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Broward Sheriff’s deputy's sexual battery charges paint picture of gay man revered and reviled

BY LAURA FIGUEROA and ROBERT SAMUELS, rsamuels@MiamiHerald.com

bleiweiss ``If you have any interaction with this officer, please inform Father Bob,'' read the flier put up this winter at Oakland Park's All Saints Catholic Mission soup kitchen.

Above the cautionary words was a photo of a 5-foot-6, round-faced Broward Sheriff's Office deputy, Jonathan Morgan Bleiweiss. Stay away from him, warned Father Bob Caudill, after hearing dozens of complaints about how the rogue deputy was terrorizing the homeless who came to the mission.

About a month after the flier went up, BSO's Oakland Park District had a plaque engraved with Bleiweiss' name and the words ``Employee of the Year.'' The honor was bestowed on the deputy for his aggressive policing and professional attitude. He became a symbol of the gay community, an officer unafraid of being open about his sexual orientation, who represented BSO at gay pride events.

The chasm of the officer's character -- one rewarded by the powerful, but reviled by the powerless -- deepened this month when Bleiweiss was arrested by his own colleagues.

Bleiweiss, 29, stands accused of coercing at least eight men -- all undocumented immigrants -- into performing sex acts with him or risk deportation.

Around 5 a.m. each morning, a handful of men, mostly undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America, would gather before dawn on a remote side street of an Oakland Park apartment complex and wait for rides to construction jobs around the state.

A couple of months ago, they stopped waiting there. Many begged their rides to pick them up directly in front of their apartment unit. Others say they started taking the bus to wait for rides outside of city limits.

Rumors were spreading about a ``gringo'' sheriff's deputy who drove up and down that street, pulling over Hispanic-looking men. He'd ask for proof of residency and, if they didn't have it, ask for their ``leche,'' slang for oral sex.

``People were inside their house by 10 because they didn't want to be on the street when he was out,'' said Miguel Angel, 29, a dry wall contractor. ``They changed locations for where they got picked up for work . . . he was like a shark driving up and down that street.''

On April 23, a 30-year-old man was waiting for his ride to work when Bleiweiss stopped and asked for his identification, according to an arrest warrant. After showing his Mexican ID, Bleiweiss put him against his patrol vehicle to perform a pat down, the man told detectives.

During the pat down, the man told BSO that Bleiweiss reached into his pants, fondling him and making crude comments.

When the man's co-workers arrived to pick him up, Bleiweiss told them to come back in five minutes. The deputy pressed the man to give him a cellphone number.

The next morning Bleiweiss texted the man's cellphone: ``Que Pasa Amigo?''

The man did not respond.

On May 10, the same man was waiting for his ride in front of the apartment complex when Bleiweiss stopped him again, according to the arrest affidavit. This time, Bleiweiss forced the man to have oral sex.

The incident happened inside his patrol car, during the final minutes of the shift, before sunrise. Nearby, a sign reads ``Broward Sheriff's Office: For Your Protection.''

SOLID REPUTATION

Deputy's rise never hinted at abuse

Bleiweiss started his mission to serve and protect in 2002 when he joined the Broward Sheriff's Office. The New York native joined the force after graduating from St. Petersburg College with a 2.85 grade point average, records show. He easily passed his officer's certification, scoring over 90 percent in every section.

He built a solid reputation working in the North Lauderdale district, where his supervisors applauded his decision-making skills. They weren't so satisfied with his penmanship.

Until the recent allegations, Sheriff Al Lamberti called Bleiweiss a ``pretty good cop,'' one that records show was becoming more respected with each evaluation.

His only serious blemish was in June 2008, when he received a one-day suspension in relation to improperly reporting an illness. Nothing would indicate abuse.

Commendations filled his personnel jacket. He caught robbers after chasing them on foot, tracked a pair of robbers discreetly using binoculars and ran away a group of persistent loiterers from a liquor store.

``He found my mother walking in a bad neighborhood, took the trouble to look in her purse, find her address and then took her into [her] apartment,'' recalled Sheila Basse.

Bleiweiss stayed with the 91-year-old woman until her caretaker arrived.

``That gentleman, what a guy, he helped my mom,'' Basse said. ``If there's someone who had to vouch for him, to his kindness, it would be me.''

Bleiweiss was increasingly becoming the face of law enforcement to Broward's gay community. He represented BSO at pride events and attended meetings with the Dolphin Democratic club, a caucus for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.

In 2009, he was named BSO's Employee of the Year for the Oakland Park District, after a year filled with well over 100 arrests, catching robbers armed with AK-47s and organizing an AIDS Walk Team.

After the award, Bleiweiss messaged Dan Renzi, editor of the South Florida Blade, a local gay oriented newspaper. He asked if the paper was interested in writing a profile on him.

During the interview, Bleiweiss spoke of his isolation as an openly gay cop, Renzi said. While BSO treated him well, Bleiweiss sometimes had difficulty garnering support from other gay people.

``In his position of authority, it can be hard to straddle both worlds,'' Renzi said. ``He was just one of those people who really wanted to be included.''

STORIES AND SCARS

Complaints of abuse brewed in priest's kitchen

In the afternoons, a hundred-plus people would come to All Saints' soup kitchen.

There were always stories there about Bleiweiss. Bruce Wayne Badger, 46, points to scars on his ankles he says he got a year ago when the deputy beat him with a baton.

Michael O'Neal, 49, talks about how the deputy opened a four-pack of Natural Ice beer, but then charged him with walking around with an open container.

Ruma Navarro, 48, says the deputy searched her purse for an ID, then threw it into the streets.

``How were we supposed to go to the police [to complain]?'' she said. ``He was the police.''

Father Bob heard the complaints so insistently that he put up the flier warning people to stay away from Bleiweiss.

Father Bob went to Oakland Park City Commissioners and the Sheriff's Office telling them about a rogue deputy who several of the homeless had complained had roughed them up.

``Since the homeless confide in us and trust us, we feel it important to pass this along to you,'' Father Bob wrote in a June 2008 e-mail addressed to the mayor, city commissioners and BSO officials.

In April 2009, an attorney called the Fort Lauderdale police saying two of his clients had complained about a cop inappropriately touching them. Fort Lauderdale then contacted BSO.

Over the next four months, detectives knocked on doors and worked to solidify the case, BSO Detective Graciela Benito said.

In July, Bleiweiss was reassigned to desk duty.

On Aug. 2, a Sunday night, Bleiweiss asked all his friends to a party at Johnny's Bar, a gay strip club in Fort Lauderdale. It was out of character for the deputy, said Renzi, the editor of the Blade.

The morning after the party, Bleiweiss was arrested on 14 charges, all in relation to the April incident with the 30-year-old.

Charges are still pending for seven other victims, according to Sheriff Al Lamberti, and there might be more victims. Lamberti added that another man has since come forward.

One of them is a 17-year-old who drove himself to BSO headquarters to tell detectives what he had been too ashamed to tell his own family: He'd been assaulted the morning of June 1, as he drove with a friend to work.

Frozen in fear, the teen said nothing as Bleiweiss fondled him, according to records. Finally the teen told Bleiweiss he was running late for work and to please let him go.

The deputy obliged, but not before making sure the teen provided him with a cell number for future contact.

After hearing from others that he was one of many, the teen came forward.

``I knew what he did was wrong,'' he said.

WAITING FOR JUSTICE

Community shuns once respected, feared deputy

Now, Bleiweiss, the man who tried to show that one can be an active part of the law enforcement community and the gay community, is being ostracized by both -- as a reckless individual who is emblematic of no one.

``This man has brought disgrace to the badge,'' said Michael Albetta, president of the Dolphin Democrats. ``He is not a pioneer to the GLBT community. Absolutely not.''

Bleiweiss' attorney, Eric Schwartzreich, maintains his client's innocence. He has dismissed the allegations as blown-up stories about an enforcer doing his job with just aggression.

``I've known Jon all my life,'' wrote his brother , Ben, in an e-mail from Roanoke, Va. ``The Jon Bleiweiss I know would never commit these acts.''

Each day now, the homeless speculate what will happen next.

``To his arrest, I say God is good,'' said Navarro, the woman who said she had her ID thrown in the street.

And the alleged victims say they're confident justice will be served.

``There's not much left to say. I told the police everything that happened,'' said the 17-year-old. ``Now it's in their hands.''

When Bleiweiss was taken off the street, Father Bob walked to the windows and looked at the poster he hung up months ago.

``I took it down,'' he said, ``because we've all had enough.''

Miami Herald Staff Writer David Smiley contributed to this report.

Caption: Jonathan Bleiweiss receives the 2008 Deputy of the Year Award in March 2009. From his Facebook page.

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You go Father Bob, Someone has to protect ALL people regardless of their sexual preferance. Father you are what the priesthood is all about. GOD BLESS YOU and all the good work you do for South Florida... God be with you always.

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