A Pinellas lawyer is demanding exoneration after he was accused of weapons violations.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
Published May 15, 2004
To lawyer Douglas de Vlaming, it seemed like simple retribution. He owned a few guns, including mementos from his service in the Vietnam War. But de Vlaming said he didn't own anything illegal.
After de Vlaming contacted authorities to accuse a worker renovating his kitchen of stealing $3,200, he got a threatening phone message from the man.
"Mr. de Vlaming, you stole weapons from the U.S. Army . . ." Ronald Van Cleef said, according to de Vlaming's transcript. "You have so many multiple weapons in your home that are machine guns that you absolutely . . . stole."
Using profanity, Van Cleef told de Vlaming to get out of his life and he would remain out of de Vlaming's.
Van Cleef reported de Vlaming to the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Van Cleef said he told agents about a spare room in de Vlaming's Largo home overflowing with weapons, including illegal machine guns. According to his lawyer, Van Cleef passed a polygraph.
The ATF recognized this wasn't just any other tip. De Vlaming is a respected lawyer, a former Air Force fighter pilot who earned a Silver Star during two tours in the Vietnam War.
Van Cleef was a man with a criminal record.
Four ATF agents visited de Vlaming in October 2002 with a search warrant not long after Van Cleef called them. De Vlaming denied owning machine guns and consented to the search.
Agents found no machine guns or anything illegal and closed their investigation.
But that wasn't enough for De Vlaming. He's been on an 18-month quest to clear his name of the accusations from Van Cleef, who pleaded no contest last month to a charge that he stole the $3,200.
De Vlaming said Van Cleef lied about the machine guns for revenge. But Van Cleef, even when threatened with prison time by a judge, insists he told the truth.
"What I saw is what I saw," Van Cleef said last week. "And I know I saw the real thing."
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De Vlaming, who did not return calls for comment, and his wife Karen hired Van Cleef, a private contractor, in April 2002 to renovate their kitchen.
During work, Van Cleef said he was searching for a phone when he opened what he thought was a bedroom door. He said he found dozens of guns.
Van Cleef, who served in the Army for three years, said he knew guns. He later told the ATF he saw M-16 machine guns, AK-47s that fired on automatic and a large-caliber, belt-fed Russian machine gun.
"He had weapons leaning against a couch and others in a display case," Van Cleef said.
Van Cleef didn't immediately call authorities.
At some point, the de Vlamings paid Van Cleef $3,200 to buy and install custom cabinet doors. But de Vlaming said Van Cleef delivered neither the doors nor the work. De Vlaming reported a theft.
That's about the time Van Cleef left the profane message, de Vlaming said. Van Cleef said he left the lawyer an angry message, though he disputes the words de Vlaming attributed to him.
Van Cleef went to ATF agents in September 2002. Van Cleef said he passed numerous polygraph exams and told the ATF about his dispute with de Vlaming.
But in an affidavit to a federal judge to support a search warrant, ATF agent Michael Gistinger refers to Van Cleef only as a "concerned citizen," never referring to the money dispute.
After ATF's fruitless search, de Vlaming later said in a motion to unseal the warrant, "The agents apologized for bothering me and left."
In March 2003, Pinellas prosecutors charged Van Cleef with grand theft and unlicensed specialty contracting.
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De Vlaming, brother of defense lawyer Denis de Vlaming, wanted more than an apology from federal agents.
He wanted to clear his name.
De Vlaming filed a complaint against Van Cleef with federal authorities. He filed Freedom of Information requests seeking a copy of the federal search warrant and information used to support it. He wrote a letter to U.S. Magistrate Gary Jones, the federal judge in Ocala who signed the search warrant.
"I want the whole truth known, and I would like the exoneration that I am entitled to receive,' de Vlaming told Jones, complaining about the steady erosion of liberties in the United States. "The issuance of the search warrant was the same as my country saying to me that it is more likely than not that I am a criminal."
In the same letter, de Vlaming said federal officials refused to charge Van Cleef with making a false statement because it would send a chilling message to other potential informants
Jones ordered the search warrant unsealed.
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Early last month, Van Cleef prepared to plead no contest to the grand theft and unlicensed specialty contracting charges and to admit to a probation violation on an earlier DUI conviction. Prosecutors agreed to a plea deal that called for a year of probation.
Van Cleef, who had moved to California, posted $25,000 bail and returned to Pinellas to face a judge.
But de Vlaming wrote a letter to the Pinellas circuit judge scheduled to take the plea.
"I realize that Mr. Van Cleef has a Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself by admitting that he made false statements to ATF," de Vlaming told Judge Brandt Downey. "However, I would like this matter addressed during the hearing."
At the hearing, de Vlaming told Downey, "He lied to ATF. He knows it. I know it. . . . Judge, I do want my good name cleared."
Van Cleef, whose record includes convictions for resisting arrest with violence, insisted he told the truth.
Downey, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves, ordered Van Cleef held without bail as a flight risk and postponed the plea deal, saying another victim wasn't present.
Though prosecutors had agreed to a probation sentence with Van Cleef's attorney, Roger Rigau, Downey threatened a 10-year prison sentence.
"I think, Mr. Rigau, you and Mr. Van Cleef need to spend some time talking with regard to the request of Mr. de Vlaming and see if . . . that matter can be resolved because certainly that might have a bearing on how I feel or what I feel Mr. Van Cleef should receive as far as a proper sentence is concerned."
Rigau was stunned. He said in an interview the ATF search warrant wasn't even a matter before Downey. Downey did not return a call for comment.
"My client was prepared to do the 10 years," Rigau said. "He wasn't prepared to say he didn't see something he saw."
Rigau filed a motion to remove Downey from the case, saying the judge was biased because he had implied that giving de Vlaming what he wanted would spare Van Cleef 10 years in prison.
Downey agreed to step down. On April 16, after Van Cleef had spent more than a week in jail, another judge took his no contest plea and sentenced him to probation.
Today, the ATF refuses to discuss in detail its investigation of de Vlaming or if agents now believe Van Cleef lied.
"Any time we have information that has something to do with high-powered weapons, that's something we take very seriously," said ATF spokesman Carlos Baixauli.
Asked if ATF knew when it obtained the search warrant that de Vlaming had accused Van Cleef of theft, Baixauli said, "There's nothing to say we knew about this adversarial incident."
Van Cleef, now living in California, insists he saw machine guns. Despite his plea, he said he didn't steal de Vlaming's money.
And Van Cleef said de Vlaming will never get an admission from him. "Nobody needs those kinds of weapons," Van Cleef said.