A Tragedy of Errors

A police officer died while doing his job. But why is his department spreading untruths about his final call?

Max Caulfield didn't know why he'd been pulled over, but he knew it was deadly serious. He couldn't see the police in his rearview mirror, but he knew they were there, hidden in the darkness behind a glaring wall of white light. He couldn't hear them on the elevated stretch of Interstate 95 either, not over the roar of passing trucks on the vibrating road. Caulfield, a licensed private investigator with a 9mm pistol holstered to his hip, just kept thinking one thing.

Don't kill me. But death would come that night nonetheless. Not for Caulfield, who lived to snoop another day, but for Jose Diaz, a 37-year-old Fort Lauderdale police officer and father of two. Diaz fell 70 feet from the road onto a bed of rocks. Caulfield still can't shake the terrible sight. When he closes his eyes, he still sees the dying police officer lying there on his back. And he can also hear the words of a distraught cop blaming him for the fatal fall. The trauma got him. For days after the October 8 accident, Caulfield holed up in his rented Oakland Park house, unshaven and in his robe. He didn't get back into a car for five days and only then to attend Diaz's funeral last Thursday. There, he communed with police and felt he came to understand the man who died. "This was an honest-to-God good guy," he says of Diaz. "He was like the police stories you hear when you're a kid. He really was heroic. He was only there to help other cops."

Caulfield has strictly avoided TV and newspaper reporters, preferring that the focus remain on the fallen officer. He returned my call only because we've known each other for several years and I once did a cover story on his life, which is filled with mobsters, a spree killer, and insane stalkers (see "Stepping from the Shadows," August 6, 1998). Trouble may be Caulfield's business, but this was the kind he never wanted.

He says he knows deep down that it's not his fault. Still, Caulfield wonders if he could have done anything differently to have kept Diaz from dying.

Police told him that a security guard had claimed he flashed a badge and impersonated a police officer. That was the supposed reason for the dramatic stop. The department cleared Caulfield, who has worked in South Florida for the past decade and has never had that accusation slung at him before, of doing anything wrong, but police spokespeople have repeated the allegation on every TV news station and in the Miami Heraldand Sun-Sentinel.There's one big problem: The security guard himself swears he never told anybody that Caulfield flashed a badge. That crucial detail appears to have been a police fiction, perhaps created during the confusion of a deadly Saturday morning.

The strange set of events that led to Diaz's death began in an unlikely place: a gay club billed as the premiere male stripper bar in South Florida. One of Caulfield's clients led him to the Boardwalk in Wilton Manors on October 7, a Friday night. He and Christine — his raven-haired wife and investigative partner — paid the ten-buck cover charge about 10 p.m. and sat at the bar among some gyrating, G-string-clad dancers. While Christine had a few drinks and tossed around a few dollar bills, Max kept an eye on his target. As 1 a.m. approached, he took Christine home, changed into black tactical clothes, and returned to the Boardwalk to continue his surveillance, this time from outside the bar in a nearby parking lot.

As he sat in his Crown Victoria — which looks like it came straight off a police lot and is loaded with a laptop computer, a dashboard video camera, and other choice investigative equipment — the crowd began to thin out. Sometime after 3 a.m., a white compact car with a small yellow light on the top rolled up beside Caulfield's car.

It was a security guard. Caulfield, who deals with private security people all the time, rolled down his window. What follows is Caulfield's version of the conversation:

"Are you on the job?" asked the guard, apparently believing Caulfield was a cop.

"I'm on a job," Caulfield answered.

"What department are you with?"

"I own a detective agency."

"Well, I need you to move your car, because the owner doesn't want any cars here after the business is closed."

"No problem."

"I can't leave until you do it."

"I'm going to do it right now."

Caulfield moved his car onto the empty street and continued to watch and wait. He left his post at 4 a.m. and drove north on Andrews Avenue to Oakland Park Boulevard, where he was going to turn left to get on I-95. As he waited, he looked in his mirror to see the security guard driving up fast behind him. "The amber-colored flashing beacon is on, so I know it's him," Caulfield says. "I'm thinking, 'This guy again? What is it with this guy?' This was out of bounds."

He thought of calling BSO, but when he made his left turn, the guard was gone. As he got on the southbound I-95 ramp, Caulfield forgot about it.

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