By Dan Moffett
Former police Lt. Steven Wohlfiel will ask Ocean Ridge commissioners to reconsider his firing at a special meeting at 3 p.m. Feb. 6 in the Town Hall chambers.
The commission voted unanimously to fire Wohlfiel last month after receiving the results of an internal review that looked into his role in an alleged shooting incident in October at the home of former Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella.
Police Chief Hal Hutchins, who oversaw the two-month investigation, recommended the lieutenant’s dismissal in the 250-page report, and Town Manager Jamie Titcomb agreed.
“As you know, Police Officers are charged with upholding the law and need to exhibit conduct above reproach, they are held to a higher standard,” Titcomb told Wohlfiel in a termination letter. “I don’t feel the standard we expect for our Police Officers has been met by you in this case.”
Hutchins said he found “numerous violations of agency policy” in investigating the incident.
The chief said he called in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the possibility of pursuing criminal charges against Wohlfiel — who was not arrested and is not charged — for discharging a firearm in a residential area. But Hutchins said he decided against it after consulting with the FDLE and county prosecutors.
Among the key assertions in the report:
• Grit Ritz, a business associate of Lucibella, and Barbara Ceuleers, Lucibella’s business partner who has listed his address as her residence in public records, told investigators Wohlfiel, who was off-duty, admitted using his personal handgun to fire the shots that touched off the disturbance. “Mr. Wohlfiel started saying that everything was his fault because he shot the pistol and the police officer on duty mishandled the situation,” Ritz said, describing a conversation with Wohlfiel after the arrest. Ceuleers, who was in the house when police came, told investigators Wohlfiel “admitted he was the one who fired the Glock.”
• While officers at the scene said Wohlfiel did not actively interfere with Lucibella’s arrest, he did argue against it and did little to defuse the situation. Officer Nubia Plesnik told investigators that when she mentioned taking the vice mayor to jail, Wohlfiel said, “Nobody’s going to jail. There are no charges here.” Officer Richard Ermeri said: “Wohlfiel did briefly interfere with my investigation when he told Ceuleers ‘don’t say nothing.’”
• Wohlfiel declined to give an interview to investigators, saying through his attorney that he is “exercising his constitutional right to remain silent.”
• The conduct of the three on-duty officers who responded to the scene was appropriate, Hutchins and Titcomb concluded.
Wohlfiel’s attorney, Ralph King of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, has complained to the town that the report produced no hard evidence that his client fired the shots and that the accounts of Ceuleers and Ritz aren’t credible. King says it’s Lucibella who faces the battery and weapons charges, not Wohlfiel.
“Clearly there is circumstantial evidence to suggest the weapon was fired but there is no evidence in the record as to who fired the weapon and where any potential witnesses were during that time,” King has told the town. “The witnesses Ceuleers and Ritz are inherently biased witnesses based on their individual relationships with Mr. Lucibella.”
Lucibella resigned Dec. 7 after the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office charged him with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting an officer with violence, both felonies, stemming from his arrest Oct. 22 at his oceanfront home. Lucibella, Ermeri and Plesnik have all complained of injuries from a scuffle during the arrest.
Lucibella, 63, has pleaded not guilty to three charges, including a misdemeanor of firing a weapon while intoxicated. His attorney, Marc Shiner, accuses police of overreacting and has called for the resignation of Ermeri.
Wohlfiel, 48, rose through the ranks to supervising lieutenant during a decade of work in Ocean Ridge, serving for a time as the department’s union representative.
Commissioners voted 4-0 in January to accept Titcomb’s recommendation to fire Wohlfiel but have the authority to change their decision at the February meeting.
According to police reports, officers responding to neighbors’ complaints about gunfire that Saturday night say they found Lucibella and Wohlfiel “obviously intoxicated” on the patio. Officers say they took a .40-caliber Glock handgun from Lucibella and found five spent shell casings in the backyard. Police also confiscated a semiautomatic pistol they said Lucibella had in his back pocket.
Both Lucibella and Wohlfiel told police they knew nothing about gunshots. Neither man was tested for gunpowder residue or blood-alcohol content, Hutchins said. Police say Lucibella “grew belligerent” and fought them as they tried to keep him from going inside his house. The officers said that when they entered Lucibella’s back yard, Wohlfiel used an expletive in telling them to leave.
The situation turned physical when police tried to prevent Lucibella from re-entering his home. Officers said they knew Lucibella, who publishes S.W.A.T. magazine in Boynton Beach, was a gun collector who likely had more weapons inside.
Lt. Richard Jones, the lead investigator in the internal review, said one of the arresting officers, Plesnik, told him that Lucibella “was so agitated and wanted to fight” police, but Wohlfiel did little to calm him: “This whole incident took place in front of Wohlfiel and he never even got up or nothing.”
Sgt. Bill Hallahan, who also responded to the scene and recently retired from the department, praised Ermeri and Plesnik in a statement to investigators. “Even while Lucibella was being belligerent and attempting to get Officer Ermeri upset,” Hallahan said, “both officers continued to keep their composure and professionalism.”