"Negative," Kapper responds. "I'm, uh... I'm trying to get with a, uh... another agency right now [to] reference this."
Henry still wants assurances. "All right. I need to know real quick, 'cause, uh... you know we have policy restrictions."
Henry's concern comes too late. One of the officers in pursuit, Lysa Bufford, radios that "he may have... signal four'd," the code for car crash. "Hit an electricity pole," Bufford explains as she arrives. "Car... had a rather explosion."
Many of the dozen or so witnesses to the crash can't say for sure whether they saw police in pursuit. Drivers of the Dodge and the Corolla that were sideswiped say it all happened too fast to know for sure. "We heard sirens," recalls Debbie Shields, a passenger in the Intrepid driven by her husband, Chuck. She says cops pulled up shortly after the crash, but the Shieldses aren't sure just how quickly. "I don't believe they were using excessive speed."
But another witness had a better view. Minutes before the crash, Marlene Alonso had left her job as cake decorator at Winn-Dixie. She had forgotten something at the supermarket, and she was about to make a U-turn on 45th and North Shore Drive. That's when Brown's Toyota came racing toward her, with cops directly behind it, she says. "I mean, they were right behind them," Alonso says. "They were in full pursuit." Newspaper articles after the accident claimed cops broke off the chase, but Alonso says otherwise. "It was unit after unit. They had their sirens and lights on. The whole bit."
West Palm officers adamantly insist there was no high-speed pursuit. An internal affairs investigation cleared them of any wrongdoing, despite the incorrect claims of a gun in the car (none was ever found) and evidence that there was a chase. The sheriff's office took over the criminal investigation. Sgt. John Churchill, who was in charge of the inquiry, agrees with West Palm police that there was no chase. Alonso may be lying, he says. "People say lots of things," Churchill says. "Who knows if they are just trying to get attention in the media? Then they get on the witness stand and say something completely different."
Wood, with the department just three years, got a promotion after the chase. Supervisors moved the former kickboxing instructor and Rhode Island corrections officer to special investigations, where she now works with Agent Kapper.
At least one of the officers involved, however, quit in part because of the incident. Bufford, a cop for only a few months when the chase happened, resigned less than a month later. "It was part of the reason," Bufford says from her West Palm Beach home, but she declined to elaborate further. In her July 22, 2002, resignation letter to the department, Bufford claims "rumors and disrespectful comments" led to her decision to leave. "I feel that I am no longer able or capable to be a part of this police department."
The evidence against Brown seemed to be diminishing before the investigators' eyes.
Cops searching the Toyota failed to find a gun, a brown paper bag, or any sign of the "quarter-kilo of drugs." They chalked it up to the fire, though documents in the court file carefully describe an array of items in the Toyota, right down to the color of Davis' underwear and the yellow lighter in Maynor's pocket.
Officers who claim to have witnessed the drug bust can't say who was driving the Toyota, according to court records. The car's tint prevented them from seeing inside. Absent from the investigation, apparently, was the high-tech surveillance equipment often used in drug busts. In statements he made for the case, Kapper has said they didn't expect to do more than pull over the Toyota and make a simple arrest.
Kapper and the DEA agents have teamed up before to convict drug dealers by using tactics that have been attacked by defense lawyers. In August, Kapper and the DEA agents oversaw the conviction of Elroy "Eighty-Six" Phillips, whom they claimed to be one of West Palm's biggest drug kingpins (see "86ed" in New Times, September 18, 2003). In that case, lost police reports and the testimony of felons receiving remuneration helped to convict Phillips.
In strikingly similar circumstances, Phillips was convicted after Kapper claimed to have witnessed a drug deal that the task force failed to catch on audiotape or videotape. Phillips is now serving 30 years in federal prison. Phillips' attorney, Randee Golder, says Kapper and his DEA colleagues are well-known for their aggressive tactics. "Certainly," she says, "there's a history of these guys jumping out of vans in ninja outfits and pinning a whole group of people against the wall. I can't say that they're overly aggressive, but their names do come up a lot in these kind of cases."