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.

Here's what he didn't know: The security guard, 58-year-old Brian Connelly, called 911 to report Caulfield as a suspicious person. Why?

"I wasn't even going to make the call," Connelly told me in his first interview on the incident. "But when I told the owner and general manager about it, they said, 'Call the police right now.' I picked up the phone, dialed 911, and the rest is history."

Connelly says he and Boardwalk management have been "hypervigilant" since a violent armed robbery occurred at the club just days before. Did Caulfield show him a badge?

"No, and I never, ever, ever told anyone that he flashed a badge," Connelly answers.

The only place where Connelly's version of events differs with Caulfield's is that he claims the P.I. first identified himself only as a "detective" before clarifying that he owned a private agency. Connelly says that he may have told the 911 dispatcher that he seemed to be impersonating a police officer but made it clear that he identified himself as a gumshoe.

"It's a tragedy of errors," observes Connelly, who says he is "profoundly sad" about what happened and will never be the same.

It's all starting to sound like the children's game Telephone, with information getting mangled as it's transmitted from one person to the next. The director of public information, David Hebert, didn't return my messages prior to deadline. Spokesman Bill Schultz refused to answer any questions or release the 911 tape, saying Diaz's death is still under investigation.

Most troubling, Schultz has continued to repeat the falsehood about the badge to the media, perhaps because it helps make sense of why police were so agitated when they stopped Caulfield on I-95. It's clear that Diaz and other officers responding were indeed under the impression that Caulfield had flashed a police badge.

As he drove south on I-95 that night near the Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport, Caulfield noticed that two patrol cars were behind him with their blue lights flashing. He knew from his own extensive training what that meant. It was a felony stop — and that meant the police would be ready to shoot to kill.

Caulfield has been through a lot in his life. He was an informant in a Mob case in Chicago that led him to the Witness Protection Program (his real name isn't Max Caulfield — that's a federal fiction). He was kicked out of the program on a technicality and during the two decades since has worked as a private investigator. In that time, one of his partners turned out to be a spree killer and another a crack-addicted stalker.

Through all the madness, however, he'd never been the subject of a felony stop — and nothing could have prepared him for what was about to happen.

Once he was parked in the emergency lane, the lead officer, who Caulfield later learned was a Wilton Manors cop, barked something at him, but he couldn't make it out over the roar of traffic.

Then he heard the officer yell, "Get out of the car!"

This was something of a delicate situation. A 9mm pistol was holstered on Caulfield's hip. He knew the sight of the gun might loosen the index finger of a nervous cop. So he grabbed his private investigator's badge and held it out of the car for the police officers to see before he stepped outside.

"Police are trained not to shoot at things with badges because then they are shooting at each other," Caulfield explains. "I just wanted to trigger that safety button in their heads, because I knew they were going to see the gun. I didn't want them to shoot Max."

When he exited the car, he could see nothing but the bright white light of the police strobes and, in the background, a sea of flashing blue lights from other patrol vehicles.

"This was horrible," he remembers thinking. "It was like, 'Fellas, whatever you think, it's not true. Don't make a mistake. If I can just survive the next 90 seconds, I'll see the sun come up. '"

The officer asked: "Who are you?"

"I'm a private investigator."

"Do you have I.D.?"

He handed the officer his wallet.

"I just wanted him to know that we could do whatever he wanted — we could go to a movie for all I cared," Caulfield explains. "Just don't shoot."

The P.I. asked the officer what was going on.

"Someone said you flashed a badge."

At that moment, cops from behind the wall of white light yelled something at the lead officer.

"What?" the officer yelled behind him.

Caulfield says he made out one word: "fell."

The officer ran over to the three-foot retaining wall and looked over it. Caulfield, who was suddenly left completely alone, tried to see what was going on. He saw several police officers, about a dozen of them, looking over the wall. "And I'm still standing there," he says. "This was weird. Remember, I'm still armed."

He edged up to the cop a bit.

"What are you looking at?"

The officer turned to him and said the words Caulfield will never forget: "What you did tonight might have just got a cop killed."

With emotion rising in his voice, Caulfield asked, "What are you talking about?"

"A policeman fell off the bridge trying to get your car stopped."

"There was no policeman in front of the car on the road," Caulfield almost pleaded. "I didn't hit a policeman."

"Sit down."

So Caulfield sat on the pavement.

"I got out of my car thinking I was going to get shot to death," he says, "and this was worse than that. I was thinking, 'I have done nothing in my life to cause this. '"

The police officers kept looking over the wall. Caulfield stood beside the growing horde of police officers looking over the wall. Running alongside I-95 was a connecting road leading to Interstate 595. The two highways were just three feet apart, and Caulfield assumed they were connected by pavement. He saw a gap of blackness leading to a bed of rocks below. There was no pavement.

"I can still see him down there," he says with an ominous note. "I've been seeing him down there every time I close my eyes. I saw him realgood."

After looking at Diaz, he addressed the Wilton Manors officer.

"Oh, my God, I didn't flash a badge at anyone. I've done nothing wrong, and if I did, I would tell you right now."

The officer's demeanor had changed. He looked at the badge and the identification in the wallet. Other cops recognized Caulfield as a legitimate P.I. The lead officer apologized for what he'd said in the heat of the moment. Caulfield told him he understood. Then he was told he was free to go.

"I'm thinking, 'Go? I'm not going anywhere until I find out what happened to this officer,'" Caulfield recalls. "That made no sense to me. How was I supposed to leave?"

As officers stood on the road with tears in their eyes, it took several tense minutes for medics to get to Diaz under the bridge. Caulfield began to gather what had happened. Diaz, who was off-duty at the time he heard the call, had pulled up behind the original two patrol cars and crept along the retaining wall. Getting in position, Diaz jumped over the wall, apparently thinking exactly what Caulfield had assumed — that the two roadways were connected by pavement.

"There are two walls three feet apart, and your mind fills in voids," Caulfield says. "I would have done the same thing as Diaz."

Sometime after 6 a.m., a traffic homicide detective told Caulfield that Diaz had died. Cop after cop approached him and assured him it wasn't his fault. He remembers a police captain walking up to him, shaking him, and saying, "You understand this had nothing to do with you... Don't you leave this bridge thinking that."

Finally, the sunrise that he'd hoped he'd live to see came and he realized the media had arrived on the scene. Thinking that Christine might recognize the Crown Vic on television, he called her at home.

"Something horrible's happened, but I'm OK," he told her.

"You wrecked the car," she guessed.

"No, far worse than that," he said. "I'm up on a bridge, and a policeman fell and was killed."

"What does that have to do with you?"

It's a question that will probably haunt Max Caulfield for the rest of his life.

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