This is the first installment in an ongoing series of articles taking at look inside the Marco Island Police Department.
Two Marco Island police officers walk into the Starbucks to meet two colleagues already there picking up coffee. As if on cue, one customer turns to another and gives the inevitable smart remark: “Oh look, all four police are here at Starbucks. Look out, the island’s unprotected.”
As a community, Marco Island is fortunate to feel as though the police force is almost superfluous. In reality, a relatively tiny, but dedicated group has steadily picked away at everything from organized crime rings, to accidental deaths by auto-eroticism, to wild animal calls. “Marco Island is a city,” says Police Chief Thom Carr, “and we have the same issues as any other city.”
Last year, 32 officers plus two administrative staff responded to nearly 70,000 calls for service. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) requires the department to file reports on its activity.
Based on its statistics, Marco Island has the lowest ratio of police officers to residents of any area city, including Punta Gorda and Naples, meaning they do more with less.
The officers themselves are a unique mix of experienced, high-ranking former officers working with newcomers to police work.
“The guys who retired early from other police forces are happy to be here because where they came from, they were taking a cap [getting shot at] daily. Obviously we don’t have that here but they bring valuable insight to the work,” says Carr.
Ed Stenzel and Glen Zirgibel are the department’s detectives. They both hail from Milwaukee and have been working on Marco Island since 2006 and 2003, respectively. They are proud of the department’s progress. In 2000, there were 400 crimes reported to the FDLE. Ten years later the number is down to 165.
“We’ve never had a violent crime go uncleared, meaning an arrest has been made in each case,” says Stenzel.
“In 2004 we were getting killed by organized groups coming up from Miami,” says Zirgibel of the outbreaks of theft rings that lasted for several years.
“It was also a huge problem for Miami,” added Stenzel. “They created a task force to deal with it.” Marco police collaborated with the task force to clear cases, both here and in Miami. The detectives liken the process to creating a figurative traffic jam around the island.
“They will keep coming, but if you are driving down the highway and your way home is backed up with traffic or there’s always an accident, don’t you pick a new way?,” said Stenzel. Marco Island police gained a reputation in Miami for always following up on tips, even if it meant going to a Miami neighborhood to follow up on something as seemly basic as a suspicious vehicle report. Once they knew they were closely watched, detectives say the groups would instead target other areas of Southwest Florida.
So far, he says, there have been only about six or seven 2010 cases involving organized crime rings here.
On one recent case on June 5, police say an organized group of illegal aliens from Costa Rica drove over from the east coast seeking high end items to steal. They found what they were looking for at Sandpiper Clothing store in the Marco Town Center Mall.
In an example of where luck and good timing meet police skill, a shopper who noticed the shoplifting flagged down a patrol car driving through the parking lot. Officers Tony Spina and Ed D’Allesandro pursued the vehicle, which the occupants then ditched to flee on foot. In a move praised by the detectives, Tony Spina called all local cab companies, asking them to respond to the police if anyone called for service. Twenty-five minutes later the officers received a call from Taxi Time alerting them to a call from Radio Shack. All three suspects were now in custody.
Booking at Collier County revealed that all three were under an ICE hold (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) for entering the country illegally. In what Stenzel identified as a new tactic among illegal crime groups, the woman and two men arrested tried to identify themselves as Puerto Rican to avoid suspicion of being here illegally.
“They cleaned out 50 Lacoste shirts (which retail for approximately $70) in a few minutes. They can’t get these name brands back where they come from, so they can ship all that back home and sell it for big money,” explains Zirgibel.
A case takes approximately two years to wind its way through the court system to prosecution. Illegal aliens are held until their case is resolved, and then deported. Often though, that’s not a deterrent, as a recent arrest of a man from Mexico with six different identities demonstrates.
“He’s been deported three times, and he said to me, ‘I’m coming back,’ ” said Zirgibel.
In March 2010, Eduardo Lopez Zamuidio was operating a business selling stolen cell phones out of a home on 2nd Avenue here on the island. He was turned over to police by a woman from North Port who responded to Zamuidio’s Craigslist ad for cheap, new cell phones. When the carrier refused to activate the woman’s phone, she called the police. In addition to finding a bag and box of phones, police found 162 Social Security numbers and learned that Zamuidio was also wanted in Texas for car theft.
Many in law enforcement believe the State of Florida’s unenthusiastic stance towards extradition encourages career criminals to find a home here.
“Where I came from [Wisconsin], the state was very aggressive about extraditing wanted criminals. It’s a money issue [for Florida] to send criminals out of state for prosecution but career criminals come here and then stay here. I don’t know that I want to keep career criminals here, personally,” says Zirgibel.
Sifting though evidence to keep a Zamuidio from coming back, or at least keep him off the street for the maximum amount of time possible is “very time-consuming,” says Stenzel. He explained that to prosecute a case like Zamuidio’s requires building a case against each stolen item or false ID. “Possession of one false ID is a 5-year felony. He had six.”
When it’s a computer that needs to be searched, trying to so manually is practically impossible. Now the department has F.R.E.D., a device that can dissect a hard drive in hours. In a case like Zamuidio’s, it can help detectives search for evidence relating to his phony ID’s.
The impetus to bring F.R.E.D. to the department had its origins in a 2007 sexual battery case involving a 16 year old victim. Time consuming case building took on a new meaning: “We had to look at lots of pornography,” recalls Stenzel with awkward exasperation. “We got a search warrant for the guy’s place and we found VHS tapes, photos, a computer. It took 2 or 3 officers plus us detectives a full week to go through it. But we had to see if there was something there that was child-related.”