Fort Lauderdale's affluent Coral Highlands neighborhood, on the northern edge of the city limits, was filled with nice people, manicured lawns, sky-blue pools, and polished SUVs. It was a place where some came to raise children and others to spend their final years. It was a neighborhood where not much happened, a swath of concrete-block suburbia where saltwater air never wafted past tragedy.
Then came August 19, 2004. At around 8:45 a.m., a crowd of about 12 Broward Sheriff's deputies, many wearing bulletproof vests, gathered outside the three-bedroom, two-bathroom house of gay partners Kelly Ray Jones and Kenneth Wilk at 1950 NE 57th St. The lawmen suspected that the pair had a stash of child pornography and, possibly, some drugs.
One man preparing to storm the house was 33-year-old Todd Fatta, a good-looking, well-built, square-jawed deputy with brown hair and eyes. A nine-year Sheriff's Office veteran, Fatta had been informed of the assignment only the night before.
Approaching the house, deputies found a steel door with three dead bolts engaged. A large front window, which normally would have provided a clear view inside the home, was obstructed by a sheet of reflective material. Wilk, whose partner was already in jail, apparently knew the law would be coming.
As officers started toward the house, the pudgy-faced Wilk crouched behind the kitchen counter, cradling in his hands a .30-30-caliber Model 94 Winchester lever-action rifle, a seasoned deer hunter's weapon of choice.
When the deputies broke down the door, Fatta and his partner, Deputy Angelo Cedeno, were first into the house.
"Police!" they yelled. "Warrant!"
Wilk waited. As Fatta and Cedeno stormed through the living room and into a hallway that snakes toward the kitchen, Wilk fired several rounds.
One of his bullets blasted off Cedeno's left middle finger before hitting his left shoulder. Another bullet pinned Fatta square in the chest. The other deputies subdued Wilk, then dragged him through the house and into the front yard. One officer pulled out his firearm, Wilk would later tell sheriff's investigators, and furiously jammed the barrel into Wilk's temple.
The deputies had reason to be angry. Fatta and Cedeno were in critical condition. An ambulance raced them to North Broward Medical Center, about seven miles away. But only one of them would survive. The high-caliber bullet that hit Fatta sliced through his Kevlar vest as if it were made of Saran Wrap, then pounded clear through the deputy's flesh, muscle, and bone, nearly putting a hole through his heart.
It's unclear what Fatta knew about Wilk, but one thing is obvious: Broward Sheriff Ken Jenne should have known better than to send the two lawmen barreling through the front door. Since 2001, Wilk -- an ardent rifle lover and longtime member of the gay gun club Pink Pistols -- had earned a well-documented reputation for having an arsenal of rifles and handguns. Wilk had threatened to kill both Neil Spector, the St. Lucie County Sheriff's detective who led the raid, and an unnamed FBI agent who assisted in the 2001 arrest of Wilk's partner, Jones, for child pornography. In fact, a year before Fatta's death, the Fort Lauderdale Police Department marked Wilk's house in police computers, warning any officer called to the location to use extreme caution.
Why didn't Jenne call in BSO's SWAT team, which would have been better equipped and trained for the job? That's the question that the fallen deputy's family has yet to have answered.
A former sheriff's deputy, Roy Vrchota, says BSO violated procedure by not calling in SWAT. He also contends he was demoted for pointing this out at headquarters. One year after Fatta's death, BSO still refuses to release reports related to the incident. "At this point, the U.S. Attorney's Office has instructed us not to comment on the case," spokesman Hugh Graf says.
In December 2004, left without answers, Fatta's family filed a lawsuit in Broward County against Sheriff Jenne. "We want to know why this happened to Todd, why he had to be there," says the deputy's brother, Joe Fatta. "We want to get to the truth."
That truth starts with a man whose mind slowly unraveled as law enforcement targeted his partner.
Ray Hill describes himself as "the old man of Houston's gay community." Now 64, Hill in 1967 was a cofounder of the Promethean Society, the first gay and lesbian organization in Houston, and has remained active in city affairs. In the mid-'90s, at a gay bar, he first met Ken Wilk, a gun enthusiast who told him that he was establishing a Houston chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay political group. "Ken was definitely outside the mainstream," Hill says.
Wilk's term as president of the Houston Log Cabin Republicans was calamitous, Hill remembers. Wilk wanted respect among both gays and Republicans. "Most of Houston's gays hated the Log Cabins," Hill says. Then came the 1994 election. Catering to conservative voters, Wilk's Log Cabin chapter endorsed a number of candidates. The move backfired. Many of them distanced themselves from Wilk. Steve Mansfield, a Republican running for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, did so after receiving anonymous threats ordering that he denounce the endorsement.
In October 1994, Wilk told the Houston Press, a New Times sister paper, that his fellow Republicans simply didn't understand. Through the Log Cabin organization, he wanted to show that "we're not a Mardi Gras parade. That we're not deviant. That we're not looking for special rights. Mainly we want a fair shake, that's all."
Wilk was the third of four children born in Chicago. When he was a teenager, his father Walter, an accountant, landed a job in Houston. How Wilk became both a Republican and a gun lover still baffles his father, a Democrat. A 1960s cowboy hero may have been the inspiration. "In the 19 years that Ken lived in this house, we never had guns," Walter Wilk says. "The only thing I can think of is Hopalong Cassidy. My son was obsessed with Hopalong Cassidy."
In high school, Wilk had a date to the prom but never a girlfriend. It wasn't until July 1987, at age 26, that he told his family he was gay. The circumstances were tragic. Wilk came over to his parents' house and handed his father a piece of paper. "It said he had AIDS," Walter Wilk remembers, then takes a long pause.
"I don't understand the attraction of males and males -- I'll be the first to admit that," he continues. "But we accepted him. We didn't ostracize him. He's gay, I thought. What's the big deal?"
In the mid-'90s, Wilk's sexuality and love of guns drew him to the Pink Pistols, an organization that advocates arming gays -- and operates 49 chapters in the United States and Canada, including one in Wilton Manors that held its first meeting earlier this month.
According to Hill, Wilk would often say that more gays with concealed weapons permits would mean fewer instances of harassment. "Ken would say that's the solution to homophobic violence -- guns," Hill says. "He was a strong advocate that everyone should get a gun and join the Pink Pistols."
In 1996, Wilk met Kelly Ray Jones, a lanky, 6-foot-2, 155-pound man with hazel eyes, red hair, and large ears. "Kelly seemed to have a calming influence on Ken," Hill says. After meeting Jones, Wilk left the Log Cabin Republicans and dropped out of public life.
Jones AIDS as well, and soon after their first date, they realized they were in love. From the beginning, Walter Wilk disliked his son's new partner. "I think in Kenny's case, a lot of [his trouble with the law] has to do with his infatuation with Kelly," Walter Wilk says. "That character is a leech who had an enormous impact on Ken."
Indeed, a court-ordered psychological report of Jones indicated that he was "egocentric and paranoid in his conceptualizations." He also blamed others for problems, psychologist Lori J. Butts said, making it appear as if everyone were against him and repeatedly responding to questions with the statement, "They want us dead."
Not long after meeting Wilk, Jones fell on hard times. He lost his job at a mortgage company, and his health began to fade. The couple moved to Miami, then to Chicago. Finally in 2000, they returned to South Florida, purchasing together a 1769-square-foot home in Fort Lauderdale for $237,000.
"They had previously lived in South Florida, where [Jones] responded well to warm weather," psychologist Merry Haber wrote in another court-ordered psychological report. But in Broward, Jones told Haber, his relationship with Wilk began to sour. They started sleeping in separate beds. Lonely, Jones bought a computer and a subscription to America Online. He worked at a desk in a spare bedroom. On top of the desk was a name plate that read: "Kelly R. Jones." Next to the keyboard was a mouse pad shaped like a dog's face.
And that's when he made a new friend named Henry.
On February 9, 2001, while in an AOL chat room known by law enforcement as a popular place to trade child pornography, Jones sent a private instant message using the user name FTLBAREBACK.
"What kinda pics and videos u got?" Jones wrote Henry. "Real turned on by young here."
Henry explained that he was a 36-year-old man in Fort Pierce with a 12-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter. Then Henry asked Jones if he was a cop.
"Nope and don't work for AOL," he replied. "Just horny as fuck for kids."
What Jones didn't realize was that his new friend was in fact Detective Neil Spector of the multi-agency Law Enforcement Against Child Harm Task Force (LEACH). Spector was trolling the Internet, posing as a pedophile in hopes of luring unsuspecting sex criminals. Jones took the bait. After only a few minutes of talking to "Henry" online, Jones sent seven e-mail messages. Six included attachments of child pornography, including a video of two boys who appeared to be under age 14 performing oral sex on each other. The seventh contained a nude photograph of Jones.
After finding that the AOL account was registered to Jones, Spector called Richard Love, a Fort Lauderdale police detective and fellow member of LEACH, to help him verify that Jones was the person with whom he was communicating online. At 7:15 p.m. on February 21, 2001, Love approached Jones' and Wilk's house as Spector communicated online with FTLBAREBACK. The Fort Lauderdale detective knocked.
"Doorbell," Jones wrote to Spector. "Hold."
Love confirmed that the person who answered the door was the man in the nude photograph e-mailed to Spector along with the child pornography. Jones was indeed the suspect.
Spector arranged a rendezvous. Three days later, on February 24, 2001, Jones pulled into the parking lot of a hotel in Port Saint Lucie driving his silver 2001 Nissan Xterra. He wanted illicit sex; instead, he got handcuffs.
In Jones' car, Spector found sex toys and condoms, as well as a baggie containing crystal methamphetamine and a bottle of Caverject, a male impotence drug. The arrest was covered by local television news, letting residents of Coral Highlands know just who lived at 1950 NE 57th St.
Two weeks later, according to a police report, a neighbor allegedly broke one of the house's front windows and left a note on Wilk's car. A police report states: "The note advises him that he is no longer welcome in the neighborhood and that he should move before actions are taken against him."
From this point on, Wilk's father isn't sure what happened to his son. He'd always known him to be a law-and-order type. But after Jones' arrest, Wilk cut off contact with the family.
Wilk appeared to blame Jones' troubles on the law. At one of Jones' hearings, according to court records filed in St. Lucie County, Wilk told an FBI agent assisting the investigation of Jones: "I'd [like] to beat you."
In a letter to Jones dated September 2, 2001, Wilk wrote: "I get so angry that I want to kill every cop that I see. I will never stop hating cops for the rest of my life. I will devote my life [to] attacking the police and avenging you for all they have done."
To that end, Wilk registered the AOL username COPWARNING and began to troll the chat rooms. Only Wilk didn't want sex or pornography; he was trying to warn people about undercover officers. On his AOL profile, Wilk's personal quote read: "Religion is for weak-minded people. A good cop is a dead one." While in the chat room, Wilk accused one user -- DavidClyde007, an alias used by Spector -- of being law enforcement.
On September 17, 2001, Wilk, using the alias Wolpackeines, entered into a short but tense online conversation with Spector. Only at the end did the detective realize that Wilk had found him:
Wolpackeines: I hope you can live with yourself, I will hunt you down the rest of my life
DavidClyde007: WHO IS THIS?
Wolpackeines: the last person you will see on earth
DavidClyde007: HOW WILL THAT HAPPEN
Wolpackeines: you figure it out spector
DavidClyde007: HOW IS THAT SIR
DavidClyde007: Is this Ken?
Immediately following the conversation, Wilk called Fort Lauderdale police, claiming he had been threatened online. "He thinks Spector is a bad cop," Officer Mark Parnell wrote in his report. But the only available chat transcript, which the St. Lucie County Sheriff's Office later submitted into evidence, was the one in which Wilk threatened Spector.
Then, on November 11, 2001, Fort Lauderdale police officers searched Wilk's and Jones' house, seizing three revolvers and three high-caliber rifles, all of which were registered. Among the weapons were a Yugoslavian 8mm bolt-action rifle and a Rossi .45-caliber lever-action rifle -- a powerful weapon similar to the one Wilk would later use to kill Deputy Fatta. Hanging from Wilk's computer desk were anti-police slogans and two copies of a City Link article about Detective Spector.
During the search, Wilk told Fort Lauderdale police that "he was in fear of his life because Detective Neil Spector was trying to kill him." Spector declined to comment for this article.
In December 2001, St. Lucie County prosecutors charged Wilk with threatening a public official, a felony. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault on a law enforcement officer and was sentenced to 90 days. In a motion Wilk himself filed, he told the court that he accepted the plea for financial reasons; he could no longer afford his attorney. He maintained that the government was targeting him unjustly. "The conduct of the government has been so outrageous, it offends the universal sense of justice and fair play," he told the court.
For his part, Jones pleaded guilty to federal child pornography charges and received a 29-month sentence.
On June 17, 2004, four days after Kelly Ray Jones was released from prison, Detective Spector made another bust -- an unidentified Florida man who was trading child pornography on the Internet and offering his underage daughter for sex. The man agreed to work with authorities and provided Spector with a list of AOL usernames representing people with whom he traded illegal images and videos. One of the usernames was Kelevision2. It was used by a man named Kelly in Broward County, the arrestee told law enforcement.
Spector had a hunch. Using the AOL account of the arrested man, whose username is not specified in reports, he contacted Kelevision2. "Hey," Spector wrote.
"Fuck where u been?" the suspect wrote back, not realizing police were using the account.
Spector told Kelevision2 that he'd recently met with someone who allowed him to have sex with a child. "Hook me up," Kelevision2 replied. Spector responded that he had lost all his child pornography and needed more.
Kelevision2 complied, e-mailing two samples and offering to bring CDs of pornography if he could have sex with the man and his daughter.
When Spector subpoenaed AOL's billing records for the username, he discovered that the account was registered to Wilk. It appeared that Jones -- in a feeble attempt to escape detection -- was using an account registered in his partner's name.
On July 14, 2004, less than a month after being released from prison, Jones was arrested again. That afternoon, police searched Wilk's and Jones' house once more.
Unlike the day that detective Fatta was killed, the BSO SWAT team was deployed. But no one was home. No conflict occurred. Searchers found several CDs containing child pornography.
On July 16, 2004, Jones met Wilk for a series of jailhouse phone calls that were taped by authorities. The pair tried ineffectually to talk in code. They seemed to indicate that during the search, police did not find all of the child pornography. Wilk wanted to destroy the evidence. Jones couldn't bear the thought.
"It's 15 years for every single one of them..." Wilk said, referring to CDs of child pornography.
"Some things can't be replaced, OK?" Jones replied. "Irreplaceable."
Jones then suggested that Wilk buy a cooler, fill it with any pornography and drugs left in the house, and bury it in the backyard. He also proposed spreading coffee grounds on the cooler and surrounding soil to throw off any drug dogs.
Wilk's hostility grew. In a series of letters he wrote to his lover, Wilk provided some clues to what he might do:
August 11, 2004: "I have lost so much respect for people's lives. It's like killing people would be justified and enjoyed."
August 12, 2004: "I know that picking [a] fight with cops is insane, but I need to vent my rage over an injustice... I have several weapon[s] just laying [sic] around in case one of the nutjobs actually show up."
August 16, 2004: "I have become such an angry, bitter person. I just want to hurt something."
Three days later, hunching behind his kitchen counter, Wilk fired his .30-30-caliber Model 94 Winchester rifle at two sheriff's deputies he'd never met.
Todd Fatta saw his family for the last time about three months before August 19, 2004, when he returned to his hometown of West Seneca, New York, near Buffalo, for his high school reunion. Ten years had passed since Todd had left for a career in law enforcement.
He was the youngest of four children in a working-class family. His father was a technician in one of Buffalo's factories, his mother a housekeeper at Macy's. From an early age, his brother Joe remembers, Todd wanted to be a cop. "We'd play cops-and-robbers, and he would never want to be the bad guy." Joe, who was close to his only brother despite being 13 years older, says, "He always had to be the good guy."
Todd watched in admiration as Joe left the house to become a firefighter and paramedic in his early 20s. "In some ways, Todd wanted to follow in my footsteps," Joe says. After moving out, the older brother left his dumbells for Todd, and the younger Fatta could often be found pumping iron in his spare time. Even then, his brother says, he was preparing for life as a cop.
After graduating from high school, Todd enrolled in Erie Community College, in Williamsville, New York, and earned an associate's degree in criminal justice while working part-time at a department store. Immediately following graduation, in 1991, Fatta enrolled in the Air Force. The government stationed Todd in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He got his wish when he was named a military police officer.
Four years later, Todd decided to leave the service in hopes of landing a job policing civilians. One of his sisters had recently moved to South Florida, and in 1994, with Broward's population booming, Todd figured he could find work.
On January 31, 1995, he filled out an application at BSO headquarters on Broward Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale. He was eager and honest. Where the application asked if he'd ever used illegal drugs, he answered: "Once took a drag from a marijuana cigarette in high school." Fatta was a good guy, not an angel.
The psychologist who interviewed Todd was impressed with his maturity, honesty, and experience, according to BSO personnel records. "This is an exceptional candidate," the psychologist wrote.
"Todd would seem shy at first -- until you got to know him," Joe remembers. "Then he'd become very charming and talkative. Once you had a little bond, he loved to talk. Everybody loved him."
In spring 1995, BSO offered him a job as a road patrol deputy in the Tamarac division, earning about $30,000 per year.
"Todd was a topnotch cop, always well-respected, and never hesitated to lend a hand," remembers Jeff Snyder, a former BSO deputy in Tamarac who now runs a company that provides drug-sniffing dogs. "He had a passion for his work."
Todd first worked in the patrol unit, then transferred to BSO's auto theft division and later to narcotics. "There was always the concern of potential dangers," Joe says. "He always went ahead and trained himself and kept physically fit. For example, he was issued a bulletproof vest at BSO, and he took it upon himself to buy the next grade up. That's how seriously he took the risk."
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."
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.
"The tragedy left a huge hole in our life," Joe Fatta says. "Todd is a great loss to our family, and he's a loss to all of his friends. He's a superb loss to society."
The house at 1950 NE 57th St. is as undisturbed as a grave. Signs dot the property, marking that it has been seized by the federal government.
Inside, the house is as it was when Fatta barged through the door one year ago. That sheet of reflective material still hangs in the front window. When federal prosecutors bring Wilk to trial later this year, possibly for charges that could carry the death penalty, they plan to show pictures of the inside of this house. Jurors will be able to see how close Wilk was when he unleashed his ferocious rifle on two sheriff's deputies.
They'll also likely hear from those who miss the deputy most. A webpage dedicated to Todd Fatta at the Officer Down Memorial Page (www.odmp.org) has published more than 100 written tributes so far.
Some are intimate. "Every time I go into my wallet and see your picture, I take a moment, I sigh, and a piece of me hurts." It's signed "Lisa... Your Buttercup."
Others are professional. "My heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family and fellow officers of Detective Fatta." It's signed by a New Jersey police officer.
And then there's this, from Officer David Young of the Coral Springs Police Department: "I know they probably don't need a police force in heaven, but if they did, I'm sure you'd be on it."
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.