By Bob Norman, special to FloridaBulldog.org
After two years of investigation by his own department, retired Davie Police Officer Jeffrey Stewart was finally about to face justice.
Stewart was charged in October with multiple felonies related to a charity he’d started for tragedy-stricken families in the city where he worked. The two-year investigation, led by Davie Police Detective Viviana Gallinal, found that nearly $15,000 of the money he raised never made it to those he’d promised to help.
One of those people was an El Salvadoran immigrant named Maria Orellana Cruz, whose husband, Carlos Amaya, and 5-year-old daughter, Heydi, were hit and killed by a car in 2018 while trick or treating on Halloween. Shortly after that tragedy, the balding and mustachioed Stewart, 53, appeared on WSVN-TV in uniform and announced that he was creating a GoFundMe account for Cruz and her surviving 2-year-old daughter.
Gallinal charged Stewart with six criminal counts, including tampering with evidence and two counts of grand theft. Then it was up to first-year Broward State Attorney Harold Pryor to prosecute the case.
The case was a bit of a test for Pryor, who was elected as the county’s first black state attorney last year. He ran with promises to end the courthouse status quo established by his predecessor Michael Satz, who’d served in the position since 1976. Pryor specifically said he would hold police officers fully accountable should they commit crimes and reform a justice system that was “stacked against people of color and poor people.”
Officer Stewart raised $32,000 for the grieving mother and widow, but Cruz received only about $23,000. According to Gallinal’s October arrest warrant, Stewart warned Cruz that if she went to the authorities about the missing money she would likely be deported. Cruz later told police she decided to stay quiet because Stewart was a police officer and that no amount of money “would be worth her suffering” if she were deported back to El Salvador.
PRYOR DROPS FELONY CHARGES
But on the morning of Nov. 2, Pryor’s office quietly dropped the felony charges against Stewart and replaced them with two petty theft charges, both misdemeanors. It was part of a plea deal approved by Pryor that will ensure Stewart does no prison time, avoids the possibility of becoming a felon, and likely will allow him to retain his police pension. Stewart agreed to pay nearly $15,000 in restitution to victims, including the missing $9,000 to Cruz. The police officer retired shortly after the criminal investigation began in April 2019.
Pryor’s office, in a deviation from normal protocol, didn’t consult with the Davie Police Department about the decision to drop the felony charges against Stewart, according to informed police sources. When reached on the phone, Gallinal declined to comment at length about the case but voiced a note of disappointment. “I wouldn’t have chosen to file the [misdemeanor] charges that were filed,” she said. Diplomatically.
She also declined to address suspicions that Pryor’s decision to go easy on Stewart was influenced by his close relationship with Stewart’s Fort Lauderdale attorney, Michael Dutko. Dutko is one of the state attorney’s most valued political supporters, so much so that Pryor appointed him a member of his campaign transition team last November.
Did Dutko’s cozy relationship with Pryor influence the deal?
“Absolutely not,” Dutko said. “In fact, I will tell you that the fact that I have a relationship [with Pryor] and a good reputation with that office often raises a different sort of a challenge and that is that we have to make sure we’re doing the right thing and we’re not perceived to be doing favors. I think Harold has been quite ethical in his approach.”
Dutko said he had no direct contact with Pryor about the case and worked exclusively through the office’s chief public corruption prosecutor, Chris Killoran. He said Pryor gave his blessing to the deal only after he provided the office with Stewart’s mental health records as a mitigating factor in his crimes.
PRYOR WON’T ANSWER QUESTIONS
Pryor refused a Florida Bulldog request for an interview about the case. He instead issued a written statement that includes the following passage: “I consistently emphasize to our staff that I want our office and our employees to do the right thing and I place value on justice and the safety of the whole community. Our prosecutors have an open-door policy and defense attorneys and public defenders are welcome to propose appropriate plea agreements that uphold justice and the safety of the whole community.”
But even some of Pryor’s own backers say the level of cooperation the office provided Stewart is not commonly extended to the minorities and financially disadvantaged defendants that Pryor promised to treat more fairly. Gordon Weekes, who was elected Broward’s first black public defender on the same day Pryor won office, says that while he continues to support Pryor he considers it his obligation to hold the state attorney publicly accountable. Stewart’s case, says Weekes, reeks of the same old problems that have plagued the county for decades.
“When you’re making decisions based on favors, on access to power, on political influence in your office, you’re not making a decision based on equity,” he says. “My [indigent] clients don’t get that same consideration. We can’t have this two-tiered system of justice where the haves and the have-nots get two different systems of justice. But that’s what we’re seeing.”
Attorney Bill Gelin, chief contributor to the courthouse website JAABlog, echoes Weekes.
“This is egregious,” says Gelin. “Why is the leniency demonstrated for those with strong connections to Pryor’s office?”
TOUGH STANCE AGAINST NEW MOM
In contrast, Gelin points to the case of Destiny Williams, a 23-year-old financially disadvantaged black woman he represents on a violation of probation case. While in custody on the charge, Williams gave birth to her first child, a premature daughter, born Oct. 7. The mother was then separated from her baby and returned to jail.
Prosecutors want to imprison Williams for 45 months on the violation of probation charge, which was filed after she tested positive last year for drugs and was charged with misdemeanor battery. She also failed to report to her probation officer as required. Williams has a court hearing scheduled for Friday. After this article was published, Pryor’s office reduced its 45-month prison sentence recommendation down to 24 months. With 14 months served and other considerations, her attorney estimates she will be released from jail and united with her daughter in a little over six months.
Gelin says a reformed justice system would give Williams a chance to be a new mother to her daughter. He personally asked Pryor to spare Williams jail time, but Pryor declined to intervene, telling Gelin he would defer the matter to his prosecutors.
“After everything he campaigned on to make things better for poor minority offenders, it appears he’s on board with destroying this young family,” says Gelin.
In a telephone interview with the Florida Bulldog from her jail cell, Williams said all she wants is a chance to be with her daughter Ranyra, who is now two months old and living with her father. She made a personal plea to Pryor.
A PLEA TO PRYOR
“I would say to him that … God provided me with a beautiful girl,” she said. “I can admit I did wrong but now all I can think about is her, is doing better for her, so I can be in her life, so I can be the mom that I needed in my own life. I love my daughter to the moon and back. It’s a tremendous change. My baby’s life is more precious than my life.”
She said she’s never been able to hold her daughter, who was born prematurely, and was only able to see her and give her a kiss in the moment after her birth. Then she was taken away to the newborn intensive care unit while Williams was returned to her jail cell.
“If I ever violate again, they can give me life in prison,” said Williams. “But I know I won’t violate again because of my little girl. All I’m asking for is a second chance for my child, not for myself, not for anybody else, but for my first and only child.”
Gelin says the changes Pryor promised have been “non-existent.” Weekes says he believes Pryor can and will come through with his promises, but patience may be stretching thin.
“There’s great hope in him,” says Weekes of the 34-year-old Pryor. “I have that hope. The frustration comes when you ask, ‘Are we moving fast enough?’ And that is the problem. Folks want tangible things, tangible changes. Are we seeing it? No.”
Bob Norman is the journalism director for the Florida Center for Government Accountability. This story was produced in partnership with the FLCGA.