Deputy Do-Wrong

By the time Germán Gomez and Javier Dominguez got home from their first day of work in America, on November 3, 2004, the sky was already bleeding dusk. The cousins were weary not just from a long day on a roofing job at a construction site but also from a month-long journey from their homestead in the southernmost tip of Mexico to Pompano Beach. They had been in Florida just three days.

Like many mejicanos before them, the pair had made the long and arduous voyage from a small, rural community — in their case, a town in the state of Chiapas, in an agricultural region dominated by coffee farming. Gomez left behind his wife and two small children with the intention of sending money back for them and other family members.

Gomez and Dominguez followed the human pipeline of illegal immigration to South Florida, where the building boom had created a demand for cheap labor, no questions asked. For the time being, they were living in an apartment at Whispering Isles, a long, sprawling complex that abuts Sample Road and the south entrance ramp to I-95. It's a noisy but well-groomed place, with rows of two-story barracks-like buildings running parallel for about the length of a football field. The entranceways are indistinguishable from one another but for letters identifying each entrance.

Gomez and Dominguez lived with six other men in apartment 218, building E. On this evening, though, the newcomers didn't walk far enough, entering building C instead. They shuffled up the steps and tried their key in 218, but it didn't work. They knocked; no reply.

Assuming their roommates weren't at home, the pair headed back outside and decided to walk to a nearby convenience store for some food. They had just made their way out of the complex to the frontage road running parallel to Sample Road when a deputy's squad car pulled to a stop in front of them. Out stepped Lewis Perry, a lantern-jawed New Englander with a jagged past who'd joined the Broward Sheriff's Office about three years earlier. He had responded to a call about a possible burglary by two men at 218 C.

Though there was no indication that the men were armed, Perry unholstered and aimed his pistol at them. Accounts of what happened next vary, but minutes later, Gomez was lying on the asphalt, blood oozing out of a bullet hole on the left side of his head. Although Gomez survived, the head wound has left him paralyzed on the right side of his body and mentally handicapped.

For the victim's family, what makes the Gomez shooting so tragic is that there seemed to be a fateful predictability about the incident. Personnel records should have given Sheriff Ken Jenne's departmental overseers ample evidence that the reckless Perry was on a course of malfeasance and destructiveness, they say. The deputy's seven-year track record of disciplinary problems, including being fired from one Connecticut police department and resigning from another while under fire from his superiors, was enough for any would-be employer to judge him unfit to wear a badge, Gomez's lawyer maintains.

But the scandal-plagued BSO and the firm it contracted to conduct background checks overlooked — despite ample warning signs — Perry's troubled history as a cop at three Connecticut police departments.

"Our contention is that, had BSO done a thorough background check on Mr. Perry, they certainly wouldn't have hired him," says David Kubiliun, the Miami attorney who filed suit in federal court last fall against BSO and Perry on Gomez's behalf.

Nobody knows how many deputies with questionable credentials have been shepherded into the department because of the apparent blind spot in the hiring system. Critics cite at least one other egregious case, that of a BSO deputy hired away from the Polk County Sheriff's Office in 1999, then becoming a loose cannon and risking the lives of Broward County citizens. A civil lawsuit involving that deputy, Michael Doane, highlighted the shortcomings of BSO's hiring practices in 2003.

The pressure to hire more deputies increased as Sheriff Ken Jenne began taking over municipal police departments after he took office in 1998. He and his top commanders succeeded in winning municipal law enforcement contracts by impressing city commissions with the agency's impressive crime clearance numbers — which were subsequently shown to be spurious. As Jenne increased the size of the agency, though, he apparently let nothing — including a shortage of qualified street patrolmen — slow him. A 2003 Miami Herald investigation found that BSO didn't even review the personnel and internal affairs records of the municipal cops it took on board. A BSO spokeswoman told the Herald that Jenne's philosophy was: "Everybody deserves a fresh start."

Three years later, BSO policy still doesn't require a review of such records and investigations for potential employees. Had the agency responded to the Doane case by initiating a systematic review of deputies not hired locally, perhaps Perry would have been winnowed out, Gomez's lawyer contends.

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Wyatt Olson
Contact: Wyatt Olson