By Dan Christensen, BrowardBulldog.org
There was little public discussion last fall when Miami commissioners voted unanimously to pay $550,000 to a working mom who had been kidnapped and raped by a city police officer in his patrol car.
But for 53 minutes before the vote, commissioners privately heard a disturbing earful from city lawyers who told them about aspects of the case that were not made public, and described a stunning breakdown of police hiring practices under former Chief John Timoney.
Broward Bulldog has obtained a copy of the 21-page transcript of the Oct. 13 closed-door meeting using Florida’s public records law.
The discussions concerned a lawsuit filed by Kenia Perez against the city about ex-Officer Michael Ragusa, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale and went on to become the Miami Police Department’s worst nightmare: a sexual predator with a badge.
Among other things, the federal complaint filed by prominent Fort Lauderdale civil rights attorney Barbara Heyer contended that, under Timoney, the city failed to weed out officers like Ragusa with “dangerous propensities” that made them unfit for duty.
Ragusa pleaded guilty in 2008 to charges of rape and attempted rape for attacks on three women in Miami Beach – including Perez. He’s halfway done serving a 10-year prison sentence.
The transcript reveals that police thought those attacks were actually the tip of Ragusa’s sexual crime spree in blue.
“Both our officers and the City of Miami Beach police officers believed that there were dozens of people that he did,” Assistant City Attorney Henry Hunnefeld told commissioners. “Dozens.”
The FBI’s public corruption unit is investigating Ragusa in connection with those alleged attacks, Broward Bulldog has learned. A bureau spokesman declined comment.
It was the city’s own failings when it hired Ragusa that were the focus of City Attorney Julie Bru and her liability-minded legal team.
“We’re cooked,” said Bru, as she presented a recommendation for settlement.
“A case with this set of facts is something that a jury could do very bad things with,” added Hunnefeld.
Some of the worst facts for the city involved Officer Willie F. Bell.
Bell was in charge of conducting the disastrous pre-hire background check on Ragusa in 2004. According to the city’s attorneys, he gave a green light to hire Ragusa despite Ragusa’s admissions on an employment application to numerous incidents of illegal sexual activity and dishonesty.
Hunnefeld described Bell as uniquely unqualified for the important job of checking out recruits for a troubled police agency with a decades-old “reputation of having bad cops who do bad things.
“He is the most disciplined officer in the history of the city,” Hunnefeld said. “Twenty-six times he was disciplined by our department.”
Bell, 55, a 26-year officer who retired in 2006, acknowledged his lengthy discipline record in an interview with Broward Bulldog. He said drug dealers lodged most of those complaints in attempts to discredit him when he worked the streets in Liberty City and Overtown.
Bell also confirmed that he had approved Ragusa’s hiring. He said he did so because “there was nothing negative in his background.”
“I’m a scapegoat. I didn’t hire a rapist. The guy became what he did,” said Bell. “Things were kept hush-hush, and it was blame Willie Bell.”
Miami police spokesman Major Delrish Moss said he was unaware of the city attorney’s statements to commissioners that Ragusa is believed to have had dozens of other victims
“If there were dozens of cases, and I have never heard anyone allege this, the Miami Beach PD or the State Attorney’s Office would be investigating rather than us. We were only the hiring and later firing agency with regard to (Ragusa’s) employment,” he said.
A WAITRESS HEADS HOME
In the early morning hours of March 19, 2007, Kenia Perez, 31, stepped off a county bus in Miami Beach on her way home from a 10-hour shift at a South Beach restaurant where she waited tables six days a week to support herself and her five-year-old son.
Ragusa was there. He lived in Miami Beach, and was driving his take-home patrol car in uniform. He called Perez over, forced her inside, drove a few blocks away and raped her. He was arrested the next day.
The attack left lasting psychological scars on Perez, who no longer lives in the United States. She became afraid to be alone and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, the transcript says. Her name hasn’t come out before, but attorney Heyer said she wanted it known.
The transcript reveals the city also paid $62,500 to settle another damage suit filed by another of Ragusa’s rape victims. That woman got much less after the city “uncovered that she had been a prostitute and that she had actually done some other things that were difficult.
Hunnefeld traced “this tragedy” back to before Ragusa was hired – to the day in 2002 when former Police Chief Raul Martinez installed Bell as background investigator, apparently to get him off the streets.
Bell had a dismal internal record as a cop. He’d been disciplined for using excessive force, neglect of duty, improper discharge of a firearm and theft. He also was arrested for battery, falsifying public records and official misconduct, but those criminal charges were dropped after Bell agreed to attend an anger management program.
“I believe Chief Martinez’s heart was in the right place, but it just didn’t turn out well…from the time (Bell) was selected, bad things happened,” Hunnefeld said.
NEW CHIEF AND NEW HIRES
Timoney became chief a few months later. Bell remained at his post as the new chief led a push to recruit new officers. As Timoney wrote in his 2003 Blueprint for the Future report, the focus “is not on how to improve the quality of the men and women on the MPD, but the urgent need to increase their quantity.”
In the 1980s and 1990s, bad hires had led to scandal and embarrassment. Between 1990 and 2001, Miami paid nearly $18 million to resolve more than 110 federal and state lawsuits alleging brutality, misconduct or unnecessary death caused by city police officers.
Then, in 2001, more than a dozen officers were indicted for conspiring to cover up police shootings by planting evidence. Nine of those officers were later convicted.
Reforms were instituted, and Timoney pledged to restore the public’s trust.
Perez’s lawsuit, however, alleged that Timoney failed to institute any meaningful change.
Worse, under Timoney pressure was put on the department’s psychologist to qualify recruits like Ragusa who should not have been hired, according to the city attorneys.
Hunnefeld told commissioners how psychologist Dr. Mark Axelberd had described the city’s “unusual” psychological examination form as a way to classify recruits as not just acceptable or unacceptable, but also as “borderline” acceptable.
“The only reason (the form was used) was because he got so much pressure from police officials to hire what he didn’t think were qualified individuals that this was the only way, having borderline candidates,” Hunnefeld said. He added, “if Axelberd gets on the stand he will testify as to this.”
Timony, who resigned in 2009, is currently working as a police consultant in Bahrain. He did not respond to emailed requests for comment.
Timoney was deposed in the case in March 2011. Attorney Heyer asked him if he was satisfied that the department’s hiring process, including background checks, was being done appropriately after he became chief. “Yes,” Timoney said.
Axelberd found Ragusa to have “a problem with impulse control” and classified him borderline. But Alexberd also warned Bell “this is not somebody you’d want to hire,” Hunnefeld said.
The city no longer evaluates recruits that way, Hunnefeld said. But that wasn’t the only red flag that escaped Bell, including ones hoisted by Ragusa himself.
“I’ve filled out many (job) applications before. I’m sure everyone has,” Hunnefeld told commissioners. “I have never put sexual assaults on my applications…However, Michael Ragusa did. How that slips through the fingers of the investigator I am not sure.”
Bell approved Ragusa even though he was rejected by numerous other police agencies including the Broward Sheriff’s Office, Miami-Dade, North Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Cooper City, Hunnefeld said.
Ragusa went on to do plenty of damage is a three-year career as a Miami police officer. In addition to the rapes, he was involved in numerous excessive force incidents.
“I have so far defended four lawsuits about Ragusa and his excessive force,” Hunnefeld said.
HOW MANY OUT THERE?
How many other borderline candidates were hired by the city was not discussed at the settlement meeting. But the Miami Police Department remains a focus of controversy.
The Miami Herald reported in November that the Justice Department is investigating possible civil rights violations in the deaths of seven black men shot by city officers between July 2010 and February 2011.
Meanwhile, City Legal Advisor George Wysong informed commissioners that police leaders had a takeaway from their experience with Ragusa.
“This case has impressed upon them the significance of – you know, you may think that the background unit is a place to put your problem child. Now they understand the consequences of a little decision like that,” Wysong said.
The lesson should come in handy.
One week after agreeing to pay $550,000 to settle with Perez, Miami City Manager Johnny Martinez lifted a two-year freeze on hiring new police officers.