Sonny's Last Stand

Coming soon to a courtroom near you: dueling conspiracy theories that pit Fort Lauderdale's finest against their political bosses. One certain verdict: There's a price to pay for tangling with civic activist Sonny Irons.

Paul Urschalitz, a Fort Lauderdale police captain, says he was queried by fellow officers before the raid on Irons' property. "They asked me where the bomb shelter was, the bunker," he recalls. "There was always this rumor that the Irons family had this underground complex." The bomb shelter in question is actually a hurricane den under the floor of the garage, which is about the size of a Volkswagen Bug.

Urschalitz, a specialist in crime prevention, met Irons in the mid-'80s and helped him set up a neighborhood policing program, the first in the city. The program was a response to a study showing how Fort Lauderdale was losing its middle class and how middle-class neighborhoods were being left to deteriorate. The Riverside Park Residents Association, led by Irons, developed a neighborhood master plan, barricaded streets to reduce transient traffic flow, reported drug dealing and code infractions, and collected money to pay for off-duty cops to patrol their streets.

At first the program was popular, but resistance to it gradually grew within the police department and among certain Riverside Park residents. Nate Goodman, the absentee owner of numerous low-income rental properties, helped organize an opposition group, the Stranahan Neighborhood Association -- its raison d'etre seemed to be putting Irons out of commission. After Irons' group reported Goodman for code violations, Goodman and several of his tenants filed code complaints against Irons.

"I would have to go meet with two or three inspectors each time and walk the site, and they would have to say it was unfounded and go back," Irons says. "There would be a series of complaints from tenants of Mr. Goodman, and that would usually end in a lawsuit. We would then win the lawsuit and the code harassment would begin all over again."

Says Naugle: "One hundred percent of the buildings in Fort Lauderdale have code violations. Code enforcement is always selective enforcement. So there's this thing called code terrorism. Sonny had been reported like 30 or 40 times for all sorts of things that were unfounded. It got to a point where, how many times do you accept all these complaints? At what point in time do you say, 'Hey, wait a minute, this person is being abused'?"

Urschalitz, the police crime-prevention expert, says police brass took a dim view of Irons' efforts in community policing, such as the philosophy of giving local residents more control over how police resources are allocated in particular neighborhoods.

"The short answer is that the police officers were inconvenienced by the traffic management plan, the limited access," says Urschalitz in a recent deposition. "The long answer -- and it's much more complicated -- is that community policing is a revolution in police work. It's a response to the outmoded professional model of police work. There's a lot of vested interest in the old way of doing things, and a lot of resistance to the new way of doing things."

Urschalitz notes that he was ordered to stop meeting with Irons and to stop making presentations to civic groups. The order came from Deputy Chief Joe Donisi. Donisi had been in charge of the neighborhood policing program in the late '80s but had been replaced after Irons complained about him.

"Given all the things that have come to light, I think there was a big sort of reaction, a trend toward stopping this movement toward community policing," Urschalitz says. "It was sort of starting to run counter to the organization's agenda."

In the context of that time, the opposition was far from impersonal. Urschalitz recalls a conversation among officers that he says took place in advance of the raid on Irons' house. "I dont know exactly how it started," Urschalitz says. "The conversation was me sitting at a table with a group of officers, and someone said there's probably a lot of people who would like to see Sonny Irons in jail. And Joe Donisi said, 'I'd like to see him dead.' That's how it came out.... I didn't think he was serious."

Sandy McCullough, now a detective with the Lauderhill Police Department, resigned from the Fort Lauderdale P.D. in the spring of 1994. She claims she was forced out by a power clique allied with Donisi. Under questioning late last year, she recalled other conversations about Irons.

[Capt.] Emmitt Thomas... had stated that he was going to get Sonny. That he wanted to get the [Riverside] detail canceled. "Who did [Sonny] think he was?" That he needed to be taught a lesson.

McCullough says that, in January or February '94, she had another conversation with Sgt. George Bentley: "He came upstairs," she recalls. "He had his baseball cap on. He was off duty. He goes, 'I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Sonny and Judy. I know they're selling drugs over there....' [A]nd he said, 'How dare he interfere with our pension.' He specifically said that. 'How dare that man interfere with our pension.'"

Q:Any other high-ranking officers that made statements they were out to get Sonny in retaliation for his civic activities?

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