medical treatment from paramedics for a wound near his left eye. Lt. Steven Wohlfiel (in black shirt,
facing camera) has been assigned alternate duties during the department’s investigation.
Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star
Related: Read initial incident report
By Dan Moffett
A quiet Saturday night on an Ocean Ridge patio ended with gunshots, the vice mayor bloodied and handcuffed, a senior police lieutenant under investigation, two officers seeking treatment for injuries and a town roiling again in political turmoil.
Ocean Ridge residents who complain about visitors from the mainland bringing trouble across the bridge have a new worry. It appears the town is capable of bringing it on itself.
The quiet night by the sea turned raucous shortly after 9 p.m. Oct. 22, when police responded to reports of gunshots on Old Ocean Boulevard, and officers went to the rear of Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella’s home to investigate.
There they found Lucibella and one of their department’s supervisors, Lt. Steven Wohlfiel, “obviously intoxicated based upon their demeanor and behavior,” according to police reports that cited beer and mixed drinks on a table between the men.
Officers Richard Ermeri and Nubia Plesnik say Lucibella was holding a black .40-caliber Glock handgun and greeted them with a barrage of obscenities. Police say the vice mayor also had a small silver handgun in his back pocket. Plesnik said she found five shell casings on the patio, hollow-point rounds that police believe were fired from Lucibella’s Glock. They say they found seven live rounds in a magazine that holds 12.
Wohlfiel used an expletive in ordering the officers “to get out of here” and told them he did not want to make a statement, according to Sgt. Bill Hallahan, who was also at the scene.
“You put us in a very bad situation, Lieutenant,” Ermeri told his off-duty supervisor, according to the police reports. Wohlfiel and Lucibella maintained they knew nothing about any gunshots. The situation deteriorated rapidly from there.
Lucibella told the officers to get off his property and tried to go inside his home to get another drink, police say. Plesnik and Ermeri tried to block Lucibella. The officers said they believed Lucibella had more firearms inside.
Things got physical near the doorway, according to the reports. Ermeri said the vice mayor “began to aggressively poke” him in the chest and then “began to physically resist” Plesnik.
The officers wrestled Lucibella to the ground. He suffered an injury near his left eye that would send him to the hospital for treatment, and his attorney says he also had three broken ribs.
Ermeri and Plesnik would require treatment for an assortment of bruises, abrasions and muscle pains.
Lucibella bonded out after a few hours in the Palm Beach County Jail and faces charges of resisting arrest with violence, a felony, and two misdemeanors: discharging a firearm in a residential area and use of a firearm while under the influence of alcohol.
This was Lucibella’s second clash with the town’s police since he won his commission seat in 2014. Last year, a dispute with then-Chief Chris Yannuzzi forced Yannuzzi out of a job, divided residents, packed the Town Hall for contentious commission meetings and led to an unsuccessful recall attempt against Lucibella.
A judge ruled the recall group’s petitions were legally insufficient, but hundreds of residents signed them and wanted Lucibella removed. The vice mayor says he hasn’t decided whether to seek election to another three-year term in March, knowing that opposition against him is rising again and his ability to work with the town’s Police Department is in question.
“I don’t recall ever saying I was looking to make a career in local politics,” Lucibella said in an email. “I’ve not really thought too much about whether I’ll run again. But I truly love Ocean Ridge and I’ve obviously never been much swayed by the shrieking of the ‘torches and pitchfork’ minority. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Mayor Geoff Pugh says the vice mayor is facing a political future that may be even stormier than it was last year.
“For anybody, this is pretty hard to come back from,” Pugh said. “The problem is public perception. In the court of public opinion, he’s found guilty and should resign. Unless it’s proven that it’s not his fault, then there might be a different opinion.”
Lucibella’s lawyer, former prosecutor Marc Shiner, has dismissed suggestions that the vice mayor should resign: “Mr. Lucibella is the victim here.” Shiner has claimed Ermeri and Plesnik used excessive force and conducted an illegal search over alleged misdemeanor firearms violations, without any witnesses. He says the town police violated the vice mayor’s rights, and he is calling for battery charges against Ermeri, his resignation and an investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Police Chief Hal Hutchins says an internal affairs investigation of the incident is already underway, and his department doesn’t need help from the FDLE at this time. But Hutchins said he is open to bringing in independent investigators from county, state or federal agencies if it’s warranted.
“We’re ready to reach out to appropriate outside agencies if needed,” Hutchins said. “I’ll be the first one to make contact with another agency if one needs to be called in.”
The chief said his investigation has no timetable and will go wherever the evidence leads. He said his investigators are still gathering witness accounts and that the probe “is a fluid situation” — with much work to do.
“It will be a full internal review of this incident,” he said. “We’ll do it as quickly and as thoroughly as possible. That’s the only thing I can promise anybody.”
Pugh agrees that the FDLE isn’t needed and the Police Department “has competent people that work for it who can do a competent investigation.” He said the town shouldn’t make decisions about disciplining or firing anyone until after the investigation is complete. Pugh said the presence at the scene of Wohlfiel, 48, a veteran with the department who rose through the ranks and has served as the police union representative, complicates matters.
“I believe we should know what his culpability is,” Pugh said. Wohlfiel has been assigned to alternate duties during the investigation, Hutchins said. Ultimately, the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office is expected to make the call on who gets prosecuted and for what charges.
Though Lucibella has an uncertain political future, he says he is proud of the achievements in his political past.
“We accomplished a great deal in my first term,” he said, “including returning control of our Police Department to the people, managing through the near simultaneous loss of a clerk, police chief and manager, and creating a balanced budget in the absence of a clerk who had done that work for 30 years — to name just a few.”
Pugh said Lucibella “can be acerbic,” which sometimes obscures his contributions to the town. The mayor said the Nov. 7 commission meeting figures to be as well-attended as those during last year’s storm over Yannuzzi’s ouster.
“If anything, it would be easier for the town if he doesn’t show up,” Pugh said. “With Rich, you never know what he’s going to do. He’s a fighter. Basically, I want people to know that he’s done good things for Ocean Ridge.”
Read a copy of the initial incident report at www.thecoastalstar.com.