Suspended deputy at center of excessive force investigation, federal lawsuits

Lawsuit alleges K-9 cop should have been stopped

By Bob Norman - Investigative Reporter

POMPANO BEACH, Fla. - Broward Sheriff Deputy Gerry Wengert once starred on a reality TV show called "Unleashed: K-9 Broward County," but now he's playing the lead role in two federal lawsuits and a State Attorney's Office investigation, all involving alleged excessive force and hard-to-watch injuries.

Wengert was suspended in July for his actions in a case involving Robert Arciola, whose face is shown grotesquely swollen in his mug shot after Wengert admittedly struck him repeatedly after a February aggravated assault arrest.

Wengert wrote in reports that when he decided to replace Arciola's handcuffs, the suspect struck him in the chest, forcing Wengert to punch him twice in the face. But another deputy present later came forward claiming that Wengert was in the wrong, prompting the investigation and the suspension of Wengert and three other deputies who were there when Arciola was injured.

In March, a federal lawsuit was filed against Wengert and Broward Sheriff Scott Israel alleging excessive force was used by deputies, including Wengert. Humberto Pellegrino and Pedro Claveria, both of Miami, say they were mauled by a BSO dog after they surrendered to deputies when they were caught painting train cars in Pompano Beach.

The K-9 that attacked them was handled by Detective Davis Acevedo, who claimed they refused to come out from under a train, something both men adamantly dispute. The men say Wengert was the "ringleader" that night, egging on the dog to "eat" them and making sure the dog did as much damage as possible.

Pellegrino's leg was left looking more like the he was the victim of a shark attack than a dog bite. The men's attorney, David Brill, described the wounds as "tantamount to a knife wound in battle."

"I was terrified of this guy," said Claveria, who suffered deep wounds to his arms in the attack. "I could see the look in his eye, he just looked like he was an animal, just stalking prey."

Their lawsuit is the second active federal case filed against Wengert. The other involves injuries sustained by Kevin Buckler, whose face was fractured during an encounter with Wengert in 2010.

In reports, Wengert claimed Buckler, who was 21 at the time, "aggressively stared" at him at a convenience store before he pulled him over for allegedly playing his radio too loud. Wengert claimed Buckler refused to get out of the vehicle, flicked a cigarette at him and resisted arrest. The lawsuit alleges Wengert yanked Buckler from the car, smashed him against the vehicle, and then beat him severely with his fists.

"I look at that man and think to myself, 'he's lucky to be alive,'" said Brill, when he was shown photos of Buckler's injuries, which left both eyes swollen shut.

Brill stressed in his federal complaint that Wengert had been the subject of several internal investigations, and has shot and killed two suspects, shootings that have been deemed justified. There were allegations, among others, that Wengert failed to document neck bites inflicted by his K-9 on a suspect, and that he once improperly shot and killed a family's pet dog while searching for another suspect. He was exonerated in both of those cases.

Wengert refused an interview request, but his attorney Eric Schwartzreich said he is confident that he will be exonerated in the Arciola case. He added that his client stands by his work as a deputy.

"He's a tough cop and he's an effective cop," said Schwartzreich.

And then there was the criminal charges, filed by BSO, that he improperly sicced a dog on a teenager who had a run-in on the road with his girlfriend and then lied about the incident in reports. When he was acquitted by a jury, he was reinstated and put back on the road. A BSO spokeswoman said that without a conviction the agency had no grounds to terminate him.

But Brill alleges in his lawsuit that Israel is culpable for allowing Wengert to remain on the force.

"This man has no right to be wearing that badge," said Brill. "This man has no right to be calling himself a law enforcement officer and running the streets the way he has. It's despicable."

In the lawsuit, he points at the case of Jeffrey Kogan, the BSO detective who was demoted to deputy by Israel's administration after he told a prosecutor that a Fort Lauderdale police officer had sicced his K-9 on a homicide suspect after he had surrendered. Kogan sued over the demotion and won at trial, though the verdict was thrown out due to juror misconduct and the case is expected to be tried in court again.

"Nothing tells K-9 officers that they will not be held accountable for the consequences of using excessive force, such as siccing their dogs on detained suspects, more than when (Israel) punishes one of his own homicide detectives for reporting such a heinous incident," Brill wrote in his lawsuit.

"The message this sheriff is sending ... is it's perfectly OK to sic a dog on a suspect when it's not justified," said Brill. "And in fact, if you do so, I'm not only going to applaud it, I'm going to punish anybody who comes to me and reports you. So go at it, I give you free reign -- that's the message that's being sent here by this sheriff."

The attorney hired by BSO responded in court documents that the Wengert complaints were "isolated, spread out, or otherwise not sufficient ... to put the sheriff on notice."

It was after Brill filed the complaint that Wengert was suspended in the Arciola case. Wengert is now suspended with pay pending the outcome of the investigation, another practice he claims rewards bad behavior, saying of it, "If I can commit atrocities on people time and time and time again and not only get away with it but keep my job and get paid and sit at home (there is), not much incentive to do the right thing is there?"

Pellegrino said the ill effects of his severe dog bite injuries linger with nerve damage and anxiety. He said he still has nightmares about Wengert.

"I don't ever want to run into him again, I don't even want to go to Broward County," he said. "I won't drive through there. It's very frustrating to deal with that and to deal with the fact that nothing happens to him like he could just take it upon himself to change somebody's life like that and not be held accountable."

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