Strong Arm of the Law

Hollywood's Police Officer of the Year has been accused of sexual battery, manslaughter, and brutality

Vincent Del'Ostia, a tattooed, five-foot-nine, 160-pound 31-year-old with a history of drug abuse and psychological problems, paced outside the office door of the Entrada Motel on Federal Highway in Hollywood. High on cocaine, he wasn't there to rent a room. He wrapped his hand around the doorknob and banged on the windows. The behavior worried employees. "He was trying to speak, but there was nothing coming out," recalled Joan Perez, a 47-year-old maid.

Del'Ostia had damaged his throat in a motorcycle accident at age 16. Talking could sometimes be difficult for him, especially when he was having a psychotic episode that his Prozac couldn't prevent. "He was not mad. He was acting weird," said Veronica Vitieollo, a 41-year-old who observed the incident. "He was grinding his teeth. He was making movements. You would be afraid because of the way he was acting."

It was January 27, 2002. Hollywood police arrived at 2:45 p.m. Officers Pete Salvo and Jeffrey Murray confronted Del'Ostia. According to Salvo, the crazed man was half-dressed, perspiring heavily, and grunting.

Allegations of police misconduct have dogged the Hollywood Police Department for more than a decade.
Allegations of police misconduct have dogged the Hollywood Police Department for more than a decade.
Pete Salvo, at far left, and other Hollywood police officers demonstrated against former Chief Rick Stone in September 1998.
Pete Salvo, at far left, and other Hollywood police officers demonstrated against former Chief Rick Stone in September 1998.

Salvo -- a fast-talking 43-year-old with a compact, well-built frame and a thin beard that stretches down his cheeks close to the jaw line -- told Del'Ostia to lie on the ground. No response. He asked if he needed medical assistance. No response. "Can you speak?" Salvo queried.

No response again. Salvo then saw the man's pupils: narrowed to small pinpoints. His breathing was short and rapid.

"If you understand me, nod your head," Salvo said in his deep, confident voice.

Del'Ostia stared at Salvo, then stretched his arm back, flexing, ready to strike. Murray approached, and Del'Ostia kicked at him. In response, Murray pulled out his Taser gun and fired. It proved ineffective.

A Taser launches two wires at a target. Those wires then attach and transmit an electrical current. Del'Ostia somehow knocked off one of the wires, neutralizing the effect of the nonlethal device. He became erratic. He flailed his arms and kicked his feet.

Salvo, Murray, and two other officers who arrived then jumped on Del'Ostia, pinning him facedown. Murray handcuffed and shackled him. Del'Ostia struggled.

Although one observer later told Internal Affairs (IA) investigators that Del'Ostia was "hog-tied" -- which would have violated official procedure -- police legal adviser Joel Cantor denies that allegation. The technique is prohibited because it restricts breathing.

Once Del'Ostia was subdued, Salvo sauntered toward Federal Highway to direct traffic away from the scene. Paramedics soon arrived and inspected the captive. They first noticed his skin tone; it was off.

Minutes later, Salvo went over to inspect the body. He summed up his findings in the police report, which was chillingly professional: "While walking back toward the scene, this officer heard the rescue lieutenant advise the subject was not breathing."

Del'Ostia was dead. He wasn't the only one to die after tangling with Salvo.

Twenty months later, on September 17, 2003, Hollywood Police Chief Jim Scarberry walked to the lectern to address the City Commission. A handsome man with wavy white hair, Scarberry was there to recognize Salvo as one of two July 2003 Officers of the Month. The other was Detective Robert Wolfkill.

"During the month of June, Detective Salvo and Detective Wolfkill began a self-initiated investigation involving a large marijuana-growing and -distribution organization," Scarberry explained. "These detectives worked as many as 16 hours a day gathering intelligence and surveillance and target locations."

As a result, Salvo and Wolfkill located five houses that had been converted into hydroponic growing facilities and stash houses. "In just four weeks, these detectives gathered intelligence equivalent to the size of a typical phonebook," Scarberry continued. Nine search warrants resulted in the seizure of 700 cannabis plants and $6.2 million in cash. The drug operation had generated an estimated $14 million in annual revenue.

Scarberry placed his hands on the lectern and looked over at his officers. "Detective Salvo and Detective Wolfkill are to be commended for their relentless efforts to conduct a thorough investigation and their commitment to the Vice, Intelligence, and Narcotics Unit," he said. "Congratulations, Pete and Robert."

Salvo took a position behind the lectern. "I would do this job for nothing," he said. "I get to go out and arrest drug dealers. It's a fantastic job. I want to thank you guys. I want to thank the command staff, the chief, the supervisors, and the fantastic, talented people I work with, and my partner here. Sometimes I feel I'm married to him. He cleans up my toothbrush, does all my work for me, and I really appreciate it. I know I'm talking long, and I see the three-minute thing going here. Sorry."

The crowd laughed.

"For what you did, it's OK," Mayor Mara Giulianti interjected.

"That was easy," Salvo replied jokingly. "Getting in this suit was harder."

Later that year, the wisecracking Salvo would receive one of the Hollywood Police Department's highest honors: Officer of the Year. He would also receive a lawsuit from the family of Vincent Del'Ostia, alleging that he was partially responsible for the man's death.

The Officer of the Year accolade and the wrongful-death lawsuit are equally representative of Salvo's tenure at the Hollywood Police Department, the third-largest law enforcement agency in Broward County. During his 20-year career in the city, Salvo has been both praised as a determined, resourceful cop and accused of sexual battery, manslaughter, and brutality. In just the past eight years, he has been the subject of nine IA investigations for everything from excessive use of force to use of abusive language to improper search and seizure. In 1999, he was named in a lawsuit that Hollywood settled for $42,500.

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