Dread the Star Chamber

Did a face-off with sheriff's brass drive the sergeant to suicide?

In the early morning of May 28, 2002, Sgt. Raphael Wolfe pulled his squad car up to the chainlink fence around the Broward Sheriff's Office auto service center in Lauderdale Lakes. He punched in the entrance code to open the gate, then drove to the fuel pumps. As he filled up the tank, a fellow sergeant stopped and greeted Wolfe, asking him how things were going. Wolfe, 50 years old with a sizable middle-age spread, said he was on his way to a Powertrac session, a system of internal review, employed by Sheriff Ken Jenne and his highest commanders.

It was a meeting Wolfe was dreading, according to the people who knew him best. The Powertrac sessions routinely scrutinized the performance of deputies for everything from solving burglaries to picking up abandoned shopping carts.

Instead of heading off to the meeting, Wolfe drove to a grassy spot on the east side of the compound. The car idled as he looked to the east. About 7:50 a.m., Wolfe used his cell phone to call Maria Kong, a friend and confidante. In the past, he'd complained to her about corruption and prejudice at BSO; recently, he'd confided his fear of arrest for bigamy. "It's over, and it's done," he muttered to her. "Call my wife and tell her that I love her."

It took a few minutes for Kong to realize that, as Wolfe spoke, the life was draining out of him. Shortly before calling, he'd shot himself twice in the chest with his Smith & Wesson 9mm semiautomatic pistol. The bullets missed his heart, but he was bleeding to death. Wolfe rambled on to Kong in what was, essentially, an audio suicide note; finally realizing what was happening, Kong called police.

But the disjointed conversation, Kong said later, left no specific answers as to why the veteran deputy ended his life.

In the aftermath of Wolfe's death, however, the buzz among the rank and file was that the sergeant, who supervised property-crime detectives in Pompano Beach, had killed himself over the Powertrac meeting that was minutes away. Many of Wolfe's fellow deputies had felt the weight of Powertrac (an acronym for Provide Objectives Where Enforcement Resources Target Responses Against Crime). The program was adapted by BSO in 1997 from the New York City Police Department, which used it to give borough commanders the officers and equipment needed to stop nascent crime trends, but Jenne was using it to aggressively prod his supervisory staff toward higher performance levels. By the time Wolfe became a supervisor, Powertrac had evolved into a kind of star-chamber hearing that fostered an us-versus-them atmosphere, according to some who participated in it.

So profound was the pressure to produce results that some deputies began downgrading felonies such as burglaries to, say, misdemeanors like trespassing, to help create the appearance that serious crime was declining. Other detectives pushed for dubious confessions by suspects to officially clear unsolved cases. The State Attorney's Office is investigating a number of those cases.

Scuttlebutt surrounding Wolfe's death should have given top brass at BSO an early glimpse of the seismic Powertrac-inspired pressures that were building in Jenne's department. But the sheriff, apparently ignoring the early warnings, was so incensed by the gossip over Wolfe's death that he required every BSO employee to watch a video of himself dismissing the rumors. "The investigation into his death has revealed he was facing several personal issues that had nothing to do with the Broward Sheriff's Office," he stated in the video. "Nevertheless, there are those who are trying to create a misperception about his death and to use this terrible tragedy to their advantage."

Wolfe did indeed face personal problems, but statements taken for a BSO investigation into the suicide did indicate that the upcoming Powertrac session played some role in the death -- even though that line of inquiry was never pursued. The Wolfe investigation is all the more germane now because crime statistics in Pompano Beach are among those currently being questioned.

Wolfe was an ambitious man with a craving for education and women. Born in 1952 in Jamaica, he married his first wife, Violet, there in 1973. They soon immigrated to Canada, then to New Jersey. He received an associate's degree at Bergen Community College in New Jersey in 1981, then a bachelor's degree from Ramapo College in Mahwah, New Jersey, in 1984. He and his wife moved to South Florida in the late 1980s. BSO hired him as a prison guard in 1990, and five years later, he became road patrol deputy. He obtained a master's degree in 1998 from Nova Southeastern University in Davie and pursued a doctorate.

But even as Wolfe continued to enjoy success and advancement in academics and law enforcement, his personal life was tangled. In 1994, he separated from his wife, with whom he had three daughters. Violet Wolfe filed for divorce in 1996 in Broward County, and the case languished as the couple habitually reconciled and broke up. Wolfe filed for divorce during a trip to Jamaica. He hired a man from his apartment complex in Coral Springs to serve divorce papers on his wife, but she never received them. Whether Wolfe knew she'd not gotten them is unclear, but the oversight would loom large in his psyche four years later.

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