The FBI Operation Centered on Drugs and Stolen Property. Three Other Orange County Deputies were Suspended
As he walked into a staff meeting Friday, an Orange County sheriff's captain was arrested by the FBI and charged in a complicated cocaine and stolen-property sting.
The arrest of Capt. Victor Thomas, 40, was immediately followed by the suspension with pay of three other members of the department -- Capt. Clarence Cain, Lt. Nels Pate and Deputy Reuben Williams.
Sheriff's Chief Steve Jones said it is not clear whether the trio's actions were related to Thomas' arrest. But Jones said more arrests of deputies are likely.
"It's definitely not over," Jones said. "Personally, I'm sick. It makes me mad that any deputy sheriff commits this crime."
On Thursday, FBI agents secretly watched as Thomas, an 18-year veteran, drove 40 pounds of powder he thought was cocaine from Miami to Orlando. But it was fake, wrapped in cellophane by agents to look like the real thing.
Agents said that during the undercover sting Thomas also moved clothing, watches, sunglasses, purses, computer software and pens in exchange for money and cars.
In addition, an informant told agents he gave Thomas cars at a drastically reduced rate in exchange for protecting his illegal car business and helping him when he had trouble with the law.
LIFE SENTENCE POSSIBLE
Thomas, who like suspended deputy Pate had worked security for the Orlando Magic, was charged with trafficking in counterfeit merchandise and attempting to possess with intent to distribute cocaine hydrochloride. Assistant U.S. Attorney Cynthia Collazo said additional charges are expected. If convicted, Thomas faces between 10 years and life in prison.
As he left the Sheriff's Office, dressed in navy blue slacks and a short-sleeved blue and white shirt, Thomas shook his head to indicate no when reporters asked if he were guilty of the charges.
Thomas, who lives in Ocoee, appeared at Friday's hearing in federal court in Orlando shackled at the wrists and ankles.
U.S. Magistrate James Glazebrook ordered him held without bail pending a hearing Tuesday. Thomas' attorney Mark NeJame asked the U.S. Marshal Service to place Thomas in protective custody because he is a law officer. Thomas was put on unpaid suspension by the Sheriff's Office.
"This is just very sad," NeJame said. "Victor has enjoyed the best of reputations. We simply have to look at the facts and look at the case and hope and pray for the best."
Agents were alerted to Thomas' alleged criminal activity in September after the arrest of Haitham Farah, 36, of Orlando, court records show.
Farah, an owner of Quick Auto Sales, later pleaded guilty to cocaine charges.
He told agents that he sold Thomas two cars, a 1969 Pontiac GTO and a 1989 GMC Sonoma, at reduced prices in exchange for protection.
gents believe Thomas may have been working with Farah since 1994.
Beginning in October, federal agents arranged an elaborate undercover operation using a former member of Farah's organization. The informant's name was not released.
A federal task force, including FBI Agent Steve Thomas, U.S. Customs Agent Ronald Curry, Florida Highway Patrol Lt. John Dodson and Orange County sheriff's Cpl. Gerald Neely and Deputy Sheriff Ralph Miller, worked on the case.
Only a few officials at the Sheriff's Office knew about the investigation until Friday, Jones said.
CONVERSATIONS WERE TAPED
Authorities secretly taped telephone conversations between the informant and Thomas, took photographs and trailed the men. During the next three months, the informant came to Thomas with thousands of dollars of supposedly counterfeit goods. Federal agents provided the items for the operation.
Court records show Thomas asked for a Chevrolet Suburban as payment for moving the items between Miami and Orlando. FBI agents Friday were searching the 1998 brown Suburban and the sheriff's cars assigned to Thomas and the other three officers.
During some meetings, agents said Thomas wore his sheriff's uniform, drove his patrol car, showed the informant his Sheriff's Office computer and told the informant various methods for avoiding police detection. On Friday, the FBI sealed Thomas' squad car with crime-scene tape.
Court records show the informant paid Thomas $700 and gave him a mobile telephone and two Rolex watches. During one trip, agents said they recorded Thomas threatening to kill the informant's family if anything went wrong. Thomas said he was concerned about FBI sting operations.
In early February, the informant asked Thomas if he would be willing to take a shipment of Ecstasy and cocaine from Miami to Orlando, according to court records. The informant promised Thomas $1,000 per kilogram for each load he transported and said there would be 18 kilograms, or 40 pounds, in the first load.
Agents signed their criminal complaint on Tuesday, two days before Thomas allegedly drove the shipment of fake cocaine to Orlando. The fake drug, called sham, is bricks of a powder made to look, feel and smell like the narcotic.
Deputies described Thomas as intelligent and an active member in the community. The Chattahoochee native received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Central Florida. He also held a master's degree and was working on his doctorate, Jones said.
HISTORY OF PROBLEMS
But Thomas also had been in trouble before. Discipline records show Thomas was the subject of several internal investigations, including one last summer in which he received a 120-hour unpaid suspension for interfering with a Winter Park police DUI arrest.
Sheriff Kevin Beary was unavailable for comment Friday because his father, former Winter Park police Chief Ray Beary, was undergoing quintuple heart-bypass surgery in Cleveland. Jones said the sheriff was "angry and disheartened."