Hollywood Blues

The first thing Hollywood Police Officer Cyndi Commella Ruiz saw were the neighbors -- 21 people looking on in horror at a house on Tyler Street. Inside a screened porch, Pui Kei Wong, a small-framed 53-year-old with thick eyeglasses, was swinging a hatchet over and over again. Blood and small pieces of bone sprayed everywhere.

"Stop it, Daddy!" two teenaged children yelled. "Stop it!"

Lying on the floor of the porch, bloodied and motionless, was Nga Seong. She was Wong's wife of 22 years. Ruiz pulled out her gun and stormed onto the porch. Seeing the approaching officer, Wong dropped the hatchet and ran into the house.

"Help our mommy," the children pleaded. "Help her."

Ruiz looked at the woman. "I knew she was dead," Ruiz says, remembering the January 1998 incident while sitting at her home in Davie. "She was all hacked up."

Gun drawn and awaiting backup, Ruiz considered going into the house alone. Just then, the door flung open. Wong, covered in his wife's blood, stood inches away. The adrenaline shot through Ruiz's body. "I shoved my gun right in his face and then grabbed him and threw him against the wall," she says.

Ruiz put Wong into the back of her police cruiser and headed east on Hollywood Boulevard toward police headquarters. On the verge of tears, she called her husband. She couldn't get over what she'd just witnessed. "I've got a murderer in the back of my cruiser," she told him. But Ruiz didn't cry that day seven years ago. She'd been at the Hollywood Police Department long enough to know not to show emotion. In Hollywood, a city whose police department has a reputation for brutality and sexual harassment, girls don't cry -- not if they want to keep their jobs.

A pretty, blond 48-year-old who joined the force in 1975 at age 18, Ruiz is getting ready to retire after 30 years at the Hollywood Police Department. She's a decorated cop with a long record of handling potentially dangerous situations such as the Tyler Street incident. In her home office, plaques and awards cover the walls, including the 1988 Florida Federation of Business and Professional Women's Woman of the Year Award, the state of Florida's 1988 Outstanding Resource Officer, and the 1997 South Florida Optimist Clubs' Officer of the Year Award.

But the accolades can be deceiving. Ruiz's career hasn't always been rosy. A decade ago, she crossed the blue line and testified against her police department. A fellow female officer won a sexual harassment claim as a result. Since then, Ruiz has been harassed and intimidated, won a $100,000 lawsuit against the department herself, and is now finally being pushed out.

"In Hollywood, unless you keep your mouth shut and do what the boys want, they'll go after you," Ruiz says. "They retaliated against me."

The trouble for Ruiz started in the mid-'90s as she was going through a separation from her first husband, Dave Commella, a fellow Hollywood police officer. They had two children together, and though their divorce was amicable, many of Hollywood's male officers were angry with her, she says.

That's about the time that she first witnessed Melody Ridgley Fortunato's problems at the department. An attractive woman from Americus, Georgia, Fortunato was consistently harassed at the cop shop (see "Below the Bar," July 15, 2004), according to depositions from her lawsuit. On one occasion, Fortunato would later testify in court, a superior officer grabbed her head and forced it into his lap as they passed other officers, making it appear as if she were performing oral sex.

Another day, in lineup (a formal report to duty at the beginning of a shift), Ruiz stood near Fortunato. Kevin Companion -- an officer who subjected Fortunato to sexual harassment, according to court documents -- began to talk loudly about a rumored sexual encounter with Fortunato, a male officer, and a dog. He started to reenact the alleged sex, Ruiz recalls. Fortunato ran into the locker room and wept.

"I felt bad for her," Ruiz says, "because even if it was true, it had no place in the lineup."

In July 1994, Fortunato left the department and filed a lawsuit against the city. Ruiz was asked to testify. "I knew what would happen," she says. "Either you lie or they go after you."

One evening, a fellow officer asked Ruiz to join him for dinner at Mama Mia's on Young Circle. As they were eating, her supervising officer, Sgt. Frank Hogan, and Companion sat at the table next to them.

"You better realize that you still work here and she doesn't," Ruiz remembers Companion's telling her. "You can't leave the brotherhood of silence."

"Are you threatening me?" she asked, then left the restaurant.

The threat didn't work. Following the testimony of Ruiz and others, the city settled with Fortunato for $205,000. The harassment not only continued for Ruiz; it became worse, according to court documents. She found a snake in her mailbox at home. Sexually explicit graffiti about her was scrawled on the department's gas pumps. Officers refused to provide her with backup. A rock of crack cocaine was planted in her patrol car. While working a security detail at a movie theater on Sheridan Street, she received an anonymous phone call. "He said he was going to kill me at the end of my shift," she remembers.

As a result, Ruiz filed a lawsuit of her own. In March 1997, a jury awarded her $100,000, plus legal fees. "What gets me," Ruiz says today, "is all the money that has been paid out because of Kevin Companion. Nothing has happened to him."

Through Fortunato's and Ruiz's lawsuits, Companion cost the city $544,511 in settlements and legal fees. He has since been promoted to detective.

Ruiz went back to work following the lawsuit, though her duty assignments weren't the cherry ones. "I got the fishbowl a lot," she says, referring to the department's reception desk.

The boys' animosity toward Ruiz was palpable and spilled over into everyday conversations. Ruiz's status as cop non grata was apparent, she says, in needling comments about her alleged penchant for hiring an attorney to represent her for personnel issues.

Officer Frank Horne joked during one lineup, according to an internal memo: "Cyndi, I need your lawyer's name," suggesting that a good attorney would get him a choice assignment to a team of contestants in a departmental competition with cash prizes.

On March 30, 2002, according to an internal police memo, an arrestee overheard Ruiz's supervisor, Sgt. Lyle Bien, say of the officer: "She is a bitch, and she can go fuck herself."

The department was looking for any reason to hang her, Ruiz claims. In 2002, she gave them one. Following a doctor's appointment, she was unable to drive her police cruiser home. Instead of having another officer pick up the vehicle, she broke procedure and allowed her second husband, Ben Ruiz, a Hialeah firefighter, to drive it home.

Chief James H. Scarberry took away her cruiser and assigned her to the police academy as an instructor. For Ruiz, who suffers from dyslexia, the punishment was tantamount to slow torture. "I told him that there couldn't be a worse place for me," Ruiz says.

She made the best of the academy, but in July 2004, her career finally fell apart. Two academy cadets alleged that Ruiz made sexual advances toward them. She denies the charges, claiming that the cadets were upset that they did not receive the grades they wanted.

Hollywood's Internal Affairs unit launched an investigation and took away Ruiz's gun and badge. For the past year, Ruiz has been suspended with pay. Although the IA investigation was inconclusive, the department has not reinstated Ruiz.

The punishment seems unfair compared to the way other officers are disciplined in Hollywood, she says. "I have no problems with drinking or domestic violence," Ruiz says. On June 30, New Times reported how improperly hired officers involved in reckless driving, domestic violence, and drug use have received only light punishments and remain on the force.

Capt. Tony Rode, a spokesman for the department, said he couldn't comment on the specifics of Ruiz's personnel issues. "But I know there's no love lost between Cyndi and the city," he admitted.

Last month, Ruiz and her attorney negotiated a settlement with the City of Hollywood. She'll retire on September 30 and finally leave the boys club behind. Even now, as she nears 50, Ruiz hopes to start over again as an officer at another local law enforcement agency.

"I'm a good cop," she says. "Hollywood can't take that away from me."

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of articles about the Hollywood Police Department. You can read others at www.newtimesbpb.com/special_reports/hollywood.