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Crime, in the name of the law

Federal court testimony reveals corruption in the Delta squad, an elite undercover drug team at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office.

By ALICIA CALDWELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 18, 2000


BRADENTON -- They prowled the streets of Manatee County, looking for the perfect victims -- poor, troubled people no one would believe.

Then, they robbed them. Beat them. And even bragged about it.

When it began to come apart, they hung together and conspired to keep quiet. They saw themselves as above the law.

After all, they were the law.

The crimes committed by the Delta squad, an elite drug interdiction team at the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, have trickled out in shocking detail in federal court during the past eight months.

It's a tale of rogue cops who routinely lied on police reports and carried their own stash of crack cocaine to plant if they couldn't find any on the people they wanted to bust.

"They developed their own set of rules and mind-sets about how things should be," said Mark Lipinski, a Bradenton lawyer who represents several Delta squad victims. "They preyed upon people who were basically defenseless."

So far, the toll is jarring: Four Delta squad agents have pleaded guilty to a variety of federal charges and await sentencing. More than 100 charges have been dropped against 67 defendants in cases made by Delta officers.

And the federal investigation, according to the lead prosecutor on the case, is continuing.

Among the transgressions detailed in federal plea agreements:

Delta agents got a bogus search warrant for a Manatee County duplex and planted crack cocaine there. A woman visiting the home was arrested. As a result of her felony conviction, she lost custody of her child. Before her encounter with the Delta squad, she had no criminal record. Eventually, her conviction was overturned and her child was returned.

Delta officers conducted an illegal search of a Bradenton motel room and stole $9,000 from a man, who filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office. Later, deputies planted crack cocaine in the man's car as retaliation for the complaint.

Delta agents routinely obtained search warrants based on lies: If drugs had been bought outside a house, Delta officers would say the buy had taken place inside the home and get a search warrant for the house.

The officers brought crack with them on busts. If they didn't find any in the homes or pockets of the people they were trying to arrest, they would plant it. Fabricating cases wasn't the only aim. The agents wanted to use seizure laws to take cars and other property from their victims.

Sometimes the agents would give crack cocaine to people who were helpful to their investigations.

One agent bragged that Delta operated under the "good old boy" system and didn't have to abide by rules to which other deputies were subjected.

How did the officers of the Delta squad get so out of control?

Sheriff's Office officials called them renegade cops who operated under something approaching a code of silence.

Long-time Manatee Sheriff Charlie Wells, who is running for a fifth term this fall, said that as soon as his office started to see indications of bad cops among them, they began an internal investigation.

Based on evidence, Wells said he thinks the Delta crimes were isolated incidents committed in a short time frame, perhaps three to six months.

"Unfortunately, we still hire police officers from the human race," Wells said. "Fortunately for us, this didn't go on for a long time."

Others, however, aren't so sure.

"This way of doing things seemed to be a fairly entrenched, okay way of doing things," said Jeffrey Del Fuoco, lead prosecutor on the case from the U.S. Attorney's Office. "It just seems to me that this kind of a network doesn't spring up overnight."

Wells is known for his old-school law enforcement approach: County jail inmates wear black and white striped uniforms and work on a jail farm. The Delta task force, started in 1986, was designed to combat the drug trade from street level to suppliers. Despite the Delta scandal, Wells seems to have retained his popularity in conservative Manatee County.

As the November election approaches, his only opposition comes from a retired sheet-metal worker who has no law enforcement experience, no political party affiliation and paltry campaign funds. Wells' contribution list includes many of the county power brokers. Why isn't anyone taking on Wells?

"Nobody thinks they have a chance, I guess," said Thomas Williams, Wells' only challenger. "He's got too much money behind him. He's got powerful people behind him."

Nevertheless, reverberations from the Delta scandal are unlikely to end soon. Along with the continuing criminal investigation, several lawyers have filed or are preparing civil lawsuits seeking damages for those wronged by the Delta squad.

Blake Melhuish, a Bradenton lawyer who has represented a Delta victim in criminal matters, said the federal plea agreements are so detailed that they are virtual blueprints for civil lawsuits.

"There's no reason to wait anymore," Melhuish said.

The scandal came to light in April 1998, when Larren Wade, a suspected drug dealer, filed a complaint with authorities, claiming Delta officers stole $9,000 from him.

Wade was thought to be distributing crack cocaine in Bradenton. Delta agents were out to make a case on him. One evening, they made a purported crack buy from him, but he briefly slipped away and Delta agents couldn't find the "buy" money. So, they took some out of Wade's pocket and decided they would call that the buy money.

After all, who would take his word over that of the police?

"This was able to flourish as long as it did because the victims they picked out didn't have a voice," Lipinski said.

However, other people began to catch wind of what was going on. Rumors began circulating within the law enforcement community. Lipinski said he heard from deputies that Delta agents were beating people, stealing money and planting drugs.

"That's when I began to suspect that something was seriously wrong," Lipinski said.

Wells said sheriff's officials began to notice a pattern: The same group of officers was being accused of the same types of behavior.

Wade's complaint resulted in an internal investigation that burgeoned into a state and federal investigation involving the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office.

As the Delta officers began to plead out to federal charges, Manatee's 87-year-old courthouse buzzed with talk of the scandal.

"From beginning to end, it's unbelievable," Melhuish said. "I grew up believing the cops were the good guys. We're finding that sometimes they're not."

Del Fuoco said he expects further charges. It's unclear, he said, how far up the chain of command the improprieties go.

"We go where the evidence goes," Del Fuoco said. "The investigation definitely continues."

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