Bruiser in Blue

Tom Rains couldn't have been prepared for the beating he would take.

He was hanging out with his fiance, Mileah Dagon, and a friend outside their apartment building at 2414 Johnson St. in Hollywood about 9:30 p.m. on August 25, 2002. A 37-year-old from Albany, New York, who dropped out of school in eighth grade, Rains was three weeks shy of closing on his first home, a $115,000 single-family house at 4937 SW 28th Ave. in Fort Lauderdale. That evening, Rains and his friends were relaxing, listening to the country music coming from the stereo in unit one.

The apartment building, a white and red, concrete-block structure with jalousie windows, forms an L that folds around a small concrete parking lot adjacent to busy Johnson Street, near Dixie Highway. Dagon, a delicate 45-year-old standing five-foot-four and weighing 110 pounds, first heard the noise from that parking lot. She turned.

"The police car came rip-roaring into the driveway, and stones went spreading everywhere," Dagon recalled in a December 2004 deposition. Hollywood Police Officer Joe Pendergrast, at the time a 29-year-old Broward native with four years on the force, jumped out of the police cruiser, leaving the driver's-side door ajar. Pendergrast charged toward Rains. The officer asked who lived in apartment number one. "I do," Rains replied.

"I'm writing you a $250 citation for the loud fucking noise," Officer Pendergrast allegedly said.

"I asked him why he was writing me a citation for $250 for the loud noise," Rains recalled in a deposition. "I lived there for over a year, never had any problems, never played my stereo loud. He wouldn't answer me. I asked him a third time -- wouldn't answer me."

What Rains didn't know -- and would discover only later -- was that Pendergrast's ailing father-in-law, who has since died, lived across the street at 2415 Johnson St. The noise was apparently disturbing him. The elderly man said he couldn't sleep. The good son-in-law would do something about it.

"Why are you writing me a fucking ticket?" Dagon remembered the aggravated Rains asking the officer.

The foul language seemed to trigger something in Pendergrast. "At that point, he said, 'I'm placing you under arrest,'" Rains recalled. "I stuck my hands out. I said, 'OK.' He put the cuffs on. I spun around. He put the cuffs behind my back."

Pendergrast then took the handcuffed Rains and dragged him toward the police cruiser. As he did, the officer allegedly threw the defenseless man to the ground four times. "He was being picked up and thrown down like a rag doll," Dagon recalled.

Finally, Pendergrast stood Rains up again and allegedly placed his black boot on the prisoner's shoe, using his body weight to keep Rains' right foot in place. Pendergrast then took Rains by the handcuffs, twisted his body, and pushed him to the ground, Dagon said. The officer never moved his foot.

Dagon heard her fiancé's bones shatter, she says. "Crack. Crack. Crack." Rains' right ankle broke in three places -- a nasty injury termed a trimalleolar fracture.

Pendergrast lifted up Rains. Dagon ran over and grabbed her fiancé. "Please stop beating him," she said. "Please. He has had enough."

Then Officers Jeff Murray and Michael Verdugo arrived. Pendergrast handed Rains over to his fellow Hollywood officers. He then grabbed Dagon, who wore a neck brace from a previous injury, and allegedly kneed her in the back, sending her violently into the back of his cruiser.

"Be careful," Rains hollered. "She just got in a car accident four months ago."

Suddenly, Rains was on the ground again, taking kicks and punches to the body. It stopped. One of the officers then put his fist in Rains' face, he said. "Do you want anymore of this?" the officer allegedly asked. Rains shook his head. "I didn't think so."

Police took Rains and Dagon to the Hollywood Police Detention Center at 3250 Hollywood Blvd., charging both with obstruction of a law enforcement officer. Despite requests, Rains said he did not receive medical attention for several hours. Instead, the couple sat on a bench inside the cop shop. Officers passed by. "Heavy-handed Joe must be on shift tonight," the two remembered the policemen saying. Rains' mother bonded out the couple at 2:30 a.m.

Pendergrast would ultimately prove to be a poor witness for the Broward State Attorney's Office. In fact, during a December 5, 2002, deposition in the misdemeanor case against Dagon, Pendergrast was on edge and combative. He said he was concerned about a lawsuit.

"Is there any reason that you appear to be very uncomfortable about this deposition?" asked attorney Linda M. Jaffe, representing Dagon.

"I think I'm being cornered," Pendergrast replied. He then walked out of the deposition after only a few minutes. Three months later, on March 12, 2003, Pendergrast was forced to return. He claimed that Rains and Dagon were belligerent and intoxicated, but he also admitted that neighbors had not complained about the noise and that he was far outside his assigned patrol district in the Liberia neighborhood. What's more, he admitted to using force on the handcuffed Rains, an act of aggression that the Hollywood Internal Affairs Unit failed to investigate. "I pushed him to the side, and he fell down onto the ground," Pendergrast said in the deposition.

The State Attorney's Office dropped the charge against Rains. Dagon pleaded no contest to her attempt to pull away her fiancé from the aggressive Pendergrast.

This incident and the subsequent depositions draw stark contrast to Pendergrast's short but seemingly stellar tenure at the Hollywood Police Department. Six months after the incident with Rains, Pendergrast received Hollywood's top police honor: 2002 Officer of the Year. The same year that Pendergrast allegedly broke Rains' ankle, the graduate of South Broward High saved a woman who was choking on a sandwich while sitting in her car and, in another incident, acquired information that foiled a bank robbery plot.

Pendergrast is an effective cop. Generally, the award is given to more senior law enforcement officers. The young Pendergrast, who joined the force in 1998 after nearly two years as a corrections deputy with the Broward Sheriff's Office, is an exception for his age.

But he otherwise appears to fit the mold of Hollywood top cop. The current Officer of the Year, Pete Salvo, has been accused of brutality, sexual battery, and murder. The Hollywood Police Department has a decade-old reputation for brutality, which was cemented by Lt. Jeffrey Marano's Raiders, a black-clad, street-level unit that was accused of malfeasance and civil rights violations before it was finally disbanded in February 1997. In November 2004, a video expert testified before Broward Circuit Judge Michael Gates that Hollywood police doctored a surveillance video used as evidence in a criminal trial. Currently, a wrongful-death lawsuit is pending against the city after 31-year-old Vincent Del'Ostia died following an altercation with police in January 2002. Among those named in that federal lawsuit are Officers Murray and Salvo.

Pendergrast faces court battles as well. Rains, whose only indiscretions have been three offenses in Port St. Lucie for driving on a suspended license, filed a federal lawsuit in June 2004, alleging civil rights violations against the City of Hollywood and Officers Pendergrast, Murray, and Verdugo. Although Rains closed on his $115,000 house three weeks after the alleged beating, he was forced to sell the home two years later. His ankle, which during his December 2004 deposition was "swelled up like a grapefruit," prevented him from holding steady employment. He couldn't keep up with the $1,300 monthly mortgage payment.

Rains' isn't the only lawsuit pending against Pendergrast. Last month, Aubrey Hall, who is serving 15 years for a cocaine conviction, filed a jailhouse lawsuit from Santa Rosa Correctional Institute in Milton, in north Florida. He alleges that Pendergrast beat him after finding the African-American Hall riding his bicycle through a commercial area. "You don't look so fast now, nigger," Hall alleges Pendergrast told him between body blows.

Bradley Winston, a 42-year-old civil attorney with a bald pate and goatee, sits back in a leather chair in his office on Broward Boulevard in Plantation. Behind him is a framed electric guitar signed by the Rolling Stones. Winston took Rains' case on contingency because he believes he can prove that Pendergrast's brutal behavior has been tacitly condoned by police brass.

"In Hollywood, a policy or custom of deliberate indifference to the need to train, supervise, or discipline can be inferred," Winston says.

Rains puts it more bluntly: "Hollywood police are bad. People get pulled over for traffic tickets and get beat up."

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Trevor Aaronson
Contact: Trevor Aaronson