Terror in blue

This is the inside story of how Jacksonville police officer Karl Waldon and a band of thugs terrorized, stole and killed for money -- and how they were brought to justice



By Jim Schoettler/Times-Union staff writer
Illustrations by Garrick Gibson


The terror spree exploded from behind black ninja masks and shiny police vests.

Attackers went crashing into a woman's home seeking drugs and money, leaving her handcuffed and blinded by pepper spray.

Hours later, they kidnapped and robbed a motorist, his eyes left burning from the same chemical as they whisked him away.

The assaults were Kenny McLaughlin's first under the spell of Jacksonville cop Karl Waldon, who was supposed to mentor the crack addict.

The seasoned investigators and a corruption-busting prosecutor listened intently as McLaughlin detailed crimes they'd been piecing together for nine months. They let the soft-spoken, lawyerless McLaughlin lead the way.

He saved the worst for last.

On the fourth day of interviews, the team thanked McLaughlin and prepared to leave the office. Detective Richard Trew began to stand when McLaughlin put his hand on the left leg of Trew's jeans.

"I have one more thing I need to tell you," McLaughlin said, his eyes tearing.

"Are you OK?" Trew asked.

It had been two years since a man hunting for cans found Sami Safar's body. McLaughlin could no longer live with the memories of murder and madness from that Independence Day weekend of 1998.

He'd flash back to hearing Safar beg for his life. He'd see the rope around Safar's neck. He'd feel Safar's body pressed against his during the hysterical ride in Waldon's police car.

McLaughlin could still picture the thicket where he dumped the stranger. He could still feel Safar's money in his hands.

And he had to talk.

The slaying is part of a story those involved hoped would disappear, like Safar's footprint, scrubbed from the police car door he tried to kick open to freedom.

It is a story nearly erased by inept police work, a code of silence among cops and a suspected Sheriff's Office cover-up that remains unsolved.

It is a story about thieves in uniform, the thugs they recruited and the belief by all that they were invincible.

But the roots were too deep and too many people knew. And a small band of good guys, armed with a heap of suspicion and kick-started by a few damning words on a wiretap, never gave up.

Cash and drugs

Officer Jason Pough hit the blue lights to stop Claude Wright's Volkswagen bug on April 23, 1996. The street-wise cop nailed Wright after spotting him drinking a beer. Pough knew Wright as a drug dealer and hoped his catch would be bigger than just the open Miller.

Officer Aric Sinclair was patrolling nearby when he heard Pough's radio call of the stop. Sinclair drove by to help.

Pough found $1,200, cocaine and marijuana.

"Cut him a hus," Sinclair said, using street slang for giving someone a break.

"It's your lucky day," Pough told Wright, letting him go with only a traffic ticket.

The cops split the cash. Sinclair took the drugs to sell.

Similar scenarios happened repeatedly over the next three years. Pough, Sinclair and Waldon, in various combinations, accosted people where they stood, rifled through stopped cars and crashed into homes. A favorite spot for Waldon was the Greyhound bus station, where he stole thousands of dollars and drugs while working off duty.

Most victims were drug dealers, robbed of their cocaine and money, though businessmen were later targeted for bigger hits. The cops would split the cash and the profits from the dope. The trio figured their targets wouldn't squeal or be believed if they did.

The spree was driven by greed, fueled by power and arrogance. The cops spent their money for cruises, clothes, cars, fancy wheel rims, home improvements and night club parties. Waldon, married with two children, needed even more money to pay child support and take care of girlfriends.

The cops' supervisors and most peers, trained to sniff out liars and thugs, were clueless.

Complaints filed

Sinclair began peddling drugs before he became a cop in 1993. Pough cut his teeth with Sinclair on the beat before they joined the narcotics unit in 1997, where they bonded with Waldon. Most of Waldon's crimes have been traced to 1998, during and after he was in narcotics.

Part of their cover came from their reputations as hard-working cops with a sparkling record of arrests.

Waldon was a spit-shined, adrenaline buff who enjoyed SWAT calls as much as drug sweeps. He wanted to be sheriff one day.

Sinclair, a hulking former high school and college basketball star, was so aggressive with drug dealers on patrol that narcotics supervisors eagerly recruited him for undercover work. What they didn't know: Sinclair once boasted to a drug dealer that he was a thug with a badge.

Pough was disliked by many peers for his cockiness, but he had support from Joe Henry, a high-ranking black police official who served as a confidant to young black cops. Narcotics supervisors didn't want Pough, but Henry pushed for Pough and other blacks to join the unit to fill a void he saw in fighting the drug war.

A series of complaints against the trio were dismissed because their peers found no proof and had no reason to doubt their own.

In 1996, Steven Fisher complained to police officials that Sinclair threatened him after Fisher questioned officers detaining his son, a suspected drug dealer. Sinclair charged Fisher with resisting arrest, though his son was let go.

"I've got your big ass now," Fisher said an angry Sinclair told him in a police car.

Sinclair promised to plant drugs on Fisher if he caused more trouble.

"These crackers will take my word before they take your word," Sinclair said.

Fisher pleaded no contest to the resisting charge, his first arrest. The internal affairs complaint was dismissed.

The same year, a man accused Pough of stealing $1,000 from his pocket during a shakedown outside a nightclub. The claim was dismissed.

Two years later, a judge found Waldon and Pough lied to make a drug arrest -- in which they stole $3,000 -- and threw out their testimony. But no one spread the word outside the courtroom.

The band became bolder in 1998.

On May 15, Sinclair helped in a robbery outside the SouthTrust bank where he worked off-duty. Hussam Tahhan, Sami Safar's nephew, had just left the bank with $50,000 for Safar's businesses. A drug dealer working for Sinclair robbed Tahhan and split the money with his brother and the cop. The drug dealer, Jeff Reed, later turned up slain in what remains an unsolved case.

On June 19, Waldon and McLaughlin forced their way into Arnetha Culp's Arlington home in an attempted robbery. The men, wearing masks and vests marked POLICE, found nothing. A few hours later, Pough joined the pair to kidnap and rob Bernard Stewart of $512 after Waldon stopped his van.

Culp and Stewart implicated the police but couldn't identify their attackers. No ties were made by investigators. Only a few officers were suspicious.

And then came Friday, July 3.

Safar slain

Karl Waldon twisted the black nylon rope around Sami Safar's neck and yanked tight.

The arteries and veins pumping blood through Safar's brain were squeezed so hard that he blacked out in about eight seconds, losing memories of a routine day that turned horrible.

One second, two seconds ...

Safar stopped that morning at one of his three convenience stores and then the bank. Safar walked into the SouthTrust on West 44th Street at 9:36 a.m. He left 19 minutes later with $51,000 to cash payroll checks.

James Swift Jr. strolled from a nearby Eckerd carrying chips and water.

"Get back here," McLaughlin beckoned. "He's coming out."

Swift hopped in the driver's seat of the blue Nissan Maxima. McLaughlin talked to Waldon by cell phone.

"He's leaving," Waldon was told.

Three seconds, four seconds ...

Car 1041 stopped Safar a few blocks away. Waldon planned to drive Safar off under a ruse that he was being arrested on a warrant. McLaughlin and Swift, Waldon's brother-in-law, would then swoop in and steal the money from Safar's abandoned vehicle.

But the plan went terribly wrong.

Safar gave Waldon his driver's license and ended up in the back of Waldon's car. Safar, convinced police robbed his nephew, told Waldon he wanted his money.

The startled cop retrieved the bag of money, put it with Safar and drove off. Moments later, a panicked Waldon called McLaughlin on the cell phone.

"He's seen my face. I've got to take him out."

Five seconds, six seconds ...

Waldon drove to an abandoned business off the Haines Street Expressway, followed by Swift and McLaughlin. They got out and began screaming at each other.

Safar's dark brown eyes filled with fear as he looked out the back window. Now handcuffed, he writhed and kicked, but couldn't escape.

"I've got to get rid of this guy," Waldon said.

"This is not how it was supposed to have went down, man," McLaughlin said. "This man is not supposed to die."

They drove a half-mile to the empty parking lot of R.L. Brown Elementary School.

"Get out of the car," Waldon yelled at his two accomplices.

"Please don't kill me," Safar begged as Waldon opened the right rear passenger door. Safar tried to run, but Waldon pushed him back, pinned him down and slung the rope around his neck.

Seven seconds, eight seconds ...

Swift froze watching Waldon choke Safar. McLaughlin saw an unconscious Safar slump over, squeezed between the back seat and cage, unable to breathe.

"Get in the back," Waldon barked to McLaughlin as the cop walked to the front seat. "Choke him out."

McLaughlin grabbed the rope, but heard Safar's last breath and let go. His eyes met Waldon's in the rear view mirror.

"The man is dead," McLaughlin said.

They drove to a dead end road, put the body in Swift's car and McLaughlin drove off with Safar. McLaughlin ripped Safar's shirt off as he dragged him into a thicket seven miles away. He feared leaving behind fingerprints on the shirt.

Swift moved Safar's car from where it had been stopped. Waldon returned to the school parking lot to pick up Safar's driver's license, which he'd dropped. And McLaughlin, after dumping the body, took some of the money he'd grabbed while in the police car and made a car payment on his wife's vehicle.

Later that day, the men met in Swift's apartment, split the take and vowed to stay silent. But they were scared.

Suspicions rise

"The police did it."

That's what Serri Safar told homicide detectives as they stood in his living room on July 4, 1998. Nearly 18 months would pass before anyone would believe him.

Sami Safar left Syria for the United States in 1986 hoping for a better life. By most accounts, he was a successful businessman and a loyal friend. He gave needy kids toys at Christmas. He extended his customers credit, like a biker who couldn't get a break elsewhere.

He'd also been involved in some trouble. In the late 1980s, Safar was arrested on a stolen property charge. And a friend told homicide investigators that in the mid 1990s, Safar imported an over-the-counter drug used in manufacturing methamphetamine.

Sami Safar, 33, 5 feet 8, 200 pounds. Found face down, wearing tan shorts and ankle high white socks. His shirt and shoes were gone.

Drag marks creased his stomach. His skin had been pricked by burrs and bitten by fire ants. There were no gunshots, knife wounds or ligature marks. An autopsy could not tell how Safar was killed.

Serri Safar found his brother's vehicle near the bank the same morning. He asked a detective whether his brother's driver's license was missing from his wallet, which was in the center console. If so, the police were possibly involved, Safar said.

After their nephew was robbed in May, the Safars agreed to lock their car doors and not stop until they delivered their weekly bank withdrawals. Serri Safar thought the only person his brother would stop for would be a cop, who would ask for his driver's license.

He guessed right. The license was gone.

But Safar's suspicion about the license got only a brief mention in a homicide report. The allegation that he made more directly that night, that the police killed his brother, didn't warrant a word. Instead, police speculated that Sami Safar's possible drug connections may have factored into his death.

Sinclair feared the detectives would link the robberies to him because he worked off-duty at the bank both days, but they didn't ask. Suspicious bank officials fired Sinclair, but the fellow cop who scheduled Sinclair's off-duty job told no one.

The detectives weren't told Sinclair had given Waldon information about Safar; that Waldon confessed to Sinclair a few hours after the slaying; and that Sinclair and Pough talked about Waldon's involvement. They also didn't know that Waldon confessed to Officer Reggie Bones, his best friend, who acted as a lookout at an earlier setup of Safar.

But the code of silence would eventually crack.

Inmate talks

Aric Sinclair's partner was the first to sense trouble.

In January 1999, a drug dealer nicknamed Shorty Red told detective Dave Bisplinghoff and Sinclair that he'd been offered a bribe not to testify against Derrick "Smiley" Smith, a violent ex-con charged with attempted murder. The two cops made arrangements for Shorty Red to take the bribe while wearing a hidden microphone.

The following morning, an informant told Bisplinghoff that Shorty Red would be killed if he tried to collect. The setup was called off. Bisplinghoff was told Sinclair was the leak, which he didn't want to believe. Not the friend he used to take to Jaguars games. Not the partner with whom he trusted his life.

Sinclair denied any wrongdoing and police supervisors couldn't prove anything, though one thought it strange when he saw Sinclair checking the Yellow Pages for defense attorneys. Some cops were suspicious, including Bisplinghoff, who requested and got a transfer away from Sinclair.

Two months later, a jail inmate told another detective that Sinclair was involved in robbing Safar's nephew. The inmate was there when the accomplices split the money.

The inmate also recalls discussing what he thought was a connection between Sinclair and Safar's slaying. The lead detective, Michael Duckworth, told his supervisors and other detectives.

Duckworth and his partner, Phil Kearney, said Duckworth was told to curtail his efforts. Kearney said the supervisors suggested more resources were needed, possibly from another agency. Kearney blames supervisors and administrators for dragging their feet and making Duckworth a scapegoat.

Supervisors deny that they did anything to stymie the case and blame Duckworth for not making progress. Those supervisors won't say why they would expect a homicide detective to take charge of such serious allegations without keeping track themselves.

State prosecutors also showed little interest. One dropped out of the investigation because she felt she was too close to Sinclair. Another said she relied on police to keep her updated and did little else.

Another problem: The inmate's polygraph, which he passed, was stolen from the Sheriff's Office. The theft is part of a suspected cover-up designed to protect at least one of the embattled officers. It remains unsolved.

Eleven months passed before Sinclair was stripped of his police duties. It would be much longer before the slaying of Sami Safar and robbery of his nephew were solved.

'Blue uniforms'

In the spring of 1999, detectives Trew and Bisplinghoff began investigating Derrick Smith and another drug dealer, Abdul Robinson, hoping to shut down their cocaine sales ring. In wiretaps, the detectives heard the men using codes to mask details of their deals.

The detectives suspected a leak from within. During an Aug. 11 phone call between Robinson and a jail inmate, Robinson said he knew his phone was being tapped.

"They say the blue uniforms been telling that," Robinson told the inmate.

The blue uniforms. Robinson's source of information.

Robinson and Smith were busted a few weeks later and told federal authorities about crimes involving Sinclair and his drug-selling friend, Daryl Crowden, including the robbery of Safar's nephew. They also confessed to paying Sinclair for tips about drug investigations and the identities of narcotics officers.

A troubled Sheriff Nat Glover stood outside the federal courthouse on Sept. 3, 1999.

"There has been a breach of confidence, I suspect, in my office and we are pursuing that," Glover said, refusing to name anyone.

High-ranking police officials under Glover actually knew of suspicions about Sinclair being a leak months before the drug dealers' arrests. Plans were discussed to do a drug sting on Sinclair, but it never occurred.

Glover said he recalls being briefed by narcotics supervisors of a possible leak before the arrests, and he said Sinclair's name came up. Glover even remembers a man in a post office giving him a cryptic message about a bad cop, whom the man didn't identify. Having heard Sinclair's name connected to corruption, Glover figured the cop was Sinclair. But he had no proof.

The sheriff ordered Sinclair off the street in August 1999 after Sinclair made bizarre threats to kill Bisplinghoff and other officers. About the same time Glover took credit for turning the corruption probe over to federal officials, though he was given no choice.

Glover assigned a handful of detectives to a task force investigating the corruption. Their knowledge of the inner workings of the Sheriff's Office proved invaluable. At least one also proved to be a traitor.

Waldon testifies

DEA agent Sheila Smith stared at Waldon in the police station. It was Feb. 15, 2000.

"What's this all about?" Waldon said as Smith handed him some papers.

"Karl, I think you know exactly what it's about," Smith said, walking away.

YOU ARE HEREBY COMMANDED to appear and testify before the Grand Jury of the United States District Court ...

Waldon knew. And then he blew it.

The task force had learned details of Waldon and Sinclair's crimes through Crowden, the drug dealer who worked with Sinclair. But Waldon guessed they knew little and answered the subpoena, testifying before the grand jury twice against his lawyer's advice.

On the first day, federal prosecutor Jim Klindt showed Waldon pictures that included Safar and his vehicle but didn't identify them. Waldon said he didn't recognize either photo. Klindt also asked Waldon about his relationship with Sinclair, and at one point Waldon said he knew Sinclair worked off-duty at a bank "where the guy supposedly was killed."

The next day, Klindt asked Waldon about the slaying.

"Was it a male or a female who was murdered?" Klindt asked.

"It was a male in the picture that you showed me," Waldon testified.

"Picture that I showed you?" Klindt asked.

"Yes, sir," Waldon said.

"Which picture was that?" said Klindt, handing the stack to Waldon.

"That's him. You said he was the victim," Waldon said.

"I told you yesterday that photograph 12 was the victim?" Klindt asked.

"Yes, sir."

Klindt and Waldon clashed in an obscenity-laced confrontation outside the grand jury. Klindt told Waldon he'd slipped.

"What do you mean?" Waldon said, sitting across from Klindt at a table.

"You identified the victim of the murder and his vehicle and said I told you when I didn't tell you," Klindt replied.

"You always believed me when I testified for you in other cases," Waldon said.

"That was before I knew you killed somebody" Klindt said.

"Prove it," Waldon demanded.

Klindt stood, leaned toward Waldon and pointed.

"If it takes me 20 years to prove it, I will. Every time you hear knocking at the door, it might just be us," Klindt said.

Waldon prematurely assumed McLaughlin was cooperating. A week later, Waldon drove McLaughlin to a park with plans to kill him. As Waldon reached for his gun, neighbors began gathering for a nearby cookout. Waldon drove McLaughlin away, later letting him go.

A few weeks later, Glover reassigned Waldon to desk duty without elaborating. That night, Waldon told Pough the investigators might find McLaughlin with his head cut off.

But McLaughlin would soon be safe in the investigators' hands.

And the walls began to crumble.

Paranoia sets in

Victim after victim was interviewed in the summer of 2000. Telephone records and other documents were filling filing cabinets. Pough began to cooperate in July. Bones flipped the next month.

Paranoia overwhelmed Waldon, who'd resigned from the police force. He didn't suspect Pough was talking, but sensed Bones had turned and Waldon talked of killing him. Waldon also worried about Swift, his brother-in-law, who had moved to Virginia.

In July, Waldon warned Swift investigators may interview him and urged him to keep quiet. Swift obliged and was ordered before the grand jury in August.

"They have no proof, no evidence against us. Stick to our guns ... and we'll beat it," Waldon told Swift, who complied.

As the case moved on, other obstacles would surface:


State Attorney Harry Shorstein publicly questioned the length of the federal probe and its impact on juries on the state level. Shorstein was locked in an ongoing personal feud with Klindt and became bitter that his choice for a conduit to the federal task force was rejected. Klindt did not counter publicly, but privately loathed Shorstein's interference.

Investigators were jolted when they learned Sinclair knew about specific surveillance on him, a detail that could only have come from an inside source. Several members of the task force were moved, though the leak was never identified.

Trew, Bisplinghoff and John Zipperer, who all remained on the task force, met with repeated resistance from peers who saw them as turncoats for investigating their own.
Meanwhile, Waldon moved his wife, Tammy, and their two children to Virginia to keep an eye on Swift.

"My hopes are that the indictments come and that this is taken to trial and that ... everything is just brought to light and everybody knows that this investigation was bogus from the beginning," Tammy Waldon told the Times-Union.

Pough and Bones were among those who testified before the grand jury in late September. In October, investigators were confident the process was nearing an end.

"If we were a steak, we'd be well done," Bisplinghoff said outside the grand jury room.

"Burned up," Zipperer replied.

On Dec. 12, 2000, the news was dominated by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that led to George W. Bush winning the presidential election.

That day, in another courthouse, a story erupted that may have drawn national attention if not for its competition.

The grand jury indicted Waldon in the slaying of Sami Safar and a series of other crimes. They named Sinclair, Swift and McLaughlin as co-conspirators, while Pough, Bones, and later Crowden, were charged separately.

The next day, police swooped into a BJ's Wholesale Club where Waldon worked as a stockman and whisked him away.

Waldon convicted

As a law enforcement officer, my fundamental duty is to serve mankind, to safeguard lives and property, to protect the innocent against deception, the weak against oppression or intimidation and the peaceful against violence or disorder.

Waldon took that oath. So did Bones, Pough and Sinclair.

But none of them protected Sami Safar or the other victims of three years of police-sponsored terror. And now a federal jury knew.

Three months ago, jurors listened as Sinclair and Pough nonchalantly detailed attacking people with and without Waldon, how they'd known about his plans to attack Safar and what they knew about the slaying. Bones recalled acting as a robbery lookout and how Waldon later told him about killing Safar.

McLaughlin and Swift gave chilling, sometimes conflicting accounts of the slaying. Serri Safar wept as he tried to testify. One of Waldon's former lovers gave him a thumbs up after she'd finished.

Jurors saw pictures of Safar's body, watched as McLaughlin demonstrated how Waldon twisted the rope, and took note as Klindt detailed phone records of that fateful day. Defense attorneys A. Russell Smith and Steve Potolsky scored occasionally in attempts to discredit witnesses, but their own scenarios for the crime spree became a stretch.

When it came time for the jury to deliberate, elementary school teacher Michael Duckworth was given little choice but to lead them.

"I say Mr. Duckworth will be the foreman," one woman said before the group could even sit.

"That's right," others said.

"I'll do it, but only if you'll help me," Duckworth said, no relation to detective Duckworth.

Exhibits sat stacked in front of the jurors as one woman filled a flip chart with dates, events and cell phone calls critical to solving Safar's slaying.

They were more confused on the drug-related charges in the 15-count indictment than the crimes of violence. There were a few moments of tension, but the jurors mostly got along.

Near the end of the fifth day, Duckworth told security officers they were nearly done. At 3:15 p.m., the judge had the lawyers called, but didn't tell them why. As they came into the courtroom, Smith and Klindt sat in the spectators' section, not expecting the day to end so abruptly.

And then, a knock from inside the jury room door. Verdict.

The jury stood before Judge Henry Lee Adams Jr. Duckworth felt a knot in his stomach as his heart pounded.

"Did we check the right boxes?" the foreman thought.

They had.

Guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, not guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty, guilty.

Jurors acquitted Waldon on a drug charge. Two counts carried a possible death sentence, another mandatory life and dozens of years for the rest. The witnesses added up. The phone records left no doubt. Karl Waldon, 39, was a kidnapper, a robber, a killer.

Waldon turned to his family. His mother mouthed the words "I love you." His father walked away in silence.

Sentencing ahead

Russell Smith guessed the end had to be near in the penalty phase as deliberations entered the second day. His supply of 100 Atomic Fireballs, devoured by Waldon and others during the nine-day trial, was down to three.

There was little debate in the jury room. To apply the death penalty, the jury had to find unanimously that Waldon killed Safar for his money. Several felt Waldon never intended to kill Safar for the money but did so to eliminate him as a witness when the robbery went bad.

"He told me that Sami Safar refused to give up the money and so he had to choke him."

The jurors somehow dismissed that part of Aric Sinclair's trial testimony. Several did not intend to apply the death penalty no matter what.

"If we went to the next phase, I don't think I could have voted for the death penalty anyway," one juror told Duckworth.

"At that point, everybody realized it was over," the foreman said.

Over.

Six years after the crimes began. Four years after Safar's slaying. Two years after the arrests.

Safar's family bolted from the courtroom. Waldon's parents remained behind.

Breaking the tension, Adams left his bench and showed the attorneys a picture the jury had given him in a gift frame. It was a shot of the group smiling on the courthouse steps. They signed it "The Jury from Hell" -- a play off the judge's description of the lengthy jury selection process.

The attorneys laughed. Waldon stood stone-faced, his hands and legs shackled, preparing to return to his isolation cell.

Over for some. Not all.

Waldon will get a mandatory life sentence in court Jan. 27. In letters to relatives and friends, he's equated himself to the misunderstood, innocent biblical character Job. Before sentencing, he'll get a chance to be heard. An appeal will follow.

Most of the others will be sentenced Tuesday.

The Safars are suing the city.

Sheriff Glover is awaiting an internal review of what happened.

The detectives are working to ferret out other rogue colleagues.

Smith is back to his defense practice.

And Klindt has taken up his new job as second-in-command in the district's U.S. Attorney's Office. He's investigating other cops for corruption.

The fight goes on.


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