Polk undercover drug investigators play Wii during raid

September 23rd, 2009 by

TBO.com
With guns drawn and flashlights cutting through darkened rooms, Polk County undercover drug investigators stormed the home of convicted drug dealer Michael Difalco near Lakeland in March.

As investigators searched the home for drugs, some drug task force members found other ways to occupy their time. Within 20 minutes of entering Difalco’s house, some of the investigators found a Wii video bowling game and began bowling frame after frame.

While some detectives hauled out evidence such as flat screen televisions and shotguns, others threw strikes, gutter balls and worked on picking up spares.

A Polk County sheriff’s detective cataloging evidence repeatedly put down her work and picked up a Wii remote to bowl. When she hit two strikes in a row, she raised her arms above her head, jumping and kicking.

While a female detective lifted a nearby couch looking for evidence, another sheriff’s detective focused on pin action.

But detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, the Auburndale, Lakeland and Winter Haven police departments did not know that a wireless security camera connected to a computer inside Difalco’s home was recording their activity.

The recording obtained by News Channel 8 showed several members of the county’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) task force entering the house shortly after 8 a.m. According to the search warrant, their mission was to search for drugs, stolen property and the fruits of any illegal drug activity.

Now there are questions on how the impromptu bowling tournament might affect the case against Difalco.

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd denies it will have any effect.

“That absolutely is not true; that doesn’t invalidate the search at all,” Judd said. “Now the defendant would like for it to invalidate the search, but unfortunately for him, it won’t.”

Judd, who watched the video during an interview last week, called the situation an embarrassment.

“I’m not pleased that they played that Wii bowling game,” Judd said. The sheriff’s office oversees the drug task force. Judd said he initiated an internal administrative investigation of the incident.

“That is not appropriate conduct at a search warrant,” he said. “But I am less pleased with the supervision that didn’t walk in and say, turn that off. That’s what supervision should have done.”

Task force members played the video game at various times during the day, for a total of a little over an hour of playing time. The competition proved to be quite competitive at times. A task force supervisor from the Lakeland Police Department, gun at his side, pumped his fist after picking up a strike on the first ball he threw. The video showed he continued bowling frame after frame, competing with another undercover detective.

“Obviously, this is not the kind of behavior we condone,” Lakeland Police Chief Roger Boatner said. “There was a lot of down time, but that does not excuse the fact that we should act as the consummate professionals.”

“Certainly this was a case of bad judgment,” Auburndale Police Chief Nolan McLeod said. “We will handle it appropriately.”

Winter Haven police Sgt. Brad Coleman said Chief E.C. Waters had not viewed the video. “If there is any indication that someone did something inappropriately, we will do something about it,” Coleman said.

Court records show detectives placed Difalco’s home under surveillance as far back as December 2008.

“We knew he had weapons,” Judd said. “He’s a bad guy.”

His history includes an extensive arrest record dating back to 1995. Difalco, 43, served three years in state prison from 2002 to 2005 for trafficking drugs, owning and operating a chop shop, and grand theft.

In what Judd called “brilliant police work,” the task force placed Difalco under surveillance and took him into custody, away from his home and weapons, during the early morning hours of March 6, in the parking lot of a Circle K convenience store on Highway 98.

Documents filed with the court say, in the March raid, detectives removed methamphetamine, marijuana, drug paraphernalia, weapons and more than $30,000 in stolen property.

The 11 charges against Difalco include trafficking methamphetamine, possession of a firearm by a convicted felon and operating a chop shop.

According to sheriff’s office records, 13 detectives and three sergeants spent nine hours searching Difalco’s property, for drugs, stolen property and signs of any illegal drug activity.

The raid cost taxpayers more than $4,000.

Judd, Boatner and McLeod agree the bowling was inappropriate. But they challenge the notion that taxpayer dollars were wasted.

“It was an expansive scene, a lot of searching to be done, a lot of waiting,” Boatner said.

“The nature of a search warrant is hurry up and wait,” Judd said. “Am I trying to defend the fact that they were bowling, not at all. That was inappropriate.”

Not just inappropriate, but Tampa defense attorney Rick Escobar would argue the moment detectives turned on that video game and effectively seized it, they turned the search warrant into an illegal search.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Escobar said after he viewed some of the video. Escobar does not represent Difalco and has no connection to the case.

“All the citizens are thinking, ‘Wait a minute, we are paying these people to go out and protect us and here they are playing bowling on our time,’ ” he said.

“The real question here is have they seized property that wasn’t described in the search warrant?” Escobar asked. “Clearly if they’re using it, they’ve seized it and for totally improper purposes, because it’s for entertainment. Investigations are not for entertainment.”

Difalco’s attorney declined comment.

Chip Tulberry, a spokesperson for the Polk County State Attorney, declined to comment on the video, or the validity of the search warrant.

“That’s a discussion that will occur in court,” he said.


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