in Sunny Isles Beach, agreed to leave there after investigators discovered he’d forged a man’s name on a notice to appear in court after police arrested him for marijuana. Prosecutors told him to resign or face arrest.
Atesiano left but landed with Biscayne Park two years later and rebuilt his reputation. The village named him officer of the year in 2011. Two years later, he was promoted to replace the retiring chief and he immediately began touting impressive progress in solving home break-ins and property crimes, always a priority issue in otherwise quiet suburbs.
“This year, as we stand, we have a 100 percent clearance rate on burglary cases in the Village of Biscayne Park,” Atesiano declared to hearty applause during a commission meeting in July 2013. “This is the first time I’ve ever known that to happen in any department that I’ve ever been in.”
Department in turmoil
Behind the scenes, records show, the department was in turmoil.
That became clear over the following year as former village manager Shafran began receiving what wound up being 10 separate letters — some signed, some not — laying out an array of problems, topped by the potentially explosive allegation of targeting blacks for unwarranted arrests. It was April 2014 — a few months before national protests erupted over the treatment of black men by police when a white officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. About a quarter of Biscayne Park’s population is black.
Shafran immediately hired a private investigator to investigate the claims. As the probe unfolded, the village suspended Churchman and Cpl. Nicholas Wollschlager, the department’s third in command. She also fired off a letter to Atesiano ordering him to cooperate fully with the investigator. He resigned five days later.
One allegation was made public at the time: that a police officer, Thomas Harrison, had loaned Atesiano $2,000, and the chief agreed to repay him in off-duty and overtime shifts. An ethics investigation found no evidence the loan existed, other than Harrison’s word.
That was benign in comparison to other allegations that officers raised with Jessie Scott, the private investigator hired to handle the internal probe .
Many of the officers’ complaints focused on Churchman, a former Sweetwater cop who was second in command in the village. Like his boss, Churchman also had a history with altered records. Sweetwater had demoted him for allegations of falsifying education records to earn an extra $40 a week. Biscayne Park hired him in 2008.
In the report, seven fellow officers described the captain as Atesiano’s enforcer, belittling cops, threatening them with firing, and bullying them into paying cash fees for working off-duty security gigs and into paying insurance deductibles with cash when they got into an accident in their police cruisers. His disdain for minorities also was “common knowledge,” Officer Harrison told the investigator. The report quotes officers saying Churchman used racial, homophobic and gender slurs.
“The captain has said on several different occasions he doesn’t want any n-----s, f-----s or women b-----s working at Biscayne Park,” Harrison said, according to Scott’s investigative report.
Slurs ‘a ridiculous lie’
Churchman, through his attorney, denied using such language. In response to questions from the Herald, lawyer Kristi Kassebaum issued a statement quoting her client: “That is a ridiculous lie. That’s just not the way I think and certainly not the kind of language I use in public or in private.”
In all, four officers interviewed by Scott said the command staff told them to frame people but only De la Torre specifically said they were ordered to target blacks.
In his statement, Officer Omar Martinez said that after a string of vehicle break-ins, the command staff told him there was only one way to attain a 100 percent clearance rate on property crimes. Martinez was told “if he saw anyone walking in the village at night [and] if they had any type of past at all to arrest them and somehow try to charge them with the burglaries, even if they weren’t the ones who committed it.”
Martinez singled out Wollschlager as the commander who gave the orders. But Martinez said he refused to carry them out because “it was illegal and unethical.” He also wrote the village manager, saying: “I will not arrest an innocent person in order to make the department look good.”
This week, Wollschlager told the Herald that he was “absolutely not” involved in giving such orders and wasn’t aware that the other commanders, Atesiano and Churchman, issued them either. “It caught me by surprise, especially having my name mentioned,” he said.
Wollschlager, who met with FBI agents several times as their investigation gained momentum this year, said he was told that Martinez “recanted” his accusation against him under questioning.
Reached by phone, Martinez refused to comment.
Wollschlager, who is still a commander at the village, and Martinez are among only a few officers still left on the Biscayne Park force from Atesiano’s tenure.
Churchman left in July 2014, when the internal affairs report was completed. In a statement through his lawyer, he said the police chief and detective bureau handled burglary cases and crime statistics — not him.
“It is ridiculous to believe that I would encourage sworn officers to falsify crime reports and to pin crimes on innocent people when clearing crimes was not my responsibility,” Churchman said in a statement.
Biscayne Park’s ‘Badlands’
In the federal case, the apparent patsy picked to take the rap for four unsolved 2013 burglaries was a black Haitian-American 16-year-old who lived with his family in a duplex on Northwest 12th Court. It’s alongside the railroad tracks in an area Biscayne Park cops used to call “The Badlands.”
T.D, now 21, could not be reached for comment, but records show he was well known to village officers.
T.D.’s first encounter with Biscayne Park cops came when he was arrested for trespassing — while crossing the Florida East Coast railroad tracks to get home. Village police regularly arrested people for trespassing because the department had an agreement with the Florida East Coast Railway Police to patrol the private property.
In February 2013, an officer named Guillermo Ravelo claimed he tried to pull T.D. over. After a dangerous high-speed car chase, Ravelo claimed, the teen bailed out on foot and ran off. Ravelo later wrote he identified T.D. from “a records check.” But that claim contradicted the officer’s own account, which noted T.D. had no valid driver’s license and was driving a BMW with temporary tags. T.D. wasn’t arrested right away — instead, Ravelo entered a juvenile “pick-up order” for him.
(Ravelo now faces charges himself. He plans to plead guilty this month to unrelated federal civil rights charges that he assaulted two people and falsified arrest reports in that case.)
Four months later, North Miami police arrested T.D. and accused him of raping a teen girl after daring her to drink a bottle of Barbancourt rum, according to an arrest report. Because of the outstanding pick-up order, Biscayne Park police were notified the same day: June 13, 2013.
That was the same day federal prosecutors say Biscayne Park officers Fernandez and Dayoub — at the direction of Atesiano — charged the teen with four previously unsolved burglaries of unoccupied homes.
The arrest reports are sketchy by any measure, listing no witnesses, fingerprint evidence, confessions or even property stolen. Instead, the reports used the same vague language — that the “investigation revealed” T.D. employed the same “M.O.” and the homes had a “rear door pried open.”
The Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office soon dumped all the cases, including the accusations of fleeing and eluding and the rape case. No formal charges were ever filed against T.D.
But state public corruption prosecutors and investigators continued looking at the circumstances of the arrest, pulling arrest data and working with federal counterparts to build a case against Atesiano and the two officers.
A trial date has been scheduled for July 23 but is expected to be postponed.
New police leadership
Today, Biscayne Village’s leaders say they have almost completely overhauled the department since Atesiano’s resignation.
“This all happened long ago,” said current village manager Krishan Manners. “And as far as the village is concerned, we have cleaned up the police department and continue to strive to make it better.”
In June, the village hired as its top cop Luis Cabrera, a former high-ranking Miami police officer. He says he’s audited the evidence room, restructured the command staff and is getting civil-rights training for officers. Cabrera made Wollschlager his second-in-command, despite being entangled in the 2014 internal investigation.
The investigation concluded Wollschlager drank on duty and ordered suspect burglary arrests. But the department’s new chief reversed course and cleared Wollschlager. He left the Biscayne Park force this spring for a command post in North Bay Village, but was soon let go after news broke about the indictment of Atesiano and the other officers. Cabrera said he decided to rehire Wollschlager in June.
“The manager and I had discussions with the FBI. They made it very clear that Nick was never a target or a subject,” Cabrera said. “He was a cooperating witness who helped them.”