By Shannon O'Boye and Paula McMahon,
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Two Broward, Fla. Sheriff's Office detectives surrendered this morning to face criminal charges that they wrongly pinned cases on suspects to inflate their crime clearance rates.
The charges are the first in a wide-ranging crime statistics scandal that prosecutors have been investigating for more than a year.
Detectives Chris Zapata and Chris Thieman both work in Weston, a district that for years reported solving about 60 percent of its property crimes -- a rate three times higher than national and state averages.
Zapata was charged with 14 counts of official misconduct, a third-degree felony. Thieman was charged with eight counts of official misconduct. They surrendered at the Broward County Jail in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
The arrest warrants said the detectives filed erroneous reports "with the corrupt intent to obtain a benefit for himself or to cause unlawful harm to another."
Prosecutors are focusing on allegations that sheriff's deputies classified too many cases as "cleared," or solved, without making arrests. A South Florida Sun-Sentinel investigation revealed that such practices were widespread throughout the agency but were particularly rampant in Weston and a few other districts.
Thieman's attorney, Russ Williams, questioned why only two detectives were being charged when the practice was so common throughout the department.
"The only thing I can think is maybe they're trying to squeeze both deputies a little to say, 'Hey, we're not fooling around. This is what we're going to do. Do you guys want to cooperate or not cooperate?'."
Williams said his client "does not believe he's done anything wrong" and intends to defeat the charges in court.
"If there's anything he did that appears to be incorrect or inaccurate, it was not done purposefully or with any type of intent to deceive," Williams said. "It could be the result of shoddy police work or not following up on a specific lead."
Zapata could not be reached for comment. His lawyer, Rhea Grossman, could not be reached despite several messages left at her office.
State Attorney's spokesman Ron Ishoy declined comment Tuesday.
While crime statistics scandals have rocked police departments across the nation, rarely have they led to criminal charges, law enforcement experts said.
Although the Sheriff's Office has posted spectacular crime clearance rates for years, the validity of those numbers have been thrown into question by the state attorney's investigation. At the heart of the investigation are false confessions and "exceptional clearances."
When a case is cleared by exception, a detective can consider the crime solved even though no one is arrested or prosecuted. It's supposed to be used sparingly, such as when a suspect dies or a victim refuses to cooperate.
In recent years, the Sheriff's Office cleared a much higher percentage of property crimes by exception than any other department in Broward County.
A Sun-Sentinel review of 1,700 cases cleared by exception in 2003 revealed the practice of piling cases on suspects who were never charged was systemic, involving dozens of detectives and sergeants. It happened in eight of the 11 cities and two main unincorporated areas patrolled by the Sheriff's Office at that time, but was especially common in Weston and Southwest Ranches, Oakland Park and Pompano Beach.
In their reports, detectives said the cases were cleared by exception after suspects confessed. But newspaper articles have documented that in many cases, the suspects were behind bars and could not have committed the crimes.
When interviewed by reporters, some suspects said they agreed to confess because detectives promised to ask prosecutors and judges to be lenient with them in pending cases. Others said they never knew detectives wrote reports saying they had confessed to dozens of unsolved crimes.
After prosecutors began their inquiry into allegations that deputies made crimes disappear and detectives wrongly cleared cases, the sheriff tightened the rules detectives must follow before closing cases. Since then, the department's clearance rates have plummeted.
In 2003, Weston deputies made arrests in only two of every 10 solved property crimes. The rest were cleared "by exception."
Thieman, a 13-year veteran, cleared 41 cases by exception in 2003. Zapata cleared 50.
Thieman and Zapata wrote reports saying suspects confessed to crimes that they could not have committed because they were behind bars at the time.
Thieman said a drug-addicted teenager admitted breaking into a truck and stealing 71 pairs of shoes in October 2002, but records indicate the suspect was in a juvenile detention center at that time.
Zapata said one of his suspects "talked freely" about a car break-in that occurred in June 2001 and that the suspect rode with Zapata to the scene to point out where the crime occurred. But that was impossible because the suspect was arrested in another case earlier that day and was in custody when the car was burglarized, according to Sheriff's Office records.
Williams, Thieman's attorney, said prosecutors sought Thieman's cooperation early on and offered him a plea deal if he surrendered his law enforcement certification, which would bar him from police work in Florida.
Thieman, a married father of three, turned down the plea deal.
"We made the decision that we haven't done anything wrong, so take your best shot," Williams said.