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.

In April 1999, Wolfe married his second wife, Simone, who was about 20 years his junior. Raphael Wolfe Jr. was soon born. Around this same time, he became acquainted with Maria Kong, a real estate agent in her early 30s whom he'd met when she rented an apartment to his mother-in-law. Kong became a friend and shoulder to cry on for Wolfe.

He frequently expressed his dissatisfaction with BSO to Kong, especially since he'd taken charge of property-crime investigations in Pompano Beach in May 2001.

"He always [said] that there was so much prejudice in it," Kong told investigators. "And I remember him telling me he just got transferred to a head of a department and other people was there, you know, trying to get him out of the department and this kind of stuff."

In April 2002, the strain mounted for Wolfe when Violet filed in court for alimony and alleged that their divorce was fraudulent because she had not been properly served papers for the Jamaican divorce. Violet and her attorney told investigators that they never threatened to charge the deputy with bigamy. Wolfe, however, clearly believed otherwise and told his wife, who was pregnant with their second child, and Kong that he feared arrest for bigamy. Wolfe so anticipated arrest that he arranged a furtive meeting with a bail bondsman at a Miami Subs shop on May 23, five days before the suicide.

Wolfe was also feeling heat from the department. Sgt. Robert Schnakenberg, who worked with Wolfe at the Pompano Beach district, told investigators that Wolfe "was under some stress here at work because of the crime that's going on in Pompano. Pompano is very busy, and he was having some issues with that." On May 23, Schnakenberg advised him to go home, relax, and "get his books in order" for the Powertrac meeting.

On the afternoon of May 27, the day before the suicide, Wolfe discussed the next day's Powertrac meeting with one of his detectives, Richard Greaves. "[H]e really didn't want to go to Powertrac tomorrow 'cause he thought something may happen," Greaves told investigators. Wolfe had told him about his wife's attempt to get alimony, Greaves said, and the sergeant "believed that there was some kind of an internal investigation either ongoing or to be started, and I guess he wasn't sure if it was going to be made known to him at Powertrac." No such probe was taking place, according to investigators.

During the hourlong sessions, a district chief would ascend a rostrum, and before him sat Jenne and his top colonels. The lights would dim, and a spotlight would shine down on the chief. A large screen behind him would display statistics or pictures taken by the department's roving inspection team. With reams of crime statistics and incident reports in front of them, Jenne and his men would then pepper the review subject with questions about everything from unsolved burglaries to cigarette butts in courthouse stairwells. If the man in the spotlight -- or his cadre of lieutenants and sergeants seated behind him -- couldn't provide the right answers, he would be sent to turn up the heat on his deputies.

"When the question was asked, you had to give the exact answer they were looking for," recalls a BSO sergeant who attended Powertrac meetings around that time and was acquainted with Wolfe. Top colonels would grill and criticize chiefs in front of their own subordinates and sometimes even kick them out of the meeting if they failed to give answers they expected to hear, says the deputy, who asked not to be named.

BSO took over policing Pompano Beach in 1999, and Jenne made clear his ambition to absorb police agencies in other cities. Dramatically reducing crime statistics in Pompano was one way to persuade city commissioners elsewhere to contract with him. Indeed, burglaries dropped almost in half in Pompano during the first year BSO policed the city. Detective supervisors like Wolfe were under heavy pressure to make the stats look good for Powertrac.

"The numbers are from the top down instead of from the bottom up," contends the unnamed sergeant. "They want numbers to be produced about certain things." If those statistics aren't generated, blame lands on the heads of supervising sergeants, he says. Wolfe talked to him often about the pressure of Powertrac, and he believes it played a role in his suicide, despite Jenne's video. "It's a thing that happened that should not have happened."

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