Winter Park undercover cop fired for dating stripper, lying about it
By Willoughmariano Orlando Sentinel
Posted: 9:22 a.m. Thursday, March 11, 2010
They met at a Winter Park strip joint.
Michelle Merry was a topless dancer. Luis Lopez, a regular, was a construction worker.
About 1 a.m. May 17, 2008, Lopez wished Merry "happy birthday" in a text message. They met up in downtown Orlando, ate pizza and held hands. He walked her to her door and they kissed, she testified.
Little did Merry know that Lopez was really Carlos Calderon, an undercover Winter Park police detective spearheading a narcotics investigation that would shut down the club three months later.
That kiss recently cost Calderon, 31, his job.
An internal police investigation found he lied when he denied having a romantic relationship with Merry, 38. Calderon is appealing the decision, and union representatives say the case against him is weak.
But attorneys also interviewed witnesses who said Calderon did more than kiss a stripper: He engaged in sexual fantasy role playing with Merry while he was attending police training; repeatedly bought drinks for an underage topless dancer; and spent about $4,200 on drinks and exotic dances to buy $275 worth of cocaine.
Those accusations put in limbo cases against a former Club Harem dancer, waitress and three customers. Club attorney Steve Mason, who filed a Sept. 29 complaint that led to Calderon's dismissal, said the violations are evidence Winter Park police failed to supervise its officer properly.
"Fundamentally, it's just a lack of oversight," Mason said.
A Winter Park police official would not comment, saying the department will not speak publicly until Calderon's appeal is resolved.
The internal investigation found Calderon engaged in improper conduct, conduct unbecoming an officer and failing to perform an official duty. He was fired Feb. 16.
"Unfortunately, your entire response to this investigation has been one of equivocation, evasiveness and untruthfulness, police Chief Brett Railey wrote to Calderon.
Union representative Jeff Candage argues that the department is firing Calderon based on information from defense attorneys who hope to discredit the officer to bolster their cases.
The agency never interviewed Merry independently — a major oversight, Candage said.
"The chief has a suspicion based largely on his ignorance of how things are done in a long-term undercover operation and is willing to ruin a good cop's career and reputation based on his suspicion," Candage said.
The Winter Park police could not find Merry, according to their investigative report.
The club reopened a year after the raid but closed again last week.
From January through August 2008, Calderon visited Club Harem once or twice a week. He bought dances and hit up employees for marijuana and cocaine, according to reports he filed.
Calderon bought dancers drinks in return for their attention. He tipped dancer Donnette "Sky" Melton, 25, and waitress Lena Fortunato, 23, extra for delivering drugs or connecting him with dealers, and often sent his $20 to $70 payments through them, he wrote.
They then handed the money to suspected dealers Brent "Big Country" Hattaway, Shawn "Disco" Dawson or Harry "Donovan" Byers. The goods would arrive hidden in cigarette or cigar boxes, Calderon wrote.
The former Club Harem employees — Melton and Fortunato — pleaded no contest to their drug charges. So did Hattaway, who is in state prison serving a yearlong sentence. Melton was sentenced to 200 days in jail. Fortunato is on probation.
Byers and Dawson are awaiting trial. The public defender's office, which represents Byers, declined comment. Dawson's attorney Mark Blechman is trying to get his charges dropped.
"I'm astonished that they (prosecutors) haven't yet," Blechman said.
Many of the recordings Calderon made were difficult to hear because of background noise, attorneys said, which means these cases rely on his testimony.
In light of Calderon's dismissal, his word isn't enough, said Ryan LaBar, Hattaway's attorney.
"Obviously, his (Calderon's) credibility is seriously weakened, if not destroyed," LaBar said.
Although Calderon wrote pages of reports, he never mentioned Merry. But cell phone records show he called her more than 100 times, police said. Calderon said the calls were related to the investigation, but his superiors said she was not an informant and did not sell drugs.
Calderon also denied he was ever in a vehicle with Merry, although a third-party witness saw them together and identified Calderon in a photographic lineup. Club employees said they would hang out outside the club.
Merry admitted to the explicit text messages.
"They were just pretty dirty," Merry said during a deposition in the Club Harem case. "(We were) talking about things that we would do to each other if we were together and saw each other. It's just pretty embarrassing."
While Calderon was at a police school in April 2008, she testified, he engaged in fantasy role playing through text messages and telephone calls in which she pretended to be a school teacher, according to Mason's complaint.
The underage dancer received 15 drinks from Calderon, according to a motion filed by Blechman. Calderon acknowledges in a May 2008 reports buying her one drink, but said he stopped once he realized she was 20.