FORT LAUDERDALE – Two rookie police officers noticed that a 14-year veteran of the force had taken $315 in cash from a drug suspect they had just arrested, according to police reports.
But rather than admit to taking the money, Merkel filed his own police report saying he had found the money somewhere else.
According to the documents, the case centers around $315 taken from a narcotics suspect who had just been arrested by officers Christopher Clemons and Grant Moule, the two rookies, following a brief foot chase on Aug. 26, 2007.
Moule and Clemons counted the money they found after searching the suspect, then placed it on the ground next to him with his other belongings. They placed his cell phone on top of the money to protect it from the wind.
The two rookies left the suspect in the custody of other officers while they retraced the suspect’s path, seeking to find any discarded drugs.
Merkel arrived as backup, then took possession of the confiscated cash. When the rookies returned, Merkel told them it was standard practice in the department, according to the Oct. 23, 2007 Internal Affairs report from Capt. Rick Maglione to then-Chief Bruce Roberts.
Clemons and Moule consulted other officers, then reported Merkel’s actions to a supervisor.
City officials and union representatives said they only learned of the arrest after being contacted by the newspaper.
Kim Fontana, assistant to Broward State Attorney’s Office spokesman Ron Ishoy, declined to discuss details of the case. Nevertheless, the arrest affidavit and warrants are shedding light on the circumstances surrounding the arrest and charges.
“On August 26, 2007, City of Fort Lauderdale Police Officers Christopher Clemons and Grant Moule arrested Reginald Wilson at 1313 Northeast 5th Terrace. Officer Clemons immediately searched Mr. Wilson and located $315.00 and other personal property in Mr. Wilson’s pants pocket. The $315.00 was placed on the ground next to Mr. Wilson by Officer Clemons,” the police report states.
Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Dutko, who is representing Merkel in the criminal case, said he had not yet receive background materials on the charges.
“I’ve talked to them [prosecutors], and basically they believe some information contained in a police report to be false,” said Dutko, who is representing Merkel.
The documents obtained by the newspaper further detail how Merkel took possession of the money and then refused to return it to the rookie arresting officers, even though they told him it had been taken from Wilson’s pants pockets and counted in front of him.
“City of Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Robert Merkel responded to 1313 NE 5th Terrace to assist Officers Clemons and Moule in the arrest of Mr. Wilson. Officer Merkel arrived at the location of Mr. Wilson’s arrest and observed $315.00 along with other personal property placed on the ground next to Mr. Wilson by Officer Clemons. Officer Merkel took possession of the $315.00 without being told to do so by Officers Clemons and Moule,” it further alleges.
Merkel then filed what prosecutors are calling a “false police report,” where he wrote, “I found three hundred and fifteen dollars laying in the grass,” at a location blocks away from the actual scene. The money was placed into the evidence as “Found Property,” and never mentioned the suspect, the officers, or the actual case number.
The incident was reported to department brass who turned it over to Internal Affairs for investigation. During the internal probe, Merkel was ordered to give a sworn statement. In it, he reasoned that the money likely came from a robbery, but offered nothing to support the notion.
In an Oct. 27, 2007 closeout memo from Capt. Rick Maglione, director of the Internal Affairs Division, department officials concluded that Merkel violated department policy by providing false statements and filing the false report.
“Although Officer Merkel himself did not personally/financially benefit from his actions, it is apparent he falsified an official police report and further apparent his actions were intentional to either prevent or delay the arrested subject from retaining/recovering his money,” Maglione wrote. “It is additionally disconcerting that Officer Merkel did not rethink his actions when the two rookie Officers expressed concern. Officer Merkel further aggravated the situation when he informed Officers Clemons and Moule that his actions were the typical manner in which a Fort Lauderdale Police Officer handled these types of incidents.”
In a Nov. 30, 2007 memo, assistant police chief Robert J. Carter concurred with the Internal Affairs investigation’s conclusion, and recommended Merkel’s termination, though Merkel’s last date of service remains unclear.
Merkel could not be reached for comment, but faces arraignment on the charges before Broward Circuit Judge Martin J. Bidwill on June 30.
Pictured above is former Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Robert Merkel.