Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Sweetwater’s latest scandal only adds to the town’s corrupt legacy

Guns and money and drugs and more disappeared. Police looted their own evidence room. And, of course, security cameras that might have recorded the thefts have gone conveniently kaput.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement audit — 500 pages describing 7,877 items including 19 guns and 44 caches of seized narcotics gone missing since 2010 — would have been startling except that all this was coming out of Sweetwater. Corruption scandals have long been the town’s most notable attribute.

Just last year, former mayor Manuel Lázaro Maroño was hauled off to federal prison after he was snagged for taking kickbacks in an FBI sting operation.

The year before, the FDLE had been asked to investigate disturbing stories about a secret evidence room where Sweetwater cops stashed seized weapons, money, drugs and counterfeit designer merchandise. The Miami Herald’s Charles Rabin and El Nuevo Herald’s Brenda Medina reported Wednesday that this secret evidence room was not the same evidence room that prompted this summer’s FDLE investigation. Oh, Sweetwater.

While the first evidence room mess was unfolding in 2013, Sweetwater police detective Octavio Oliu was nabbed by the Florida Highway Patrol, accused of evading Sunpass highway tolls — at least 500 violations — by attaching stolen license tags to his SUV. Sweetwater Police Detective William Garcia was sentenced to nine years in a federal prison in a stolen credit card scheme.

Other Sweetwater cops were under investigation for beating up suspects and stealing their property. As these scandals roiled the department, critics blamed the police department’s hiring practices — at least a dozen members of the Sweetwater PD had left other law enforcement agencies “under a cloud,” as the Herald reported in 2013. But in Sweetwater, unsavory cops and officials represent an unhappy continuum.

A 1982 investigation by the Miami Herald found that 80 percent of Sweetwater’s police officers were known as “gypsy cops.” Chief Charlie Toledo told the Herald that his budget constraints limited his hires to “debris rejected from other departments.”

The most infamous of those rejects was Manuel Pardo, who was hired by Sweetwater after resigning from the Florida Highway Patrol while he was under investigation for writing bogus traffic tickets. Pardo, however, was soon specializing in ripping off and occasionally murdering suspected drug dealers. He was convicted in 1988 for nine homicides and was executed in 2012.

This is a town — founded in 1941 by a circus troupe of dwarfs, the Russian Royal Midget Troupe — with a history of lowdown doings that goes back to the 1950s, when at least two grand juries complained that Sweetwater’s only raison d’etre was to run an auto inspection scam. (If your jalopy couldn’t pass the state inspection elsewhere, Sweetwater was the place to go.) Grand jurors suggested that the county simply should abolish the lawless town.

This was all before Mayor Irain Gonzalez and council members Antonio Duran and Carmen Menendez were convicted of federal extortion in 1990. Before Mayor Manny Maroño followed them to prison. Before this latest cop scandal.

Except the word “scandal” implies that the crooked activities shocked the community. Sorry. Not in Sweetwater.

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