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.

A:[Maj.] Jim Mowell. He had made comments to me about Sonny Irons, saying he was a worthless piece of shit.... This man thinks he has power over us.

Further on in her deposition, McCullough recalls:

[Det.] Bill Owens came in several times and told me they were working on a search warrant on Sonny's house. And my words to him were, "What in God's name are you looking for there?" And he said drugs. I said, "You better be careful. I don't believe Sonny deals in drugs." I said, "They're going to use you as a pawn and spit you out at the end. So you better be careful before you get involved in this.

Next time McCullough saw Owens, the search warrant had changed, she claims. Now it was tax-related. Her interpretation: "It is a typical thing we officers do." She notes, "When we can't catch them with drugs, we turn it over to the IRS."

Richard Forum, a dentist who lost his own civil rights lawsuit against the department, recalls a conversation with the lead detective who investigated Irons. From Forum's deposition:

Q:Can you recall at some point in time Sergeant Raabe making any comments about Sonny Irons?

A:Steve [Raabe] was in my office on April 19, 1994, to have his teeth cleaned.... [He] asked me if I knew Sonny Irons, and I said I did not.... [H]e commented that [Irons] was not a friend of the police department and that they were going to get him -- something to that effect. That was the gist of it. He mentioned something about the pension board, I don't really recall. Something about the salary and the pension board.

"This whole matter can only be described as unusual or out of the ordinary."
So begins the final section of a 50-page report written by retired FBI agents at a Harrisonburg, Virginia, consulting firm. The City of Fort Lauderdale paid the firm $100,000 for an independent review of the Sonny Irons incident -- no doubt in part because administrators foresaw the city being sued by Irons.

On March 7, 1995, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission met to hear the results of the report. A record of the meeting notes that the chief consultant "had never seen such a case in his 40 years of law enforcement and did not know that he would want to get involved with such a case again."

The report, which criticizes police for occasional lapses in propriety (the pizza, the Cecil B. DeMille-like cast that descended on the Irons' property), essentially exonerates the department.

After throwing the report across the room and into a wastebasket, Mayor Naugle stated that "when there was dirt on the floor, it could be swept under the rug but that it was still present and would have to be dealt with someday," according to the minutes.

Someday has arrived and with it the possibility that a jury will soon hear not just Sonny Irons' conspiracy theory but also a second one. In conspiracy theory number two, Jim Naugle, Jack Latona, and Irons conspired to browbeat a city manager, a police chief, and the Broward State Attorney's Office into dropping a legitimate criminal inquiry.

Conspiracy theory number two stems from the morning of September 21, 1993, when a police helicopter appeared above Irons' house and hovered there for some minutes. Inside the helicopter a detective assigned to the police code-enforcement unit snapped pictures of Irons and his family "lounging on patio furniture." He later said he was trying to determine whether the family was living inside the house, which was (and remains) unfinished and lacks a certificate of occupancy, and whether other serious code violations existed.

"Det. Bill Owens had tried to conduct an informal investigation into these violations," Sergeant Raabe writes in a sworn affidavit.

Code Compliance and Building Inspection personnel indicated that they had received word from those higher up in city hall that they were not to bother Sonny Irons' property because he had a special deal with the city.

A formal investigation was initiated by Chief McCarthy in order to determine whether the problem was simply a dereliction of duty by the city's code-compliance team or possibly some form of public corruption.

Eventually the investigation directly involved Raabe, Det. Bill Rohloff, Capt. Rick Symanski, Maj. Al Ortenzo, Donisi, and McCarthy. All the police officers deny their actions were politically motivated. Donisi says the notion that he threatened to kill Irons is absurd. He says the same thing about Irons' lawsuit.

Bill Owens says he never discussed the Irons search warrant with Sandy McCullough because he never knew about it. He calls her recollections "pure fabrication." Jim Mowell and Emmitt Thomas were unavailable for comment.

Chief McCarthy's recollection: "Being new to the community, I didn't know people very well, but people would approach me and make comments about how Sonny Irons was able to avoid some of the same rules and regulations that other people had to follow. I really didn't pay a whole lot of attention to that. And then we had a helicopter fly over his property.

"At that point it became a very big issue with city hall, and I couldn't quite figure out what the issue was, but it was just a very big issue."

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