The BSO Raid: Living in Infamy

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25 years ago today.

On Friday night, May 3, 1991, the LGBT community of South Florida experienced its ‘Stonewall’ event. It was an evening that will live in infamy, a night when Broward County’s chief law enforcement officer, the late Sheriff Nick Navarro, disgraced himself and humiliated our LGBT community.

On that weekend night, at 11:20 p.m., the Broward Sheriff’s office launched an unprecedented law enforcement operation against two of the most popular gay clubs in Broward County, the Copa in Dania Beach and Club 21 in Hallandale. In my judgment, the raids were unlawful, the actions unconscionable, and the deeds unforgivable.

With live television crews following him, the sheriff authorized the utterly astonishing use of over 100 Broward Sheriff`s Office deputies, partnering  with 15 state alcohol officers to simultaneously invade both nightclubs, accusing them of being “awash with cocaine.” The sheriff’s representations were a fabrication. His allegations were an unadulterated lie.

The truth and facts are that the entire police action resulted in in a total of six drug arrests, two at the Copa and four at Club 21. Despite this, state alcohol agents effectively invaded the clubs that evening, and served each with emergency orders of suspension. They could not serve liquor, essentially thus shutting them down.

That was 25 years ago today.

Sheriff Navarro orchestrated the raid as if he were hosting a Hollywood opening. As the news report by Steve Rothaus indicates, the Sheriff turned the raid into a media event, placing the entire LGBT community in a false light. Navarro arrived on the scene, believe it or not, in a helicopter, accompanied by his wife, dressed in an evening gown. Reporters were shocked by the crass celebration, amazingly accompanied by foreign Russian dignitaries to show off for.

A quarter of a century may have passed, but SFGN needs to still pay homage and respect to the gay lives so unlawfully and unfairly impacted on that memorable evening. Innocent patrons of gay nightclubs, gathering socially and lawfully in state-licensed alcoholic beverage establishments were greeted by busloads of fully-armed cops in SWAT uniforms who swarmed the clubs,  ordering all the patrons and employees in each establishment to line up against a wall, and put their hands over their heads.

One by one, every customer was ordered to produce identification, citizenship cards, and driver’s licenses. Most were unlawfully detained for hours, with no probable cause, embarrassed and held against their will, by armed and uniformed police officers. Some were legitimately scared to death. Younger gay men and women had their parents called by cops, so they could warn them where there child was.

The cops recorded the names of the patrons and video taped them as well, without their consent and against their will, collecting whatever data police could amass for future record keeping purposes. Finally,  led out of the clubs in a single file, the customers were greeted by television crews who were filming their humiliation for the morning news.

The gay community was only nominally mobilized in the early 1990s. A group known as GUARD- Gays United Against Repression and Discrimination, held a protest demonstration at the Broward County Courthouse two weeks later. About 60 activists joined in, along with the local chapter of the ACLU, and a gay activist attorney, the late Allen H. Terl, who condemned the raid.

Despite the protests, law enforcement agencies proudly defended the action. In fact, Sergeant Pat Roberts, of the State of Florida Division of Alcoholic Beverages and Tobacco, criticized the protestors for accusing Sheriff Navarro of being solely responsible.  "It was our raid, " he boasted. "We were the ones who called for it."

Meanwhile, Broward Sheriff`s Office spokesman Al Gordon said the raids “were not pointed towards any special orientation but at drugs. I don`t see any reason for the Broward Sheriff`s Office to apologize for enforcing the law," he told the Sun Sentinel on May 4, 1991. During Sheriff Navarro’s tenure, they never did.

The good news to reflect upon today is that Navarro’s successor would not only apologize, BSO made a voluntary contribution of $10,000 to AIDS Center One as part of a class action lawsuit settlement. Here’s what happened. 

The owner of the Copa in 1991 was John Castelli. Yes, the same John Castelli who owns Castelli Real Estate on Wilton Drive, who just served the last year as President of the Fort Lauderdale Board of Realtors. He and his partner, the late William Bastiansen, were not going to turn a blind eye to such a vicious law enforcement initiative. They sued the sheriff on behalf of their customers. 

In full disclosure, I remember it well,  because, heck, I was John Castelli’s attorney. My law office sued the sheriff. It was not easy. Most of the patrons did not want to go public, and being out and open was not quite as simple as it is today. It was a different world, a different century. It was 25 years ago. But we were tenacious and prevailed.

“If a man stands his ground and there abides,” reads the tombstone of the late congressman Allard Lowenstein, “eventually the whole world will come around to him.” So it was then, and so it is now.

 Sheriff Navarro fought the case bitterly, refusing to even discuss a settlement or apology. But a funny thing happened on the way to the courthouse: an election intervened. In August of 1992, drowning in legal controversies for his management of BSO, Nick Navarro lost the Republican primary for re-election. He was booted out of office. 

A few months later, the late Ron Cochran, a Democrat, formerly the police chief of Fort Lauderdale, won the election. Chief Cochran and I had been friends for years. We had breakfasts together nearly every day at the historical Floridian Restaurant on East Las Olas. The Chief and I met, while I had my corn flakes, and he, his toast, burnt and dry, the way he liked it.  We resolved the case in less than 15 minutes.

The resolution was simple. BSO made a modest donation to the county's largest AIDS group at the time, Center One. Second, Cochran agreed to establish a permanent liaison to the LGBT community within BSO, which still exists today. Third, BSO publicly apologized for the raid, which enraged Navarro, who went on to start his own private security firm.

Ironically, as a private businessman, Navarro would aggressively advertise in LGBT newspapers, and a couple of his chief staffers were well known gay men. Sadly, Sheriff Cochran, would die of cancer, all too young. Both men are now gone, but the story will never be forgotten.

Times change, and so do we with them. There are many stories in the Naked City. This has been one of them.


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