Despite Decades of Corruption Allegations, Is the Riviera Beach Police Department Clean?

The Palm Beach Lakes High School gym was packed. About 1,200 shouting fans crammed in to watch the game against rival Dwyer High. The air was dense with the smell of sweat and rubber as the basketball thwacked against the varnished floor.

Riviera Beach Vice Agent John Toombs sat in the stands. He had close-cropped dark hair and caramel-colored skin. With his baby-round cheeks, slight lisp, and slender frame, he could pass for one of the players instead of a 34-year-old cop trained to bust drug dealers.

That night, January 21, 2009, Toombs was off-duty, but his eyes were peeled for a man he suspected had been the gunman in a recent homicide.

Unbeknown to Toombs, his colleague Detective Shawn Vance was waiting just outside the gym door with a team of other officers. Vance was tall and imposing, with pale white skin and a brown goatee. He was just two years older than Toombs but much easier to spot in a mostly African-American crowd.

Toombs and Vance didn't think much of each other. Toombs considered Vance a paper pusher, the kind of cop who stayed in the office and "thought you could arrest people behind your computer," he would later testify.

Insiders say that tensions between officers in the Riviera Beach Police Department run unusually high. Rather than a brotherhood, it's a fiefdom in which officers have been accusing one another of corruption on and off for three decades.

Toombs described Vance and his two detective buddies, Joseph Passaro and Andrew Borrows, as "The Three Musketeers." They were a new, strait-laced breed of officers in Riviera. Borrows, 27, had a British accent and a political science degree. Passaro, 41, looked like a thin, dark-haired Italian gangster. You couldn't joke with the Musketeers, and they didn't believe in defending fellow cops if it meant violating the law.

"You had to play totally by the rules with these guys or they would use it against you," says retired Officer Rick Sessa.

Toombs, although young, subscribed to the old-school style of policing. He had plenty of street sources, and through them, he knew that the murder suspect was expected to come to the basketball game. He had told Vance about the tip. Still, Vance didn't trust him.

In Riviera Beach, some cops had long been rumored to be cozy with drug dealers — taking money for protection, tipping off fugitives about arrest warrants. During an arrest attempt the week before, Vance thought Toombs had warned the same suspect that the cops were looking for him. So this time, Vance didn't tell Toombs he was coming.

Around 7: 30 p.m., Toombs saw the suspect arrive at the gym wearing a red jacket. He grabbed his cell phone and called Vance.

"Vance, you still in the city?" he asked.

"No, is Walker at the game?" Vance said.

"Yeah, he's here."

"OK," Vance said. "I'm on my way. It's going to be awhile... Keep an eye on him, and call me immediately if he starts to leave. Don't let him get out."

"I got you covered, Vance," Toombs replied.

Minutes later, Toombs saw the suspect walk out of the gym. He texted Vance the bad news: "He hauled ass."

Vance feigned disappointment. "Damn," he texted back.

But in fact, he had just cuffed the suspect. In the squad car driving to the jail, Borrows and Passaro asked the suspect why he had left in the middle of the basketball game.

Borrows claimed that the suspect replied, "Toombs knew. He's the one who told me. He sent my friend to tell me that you were coming."

Vance was fed up. He was convinced Toombs had attempted to obstruct his homicide investigation and help a fugitive escape.

Vance complained to a supervisor. When that person declined to launch a criminal investigation, Vance called a prosecutor in the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office. Thus began a strange, dark, and absurd new chapter in the history of Riviera Beach.

Within months, the FBI would organize a raid and arrest three officers for three separate, unrelated crimes. Michael McAuliffe, the newly elected state attorney, would make headlines for busting a dirty agency. But as the months passed, not a single high-ranking officer was arrested. As the petty strife among Riviera's cops played out on an embarrassingly public stage, the whispers of doubt began. Would these arrests really clean up the department state investigators had been trying to crack for years? Or had McAuliffe gone fishing only to come up empty-handed?

Try policing these streets. Houses huddle close together. Wire fences line front yards, and AC units poke out of windows. Cinder-block apartments are painted a dingy yellow. Kids in saggy jeans saunter down the street in the middle of the afternoon, when they ought to be in school. The town's stretch of Old Dixie Highway boasts a sagging liquor store and the grim-looking Touch Down Market. Publix fled 20 years ago.