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June 23, 2014
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Fla. cop fired after friend uses patrol-car speaker to heckle public

The drunken, inappropriate remarks and catcalls coming from the loudspeaker of a marked Broward sheriff's patrol car had bystanders scratching their heads

By Tonya Alanez
Sun Sentinel

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The drunken, inappropriate remarks and catcalls coming from the loudspeaker of a marked Broward sheriff's patrol car had bystanders scratching their heads and dialing 911.

It was after 2:30 a.m. on a weekend when the first of several 911 callers reported two young men, not in uniform, driving a marked patrol car through the lively Las Olas and Himmarshee bar-hopping districts with the loudspeaker blaring.

"They're saying extremely lewd and really stupid things over the P.A.," the first caller reported.

"Apparently there are some kids with dad's off-duty car," another caller said. "They're saying rude comments and driving around. ... I don't think sheriffs would act like that."

It turns out it was an actual deputy behind the wheel.

Deputy Rodrigo Mello was off-duty when he took two drunken friends on a joy ride in his marked 2007 Dodge Charger and gave one of them free reign over the P.A. system, according to internal affairs records obtained by the Sun Sentinel.

Mello, 33, a deputy for nearly a decade, was fired as a result of the Aug. 11 incident. Since his termination in January, Mello has been seeking to regain his job through an arbitration process.

"The agency is opposing any attempt by him to be reinstated," Veda Coleman-Wright, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, said Wednesday.

Thinking the patrol car had been stolen, Fort Lauderdale police pulled Mello and his friends over in an alley after 911 calls began streaming in reporting the errant cruiser.

Mello, who was driving, immediately produced his badge and identification to confirm he was a deputy, a noticeably intoxicated friend was in the front passenger seat and a woman was passed out in the back seat, records show.

A sheriff's captain, who went to the scene, determined Mello was not intoxicated, took his vehicle and sent him home, records show.

Mello, who was scheduled to work later that Sunday morning, had texted his boss at 12:22 a.m., about 2 1/2 hours before he was pulled over, to say he needed "to take a sick day" because of "food poisoning."

"It was stupid as could be and I look back at it now and it's absolutely ridiculous," Mello later said in a sworn statement. "It was innocent fun. Now looking back at it, it was the stupidest decision I ever made in my life."

An arbitrator has not yet been selected to oversee Mello's quest to regain his job, said Jeff Marano, president of the Police Benevolent Association.

"It's not a career-ender," Marano said of the incident. "Did he do something silly? Yeah, but you don't execute a person for that."

Despite telephone messages, neither Mello nor his attorney could be reached for comment.

Surveillance cameras at a parking garage, the Broward County Library, McDonald's and 7-Eleven captured images of the sheriff's cruiser either passing by, making U-turns, stopping and blocking the roadway or flashing its emergency lights, records show.

A hot dog vendor at the corner of Southeast First Avenue and Second Street told deputies he was repeatedly heckled by the joy-riding cruiser that first drove by about 2 a.m. and passed by at least three more times in a half-hour.

"Hey, how are your hot dogs? Those hot dogs any good?" the vendor, who is not identified by name in the investigative report, said he heard. "I want a hot dog."

Whoever was on the loudspeaker also issued catcalls to women on the street and seemed fixated on women's private parts, the vendor said.

"Girls, put your vaginas back in your pants," the vendor said he heard repeatedly.

Sheriff's Capt. Fernando Gajate, who went to the scene, received a written reprimand for failing to take suitable action, records show. The report did not specify what action he should have taken that nightGajate, through a sheriff's spokesperson, declined to comment for this article.

According to records, Gajate, 48, reported that when he arrived, Mello's male passenger was sitting on the curb and the woman was "laying on the grassy area near the curb."

Gajate said he didn't smell alcohol on Mello, his eyes weren't bloodshot, he didn't slur his words and he was able to stand. He concluded that Mello was not intoxicated, took his vehicle and sent the deputy home, records show.

According to the investigative report, Mello told Gajate his friends had called to say they were drunk and needed a ride home and his marked unit was the only vehicle available to him.

Mello also told Gajate he had a single alcoholic beverage earlier in the evening, records show.

When Mello gave a sworn statement on Oct. 30, his account changed.

According to his statement, Mello said he had joined a group of about 10 gym friends at Rocco's Tacos on Las Olas Boulevard about 9 p.m. He had two or three alcoholic drinks during the three or four hours he was there and he did "not at all" feel intoxicated.

From Rocco's they relocated to Vibe, a bar on Las Olas, where they spent an hour. When it was time to leave, his friends were "extremely intoxicated," Mello said, so he agreed to drive them home.

Mello said his friend remarked that he'd never been in a police car before, so Mello "flashed his lights once" and gave him permission to say something over the P.A. system. Mello did not recall anything lewd or offensive being said.

"It was an absolute stupid decision," Mello said, according to the investigative report. "I've brought embarrassment to myself, my family, the department."

Mello was hired by the Cooper City Police Department in March 2003 and became a deputy when the department merged with the Sheriff's Office in February 2004.

His Jan. 14 termination was founded on lack of discretion, conduct unbecoming and having unauthorized passengers in his vehicle.

"It is alleged that Deputy Mello did not use common sense and good judgment in this case," the investigative report says.

Copyright 2014 the Sun Sentinel


McClatchy-Tribune News Service

 






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