Fatal Attraction: A Cop Gets Tangled Up With a Pair of Addicts, and Things Turn Violent
Christina Passi loved the camera.
Photos document the blue-eyed Latin beauty's win at the 2002 Sunshine Classic Bodybuilding, Fitness, and Figure Championships in Palm Beach Gardens. It was her debut in bodybuilding competition, lightweight class. The glistening, rock-hard muscles on her four-foot-11 frame lit up with each flash from cameramen jockeying for position at the Dwyer Auditorium.
Passi landed in Southern Muscle Plus magazine, the South's bodybuilding bible. For the cover shot, she flexed her left arm alongside her abdomen in a classic hunched-over bodybuilding pose.
Five years later, the 30-year-old was no longer the subject of admiration or awe — only morbid curiosity. Shortly after midnight on November 7, 2007, security cameras caught the last minutes of her life, a tragic end documented step by step.
Passi looked pathetic, drab, and crazed on the surveillance system inside the home of then-millionaire boyfriend Scott Iorillo. Visibly upset and naked, except for an untied dark-blue bathrobe, Passi can be seen on the tape frantically pacing back and forth between the master bedroom and the office across the hall.
In her right hand was a black Ruger MK II long rifle handgun loaded with .22-caliber rounds. At times, she placed the handgun tightly against her right temple. At other times, she wildly waved it around.
It wasn't the first time that the formerly musclebound divorced mother of one stared down the abyss. A year earlier at the same house on Charlee Street in unincorporated Lake Worth, she attempted to cut her own throat with a sharp piece of ceramic from a broken outdoor clock, then jumped in the pool. Passi missed the artery. When she heard sirens from paramedics, she ran away. K-9 sheriff's deputies found her hiding in the woods nearby.
Passi continued to lose control of her crack-fueled world. According to records, she had lost custody of her daughter, who was being raised by her brother in St. Petersburg. Her 80-year-old grandmother, one of Passi's rare lifelines, changed her phone and wouldn't give Passi the new number.
And Passi was still reeling from an arrest in a January 2007 traffic stop as she rode shotgun in Iorillo's Lexus. That day, West Palm Beach cop Sanjay Raja claimed he found 2.6 grams of crack in a McDonald's bag on her lap. Passi told him the drugs belonged to Iorillo. Raja didn't believe her and charged Passi with possession.
Things got complicated after that arrest. Iorillo claims Raja recruited Passi as a confidential informant in an attempt to bring down her dealer. The patrol cop, who wasn't supposed to use informants, also became her lover, Iorillo claims.
When Passi started acting crazy with one of Iorillo's two guns that November night, Iorillo first made sure the surveillance cameras were working. Then, according to a Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office report of the incident, Iorillo quickly replaced the battery in a small sound recorder while Passi sat in the master bedroom with the Ruger.
If Passi pulled the trigger, Iorillo wanted to be sure cops wouldn't blame him for her death.
Passi asked Iorillo: "Is your life going to be ruined if I kill myself?"
"Yeah," Iorillo replied. He tried to calm her down, to no avail. He warned her that the trigger was particularly sensitive. In frustration, he said: "If you're going to shoot yourself, I don't want to witness it."
Passi walked out of his office and returned to the master bedroom.
She pressed the Ruger against her head one final time and pulled the trigger. She fell to the ground, face up, head tilted slightly to the left, bathrobe wide open. She was so feather-light that Iorillo didn't hear the sound of her dropping. He heard only the shot.
Blood mixed with brain matter reddened the bedroom's cream-colored Berber carpet. A large tattoo of a butterfly underlined by the word Scott across her belly fluttered as her breath became more labored. Between her legs lay the Ruger. Within reach, her glass crack pipe and the spent casing.
An autopsy report would later reveal how the tiny bullet churned through Passi's brain, causing internal bleeding and multiple skull fractures as it bounced like a pinball inside her head before spinning out of her left temple.
On the surveillance tape, meanwhile, Iorillo can be seen dialing 911 while running to the master bedroom, then to the kitchen, then back to the bedroom. Deputies carefully approached the house, an unusual sight in the quiet Cypress Estates community. They had the 911 operator call Iorillo to have him meet them outside. There, deputies placed him in a prone position and cuffed him until they verified his claim that Passi shot herself.
Deputy Joe Korb started CPR. She still had a faint pulse. When Palm Beach County Fire Rescue pulled up, someone handed Korb a compression unit so he could keep forcing air into Passi's lungs.
The young woman was taken by helicopter to Delray Medical Center. She died the following day in room 293 without regaining consciousness.
Her suicide, however, kicked off a strange and convoluted series of events that would eventually throw Scott Iorillo across West Palm cop Sanjay Raja's path again. In time, it would end up costing Iorillo two years of freedom. It would also expose Raja as a cop with a history of problems and whose apparent lies could have sent Iorillo to prison for the rest of his life.
Scott Alan Iorillo didn't see Sanjay Raja again over the next 16 months, a period during which Iorillo sank deeper into drug quicksand.
Then, shortly after 11 a.m. on March 13, 2009, Iorillo stood on the front steps of the West Palm Police officer's 1,600-square-foot suburban stucco home.
He'd driven his 2000 Cadillac Eldorado through the quiet Oak Chase Court development in Wellington after kids helped him key in the secret code to a security gate. And clearly, Iorillo had no business wanting to meet with Sanjay at his house without prior permission. Five days earlier, after all, Sanjay had arrested Iorillo for possession of cocaine.
Iorillo swears there was method to his madness. He claims Sanjay promised to make him an informant during the March 8 bust so that Iorillo could "work off" the charges and avoid jail — just as Sanjay supposedly had done for Passi months before her suicide.
Besides, Iorillo said, it wasn't the first time he was at Sanjay's house, and vice versa: "Sanjay came to my house on Charlee to pick up Passi at least twice. I dropped her off at his house in Wellington several times. We weren't complete strangers. I was in the car when he arrested Christina in 2007."
Iorillo was right to worry about staying out of the slammer. His criminal history made him the kind of neighbor who's never asked to watch the kids for an hour. Palm Beach County court records show he was arrested eight times in 2008 and 2009 on charges ranging from battery to possession of cocaine.
And when he was arrested by Sanjay on March 8, Iorillo was on probation for a 2008 misdemeanor conviction. He had beaten a woman over $100 to buy cocaine.
Now, Iorillo faced at least a year in a state prison.
"I was in a panic because I couldn't get ahold of Sanjay at the police department," Iorillo said. He acknowledges he was still getting high at that time. "I didn't want to go to jail for years. I wanted to get with him before the charges were formally filed. I figured I needed to get ahold of him quickly, so I went to his house twice. The first time, I called him from the gate, and he didn't pick up."
Iorillo's descent into the life of a druggie worried only about his next high was a swift one. In 2006, he was still a married suburban father of three making hundreds of thousands a year selling extended warranties for cars. But his addiction, he says, cost him his business, family, home, and, eventually, his good name.
And for that, he blames Passi.
"Christina is the one who got me into crack," Iorillo said recently. He's sitting in a Starbucks on Okeechobee Boulevard in West Palm Beach. Wearing a camouflage T-shirt and sporting a military-style haircut, the pudgy Iorillo is sipping on iced decaf as he talks. Pockmarks on his face betray his past as a substance abuser.
"I met her at a party. Somehow, she got my number and started calling me. She was hot, and she liked to get high, and I had a lot of money. She started living with me about a year before her suicide. She wanted me to do crack with her, and she was very persuasive."
Which sparked Iorillo to wonder: "Why would any cop hang out with her?"
Sanjay Raja, 35, police badge number 1663, enrolled in the now-defunct Lake Worth Police Department in 1999. He was hired despite a background check that turned up an arrest.
Raja was a 17-year-old senior at the John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres when he admitted to helping a friend break into a Mustang parked off I-95 in Palm Beach Gardens. He successfully completed a juvenile delinquent rehab program, and his records were supposed to have been purged, according to Lake Worth Police archives.
Within two weeks of his October 1999 hire, probationary cop Raja was fired by then-Chief William Smith for "failure to meet standards." Smith didn't go into details in his termination letter, but archives showed he may have lied about the car-burglary arrest during his interview.
Strangely, in February 2000, Raja was rehired by the Lake Worth PD after he applied anew for a police job. And this time, his FDLE background check didn't turn up his juvenile arrest. And, according to his application, Raja didn't report his arrest — as mandated by law.
He clung on for four years, resigning in 2004 to take a patrolman's job at the then-Chief Delsa Bush's West Palm Beach Police Department. There, Raja became quickly known as a gung-ho cop, an officer branded by the brass as a "worker" — someone who went all out to get the bad guy.
How he treated the good guy, however, appears to be a problem.
According to six years of West Palm Beach Police Department logs, Raja has been involved in 38 use-of-force incidents. He has been the target of 19 complaints from civilians, including a foreign motorist who said Raja told her to "go back where you came from"; a claim that he threw a suspect's cell phone away; and an accusation that he rifled through personal effects during a fire alarm at a day spa.
Raja has been the subject of seven internal-affairs investigations for anything from crashing his squad car to unprofessional conduct. Four of those investigations were found to be unsubstantiated, but three of them led to discipline, including a three-shift suspension for misusing his police radio.
In September 2007, Raja was involved in a middle-of-the-night car chase with suspected burglars. He claimed he was greeted with a hail of bullets when the bandits ditched their car and vanished. Afterward, he put his name in for the department's highest heroism award, the Combat Cross. Investigators found plenty of shell casings from Raja's service 9mm handgun. But they also found that Raja's gun battle may have been a little too one-sided. They found no proof that the suspects stuck around long enough to fire their weapons — if they had any. The Combat Cross application was denied.
Then there was the time in 2006 when internal affairs investigated Raja for his frequent visits to Relax With Us. The now-closed West Palm Beach massage parlor was deemed by police to be a "jack shack," an establishment in which bikini-clad girls performed massages that often ended with sex acts.
The Raja investigation was an offshoot of two others: One sent disgraced ex-West Palm Beach City Commissioner Ray Liberti to jail for shaking down the owners, and another ensnared Raja's friend and fellow cop Michael Ghent. Ghent also took cash from the owners, in addition to indulging in the offerings. Prosecutors eventually dropped the corruption charges when Ghent promised to give up his law enforcement license.
Raja? IA sleuths couldn't get him, although they wanted to. "We knew Sanjay hung out at Relax With Us because several of the girls picked his mug out of a lineup," said a former internal-affairs boss who asked not to be named. "We tried to catch him in a lie. When we questioned him, he claimed he only visited the jack shack when he was a Lake Worth Police officer." The sheriff's office had taken over the Lake Worth PD in 2008, so West Palm's internal affairs decided not to go after Raja for what he had done while working for a defunct agency.
Internal affairs would have its chance again to catch Raja in early 2011, but the cops couldn't get enough to get him fired.
Raja, however, did get suspended for three days without pay for what he did to Iorillo the day Iorillo showed up at the cop's home.
"I'm a police officer, and I just had someone arrested, fucking two days ago or last week, and he just showed up at my door," Raja's 911 call starts, seconds after Iorillo rang his doorbell in Wellington.
"Hey, man," Iorillo can be heard saying in the background, "I thought I was doing the right thing."
"Is he acting violent?" the operator asks.
"No, he's not," Raja replies.
The way Iorillo now explains it, he rang Raja's bell a few times then, thinking Raja wasn't home. He walked back toward his Cadillac parked curbside. A woman friend, Alexandra Pierce, waited for him in the passenger's seat and confirmed to New Times that she didn't see Iorillo step inside the officer's home. Raja came out of the house while talking to the 911 operator on his telephone and joined Iorillo on the front lawn.
Raja's version, recounted in an October 2009 deposition, was vastly different. Under oath, Raja contradicted what he told the 911 operator. He claimed a struggle took place inside his house after Iorillo opened the front door, uninvited.
"Everything happened so fast," a heroic-sounding Raja told Kevin Anderson, Iorillo's attorney at the time of the deposition. "He is coming into the house, he's pulling up his arm, and he's saying 'Officer Raja.' " He claimed Scott turned aggressive and grabbed his left arm. "I snapped out of my posture and started punching him in his face," Raja said. "I'm punching him, and he's trying to strike back. He hit me on my arm."
On the 911 tape of the call obtained by New Times, Raja's voice appears normal. He's not out-of-breath or shaking or hyperventilating. He gave no indication of having been in a violent struggle. But on Raja's word, authorities charged Iorillo with a litany of crimes: burglary of an occupied dwelling, battery on a law enforcement official, corruption by threat, and trespassing.
"I didn't do anything to justify the charges," Iorillo says.
According to several depositions, two sheriff's deputies first arrived on the scene after the 911 call. They placed Iorillo in handcuffs and pushed him into the back of a cruiser. The off-duty Raja — wearing only undershorts — jumped in, and pummeled Iorillo's face to a pulp as the deputies stood by.
A third deputy, Tom Turner, pulled up to see Raja hit Iorillo at least twice. Turner jumped out of his car and ran to the scene, according to a deposition he later gave in Iorillo's criminal case. "What the hell is going on?" he yelled.
Raja got out of the cruiser, walked around to the other side, and started opening the door to jump on Iorillo again.
"Get the fuck away from the car," Turner said. "What the hell do you think you're doing?" He got between the car and Raja and pushed him back.
A West Palm Beach internal-affairs report validated the version of the incident that Iorillo and Turner tell. It explains how Raja walked right by the first two deputies at the scene, Jennifer Baker and Bill McKenna; opened the back door of Baker's squad car; and entered the back seat to "talk" with Iorillo.
"They were watching him slap me and punch me until a third deputy showed up," Iorillo says. "[Turner] stopped the whole thing. If he hadn't been there, I don't know what would've happened."
Iorillo was taken by ambulance to the Wellington Medical Center, with Turner riding with him. Doctors in the ER patched Iorillo up, and he was booked yet again. His mug shot shows eight bruises and abrasions, including a black left eye.
Those were Iorillo's last moments of freedom — until March 1, 2011. For nearly two years, he was held in county jails without bail. Prosecutors with the State Attorney's Office deemed him dangerous, so a judge denied bond soon after the incident. Two more hearings in which Iorillo could have been released over the next 18 months were repeatedly postponed.
Then, on January 11, Iorillo finally was brought to the courthouse for what he believed would be his fourth bond hearing. Instead, his two lawyers, Anderson and David Roth, told him a deal had been worked out with prosecutors.
Anderson says he didn't want to risk seeing Iorillo go to trial and be put away for life by a jury. Details of the case worried the attorney. Raja, for example, had also been treated a couple of days after Iorillo's last arrest for scrapes and bruises, suggesting he had been in a struggle. And sheriff's deputies at the stockade had found among Iorillo's personal effects a piece of paper with an address scrawled on it. The address? Raja's mom's. "I'm not ready to call Officer Sanjay a liar and a crooked cop just yet," Anderson said, "and I go after police departments for a living."
Iorillo pleaded guilty to attempted burglary, a lower-grade felony; and trespassing. In exchange, he was sentenced to the time he had already served in jail.
Raja, meanwhile, admitted in his deposition that he hit Iorillo "once or twice" because Iorillo allegedly spat at him and accused him of "killing" Christina Passi.
The law now considers Iorillo a felon, and it's not something he wants on his record. "Raja is a liar," Iorillo says. "He knows I know what happened between him and Christina. That's why he went after me like that."
Christy Rogers, one of three assistant state attorneys who took turns prosecuting Iorillo, disagreed. "As a prosecutor, if I didn't believe the evidence before me, it is my duty not to pursue a case," she said. "How would you feel as a police officer if a suspect shows up at your house? We did pursue the case. Draw your own conclusions."
On September 20, Iorillo appeared before Judge Jeffrey Colbath for a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. Iorillo and his current lawyer, Ron Chapman, claimed Iorillo was coerced to plead by Anderson, who allegedly said he'd drop Iorillo as a client if he didn't sign off on the deal.
Rogers asked the judge to strike the motion. In a surreal scene, she called Anderson, who had made $15,000 representing Iorillo, to testify against his former client. Colbath denied Iorillo the chance to change his plea.
Iorillo, however, did get someone to pay attention. He filed complaints against Raja with the West Palm Beach Police Department and with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office against the first two deputies at Raja's house.
West Palm Internal Affairs Sgt. Michael Deighan listened to the 911 tape and spent weeks talking to witnesses, including Alexandra Pierce, the woman in Iorillo's Cadillac.
He also discovered a video from the holding facility where Iorillo was taken after his arrest by Raja on March 8, 2009. On the tape, Raja tells Iorillo emphatically that he can't use him as an informant because he is on probation. But that video also showed something that caught Deighan's attention enough for him to mention it in his report.
"The video also captured Scott speaking about the suicide of his girlfriend, Christina Passi," wrote Deighan, who declined to comment. "Scott went into detail about how she committed suicide by shooting herself in Scott's home. On video, Officer Raja appeared to be stunned and surprised by the details of her death."
Deighan's report mentions possible bad blood between Raja and Iorillo over Passi. It cites Passi's suicide as the reason it would be impossible to get to the bottom of Raja's relationship with her. Patrolmen usually don't handle confidential informants, and even though Passi had told Iorillo that she worked for Raja, Passi never registered with West Palm Police as an official informant.
What she did for or with Raja, Passi took to the grave.
"There's no way to determine the extent of the relationship or if there even was contact between Sanjay and Ms. Christina," Deighan's report reads. "Ms. Passi committed suicide almost one year and four months prior to Scott's arrest."
What Deighan's report did is shine a light on professional courtesy among law enforcement agents. "Officer Raja was allowed to question and challenge Scott in the back of a patrol car," Deighan wrote. "This was allowed by Deputy McKenna only because Officer Sanjay is a West Palm Beach Police Officer."
At the conclusion of his probe, Deighan determined that Raja violated department policies on the use of force and displayed conduct unbecoming an officer. He was suspended with no pay for three days.
The Sheriff's Office's internal-affairs probe into the response to Raja's house? All deputies were cleared of any wrongdoing.
As for Christina Passi — a woman whose taste in men had included Chris George, who's now facing possible life in prison for allegedly running a chain of pain clinics throughout South Florida with his twin brother, Jeff — Iorillo speculated that she might still be alive today if she'd never met Raja.
"She used to tell me how cops were driving her nuts," he said. "I guess she meant it."
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