As Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis was sworn in this week, rumors swirled that Broward Sheriff Scott Israel would soon be removed from office over his agency’s botched response to the Parkland school shooting. One possible replacement for perhaps the most powerful job in Florida's most Democratic county, according to two sources with firsthand knowledge of the situation, is Broward County Court Judge John Fry.
At the courthouse where he’s been on the bench for nearly a decade, Fry is respected for his efficiency, attention to detail, and good-natured demeanor. Attorneys who regularly appear in his courtroom cheered that he was on the shortlist to take the reins at the sheriff’s office. “If he takes the efficiency he’s run his courtroom with to the sheriff’s office, the county would be very lucky to have him as sheriff,” attorney Cris Boyar says.
But less than 20 years ago, Fry’s ascension to the county’s top law enforcement office would have been almost unthinkable. In 2000, he was forced to resign his job as a sergeant at the Margate Police Department and was facing a misdemeanor battery charge after punching a DUI suspect in the face multiple times. A bystander who witnessed the incident told police investigators, “Whatever that guy did, it did not justify getting the crap beat out of him,” according to a Miami Herald report at the time.
A jury ultimately acquitted Fry and Officer Steven Adler for the beating of then-31-year-old roofer Paul Wood, who was booked into the Broward County Jail with both of his eyes swollen shut. The two cops maintained their innocence; Fry said he was defending himself after the suspect reached toward Fry's gun. Still, the police department stood by its decision to pressure Fry to resign over the incident.
A former Marine Corps sergeant who earned multiple commendations during his time in the service, Fry became a Margate Police officer in 1990. He was promoted to sergeant in 1996. The incident that ended his law enforcement career happened August 20, 1999, when the owner of a Margate bar called for help in escorting out a boisterous group that included the roofer, Wood.
Police would later say they warned Wood not to drive, but he got into his truck anyway and sped off, local newspapers reported. An officer named Jerry Calliano pulled in front of Wood to stop him, violating department procedure. According to what Calliano later told internal affairs investigators, Fry punched Wood in the head and ribs as he lay on the ground and the three cops struggled to handcuff him.
A couple who was passing by pulled over, alarmed. They followed Wood’s ambulance to the hospital, where they filed a complaint against the officers.
“All we kept hearing was [Wood] saying, ‘Yes, officer.’ Over and over again,” Tiffany Galisewski told police supervisors, according to a Herald report at that time. “There was no way he could put his hands behind his back when somebody's kneeling on him, throwing blows.”
When the case went to trial in January 2001, a jury took just 20 minutes to find the officers innocent of simple battery. However, the pair lost their bids to get their jobs back at the Margate Police Department. Fry, who told the Sun Sentinel he “very much enjoyed being a police officer,” did not return to being a cop.
Years after the Woods beating, Fry was still going over it in his mind. In hindsight, perhaps Wood was reaching for Fry's gun belt to balance himself, he said, according to the Sentinel . But in the moment, he didn't have time to think. "I panicked," he said, "but so would you if you were in the same situation."
After his acquittal, Fry attended the University of Miami School of Law in hopes of representing accused police officers. (Adler, coincidentally, also became a lawyer). Fry graduated in 2002 and soon achieved his goal: representing law enforcement officers in his private practice and as general counsel for the Florida State Lodge Fraternal Order of Police.
He defended police union members in “everything from homicide investigations and in custody deaths to allegations of improper conduct both internally and when charged by the various State Attorney’s Offices throughout Florida,” he wrote in a 2013 application to become a circuit court judge.
He also represented people accused of violating municipal ordinances and indigent clients pro bono.
During his 2010 campaign for county court judge, Fry earned the endorsement of the Fort Lauderdale Tea Party and the Herald. “If he can look beyond his current role as FOP counsel to deal squarely with both law officers and defendants, Mr. Fry will make a fine county judge,” the newspaper’s editorial board wrote. The paper also noted he seemed to have a “better temperament” than his opponent, attorney John Robert Howes.
The Sentinel, even in endorsing Howes, wrote Fry was "a passionate candidate who would... serve Broward well on the bench one day, so there'd be no real mistake in electing him."
Fry won that election with 64 percent of the vote and as a judge has developed a reputation for his expediency in managing cases and for always coming to court early and prepared. “I am what is commonly referred to as a workaholic,” he wrote in the circuit court application.
At Broward College, where Fry has worked for years as a professor, he’s highly rated by students for making learning fun and being “a good guy,” according to ratemyprofessor.com. He has also mentored middle-school students by welcoming them into his courtroom and visiting their classrooms.
Though voters reelected him to another six-year term in 2016, the past allegations merit a mention if he’s on his way to becoming Broward's top cop.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to New Times Broward-Palm Beach's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling South Florida's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
At LEO Affairs, an anonymous message board where cops talk shop, one thread discussed rumors Fry would become sheriff. A commenter brought up the beating incident and wrote of Fry: “He's done a great job since then from what I've heard, but this baggage will not play well on the campaign trail in 2020.”
Everyone else on the thread, though, had only good things to say.
“What baggage?” someone wrote. “Him doing his job? Because by your own admission he was found innocent. Although it seems, perhaps in Broward County, having an exemplary career may actually be a deficiency.”
Fry, who a source said was in Tallahassee this past Tuesday, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.