Robert Love felt his heart race and palms sweat on the steering wheel of his 1993 Ford Explorer as he reached downtown Pahokee just before 9:30 p.m. on February 25. The police squad car behind him, driven by a rookie cop unaware of who it was driving without his headlights on, had just flicked on its cherries. Love, a 48-year-old black man and former drug dealer-cum-political activist, knew that this could be it. This could be the confrontation in an ongoing feud that would lead to his demise -- or the death of a small-town cop.
Love's peculiar mixture of street savvy and religion led him to believe that the devil and God were struggling for control over his next move. The devil was pushing him to keep driving, to take the easy way out, to coast just far enough to get to the Rardin neighborhood a few blocks away, the safety of black downtown.
"Come on downtown, Robert Love; let 'em shine the lights on you," the devil called. "C'mon downtown. Then when you get out, they ain't gonna do nothin'." Down in the 'hood, the cops wouldn't dare go too far. There had been too many times when the bottles and rocks had flown at them from the midst of a crowd.
But Love's good side prevailed. He stopped on the deserted main street, beside an old storefront festooned with weathered planks nailed over the windows. Here's where God would see to it that "everything'll get done," he believed.
Ten minutes later, Love was facedown on the concrete, with one cop's arm wrapped around his neck and another officer raining down a flurry of blows. Even by the officers' own accounts, it was a brutal encounter.
Officer James Levey, a plump-faced 27-year-old, who is white, slammed his retractable baton into Love's torso over and over. When the baton collapsed, he punched Love in the ribs with his fist several times. Fearing that Love was going to break his fellow officer's arm, Levey moved up and began punching Love on the side of his head. Finally, Levey cuffed the stunned Love and dumped him into a squad car.
His head swollen like a macabre melon and the bone around his eye a shattered mess, Love moaned for medical attention from the back seat of the car.
Love, however, who requires reconstructive bone surgery on his face, was not the only casualty of the night.
The incident had rapidly escalated from routine traffic stop to violent arrest to ham-handed police action, threatening to spill over into the city's troubled civic life. Police came within inches of throwing several city officials, including the mayor, into the slammer for asking questions. The city manager, long a critic of the police, stumbled back into her car when a deputy raised what she thought was a real gun at her -- an incident for which the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office is now investigating two of its deputies. Within days, Levey had resigned. Rafael Duran, the native son who'd returned home to run the Police Department, stepped down in lieu of termination after a rocky, 16-month ride.
At its most basic level, the bloody confrontation was the inexorable climax of a personal feud that consumed a handful of men. For more than a year, Love had been warring with the Police Department, claiming certain officers were corrupt and out of control. Love's confrontations with the cops had escalated, and they'd arrested him several times for everything from disorderly conduct to stalking.
In a greater sense, though, the dispute -- like a small-scale Rodney King incident -- was part of a struggle for control of the city, a clash of wills over what the volatile town can and should be.
There's something soothingly predictable about Pahokee. Trapped by thousands of acres of sugar cane to the east and pinned against Lake Okeechobee to the west, the town of 6,500 souls is so remote, it provides few diversions. So its residents have a knack for providing their own entertainment -- particularly in Rardin, the black neighborhood east of downtown named for the avenue that runs through its heart.
On a Thursday evening early in April, everyone's getting a jump on the weekend, buoyed by the extra sunlight brought by the sudden switch to daylight-saving time. The blocks of Rardin are alive, as though a festival has commenced. Middle-aged men sip bottles of Corona and set up homemade barbeque grills on the curb. Other would-be merchants splay their wares on the sidewalks and empty lots: baseball cards, clothes, snacks. Old men play dominoes. Teens and young men and women -- pegged by locals as "jitterbugs" for their constant motion -- bop up and down the sidewalks and around the handful of convenience stores on the main highway leading into town. Some sell drugs; some harbor grudges; quarrels are not infrequent.
Regardless of age, though, there's uneasiness between the inhabitants of Rardin and the police.
A dozen 30-something black men are drinking bottles of beer, talking and joking on a patch of vacant land on Rardin Avenue, a lot still littered with the remains of several mobile homes destroyed by hurricanes last fall. Parked on it are a van and a freshly washed and waxed Dodge Ram pickup, whose owner is barbecuing whole chickens and keyboard-sized racks of ribs on a smoke-billowing grill. In another hour, around 9, he'll sell baskets of either for $6 each.
"The Pahokee Police Department is full of rejects," declares Ulrik Williams, a 30-year-old who sports a red Nike skullcap and flashes several gold teeth as he speaks.
Williams' assessment is not idle criticism but an observation that even police brass have acknowledged.
"They get tossed from five other places and then come here," Williams says.
A supervisor with the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, Williams is still stinging from a run-in with the cops last fall, when he was on the way home from work in his white car. Unfortunately for Williams, the police were looking for the same color car involved in a shooting when they stopped him north of town.
One of the cops told Williams he was going to take him to jail because his "mouth is too smart," Williams says. "You mean to tell me, I'm 30 years old and you're going to disrespect me, and I'm supposed to say, 'Yes, sir' and 'No, sir'?"
"No," interjects Adrian Walker, who's sitting nearby. "We ain't in the segregation days no more."
Pahokee's police force has indeed long been a troubled one, partly because it's not a department that draws the cream of the crop. In June 2000, the city hired Gary Frechette as police chief, despite the fact that he'd been fired as a captain with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office over allegations that he'd had an affair with a subordinate officer.
Two and a half years later, Frechette quit after accusing his top officer, Capt. Timothy Kenney, of selling department weapons for personal profit and using charity-drive money as a "slush fund" for officers. Kenney claimed that Frechette had misused a $13,000 federal grant. No criminal charges were filed against either, but the imbroglio left the Pahokee Police Department leaderless for months.
Adding to the town's administrative disarray, Pahokee City Manager Jim Smith quit in February 2003 after less than three months on the job. His replacement, Vincent Finizio, recommended that the City Commission hire the Sheriff's Office to police the city. That idea went nowhere, but Finizio did: Under a hail of public criticism over his aggressive approach to code enforcement, he also left the job after only three months.
In the wake of these events, Rafael Duran, then a youngish 50, returned to his hometown to become police chief in August 2003. Lantern-jawed, with finely coifed graying hair, speaking softly in a coffee shop in the rough-and-tumble Westgate neighborhood of West Palm Beach where he started his career as a patrolman, Duran recalls his rise and fall as Pahokee's top cop. He worked for years with the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, as everything from detective to hostage negotiator. He resigned in 2000 for an unsuccessful run for sheriff, after which he figured his time as a cop was over.
Pahokee had always held a special place in his heart. He and his family had arrived there on Thanksgiving Day in 1960, ten days after fleeing Cuba. His father had been in the sugar business in Cuba, so the move out west to the cane fields was a natural. Pahokee then, Duran recalls, was straight out of a scene from American Graffiti, busy streets and a citizenry that thrived on the agricultural jobs of those premachinery days.
But that era was long gone when Duran took on the top job with Pahokee's Police Department. Unemployment in town is a chronic plague, usually hanging around 20 percent. The rate of HIV/AIDS infection is among the highest in the state, and the town's major employer during the early 1990s, the Everglades Regional Medical Center, closed in 1998.
"I knew about all the trials and tribulations of Pahokee," Duran says. "Pahokee has been one of those communities where things are different. It does its own thing." Becoming chief, he felt, was a way of giving back to the town that gave him and his family a chance for a new life many years ago.
What he found was not promising. "I came into a department that, really, had been decapitated: sergeants, lieutenants, and chief, literally gone. There was no morale. They had no sense of value." Duran began rebuilding, instituting new operating procedures, bringing the department up to the standards of the Sheriff's Office.
"It was a struggle from day one," he recalls. "Lack of funds, trying to recruit officers. As much as I hate to say it" -- he sighs, carefully choosing his words -- "the majority of officers there all had some sort of blemish on their records -- a bad driving record or been cut loose by another agency because they didn't meet the standards. I interviewed each person, and I'd give them a chance. I'd tell them, 'If you don't make it in Pahokee, you won't make it anywhere. This is your last-ditch effort. You've got to change who you are. You've got to see that something in your background made you go askew. Now it's time to change. '"
Duran's view of the city was analogous: It had gone astray, but with some serious attention, it could get back on the right path. "I always said that one of the solutions for Pahokee is to clean up certain areas," he says. "You can't keep this area clean and let this one go to hell. If you've ever been through what I call the 'night life' there, well, it's everything from drug-dealing to prostitution to stolen merchandise. It's incredible what goes on in just a three-, four-block area, the Rardin Avenue area. The majority of calls in Pahokee were there -- a good 75, 80 percent were from the Rardin area, the black community."
Duran's policing philosophy would soon put him on a collision course with Robert Love.
The irony of Duran and Love is that they grew up together decades ago in a Pahokee that was vibrant, even idyllic. Even then, though, a chasm existed between them because of their four-year age difference; Duran says he knew of Love only by reputation, while Love professes no recollection of the future chief.
With the approach of the new millennium, both swore they wanted to do their part to rebuild the town, to give back to the place of their childhood. The paths that led them to those proclamations of beneficence, however, couldn't be more different.
Sitting on a love seat at his girlfriend's apartment, which is filled with a bunch of framed portraits and is heavy on the zebra-stripe motif, Love talks about his life and the town he loves. In truth, Love doesn't actually talk; his voice is usually in the decibel range between a fundamentalist preacher in the pulpit and a Marine drill sergeant. He jumps up often to punctuate points and peppers his storytelling with frequent inquiries of, "You know what I'm sayin'? Know what I'm talkin' about?"
He's six feet tall, around 250 pounds, and although he has a bit of a paunch, his athletic build keeps him from looking heavy. (His son, Robert Jr., is a championship quarterback at the high school and enters his senior year this fall.) He's wearing a T-shirt that reads, "Got sum tail at Grumpy Gator" -- referring to the lakeside eatery where he earns $400 a week as a cook.
He comes from a family of farmworkers who harvested fruit and vegetables on the East Coast and returned home to Pahokee in between. Love gave up the fruit-picking life in 1976 at age 20 and moved to a much more lucrative line of work: selling drugs. He did well at the trade, helped by all the travel and connections he'd made.
"A lot of the children around here now be breaking into homes and going to jail," he says of modern-day Pahokee. "They're crack babies. I know because I sold crack to their mommas. It ain't like I went across country and didn't know what I was doing. I was the one who started crack cocaine here because back in '79, I was one of those young geniuses who knew how to cook up cocaine.
"When I was selling drugs, I thought I was doing something positive. I thought, 'Somebody's gotta do something for them peoples who need it. Somebody gotta stay here to keep the town. '"
He pounds on the glass-topped coffee table to emphasize his account, which is an odd mixture of confession, boast, and regret. "I know where I come from. It not like a damned rap star who write about what he ain't done."
By his mid-30s, he had been charged with everything from gambling to attempted first-degree murder before he was sent to federal prison in 1990 for trafficking drugs. "Did four years, two months, seven days, eight hours, and 37 minutes in federal prison," he sums up. "I promised the Lord and all his angels that I'd do more for my community after I got out than I did when I was selling drugs."
Love was a bit of a lost man when he was released, looking for direction. After police Maced a man during an overzealous effort to clear a Rardin street corner in 1996, Love says, he and other residents went to a City Commission meeting to complain. "There was a black mayor, but they didn't give a damn what was going on up here," he recalls. "The mayor can't even read the damned agenda!" Then the city barricaded a busy street block in Rardin, apparently in an attempt to stop loitering and traffic congestion.
Thoroughly irked, Love rounded up a couple of hundred signatures from residents saying they wanted the road reopened. "They said, 'Well, we could get more names than that saying it should stay closed,'" Love recalls. "It stayed blocked four months. I worked with the police and got a proposal to turn it into a one-way street, no parking. Since then, there hasn't been a problem."
After that, Love started asking questions about how the city was being run, and he became a regular at commission meetings. "We had $113,000 in unpaid water bills!" he shouts. "Every day, I was checking this, checking that."
It was during those meetings that Love met J.P. Sasser, the current mayor, who back then was just a lifelong resident pissed off about his hometown.
"We both thought the city was dying," Sasser says. On the cusp of 50, Sasser is tanned and trim with a mostly gray crewcut. His heavy drawl is the kind no longer common to Floridians living south of Orlando. His parents moved to Pahokee in the 1930s and opened a tire shop, then a number of Shell gas stations, and, finally, auto parts stores. Sasser and his sisters took them over eventually, then sold the businesses in the 1990s. He still owns rental properties in Pahokee and helps a friend run an auto body store in Belle Glade. He's fond of telling people that he's well off enough now to live anywhere he wants, and he does: Pahokee.
Sasser and Love were part of a citizens group that went out and found candidates to run against the sitting commission. Sasser ran and narrowly lost a commission race in 2001 and was preparing to do so again in 2002 when the group's candidate for mayor dropped out of the race for health reasons. Love insisted that Sasser run, and with both of them rounding up voters from their own neighborhoods, he won.
"The good ol' boy network was very upset," Sasser maintains. "That's the group that basically was pushing their own personal agenda and profiting by it at the expense of the city and the rest of the citizens. We turned the financial situation around by putting the money in the bank instead of in people's pockets."
It was not an easy transition for many, regardless of race. (The current commission consists of two white men, two black men, and one black woman.) "When change started coming, they screamed," Love says of the faction he calls "black panthers."
"They said the white folks gonna take this, take that. I said, yeah, Sasser's a white mayor, but what do I need a black mayor who's not doing the city any good?" When they attacked him for "working for a white man," he'd answer, "No, I'm working for the right man."
Love's political influence isn't limited to Pahokee; he convinced County Commissioner Tony Masilotti to pony up $250,000 in county funds to build a children's water park in Pahokee. The city will name the park after Love.
Duran came on board as chief in August 2003, shortly before the City Commission hired Lillie Latimore to replace Finizio as city manager. A 58-year-old business consultant and former assistant to the city manager in Miami, Latimore was the first black and first woman to be hired for the position.
Capable of a steely stare from behind her gold-rimmed glasses, she had a no-nonsense reputation. Duran reported directly to Latimore, and the two immediately clashed. "In Pahokee's form of government, a police chief is a department head," Latimore explains in her understated manner. "Chief Duran came from an elected department, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office, and they did things differently."
Part of their conflict arose from Duran's directive to officers to crack down on petty crimes. "I told my officers that if you see people gambling out there, you need to do something about it," Duran says. "If you see them drinking, open container, you need to do something about it. If you see them selling drugs, you need to do something about it."
As the police presence grew, so did citizen complaints of harassment. Latimore intervened in some cases. Duran got the message to cool it from commissioners and other townspeople in subtle ways, he says. "'Pahokee's always been like this,'" they'd say. 'It's a way of life. So what's wrong if we mosey around the streets with an open container?'"
In the wake of such hyperpolicing, it didn't take long for law enforcement to snag Robert Love. He'd been driving with a suspended license because of unpaid child support in North Carolina -- a delinquency he'd corrected without bothering to inform the Florida DMV. After several warnings to Love about his suspended license, Duran says, he told his officers, "You see him, you nail him."
On Easter weekend in April 2004, Love received several tickets for suspended license from Lyndean Peters, an imposing, 250-pound, doughy-faced white cop with a thin mustache. He'd left the Belle Glade Police Department in 2003 while being investigated for "violating moral character standards," according to his personnel file.
"From that point on, [Love] was against the cops," Duran says. "He'd antagonize you. After football games, he'd see us, lower his window, and give us the finger and yell, 'Pussy-ass cracker motherfuckers!'"
Love's jihad against the cops, however, wasn't sparked by narrow self-interest, he insists. A growing number of Rardin residents were getting fed up with the new, aggressive policing. "I had people at my house every week, from girls to 60-year-old people, sayin' what the police is doing to them," Love says. "How the police come to their house and show no respect for them. The chief couldn't do nothin' with 'em!"
Latimore says she cajoled Duran to find a community-relations role for Love involving the Police Department. "He'd been active in the community, and he wanted to remain that way," she says, adding that it was Love's way of "being made whole by being a part of something bigger." Asked about Duran's reaction to her suggestion, she says, "The chief rarely reacted to anything."
The breaking point for Love came in January 2004, when Sgt. Lawrence Holborow Maced and arrested Love's half-brother, Christopher Simmons, who was charged with battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, possession of cocaine with intent to sell, disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice. Love contended that the charges against his brother were bogus.
Nicknamed "New York" for his frequent boasts of working as a cop in the Big Apple, Holborow possessed the same beefy frame as Peters and, at 40, was one year his senior. Holborow was a holdover from the Frechette days, and Love considered him to be the root of all evil in the Police Department, a bad cop whose attitude rubbed off on the new hires.
Indeed, Holborow's career has been an unimpressive hodgepodge of short stints at police departments and security firms. According to his personnel file, he was asked to leave the NYC Police Department in 1989 after working two years and resigned from the Miami-Dade County Schools Police Department "while being investigated for violating moral character standards." He pleaded guilty to reckless driving in Miami-Dade in the fall of 2002 and shortly after that began working for the Pahokee police.
Love began videotaping Holborow, Peters, and a few others during their shifts, surveillance that quickly grated on the cops. The opening salvo in the war between Love and police came just before midnight on April 17, 2004, when Love began taping Holborow and yelling things like "You're a bad cop!" and "I'm going to get you!" They got into a shoving match at a sandwich shop, and Holborow arrested Love and charged him with battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, and disorderly conduct.
Love rejected an offer by the State Attorney's Office to drop the charges against his brother if Love would plead guilty to disorderly conduct -- an offer that just reinforced his belief that his half-brother had been used by the police as a pawn. "I ain't pleading guilty to a damned thing I ain't done," Love says. "I don't give a damn if my brother don't get off." (Simmons eventually pleaded guilty to resisting with violence and possession of cocaine.)
Love resumed his campaign while out on bail, showing up once with his video camera while Holborow interviewed a 17-year-old girl. By August, Love had managed to get himself arrested several times and faced more than a dozen charges, ranging from assaulting an officer with a deadly weapon -- Peters says Love tried to hit him with his pickup -- to stalking.
In February, however, Robert Shepherd, an assistant state attorney in Belle Glade, dropped all the charges, though he retained the right to refile them within six months. The move came after numerous discussions between Shepherd and Duran, Sasser, the public defender, and others. "We were attempting to keep peace in the valley -- that's how I'd describe it," Shepherd says. "I didn't want to see a long, hot summer with constant problems of bottle-throwing and everything else in Pahokee. Naive as I may have been, I thought we might have been able to work this out."
Part of Shepherd's reluctance to prosecute, though, was a practical matter. Holborow, always the crux of Love's complaints, had been suspended indefinitely in November 2004 while he was being investigated for sexual misconduct and theft. (The inquiry is still open.)
Duran directed his officers to leave Love alone, to not escalate the animosity between them.
To Love, though, the dismissal of all charges against him and the investigation of Holborow could mean only one thing: He was right about police corruption and abuse of power in Pahokee.
It was a conclusion declared vociferously by Love during commission meetings, and Love's targets were well-aware of his public assertions. The city had to step in, Love told the commission in ominous terms during a meeting on February 22 -- or else. "I'm telling you, there's going to be some killing and there's going to be some shooting, 'cause these polices, they are nothing but thugs, and you all know it," he told them. "And you all still sending them down there and messing with people's children."
Fed up with the turmoil, Sasser declared that something had to be done about the Police Department or "we'll be looking for another city manager."
Three days later, a rookie cop pulled Love over for driving without headlights.
On that fateful February night, Love jumped out of his truck and met face-to-face with Dominick Hachigian, a new hire who didn't recognize Love. By both men's accounts, it began as an almost friendly encounter. After handing him his license, according to Hachigian, who is white, Love said, "I give you this much credit: You have more respect than the rest of them. I don't know where we can go from that, but the problem is when people give you no respect."
Indeed, Hachigian was simply going to give him a citation for a suspended license, then let Love walk home or telephone his girlfriend to drive the truck home. The matter likely would have ended there, but the rookie cop had called for backup, which turned out to be James Levey -- an officer that Duran had specifically directed to lay off Love.
Levey, however, seemed to be spoiling for trouble; he told Love he was arresting him, despite what his fellow officer had said. From this point, Love and the cops' versions of what happened diverge.
Love describes an intentional, anger-driven beating, which began when Levey sucker-punched him with a whack to the shin with a collapsible baton, and he fell face forward. Hachigian then jumped on him and clamped down with a chokehold. Love struggled for breath through his windpipe, tugging at Hachigian's arms. As he tried to crawl under the squad car, Levey pounded him on the side of the face with the butt end of the baton.
Levey, on the other hand, depicts a berserk man who dragged Hachigian 20 feet before the cop brought the wildly resisting Love down to the cement -- a fall that smashed Love's face. They found a Baggie of marijuana in his SUV.
As the Fire Department and EMS vehicles arrived at the scene, parishioners from the nearby storefront Pentecostal Miracle Revival Center began gathering to watch. As it happened, Latimore and Allie Biggs, then the vice mayor, passed by the scene after eating dinner. Biggs recognized Love's car and called the mayor, who didn't answer.
Alarmed, Latimore got out of the driver's seat and approached a sheriff's deputy at the perimeter of the scene. "I'm Lillie Latimore, city manager of Pahokee," she told him. "What's going on?" He reacted "like I said a bad word," she recalls. He ordered her back to her car. "You don't understand," she said, "I'm the city manager, and I have a responsibility." That's when the deputy beckoned for another officer and as Latimore recalls, he told him to arrest her.
The second deputy tilted "a very large gun" at her, and she almost stumbled back to her car. Latimore learned later that it was a pepper-ball gun, but at the time, she believed a real firearm had been pointed at her. (The actions of the two deputies are under investigation by the Sheriff's Office, which would not comment on the case.)
Sasser soon arrived, awakened at home by Latimore and Biggs. "When the mayor approached the same officer that had been so rude to me and was going to order me arrested, he reached out and shook the mayor's hand," Latimore recalls. "I had a gun pointed at me and the mayor gets graciously received by the county officers?"
However he was received, Sasser wore out his welcome quickly. He saw Love in the back seat, head bloody and swollen like a basketball. Sick with a bad cold and already fed up with the ongoing feud, he approached Officer Peters and asked who'd stopped Love. "It was a routine traffic stop," he replied.
"Bullshit!" Sasser bellowed. (In his report, Peters says that Sasser smelled of alcohol and that he would have arrested him but feared "repercussions"; Sasser says he'd taken Nyquil.) Peters told him he didn't feel comfortable talking to him without the chief there.
No problem, the mayor said, dialing Duran, who was at home watching TV with his son, who was also ill. "You need to get your fuckin' ass over here right now!" Sasser yelled. "Heads are going to roll!"
Indeed, four days later, Latimore asked for Duran's resignation in lieu of being fired. Levey resigned the same day and has applied for a job with the Sheriff's Office, where he had been hired several years ago but failed to complete training. Duran says Levey told him he was leaving Pahokee because "they might damage my reputation and keep me from going to the Sheriff's Office."
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Sounding more disappointed than bitter, Duran says his own dismissal was a step backward for law enforcement in Pahokee. "They gave Robert Love the right to brag that he was able to get rid of the chief," he says. "If you go to Pahokee now, every time they go to make an arrest, they get rocks and bottles thrown at them." (Peters recently had his wrist broken by a bottle hurled at him.) "From my perspective, it hurts, because this was a community I grew up in. I came to that community to really try to make a change."
Assistant State Attorney Shepherd has refiled a few of the old charges against Love and, along with those stemming from the Friday-night beating, sent it all to the main courthouse in West Palm Beach.
Love's response is typically hyperbolic. "You should have charged me for shooting the president if you wanted to just charge me with something!" he shouts. "But nothing sticks to the wall. You had nine months to make this stick, and you couldn't."
The way he sees it, going to trial (his next court appearance is scheduled for this week) will actually vindicate him. "Now the pot is full, and it's boiling over," he contends. "You know you got some bad polices on your hands!"