Melissa Morales was riding her bicycle near the Flamingo Diner just off of U.S. Highway 1 in Stuart, Florida, when she was stopped by a Martin County sheriff’s deputy. It was 10 p.m. but still warm on an evening in late October 2018, and Deputy Steven O’Leary told Morales he stopped her because her bike had no lights.
Morales apologized and promised to get lights, but O’Leary decided to search her purse regardless. Inside, he found what he described as a “white, rocklike substance.” He then ran a field test that he said yielded a positive result for methamphetamine. The 37-year-old Floridian told O’Leary that what he claimed was meth was “just a rock.”
Despite Morales’ protestations and the fact that field tests are notoriously unreliable, O’Leary arrested Morales and took her to jail. O’Leary said that when he searched Morales at the facility, he “observed a white substance fall out of Melissa’s pant leg and onto the ground … the same substance I had located in Melissa’s purse.” O’Leary said this second substance also tested positive for methamphetamine, and he charged her with possession of the drug and introducing contraband into a correctional facility.
Because Morales couldn’t afford to pay her $10,000 bond, she was jailed 49 days in Martin County. She also faced a 10-year prison sentence. On Dec. 11, Morales entered a guilty plea in her case. She was sentenced to six months in jail, ordered to pay hundreds of dollars in fines, and had her driver’s license revoked.
But on Jan. 16, Morales was freed. The judge vacated her sentence after Morales’s public defender filed a motion stating he had been informed of “newly discovered issues surrounding the arresting officer in this case.”
“The substance alleged to be methamphetamine is, in fact, not a controlled substance,” wrote Shane Manship of the 19th Circuit Public Defender’s Office.
A history of excessive force
Morales is now one of 11 people freed from jail following revelations that O’Leary falsified narcotics arrests. Substances that O’Leary claimed were narcotics turned out to be sand, laundry detergent, and headache medicine. Martin County Sheriff William Snyder said the State Attorney’s Office notified the agency Jan. 9 about O’Leary’s questionable arrests. Since then, the Martin County Sheriff has been reviewing 80 other arrests made by O’Leary during his 11 months with the agency. Snyder fired O’Leary on Jan. 15, but no criminal charges have been brought against the officer.
The Sheriff’s Office did not respond to emails seeking comment.
O’Leary’s bogus narcotics arrests aren’t the only instances of misconduct in the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, the same agency that spearheaded the Orchids of Asia Day Spa bust leading to New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft being hit with solicitation of prostitution charges.
Since 2000, the Martin County sheriff has spent more than $1.33 million settling lawsuits brought by people who say officers used excessive force, falsified reports, or made wrongful arrests.
In 2004, Sgt. James Warren was sued for excessive force after he and four other deputies shot a man nine times while pursuing him for snatching a purse. Dashboard camera footage showed that the deputies continued to shoot the man even after he was face down on the ground.
The case was settled for $877,700. In 2013, Warren fatally shot another man, Richard Haston. Prior to killing Haston, Warren was involved in at least seven other shooting incidents. Warren retired shortly after the Haston shooting. Haston’s mother has filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office.
Last fall, a federal jury found that a 29 year-veteran of the Martin County Sheriff’s Office violated James Crocker’s civil rights when he seized Crocker’s cellphone at the scene of a highway car accident and then arrested Crocker after he refused to leave the area without his phone.
One week after Morales was freed, Deputy William Baker Jr. shot a man whom he had been called to assist. The parents of 32-year-old Warren Pugh called the sheriff’s office to request help removing their troubled son from their home. Pugh’s mother told 911 dispatchers that he suffered from mental health problems and had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals.
Sheriff’s officials said Pugh was running toward officers while holding scissors when Baker shot him in the stomach. Pugh was arrested and charged with two counts of assault or battery on a law enforcement official. He has been in jail ever since, as his bail was set at $170,000.
Massage parlor raid missteps
Snyder and his deputies have portrayed themselves as rescuers of trafficked women, even though the vast majority of charges filed in the Orchids of Asia case are related to prostitution, not human trafficking. But the agency’s concern for massage-parlor workers is at odds with its own troubling treatment of women.
In 2018, Capt. Brian Bergen, a nearly a 25-year veteran of the agency, was suspended for five days without pay after he was accused of calling a female employee a “prostitute” and a “street walker.” The woman also said that when she told Bergen about an unsolicited video she received on her personal Facebook page depicting a person inappropriately touching himself, he replied, “That’s what you expect from receiving the video, you dress like a whore.”
In 2015, a former reserve deputy said that Snyder and dozens of deputies illegally accessed a state database to order to obtain personal information about him and keep tabs on the ex-husband of a fellow deputy’s wife. (The agency said that its uses of the database were lawful.)
And while the Orchids of Asia case is just weeks old, it is already rife with problems. Sandipkumar Patel was arrested by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office, and his mug shot was shared with the media after officials claimed that he patronized one of the massage parlors that were raided. The agency said he parked his blue four-door Porsche outside the establishment. Patel doesn’t own a Porsche. The car belonged to a woman with the same last name.
“On February 25th, I thought my life had ended,” Patel said at a March 5 news conference announcing his intention to sue the sheriff. Patel, who is from India, immigrated to the U.S. decades ago and has been married to his wife, Sonal, for 20 years. They have two daughters, and Patel works two jobs to support his family.
It took days for the Sheriff’s Office to admit the mistake and drop the charges against him. “This did not have to happen, and there is nothing that can erase the hell my family and I went through,” Patel said through tears, noting that he had contemplated suicide.
On March 22, an attorney for one Orchids of Asia defendant filed a motion arguing that video the Sheriff’s Office said it recorded inside the massage parlor is “violative of the accused’s privacy rights” and therefore should be inadmissible in court. Another attorney filed a motion to suppress the video, claiming that a court order did not grant the Sheriff’s Office authority to record video during its investigation. “Despite the clear and unequivocal language of the court order, which permitted only the video monitoring of the massage rooms, the police intentionally, or recklessly exceeded the court’s order,” the attorney wrote.
Eric Schwartzreich, an attorney for another customer charged in the massage-parlor stings, told The Appeal that he found the allegations made by the Martin County Sheriff’s Office against his client and others troublesome.
“I find it interesting that everyone who left the massage parlor, within a matter of miles, committed a traffic infraction, that’s certainly worth exploring,” Schwartzreich said, referencing the fact that officers surveilled patrons, followed them, then stopped them shortly after leaving the spa for alleged traffic infractions.
Schwartzreich added that prosecutors offered a standard diversion program to Kraft and 24 others charged in the Orchids of Asia bust. “I think it could be considered egregious government conduct to just sit back and let these women be victimized, as police say they were, for months before making an arrest,” he said.