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."

In December 1991, Stupelli penned a 14-page, handwritten, sworn statement claiming that O'Brien had recruited him to snitch on King and Williamson. Assistant State Sttorney Cavanagh, according to Stupelli, had instructed O'Brien to befriend King and Williamson and gather evidence against them. Stupelli wrote that Cavanagh fed the Priest sensitive information about the cases and urged him to get a confession from King: "O'Brien said that Cavanagh said... if King could be 'heard' stating things to the effect, 'Yea, I killed the cracker, so what?' That would be perfect."

Stupelli also said O'Brien offered him a payoff from officials. In exchange for cooperating, Stupelli would be given probation on his armed kidnapping charge as well as money and "goodies" from the commissary through a pipeline involving BSO detectives and jail guards. "I told [O'Brien] to count me in," Stupelli wrote.

The problem: King would have nothing to do with either of the snitches. When O'Brien informed Cavanagh of this glitch, the prosecutor came up with a "solution," Stupelli alleged: Cavanagh gave the Priest more information about the Behan murder, and based on that, O'Brien fabricated a statement against King. Stupelli alleged that he then memorized O'Brien's tale, and on August 13, 1991, the pair called BSO detectives and gave them sworn interviews implicating King.

Stupelli alleged that after meeting with BSO, O'Brien showed him a $20 bill and some cigarettes that he boasted were given to him by Det. Tom Gill. Later that week, O'Brien was indeed caught with cigarettes, which are illegal contraband in the jail, and he was transferred to another cell as a disciplinary measure. Stupelli also said he received a $50 money order in exchange for the statement and supplied the bank- deposit numbers for the payment. O'Brien, meanwhile, continued to show off commissary goods that he boasted were "gratis from the boys."

As Stupelli was blowing the whistle, another snitch scandal was reported to authorities, this one involving a Broward jail inmate named William Lewis, who was allegedly obtaining fellow inmates' discovery from a private investigation firm and using the information to testify in criminal cases. One of Lewis's associates, according to court records and State Attorney's Office investigative files, was Barry Stringer, the "witness" set to testify against King. Prosecutors dropped Stringer from the witness list after his testimony lost credibility -- and after it was learned that Lewis had put up the money to bail Stringer out of jail.

Who investigated all of this? Not an outside agency but the BSO and the State Attorney's Office, whose members were allegedly involved in the corruption. Assistant State Attorney Norman O'Rourke, who handled the case, decided to investigate only Lewis and gave O'Brien, who is now locked up in a Massachusetts prison, immunity in the case. When O'Rourke interviewed the Priest, there was no mention of Stupelli, King, or Cavanagh. Those allegations about his colleague must have just slipped his mind. O'Rourke ended his investigation on September 7, 1993, with no action taken. Nearly a year later, in June 1994, O'Rourke filed an addendum to the case, reporting that he had looked into Stupelli's allegations against Cavanagh and found no proof of wrongdoing.

Stupelli's allegations against Cavanagh have never, until this column, been reported by the media, and O'Brien's name has never been published in a South Florida newspaper. In effect, Stupelli was right. The case was covered up. (I couldn't locate Stupelli for this column.)

When I questioned Cavanagh, who is still prosecuting Broward murders, he bristled -- and denied he ever did anything wrong. "He's a piece of shit," Cavanagh said of Stupelli. "When hell freezes over would I be a party to bullshit like that. I hope he rots in hell in prison. He was pissed off because we wouldn't use him as a witness, and he started this maniacal vendetta making up bullshit. What a dangerous piece of work he was."

Lewis, Cavanagh declares, was also a "dangerous piece of manure," and Stringer was an unreliable, lying witness. The prosecutor still maintains, however, that O'Brien was an honest informant, though the state dropped him from the King case.

I'm not trying to convict Cavanagh, a homicide-unit veteran who happens to be the son of the late New York detective who was the inspiration for Kojak. But Stupelli's allegations are full of specific and compelling details that make them credible. And his claims involving officials should have been vigorously investigated. But they weren't.

This is where FDLE can make itself useful.

But I more expect a repeat of the previous time Gov. Jeb Bush ordered an outside investigation of BSO wrongdoing: last year's review of Major Richard Scheff's role in the wrongful conviction of Frank Lee Smith by special prosecutor Lawrence Mirman. Smith, you might recall, died of cancer on Death Row while awaiting electrocution for a murder that DNA tests later proved he didn't commit.

There was enough whitewash in Mirman's final report -- which cleared the deceitful Scheff -- to cover every inch of Tom Sawyer's fence. It was, essentially, a shameless political exercise designed to let the state government and the sheriff's office off the hook.

Unfortunately, there are hints that the FDLE review of the Behan case will be more of the same. Bush gave the state agency only 45 days to look into the matter, an arbitrary and insufficient amount of time to investigate a 12-year-old murder mystery.

The time limit is a signal from Bush to Sheriff Ken Jenne that it's not open season on BSO. The King case, though, screams out that it should be.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman