Judge says Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office 'deliberately' withheld truth about deputy's past

Judge: PBSO engaged in 'fraud on the court'

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - It was June 7th, 2012.

By 5:11 that morning 26-year-old Victor Arango became the third person in three weeks shot and killed by a Palm Beach County deputy.

"He was just trying to protect his girlfriend, he got shot and killed over it," said one witness at the scene.

Within just a few hours of the shooting, Sheriff Ric Bradshaw was on the record.

"Here we go again, armed suspect going to shoot one of the deputy's and then we had to take the action we had.  We don't ask people to draw guns on us and try to kill us," he told reporters that morning.

Despite other eyewitness accounts, "they took his gun off of him, put it on the side, away from him.  Then the 3 rd cop came up and proceeded to shoot him," described Kevin Mullan the morning of the shooting.

In the end, the State Attorney agreed with the sheriff, concluding Deputy Michael Suszczynski "reasonably feared… for the safety of others at the scene."  Thus, concluding his decision to shoot was a "reasonable use of force."

Portrait of a Deputy

Soon after the shooting, the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office released Deputy Suszczynski's file.  His background showed little to be concerned about, a 7-year deputy with just a few unsubstantiated citizen complaints and more than a dozen praises.

But the Contact 5 Investigators have spent months reviewing records that paint a far different portrait of a deputy.

Filene Lehman still quivers just hearing Michael Suszczynski's name. "You knew right away he was a ticking time bomb."

Lehman claims Deputy Suszczynski roughed her up during a 2008 traffic stop.

"He just took my arm and ripped it above my head around my back and threw me to the ground.  I heard my shoulder pop and I was like 'oh no', that's when the nightmare started."

Lehman sued the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office and Suszczynski for excessive force.

In a 2010 deposition, Deputy Suszczynski explained his actions.

"I'm now at that point in fear that she is going to strike me or try to escape.  I placed my left hand on her right should and assisted her to the ground so I can gain control and handcuff her."

"Confidential" Files

The Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office eventually settled the case with Lehmnan but not before, the Contact 5 investigators discovered, the agency charged with enforcing the law spent years trying to hide the truth.

Ken Slinkman was Lehman's personal injury attorney. He spent three years battling PBSO just to release Suszczynski's files. "Their job is to produce it, not to hide it."

In the process, Slinkman discovered so much more. "We learned for the first time that there are all kinds of confidential files, what the sheriff calls confidential files."

So called "confidential files" that, in Suszczynski's case, the sheriff's office "continually and deliberately" refused to hand over according to court records.  In the words of  Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Lucy Brown, "this is nothing short of fraud on the court."

Jim green is a civil rights attorney in West Palm Beach. "There's a judge that made a finding that the sheriff's office engaged in fraud on the court, that's a very serious allegation.  There were a number of court orders to turn over this information, it wasn't turned over I think most people would consider that to be a cover up."

Bradshaw Speaks

Contact 5 Investigators:   "Did your office engage in a cover up?

Sheriff Bradshaw:  "Absolutely not.   You know we handle thousands of public records, something is going to fall through the cracks.  This particular one fell through the cracks."

Contact 5 Investigators:  "Sir, with all due respect, falling through the cracks is not 2 years' worth of, "stonewalling."   This case got to the point where the judge, said and I quote, "the office continually misled the plaintiff and the court to the point there where the judge said, this was nothing short of fraud on the court, nothing short of fraud on the court?"

Sheriff Bradshaw:   "Well, that's unfortunate words on the part of the judge.  We made a mistake there's no doubt about it.  They should have been released sooner than they were, but there was nothing maliciously done here."

Deputy Suszczynski's Background

In the words of the sheriff, not handing over Deputy Suszczynski's background files was a mistake that just fell through the cracks.  But what was it about Deputy Suszczynski's background that seemed to cause so much drama in the first place?

Turns out, inside Suszcynski's black and white files was a much more colorful past.

As a rookie cop in Ohio in the late 80s and early 90s,  Michael Suszczynski's resume was checkered with reprimands, including a 30 day suspension for police misconduct.

In one incident, a witness described Michael Suszczynski as flashing his police badge before jumping in a fight and "carrying on a like a wild man."

Dr. George Kirkham is a criminologist and ex-cop. "It could very well be a red flag.  You've got to have people who won't go off the deep end."

Suszczynski's

past goes on.

As a young man he racked up a criminal record with a string of arrests including disorderly conduct and assault.  Suszczynski paid fines and moved on.

"That's a real warning sign," said Dr.  Kirkham.

And then there was a 2004  pre-employment psychological evaluation taken when Suszczynski first applied to be a sheriff's deputy in Palm Beach County.

In it, a psychologist flagged Suszczynski as a "moderate risk."

"I would not hire the person.  I don't think many chiefs or sheriffs would.  The worst possible place you can put someone with a moderate risk is out in a patrol car with the public.  It's not worth taking the chance on because there are legions of good candidates out there," said Dr. Kirkham.

Since he was elected in 2005, sheriff Bradshaw has been Suszczynski's boss.

Contact 5 Investigators:  "What does moderate risk mean to you?"

Sheriff:  "That there's no red flags going up that he shouldn't be hired."

But according to the psychologist's own report moderate risk is a red flag:  "There is serious question regarding data relevant to this candidate's suitability for employment. Suggest very careful scrutiny of all records," the report stated.

Contact 5 Investigators:   "Sheriff would you have hired Deputy Suszczynski?"

Sheriff: "Moot point, the fact of the matter is he was hired.  All I can be responsible for are employees that I inherit going forward."

Today, Deputy Michael Suszczynski is patrolling the streets.

"I have nothing at this point in time that leads me to believe that this deputy has acted inappropriately in any way shape or form since I've been here," said sheriff Bradshaw.

Filene Lehman disagrees. "It was brutal, he was excessive.  He was a brute," she recalls. 

Deputy Michael Suszczynski had a history of behaving rough and the sheriff's department spent years deliberately withholding it.

"The search for truth should not be a game of hide the ball," said Jim Green.

Print this article Back to Top

Comments