Love Behind Bars
It was just before 7 a.m. when Inmate #BS98-5144 started pushing the speaker button used to alert jail deputies. Beep. Beep. Beeeeeep! The obnoxious sound woke up the other inmates in Broward County's North Bureau jail. While they tossed about angrily, Deputy Albert Tacher would smile, rise from his post in the control room, and come running.
Without turning on any light in the dark jail, Tacher would quietly pass by the 25 or so inmates in Housing Unit Number Four on his way to the four individual cells in the back. There he'd find the inmate with her finger on the button, a tall, darkly pretty Colombian named Dina Mora. And Tacher would remain quietly with Mora, an accused heroin trafficker, for half an hour or more.
This daily Pavlovian routine didn't go unnoticed. Other jail deputies knew Tacher was letting down his guard with Mora, and a couple of inmates claimed they saw Tacher letting down his pants with Mora, too. Tacher and Mora have denied those allegations. (For Tacher to admit it, he'd be confessing to a third-degree felony.) True or not, everyone living or working in Housing Unit Number Four knew something was going on between the two, especially when Mora would sit in front of the control room window and make eyes at Tacher. All day long they'd stare lovingly at each other, occasionally sighing or giggling.
It was like they were falling in love.
Some of the deputies suspected that Mora was using Tacher, a simple case of a femme fatale exercising her sexual power for jail favors. She could definitely play that part. Mora is 25 years younger than the aging Tacher, who is heading into his late fifties and was recuperating from his third divorce when the relationship began. Maybe he was making one last stab at youth.
But that didn't make sense, either. Tacher was a veteran deputy with 15 years of solid service under his belt, a respected professional whose work had been commended many times. So why would he so carelessly and openly romance a suspected criminal who, if convicted, was facing up to 25 years in prison? Why would he risk his career, his $40,000 salary, his reputation?
The answer is simple.
"I'm in love with Dina," explains Tacher. "Nobody can content me like she does. I don't know why. There is something in her that has been able to reach inside to a place in me that no one else has ever been. She fulfills me."
But that kind of fulfillment, of course, isn't allowed in Broward Sheriff's Office (BSO) jails, or in any other jail in America for that matter. Such relationships can only lead to security breaches, breakdowns of authority, and ultimately chaos, says Lt. Col. Patrick Tighe, the director of BSO's Department of Detention. Tighe sums it up: "You just can't have that going on between the keepers and the kept."
So when rumors started going around about Tacher and Mora, investigations followed. Tacher didn't wait to get fired. Instead he resigned, declared his love for Mora to BSO investigators, and said he and Mora planned to marry and retire to Costa Rica. Then he made a bold request: Would it be OK if the jail chaplain would marry them inside the jail?
Tighe unceremoniously denied that request and made it quite clear to Tacher that he'd never be wed inside a Broward County jail. At least not on Tighe's watch.
But much to Tighe's chagrin, love found a way. How Tacher managed to marry Mora is a small and incredible part of an unlikely love story that somehow still endures. The ending, though, has yet to be written. Mora remains in jail, where she's been for more than two years, unable to post a $500,000 bond. And if the heroin case goes against Mora, that Costa Rican dream might be deferred for a very long time.
"We knew from the beginning what we were up against," Tacher says. "It takes its toll, but we're trying to keep our spirits high. And I tell her I will love her pase lo que pase."
Pase lo que pase. No matter what happens.
Al Tacher's orange hues are slowly turning to gray: His carrot-color hair is retreating and going salty; ashes seem to be mixing with the orange color of his freckled skin. He used to guard prisoners, now he guards his own youth. Dressed casually in jeans, pink golf shirt, and leather loafers without socks, Tacher is the picture of a man standing on the cusp between middle and old age, and his footing isn't quite what it used to be.
Tacher, whose almost Asian-looking eyes peer over his large, blunt nose, was born in Cuba 56 years ago. At age 17 Tacher went to New York to get away from Fidel Castro, and there he started working menial jobs. He learned English and took computer courses, which gave him entrée to better jobs. At 20 years of age, he had a "mistake" marriage that lasted only three months. He soon married again, and that one lasted 20 years and produced three children. At age 29 he brought his family to Florida when he took a data-processing job in a bank. When the bank went out of business, Tacher went after his dream job: law enforcement. "It just always appealed to me, the human nature of it," says Tacher, who has a deep voice and easy manner. "I guess I looked at it like, if I was a police officer, there is always going to be a victim that will need my help." On October 31, 1983, BSO hired him at age 40 as a rookie jail deputy, and Tacher speaks of that day as if it were the first one of his life.
On a recent Saturday in his apartment in Boca Raton, he pulled out a big black binder full of mementos and earnestly declared, "This book is my life. I take a lot of pride in what you see in here." Then he sat down in his blue jeans, crossed his short legs, and thumbed through the pages, which tell the story of a deputy who, whatever his weaknesses might have been, truly cared about the jailed.
When inmates were ill, Tacher was usually the first to make sure they'd get proper medical treatment. "Let it be known that Albert Tacher has demonstrated compassion above and beyond the call of duty ," began a letter of commendation from the jail's medical staff. He was also praised for participating in food drives to help the poor and giving tours of the jail to troubled kids, in what was Broward's version of "Scared Straight."
In 1994 a State Attorney's Office investigator named David Patterson was so moved by Tacher's acts of kindness that he wrote a letter to BSO about it. Patterson had witnessed an elderly man at the jail who was in despair that he'd come to visit his grandson on the wrong day. The grandfather was devastated because he had to return home to Indiana and wouldn't get to visit at all. After a sergeant told the old man there was nothing to be done about it, Tacher intervened and arranged for an impromptu visit. "That old man broke my heart," Tacher says.
Letters like Patterson's were what prompted memos of praise from Tacher's supervisors, like the one from former acting sheriff Susan McCampbell, who wrote: "Your work makes us all proud." And there were dozens of cards from the inmates, some of them complete with drawings by jailhouse artists and sealed with toothpaste. Looking at the cards -- there are a couple dozen in his black binder -- Tacher beams with pride: "You can see some of the artistic talent inside those cells," he says. A female murderer drew Tacher an expert picture in ballpoint pen of a wolf howling at the moon. "Share your knowledge that will help others to understand their uniqueness or path in life," the inmate urges Tacher in the note.
A few years ago, 60 inmates got together and wrote a letter to Tacher's superiors, in a show of appreciation for his practice of giving them "human respect." One of Tacher's supervisors, Michael Bechard, wrote Tacher back. "From my heart," Bechard wrote, "I want to thank you for doing such a professional job . Please know that we too truly appreciate the service you provide to the Broward Sheriff's Office."
But all that changed when Tacher's compassion turned to outright passion.
Tacher's romance with Mora may have been forbidden, but it was far from unique at BSO. A look at last year's internal investigations reveals that several jail employees were accused of looking for love behind bars -- both with inmates and with each other. And the cases, put together, run the gamut of romance and lust, from unrequited love to adulterous liaisons to violent breakups.
Ruth Suarez, a 25-year-old jail worker who supervised inmates on menial tasks, became smitten with an inmate named Frank Amanti, an oft-convicted thief and fraud artist. "I would love to be escorted by you on a date. I'm very old fashioned, so you would have to ask," she wrote in one of the many love letters she gave him. "Your charges mean nothing to me as long as you are true to me and the things you do DO NOT AFFECT ME. Once they affect me that means that you might be hurting me." In the end Amanti hurt Suarez badly: He went to internal investigators and told on her. Suarez, who gave a tearful sworn statement, was fired.
An anonymous complaint from an inmate alleged that Dep. Angelique Mitchell, age 29, was having an affair with an inmate. Then a couple male inmates claimed that Mitchell was seen squeezing the buttocks of and kissing inmate Demetrius Barnes. There was no proof of sexual contact, however, and Mitchell swears to this day that she and Barnes were only friends who shared a love of the Bible. "I don't know why the inmates did that to me, but they did," says Mitchell, who was fired.
An affair between two jail deputies, Roberto Mora (no relation to Dina Mora) and Cheralyn Kerr, degenerated into a bitter conflict that ended with Mora leaving curse-laden threats on Kerr's answering machine. Kerr, according to internal reports, had dumped him after he left his wife and kids for her. She'd also hit him, prompting Mora to file a restraining order against her. After the beating Kerr was seen in the jail rubbing her sore knuckles. "I beat his ass," she explained to another deputy. After an internal investigation, both were suspended (Mora for five days, Kerr for three) and ordered to undergo counseling.
A female inmate accused Dep. Richard Cahill of feeling her breasts and thighs. "I got violated," the inmate complained. She said Cahill first gave her a cigarette and then commented on her figure, felt her body, and asked her to look him up when she got out of jail. Cahill, who denied the allegations, was suspended for three days.
Another male deputy was cleared of wrongdoing after a female inmate accused him of alternately touching her inappropriately and roughing her up after he discovered that she was having a lesbian affair in the jail. He vehemently denied the allegations, and no action was taken by BSO.
Tacher had heard dozens of similar stories before he ever laid eyes on Mora. He knew to guard himself against such relationships. All kinds of administrative charges could result, from associating improperly with criminals, to conduct unbecoming an employee, to distraction from duty, all the way to engaging in sexual activity (which could land a deputy behind bars for up to five years).
Tacher knew these things, and in the end he was accused of all of them. But by that time the importance of his beloved job was paling in comparison to the relationship he'd found in Housing Unit Number Four.
BSO and DEA agents watched Dina Mora's Coconut Creek house all day on March 4, 1998, waiting for the mysterious visitors to leave. The agents had been working a heroin case on Mora for two months, and they'd already made two undercover buys of 50 grams apiece from one of Mora's associates. The agents learned that, on this day, a major drug transaction was supposed to go down inside Mora's house. So they waited.
After several hours two men finally climbed into the car in which they'd arrived and drove off. Investigators pulled them over and found a pound and a half of heroin inside the car. The agents went back to Mora's house and broke down her door with a sledgehammer. In the house they found $20,000 in cash, some heroin, and Mora and her then-13-year-old son cowering in the bedroom. Mora admitted to selling the drugs and was charged with heroin trafficking.
Then Mora was dropped into Tacher's world, locked behind glass and steel.
Tacher says he doesn't really remember the first time he laid eyes on Mora. "She was there for three months before I even realized that she was there," he recalls. He thought she was pretty, with her long brown hair and striking dark eyes, but then again a lot of inmates were attractive. The only reason he got to know her, he says, is the language they share. "She heard that I spoke Spanish, so she was calling me over to help her," he recalls. "It was no big deal."
Soon they were having regular conversations. He learned about her childhood in Bogotá, where she was brought up in a well-to-do family that imported U.S. goods. As a teen Mora, who didn't get along with her stepfather, moved in with her grandmother. Without much discipline in her life, she married at the age of 16 and had a son. The marriage didn't last, and she was left to raise her son on her own. But she still managed to go to college, where she studied journalism. Then she came to the U.S. as a resident alien, listing her employment as "Importation in Colombia." Here she married an American who quickly left her.
Tacher makes no bones about Mora's criminal activity. Right now, her lawyer, Thomas Cazel, is trying to get the charges dropped on a technicality, claiming that the search of her house was illegal. But Mora has never denied that she was in the heroin trade, nor has Tacher. He says it started with her using drugs herself, mostly marijuana and cocaine. Then she started mixing heroin with her cocaine, and soon she was selling the stuff. "She did something wrong," he says. "She did a bad thing. She got caught in a web. Someone like Dina, alone in a foreign country, needing money it all starts as a simple thing."
Just how deep into the heroin trade Mora reached remains a mystery. Mora, upon the advice of Cazel, refused to be interviewed at length for this story and has also steadfastly refused to cooperate with drug agents. So the bigger questions, like who her supplier was and if she helped bring the drugs in from Colombia have gone unanswered, at least in public court files. Such questions don't seem to bother Tacher, who is convinced that Mora made a mistake she'll never repeat.
Inside the jail Tacher says he soon found himself trying to find any excuse at all to leave his post to be with her. His vision was becoming myopic: Instead of keeping watch over all the inmates, he says, he only had eyes for Mora.
"It was a chemistry you couldn't stop," he explains. "It would have happened whether she was inside or outside, whatever. We just started talking more and more. It was an attraction that you couldn't stop."
Mora, who spoke briefly with New Times from a jailhouse telephone, describes a similar attraction, saying she quickly came to love his "character, his personality, his way to be." But she's the first to concede that the whole thing is "weird.
"I never imagined in all my life I come into jail to marry," she says in her broken English. "It's the last place you find a husband. Normally, I don't like the deputies."
He knew he was risking the job in which he took so much pride, but that concern was overwhelmed by his desire. It was, in fact, no contest. "I thought, 'Something is happening here that shouldn't be happening,'" Tacher recalls of his mindset. "But the more I thought about stopping it, she would fulfill more in my life."
Tacher uses that word a lot: fulfill. He says Mora fulfills his soul. He can't explain it. It just is, he says.
His fellow deputies couldn't figure it out either. Tacher's coworkers were confounded by his obvious infatuation with the inmate and by his resultant actions.
Dep. Kathy Jackson-Hunsacker told internal investigators that it struck her as odd that Tacher would go back in Mora's private cell during the early morning hours, "all the way in the back, lights off, door closed."
One day Jackson-Hunsacker -- who nicknamed Tacher "Charmin" because he was so "soft" with the inmates -- mentioned this oddity to another deputy in the unit, Michael Sheffield. What, she asked, was Tacher doing with Mora?
"You probably don't want to know," was Sheffield's response.
Faced with complaints about Tacher leaving his post, jail Lt. Jorge Comacho interviewed Mora and other inmates about the situation and was told that Tacher was "extremely helpful and concerned about their welfare" and was simply helping non-English-speaking inmates. To Comacho it seemed like a typical case of Tacher being, well, Tacher, the good-hearted deputy. On October 5, 1998, Comacho cleared Tacher of wrongdoing, but the deputy was also banned from going into Unit Number Four and spending time with Mora.
Of course Tacher paid no attention to that directive, what with that unstoppable force working on him. And soon deputies were hearing rumors of touching and kissing between the two. Nobody at the jail knew that Tacher, whose own three children are grown, took custody of Mora's teenage son in January 1999.
Inmates later recounted how Tacher would bring Mora the accoutrements of love: candy, Pantene shampoo and conditioner, hair scrunchies, banana nut muffins, colored pencils, and a Walkman. Tacher denies that he brought in most of those things, though he does admit to the Walkman, which isn't listed as "contraband" in the jail's rules.
It wasn't totally one-sided -- Mora's relatives gave Tacher an emerald-encrusted gold cross, an objet d'amour that Tacher still cherishes.
In April 1999, as Tacher continued boldly defying the order not to associate with Mora, a formal internal investigation began.
"Well, they was kissing, lip to lip, tongue to tongue or whatever," inmate Mollie Everett told investigators in a sworn statement. "And after that, their passion went over. She sat on the stool and he removed his penis from his pants and she began to give oral sex."
Another inmate swore she saw the same thing, and another, Renee Bean, said she was "stunned" one morning when she saw Mora and Tacher kissing. From then on, Bean told investigators, Tacher paid for her silence by giving her Sweet'N Low packets and fresh coffee.
Tacher denies all of these allegations, saying he never improperly touched Mora. Instead he remembers a more innocent relationship, like the times they would spend all day looking at each other on opposite sides of the glass.
"We just looked into each other's eyes," he recalls. "You don't have to have sex with a person to love the person. You get to know the individual -- it's what's inside the individual, not the shell on the outside. We never even held hands."
And they'd talk.
"We'd talk about our past, who we are, what we are, what we want," he says. "We talked about religion. We talked about politics. We talked about news in the world, our parents, our future."
The investigation revealed that Mora made 71 phone calls to Tacher's home from jail in a two-month period. Mora told investigators in an interview on May 7, 1999, that she and Tacher spoke on the phone about "sexual things." She didn't go into detail about their sexual fantasies, however. Speaking through a translator, Mora summed it up by saying that she and Tacher had begun an "amorous relationship without ever breaking any of the rules of the jail."
"You love Deputy Tacher?" an investigator asked Mora.
"Sí," replied Mora, "very much. We're going to get married."
On the same day Mora was interviewed, Tacher resigned from the sheriff's office, beating BSO to the punch of firing him and saving his pension. "Deputy Tacher stated that he was in love with Dina Mora and had every intention of marrying her," Sgt. William Lawhorn wrote in his case summary. "He [said] that he did have custody of Mora's son and was in the process of adopting him. Further, he mentioned that when she was released from jail, they were going to enjoy his retirement and their marriage together in Costa Rica."
Then Tacher got the bad news: Not only would he not be allowed to marry Mora in the jail, he couldn't visit, either. In the end, though, these rules didn't stand a chance against that unstoppable force.
After Tacher quit BSO, he and Mora had to carry out their romance solely on the telephone. To this day they talk roughly three hours a day, sometimes more. "The phone is Dina's freedom," Tacher says. "This is the only freedom she has left. To be able to talk to me and her son on the phone. I go on the Internet and read her the Spanish newspaper. She likes me to read her novels in Spanish. And you don't know how many hours we have spent reading the Bible together."
Mora's "freedom" hasn't come without a cost. All calls from the jail are collect, and Tacher says his phone bill costs as much as $300 a month. It's just one financial drain that he says has all but emptied his bank account. He's also had to hire lawyers to fight BSO's attempt to take away his state certification because of his relationship with Mora (including the allegations of oral sex) and to represent him in his struggle to visit Mora in jail. He says he's spent roughly $30,000 so far, and he now works at a medical office for $8 an hour -- $12 an hour less than he made at BSO -- to help make ends meet.
Lieutenant Colonel Tighe, who runs the entire BSO jail system of 4500 inmates and 1700 employees, isn't concerned with Tacher's hardships. It is the rules he says he cares about. In June, Tacher called Tighe and asked if he could visit Mora. Tighe told him no way. "This is not a personal issue but rather the enforcement of policy that no former employees are allowed in our facilities," Tighe wrote in a memo to jail administrators after talking with Tacher, who was warned that he'd be subject to arrest for trespassing if he came to the jail. In concluding the memo, Tighe wrote in bold print: "All [BSO staff] needs to be apprised of the seriousness of this situation. This could turn into a 'Critical Incident'!"
Despite the seeming impossibility of marrying Mora while she was still in jail, Tacher was bound to try. The first step was getting a marriage license, which required that he present an ID card belonging to Mora. Problem was, all her IDs had been confiscated by agents during the raid on her house. Tacher, however, was able to persuade the State Attorney's Office into releasing the IDs to him. Then an attorney visited Mora in jail, she signed the marriage papers, and soon Tacher had the marriage license.
But that hurdle was insignificant compared to the one that lay ahead: How could he marry Mora while she was in jail? It seemed impossible, but Tacher, who now had a lot of time on his hands, began to devise a plan. Tacher knew that Mora was sometimes taken to the courthouse for hearings on her case. That would have to be the place. But how? When she went to court, she remained in handcuffs and was simply transferred from the custody of jail deputies to that of sheriff's bailiffs. On top of that, she was handcuffed to a chair. It was so controlled, Tacher knew there was no way to pull it off -- without help, anyway.
So Tacher went to Broward Circuit Judge Susan Lebow, who was hearing Mora's criminal case, and amazingly Lebow (who wouldn't talk to New Times about the situation) agreed to help get the couple married. The date for the covert wedding was set for January 14 of this year, a day Mora would be in court for a status hearing.
On that day Mora stayed in the courtroom until Lebow was finished with all her cases. Then the bailiffs uncuffed Mora, who was in her olive green jail uniform, and took her to the judge's chambers. There, while one of the bailiffs snapped the wedding photos, Tacher and Mora exchanged vows and rings while someone (Tacher won't say who) married them. Tacher claims their wedding day was the first time he and Mora ever embraced.
Then, quickly, he had to take the ring back off Mora's finger -- she wasn't allowed to have it -- and the bailiffs put the cuffs back on the bride, who was escorted to jail.
Both Tacher and Mora say it was the most bittersweet moment of their lives, and Tacher remembers that his eyes burned with tears as he left the courthouse.
The next day he and his lawyer, Donald McCoy, went to the jail together. Deputies threatened Tacher with arrest and called Tighe. McCoy then announced the stunning news: Tacher and Mora were married, and the jail had no right to keep a husband from visiting his wife. McCoy gave the jailers the marriage certificate, which the deputies copied and faxed to Tighe. "They thought the certificate was a fraud," Tacher recalls. "They could not figure out how I managed that. They were so upset; they were like children."
In the end, the lieutenant colonel, bound by BSO policies allowing spousal visits, had to let Tacher back into the jail.
"They circumvented the rules of the jail," Tighe says, not attempting to conceal his disgust at the bizarre turn of events. "Who was I going to investigate? The chief judge? The judge who allowed them to do it? There was nothing that could be done about it."
Tacher, meanwhile, was suffering from stress due to the marriage plans, his lost job, and the fights with Tighe. Three days after he was married, he felt a pain in his chest and started having problems breathing. Tacher, who'd been trained for medical emergencies, knew what was happening. He was having a heart attack. He drove himself to the emergency room and collapsed in the doorway.
Later, doctors determined he'd had a massive heart attack and told Tacher's children that he might not make it through the night. He survived but still suffers from serious health problems. His heart, quite literally, was broken.
Despite his health woes, Tacher continues to work at the medical office, in part to pay those terrible phone bills. His new teenage son takes up much of the rest of his time. He also visits Mora every Wednesday evening, with a thick pane of glass between them, like the way it began. As if cursed by Alexander Graham Bell, the sweethearts have to talk via the phone there, too.
The difficulties of the marriage might seem too much to bear, but Tacher has faith that it will work out. "She sees in me something that no one else has seen," he says. "She sees someone with a good heart and who is a caring person. She knows she will never be deceived by me. She knows I will never hurt her."
But will she hurt him? He knows what his former colleagues at the jail are saying. They're saying he was just desperate after his last divorce, that he's been used by Mora, that he is a fool. Tacher has even heard that some deputies believe he's "joining the cartel," and rumor has it that he plans to become a high-rolling drug dealer with Mora when she gets out.
"They only say that because they are ignorant," he says. "They don't know that what we have is very special. This is not a situation where one person is using another because of the circumstances."
He has no idea when his wife will be freed. Will her lawyer manage to get the charges dropped? Will a plea-bargain deal be made? Will Mora go all the way to trial? Will she go to prison for a year? Five years? Twenty-five years? The case consumes Tacher. "It's the air I breathe," he says with resignation. "It's not her problem. It's our problem. I'm not going to abandon my wife."
Mora just wants to get out of jail. Now. "I'm a little anxious for the finish so me and Al can start our life together with my son," she says. "I really miss Al."
The couple still plans to start over in Costa Rica, in part because whatever happens with Mora's drug case, she'll likely be deported. But now, instead of a blissful retirement, they're so broke they'll have to work. Tacher says they plan to start a home-cleaning business, because it won't cost much to start and will only require a "little elbow grease" to get off the ground.
And they'll stay together, he says, pase lo que pase.
"You think we don't have dreams? We have more dreams than anybody," he says earnestly. "We're going to save the money and buy a little piece of property and build a house. It's what we all dream about. I have nothing right now. I have my wife. I have a woman who loves me. I know she really loves me, and I know she will do anything for me.
"And I don't regret one single second of it."
Contact Bob Norman at his e-mail address:
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