Has Phoenix PD's Expert Career Criminal Squad Fallen Prey to Office Politics?
Jana Rozenman curls up on a sofa on the patio of her Scottsdale apartment as her 4½-year-old twins watch TV and play with balloons scattered nearby.
She seems at peace, relaxing in the mild spring air, as she recalls the events of the past year, one that's just concluded with the conviction of her ex-husband, Cigar Warehouse owner Dimitri Rozenman, for contracting to have her and her family murdered.
Her ex's motive was money and revenge. Jana Rozenman had been awarded an almost $500,000 lump sum, and $6,000 a month as part of a divorce settlement. Dimitri seethed with hatred and indignation. At one point, he slashed the tires of her family's vehicles and poured sugar in their gas tanks.
Then he turned to an employee at one of his cigar stores, asking that he kill Jana, her parents, and her 17-year-old sister. The employee informed Jana of the plot and told her that Dimitri had told the employee that if he didn't do it, he'd hire others who would.
"Coming from a wild Russian culture," said Jana, 24, "you see it every day back home — someone being killed. Someone being hired to kill, over money or whatever. So I wasn't really surprised."
The demure, blue-eyed ethnic Russian is from Estonia. Her family came to the United States for political asylum, eventually settling in Arizona. She met her ex-husband while she was working as a waitress at a local restaurant.
Nearly 15 years her senior, Dimitri Rozenman was a naturalized American citizen, a Russian Jew who had fled his homeland in the 1980s. He and his new bride would eventually open a chain of discount cigar stores, growing the Cigar Warehouse enterprise to six locations in Arizona and Texas.
Their online business, TNTCigars.com, proved even more lucrative. Jana Rozenman says she's unsure of the total value of the businesses, which remain in her husband's name, but she suspects they are worth several million dollars.
Dimitri paid his employee, who later turned informant, $5,000 up front with the promise of $50,000 to $70,000 on the back end after the deal was done. On February 12, Jana went to the Phoenix Police Department to report what the employee had told her.
Seven days later, after an intense, round-the-clock undercover investigation by the Phoenix PD's Career Criminal Squad, Dimitri Rozenman was in custody, charged with conspiracy to commit murder.
The investigation involved faking a death scene with yellow tape, squad cars, and an ambulance at the home of Jana Rozenman's parents. It was to fool Dimitri if he drove past. Jana and her family were sequestered in a secure location for three days until CCS detectives knew they had enough evidence to convict Dimitri.
There were always at least two members of the squad watching the family. Jana remembers them playing computer games with the twins to put them at ease. She says she was grateful that her children endured little stress during the ordeal.
She has other reasons to be grateful to the CCS, an investigative unit of four detectives and one sergeant that has recently been ordered disbanded by April 5 by PPD higher-ups.
Although Dimitri had reportedly told others that he planned to flee the country with the kids after the killings, to a country with no extradition treaty with the States, Jana believes a far worse fate could have befallen her little ones.
"If somebody was to come and kill me and my family, and my kids would be with me, what would be the chances of them staying alive?" she wonders. "Who wants an unnecessary witness? Even though they're kids. It doesn't matter. It's just easier. Why would you leave kids behind with dead bodies?"
Dimitri Rozenman affirmed her fears when he was approached by CCS detectives for the first time. Rozenman already had been informed via phone by his employee-turned-state's-witness that his wife and her family had been slain.
The cigar czar didn't want to discuss the final payments for the killings over the phone, though his employee — whose calls were recorded by the cops — insisted that the men he'd hired to do the job were itching for their cash.
CCS officers paid an "official" visit to Rozenman to tell him his wife and her family were dead. The cops guarding Jana were able to listen on their radios to the exchange, which was also taped. Rozenman told his interlocutors that he had no idea who would want his wife offed.
Jana overheard one of the detectives listening with her exclaim, "The motherfucker never asked about his children."
It was a telling moment, one that would be replayed on tape during trial.
In the end, the CCS had Rozenman cold. On March 18, the jury took just 2½ hours to find him guilty of the murder-for-hire scheme. His sentencing is set for April 30. He faces possible life in prison.
Jana Rozenman's children are blissfully unaware of their father's predicament. Their mom told them their daddy's gone far away and probably will never return.
Fortunately, Jana says, Dimitri was obsessed with business and spent little time raising them, so they are not much bothered by his absence.
For the men of the Career Criminal Squad, who specialize in murder-for-hire cases as well as violent, street-level hate crimes, Jana Rozenman has nothing but praise.
"If my case had been given to other people," she says, "I'm not sure I'd be alive today."
The former Mrs. Rozenman reached out to me last week after she read my column decrying the announced disbandment of the squad that saved her life.
"I'm in disbelief," she told me. "If the squad is being disbanded, what's next? If people are going to say it's for a budget cut, I won't believe it. I'm sorry. I don't."
That is, in fact, what Phoenix PD's brass claims: that the Career Criminal Squad is getting cut and its detectives reassigned because of budget mandates from City Manager David Cavasos.
But the cut does not stand up to the scrutiny of cost-benefit analysis. As I reported last week, in the CCS' two-year existence, it's engaged in 400 investigations that have garnered 150 felony arrests, 53 search warrants, and 180 weapons and explosives seizures.
That's a staggering amount of work for a four-man detail. The weapons seizures have drawn the attention of the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is picking up the tab on CCS overtime, fronting money for gun buys, even going so far as to offer the squad office space.
The squad has drawn support from former Phoenix police commander and current Mesa Police Chief Frank Milstead, who says he's so enthusiastic about the squad's work that he wants to form an investigative unit just like it within the Mesa PD.
Bill Straus, regional director of the Arizona Anti-Defamation League, has gone to bat for the squad, meeting with Assistant Police Chief Joe Yahner, to plead for CCS' survival.
Last year, the ADL honored the man who formed the squad, Lieutenant Heston Silbert, with the George Weisz ADL Law Enforcement Award. Silbert shared the honor with his squad, because the plaudit was for the unit's work in busting numerous white-supremacist skinheads and neo-Nazis, dangerous offenders who've violently assaulted African-Americans, Hispanics, and gays.
The squad's ability to resurrect cold cases, do undercover work, and secure convictions is legendary. Ask Chad Kerns, a neo-Nazi doing 10 years in the state pen for stabbing a black man outside a Walgreens and beating up a Hispanic man at the Rogue West bar in 2007.
Or ask David Elms, former owner of prostitute-rating Web site the Erotic Review, who was just sentenced to 4½ years in an assault-for-hire plot investigated by the CCS.
So what gives? What explanation is there for the axing of this proven investigative team? Especially since the Phoenix City Council has passed a two-cent food tax to alleviate such measures and since Phoenix cops have taken a 3.2 percent pay cut for the same reason.
Sources tell me that internal cop politics has more to do with the disbandment than bean-counting. These sources cite envy of the squad's record and jealousy directed toward Silbert, the squad's former leader.
Even though Silbert no longer oversees the squad and is now in charge of the Phoenix PD's Ahwatukee-Foothills substation, PD brass want to eviscerate the CCS because Silbert formed it and takes some credit for its successes.
Police insiders point to a long-running feud between Commander Rob Handy and Silbert that's spilled over to Handy's boss, Assistant Chief Yahner.
"Handy and Yahner are as thick as thieves," one source told me. "They're practically inseparable."
These sources aver that the buck stopped with Handy and Yahner on the cut, though, of course, the ultimate responsibility for doing away with the squad lies with embattled Public Safety Manager (formerly known as Police Chief) Jack Harris.
Harris has had his hands full recently, fending off calls for his resignation from the Reverend Oscar Tillman, president of the Maricopa County NAACP, over the manhandling of Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson by a Phoenix police officer.
African-Americans have been incensed, and rightly so, at the treatment of Johnson, a former Phoenix PD police detective and the city's only black councilman.
But they should be equally outraged by the disbandment of the CCS over reported political pettiness. Hate crimes against blacks and other minorities were up 30 percent in 2009 over the previous year.
And though Phoenix has a bias crimes unit, it does not do intense undercover investigations like the CCS. Indeed, the CCS is the only unit in the Phoenix police force that actively investigates and infiltrates the rabid racist skinhead groups operating in the Valley.
Who will do that work in the CCS' absence? The Phoenix PD doesn't have a clear answer, saying only that the responsibility for such investigations will revert to the Major Offender Bureau, out of which the CCS was formed and of which it is still a part.
Will there be another investigative unit put together to do the same job? Last week, Commander Charles Miller, a spokesman for the department, couldn't say.
When I asked about what I'd been hearing regarding the supposed beef between Handy and Silbert, and its effect on the decision to cut CCS, he disputed the notion that the disbandment was because of the kind of shenanigans worthy of Steve Carell's character in The Office.
Miller insisted the CCS' elimination was the result of a long process that began with the cost-cutting suggestions of department middle managers. One other such cut was the Phoenix PD's equestrian unit, but it hardly has the same impact on keeping dangerous felons off the streets.
"I assure you," Miller wrote in an e-mail, "that in an organization of thousands of employees, with the city still facing layoffs, that your sources' comments are without merit."
The squad's creator is not so sure. I called Silbert to ask him what he thought of his former squad's troubles and if he believed there was truth to the claim that it was because of enmity between Commander Handy and himself.
"To disband the squad is not a significant cost savings, for what the squad provides," he asserted. "Neither is it an intuitive decision. There's no reason for the decision. It's a decision for the sake of destroying something."
As to a squabble with Handy being the real reason for the disbandment, let's just say Silbert chose his words carefully.
"I would hope that's not the case," he said, "but the lack of rationale for the decision to disband the squad leads me to believe that could be the motive."
The decision has caused distress to Jana Rozenman, who told her parents of the PD's move to cut the squad.
"They were in shock," she said. "They were like, 'Can we write letters?' I said we can . . . but if [the decision] involves politics, they're not going to even look at them."
She may be correct. Still, as dysfunctional as the Phoenix PD seems right now, lets hope she is wrong.
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