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.

Before Owens landed in the police helicopter, Irons was on the phone to Latona, who called the city manager's office and the police chief to complain about the fly-over.

McCarthy says he asked the FBI to explore his suspicion that Irons' political allies might be protecting him and keeping code enforcers from doing their job. When the FBI declined direct involvement, McCarthy put his own men in charge of a secret year-long probe -- Raabe at the street level, Donisi ultimately in charge.

Between the helicopter fly-over and the raid on Irons' property, the investigation somehow exhausted its public-corruption premise and reverted back to a code-enforcement probe of Irons. Then it took a new tack: Those involved say they came to believe that Irons wasn't paying taxes on his home business -- the manufacture of the radio tuners he'd invented.

In his official notes of the investigation, Ortenzo writes about the day of the raid:

City Hall seems to be in panic.... Media coverage one-sided.... We restrict comment and take high ground.... Some commissioners claim code terrorism. Sonny Irons claims whole thing initiated due to vendetta re: budget review committee, et cetera.... Commission even publicly backing Sonny Irons. We will keep quiet and do job.... Very disheartening that our commission has no clue....

Weeks after the raid, Ortenzo notes:

More and more info on tax-related larcenies and fraud, but State Attorney's Office getting cold feet, even before seeing any evidence.... How the hell are they in a position to say this without seeing the case? State Department of Revenue wants continued involvement but they are getting mad about lack of support from state attorney's office.

And later still:

Rumors abound that [Assistant City Manager] Pete Witschen, Chief McCarthy and Captain Symanski will be fired over Sonny Irons thing if no case strong enough evolves.... I am convinced a grand jury investigation is necessary.... I advise Donisi it may be time to retain counsel, even though city attorney is supposed to represent us....

McCarthy recalls receiving a phone message from City Manager George Hanbury on a Friday night, asking him to appear in his office the next morning. Was his job threatened as a result of the Irons investigation? "Yeah," McCarthy recalls.

"When I got down there, they were working on the budget message. Mr. Hanbury informed me at that point that commissioner Latona was extremely upset with this investigation and the search at the Irons, and that he was being put under a lot of pressure to do something with me and one of the assistant city managers, Pete Witschen."

Q:George Hanbury was being put under a lot of pressure?

A:Yes. Yes. You know, at that point I told him, what is it you're asking me? I said, "You're not asking me to do anything about this investigation are you?" He said, "No, I'm not asking you to do that." I said, "Well I wouldn't anyway. If you need to fire me, you fire me." He said, "I really dont want to do that, but it's coming down to you or me."

There's a problem, though, with conspiracy theory number two, one that will probably prevent it from being presented in court. The top code-enforcement officials who supposedly complained to police they couldn't do their jobs due to Irons' connections now deny that.

Harry Diehl, the code-enforcement department director who former chief McCarthy says complained to him half a dozen times, claims in a deposition that he has no recollection of such an occurrence. Major Ortenzo recalls in his notes how he got a series of alarming phone calls from John Schlegal, the code department's assistant director. Schlegal said pressure was being put on him not to investigate possible violations at the Irons' property, Ortenzo remembers. Today Schlegal says he "never intimated or had knowledge of any corruption in the negative sense of the word. I wasn't alleging that anybody was being bought off or through any other means coerced into doing something they wouldn't normally have done."

These days Tom McCarthy lives in North Carolina and works as assistant manager of Gastonia County.

"I think he came down here and walked into a snake pit and finally just decided, 'Hey, I'm going back to the mountains,'" says Naugle, who believes the former chief was hoodwinked by his command staff into spuriously targeting Sonny Irons. "He got taken for a ride. He decided who to believe, and he got sold a bill of goods."

In recent weeks City Manager George Hanbury announced he will also retire from municipal government work. Asked what effect Irons and his lawsuit had on his decision, Hanbury says "none whatsoever."

Not so with a half-dozen members of the city's code-enforcement team. Soon after the Irons raid, the department was revamped in a way that eliminated both the director and assistant director, as well as several other personnel. Bill Owens, the police code-enforcement detective who flew over Irons' house in a helicopter, is back working as a patrolman. The job switch occurred two weeks after he gave a deposition to Irons' lawyers.

"The first thing that went through my head was that my worst suspicions have come true," says John Schlegal, whose position was terminated in September 1994. "I messed with the wrong guy, or we messed with the wrong guy, and look at us all now, out to pasture."

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