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.
“This is how we do things,’’ Officer Robert Merkel allegedly told them. They did not take his word for it, though, and reported him to their supervisor.
But rather than admit to taking the money, Merkel filed his own police report saying he had found the money somewhere else.
These and other details emerged in the Internal Affairs reports on Merkel from his own department.
Merkel was arrested and charged May 29 with one count of official misconduct, a felony, and one count of falsifying official records, a misdemeanor, police records show.
The South Florida Times first broke the news of Merkel’s arrest and charges last week and obtained further details of the case from documents filed by state prosecutors and the Internal Affairs and police reports.
According to the documents, the case centers on $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 they placed the money 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, and then took possession of the confiscated cash and refused to give it back. 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, Sgt. Hector Matinez.
Internal Affairs began its investigation the next day on Aug. 27, 2007 and interviewed several witnesses over a three-month period, including the suspect.
In the Oct. 27, 2007 closeout memo from 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.
The Internal Affairs division undertook a standard review and reconsideration of the case and on Dec. 3 upheld its previous conclusions and further determined crimes may have been committed.
The entire matter was then forwarded to prosecutors with the Broward County State Attorney’s Office that same day.
As prosecutors continued to build a case against Merkel, he was fired from the force on Jan. 15, after 14 years of service, for violating department policies.
Some four months later, on May 19, formal charges were filed against Merkel and a warrant issued for his arrest. He was taken into custody on May 29.
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.
At the time, Fort Lauderdale attorney Michael Dutko, who is representing Merkel in the criminal case, said he had not yet received 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.
Merkel could not be reached for comment, but faces arraignment on the charges before Broward Circuit Judge Martin J. Bidwill on June 30.
Photo: Robert Merkel