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The Baltimore Sun

Fired Broward deputy was hero before Rothstein scandal, supporters say

On his best days as a Broward Sheriff's deputy, Jeff Poole performed so superbly that he was once named Deputy of the Year, and he won two lifesaver awards — one for saving a jogger's life after her legs were severed by a train and the other for resuscitating a drowning child.

But what he did on his worst days got him fired and could send him to federal prison for up to 10 years. He is scheduled to be sentenced Thursday for his disturbing role in the Scott Rothstein scandals.

Poole pleaded guilty to one count of conspiring to violate civil rights, admitting that he arrested a Broward woman for no legal reason — as a "favor" for one of his bosses.

Family and supporters who wrote letters seeking leniency and compassion from U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas say that Poole wasn't just a good deputy, he was a good person.

Poole's lawyer, Michael Gottlieb, sent the judge 250 pages filled with commendations, awards and dozens of character reference letters from his former colleagues, friends and neighbors.

All of them say Poole, 47, of Weston, was a devoted family man who went out of his way to help others.

He used his vacation days to help neighbors with a hoarding problem by cleaning out their home. He raised money for troubled colleagues and coached kids' sports teams. He donated Publix gift cards to his church instead of canned or dried foods because he wanted needy families to have the dignity of choosing what they wanted to eat.

And through it all, they said, he always put his wife and three children first.

Cheryl Risse, 39, of Pompano Beach, says Poole is a hero who not only saved her life but gave her the will to live in the horrific moments after a freight train severed both her legs in July 2007 while she was jogging.

Risse wrote to the judge to tell him that she lay on the ground and begged Poole, who happened upon her, to let her die.

"My legs had been severed from my body and were lying on the railroad track. I was literally bleeding to death," she wrote.

She said Poole went far beyond the call of duty that day by extending human compassion, comfort, sympathy and strength.

"He gave me courage. I could tell that he really cared," Risse wrote to the judge. "When considering Officer Poole's future, I hope you will take into account the fact that I credit him with literally saving my life and giving me the hope I needed minute by minute to go on. My life is wonderful today, and Officer Poole could see that I was worth saving even when I could not."

Poole received the lifesaver of the year award for his performance that day — an honor he also had won 18 years earlier for rescuing a 4-year-old boy from the bottom of a pool and resuscitating him.

Poole's lawyer and some of his supporters suggest that Poole made some bad decisions after he suffered a heart attack at age 38 — and they say some of the blame for those decisions lies with one of Poole's senior commanding officer, Broward Sheriff's Lt. David Benjamin, who has since been fired.

Both men are now convicted felons, will likely be stripped of their pensions later this year, and are almost certainly going to spend significant time in federal prison.

Benjamin, 48, of Boca Raton, was Rothstein's friend and "enforcer," as well as one of former Sheriff Al Lamberti's top aides. Benjamin pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit extortion and violate civil rights, admitting that he misused his power and authority as a law enforcement officer on Rothstein's behalf in exchange for $185,000 in cash and valuables. Benjamin faces up to five years behind bars when U.S. District Judge James Cohn sentences him on Monday.

The defense for Benjamin has filed no public requests for leniency or any letters on his behalf and his lawyer, Mike Dutko, said that he and Benjamin will make no comment before Monday's sentencing.

When Poole said during his guilty plea that he was doing a favor for Benjamin, he insisted that he did not know that Benjamin was, in turn, doing a favor for Rothstein. Poole said under oath that he has never met Rothstein and received no money for what he did.

Rothstein asked Benjamin to arrange for the illegal arrest of the ex-wife of Douglas Bates — a now-disbarred lawyer who is serving five years in federal prison for his role in helping Rothstein's fraud. Rothstein's goal in arranging the 2009 arrest was to help Bates gain the upper hand in a custody dispute over the couple's children, one of whom has special needs.

Poole said in court that Benjamin, a senior commanding officer, issued a blunt order to him to arrest "this bitch," whether or not there was evidence or any legal reason to do so. Poole conducted surveillance on the woman, Marcy Romeo, and arrested her on June 29, 2009, on trumped-up prescription drug charges. State prosecutors later dropped the charges because they were not legitimate. Romeo was arrested, strip-searched and detained at the jail for 18 hours before she posted bond.

Poole admitted in court that he knew he was breaking the law, that he would not normally have arrested Romeo under the circumstances, and that he knew something was amiss about Benjamin's insistence that he do so.

Though he didn't formally plead guilty to it, court records show that Poole also, at Benjamin's request, helped run a prostitute out of town after she and her boyfriend threatened to expose the woman's sexual relationship with Rothstein's then-law partner Stuart Rosenfeldt. Poole and other officers, who have not been publicly identified, handcuffed the boyfriend, illegally searched the woman's home, destroyed evidence of her relationship with Rosenfeldt and drove her to the airport after telling her to leave town.

Poole's supporters suggest that he felt that he owed his job to Benjamin, whom he had known since their days working together for the former Pompano Beach Police Department before it was taken over by the Sheriff's Office.

"After suffering a heart attack in 2005, Poole seemed a step slower at work," his lawyer Michael Gottlieb wrote in court records, adding that Poole was facing transfer to a tougher assignment than the role of detective in the strategic investigations division.

"It was David Benjamin, his past sergeant, that Deputy Poole turned to for purposes of protecting him. One phone call was all it took and the transfer ... had been rescinded," Gottlieb wrote.

"Poole owed Benjamin. Benjamin knew who to call. Benjamin called and asked Poole to do a favor," Gottlieb wrote.

That "favor" has cost Poole almost everything, including the job he loved — he has spent the past few months training to become a pool maintenance man, Gottlieb wrote.

"This instance of conduct is the lowest point in his life and career," Gottlieb wrote to the judge, asking him not to judge Poole on his worst days. "The rest of his life has basically been lived in an exemplary manner."

Two veteran prosecutors from the Broward State Attorney's Office — John Gallagher and Ted Daus, who said they became friends with Poole over many years of working drugs cases with him — were among the dozens of supporters who wrote to the judge, urging him to show mercy and be fair to Poole.

Both wrote that they were shocked by his crimes and did not seek to absolve him of guilt, but to point out his good conduct and work ethic in the past.

"I have no idea why Jeff did the things for which he is accused. I don't know if it was loyalty to a superior or just bad judgment. I do know he regrets it," Gallagher wrote. "Jeff has done too many good things in his life for him to be treated as just some common criminal."

pmcmahon@tribune.com, 954-356-4533 or Twitter @SentinelPaula

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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