Snitch and Whitewash

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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.

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Bob Norman
Contact: Bob Norman