Snitch and Whitewash | Bob Norman | South Florida | Broward Palm Beach New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Broward-Palm Beach, Florida

Snitch and Whitewash

As Florida Department of Law Enforcement agents begin their review of the problematic 1990 murder case of Broward sheriff's deputy Patrick Behan, they should keep in mind the chief target.

It's not Andrew Hughray Johnson, who boasted last year to undercover agents that he killed Behan. Or Tim Brown, who was convicted of the crime and is serving life in prison, or even Keith Maddox, an overlooked suspect who nevertheless may have been involved.

It is the Broward sheriff's homicide unit and the State Attorney's Office, two agencies that have collaborated on several bad murder cases during the past 20 years. Solving the Behan mystery is obviously important, but getting to the bottom of what has proved to be a sick justice system -- littered with false confessions, lying witnesses, lying cops, and innocent defendants -- is paramount. Unless this is done, we won't be able to again trust those sworn to find and prosecute the killers among us.

The Keith King investigation is a good place for the FDLE to dig. The facts all but prove that King, an alleged accomplice of Brown's, didn't kill Behan. Yet BSO coerced a confession from the mentally deficient teenager, and he accepted a 15-year prison deal for the crime.

State agents should scour the King probe, because it is in the labyrinthine details where the devil lies -- along with the truth. Last week, I wrote about many of the problems with the case (see "The Wrong Keith," April 25). But there is another path to follow -- and it is paved with jailhouse snitches and allegations of perjury, payoffs, and corruption.

The FDLE's trail should begin with a former Broward County Jail inmate named Patrick O'Brien, a convicted rapist who in the early '90s was facing charges of robbery and impersonating a physician in order to molest a pregnant woman. O'Brien was a shrewd and, at six-foot-four and 250 pounds, intimidating man. But he also appears to have been a father confessor who provoked a compelling desire in his fellow jailbirds to spill their dark secrets -- which happened to have great value to homicide detectives and prosecutors.

Three of the most notorious accused murderers in Broward County -- including King -- opened up to O'Brien, only to discover later that he was an informant working closely with Assistant State Attorney Brian Cavanagh, a prosecutor in the homicide unit.

Peter Dallas was one alleged killer who stepped inside O'Brien's confessional. Dallas's name might ring a bell, since he was involved in another bad -- and highly publicized -- BSO homicide case. Sheriff's detectives arrested Dallas in 1990 after he "confessed" to the killing of Joseph Viscido Jr. with two other men. While the trio awaited trial, the FDLE discovered that a man named James Traina actually committed the murder, and the charges were dropped.

Dallas claimed BSO detectives threatened him with the electric chair and physically assaulted him to get the confession. O'Brien, whom I like to call "The Priest," told prosecutors, however, that Dallas told him a different story in jail. He said Dallas admitted that his recantation was a lie, and, to the delight of BSO detectives and Broward prosecutors, O'Brien testified for the defense at Traina's trial. The Priest's testimony didn't keep the jury from convicting Traina, who remains in prison today. But Cavanagh, like several detectives, still holds to the belief that Dallas and his two codefendants were the real killers.

O'Brien also played a major role in the Donna Decker case, a sensationalized 1988 home invasion and murder in Davie. O'Brien's testimony against two brothers, Dana and Rodney Williamson, was crucial in their convictions.

Under Cavanagh's wing and on a prosecutorial roll, the Priest wasn't finished yet. He also claimed that King, who was jailed in July 1991 on charges of killing Behan, made self-incriminating statements to him. Another inmate and friend of O'Brien's, Scott Stupelli, backed up the prolific snitch's story about King, and a third detainee, Barry Stringer, belatedly claimed that he had been a witness to the Behan killing -- and fingered King as the shooter. All three had detailed knowledge of the case, including names of witnesses and events not mentioned in media accounts. Detectives obtained sworn statements from them, and they were listed in court records as witnesses for the prosecution.

Things seemed to be piling up against King. But then, in November 1991, Stupelli decided to expose what he called in a letter "the most blatent [sic], unbelievable case of corruption of the system imaginable." He claimed that Cavanagh had solicited perjured testimony from O'Brien in the King and Williamson cases. Stupelli wrote in the letter, which I recently obtained, of his belief that "the system is going to use every means available to cover this situation up."

KEEP NEW TIMES BROWARD-PALM BEACH FREE... Since we started New Times Broward-Palm Beach, 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.
Journalist Bob Norman has been raking the muck of South Florida for the past 25 years. His work has led to criminal cases against corrupt politicians, the ouster of bad judges from the bench, and has garnered dozens of state, regional, and national awards.
Contact: Bob Norman

Latest Stories