Michael Brasfield became Fort Lauderdale's police chief in the summer of 1995 after a 30-year law-enforcement career in Seattle. In a deposition last December, he answered a seemingly bizarre question about his first days on the job in Broward County. The question was whether he had ever been accused of impersonating a police officer.
"I've never been charged with that," Brasfield offered. Then he backed up and explained that in the autumn of '95 he had been invited to address graduating officers at the Broward Community College Criminal Justice Institute.
"I donned the uniform of the chief of police of Fort Lauderdale, went in full view of 300 people and 40 or 50 cameras and gave my speech and said to love, honor, and obey, and then departed," Brasfield recalls. "Then the next morning, I learned that some members of the [Fraternal Order of Police] took exception to that, and in fact one visited the state attorney's office to see if I could be charged with the unauthorized carrying of a weapon."
In theory, Brasfield could have been. He lacked certification as a police officer in Florida, a deficit he's since corrected by attending a course at the law-enforcement academy. But there was more to the episode than legal nitpicking. Brasfield was chosen from dozens of job applicants in a nationwide search. One candidate he beat out was local union favorite Joe Donisi, the department's long-time second in command. The message to Brasfield, the outsider picked by Fort Lauderdale's city manager: Don't forget where the real power lies.
How did the new chief interpret this chilly welcome to the subtropics? Brasfield said that before coming to Fort Lauderdale he had reviewed newspaper clips and a consultant's report about the police department. "I gathered from my rather limited research that there had been a period of animosity between the union and the city over wage and contract negotiations," he noted.
Brasfield, his predecessor Tom McCarthy, and most of the senior command staff of the Fort Lauderdale police department are on the witness list for a federal civil rights trial set to begin next month in Miami. So are Mayor Jim Naugle and the other four members of the Fort Lauderdale city commission, dozens more cops and city officials, and a host of private citizens with direct or indirect connections to a series of events that began five summers ago.
Some of those named as potential witnesses might wish the lawsuit had disappeared by now, but none of Fort Lauderdale's elected officials favors an out-of-court settlement -- something a majority of the city commission would have to approve. So instead of disappearing, the case file has swelled to more than 4000 pages of pleadings and a veritable truckload of exhibits. Two weeks ago U.S. Circuit Court Judge Alan Gold denied the City of Fort Lauderdale's request for summary judgment, clearing the way for courtroom combat.
The main combatant, and the one doing the suing, is a character often noted in newspapers a few years ago but lately absent from the public eye -- Sonny Irons, erstwhile neighborhood activist, confidant of local politicians, and lightning rod for police animosity and suspicion.
"We understand that society has become very litigious," says Commissioner Carlton Moore. "We understand that people may be inclined to sue an entity with deep pockets. But anybody on our commission who would settle such a frivolous lawsuit would be an incompetent elected official."
Naugle says he too wants the lawsuit to go to trial, but for reasons different than Moore's. There's something "terribly wrong" inside city hall and the police department, he warns -- something intimately linked to a 1994 raid on Irons' home and to circumstances leading up to that raid. In short: a continuing conspiracy.
"I'm hoping this will lead to an end," Naugle says. "Just to settle this thing out of court means that this dirt is still lying under the carpet. And the next one they could come after will be you or me."
The mayor's melodramatic tone echoes Moore, who hints at "individuals high up in city government who may have sought certain protections for Mr. Irons."
Naugle notes that if the city loses a monetary judgment in the case, he will seek to recoup the loss by going after the pensions of individual police officers and city officials. It's a stratagem that's been employed elsewhere but would be unprecedented in Fort Lauderdale. "Maybe when they start thinking about losing their pensions, they'll come forward and let us know what really went on," he adds, declining to say who he thinks "they" might be.
Irons and his attorneys have yet to put a dollar figure on the damages they are seeking.
"We hope that the outcome of this will be some definite rules about how search warrants are conducted," Irons says. "We also hope that next time local police have doubts about a high-level member of the government, they will turn directly to an outside agency and step back."
He adds: "The ultimate thing is that citizens need to feel safe criticizing local government without fear of violent reactions from the police. I no longer do, and I'm not alone in feeling that way."
Irons calls the lawsuit his "last stand," and if that description seems overwrought, step through the looking glass and consider what follows.
Fast-backward to June 3, 1994, a day the events of which, taken out of context, seem as incomprehensible as a police-union member trying to have the city's latest police chief arrested for carrying a gun.
The scene is a half-completed, two-story brick home in the Riverside Park neighborhood of southwestern Fort Lauderdale. Seventeen armed police officers, state revenue agents, code-enforcement inspectors, and an assistant state attorney step onto Sonny Irons' acre-and-a-half property with a search warrant after removing a padlock with a pair of bolt cutters.
Irons and his wife, Judy, are inside a shower house that stands apart from the home they're building. "Judy had just finished her morning run around the property and had taken off her bathing suit," Irons recalls. Specifically, he remembers Judy standing at the sink, plucking her eyebrows. "I think because I was in the shower at the time, my nine millimeter was on the back of the toilet."
Outside, the uniformed troops encounter the Irons' oldest son, John, who is wearing a holstered handgun similar to his father's. Judy hears John yelling and moves to the door of the shower house to see about the commotion.
"She was standing just outside the door there, and I could see all these police officers," Irons says. "They were all shouting at both of us to come out. Judy kept saying, 'But I'm naked!' They kept saying, 'Come out, just come out!'" He adds: "I was behind her, partially hidden."
After searching Irons the police allow both adults to get dressed, then escort them inside the house with their children and begin a five-hour search of the property. The time is approximately 9:30 a.m. Shortly after noon one officer leaves the scene to pick up several boxes of pizza. The authorities eat while they work.
A city building inspector presents Irons with a pair of citations for minor electrical code violations -- one of the violations for an extension cord not approved by Underwriters Laboratories. "When I was taken inside to receive the code violations, officer Diaz followed me and was standing behind me, and he said to me, 'You know, Sonny, how long have I known you?' I said, 'I don't know, Mario. A long time. Nine, ten, eleven years.' He said, 'You know, you and I have changed a lot in that time, but your wife still looks wonderful.'"
Meanwhile, Irons claims, another cop stood in front of him, slapping his nightstick against his palm. "I got the feeling they were trying to egg me on, make me say or do something that could be misconstrued as something aggressive," Irons says.
Officers who were on the scene say Irons invented the thuggish overtones and misinterpreted their comments. Facts not in dispute: the pizza; an unfulfilled threat by Sgt. Doris Siebert to remove Irons' youngest son, Prince, as a ward of the state; another threat to tow away the family's 53-foot salvage tug because it lacks Florida registration numbers. (Being foreign-registered, it required none.)
By midafternoon law-enforcement personnel begin to depart. They take with them a fax machine, computer, telephone answering machine, and several boxes of evidence. The evidence includes business records, because the search warrant had been issued by a judge as part of an investigation of sales-tax fraud related to Irons' home business.
But the "evidence" also includes several hundred documents relating directly to Irons' ongoing political activities: membership rosters of local civic associations, telephone lists of people who supported certain city commission candidates, page after page of addresses where campaign signs have been erected.
In a memorandum five months later, assistant state attorney Scott Dressler explained why he declined to prosecute Irons. The reason seemed simple. According to Dressler, Irons' most egregious criminal act was the apparent failure to pay the state $87.96 in sales taxes.
"It has been a year since the screaming, shaking, and cursing Fort Lauderdale police officers and other governmental officials forced their way onto our property and perpetrated an act as violent as rape on my family," Judy Irons wrote to the city commission in June 1995. "Our sons, who with their parents and neighbors have planted trees, cleaned filth from streets, constructed sidewalks, and attended hundreds of civic meetings, watched with horror as our police invaded every nook and cranny of their homestead, dumping clothes and files on floors, kicking and trampling their possessions in a futile effort to get something -- anything -- on their father."
"Violated" is how Sonny Irons says he felt after the raid.
Violated perhaps, but hardly defenseless. Within 48 hours of the event, according to Irons, his friend Jack Latona had introduced him to well-known civil rights lawyer Bruce Rogow.
So began the formal evolution of a conspiracy theory and of the present-day lawsuit, brought by the entire Irons family. The suit claims the City of Fort Lauderdale violated their first and fourth amendment rights under the U.S. Constitution -- rights to free expression and protection from unreasonable search and seizure. Given the strong personal ties between Latona and Irons, it's not surprising the commissioner was present in the birthing room of litigation.
Irons met Latona in the mid-'80s when Latona moved to the city's southwest section. While helping Jim Naugle get elected as mayor in 1991, Irons was also instrumental in persuading Latona, a Yale-educated lawyer, to try filling Naugle's vacant commission seat.
In the spring election of 1994, Naugle and Latona faced a pair of challengers -- Jim Lewis and Bruce Tyrrell -- who were heavily backed by the police department. The election was a brawl. Anti-Naugle bumper stickers appeared on police cars. Officers picketed a League of Cities conference held in Fort Lauderdale and attempted to barricade Naugle's State of the City address. The police union rented billboard space on Sunrise Boulevard to warn of spiraling crime statistics and underpaid cops, effectively scaring the tourists. Airplane banners urged the voting populace to "Save Fort Lauderdale" by firing City Manager George Hanbury. Among others, Hanbury was blamed for a breakdown in bargaining between police and city hall over a contract that would have given police a raise.
"Very tense," is how then-police chief Tom McCarthy described the atmosphere when he arrived on the scene in April 1993.
Philip Cameron, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, calls the period before and after the election "probably the toughest 24 months I've encountered in my career."
At the time Cameron described to a reporter his position vis-à-vis the city administration: "There is a solution for us. We can get get completely active and kick their butts. We're equipped to hurt them. We've reconciled ourselves to the fact that being nice didn't work, so we have nothing to lose."
Meanwhile, thanks to appointments by Naugle and Latona, Irons served as chairman of both the Waterfront Advisory Board (19871997) and the city's Budget Advisory Committee (19921996).
The latter body was in the habit of discussing things that sent chills through the police department: the possibility of turning over homicide investigations to the Broward Sheriff's Office; whether Fort Lauderdale, the only Florida city with a municipal jail, really needed one; why detectives had followed a compulsive gambler all the way to Atlantic City in a case that resulted in no arrest; whether undercover narcotics investigators were really luring Dade County drug dealers to Broward in order to arrest them and confiscate their luxury cars, which subsequently cost a lot to maintain; whether the police union, rather than the department, should be allowed to continue handing out off-duty patrol jobs; and finally, the idea that police officers' pension plan was in bad need of reform and costing the city upward of $12 million per year more than it should have, partly because retired officers were living longer than expected.
If the political atmosphere was volatile going into the '94 elections, it was poisonous after the police candidates lost to Naugle and Latona.
The conspiracy theory, the basis of today's lawsuit: City cops, led by the department's top management, went after Irons in revenge for the lost election in what Latona has called "an attempted coup targeting the elected officials of this city."
Close-up Irons is a coherent but complex amalgam -- lapsed Jehovah's Witness, successful inventor of electronic components, conservative family man, former Caribbean adventurer and salvage expert, grassroots political kingmaker, neighborhood superactivist, thrifty tax hawk.
From afar Irons and his wife tend to raise eyebrows for doing without TV, for home-schooling their kids, and for spending years building a house instead of financing the construction through a bank. For five years in the late '70s and early '80s they lived with their children in the Turks and Caicos Islands south of the Bahamas archipelago. According to Irons the family barely escaped with their lives after drug dealers began to covet a landing strip near their isolated homestead.
The island interlude, combined with Irons' expertise with boats and airplanes, gave rise to rumors that Irons himself was or is a smuggler. Irons says he has earned a living in the past as a boat builder and marine salvage specialist. In the late '80s, he invented a radio tuning device, MaxCom, which he claims sold well enough to pay off the debt on his $200,000 riverfront property in just three months. At the time of the raid, Irons was successfully marketing a new version of his invention.
The guns, another eyebrow-raiser: 12-gauge single-shot and 10-gauge semiautomatic shotguns, two AR-15 rifles, several handguns, including matching pairs of .44 magnum and .38 snub-nosed revolvers. Irons says he's received numerous politically based death threats over the years and believes in self-reliance.
"Most of them are long guns we use in hunting," he says of the arsenal. "So are two of the pistols -- they're for hog hunting. The rest have to do with the state of the neighborhood when we first moved in. We purchased some of them on the advice of a Fort Lauderdale police detective."
Richard Winer, a neighbor of Irons: "Most of us have three kinds of people -- those who care about us, those who might dislike us, and those who have little opinion or feeling one way or another. He only has two -- those that hate his guts and those that love him. So he packs a rod everywhere he goes, even to the post office." (Winer, a neighborhood activist in Sailboat Bend, doesn't necessarily think Irons' gun-toting is inappropriate. In the early '80s Winer himself had his leg blown off by a car bomb after trying to roust a biker gang from his neighborhood.)
Paul Urschalitz, a Fort Lauderdale police captain, says he was queried by fellow officers before the raid on Irons' property. "They asked me where the bomb shelter was, the bunker," he recalls. "There was always this rumor that the Irons family had this underground complex." The bomb shelter in question is actually a hurricane den under the floor of the garage, which is about the size of a Volkswagen Bug.
Urschalitz, a specialist in crime prevention, met Irons in the mid-'80s and helped him set up a neighborhood policing program, the first in the city. The program was a response to a study showing how Fort Lauderdale was losing its middle class and how middle-class neighborhoods were being left to deteriorate. The Riverside Park Residents Association, led by Irons, developed a neighborhood master plan, barricaded streets to reduce transient traffic flow, reported drug dealing and code infractions, and collected money to pay for off-duty cops to patrol their streets.
At first the program was popular, but resistance to it gradually grew within the police department and among certain Riverside Park residents. Nate Goodman, the absentee owner of numerous low-income rental properties, helped organize an opposition group, the Stranahan Neighborhood Association -- its raison d'etre seemed to be putting Irons out of commission. After Irons' group reported Goodman for code violations, Goodman and several of his tenants filed code complaints against Irons.
"I would have to go meet with two or three inspectors each time and walk the site, and they would have to say it was unfounded and go back," Irons says. "There would be a series of complaints from tenants of Mr. Goodman, and that would usually end in a lawsuit. We would then win the lawsuit and the code harassment would begin all over again."
Says Naugle: "One hundred percent of the buildings in Fort Lauderdale have code violations. Code enforcement is always selective enforcement. So there's this thing called code terrorism. Sonny had been reported like 30 or 40 times for all sorts of things that were unfounded. It got to a point where, how many times do you accept all these complaints? At what point in time do you say, 'Hey, wait a minute, this person is being abused'?"
Urschalitz, the police crime-prevention expert, says police brass took a dim view of Irons' efforts in community policing, such as the philosophy of giving local residents more control over how police resources are allocated in particular neighborhoods.
"The short answer is that the police officers were inconvenienced by the traffic management plan, the limited access," says Urschalitz in a recent deposition. "The long answer -- and it's much more complicated -- is that community policing is a revolution in police work. It's a response to the outmoded professional model of police work. There's a lot of vested interest in the old way of doing things, and a lot of resistance to the new way of doing things."
Urschalitz notes that he was ordered to stop meeting with Irons and to stop making presentations to civic groups. The order came from Deputy Chief Joe Donisi. Donisi had been in charge of the neighborhood policing program in the late '80s but had been replaced after Irons complained about him.
"Given all the things that have come to light, I think there was a big sort of reaction, a trend toward stopping this movement toward community policing," Urschalitz says. "It was sort of starting to run counter to the organization's agenda."
In the context of that time, the opposition was far from impersonal. Urschalitz recalls a conversation among officers that he says took place in advance of the raid on Irons' house. "I dont know exactly how it started," Urschalitz says. "The conversation was me sitting at a table with a group of officers, and someone said there's probably a lot of people who would like to see Sonny Irons in jail. And Joe Donisi said, 'I'd like to see him dead.' That's how it came out.... I didn't think he was serious."
Sandy McCullough, now a detective with the Lauderhill Police Department, resigned from the Fort Lauderdale P.D. in the spring of 1994. She claims she was forced out by a power clique allied with Donisi. Under questioning late last year, she recalled other conversations about Irons.
[Capt.] Emmitt Thomas... had stated that he was going to get Sonny. That he wanted to get the [Riverside] detail canceled. "Who did [Sonny] think he was?" That he needed to be taught a lesson.
McCullough says that, in January or February '94, she had another conversation with Sgt. George Bentley: "He came upstairs," she recalls. "He had his baseball cap on. He was off duty. He goes, 'I'm going to get to the bottom of this. Sonny and Judy. I know they're selling drugs over there....' [A]nd he said, 'How dare he interfere with our pension.' He specifically said that. 'How dare that man interfere with our pension.'"
Q:Any other high-ranking officers that made statements they were out to get Sonny in retaliation for his civic activities?
A:[Maj.] Jim Mowell. He had made comments to me about Sonny Irons, saying he was a worthless piece of shit.... This man thinks he has power over us.
Further on in her deposition, McCullough recalls:
[Det.] Bill Owens came in several times and told me they were working on a search warrant on Sonny's house. And my words to him were, "What in God's name are you looking for there?" And he said drugs. I said, "You better be careful. I don't believe Sonny deals in drugs." I said, "They're going to use you as a pawn and spit you out at the end. So you better be careful before you get involved in this.
Next time McCullough saw Owens, the search warrant had changed, she claims. Now it was tax-related. Her interpretation: "It is a typical thing we officers do." She notes, "When we can't catch them with drugs, we turn it over to the IRS."
Richard Forum, a dentist who lost his own civil rights lawsuit against the department, recalls a conversation with the lead detective who investigated Irons. From Forum's deposition:
Q:Can you recall at some point in time Sergeant Raabe making any comments about Sonny Irons?
A:Steve [Raabe] was in my office on April 19, 1994, to have his teeth cleaned.... [He] asked me if I knew Sonny Irons, and I said I did not.... [H]e commented that [Irons] was not a friend of the police department and that they were going to get him -- something to that effect. That was the gist of it. He mentioned something about the pension board, I don't really recall. Something about the salary and the pension board.
"This whole matter can only be described as unusual or out of the ordinary."
So begins the final section of a 50-page report written by retired FBI agents at a Harrisonburg, Virginia, consulting firm. The City of Fort Lauderdale paid the firm $100,000 for an independent review of the Sonny Irons incident -- no doubt in part because administrators foresaw the city being sued by Irons.
On March 7, 1995, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission met to hear the results of the report. A record of the meeting notes that the chief consultant "had never seen such a case in his 40 years of law enforcement and did not know that he would want to get involved with such a case again."
The report, which criticizes police for occasional lapses in propriety (the pizza, the Cecil B. DeMille-like cast that descended on the Irons' property), essentially exonerates the department.
After throwing the report across the room and into a wastebasket, Mayor Naugle stated that "when there was dirt on the floor, it could be swept under the rug but that it was still present and would have to be dealt with someday," according to the minutes.
Someday has arrived and with it the possibility that a jury will soon hear not just Sonny Irons' conspiracy theory but also a second one. In conspiracy theory number two, Jim Naugle, Jack Latona, and Irons conspired to browbeat a city manager, a police chief, and the Broward State Attorney's Office into dropping a legitimate criminal inquiry.
Conspiracy theory number two stems from the morning of September 21, 1993, when a police helicopter appeared above Irons' house and hovered there for some minutes. Inside the helicopter a detective assigned to the police code-enforcement unit snapped pictures of Irons and his family "lounging on patio furniture." He later said he was trying to determine whether the family was living inside the house, which was (and remains) unfinished and lacks a certificate of occupancy, and whether other serious code violations existed.
"Det. Bill Owens had tried to conduct an informal investigation into these violations," Sergeant Raabe writes in a sworn affidavit.
Code Compliance and Building Inspection personnel indicated that they had received word from those higher up in city hall that they were not to bother Sonny Irons' property because he had a special deal with the city.
A formal investigation was initiated by Chief McCarthy in order to determine whether the problem was simply a dereliction of duty by the city's code-compliance team or possibly some form of public corruption.
Eventually the investigation directly involved Raabe, Det. Bill Rohloff, Capt. Rick Symanski, Maj. Al Ortenzo, Donisi, and McCarthy. All the police officers deny their actions were politically motivated. Donisi says the notion that he threatened to kill Irons is absurd. He says the same thing about Irons' lawsuit.
Bill Owens says he never discussed the Irons search warrant with Sandy McCullough because he never knew about it. He calls her recollections "pure fabrication." Jim Mowell and Emmitt Thomas were unavailable for comment.
Chief McCarthy's recollection: "Being new to the community, I didn't know people very well, but people would approach me and make comments about how Sonny Irons was able to avoid some of the same rules and regulations that other people had to follow. I really didn't pay a whole lot of attention to that. And then we had a helicopter fly over his property.
"At that point it became a very big issue with city hall, and I couldn't quite figure out what the issue was, but it was just a very big issue."
Before Owens landed in the police helicopter, Irons was on the phone to Latona, who called the city manager's office and the police chief to complain about the fly-over.
McCarthy says he asked the FBI to explore his suspicion that Irons' political allies might be protecting him and keeping code enforcers from doing their job. When the FBI declined direct involvement, McCarthy put his own men in charge of a secret year-long probe -- Raabe at the street level, Donisi ultimately in charge.
Between the helicopter fly-over and the raid on Irons' property, the investigation somehow exhausted its public-corruption premise and reverted back to a code-enforcement probe of Irons. Then it took a new tack: Those involved say they came to believe that Irons wasn't paying taxes on his home business -- the manufacture of the radio tuners he'd invented.
In his official notes of the investigation, Ortenzo writes about the day of the raid:
City Hall seems to be in panic.... Media coverage one-sided.... We restrict comment and take high ground.... Some commissioners claim code terrorism. Sonny Irons claims whole thing initiated due to vendetta re: budget review committee, et cetera.... Commission even publicly backing Sonny Irons. We will keep quiet and do job.... Very disheartening that our commission has no clue....
Weeks after the raid, Ortenzo notes:
More and more info on tax-related larcenies and fraud, but State Attorney's Office getting cold feet, even before seeing any evidence.... How the hell are they in a position to say this without seeing the case? State Department of Revenue wants continued involvement but they are getting mad about lack of support from state attorney's office.
And later still:
Rumors abound that [Assistant City Manager] Pete Witschen, Chief McCarthy and Captain Symanski will be fired over Sonny Irons thing if no case strong enough evolves.... I am convinced a grand jury investigation is necessary.... I advise Donisi it may be time to retain counsel, even though city attorney is supposed to represent us....
McCarthy recalls receiving a phone message from City Manager George Hanbury on a Friday night, asking him to appear in his office the next morning. Was his job threatened as a result of the Irons investigation? "Yeah," McCarthy recalls.
"When I got down there, they were working on the budget message. Mr. Hanbury informed me at that point that commissioner Latona was extremely upset with this investigation and the search at the Irons, and that he was being put under a lot of pressure to do something with me and one of the assistant city managers, Pete Witschen."
Q:George Hanbury was being put under a lot of pressure?
A:Yes. Yes. You know, at that point I told him, what is it you're asking me? I said, "You're not asking me to do anything about this investigation are you?" He said, "No, I'm not asking you to do that." I said, "Well I wouldn't anyway. If you need to fire me, you fire me." He said, "I really dont want to do that, but it's coming down to you or me."
There's a problem, though, with conspiracy theory number two, one that will probably prevent it from being presented in court. The top code-enforcement officials who supposedly complained to police they couldn't do their jobs due to Irons' connections now deny that.
Harry Diehl, the code-enforcement department director who former chief McCarthy says complained to him half a dozen times, claims in a deposition that he has no recollection of such an occurrence. Major Ortenzo recalls in his notes how he got a series of alarming phone calls from John Schlegal, the code department's assistant director. Schlegal said pressure was being put on him not to investigate possible violations at the Irons' property, Ortenzo remembers. Today Schlegal says he "never intimated or had knowledge of any corruption in the negative sense of the word. I wasn't alleging that anybody was being bought off or through any other means coerced into doing something they wouldn't normally have done."
These days Tom McCarthy lives in North Carolina and works as assistant manager of Gastonia County.
"I think he came down here and walked into a snake pit and finally just decided, 'Hey, I'm going back to the mountains,'" says Naugle, who believes the former chief was hoodwinked by his command staff into spuriously targeting Sonny Irons. "He got taken for a ride. He decided who to believe, and he got sold a bill of goods."
In recent weeks City Manager George Hanbury announced he will also retire from municipal government work. Asked what effect Irons and his lawsuit had on his decision, Hanbury says "none whatsoever."
Not so with a half-dozen members of the city's code-enforcement team. Soon after the Irons raid, the department was revamped in a way that eliminated both the director and assistant director, as well as several other personnel. Bill Owens, the police code-enforcement detective who flew over Irons' house in a helicopter, is back working as a patrolman. The job switch occurred two weeks after he gave a deposition to Irons' lawyers.
"The first thing that went through my head was that my worst suspicions have come true," says John Schlegal, whose position was terminated in September 1994. "I messed with the wrong guy, or we messed with the wrong guy, and look at us all now, out to pasture."
For Commissioner John Aurelius, the Sonny Irons saga is unfortunate in its longevity. "I have to believe that if there was a smoking gun, it would have risen up long ago," he notes, adding: "There was probably too much effort made to figure out who this unconventional person is. Was it a witch-hunt? I don't think so. I think it was a normal investigation that went on too long. Instead of throwing in the towel, they kept going. Sometimes in life you can't get to the final chapter."
Irons say he knows the feeling. More than a decade after he started construction, his house on Southwest Fifth Court still isn't finished. In the months following the raid, local police and Department of Revenue agents questioned several of the electronics distributors who once sold his radio tuners. Since then they've been loath to work with him, he says. Late last year Irons endured a five-month IRS audit directly inspired by the original police investigation. The upshot: The IRS concluded that it owed him several thousand dollars. He's also been questioned by the Federal Aviation Administration, he notes.
Most recently, an agent of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms named John McKean paid a visit to a former neighbor of Irons named Jamie Fivecoats. Fivecoats happens to be serving a six-year sentence in a federal prison in Miami-Dade County. The topic of conversation, according to two sources: Irons' gun collection.
One person who won't be testifying in the courtroom opera to come is former Fort Lauderdale city commissioner Cary Keno, though he appeared on the witness list at one time. Keno, a politician once championed by Irons, was recently indicted amid accusations he wrote an anonymous and threatening letter to another commission candidate.
This past Monday, Irons was scheduled to be questioned by the Broward State Attorney's Office in the matter. The reason: Bruce Tyrrell, a long-time civic enemy of Irons, claims that Irons, not Keno, wrote the letter in question. For Irons the new wrinkle in the Keno prosecution is further proof of ongoing official harassment of him and his family. Casting a new shadow on his character just as the lawsuit goes to trial would serve his enemies well, he explains.
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Tyrrell acknowledges he has nothing more than circumstantial evidence to back up his charges. The letter, he says, bears a resemblance to some he says Irons wrote years ago when Tyrell ran against Jack Latona. His motives are pure, he says, but: "If I had something that would hurt Sonny Irons' lawsuit, I'd be the first one knocking on the courthouse door. The man is slime."
Joe Donisi, who served as acting chief after McCarthy's departure, remains on the force at the rank of major, drawing $136,000 per year in total compensation. He says he'll undoubtedly have to testify in the Irons case but isn't worried. Meanwhile he's looking forward to retirement after 25 years on the force. (Reform of the police pension plan, as proposed by Irons and other members of the Budget Review Committee members, never took place.)
"Once this is over and done with, I'll be ready to roll," Donisi says. "My last day is February 29, 2000. That's a Tuesday. But hey, who's counting?"
On a recent evening, Irons and his sons worked late into the night fiberglassing a boat in order to pay off some debts incurred by the lawsuit. A few feet away, Judy Irons worked at a word processor, annotating and cross-indexing a portion of the massive case file. Irons says a courtroom victory would make him feel better but probably won't rekindle his passion for high-profile civic activism. His interests now are mainly familial, personal. At least once a day, he walks the perimeter of his riverfront property, checking to make sure the high chainlink fence is in excellent repair.