Former Police Lt. Steven Wohlfiel (l-r), Richard Lucibella and his girlfriend, Barbara Ceuleers, and his attorneys, Heidi Perlet and Marc Shiner, leave the courthouse after Lucibella’s sentencing hearing. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
Related Story: Current and former mayors, neighbors urged judicial leniency for Lucibella
By Steve Plunkett
Onetime Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella walked out of the Palm Beach County Courthouse after his trial with his bank account $675 lighter and with a dark cloud over his head gone.
The felony case against the Ocean Ridge resident, which lingered in the criminal justice system for 27 months, resolved itself Feb. 21 in comparatively short order:
• Prosecutors called five witnesses to testify; defense attorneys also called five.
• The jury, seated Jan. 28, a Monday, spent barely five hours — including lunch the following Friday — in reaching its verdict: not guilty of felony battery on a law enforcement officer or resisting arrest with violence, but guilty of misdemeanor battery.
• In a 10-minute sentencing hearing Feb. 21, Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Daliah Weiss upheld the verdict and ordered Lucibella to pay $675 in court fees and ordered no jail time.
“I am going to adjudicate you guilty of the misdemeanor battery. I’m going to impose standard fines and court costs,” Weiss said as the crowded courtroom erupted in applause.
Contacted days after the sentencing, Lucibella declined to say what he might do next and suggested asking The Palm Beach Post.
“I’ve learned that you guys [at The Coastal Star] have a story line that you stick to and the facts sometimes just get in the way. Until that changes, no comment,” he said.
At the sentencing, defense attorney Marc Shiner told the judge the “sticking point” of the case “has always been [possibly] paying out the money” to arresting Officer Nubia Plesnik, who is suing Lucibella in civil court, alleging he battered her during the Oct. 22, 2016, arrest.
“My client under no way, shape or form is ever going to pay her any money. That’s why we actually had the trial, to be honest with the court,” Shiner told Weiss.
The felony charges stemmed from a confrontation in Lucibella’s beachfront backyard. Police went to his home after getting calls to 911 about “shots fired.” Officers confiscated a .40-caliber handgun and found five spent shell casings on the patio.
An ensuing scuffle left Lucibella, then 63, handcuffed on the ground with fractured ribs and a cut over his eye. Plesnik and Officer Richard Ermeri both complained of aches and pain afterward and went to an urgent care clinic.
Assistant State Attorney Danielle Grundt and Chief Assistant State Attorney Craig Williams called to the witness stand Ocean Ridge resident Sherri Feinstein and David Castello, who was in town visiting his mother, to have them describe the gunfire they heard.
Ermeri, Plesnik and since-retired Sgt. William Hallahan, who also responded that night, told jurors how, in Ermeri’s words, Lucibella was “vulgar, argumentative, aggressive and belligerent” as they investigated. “He was definitely putting up a fight,” Ermeri said.
Ermeri testified that Lucibella poked him in the chest, “a forceful poke — like that,” he said, thumping his police body armor with a finger three or four times.
Shiner and co-defense counsel Heidi Perlet pointed out inconsistencies in the officers’ testimony, such as when Ermeri said the backyard gate was approximately 20 feet from Lucibella’s patio while in a pretrial deposition he said 45 feet.
Witnesses for the defense were Barbara Ceuleers, Lucibella’s longtime girlfriend; Ocean Ridge Mayor Steve Coz, who said Lucibella was not intoxicated about an hour before the altercation; a doctor who treated Ermeri that night; friend and then-Police Lt. Steven Wohlfiel, who was on the patio with Lucibella during the incident; and Lucibella himself.
Ceuleers and Lucibella both painted the officers as the aggressors.
“I was screaming at them to get off him, they were killing him,” Ceuleers testified.
Lucibella said before he was taken to the ground, he persisted in trying to get an alcoholic drink to regain some control over the escalating situation.
“In hindsight I think it was world-class stupid,” he testified.
Lucibella also said Ermeri taunted him after he’d been handcuffed, flexing his neck from side to side like a prizefighter in the ring.
Current and former Ocean Ridge mayors sent Weiss glowing letters of support on Lucibella’s behalf.
“I do not know if you are aware that after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Mr. Lucibella personally flew desperately needed supplies to the ravaged citizens of the island at his own cost,” Coz wrote. “Do not punish Mr. Lucibella further for what can only be described as a night of blunders, not crimes.”
Former Mayors Jim Bonfiglio, Geoff Pugh and Ken Kaleel also wrote the judge, urging her to be lenient, as did former Town Clerk Karen Hancsak, close Ocean Ridge neighbors, and bankers and doctors who know Lucibella from his work in the health care industry.
Prosecutor Grundt told Weiss that Lucibella “has never been in trouble before” and that probation would serve no purpose.
Lucibella and Shiner both said they were happy with the jury’s findings Feb. 1.
“I’m pleased with the verdict, very pleased,” Lucibella said. Shiner said Lucibella’s suing the town over his arrest has “been an option since day one.”
The misdemeanor battery could have resulted in up to a year in jail with a $1,000 fine. Each felony charge carried a potential sentence of five years in prison.
Originally Lucibella was also charged with firing a weapon while intoxicated, a misdemeanor. But prosecutors dropped that count on the trial’s first day, undercutting Lucibella’s planned defense that he was never given a blood-alcohol or firearms test.
Not having a felony conviction on his record allows Lucibella to get back his license for a federal firearms dealership and a concealed weapons permit; it also lets him run for public office again, Shiner said.