Beach Beat

When Chris Caulfield got stomped near South Florida's most notorious nightclub, he didn't roll over

With two buds of marijuana cupped in his right hand and a black, one-hit pipe in his pocket, 18-year-old Christopher Caulfield strolls up the broad sidewalk along Fort Lauderdale beach. Wearing black pants and a white tank top over his fair skin, the tall, thin kid is looking for some fun. Designer prescription glasses perched on his long, patrician nose, Chris is hungry for human contact after spending all Saint Patrick's Day sanding, pouring glue, and laying vinyl floors. He is off the floor now and, after two bottles of malt liquor, ready to get high.

Walking the strip, with the dark ocean to his right and lines of cars and throngs of people to his left, Chris approaches Club Atlantis, a controversial nightspot that admits 18-year-olds. It's 2 a.m. March 18, and Atlantis is throbbing; electronic beats pump from huge amps, and a line comprised mostly of young people snakes from its doors. On the sidewalk across the street from Atlantis, Chris notices a white kid with a goatee whom he's met before. With that kid are two black guys, one wearing a blue bandanna and red hat and the other, whom Chris vaguely recognizes, with shoulder-length dreadlocks. Also milling about are two white girls, one wearing a blue fishing hat.

Chris walks up to the goateed guy and asks him, "You want to smoke some weed?"

Going after his son's attackers was nothing new for Max Caulfield. He does such things for a living.
Michael McElroy
Going after his son's attackers was nothing new for Max Caulfield. He does such things for a living.
Chris recuperates at the hospital after the beating. Those boots were hard.
Max Caulfield
Chris recuperates at the hospital after the beating. Those boots were hard.
The police mug shot of Curtis Peele. Is the at large accused really Chris's attacker? A detective says he wants to find out.
Broward Sheriff’s Office
The police mug shot of Curtis Peele. Is the at large accused really Chris's attacker? A detective says he wants to find out.
Club Atlantis has been a magnet for controversy and sometimes violence
Michael McElroy
Club Atlantis has been a magnet for controversy and sometimes violence

"That's a cop," someone in the group remarks of Chris.

The accusation sparks some debate among the group as to whether Chris is a narc. The Fort Lauderdale Police Department is surely out in force on the beach, trying to curtail the rising crime rate, but Chris says he is no cop, though he someday aspires to be one. Trying to settle the group down, Chris points at the dreadlocked guy, whom he remembers is sometimes called "Dreads."

"I've met you before out here," Chris says to him.

Dreads locks eyes with Chris. "Usually when somebody points at me, I knock their face in," he announces calmly.

"Sorry... I didn't mean anything by it," says Chris, who, at six foot two, is shorter than Dreads.

"That's OK," Dreads replies. "You got a warning."

After more debate Chris announces again that he isn't a cop. The goateed kid believes him, so the two of them walk onto the sand and sit down facing the sea, where moonlight glitters off the black water. In the darkness Chris breaks off a piece of one of the marijuana buds, stuffs it in the one-hitter, and lights up.

Soon the rest of the group walks toward them. Chris looks up and makes out Dreads standing in front of him. The blue-hatted girl eyes Chris and says to Dreads, "Say the word, and I'll have it done." Chris takes this as another threat. She's talking about kicking his ass.

"You don't like me very much, do you?" Chris asks, looking up at her.

"No, I don't," she answers.

"Why not?"

"I don't like the way you come up to everybody like you know them."

"Sorry I'm such a nice guy."

Trying to find some common ground with his antagonist, Chris asks where the girl is from. New York and Tacoma, she tells him. Chris, who is from Washington state, asks if she knows Gig Harbor. She does.

"Well, that's where I'm from."

"This ain't no Gig Harbor, motherfucker," she says.

"Well, if you don't like me for who I am, then fuck you," Chris says matter-of-factly, getting higher on the weed and feeling good despite the tension. The red-hatted black guy steps up to Chris.

"Now you probably have a grudge against me," Chris says to him, "because you think me and her have a problem."

The next thing Chris sees is the tread of a boot coming down on his face. It's from Dreads' direction. Chris says he'll never forget the boot tread, which still flashes in his memory like a blurry photograph. It had little plus signs on it.

Chris is too stunned to take cover. His $450 Tommy Hilfiger glasses break on his face. By the time he finally tucks his head down for cover, his nose is cracked. But the kicks keep coming. At least four people jump into the fray and stomp on him. Chris, trying to dodge the blows, lies on his side and kicks his legs to run circles in the sand. He hears laughter. Someone yells, "Shut up!" Another person says, "Fuckin' take that!" He has a knife in his pocket, but it does him no good because he can't get to it. So he just tries to escape, moving wherever the resistance is least. Finally he breaks out and runs to the light.

Blood pours from his broken nose, and his face swells as he staggers onto the strip. People stare at him as if he's just killed someone. No one offers help. He throws the pipe and the bud, still clenched in his fist, onto the pavement, then looks for police.

After two days in the hospital and $10,000 in medical bills, which he has no idea how he's going to pay, Chris wants to see Dreads and the other attackers behind bars. But he has little chance for justice. Fort Lauderdale police wrote a report but didn't investigate; Chris was just another punk kid in a fight. But he didn't let law enforcement's inaction stop him. After a bizarre and uprooted childhood in the witness-protection program, he knows a little something about bad guys. His father testified against the Mafia, and Chris figures bad guys pretty much messed up his boyhood.

Now he will go after a few of his own.


Chris Caulfield's earliest memories make little sense to him. They come in bits and pieces: a motel room where his family seemed always to be watching television; guns everywhere -- behind the toilet, on the kitchen table, lying on his parents' bed and nightstand; running down the street with his sister from men she believed wanted to hurt them; faceless fear and the shadowy threat that someone out there wanted to kill him.

Chris didn't know it until recently, but those memories stem from a family odyssey that began when his father, Max Caulfield, took a job managing a Mafia-owned Chicago porn shop in 1980. (See "Stepping from the Shadows," June 8, 1998.) Max worked at the store until 1982, the year Chris was born. Then Max, who wasn't accused of any crime, agreed to cooperate with the FBI and help prosecute Mob figures. Special Agent Ivan Harris, who heads the FBI's organized-crime unit in Chicago, still considers Max a hero.

Max's cooperation also led the family to enter the isolated, paranoid life of the witness-protection program. While awaiting the Mafia trial, which wouldn't be held until 1989, the family was shuttled by U.S. Marshals from motel room to motel room. After stints in Delaware and Virginia, they relocated to Washington state. There, in 1986, Max was booted out of the program for breaching security by trying to obtain a gun permit. Max remains deeply embittered about his ouster, which meant that government assistance and protection were cut off. He lived in great fear of Mafia retribution and spent weeks waiting in trees outside the family home, armed with a rifle and night-vision goggles, planning to shoot the men he was certain were coming to slaughter his family. Chris had no idea why his father was up in a tree. "I was just confused," he says.

While Max sank deeper into paranoia, Chris's mother entered psychiatric care and became addicted to pills and alcohol. Chris remembers his mom lying in bed for weeks at a time. Max, meanwhile, trained in martial arts, firearms, and surveillance and took a job as a store detective. He also met his second wife-to-be and future partner, Christine, who worked as a private investigator.

Then Chris's mother snapped. She aimed a gun at Max and held him hostage in a trailer -- both Chris and his sister were present. "She had a gun on him for five hours," Chris says. "Dad had a gun with him; he could have pulled it out and shot her on the spot. But he didn't do it, because we were there and he didn't want us to see that."

His mother eventually surrendered; soon she and Max divorced. While Chris's home life was in disarray, he couldn't settle in school. "One year I went to nine or ten schools," he recalls. "Dad moved a lot. He wanted to feel safe, so he'd move. It wasn't fun always being the new kid, always being the one to be picked on."

Chris and his older sister stayed with Max and Christine, and Christine began working with a Seattle PI named Rob Suggs. Suggs was the first person Max ever allowed to baby-sit Chris and his sister. "He was a nice guy," Chris recalls. "He bought us McDonald's all the time. He was a smiling guy. I never met anybody who was always nice like he was."

Suggs adored Chris and his sister. One Christmas the investigator spent two weeks making them a model racetrack with electronic cars. Chris also remembers once helping Suggs and Suggs's girlfriend, Susan Calkins, pack their stuff for a move to Hollywood for a movie career. Chris hugged them and their German shepherd good-bye.

Not long after that, Chris heard the terrible news: Suggs, Calkins, and the dog had disappeared. Police suspected Suggs in the murder of a crooked Hollywood producer named Roland John Emr and Emr's father. Chris saw his former baby sitter's photograph on America's Most Wanted and Larry King Live. Max and Christine, meanwhile, went in search of Suggs, whose body was eventually found in the Mojave Desert; he'd shot himself. In a shallow grave nearby was Calkins, whom Suggs had apparently strangled with a belt. Suggs hadn't spared the dog, which was buried next to Calkins. He'd also gunned down Emr and Emr's father because the producer had conned him.

When he learned of his baby sitter's rampage, Chris, who was nine years old at the time, broke the racetrack into little pieces. The killing spree reinforced what he'd been told since he was a toddler. "My parents basically taught me to lie to everybody and how to be sneaky," he says. "They taught us not to trust anybody."

Max says that was the simple reality of life in the program. "I never made any excuses for any of this," Max says. "I did what I had to do. I was put in a position where I only had one path out, and I took it."

During the past eight years, Chris has been shuttled between the homes of his mother, who still lives in Washington, and the ever-transient Max and Christine. In 1994 the couple moved to Broward County to open their own private detective agency. Chris came along and now calls South Florida home.


Chris says he'll never forget the first time he walked up to Lauderdale Lakes Middle School. He was a gangly 13-year-old kid in the sixth grade with no self-esteem. That day, as always, he was wearing a baseball hat pulled low so he didn't have to see anybody, and nobody could look into his eyes. That was the way he liked it.

As he, Max, and Christine walked up to the front door, a man's voice boomed over a loudspeaker: "Take the hat off!" They all looked around but saw no one. Then a sheriff's deputy appeared. "No hats, no [gang] colors, no chains, no symbols, no sagging [pants]," the deputy told Chris.

"It was like, welcome to Florida," Chris says. "I knew right then I wasn't in Washington anymore."

He took off his hat, revealing a haircut he would later deeply regret -- a Mohawk. And he noticed right away that he didn't look the same as most of the kids. "In Washington there were hardly any blacks at my school, and now I was at a school that was almost all blacks and Hispanics," he says. "And the whites who were there were trying to be black. When I came here, school wasn't about learning anymore. It was about surviving."

His white head became a favorite target for bullies. "I made the mistake with the Mohawk, and so I got smacked in the head all the time," he says. "I remember the first day on the bus, a huge black kid named Dwayne smacked me so hard on the back of the head that it left a print. I just took it. That nigger would have crushed me.

"The ones my size, I would step up to them. They would make me get off the bus to fight. And I remember drilling this one kid. I hit that kid like you wouldn't believe. I never thought it would feel so good, but it did. I guess because I had taken all that physical slapping and pushing and intimidating."

But Chris says he's no racist. His worst enemies are black, but so are his best friends. He says he uses the word nigger to describe not a skin color but an attitude. "A nigger is an ignorant person," he avers. "It's nothing black, nothing white. I'm a nigger, too. I'm ignorant as hell."

After a rough 12 months in Florida, he spent a year in Las Vegas with Max and Christine, then went to live with his mother in Ollala, Washington, a wet, dreary, working-class town full of loggers, boat-yard laborers, and construction workers. "It's depressing there," he says. "It rains all the time. Seattle is the suicide capital of the country. There's nothing to do there but smoke weed."

And smoke weed he did. He also dropped out of high school during his freshman year. "I was a bad kid for a while," he explains.

Last year he made the final move of his tumultuous youth -- back to South Florida. His life has improved here. He doesn't wear his hat pulled down low anymore. He's no longer a shy, scared kid. He has made friends and had fun. "I love it here," he says. "There's repercussions of living here, but I love it. There are all different kinds of people here. We're the most fucked-up species on Earth. You get bears, deer, monkeys, and they seem to get along pretty good when they're by themselves. But us, nobody acts alike. Everybody's different, and that's what I like."

Chris recently left Max and Christine's place in Fort Lauderdale and moved into his first apartment near Young Circle in Hollywood. The previous tenant, his landlord told him, was a crack dealer. To pay his $125 weekly rent, Chris works for $7.50 an hour installing floors. The apartment has a small bedroom as well as a kitchen with a mini refrigerator and a two-burner hot plate. His first grocery-shopping trip was a disaster. He bought hamburgers, eggs, and hot dogs but didn't realize until he got home that he had no frying pan and no money left to buy one. It's typical of his hectic life, he says. Nothing seems to go smoothly. His car is constantly threatening to break down, and his girlfriend has another boyfriend. He can't even sleep without disturbance. Every night he hears banging on the wall in addition to the grunts and moans of sex. It's his next-door neighbor, a gay man. "The thing is, it's always a different guy," he laughs.

Chris finds amusement in his hardships, even in the violence. He doesn't know why he seems to be a magnet for street-fighting punks. "I guess they think I'm weird," he says. "It seems like I'm either the most hated person around or the most liked, depending on the day." Drugs are prevalent here, he says, and he's partaken of his share, including "X-rolls," pills containing a mixture of Ecstasy and other narcotics. He's been in a few fights, often when he's "rolling" on those drugs. But he has a way of deconstructing the violence, using it as a social tool. One time, for instance, he argued with two guys on the beach. He doesn't remember the cause of the debate, but he recalls asking where they were from.

"Hard town -- Pittsburgh," one of them replied.

"Well, this is Florida, and we're having a good time," Chris said.

Then the other one hit him in the face.

"You from Pittsburgh too, huh?" Chris asked him, rubbing his face and smiling. He was so high that the punch felt good. His weird reaction confused them. So the guy hit him again, but Chris simply smiled once more. The attackers finally walked away, shaking their heads.

Chris revels in his stories of turning violence upside down. He says he once confronted a kid on the beach named Henry McGonical, who said something he didn't like. "I was rolling, and I got into his face and said, "You got a problem?' He swung, and he got me. I just looked at him and said, "OK, I'm done. We got off on the wrong foot, and you hit me. Who cares? You want to smoke some weed?'"

Chris says he's trying to slow down his drug use these days, especially after what happened to McGonical, whom he ultimately befriended. At a party April 9, the 19-year-old McGonical overdosed on a mixture of pills and beer, then choked to death on his vomit. Broward medical examiners are awaiting toxicology reports.

For Chris, Henry's death illustrates the fine line between a good time and mortal danger. His March 18 beach beating falls into the same category. It wasn't any fun at all. After his nose was broken, roughly 45 minutes passed before medics arrived to treat him. He left a puddle of blood on A1A. His hospital stay was agonizing. Doctors inserted balloons and other painful objects into his nose to open his nasal passages. He had to stay 48 hours because the bleeding wouldn't stop. He missed a week's work, and his face was swollen and discolored for days.

The alleged crime was aggravated battery, a felony offense, but the police never followed up on Chris's complaint. There was no investigation, even though the department has stepped up its presence on the beach and promised to crack down on violent offenses, which nearly doubled last year. Department spokesman Mike Reed concedes more should have been done about Chris's battery case. "It was never forwarded to anybody," Reed says. "It should have been given to a detective."

Max, who drove Chris to the hospital and held his hand during some of the most painful moments, says he and his son spent hours trying to reach detectives without success. Messages weren't returned.

So the Caulfields have decided to find Dreads and the other attackers themselves. The plan is simple: return to the scene of the crime.


While Chris waits in his father's apartment on the night of Friday, March 30, the short and stocky Max puts on his gear. He straps a holster on his right hip and inserts a high-caliber automatic pistol. Behind the gun he conceals a collapsible steel baton. Then he puts on his black, bulletproof, Kevlar vest, which makes him look even more barrel-chested than he actually is.

On his left side hangs a pair of triple-hinged handcuffs. He gets into his blue 1995 Chevy Caprice, a car that formerly belonged to the sheriff's department of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania. The vehicle is equipped with an LT1 police engine (similar to that in a Corvette), as well as a heavy-duty transmission, exhaust, and suspension. It also boasts a high-powered spotlight, a mobile scanner, a two-way radio, a speakerphone, emergency and strobe lights, and a PA system with a 100-watt speaker under the hood. It's all just part of Max's business equipment. He works for defense attorney Steve Rossi, a former FBI agent, helping to find holes in criminal cases. The job pays the bills, but Max says he'd much rather put away criminals than help get them off the hook. "If the police do their job properly, then there's nothing for me to do," he notes.

Max is certain police weren't doing their job properly in his son's case. That's why the pair is going to the beach, where Chris will mingle while Max waits nearby. If Chris spots any of his attackers, he'll call Max on a cell phone and identify them.

By the time they arrive in front of Club Atlantis, it's 12:40 a.m. The beach is strangely quiet for an early Saturday morning because police earlier raided the club and arrested its manager. The raid was just part of an ongoing battle between the city and Atlantis, which officials largely blame for the area's crime surge.

While Max sits on the beach wall across from the darkened Atlantis, Chris stands roughly 15 yards away, talking to some kids he knows on the wide beach walk. After less than five minutes, a tall black youth with dreadlocks strolls by. Max recognizes that the kid matches Chris's description of Dreads, but this guy doesn't appear violent in the least. Rather he is a study in cool. Thin and standing about six foot four, he has a Walkman CD player attached to his baggy denim shorts and headphones in his ears. He wears a T-shirt and an unbuttoned, short-sleeve blue shirt that billows in the sea breeze. His feet sport big, light brown suede boots with a thick plastic tread.

Chris walks across the street with a few friends, pulls out his cell phone, and calls Max. "That's him," he tells his father.

"I thought so," Max replies.

Chris is sure this guy is Dreads. Those boots, he believes, broke his nose.

Max calls the police department and tells a dispatcher he has a positive identification on a suspect in an aggravated battery. He gives his location, then watches the suspect. Twenty minutes later the police show up. Max describes the situation to two officers, Jorge Reyes and Joseph Mogavero, who inform Max that, without a detective and case file, they can't make an arrest. So Max makes a suggestion: "Why don't you just turn him upside down and see what falls out?" The officers agree. Reyes and Mogavero calmly walk across the street, past dozens of kids hanging out, and approach the suspect, whom police later identify as 24-year-old Curtis Peele. When Peele sees the officer, he drops three small baggies of marijuana, Reyes later reports.

"Get down on the sidewalk and spread your legs in front of you," Reyes orders.

Peele, with a practiced air of nonchalance, does as he is told without a word. Reyes puts on rubber gloves, digs his hands into Peele's pocket, and pulls out a wallet. Then, as some nearby teens loudly protest the arrest, the officers handcuff Peele and walk him to the patrol car across the street.

Reyes tells Max that he is going to book Peele on a drug-possession charge and forward the information to a detective. Chris, Reyes says, will be asked to come to the station sometime in the next week to identify Peele. When the cops leave with Peele, Max looks at his watch. The time is 1:40 a.m.

"Sixty minutes later it's cleared," he says with a smile. "Hell, it's not like a fuckin' [La Cosa Nostra] member, but it'll do. Did I take matters into my own hands? Was this vigilante bullshit? No. I did what I would have done for any client under the same circumstance."

Now it's time to wait for the police. Again.


Two weeks pass after Peele's arrest with no word from the cops. Chris and his father become more and more impatient. Yet again it seems the case has fallen through the cracks. The case still hasn't been forwarded to a detective, police spokesman Reed says.

Peele, meanwhile, pays a $100 bond and is released hours after his arrest. Neither Reyes nor Mogavero learns Peele's address, which is listed only as "at large" on the arrest report. Reyes writes that he approached Peele "in reference to a follow-up investigation on a battery which occurred on 3/24/01." Reyes's mistaken date (the attack had occurred March 18) angers Max less than the reference to an "investigation."

"I can only think it was my investigation, since the police didn't have one going," he says.

In mid-April Max finally contacts an FBI friend, special agent David Grazer, who works in the Miami office. Grazer contacts the Fort Lauderdale Police Department and complains on Max and Chris's behalf. Det. Mike Hoelbrandt, who handles violent crimes on the beach, suddenly takes an interest in the case. Hoelbrandt says the FBI has nothing to do with his involvement; he has taken the case only because he's heard about Max's complaints.

Hoelbrandt is investigating the battery but doesn't hide his misgivings. The detective intimates that Chris may have provoked the beating, especially since he was smoking marijuana. "When you're putting yourself in a position like that with people you don't know and then you curse at them, I don't know how that would play out with a jury," he says.

Hoelbrandt says he'll forward the case to the State Attorney's Office and let prosecutors decide whether to charge Peele. One major problem: He hasn't been able to find Peele. It's not even known whether Peele is Dreads. "I need to find out what [Peele's] version is," Hoelbrandt says. "I'll give it a week or two and see if I can find him. If I can't find him, I'll forward what I have."

Chris doesn't expect an arrest. And he's angry. "It makes me want to call the cops every time I need help," he says with sarcasm. "It just goes to show that the bad guys always win, one way or the other."

Despite his growing resentment toward the Fort Lauderdale Police Department, Chris says he hasn't stopped dreaming of becoming a police officer. He plans to get his GED and enter the police academy. In the meantime he's not going to stop exploring South Florida and meeting everyone he can: "I'm here on this earth, so why can't I say hi to you? Some people think I'm dumb, that I'm a cracker. But just because we're different, I can't say hi?"

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