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...
Share this:

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.

In 2009, the most recent year Florida Department of Law Enforcement statistics are available, Riviera Beach and its two closest neighbors, Lake Park and Magnonia Park, had the highest crime rates in Palm Beach County, topped only by the impoverished, sugar-farming town of Belle Glade. In Broward County, only the wide swath of areas covered by the Broward Sheriff's Office had a crime rate higher than Riviera's. Tucked between the glittering condos of West Palm Beach and the sprawling beige suburbia of Palm Beach Gardens, Riviera Beach is the rare South Florida coastal city that begs comparisons to South Detroit.

Its 36,000 residents straddle fault lines of race and class. Jim Crow hung on here for a long time, and much of the town feels like it's frozen in 1971 — the year a riot broke out over integration at Suncoast High School and voters elected the first black-majority City Council. The population on the mainland of Riviera Beach is largely black and poor; just 50 years ago, the narrow streets were unpaved ruts of sand and dirt without electricity. But across the Intracoastal Waterway is another piece of the city: lily-white Singer Island, home to multimillion-dollar mansions and most of Riviera Beach's tax base.

Some people call Riviera Beach "the raw" or the "Wild West." And the 120-officer Police Department reflects that sense of chaos.

"It's almost unbelievable in law enforcement," says one former Riviera Beach cop who has moved on to a different job in the field. "It's crazy there."

The city's first black police chief went to prison in the '80s for taking bribes from an informant. Since then, the FBI, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE), and the local State Attorney's Office have launched several corruption investigations of the department. Over and over again, their inquiries have focused on one high-ranking officer, Assistant Chief David Harris. But somehow, the allegations against him never stick.

With 31 years on the squad, Harris is said to be the king of the Riviera Beach police fiefdom. Known as "Curly Top" for his mop of brown hair, this burly, unpolished cop has outlasted a revolving door of chiefs above him. As an administrator, he could easily stay behind a desk, but he responds to every hot call, working 15- to 18-hour days to make sure he knows about every important case, the ex-cop says.

Those who are close to Harris get shielded from punishment, while those who are not consider him a bully. Complaining about Harris is not a good career move, insiders say.

"Nobody can ever really come forward, because they're in fear of retaliation," says the ex-cop, who did not want his name printed.

In the mid-1990s, the FBI looked into several corruption allegations in Riviera Beach, including accusations that a sergeant was involved in drug trafficking and that Harris, then a lieutenant, was aware of the crime. Harris emerged from the inquiry unscathed. But two Riviera officers who helped the FBI later testified in federal court that they faced retaliation for ratting out Harris.

"The corruption is still there," Lt. Kathy Donatto, a Harris critic, told reporters at the time. "The same people are allowed to do the same thing."

By 2000, Harris had been promoted to assistant chief when the FDLE launched a new, wide-ranging investigation focused on him. When the owner of a local auto repair shop was arrested for fraud, he accused Harris and other officers of targeting him so they could seize his business. As the FDLE started digging, the shop owner and others produced a litany of allegations against the Police Department, nearly all involving Harris. This time, the accusations resembled an episode of The Sopranos. Accusers said that Harris shot and killed a man, stabbed another man to death, put a contract on the shop owner's life, raped a woman, and shook down drug dealers, taking payoffs in exchange for not arresting them.

The FDLE spent two years investigating these claims and interviewing witnesses, police officers, and the alleged victims. Barry Krischer, the Palm Beach County state attorney, was friendly with Harris. To avoid the appearance of bias by the local office, Gov. Jeb Bush assigned the Broward State Attorney's Office to the case.

But by the fall of 2002, investigators were unable to verify any of the claims against Harris. Meanwhile, a scandal — the lead FDLE agent on the case had an affair with the repair-shop owner's daughter — further compromised the case. The investigation was closed, with no charges filed against Harris.

That year, Riviera Beach got a new police chief, Clarence Williams. He told the media he was happy the FDLE had given his top brass a "clean bill of health."

Seven years passed, and the scandals quieted down. Then Michael McAuliffe was elected to replace Krischer as state attorney, and he was ready to go hunting in Riviera Beach.

One of Assistant Chief Harris' favorite cops was Sgt. Pat Galligan. Beefy, with a brown mustache and a generous paunch, 56-year-old Galligan had joined the force in 1986 and eventually became head of the detective bureau. His job philosophy predated political correctness, and he teased people relentlessly, with the best digs reserved for the people Galligan liked most. He nicknamed an officer with a bowler's gut "Table for Five." Detective Lee Ann Schneider, who often brought snacks to keep in her file cabinet, was "Out to Lunch."

Sometimes, the cavalier attitude backfired. In 1996, Galligan was caught on video posting newspaper articles that were critical of a lieutenant in the lineup room. He was reprimanded and put on paid leave for seven months. Later, he won a lawsuit alleging that the videotapes used to catch him were illegally recorded.

The reprimand never hurt Galligan. Instead, he became one of the most popular men on the force. He served many years as public information officer. In the late '90s, he won a statewide award from the Florida branch of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children for his work investigating crimes against kids. In 2003, his department bestowed on him the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award, a Commendation Certificate for Outstanding Achievements and Performance. Married with two kids, Galligan seemed destined to spend his last years on the squad comfortably.

He oversaw the detective bureau, which handles all major crimes — homicides, rapes, robberies, child abuse. Seven people juggled a workload that would overwhelm a squad three times as large.

To relieve stress, Galligan cast himself as the funnyman, teasing his employees and never keeping them on a tight leash. "Galligan was a loose type of supervisor," says retired officer Sessa.

Schneider — AKA "Out to Lunch" — was one of Galligan's biggest fans. "He picked on Schneider more than anybody," Sessa says. But Schneider didn't seem to mind. "She loved Pat Galligan, and she's still standing by him to this day," Sessa says.

Schneider, 43, had been hired in Riviera Beach in 2002, just as the Harris FDLE investigation was ending. In the D-Bureau, Schneider became the mother hen, Sessa says, feeding people and watching out for them. She was single and married to her job, working reams of overtime. She needed the extra money, but she was also helping kids who were abused or neglected and women who were beaten or raped. She earned about $47,000 a year. Her reviews were mostly glowing, and Lt. Larry Payne told the FBI she was a "great employee" who "is rough around the edges but a good detective."

Not everyone found her style endearing, however. Passaro, one of the Musketeers, would tell the FBI she was "loud, obnoxious, and sometimes out of control."

Her close relationship with Galligan would soon land her in a hot seat.

In 2008, Galligan's base salary was $60,000, and he earned an additional $35,400 in overtime. The next year, he got a slight raise and earned $24,000 in overtime. Such large sums raised concerns among the city's penny pinchers. By July 2009, the Police Department was $200,000 beyond its overtime budget.

The Musketeers noticed Galligan's mounting pay stubs. They were annoyed that a boss could sit at home and field their phone calls, then submit overtime as if he'd worked the night. Passaro said he had only once seen Galligan out at a crime scene after 11 p.m.

Vance was so bothered by Galligan's overtime routine that he mentioned it when complaining to an FBI agent about Toombs in March 2009. The agent's ears perked up, and Vance assured him that other detectives could attest to Galligan's largess.

Schneider, ever the dutiful employee, allegedly took care of Galligan's paperwork. Musketeer Borrows said Schneider admitted to him that she signed Galligan's name to official documents, a violation of department rules. Galligan defended her, saying the process was justified because she would read him documents over the phone.

In May 2009, Borrows worked all night on an attempted murder case. Processing the case required him to call Galligan about three times during that shift. When he returned to the office the next morning, he submitted an overtime slip for two and a half hours of extra labor. He spotted Galligan in the office wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops. Despite the fact that he hadn't even driven out to the crime scene, the sergeant submitted overtime paperwork — for five hours of extra work on Borrows' case. Borrows was livid. He reported the incident to the FBI.

On August 25, 2009, the State Attorney's Office and the FBI, having considered both the complaint about Toombs possibly tipping off a suspect and the alleged overtime scandal, executed a search warrant on the Riviera Beach Police Department. Harris and other higher-ups sealed the cabinets in the D-Bureau with crime-scene tape, treating their own headquarters like the scene of a homicide. The entire squad was moved to different offices for months while investigators rifled through files. There were no arrests that day, but the State Attorney's Office began issuing subpoenas.

Two months passed, and still no officers were arrested. But things were about to get more bizarre.

In October 2009, Galligan announced he was retiring. His fellow cops threw a party for him at the Pelican Cafe in Lake Park. Sgt. Michael Dodson made sure he attended the festivities.

Pale and thin, with wire-framed glasses and hunched shoulders, Dodson looked more like a chemistry teacher than a ten-year police veteran. At 38, he was amicably divorced with a young daughter.

Galligan had been Dodson's mentor. Dodson spent a decade admiring the sergeant only to watch him squirm under the heat of the overtime scandal. Losing Galligan would mean big changes in the D-Bureau. The stress was taking a toll, and Dodson may already have been unstable. Before coming to Riviera, he had been denied a post in the Collier County Sheriff's Office because he failed a polygraph test.

Sgt. Travis Walker drove Dodson to the retirement party and later said Dodson had a "good number of drinks" at the café. On the ride home, the officers stopped at Citgo to buy cigarettes. They ran into another friend, and Dodson kept drinking — pouring Jim Beam into a red plastic cup — while they chatted for nearly two hours, Walker said. Another Riviera colleague would later tell a detective he had "rarely seen [Dodson] in that state, that drunk, ever."

Walker finally dropped Dodson off at his mother's house in Palm Beach Gardens, where he'd been living, at 2:20 a.m. An hour later, a distress call came over the Riviera police radio system: "Ten-twenty-four, officer needs help."

Racing to the scene, fellow cops found Dodson lying face-down on the garage floor, covered in blood. More than 100 tiny cuts criss-cossed his entire body — calves, chest, arms, head. The sergeant's Glock lay near him on the floor, along with a trail of blood, a box cutter, an Xacto razor blade, and a hammer.

Dodson said that he'd gone outside to smoke a Marlboro but that when he opened the garage door, two guys in ski masks ran in. One of the men punched him, then started hitting him in the head with a hammer, he said. Dodson fell, and the second attacker started slicing him with a box cutter. Trying to ward off blows, Dodson pulled out his Glock and informed the men he was a cop. He fired 15 or 16 rounds and was sure he wounded the suspects before they ran away.

But his story didn't add up. Crime-scene investigators didn't find any footprints in the grass from suspects running. No hospitals had reported men with unexplained bullet wounds showing up in their emergency rooms. And the medical examiner said Dodson's wounds appeared to be self-inflicted.

When Palm Beach Gardens detectives — called in because the crime happened in their district — interviewed Dodson in the emergency room at St. Mary's Hospital that morning, he was still behaving strangely. "Oh, you're good. You're trying to lock me into a story," he told one officer who questioned him.

Dodson returned to his mother's house around 6:30 a.m., still acting drunk and belligerent. He refused to let detectives search the house without a warrant. Twice, he tried to push past the cops and had to be restrained.

Gardens detectives spent the next month investigating the alleged attack. They reviewed surveillance video from the home­owners' association, collected DNA samples from the scene, and interviewed a possible suspect. But they didn't find any evidence to support Dodson's story. Meanwhile, the medical examiner recommended that the sergeant be tested for drugs and alcohol.

The unsettling image of a drunk, trigger-happy cop mutilating himself in his garage signified the epic chaos inside the Riviera Beach Police Department.

December 17, 2009, was D-day for Riviera. The Palm Beach Sheriff's Office cuffed three cops for three unrelated crimes. Toombs was accused of revealing confidential criminal information and official misconduct. Schneider was arrested and charged with a whopping 96 counts of forgery and official misconduct for having signed Galligan's signature to documents. Dodson was charged with using a firearm while under the influence, shooting into a building, disorderly intoxication, and falsely reporting a crime.

In August 2010, Schneider was arrested a second time, slapped with 56 additional charges of forgery and official misconduct. The charges focused on cases in which Schneider had allegedly signed Galligan's name on property receipts, which catalog evidence that is put into storage. She was now facing an incredible 760 years in prison.

State Attorney Michael McAuliffe was clearly trying to send a message: The Riviera Beach Police Department was his next target in Corruption County.

But without any high-ranking officials indicted, it seemed a hollow crusade. Harris retained his post as assistant chief. Galligan retired and escaped criminal charges. Schneider was the only one facing a lifetime in prison.

McAuliffe's spokesperson said he would not comment for this story, but sources familiar with the department have speculated that prosecutors hoped Schneider, if pressured, would spill dirt on Galligan, who would in turn roll on Assistant Chief Harris. If that happened, the Palm Beach State Attorney's Office could finally claim a victory against corruption in Riviera. But to this day, no such situation has materialized.

And Harris himself dismissed that notion, noting that the FBI and FDLE had never found any evidence of wrongdoing, so why would McAuliffe think he could find some? "He would have to have a hell of an ego," Harris said.

Throughout it, Riviera Police Chief Williams remained silent on the scandal. His spokesperson said he would not comment for this article.

Schneider, Dodson, and Toombs pleaded not guilty to the charges against them and remained on "restricted duty," confined to desk jobs while the department conducted internal-affairs investigations. They are all still collecting their paychecks.

Meanwhile, two of the Musketeers fled the department. Vance transferred to the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office; Borrows now works for Jupiter's police force. In his resignation letter, Vance took a parting shot at Harris and the old guard.

"I am leaving as a direct result of a concerted campaign of harassment directed at me inside the police department," he wrote. "While very thinly-veiled threats to do me bodily harm previously had been made by a high-ranking official in the police department, most recently my life was threatened by a supervisor with the means to accomplish his threat."

In January 2011, Toombs' case was the first of the three to go to trial. (Dodson's trial is scheduled for April 4; Schneider doesn't have a trial date yet.) An uncomfortable parade of cops took the stand to testify. It was an awkward scene. Cops and prosecutors usually work together to get the bad guys; now they were adversaries.

Schneider and Dodson watched the proceedings from the courtroom benches. The prevailing theory was that if the prosecutors lost the case against Toombs, the remaining two cops would face smoother sailing.

As the day wore on, it became clear that the case came down to Vance's word against Toombs'. It wasn't going well. The jury took less than an hour to acquit Toombs. As the judge read the verdict, a crowd of supporters erupted in cheers.

"I think it's a vindication," Toombs' attorney, Steve Sessa, said after the trial. "It was a moral victory for the City of Riviera Beach."

As the officers celebrated at the courthouse that evening, Harris was noticeably absent from the crowd. He was back in Riviera, working. Reached by phone later, he pointed to Toombs' acquittal as evidence that the state attorney's investigation was much ado about nothing.

"McAuliffe has a job to do, and he did his job," Harris said. "I just wish that they did a more thorough investigation and brought the Police Department in from day one. No one wants a dirty cop working for 'em."

KEEP NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of South Florida, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls. Make a one-time donation today for as little as $1.