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Former 'cop of the year' busted to bailiff after internal affairs probe

STORY BY RAY McNULTY (Week of May 29, 2014)

Two years ago, Sheriff’s deputy Chris Rodriguez was honored as the Exchange Club of Indian River County’s “Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.”

Two months ago, after an extensive internal-affairs investigation, the narcotics detective was suspended for six weeks by Sheriff Deryl Loar and transferred to the Court Services Division – he’s now a bailiff – for disciplinary reasons stemming from a series of policy violations in 2013.

Rodriguez retained the same pay grade, and only lost the use of an agency-issued, take-home vehicle.

“Overall, it was the most significant suspension I’ve ever given,” Loar said. “We looked at all the factors, including his history with this office and the credibility of the testimony and other evidence in the case, and decided this was the appropriate punishment.”

The policy violations investigated and sustained by the Sheriff’s Internal Affairs Unit included:

-  Failing to report and submit into evidence 43 Vicodin pills in a prescription-pill container – in the name of someone else – found in Rodriguez’s tackle box, which was discovered inside the rear-passenger compartment of his agency-issued Ford F-150 pickup truck.

-  Failing to report and submit into evidence two Adderal pills seized during an arrest and later found “in plain view” in the center console of Rodriguez’s agency-issued truck.

-  Driving his agency-issued vehicle after consuming several beers at a party and again at his residence, where a “physical altercation” occurred.

-  Botching a photographic lineup in which the suspect’s photo was “in distinct contrast to the remaining five photographs,” then using the lineup to establish probable cause in his warrant affidavit.

-  Offering court testimony on behalf of a defendant – first at a sentencing hearing in July in St. Lucie County, then at a bond hearing in October in Vero Beach – without first notifying or gaining the approval of the State Attorney’s Office.

The IAU’s findings cited Rodriguez for: unbecoming conduct, misdirected action or interfering with official investigations; unbecoming conduct in processing property and evidence; neglect of duty, loafing and inattention to procedures; willful violation of official procedures (not endangering persons or property); violating the vehicle utilization program; and untruthfulness.

Rodriguez did not respond to an interview request made through the Sheriff’s Office. However, in accepting the suspension and transfer, he voluntarily waived his right to appeal the findings and the punishment.

Loar said he could have fired Rodriguez, given the seriousness and number of violations, but the sheriff wasn’t ready to give up on him.

“Certainly, I could’ve let him go, but I had to look at the bigger picture,” Loar said. “When these kinds of things come up, you take them case by case, because every discipline case is separate and distinct and event-specific. I think he’s a good man who made some mistakes and has accepted the consequences.”

Since all of the violations occurred in 2013, Loar said he wants to believe Rodriguez merely had a bad year.

“I’m sure he’d make it a do-over year if he could,” Loar said. “I think he’s divorced now, and he’s got a couple of other personal challenges going on. Hopefully, he’ll turn things around.”

Still, however, Rodriguez’s conduct during some of the IAU investigations raises questions.

Roriguez claimed he found the Vicodin pill container in his desk and had no idea how it got there. He then told investigators he put the pills in his medical kit (his fishing tackle box) and forgot about it, never asking who might’ve put them in his desk and never reporting his discovery to his supervisor.

When the pills were found months later during an inventory search of his truck, Rodriguez “offered no consistent or plausible explanation as to how he came into possession of the pill bottle,” the IAU report states.

Similarly, Rodriguez denied any knowledge of the Adderal pills found in his truck’s center console. However, he told investigators he keeps in the console his agency-issued fuel card, which he used at least twice and never turned over the pills.

“The pills posed a real problem, because he was in that unit,” Loar said. “In a situation like that, people starting wondering if he was trading drugs for information. It’s very damaging, and that’s why he’s no longer in that unit.”

As for the IAU probe into Rodriguez driving his agency-issued vehicle after consuming several beers – witnesses said he downed no fewer than 10 and was drinking “heavily,” so much so that his “speech was slurred” – he admitted to having “four or five beers” at the party and at least two at his home.

“The witness testimony was fairly strong, but without a test, there was no way to know for sure how much he drank,” Loar said. “If I had it all lined up, I’m not afraid to let somebody go.

“Clearly, though, he was in violation of our policy.”

Rodriguez’s violations of the policy regarding his obligation to notify and get the approval of the State Attorney’s Office before testifying on behalf of a criminal defendant not only upset the prosecutors in each case, but they also resulted in the “untruthfulness” charge.

In the first case, Rodriguez testified at the sentencing hearing of Carlos Luna, telling the judge that Luna provided him with substantial assistance in the arrest of another individual on drug-trafficking charges in Indian RIver County.

However, Rodriguez did so without Assistant State Attorney Brandon White’s knowledge and approval. In fact, White told the IAU investigator that he already had told St. Lucie County Sheriff’s detectives he was not in favor of working with Luna.

On the witness stand, during White’s cross-examination, Rodriguez said he approached the St. Lucie County Sheriff’s detectives before the hearing and that they were “fine with it,” but the detectives didn’t recall any such conversation.

Three months later, Rodriguez testified on behalf of another defendant at a bond hearing in Indian River County after Assistant State Attorney Steven Wilson told him, “I’m not going to agree to it.” Rodriguez claimed he was subpoenaed by defense attorney Robert Stone.

But when questioned in January by an IAU investigator, Rodriguez replied: “Oh, if you are going to go in semantics, no, I didn’t have a subpoena. ... Bob called me and said, ‘Hey, can you come to court?’ I went to court.”

He also gave other conflicting statements.

So could Rodriguez’s now-documented troubles with the truth provide defendants he testified against in the past with grounds for an appeal? Chief Assistant State Attorney Tom Bakkedahl doesn’t think so.

“I’m sure they could try, but you’d have to prove he lied while giving testimony on the stand in that particular case,” Bakkedahl said. “It would have to be done on a case-by-case basis.”

Bakkedahl said Rodriguez’s conduct was an “internal matter for the Sheriff’s Office,” but he added that it’s important for law enforcement agencies to cooperate when they can – and they do.

“We work together all the time,” Bakkedahl said. “If a law enforcement authority wants to work with a criminal defendant, they’ll notify us and ask us to hold off. Or they’ll come to us and tell us this guy did X, Y and Z. And if it’s a win-win situation, we do it.

“But when you’ve got a law enforcement officer testifying on behalf of a criminal defendant without our knowledge or approval, it gets to be a problem because that officer’s testimony is going to carry a lot of weight with the court,” he added. “The bottom line is: We’re on the same team.”

At times, at least, IAU records show Rodriguez wasn’t always a team player. But Loar said he believes in redemption.

“This has been difficult for him, I’m sure, but he’s got a second chance,” Loar said.

“We’ll see how he responds, how he recovers. His true character will come out.”