Deputy Down

One year later, questions remain about Deputy Todd Fatta's tragic death

At about 10 a.m. on August 19, 2004, the cameras waited for Sheriff Ken Jenne in a reception area at the North Broward Medical Center in Deerfield Beach. The impromptu press conference had the career politician noticeably shaken; his face was flushed, his eyes red, his voice nasal. Dressed in a blue oxford shirt with a striped black-and-red tie, Jenne took position in front of a half-circle of news cameras.

"Today is one of those days that you wish didn't happen, but it did," Jenne began, then looked toward the ceiling and cleared his throat loudly. "As we do every morning, seven days a week, 365 days a year, people from law enforcement do their duty. We forget sometimes how dangerous it is to them, those around them, and how very important a job it is. At 8:50 today, one of Broward County's deputy sheriffs was killed, another wounded."

Deputy Todd Fatta was murdered during a police raid of the Fort Lauderdale home of Kelly Ray Jones and Kenneth Wilk.
Deputy Todd Fatta was murdered during a police raid of the Fort Lauderdale home of Kelly Ray Jones and Kenneth Wilk.

Jenne went on to explain that the deputies were assisting a LEACH investigation. "Deputy Todd Fata-tah is dead," Jenne continued, mispronouncing the last name. "He was killed. What I would describe as a high-caliber projectile capable of penetrating his vest penetrated that vest and hit him in the chest area. He has been pronounced dead at this hospital."

The questions that Jenne refused to answer then -- and has yet to answer -- are obvious: Since BSO knew that Wilk was an armed man who had made threats against police, why wasn't the SWAT team called in? If it wasn't called in, whose mistake was it?

At Fatta's memorial service on August 24, 2004, those were the questions his brother Joe wanted to raise. He included, as part of a eulogy that he had written, a request that BSO investigate the circumstances of Todd's death to ensure that similar mistakes would never cost another deputy's life. A BSO chaplain requested that he remove the statement. Joe agreed, believing that in the following days and weeks, Jenne would be forthcoming about why the SWAT team wasn't called. That wasn't the case, so in December 2004, Todd's family filed a lawsuit against Broward's sheriff in an effort to reveal the truth. "We want to know more about why Todd was there and who made the decision," Joe Fatta says.

In April, the complaint was bolstered by a whistleblower lawsuit filed by Roy Vrchota, the former assistant inspector general of BSO's Internal Affairs unit. Two days after Fatta's death, Jenne had told the Sun-Sentinel that the SWAT team wasn't needed at the residence, claiming that Jones was the only violent member of the couple. Since Jones was already in jail, SWAT wasn't needed: "You've got to remember, the real violent person was Kelly Jones," Jenne told the Sun-Sentinel...

But then a question arises: Why, during the July 14 search of Jones' and Wilk's house, when Jones was already in custody was the SWAT team called?

According to his lawsuit against BSO, Vrchota informed one of BSO's attorneys that Jenne was falsely claiming that the SWAT team wasn't needed. "All indications prior to the execution of the warrant involving the suspects would have required the use of a SWAT team," the suit alleges.

In October, 2004, Lt. Col. Tom Brennan called Vrchota into his office. Brennan told Vrchota that he was "done" at BSO and would be reassigned to an office in South Broward, according to the lawsuit. The reassignment was meant as punishment, the complaint alleges, since Vrchota lives in Deerfield Beach, the northernmost part of the county. Vrchota "was disciplined and otherwise subjected to adverse retaliatory actions in direct response to the statements made by [Vrchota] to disclose the dangers presented to the public health, safety, and welfare," the lawsuit alleges. Rather than take the demotion and reassignment, Vrchota retired.

According to a well-placed source at BSO, Brennan was the one who would have approved the use of the SWAT team on August 19, 2004. Curiously, in February, six months after Fatta's death, Brennan retired early from BSO. He was not scheduled to retire until July 2007, suggesting that Fatta's death may have played a role in his early retirement. (BSO declined a New Times request to review SWAT standard operating procedures, claiming they are part of the federal government's murder case against Wilk.)

But an incident three months after Fatta's death seems to support Vrchota's assertion that the SWAT team was needed at Wilk's and Jones' house.

On November 9, 2004, BSO deputies were called to Cameron Court Apartments at 501 SW 15th Street in Fort Lauderdale to evict 49-year-old Frank Crimi. Deputies discovered that Crimi, who had barricaded himself in his apartment, was involved in a 1999 incident in which a police officer was shot. He'd been found guilty of aggravated battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest with violence. That day, the SWAT team was called out. The circumstances were similar to Wilk's: Although he had never shot a police officer, Wilk had pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault on a law enforcement officer for threatening Spector. Like Crimi, he was a potential danger to police officers.

Although a year has passed since Wilk gunned down Fatta in his Coral Highlands house, the fallen deputy's family still has too many unanswered questions.

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