By Dan Moffett
Accepting the recommendation of the police chief and the conclusions of an internal investigation, Ocean Ridge Town Manager Jamie Titcomb fired Lt. Steven Wohlfiel Jan. 4 over his involvement in an alleged shooting incident at the home of former Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella in October.
Police Chief Hal Hutchins, who oversaw the two-month probe, wrote a letter recommending Wohlfiel’s firing in releasing a 200-page report Tuesday. 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 said in a letter informing Wohlfiel of his firing. “I don’t feel the standard we expect for our Police Officers has been met by you in this case.”
Among the key assertions in the report:
* Grit Ritz, a business associate of Lucibella, and Barbara Ceuleers, a friend who was in the house during the incident, told investigators Wohlfiel admitted firing the shots with his personal handgun 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 of a conversation with Wohlfiel later that night after Lucibella’s arrest.
* While officers at the scene said Wohlfiel did not actively interfere with Lucibella’s arrest, he did argue against it and did little to calm him. Officer 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.”
* Wohlfiel has declined to give an interview to investigators, saying through his attorney that he is “exercising his constitutional right to remain silent.”
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 after consulting with the FDLE and county prosecutors, he won’t pursue charges.
Wohlfiel’s attorney, Ralph King of the Palm Beach County Police Benevolent Association, has complained to the town that the lieutenant has not had a fair chance to tell his version of events. King has asked for a hearing to contest Wohlfiel’s dismissal during the regularly scheduled Feb. 6 Town Commission meeting.
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. His firing takes effect Jan. 11, Titcomb said, and town commissioners have final authority to approve or reject the decision.
Commissioners are to consider replacing Lucibella at the town’s meeting on Jan. 9.
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.
According to police reports, officers responding to neighbors’ complaints about gunfire that Saturday night say they found Lucibella and Wohlfiel, who was off-duty, “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 insisted 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.
Lt. Richard Jones, the lead investigator in the internal review, said one of the arresting officers, Nubia Plesnik, told him that Lucibella “was so agitated and wanted to fight” police, but Wohlfiel did little to defuse the situation: “This whole incident took place in front of Wohlfiel and he never even got up or nothing.”
Lucibella, and arresting Officers Richard Ermeri and Plesnik, all complained of injuries from a scuffle during the former vice mayor’s arrest. Lucibella, 63, has pleaded not guilty to all three charges, including a misdemeanor for firing a weapon while intoxicated. His attorney Marc Shiner accuses police of overreacting.