TAMPA — John Kural was driving to his job as a tattoo artist last year when he saw the flashing lights of a Hillsborough sheriff’s deputy in his rearview mirror. When Kural pulled over on Bearss Avenue, the deputy asked if he knew why he was being stopped.
Kural figured it was because he wasn’t wearing a seat belt.
"He said, ‘No, you have a warrant for selling drugs to an undercover cop,’ " Kural, 38, recalled. "I said, ‘I think you have the wrong guy. Check your computer again because I never sold drugs to nobody.’ "
But arrest warrants drawn up by Tampa Police said Kural had sold cocaine and marijuana to undercover officers while working as a bartender at the Risque Gentlemen’s Club. Despite Kural’s pleading, the deputy handcuffed him, impounded his Ford F-150 pickup and took him to jail, where he spent six days before posting bail.
It turns out Tampa Police did have the wrong guy. Kural had never stepped foot into the N Dale Mabry Highway strip club, much less worked there. Kural is now suing the city and four of its officers, claiming shoddy police work led to a wrongful arrest.
"It’s just amazing to me that they didn’t take more precautions before preparing an arrest warrant and pulling my guy over on his way to work," said Kural’s attorney, Richard Bisconti.
Representatives for the city and the police department said Tuesday that the city does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit, filed last month in Hillsborough County, offers an account of how the case unfolded.
In January 2016, Detective Joshua O’Nolan received a tip that the manager and co-owner was selling cocaine, amphetamine, heroin and marijuana in the club. O’Nolan started an investigation along with fellow detective Amy Evans and officers Juan Alvarez and John Nelson.
On the night of Jan. 25, Nelson bought $10 worth of marijuana from a bartender called "Jon Jon." O’Nolan did some research and somehow came up with Kural’s name, according to the lawsuit.
Early the next morning , Alvarez, accompanied by Evans, bought four baggies containing a total of $100 worth of cocaine from the bartender. O’Nolan showed Kural’s driver license photo to Alvarez, who identified him as the bartender, but O’Nolan didn’t show the photo to Nelson or Evans, according to the complaint.
On Feb. 8, Alvarez and Evans went back to the club and the bartender invited Alvarez into the men’s room to take a hit of cocaine. Alvarez pretended to do the hit and then gave the bartender $50 for two small baggies of the drug. Alvarez was wearing a hidden video camera and microphone that recorded the bathroom visit and the drug purchase.
The video clearly shows the face of the bartender who sold the marijuana and cocaine to Nelson and Alvarez, the lawsuit says.
"When one compares the video image of the bartender who sold drugs to the undercover officers to the (driver’s license) photo of the plaintiff, their faces are distinctly different," Bisconti wrote in the complaint.
The lawsuit claims O’Nolan never compared the undercover video to Kural’s driver license photo, or confirmed that Nelson, Evans and Alvarez compared the video to Kural’s video.
Nine months later, on Nov. 25, O’Nolan prepared three arrest affidavits charging Kural with one count each of possession and delivery of marijuana; two counts of possession of cocaine; and two counts of delivery of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a church. In all, five felonies and a misdemeanor.
Kural was stopped by the sheriff’s deputy on Dec. 14. As he worked in the county jail’s kitchen making bologna sandwiches and grits and eggs for fellow inmates, Kural wondered if someone had framed him. He hadn’t ever been to the Risque club, much less worked there.
"My mind was going a million miles a minute trying to figure it out," he said.
His defense attorney worked to get his bail lowered from about $20,000 to $7,000. He borrowed the money from his mother and was released six days before Christmas.
When he got home, he said, his fiancee and the mother of one of his three children didn’t believe that the cops got the wrong guy. After eight years together, Kural said, she told him they were done and gave him about a week to move out.
Kural went to stay with a brother and later had to use his father’s name to rent a place to live because of the felony charges hanging over his head, he said.
"Basically, my life went straight down to the bottom in six days," he said.
The Hillsborough State Attorney’s Office dropped the case in May after a prosecutor compared the man in the undercover video to Kural’s photo and concluded they were different people.
Kural’s lawsuit seeks unspecified damages from the city. State law caps compensation for any one plaintiff in a civil claim to $200,000, Bisconti said.
The four employees listed in the lawsuit still work at the department, and none have been disciplined as a result of Kural’s arrest, police spokesman Steve Hegarty said.
Wounded by her disbelief, Kural decided not to try to reconcile with his fiancee. He working to get the charges expunged from his record, but his jail mug shot still surfaces on the internet with a cursory search of his name.
Tampa police did wind up with plenty to show for their investigative efforts.
Two weeks before Kural’s arrest, police raided the Risque Gentlemen’s Club and arrested 10 people on charges ranging from drug possession to racketeering. The club’s owner, Ioannis Pahoumis, was arrested the same day at his home in New Port Richey. The club closed and has not reopened.
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.