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.
BSO, immigration, law enforcement
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.
As it now stands, BSO has been spending tens of thousands of dollars to defend Perry's actions as well as picking up the tab for Gomez's medical care even as Perry's credibility has evaporated. Three months after the Gomez shooting, Perry was fired from BSO in a subsequent case. The department charged him with conduct unbecoming an officer and interfering with an investigation in a case that involved taking photos of a stripper from his cruiser while he was on duty. And Perry's record of reckless heedlessness while he was with BSO didn't end there. In July 2005, he was charged with official misconduct and perjury in a still-pending case involving the cover-up of a patrol car crash.
The Broward State Attorney's Office is scheduled to present a criminal case against Perry to a grand jury in July.
Germán Gomez seems out of place at the Manor Pines Convalescence Home in Wilton Manors, which has been home for the many months since he was well enough to leave the hospital. Most of the residents are 40 years his senior, recuperating from the kinds of surgeries or conditions that keep elderly people from living on their own.
Gomez, at 26 years old, is baby-faced, with a full shock of black hair. He combs those locks over the long, bald scar on his head. On a recent afternoon, he's sitting in his private room with two of his brothers, the older Jesus and younger Galindo. Short, sober men, with a sense of palpable grief about them, they all wear dress slacks and short-sleeved dress shirts whose combined colors make up a red, white, and blue display. They speak only Spanish.
Although they'd pinned so much hope for the future on working in America, their desire now is that their brother get well enough so they can take him back to Chiapas.
Gomez maneuvers in the way a stroke victim would. He doesn't have full control of his right arm and leg; he's barely able to shake hands. He has trouble hearing out of one ear and seeing out of one eye. It takes him long moments to process a question.
"Right now, my head is not the way it used to be," he says in a slow voice, as though running on a nearly dead battery. "It's not totally fine. When I try to read for five or six seconds, the pain comes, the headaches." He has come to rely on pain pills, and if the staff doesn't bring them in time, he limps his way through the hall to find them. "I can't deal with the pain."
Gomez has difficulty recounting the long and harrowing journey from Chiapas to Pompano Beach, but several weeks later, his two brothers fill in the missing pieces while seated in the living room of their Pompano Beach apartment. The room is sparsely decorated, its white walls smudged with fingerprints; one of the few wall hangings is a framed team poster of the Pumas, a Mexican soccer team. The carpet is grimy in the way one would expect from the footfalls of so many men who work outdoors. There are 14 men living there now. The view out the second-floor balcony is of I-95 traffic zipping past a mere 200 feet to the east.
Jesus, who possesses the serious deportment of an older brother, does most of the talking. A family of four brothers and six sisters, the Gomezes are no strangers to living in close quarters. Their family homestead is in Santa Rita, an ejido, a communally farmed plot of land. In one of the poorest parts of Mexico, they grew up harvesting coffee and tending to fields of corn and beans.
America beckoned as the opportunity to earn enough money to get proper medical care for their father, Armando, who suffers from heart disease, Jesus said. Germán and Jesus also dreamed of one day building their own houses back home. Germán's wife, Maria Velia, waits at home with a 2-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son. Jesus has a 7- and 5-year-old. They all live together with their father-in-law.
The month-long odyssey to South Florida began with Jesus, Germán, and Dominguez traveling through the length of Mexico, first by bus, then taxi, then two airline flights to Hermosillo, a desert town about 150 miles south of Arizona. After they sneaked across the border, they began the most dangerous part of their trip walking about 70 miles on trails through the Arizona desert to Tucson.
Jesus and Galindo are visibly pained as they recall their passage through the desert. Shortly after crossing the border, they were spotted by crossing guards. In their mad dash to escape, they lost much of their water, Jesus says. As they plodded along, day after day, they stumbled upon a decayed corpse, horrifying evidence that they just might not survive this crossing. A man or a woman? Both shake their heads in revulsion, indicating they hadn't looked closely enough at the body to determine its gender.
Toward the end of the ten-day march, they were without food or water, and their wills were all but broken. "We were close to dying of thirst," Jesus says.
When a Border Patrol helicopter passed overhead, they waved, hoping it would pick them up and end their suffering. The chopper dipped, gave them a once-over, then flew off. But they were young, healthy, and lucky. They made it to Tucson, where they rested at the home of friends, waiting for five days for an acquaintance of their cousin's to pick them up and drive them to Pompano Beach.
After a journey that covered almost 4,000 miles over four weeks, they took one day off to rest. Then they went to work.
Jesus recalls the day of the shooting. He, Germán, and Dominguez had gone to a nearby labor pool office in the morning. The latter two had gone off to a construction site, and Jesus had gone to another. Jesus arrived back at the apartment first, and shortly after, he heard a flurry of activity outside. He and others from the building walked toward the police lights.
Although his brother had already been taken away by paramedics, he quickly realized who had been in the middle of the chaotic scene. "We saw the shirt, we saw the shoe, we saw the blood, but he wasn't there," he says. "I knew the shoe."
As deputies were taking Dominguez away in handcuffs, Jesus asked him what happened.
"He started crying that Germán had been shot and killed," Jesus says. "At that point, we were devastated that our dreams to come over just to work... we never thought they'd shoot my brother."
Nearing tears for the first time in his story, Jesus concludes, "It is a miracle of God that he is still with us."
A full understanding of what happened to Germán Gomez requires a look 1,400 miles to the north and a dozen years back. Here began a trail of infractions and misconduct by Lewis Perry that would lead inexorably to that bloody night in Pompano Beach. Perry's career was drenched in official reprimands and suspensions that should have been discovered by any prospective employer, says Kubiliun, Gomez's attorney. Yet BSO somehow missed it all.
Perry came from a law enforcement family; his brother was with the Connecticut police, and his father was a small-town cop. Perry's first job was as a patrolman in Madison, Connecticut, a tranquil New England coastal town about 15 miles west of New Haven. Despite his family tradition, his seven-year stint in Madison was a troubled one, ending with the chief of police's recommending Perry's termination.
Perry was the subject of about 20 internal affairs investigations, and the department sustained charges in most of them. Although some of the incidents were minor, the overall pattern of Perry's behavior during his tenure with the Madison PD was apparently one of immaturity, dishonesty, and recklessness. In short, it appeared to reveal the kind of cop no agency would want on its payroll.
Early in his tenure with Madison, Perry pulled his cruiser out in front of oncoming traffic, causing an accident that "placed the safety of the public in jeopardy," according to the internal affairs report. Perry had to be ordered to turn over a list of witnesses to the crash. At first, he wouldn't give a statement (a piece of street cop defensiveness that would show up again in the Gomez case), and then he told conflicting stories about why he'd rushed into speeding traffic. He was suspended for five days.
By March 1995, Perry seemed on the brink of losing his job after being slapped with another five-day suspension for not reporting to duty and lying about the reason. In a memo to the police chief, Capt. Paul Jakubson expressed exasperation with the hallmark of Perry's performance: poor judgment.
"He has demonstrated an ability to overreact when confronted with seemingly simple problems," Jakubson wrote. "I believe that the time has come for us to seriously consider whether Officer Perry's continued employment with the Town of Madison can be considered a 'negligent retention' issue." In other words, keeping Perry on the force could leave the city vulnerable to lawsuits.
Perry, however, stayed on for more than two years despite an increasing number of complaints. In one of the most egregious of those cases, involving a dog attack, county prosecutors considered criminally charging Perry.
In that incident, Perry pulled his red Dodge pickup into the parking lot of Townline Auto, a small mom-and-pop repair shop in Guilford, about six miles west of Madison. Perry saw Richard Fiengo, a friend who was the shop owner's son, sitting in a car in the lot. Standing beside that car was Carl Jordan Jr., a tall, husky 19-year-old who was checking with Fiengo to see if his mother's car had been repaired.
Perry got out of his pickup with his pet German shepherd, Thor, on an extendable leash. He'd gotten the dog from Todd Carlson, the K-9 handler with the nearby Clinton Police Department. Carlson had worked with Thor for two years, but the hound had washed out of the program.
Perry and Fiengo were friends, and apparently the officer had jokingly set his dog after the man several times in the past humor that Fiengo told police later he didn't appreciate. Approaching the car, Perry told Thor "Get him. Get Rich," according to statements made to the police. Thor lunged at the car door, but Fiengo rolled up the window as the dog snapped. The canine immediately turned to Jordan and bit into his Levi jeans in the right-front pocket area, tearing a foot-long hole.
Perry didn't know it at the time, but Jordan was the son of Madison's deputy police chief, who subsequently insisted that the department conduct an internal affairs investigation into the matter. Perry was evasive in his statement to investigators, at first denying that the dog bit anyone. The dog's trainer, Carlson, told investigators that Perry had been curious about Thor's police training to a degree that "was very intense, bordering on unhealthy."
The Guilford PD found sufficient probable cause to charge Perry with reckless endangerment, a second-degree felony, and the department submitted an arrest warrant to the State Attorney's Office. Perry was eventually given a written reprimand for his conduct. As in the past, he wouldn't take responsibility for his actions, as evidenced by a union grievance he filed over the matter. "All pets are just that, pets," he wrote in his grievance, which was ultimately denied. "Their actions should not be the basis for discipline."
Later that year, the department investigated Perry for barging into an ex-girlfriend's house at 2 in the morning. The investigation concluded that "the lack of discretion Officer Perry displayed brought discredit to himself and this agency."
Police Chief James Cameron cajoled the city's Board of Police Commissioners to fire Perry, writing that Perry "continues to make decisions involving both his on- and off-duty conduct that continually bring this department and the town of Madison into disrepute." And the costs of investigating this one officer was mushrooming, he added.
Cameron lost that battle, but in 1997, he pleaded with the board once again to fire Perry over two incidents involving poor conduct with the public. With the noose slowly tightening around his neck, Perry resigned from the Madison force late that year.
Like a badge-toting Eveready bunny, Perry kept going. After a brief stint as a patrolman in the City of New Fairfield, he began working as a field investigator for an insurance company and as a part-time patrolman for the Town of Washington, a tiny burg of 4,000 people in the state's rural northwest.
By the fall of 2000, however, the head constable had placed Perry on temporary leave for allegedly harassing another former live-in girlfriend. The alleged harassment victim also claimed that Perry had sneaked into her home to take some jewelry. In a memo to the town's top elected official, Alan Chapin, who was the de facto police chief, the department's head constable wrote that Perry "demonstrates a lack of maturity on his part that presents questions as to whether or not he can be trusted to carry out the functions of a police officer." He anticipated meeting with an assistant state attorney to discuss possible criminal charges. Three weeks later, on August 30, 2000, Chapin formally asked Perry for his resignation. He fired Perry two weeks later after getting no response.
Far to the south, Perry was applying for a job with BSO.
Perry's law enforcement transgressions in Connecticut should have made him unemployable as a cop. After all, what better to judge a job candidate by than his track record?
BSO has a lengthy application process that involves medical and psychological examinations, drug screening, and a background investigation that includes employment, personal, and neighborhood references. For the past eight years, many of those background investigations have been contracted out to Five Star Investigations, owned by Richard Barrett, a former BSO deputy captain who retired in 1997. Under Barrett's original contract, BSO paid him $60 per applicant and $8.50 per employment verification he made. In August 2000, those terms were changed to $100 per applicant, which would include two employer verifications, and $10.75 for each additional verification.
BSO's system of backgrounding candidates for sworn officer positions, however, isn't rigorous enough to weed out cops like Perry who are not fully truthful on their applications. In the case of applicants who aren't local, virtually all verifications are done over the phone; forms are not sent to previous employers requesting an evaluation or copies of records. In Perry's case, neither Barrett nor anyone else in the agency's human resources division ever requested personnel documents from the Connecticut police departments not even a summary of closed internal affairs investigations.
Worse yet, in Perry's case, Barrett didn't even conduct a complete phone background check with the Madison PD, where Perry had spent most of his police career. Barrett was told that only the police chief, who was on vacation that week, could answer questions about Perry's performance. Barrett didn't bother to call back, nor did he mention this information gap in his summary report.
And Perry's case is not an isolated one.
In August 1998, Barrett completed a background summary report for Michael Doane, a strong-chinned 24-year-old with dark hair who lived in the Tampa area. Doane had worked for the Polk County Sheriff's Office for two and a half years and left in mid-1997. On his application for a job at BSO, he gave his reason for leaving the deputy's job as "injury and political."
Despite this tantalizing disclosure, Barrett and BSO's human resources didn't seriously dig into Doane's past, and he was hired in late 1998.
In reality, Doane had been repeatedly disciplined during his short tenure with the Polk County Sheriff's Office and ultimately fired. His disciplinary records were readily available from that agency but were never requested. Many of the incidents revealed a young man with a lack of good judgment, but others were serious, a foreshadowing of what was to come in Broward County.
Among the Polk County incidents, Doane was reprimanded for "careless actions" in driving his squad car to the scene of a burglary, an incident that left another deputy injured. On another occasion, he kicked in the door of a home without proper cause.
By July 1997, the agency decided to terminate him for excessive use of force, a case in which he punched a handcuffed suspect four times in the back of the head. The memo informing Doane he was fired noted that he showed "a disregard for authority." Doane refused to sign the memo and submitted his resignation instead.
If BSO had difficulty in discovering what "political" problems caused Doane to leave the Polk County Sheriff's Office, Gary Kollin had no problem at all. A Plantation attorney with a striking resemblance to a young Burl Ives, Kollin looked into BSO's hiring practices a few years ago as part of a lawsuit he filed on behalf of a Jamaican-American man who alleged that Doane had falsely arrested him in a Broward County park. Kollin noticed Doane's 14-month hiatus from law enforcement after leaving Polk County and, suspicions raised, simply requested documents.
In comparison to that straightforward method, he asserts, BSO's telephonic background checks are sadly lacking. "How could you do a background check by just calling someone up on the phone?" Kollin asks, still amazed by the case years later. "How do you know who you're speaking to anyway? It's a flaw in the system period."
In a deposition, Kollin asked Barrett to explain why he hadn't asked Doane the reason he left the Polk County agency. "I don't think it was my responsibility or duty to ask why someone left for political reasons, because I have been in the sheriff's office for 29 years," Barrett responded. "I know lots of people that left [BSO] for political reasons." Nor did he recall posing that question to a reference listed by Doane, a former sergeant who had retired. Barrett declined to comment for this article.
Another contractor who helped BSO process Doane and other applicants at that time suggested in a deposition that he didn't need to verify the identity of law enforcement officers he called on the telephone as references because cops "are expected to be honest and truthful."
Kollin still sputters at the circular logic. "In that case, why would you ever do a background investigation on anybody ever applying to your agency who'd been a police officer?" he asks.
Doane's short tenure with BSO was consistent with his past behavior. Among several other sustained complaints against him, Doane was suspended for conduct unbecoming an officer after he and 17 other deputies attended a drunken bachelor party at a Holiday Inn in Palm Beach County that ended in public vomiting and a vandalized squad car. Several guests asked for refunds.
On Christmas Eve 1999, Doane ended his career and his life in a reckless race to a crime scene a drive that easily could have left others dead. Doane had been booking a DUI suspect at the main jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale when a radio dispatcher announced that a deputy had been shot outside a café in Lauderdale Lakes. Although the incident was seven miles north, Doane asked someone to watch his prisoner and sped away. A subsequent BSO investigation estimated he was driving about 80 mph on State Road 7. Breaking BSO policy, he ran red lights without pausing and wasn't wearing a seat belt. As he barreled through a red light, he swerved to miss a car entering the intersection, lost control, and crashed into a concrete pole. He died 12 days later.
Despite Doane's life-endangering recklessness, Jenne declared him a hero, orchestrating a funeral held at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, attended by 3,000 cops. The ceremony even included an eight-helicopter flyover in "missing man" formation.
Ultimately, though, BSO paid Kollin's client $19,000 in June 2003 in order to settle the lawsuit, but the case still makes Kollin's blood boil. "How many Doanes are in BSO?" he asks. Pondering the Lewis Perry case, he adds, "We have history repeating itself, a person improperly hired."
Germán Gomez made a newcomer's mistake on the evening he was shot. In a complex of look-alike façades, he and his cousin wandered into the wrong doorway. As the two fiddled with a key that didn't fit, an anxious neighbor noticed the men and called 911 about a possible burglary. Unfortunately for Gomez, Perry responded to that call.
Gomez's memory about that evening is shifty and unreliable because of his head wound. His cousin, Javier Dominguez, who's not living in South Florida now, told Kubiliun that the pair had their hands raised when Perry and Richard Mosca stopped them at the entrance of the apartment complex. As Mosca was cuffing Dominguez, they both heard a gunshot but didn't see what happened.
Two weeks after the shooting, Perry gave a statement to BSO investigators in which he claimed that his gun went off accidentally after Gomez bumped his arm. Perhaps only Perry knows what really happened. Judging from his statement, however, Perry's actions were consistent with his past.
When he arrived on the scene, Perry told investigators, he stepped out of his squad car, stood behind the door, and ordered them to stop. They kept walking toward his direction, so he drew his semi-automatic Glock handgun despite having no reason to believe they were armed.
Perry told investigators that the scene was well-lighted and that he could see their hands. The investigator asked Perry if he could see if they were carrying anything. "I couldn't see if there's anything in their hands," Perry replied.
Moments later, the investigator asked, "OK, did they have any weapons in their hands that you could see?"
This time, Perry responded, "I did not see any weapons in their hands."
At the scene, Perry didn't communicate with Mosca, who'd arrived shortly after him. Mosca told investigators that he'd unfastened his holster but never drew his gun. He refastened the holster because he didn't want the suspects to get hold of the gun in the event of a struggle.
Perry wasn't so cautious. He told investigators he walked up behind Gomez, aiming his gun at him but keeping his finger outside the trigger guard. He shoved Gomez with his left hand. Gomez then turned around, and his arm hit Perry's right arm, and the gun went off, Perry claims.
"The first thing I remember going through my head is like, holy fuck, my gun just went off, you know, and then I looked and he was still standing for a second, so, like, you know, thank God I didn't hit him," Perry said. "And then I noticed he fell down on the ground."
Asked why he and Mosca didn't talk and coordinate the takedown, Perry said: "You know, Monday morning quarterback, there probably should have been more of that, but in the heat of the moment with everything going on and to tally everything up that I was facing, it's just the way it went down."
The critical factor, Perry claimed, was Gomez's swinging around and hitting his arm with such force that the gun went off.
If that happened, asked the investigators, why didn't Perry tell anybody that night that Gomez had hit his arm? Perry responded that he was told "by basically from lieutenant colonels to sergeants that showed at the scene to keep my mouth shut and say nothing until my attorney got there."
Although too late for Gomez, BSO fired Perry in February 2005 for, among other violations, interfering with an investigation and untruthfulness. In the fall of 2004, Perry had pulled into the parking lot of the Booby Trap, a Pompano Beach strip club. From the driver's seat of his squad car, Perry had asked a stripper to take two pictures of her vagina using a cell phone camera, which he then carried away. The stripper told investigators that Perry had told her during the course of the internal affairs probe that she should answer no questions about the incident.
Even after Perry no longer worked for BSO, however, his transgressions revisited the agency. He now stands charged with official misconduct and perjury in a case that involved several other deputies and a cover-up of a collision of his cruiser in November 2003.
Investigators asked Perry why he didn't call in to dispatch immediately after the crash, as policy requires. Perry replied: "I, I, I just froze up. I was shocked that I was hit. I was angry. I had tunnel vision." The statement, it later turned out, was a complete fabrication.
The cover-up was discovered a year later after one of the deputies involved unwittingly confessed on tape. He'd stopped a driver and conducted a DUI assessment that was recorded. Apparently forgetting that the audio-video device was still on, the deputy began chattering to a colleague about the time he and Perry had chased after a stolen car even after being ordered to stop the pursuit. Perry had passed the stolen car at about 50 mph on a city street, pulled in front of it, and was rammed. The stolen car zoomed away, and the deputies involved gathered elsewhere to get their story straight. Once the tape was reviewed, the case blew wide open.
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Although Perry's credibility as a witness is gone, BSO has continued to litigate, even stall the Gomez case. In late April, a federal court judge sanctioned BSO's attorney for not providing documents requested by Kubiliun. BSO's attorney, Bruce Jolly, declined to comment about Perry for this article.
"Germán Gomez should be taken care of for the rest of his life," Kubiliun says, "because there was no reason for this officer to have been hired or even been on the force that night. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and when I say the wrong place, that was in front of Lewis Perry."
Gomez says he's angry about what happened to him, but his almost childlike demeanor doesn't convey that.
"To remember exactly what happened is difficult for me," he says, with a sad smile. "God has obviously saved my life."