SFGN’s Year Long Investigation Reveals PBSO Targeting Gay Men In Parks
Randy McGilton, Shawn Browser, and Gerry Sanders have never met but they have something in common: They were all arrested by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office in a five-year undercover operation targeting gay men having sex in parks.
And they weren’t the only ones.
Those three men represent just a few of the more than 600 arrests made by Detectives Peter Lazar and his partner Vaniclov “Van” Garner, from 2005 to 2010. SFGN reviewed more than 300 of those police reports starting with the year 2007, but PBSO acknowledged their operation began two years before that.
Only a handful of the arrests – four to be exact -- were between two men. The rest of them involved an undercover detective soliciting another man for sex using tactics that one lawyer called “disgusting,” while another lawyer questioned the legality of the detectives’ behavior.
“They approach, lure and entice guys who are sitting alone in their car, start a sexually charged conversation and then look for a way to arrest them,” said Fort Lauderdale attorney Russell Cormican, who estimates he’s probably represented upwards of a 100 men over the past 15 years who got busted for public sex (see “What is Entrapment”).
Two of the men mentioned above, McGilton and Browser, were charged with exposure of sexual organs, while the third, Sanders, was charged with loitering in a public restroom.
McGilton and Browser admitted they were guilty of the crime, but neither explored the possibility that they each might have been a victim of entrapment. Most arrestees do not; they can’t afford to do so. While the third, Sanders, denies any wrongdoing and believes he was a victim of an overzealous cop looking to make an arrest.
In fact, Sanders is still worried about retaliation from the cops and did not want his real name used for this article. At first glance his story might seem hard to believe, but police reports confirmed most of the major details as he described them to SFGN (see Sanders’ full story).
Simply put, Sanders was taking a jog through the park, took a short break, and washed his face in the restroom. Sanders, who noticed two men acting strangely in the restroom, mistook the undercover detectives for potential muggers. After leaving the bathroom he got in his car and left with the detective following him through the park. The incident ended with Sanders being charged with loitering in a public restroom.
Sanders said he’s straight and has a girlfriend. He insists he was not at the park looking for sex.
As for Browser, he posted an ad on Craigslist looking for a quick hook up. The detectives responded to it, and they agreed to meet at Okeeheelee Park where they promptly arrested him as soon as he exposed himself. Browser also did not want his real name used.
“They got me all excited by responding to an ad on Craigslist...so I pursued it...I met them in the park...they led me down a road...insisted that I’d whip it out before I could suck him,” he wrote in an email to SFGN.
As for McGilton’s story:
“They approached me. I was standing there for a minute. I wasn’t giving off any signals,” he said. “They asked me what I like to do. [The undercover detective said] my friend likes to fuck. Do you want to get fucked? I told him not really.”
He did, however, end up exposing himself to the detectives who promptly arrested him.
Like many of the other men arrested, McGilton and Browser had to pay fines, attend prostitution classes, and take an AIDS test. Many who wind up in this situation plead no contest and do not hire an attorney because they don’t have the funds or are too embarrassed to fight.
Some like Sanders, though, come to regret that decision.
“Because of my financial situation I didn’t get an attorney to fight it. It was just easier to plead the way I did. My girlfriend told me to fight this. Basically the judge said this is just loitering in a bathroom,” he said. “I was warned about the detective. I was told, you go up against him and you have problems. I didn’t want to push the issue.”
Cormican pointed out that: “What these defendants do not realize is that once they plead no contest they compromise their ability to sue afterwards for false arrest. In fact those who accept the state’s offers are usually required to waive their right to sue.”
Even though loitering in a public bathroom is a misdemeanor and may not be a big deal, it still showed up on Sanders' record and he had to explain the situation at work.
As far as SFGN can tell the operation started sometime between 2005 and 2007 and lasted until 2010. During that time the two police officers made more than 600 arrests of purportedly gay men in public parks throughout Palm Beach County, from Jupiter to Boca. More than half of the arrests were men aged 45 to 70.
That was the detectives’ only job – going undercover and soliciting men for sex and then arresting them. SFGN did not come across any arrests of men having sex with women and only a handful of arrests that involved two men. Even though SFGN requested all of the arrest records that both detectives made since 2007, only about 320 were handed over. The others may have occurred before SFGN’s request.
A few arrests, though, were of female prostitutes, but none were of female detectives soliciting straight males in parks. If that were the case Russell Cormican is sure plenty of straight men would be arrested. Out of all of the men Cormican has represented, none of the men were straight men busted by a female cop.
“I’ve never ever seen an operation where police utilized a female officer to come on to men,” Cormican said. “If you took an attractive female officer and put her by the restroom in a city park and she walked up to guys as they went in and out and asked them to show their private parts, I think they would arrest a lot of guys.”
When asked why they don’t set up an operation like that he stated:
“That’s a good question. That’s probably a better question to ask the police. They’re targeting gay men, that’s the answer,” he said. “[The police department’s] answer is usually that they’ve received complaints about gay men having sex in the bathrooms. But they usually propose the sex acts themselves.”
What is usually happening in these types of operations Cormican asserts:
“They’re essentially going out and creating their own crime,” he said. “They’re creating the entire incident from the beginning to the end themselves. It’s an artificially created act. If that police officer was not there that day, it wouldn’t have occurred.”
SFGN also reviewed a deposition (see deposition) where Detective Lazar explained his undercover operation in detail.
This is how it goes down:
“No, that’s all I do. Myself and my partner, that’s all we do. We have other park deputies that are uniformed that they do the car burglaries, the vandalism and patrol the parks. That’s what they do,” Lazar stated in a deposition.
“Sometimes I will wear shorts and a tank top. Sometimes it is just a t-shirt with some pants. Each time is a little different,” he bragged. “Six-hundred arrests, at least 300 of those are mine. In total, we have over 600 now in the last three years.”
He continued: “When people talk about the weather, they want to talk about, 'Hey, do you want to have a good time?”
During the conversation with these men he would sometimes keep his hands in his pockets and pretend he was playing with himself. In many cases the detectives would tell the defendant they like to “suck” or would squat down waiting for the other guy to expose himself (more stunning facts).
“I am playing the role of somebody looking for sex,” he admitted.
If the other person gets too aggressive and asks to see the detective’s genitals, they’ll pretend to get nervous in order to avoid doing so. The detectives also try to make sure to strengthen their cases while in the act.
“I could have arrested him when he exposed himself the first time, but I want more than just a little bit. I would like to get a better case, than his pants were up a little bit, and I had to walk up and see it. I want something a little bit more like him rubbing himself,” Lazar said.
Further answers are difficult to obtain since PBSO Sheriff Ric Bradshaw has so far refused to speak with SFGN except for sending one prepackaged response through his Public Information Officer Teri Barbera.
This is what Bradshaw sent:
“First of all, SEX in public parks, bathrooms, nature trails, etc. is ILLEGAL per Florida State Statue - 800.03 Exposure of sexual organs:
It is unlawful to expose or exhibit one’s sexual organs in public or on the private premises of another, or so near thereto as to be seen from such private premises, in a vulgar or indecent manner, or to be naked in public except in any place provided or set apart for that purpose. Violation of this section is a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable as provided in s. 775.082 or s. 775.083. A mother’s breastfeeding of her baby does not under any circumstance violate this section.
In 2005, PBC Parks & Recreation contacted PBSO requesting assistance with illegal sexual activity occurring in PBC park bathrooms and nature trails. PBSO began to enforce ALL illegal sexual activity in public bathrooms, which were mainly located next to playground areas. This enforcement resulted in numerous arrests over the last few years. The individuals arrested were issued a “notice to appear” in court for the charge of Exposure of Sexual Organs.
PBSO responds to all requests to stop illegal activity, regardless of its location, that is what the public expects from our agency.”
And while the statute may be clearly defined, Bradshaw’s statement leaves a bit more to the imagination.
According to the Director of PBC Parks and Recreation they never contacted PBSO about combating illegal sexual activity and was surprised when informed of the undercover operation.
“Wow. I was not aware of that,” said Craig Murphy, director of park operations. “I don’t remember requesting any [assistance].”
Murphy stated he would be aware if anyone else had requested assistance.
“I would be aware of something like that,” he said. “[PBSO] sends us weekly operating reports. I haven’t seen anything out of the ordinary.”
PBSO used to have a Parks Division, but it has since closed down due to budget cuts, according to Barbera. Now Parks and Recreation must rely on the other PBSO units and individual municipalities to assist in patrolling the county’s parks. The undercover operation has also since been stopped because of those same budget cuts.
SFGN also requested to interview Detectives Lazar and Garner. Barbera said Lazar has since retired and did not answer when asked where he retired to. Garner is now a homicide detective, but Barbera said he declined to be interviewed. But that doesn’t mean nobody else was willing to talk about the officers.
In particular, Michael Salnick, a successful and high profile attorney based in Palm Beach County, did have this to say about Detective Lazar:
“In my experience with Mr. Lazar, I never found him particularly credible or believable,” he said. Salnick filed a complaint against Lazar in 1992 for unprofessional conduct and the internal investigation revealed it to be valid. Lazar was given a written reprimand.
Salnick has been practicing law in West Palm Beach for 30 years.
Another well known attorney, Jeffrey Weiner of Miami-Dade County, had a lot to say about the matter. While he couldn’t comment specifically about Palm Beach County he’s seen other police departments in South Florida routinely target gay men.
“Many departments unfortunately repeatedly target gay men,” he said. “It’s disgusting and terrible. Miami Beach is one of the worst in that regard.”
Weiner has been practicing law for more than 38 years and is a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and a former president of the Florida Criminal Defense Attorneys Association.
“The bottom line is, we’re often and usually able to get these cases dismissed. Many times there are no crimes except in the minds of the police officers,” he explained. “Prosecutors are a lot more reasonable than the cops on the beat. But it’s terrible what they put people through. The means they use are really offensive. The games they play.”
He added: “As a lawyer, I’m offended by this behavior by the police.”
Cormican said these types of arrests are embarrassing for defendants and many times they do not want to take it to trial even though there would be a good chance of either dismissal or acquittal.
“Usually it’s straight guys who are married or a gay guy running around on his boyfriend and don’t want a public battle with police. They just want it out of their lives. Something like this has the potential to impact their personal relationships,” Cormican said. “So a lot of people don’t want to fight these and police take advantage of that.”
McGilton and the other men contacted by SFGN were all surprised that the information about their arrests were still available. All of them say they were led to believe by authorities it wouldn’t stay on their record.
“I’m surprised it’s on my record. That’s why I’ve had a hard time getting a couple of jobs. Never realized that,” McGilton said. While Browser said: “They told me not to worry that it will disappear in 3 years or so....I’m really bummed tho that a complete stranger got hold of this...I guess it’ll show up as criminal record when I apply for a job.”
Cormican confirms that this isn’t unusual.
“Sometimes the police will even tell people up front don’t fight it. Don’t get a lawyer. Just go talk to city prosecutor. Don’t bother fighting it,” he said. “A lot of people elect to do that because it’s an embarrassing thing. The police really do push them that way. And I think a lot of it is because the police really don’t want people to stand up and fight these things. There are defenses there. What they’re doing is probably illegal.”
While no one from the PBSO would speak with SFGN, Tony Plakas, Executive Director of Compass, the gay and lesbian center of Palm Beach County, did come to Bradshaw’s defense and said he doesn’t believe there to be any widespread homophobia in the ranks of PBSO. He went on to say Bradshaw has been an ally of the LGBT community and praised the sheriff’s outreach efforts to the community.
In another case Jim Walker, (not his real name), hired an attorney who recommended taking it to trial and said it would most likely be thrown out, but he instead decided to settle without a trial and plead no contest.
“I should have gone to court. The attorney recommended it,” he said regretfully. “It would have been dropped. But I was afraid I would know someone there. I’m married with four kids. I sat in my car and cried for an hour. I was scared to death.”
And at 78 years old he has no plans on coming out of the closet.
“I can’t. My wife, it would be the end of her,” he said. “At this point too many people would be hurt.