It's got the makings of another TV crime drama, with Eric Augustus as the no-nonsense, hard-assed veteran police sergeant and Det. Michael Verdugo as the dashing, hot-shot rookie. They've got nothing in common except their love of catching bad guys.
There's just one catch: This is the Hollywood Police Department, where cops have trouble following the script.
Augustus and Verdugo were key members of the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force until this past February when, after two years of mounting tension, their personality clash boiled over into an Internal Affairs complaint, which triggered a lengthy investigation encompassing interviews with 39 law enforcement officers. The investigation was recently completed but a federal suit against the Hollywood Police Department may be on the horizon now.
The flap also illustrates how a few apparently ill-considered remarks and gestures, the sorts of things that once were routinely overlooked, can have far-reaching effects. It marks the first blemish on Augustus' sterling career and it's led to Verdugo being transferred from a job he thought he was born to do.
Other Hollywood cops have been caught shaking down pimps and running protection for FBI agents who posed as members of drug and gambling cartels. Insiders say those scandals played a role in Chief James Scarberry's resignation, announced last week (although Scarberry denies that there's a connection). In the case of Augustus and Verdugo, the problems were much subtler and posed a different kind of challenge to Hollywood PD brass, who have struggled to assign blame.
Eric Augustus worked his way methodically up Hollywood police ranks, enjoying the rare distinction of assignments to both the SWAT team and the vice and narcotics unit. A member of the Florida Army National Guard, he took a year's hiatus in 2003 to help the military hunt Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan.
While some of his Hollywood colleagues were lured into corruption, Augustus never wavered. Over his 18-year career, he attracted only a couple of Internal Affairs complaints, and they were found to be without merit.
His self-righteous, old-school ways could chafe other cops, who describe him as "abrasive" and "demanding." A tireless worker, Augustus expected the same of the men who worked beneath him. Yet he got along with Verdugo, a fast-rising cop who owed much of his own success to talent and charm. The two became acquainted on Hollywood's SWAT team, where, according to Augustus' attorney, Barbara Duffy, they were "best friends." (Duffy advised her client not to speak to New Times.)
In 2004 Hollywood cops responded to a domestic disturbance call involving two gay men. Both were Hollywood cops. One was Verdugo, who had been working in the department for three years but had not come out to his co-workers.
Chief Scarberry was concerned Verdugo would be harassed. During lineup on the morning after the incident, according to department sources, Scarberry delivered a stern warning: Any officer who teased Verdugo or the other gay officer could expect a suspension and possible dismissal.
That seemed to work, at least for a while. The domestic violence call did nothing to slow Verdugo's momentum within the department. In February 2005 he earned a place on the South Florida Money Laundering Strike Force, where Augustus would be his supervisor.
According to Verdugo's statements to Internal Affairs investigators, tension with Augustus started that month:
"He pulled me into his office... and he asked me when did I realize I was gay, and I didn't know how to answer that." Verdugo said he changed the subject and made a hasty exit, adding, "I didn't see the reasoning for (Augustus) to ask me about my sexuality."
There's no indication that Augustus was aware of Verdugo's discomfort. Reviewing the young detective's first year as an undercover agent in the unit, Augustus was glowing: "Within six months, Michael was conducting money pickup operations, dealing directly with money brokers and drug traffickers," he wrote. Augustus credited Verdugo with playing an integral role in a Miami operation that led to the seizure of $322,000 and 63 kilos of cocaine, as well as a Chicago operation that seized $900,000 and 91 kilos of coke.
There's a sharp contrast between the Miami Vice quality of Augustus' and Verdugo's work — going undercover to bust drug dealers and money launderers — and the behind-the-scenes contretemps that unraveled their partnership.
During that first year, says Verdugo, he joined other strike force members on a stakeout. The digital camera he used to shoot evidence was with Augustus. When Verdugo took it back, he told investigators, he found a new photo: a crotch shot of Augustus in his underwear.
"He opened up his jeans, took a picture of his crotch," Verdugo said, "and then when (Augustus and another Strike force member) saw me looking through the camera they were both looking at me... because they thought it was hilarious to see my reaction."
Augustus denied ever taking such a photo.
In the summer of 2006, a new director arrived at the strike force: Bob Breeden, a special agent with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Shortly after his arrival, in the closing moments of a briefing, Augustus allegedly made a disparaging remark about how Coral Gables was full of gays. (Augustus denied this to investigators, saying that someone else in the meeting made a similar statement.)
Verdugo recalled that another member of the strike force took Augustus aside to tell him to be careful because Breeden is gay. Augustus then allegedly summoned Verdugo, who recalled Augustus telling him, "I just put my fucking foot in my mouth back there. Why didn't you tell me?"
Breeden told investigators that when he came to the strike force, he heard from both Verdugo and David Rosen, a North Miami officer on the strike force who is also gay, that Augustus was "hostile." Both Verdugo and Breeden testified that Augustus teased Rosen, calling him "sweetness." Asked by investigators if this was true, Rosen said, "maybe, probably."
Shortly after Augustus learned of Breeden's sexual orientation, Breeden received word that in a meeting where he wasn't present, Augustus joked that Verdugo would seduce Breeden. Breeden told investigators that he warned Augustus about making an issue out of sexual orientation, and in particular to be careful in his dealings with Verdugo.
But as Breeden tells it, these admonitions only made matters worse. In January 2007, while off duty, Breeden got a call from Augustus. The sergeant was fuming over Verdugo's refusal to use a vehicle wired for undercover work in an operation in which he was to pick up drug money. To Augustus, it was an instance of Verdugo compromising his own safety simply to save himself some inconvenience. Then Augustus accused Breeden of protecting Verdugo, Breeden said.
Augustus told investigators that Verdugo had become lazy since Breeden's arrival. "He can be a very good worker," he said, "when he comes to work."
Augustus came to see the young detective as manipulative. "Michael Verdugo takes advantage of people's friendships," he told investigators.
Breeden sought to broker peace between the two. He called Augustus a "bull in a china shop" and said Verdugo could be "a little bit arrogant, a little bit cocky." But both were great at their jobs, he said. "I tried — maybe to a fault — to maneuver and keep them separated so that both of them could stay there and be comfortable."
It couldn't be done. When Augustus wrote up Verdugo in February for being absent without leave, Verdugo filed a discrimination complaint with the department's Internal Affairs Division.
Augustus stayed in his role as a deputy commander while Verdugo was taken off undercover duty to work in a less glamorous role, conducting surveillance of small-time drug trafficking.
Judging by their remarks, both cops seem to have become jaded. Augustus accused internal affairs investigators of casting him as the fall guy. Verdugo's next supervisor, Sergeant Robert Wolfkill, complained of Verdugo's failure to cultivate informants and said Verdugo alienated his co-workers. When Wolfkill demoted Verdugo to police patrol, Verdugo said it was retaliation for his complaint against Augustus.
In July, internal affairs ruled that Verdugo's complaint was not sustained. The only disciplinary action was a reminder that "Sergeant Augustus needs to be more sensitive and professional to his colleagues and subordinates." The city's human resources department did its own appraisal of the internal affairs investigation and came to the same conclusion.
Now, however, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken Verdugo's case to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which is considering filing a discrimination complaint against the Hollywood Police Department.
Since his complaint against Augustus, Verdugo has become active with a small company he co-founded, Elite Home Staging, which decorates unoccupied homes to boost their sales. He declined to answer questions about his Hollywood police career, but he released a statement through his attorney:
"I love my job, and I think there is a place for me here at the Hollywood Police Department. I think it's important for me to stand up to anti-gay discrimination so that other gay and lesbian officers know that they can come out at work without fear of reprisal. I'm hoping the system works for me so that no one has to go through this again."