WINDERMERE — Best known by locals for writing speeding tickets, Windermere police seldom drew notice beyond town borders. That is, until Tiger Woods crashed his SUV in a nearby gated community where members of the department worked as bodyguards for the golfer's family.
The glare of the ensuing international media attention exposed Woods' secret life — and shined unprecedented attention on a tiny agency that patrols the richest town in Central Florida.
Orlando Sentinel research shows the 24-member department has little expertise investigating serious crimes. And nearly half the officers, including Chief Daniel Saylor, took jobs in Windermere after resigning from other agencies while under investigation.
Several current and former officers have a history of legal troubles: drug abuse, domestic violence, lying and assault, according to court and police records reviewed in six counties by the Orlando Sentinel.
Two of those officers are bodyguards whom Woods trusted with the safety of his wife, Elin Nordegren, and their two children.
And one responded to Woods' one-car accident Nov. 27.
Early that morning, two Windermere officers left their own beat to reach the crash scene first. A day later, the department later broke protocol by revealing details of what happened. International attention followed, plus the ire of law-enforcement officials for undermining the crash investigation.
Saylor defended his department's intervention, saying a life was at stake.
It was the first time in memory that Windermere police have found themselves under such scrutiny in a case so big.
"Furthermore, it should be noted that the City of Windermere, Florida has no jurisdiction in this investigation," an Orange County sheriff's advisory stated. "Information provided by the City of Windermere may, in fact, be counterproductive to the ongoing investigation into this incident."
Hiring cops who resign under investigation is an unwise risk, according to a nationally recognized expert on police liability.
"Some could be a good officer, but you're playing a long shot," said Geoffrey Alpert, chairman of the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of South Carolina. "A short-sighted chief might do it to save money on training … but a long-sighted chief would say, ‘I wouldn't touch this guy with a 10-foot pole.' ''
Longtime Town Manager Cecilia Bernier, who hired Saylor, said she was aware of the history and records of Saylor and his officers. Though she declined to discuss specifics, Bernier expressed confidence in Saylor and his department.
"They are the best officers for this town, and I stand by the police department and the officers because they are the best department in Orange County," she said.
Mayor Gary Bruhn said he was unaware of the officers' histories but planned to discuss the matter with Bernier. The Town Council can hire and fire the manager, but members are not authorized to interfere in day-to-day business.
"Ultimately, it's the council's decision where they go with this," Bruhn said.
Saylor makes no apologies for the makeup of his department or the histories of his officers.
"I do believe cops deserve a second chance as long as FDLE [Florida Department of Law Enforcement] says they're Florida-certified," he said.
Saylor said his own past makes him more willing to hire cops other agencies might pass on.
Since 2002, Saylor has given more than 20 cops with disciplinary records a chance to rehabilitate their careers. Officers must volunteer 20 hours a month for a year to be eligible to become full-time Windermere officers.
Nine officers failed to meet his expectations and left Windermere. There were so many exits that he said he eventually installed an electronic security system so he wouldn't have to keep changing the locks.
Saylor points to his successes. They include at least seven officers now working for the Orange County Sheriff's Office or other larger agencies.
Among those still working in Windermere:
• Brandon McDonnell is a former paramedic permanently stripped of his state Health Department credentials in 2008 for testing positive for marijuana after his ambulance struck another ambulance outside a Volusia County hospital, records show. Never charged criminally, he became a Windermere cop after Saylor said an Orange County sheriff's supervisor asked him to give McDonnell a chance. He was the first rescuer to reach Woods after the Nov. 27 crash.
• Part-time Officer Timothy N. Cash, who regularly guards Woods' family. He resigned from the Orange County Sheriff's Office while facing termination for two incidents, including getting drunk and dragging an ex-girlfriend by her hair out of Rachel's, an adult-entertainment club in south Orlando, records show.
A sheriff's investigation concluded Cash committed a battery along with unbecoming conduct, poor moral conduct and excessive off-duty use of alcohol. He was not charged criminally because the woman refused to prosecute. Cash told the Sentinel the contents of the internal investigation were not correct and said he later married the woman.
"So, obviously, we didn't have any issues," he said.
The couple is now divorced.
Cash, who operates a private security business, accompanied Nordegren on a January outing in Windermere, photos show. According to published photographs and video, he also guarded the children at a SeaWorld Orlando show and accompanied Nordegren in Miami in April.
Windermere policy prohibits its full-time police officers from working off-duty security details and "all other jobs that require law enforcement expertise," but Saylor said he does not have the authority to curtail Cash's work because he's a part-time employee.
• Part-time Officer John C. Hein is the other member of the Woods security detail. Hein claimed on his police application to be a former member of U.S. Special Forces, but military records contradict him.
"According to academic records … Mr. Hein attended Special Forces training in 1984 and despite several attempts was not selected to earn the Green Beret," wrote Maj. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the center at Fort Bragg, N.C., in an e-mail.
Hein is a private investigator who works part-time for Windermere as a firearms instructor and patrol officer.
Hired in 2002, Hein previously had been arrested on a domestic-violence charge that was dropped in court, according to Seminole County records.
In 2004, he was accused of sexually abusing an intoxicated woman after following her home at 2 a.m. from a bar, Casselberry police said. The investigation was dropped, records show.
An internal-affairs investigation cleared Hein's off-duty behavior. He could not be reached for comment.
• Officer Kristie Fink was stopped in February by Winter Springs police and admitted drinking and driving while at the wheel of a Windermere police car. A recently hired part-timer, she passed a field sobriety test, records show.
She is suspended until the completion of an internal-affairs investigation about driving the police car after drinking.
"As chief, I never had to do a criminal investigation [of any officer]," Saylor told the Sentinel. "None of my guys ever got into trouble, thank God. We're just a sleepy little town."
Other current Windermere officers with checkered pasts include Gregory Fields, Gene Powell, Sgt. Arthur Mueller and Jason Darnell, paperwork shows. Two more who resigned in the past under threat of termination left Windermere in recent months.
Fields was terminated by the Orange County Sheriff's Office for falsifying overtime payroll records, documents show. In 2008, Fields appealed to then-Sheriff Kevin Beary, who declined to overturn or reclassify his termination, records show.
Fields could not be reached.
Powell resigned from the Lake County Sheriff's Office after being charged with writing bad checks worth $3,214. The criminal case against him was dismissed, court records show. He could not be reached.
Mueller was convicted of domestic battery in 1998 before he became a law-enforcement officer. Adjudication on the charge was withheld, court records show. He could not be reached.
Darnell, a former Altamonte Springs officer, resigned after mistakenly holding a crime victim at gunpoint while off-duty in Lake County, records show. He could not be reached.
Windermere, a tight grid of tree-lined streets tucked between the exclusive Isleworth community where Tiger Woods and other celebrities live and the Butler Chain of Lakes, boasts the lowest crime rate in the county. The hamlet of 1.1 square miles has 2,900 residents and two closely monitored main roads in and out of town.
Violent crime is virtually nonexistent: The most serious crimes reported in 2009 were one aggravated assault and one burglary, Florida Department of Law Enforcement data show.
A decade ago when the U.S. census last recorded it, Windermere's median family income was the highest in Central Florida, nearly $106,000.
Yet FDLE records show Windermere's officers earn the county's lowest annual starting wage: $33,500. Windermere leaders say the town's generous benefit package supplements the salary.
Local residents and business owners praise a police force that is vigilant about writing tickets to drivers who exceed the speed limit. Officers, they say, keep tabs on local businesses. They respond within moments of receiving a call.
"You feel very safe here," said Alice Marshall, a resident since 1954 who owns Finders Keepers antique store on Main Street.
The man charged with keeping residents safe, Saylor, said he has matured since his early days when "go-getter" qualities that won him awards for bravery got him in trouble with superiors. He pointed out that he attended the FBI National Academy, an honor for police chiefs and supervisors.
His record is not unmarred, however.
Saylor resigned from the Melbourne Police Department in the 1990s after years of repeated discipline, records show. Threatened with termination at least three times, his punishments included 160 hours of suspension without pay for conduct unbecoming a police officer and lying to superiors, records state.
Nonetheless, Saylor said, former Melbourne police Chief Keith Chandler considered him an outstanding officer who should never have left the department.
"During this rating period, Officer Saylor has been counseled or disciplined 10 different times," a 1994 evaluation stated. "He received a twenty-hour suspension for lying to his supervisor. Then, to compound the problem, he asked another officer to lie to cover up the first lie. . . . He tends to argue and give excuses for his behavior."
Chandler, now retired, remembered Saylor differently.
"Was he a bad police officer? No. Was he one of my best? No," Chandler said. "He was a bright young man who did brand-new-cop dumb things. He was on the edge, quite honestly, when I was there."
Three weeks before Saylor resigned from Melbourne in May 1996, records show, Orlando police stopped him for what an officer said was picking up a prostitute on North Parramore Avenue. He was not arrested.
After passing a sobriety test, Saylor, then 29, first claimed he thought the woman was a hitchhiker. He then admitted he picked her up to have sex, an incident report states.
Orlando police did not investigate but turned the case over to Melbourne.
Saylor resigned May 23, 1996, records show. Five days later, Melbourne police concluded their investigation of Saylor by ruling there was not enough evidence to find that he solicited a prostitute but faulted him for engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer, FDLE records show.
Contrary to the records, Saylor said, "I never resigned under investigation."
Saylor — who won the Silver Star for Bravery and a place in the Police Hall of Fame for his work in Melbourne — attributed his troubles to a vendetta by the head of internal investigations.
In an interview, Saylor called the police report "full of lies" and said he flagged down the Orlando officer's car after first stopping to help a woman in distress while on an early-morning errand to pick up breakfast.
"I'm telling you it's a fabrication," he said. "If this was true, I wouldn't be a cop right now."
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