“To seek the just determination of all criminal matters that are presented to the State Attorney” – from the web site of Broward State Attorney Michael Satz
By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
Once upon a time Jerry Frank Townsend was South Florida’s deadliest serial killer and rapist.
Broward Sheriff’s Office and Miami Police Department homicide detectives said it was so. Townsend, a grown man with the mental capacity of a child, confessed to nearly two dozen sex murders, they said.
Convicted of six brutal murders and a rape in 1980, Townsend was sent to prison for life. He remained behind bars for 22 years, until he was exonerated by DNA tests that didn’t exist when he was arrested.
The police frame-up of Townsend continues to haunt both BSO and county taxpayers. The Sun-Sentinel reported last month that BSO has agreed to pay $2 million over the next five years to settle a Broward civil rights lawsuit brought on Townsend’s behalf. Miami paid $2.2 million last year to end a similar Townsend suit filed in federal court. The public spent at least $1 million more on defense lawyers for the officers who were involved.
Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, once quick to prosecute Townsend on scant evidence, moved to set aside Townsend’s convictions after the DNA tests cleared him, but conducted no criminal investigation of the police whose testimony put Townsend in prison. Satz spokesman Ron Ishoy said Wednesday that prosecutors reviewed “the entire Townsend case even before the DNA testing” but “did not uncover any evidence to suggest” a frame-up.
Had an actual investigation been made, however, Satz would have found a disturbing record replete with clear and convincing evidence of specific crimes by BSO detectives and other officers, including perjury and the falsification of police reports.
Broward court records, including the lawsuit and the original trial and hearing transcripts, lay out in chilling detail how multiple murder charges were apparently trumped up against Townsend. The irrefutable DNA evidence that exonerated him implicates the detectives.
The Broward case against Townsend was driven by two BSO detectives, Mark Schlein and Anthony Fantigrassi. According to the lawsuit, they pinned the murders on the weak-minded Townsend to advance their careers.
In Florida, there is no statute of limitations on perjury in an official proceeding that relates to the prosecution of a capital felony. But like Satz, BSO did not investigate what its detectives did to Townsend.
Indeed, in 2001, Sheriff Ken Jenne promoted Fantigrassi from captain to major as the Townsend case was falling apart.
“They weren’t interested,” said Townsend’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Barbara Heyer.
Fantigrassi retired as head of BSO’s Criminal Investigations Unit in 2005. Schlein, an attorney, is a lieutenant colonel in charge of insurance fraud investigations for the Florida Department of Financial Regulation.
Upon Townsend’s release in June 2001, media attention focused on the four days of nearly non-stop interrogation he endured as detectives allegedly coached and rehearsed him into falsely confessing to crimes he did not commit. The Miami Herald and Sun Sentinel also reported how detectives stage-managed confessions through the use of selective tape recording.
The bad press caused BSO policy to change in 2003. Spokesman Jim Leljedal said that ever since the agency has required full audio or video recordings of all “interviews of arrested persons and most victims and witnesses.”
Proving that such police misconduct is a crime is difficult. But testimony made in court proceedings under oath and in signed police reports offer prosecutors more straightforward evidence.
At trial, ex-partners Schlein and Fantigrassi both testified Townsend led them to the scene of four Broward murders, and provided them with details only the killer would have known.
Detectives’ testimony takes on new meaning
But Townsend wasn’t the killer. So the detectives’ damning testimony takes on new meaning.
On the witness stand Schlein and Fantigrassi recounted how they followed Townsend to crime scenes, including the Dillard High School athletic field where 13-year-old Sonja Marion was raped and murdered. Schlein also testified Townsend identified the weapon he used to kill the teenager.
“The words he used – I’m not absolutely positive – but [Townsend] hit her in the head with a brick that he had gotten from that cement patch,” Schlein said, according to the 1980 trial transcript.
At a pre-trial hearing on a motion to suppress evidence, the detectives gave graphic testimony regarding Townsend’s alleged story about the murder of Terry Cummings.
“He indicated, number one, that when he initially struck her in the vicinity of the shack her wig had fallen off. That wig was in fact recovered immediately outside the shack,” said Schlein. “In addition to that he indicated that when she threatened to scream or began to scream he removed a very large – like a knee sock, which was red and white in color, and stuck it deep into her throat. This is consistent with the way the body was originally found.”
Fantigrassi offered more detail about Townsend’s “confession.”
“He looked down at the ground and said, ‘I used her bra to kill her.’ He made mention that he used a sock in her mouth to keep her from being heard, screaming. He drew a diagram in the sand for us of where the structure was, how it was located and how the position of the body laid in the structure. He pinpointed which direction the head was, which way the legs were, how the legs were. He made mention of a hand he had placed up on – the left hand, that he had place up on her pants.”
Police reports written and signed by Schlein contain many of those same statements. His Sept. 12, 1979 report adds this flourish: “Townsend stated that he placed her left hand on her hip, “to make her look like she pulled down her pants.’”
Townsend, of course, could not have known any details from the crime scene attributed to him by Schlein and Fantigrassi. DNA tests prove conclusively he did not kill Sonja Marion or Terry Cummings, and identify the real killer as Eddie Lee Mosley.
Schlein, who lives in Tallahassee, declined to discuss his testimony or his police reports.
“I’m not going engage in this exercise,” Schlein said before hanging up the telephone.
On Wednesday, Fantigrassi stuck by his original testimony and said he never lied to convict Townsend.
“I still vividly remember standing in that crowd with the Miami detectives and Mark and listening to [Townsend’s] story and him making the comment about the color of the sock in the mouth,” he said. “How did he get that specific information? I don’t know. I can just tell you I remember hearing it from him like it was yesterday.
“And to this day, how he got that information I don’t know. But he didn’t get it from me, and he didn’t get it from Mark. We are both cut from the same cloth. We don’t play around like that,” said Fantigrassi, who lives in Southwest Ranches.
The Townsend lawsuit
The Townsend lawsuit alleged a sweeping pattern of police misconduct, including perjury, witness and evidence tampering, obstruction of justice and a racketeering conspiracy in which detectives and successive administrations covered up police wrongdoing.
In pre-settlement court filings, BSO’s attorneys argued the agency and its detectives acted in good faith.
The terms of the $2 million settlement are confidential, except for the payout numbers which were filed in Townsend’s guardianship case.
What happened to Townsend is strikingly similar to what appears to have happened to Anthony Caravella, another mentally retarded Broward man who spent 25 years in prison for murder before DNA testing led to his release in September.
In 1983, when he was 15, Caravella confessed to the rape-murder of Ada Jankowski in Miramar. He was released under supervision last month after DNA testing excluded him as the source of sperm found on Jankowski’s body. He has not been exonerated, and further tests are being done.
Whether police officers lied to convict Caravella is not known. But Seth Miller, executive director of the Innocence Project of Florida, said that if they did they should be held accountable under Florida’s law that allows a witness in a capital case to be charged with perjury if they recant their testimony.
“If we don’t apply those standards to folks in law enforcement then it allows them to act with impunity,” Miller said.
Eddie Lee Mosley, linked by DNA to four murders once attributed to Townsend, is believed to be responsible for 41 rapes and 17 murders, according to the lawsuit. The crimes occurred between 1973 and 1987, when Mosley was declared incompetent to stand trial for the 1983 Christmas Eve rape-murder of Emma Cook and confined to a state mental hospital for the criminally insane.
In the summer of 1979, when Mosley was free, police were under intense pressure to catch the brutal serial killer terrorizing predominantly African-American neighborhoods in northwest Fort Lauderdale and nearby unincorporated areas.
Townsend’s Sept. 5 arrest in Miami as he walked home near the scene of an assault on a prostitute offered Broward detectives an opportunity to close multiple murder and rape cases. To make it happen, detectives testified falsely and ignored exculpatory evidence like independent alibi witness statements that put Townsend elsewhere at the time of some murders, according to court records.
Cops miss real killer
The BSO detectives also turned a blind eye on the real killer.
Three weeks before Townsend’s arrest, Eddie Lee Mosley, known around his northwest neighborhood as “The Rape Man,” was identified as the prime suspect in rape-murder cases in Fort Lauderdale’s jurisdiction.
At an interagency meeting, Fort Lauderdale Detective Doug Evans laid out the case against Mosley, including the eyewitness testimony of surviving rape victims and a unique shoeprint found at the Cummings death scene.
At trial, Fantigrassi told Townsend’s defense lawyer under cross examination that Evans had an “irrational vengeance” against Mosley.
“He would pursue him to no end. Any time any sort of homicide investigation broke out, he wanted us to check out Eddie Lee Mosley,” said Fantigrassi. “And as a precaution, when I was investigating the ’79 cases I did just that. I did check Eddie Lee Mosley. I discarded him as a suspect.”
Fantigrassi’s decision cost Townsend 22 years of his life. It also left Mosley free to continue to rape and kill.
The murders of 10 young African-American women and children that occurred between the day of Townsend’s arrest in 1979 and the day Mosley was taken off the streets for good in 1987 are now linked to Mosley, according to the lawsuit.
One of them was 8-year-old Shaundra Whitehead of Fort Lauderdale, who was raped and fatally beaten in her bed in 1985.
But there were other victims, including the man State Attorney Satz’s office helped send to Death Row for Shaundra’s murder, Frank Lee Smith.
Smith spent 14 years in prison before dying of cancer on January 30, 2000. Eleven months later, he was exonerated by DNA tests that identified Mosley as Shandra’s killer.