Secret life, early warnings

Published July 29, 1997|Updated Oct. 1, 2005

Everybody was shocked.

That's what they said, at least, when Pinellas County Commissioner Bruce Tyndall was arrested last December in a Sand Key hotel room with a pocketful of cocaine and a couple of women.

"I'm just stunned," said Supervisor of Elections Dorothy Ruggles upon hearing the news. "I don't know how Bruce got into such a thing."

It turns out, though, that not quite everybody was shocked.

From opposite sides of the law, for more than two years, two groups of people watched one of the Tampa Bay area's veteran politicians slip down a tempting slope of sex and drugs.

One group included his partners in crime, the people who kept Tyndall in their party circle partly because they thought he might make a valuable sacrifice to police if they ever got arrested themselves.

And from this side of the straight and narrow, another group of people kept catching glimpses of the county commissioner in places he should not have been. They were deputies working for another prominent politician, Pinellas Sheriff Everett Rice.

Two-and-a-half years before Tyndall's arrest, detectives found his name and phone number in a prostitute's client file.

Sixteen months before his arrest, detectives knew Tyndall was placing frequent calls to criminals in Tampa involved in burglaries and check forgeries.

Eleven months before his arrest, the sheriff's office recorded Tyndall's phone number in a prostitution sting.

Ten months before the arrest, detectives were told by a confidential informant that Tyndall was using cocaine.

"Yes, we had some indications that he was involved in illegal activities," Rice said recently in an interview with the Times. "Of course, we were worried. But we had to wait until we had something solid."

When Tyndall eventually was busted, Rice himself interviewed the commissioner, the first time the sheriff had interviewed a criminal suspect in 15 years.

Rice, a fellow Republican who had known Tyndall for a decade, questioned the commissioner for 15 minutes. Rice said he asked Tyndall if he had ever compromised his public office. "He said, "No, never. Of course not,' " Rice recounted. The interview was not recorded.

Nobody else was interviewed and no search warrants were sought for Tyndall's office, home or bank records. Within days, Tyndall's office papers, including calendars and datebooks which by law are public records, were thrown away by his secretary.

Had the sheriff's office pursued Tyndall earlier, it might have discovered sooner that he ran with a crowd that regularly used cocaine, and that his party group included a band of burglars. Deputies might have learned that he frequented prostitutes and that an escort-service phone number ended up on Tyndall's hotel bill in 1993 while he was traveling on county business.

During the same time, Tyndall was chairman of a task force on crime and was deciding how to spend millions of dollars in taxpayer money. On Aug. 29, 1995, for example, Tyndall and his fellow commissioners approved a $900-million budget, including $112-million for the sheriff.

Just hours before that meeting, a police device tracing the telephone calls to a couple of suspected racketeers blindly spit out the numbers for Tyndall's home, his cellular phone and his real estate office.

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Tyndall eventually pleaded no contest to a felony drug charge and was sentenced to two years' probation. Because the judge withheld a formal finding of guilt, Tyndall will walk away with a clean record if he stays out of trouble for two years.

The Times spent two months looking into Tyndall's life, the investigation that led to his arrest, and the events that followed. Tyndall did not respond to requests for an interview.

Today, he lives with his wife in a $350,000 waterfront home. He sells real estate and collects a $1,700-a-month pension from the state. He must pass random drug tests, file monthly reports with his probation officer and get permission to travel outside the county. Tyndall recently was allowed to spend a week in the North Carolina mountains with his wife, looking for real estate.

As stunning as his arrest was to friends and political associates, an old friend and golfing buddy, Stephen Watts, said there had been clues something was amiss.

"About six years ago, his friends changed," said Watts. "It's the typical sign that something's wrong."

It was around 1990 when Watts, a former candidate for County Commission who regards Tyndall as his political mentor, noticed his friend hanging out with a Palm Harbor lawyer named Tony Ferro. "If you knew Tony, you knew what he was into," Watts said. "Everybody knew he was a real partier."

Ferro, who would plead no contest in 1995 to marijuana possession charges and was handed a six-month probation for DUI in 1996, introduced Tyndall to the criminals who eventually betrayed his secret. Ferro moved to Michigan after Tyndall's arrest, and he did not respond to requests for an interview.

James Gavlick, who is awaiting trial on grand theft and racketeering charges, said it was Ferro who introduced him to Tyndall in 1990. Detectives say Gavlick had just formed the "Lake Alfred Gang," so-called by police because they were suspected of committing burglaries in the tiny Central Florida town.

Detectives say the gang eventually stole from dozens of victims across several counties. The gang would break into businesses, steal blank checks and then forge the checks for cash. Police estimate they forged $500,000 in stolen checks before getting caught last year.

Gavlick said in a recent interview from the Hillsborough County Jail that he liked Tyndall. "He was a decent guy," Gavlick said. "He liked to party."

Gavlick said he introduced Ferro to Jeffrey and Wendy Carlton, two partners in the Lake Alfred Gang. Ferro, in turn, introduced Tyndall to the Carltons.

The Carltons would later tell detectives that they first met Tyndall one night in 1990. Ferro brought Tyndall to the Carltons' house in Tampa, and Tyndall "got so messed up on cocaine" he stayed until 8 the next morning, Wendy Carlton told police. "Me and Bruce hit it off," Jeffrey Carlton would later recall, and they became fast friends.

On Wednesdays, Gavlick said, he often would see Tyndall with the group at Tampa Jai-Alai. Gavlick said that on other nights he would go with Jeffrey Carlton and Tyndall to gambling ships off John's Pass, or high-stakes poker games in north Pinellas.

It was during this period _ the early 1990s _ that the bottom fell out of the real estate market. Tyndall's net worth slid to $242,000 in 1991, from a high of $2.8-million in 1984.

Meanwhile, Tyndall was getting a reputation for rarely showing up at his county office, preferring instead to phone his secretary for messages. So infrequent were his trips to the fifth floor of the courthouse in Clearwater, where county commissioners have their offices, it became a running joke that he worked only on Tuesdays _ the day the commission meets. Unlike other commissioners, whose days are filled with meetings and phone calls, Tyndall "was never there," current commission chairman Bob Stewart said. "Never."

In 1993, Tyndall reported a burglary at his small real estate office on Court Street in Clearwater. The only thing that was taken: a loaded .357-caliber Magnum revolver in a holster nailed to the underside of his desk.

In May 1994, two months before Tyndall sailed without opposition to his fifth term in office, sheriff's detectives found his name and phone number in the client file of Kellie Sue Gardner, who boasted to a television news reporter she was "the Heidi Fleiss of Tampa Bay." They interviewed 10 of the several dozen men whose names were found in the pink index card box and asked them to be potential witnesses against Gardner.

They did not approach Tyndall. Detective Michael Dipolito said Gardner, at the time of her arrest on a cocaine charge, did not remember Tyndall and did not know he was a commissioner.

Interviewed by the Times after Tyndall's arrest, Gardner freely admitted she is a former prostitute and said she did tell Dipolito she remembered Tyndall, although she didn't know he was a commissioner until after his arrest. She said she told detectives Tyndall had used powder and crack cocaine. "He was great, lots of money," she told the Times. She called Tyndall a "real party pig."

Rice said detectives did not tell him until a year later that Tyndall's name had been found in Gardner's client files, but agrees with their decision not to pursue Tyndall in 1994.

"The timing wasn't right," Rice said. "We had nothing to go on. We would have been fishing without bait."

That year, two months after showing up in the prostitute's file box, Tyndall collected $51,345 in campaign contributions and was re-elected without opposition.

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It was also in 1994 that sheriff's detectives and FDLE agents created "Operation Drive Thru" to catch the Lake Alfred Gang. By October 1994, they had zeroed in on two suspects _ Wendy and Jeffrey Carlton.

They followed Jeffrey Carlton using undercover detectives in cars and airplanes. They kept track of people the Carltons called and who called them. In August 1995, a familiar name popped up: Bruce Tyndall.

The calls came over a period of five days _ from Tyndall's home, his real estate office and his cellular phone. They came at all times of day, and they usually lasted less than a minute.

Sheriff's Detective Jeff Crandall reported what he had found to his supervisor, Lt. Richard Wilfong. They told Rice.

"We didn't know what was going on or whether he was involved in the burglaries or check forgeries," Wilfong said. "But we decided that if we pursued him, we might jeopardize the larger investigation at that point."

So they waited.

Four months later, in January 1996, Tyndall's name appeared in a prostitution sting unrelated to Operation Drive Thru. Records show detectives were tracking phone numbers dialed into a line being monitored for "prostitution activity."

On a Tuesday, Jan. 23, a detective found Tyndall's home phone number on the recorder. Reports show detectives "determined that a return call would not be made to Tyndall, but that if he again called requesting the service of an escort (they) would respond to that request."

Tyndall did not call back, and Rice decided once again to wait.

"We just thought, "Oh there he is again, involved with prostitutes,'

" Rice said.

A month later, in February 1996, detectives arrested Gregg Weiss, a member of the Lake Alfred Gang. Weiss began talking.

The Carltons had a friend named Bruce who was a Pinellas County politician, Weiss told them. They partied together with prostitutes and cocaine.

Rice said that was the first hint detectives had that Tyndall used drugs. Still, he chose not to pursue Tyndall.

"First of all, he's only one vote out of five votes on the commission," Rice said. "Secondly _ do you know how many men it takes to really watch somebody? I just don't have those kind of resources."

Dennis Kenney, research director for the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank, said it's difficult to judge Rice's decisions because sheriffs have great latitude in choosing when to pursue indications of criminal wrongdoing.

"It does put law enforcement in an awkward position when they're investigating the guy who votes on their budget," he said.

"With law enforcement, there is the expectation that they'll keep government clean," he said. "So they have to be extra-vigilant in these situations."

Rice said he never gave Tyndall special treatment because he was a county commissioner or a fellow Republican or a longtime colleague.

"As soon as we had something solid, we went after him," Rice said. "And in the end, we got him."

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It wasn't until December 1996, 10 months after Weiss told detectives about Tyndall, that Rice's deputies began pursuing the commissioner.

Jeffrey and Wendy Carlton were arrested Dec. 12. In separate interviews with detectives, given in hopes of winning lighter sentences, the Carltons described a six-year relationship with the county commissioner.

(The Carltons have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with detectives. They are scheduled for sentencing in August.)

Jeffrey Carlton portrayed Tyndall as sometimes desperate for cocaine and someone to use it with. "Sometimes he needs some coke," Carlton told detectives. "He can't get a hold of his guy, so he will . . . that's when he's really persistent." Carlton said Tyndall would call and say, "I ain't got nobody to hang with."

Carlton said he and his wife knew their relationship with Tyndall might benefit them if they were ever arrested. "You never know when it could actually come in handy," he said. "You know, so that's why a lot of . . . you know, you put up with a little more bullshit from him than you would, you know, somebody else."

Detectives set a trap, renting two rooms in the Sheraton Sand Key and wiring the rooms with audio and video equipment. They had Wendy Carlton call Tyndall at his real estate office and cellular phone.

In a message on the answering machine at Tyndall's real estate office, Carlton said she and a friend were "getting a room out on the beach" and invited Tyndall to call her cellular phone if he wanted to join them.

But Tyndall was with his wife on a trip to Seattle to visit his daughter and new granddaughter.

Detectives, worried that Tyndall would hear about the Carltons' arrest, decided to follow him when he returned from Seattle.

At 4 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 13, sheriff's detectives watched Tyndall, who was wearing black dress pants and a cream-colored dress shirt, enter the Wing House restaurant on Ulmerton Road. Twenty minutes later he left with a man in cut-off denim shorts and a black tank top. They climbed into Tyndall's 1996 Lexus and headed west on Ulmerton, where detectives lost them in traffic.

Seven days later, on Dec. 20, Tyndall made contact with Wendy Carlton.

From the Pub, an Indian Shores bar and restaurant, Tyndall called Carlton at her Tampa home and asked her to meet him without her husband. She agreed.

In Room 111 of the Sheraton Sand Key, Wendy and a female undercover detective, posing as Wendy's friend, waited.

Tyndall arrived at the hotel room with about 2 grams of cocaine in his left pants pocket and a six-pack of beer. When he produced the drug, five detectives burst in from the next room. It had all been caught on six minutes of videotape.

Tyndall was taken to the sheriff's office, where he was questioned by Rice for 15 minutes. Rice told the Times he hadn't questioned a suspect in "probably 15 years."

Why this time?

"I wanted to make sure it was done right," said Rice.

Sheriff's Maj. Quentin Vaughan and Bob Somers, a senior investigator for the State Attorney's Office, watched.

"He was not in good shape," Vaughan recalled. "He had been drinking for some time, and we had indications that he had sampled the cocaine. He was sweating profusely."

Somers said he spent about five minutes questioning Tyndall.

"My big concern was whether or not there was any corruption in office," he said. "I told him he was in trouble and that if he had anything to hide now was the time to offer it up.

"He categorically denied everything."

Tyndall did, however, identify his steady drug source as William "Billy" Ammons, 32, the person seen leaving the Wing House with Tyndall a week earlier. Court records show Ammons has been convicted of drug trafficking and possession and sale of cocaine.

Detectives asked Tyndall to page Ammons.

"Hey Billy, BT, how you doin' boy?" Tyndall said when Ammons returned the page.

"Hey brother, what's up?" Ammons said.

"All right, you still out?"

"Yeah, but I can't do anything tonight."

"You can't? All right, tomorrow morning maybe?"


"All right, I'll call you back." Ammons has not been subsequently charged or arrested. He could not be reached for comment.

Three days later, on Christmas Eve, Tyndall resigned from the commission, and within days he left for a 28-day stay at the Hazelden Foundation drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Minnesota.

He returned to enter his no-contest plea to the cocaine possession charge. On March 17, before a courtroom filled with Tyndall's colleagues and friends, Circuit Judge Brandt Downey sentenced Tyndall to two years' probation. Downey, known for lecturing defendants, pronounced sentence without comment.

If Tyndall completes his two years of probation he can keep his real estate license. He could even run for office again.

At Tyndall's hearing, his lawyer Paul Meissner, a former prosecutor, said "the state attorney's investigation" showed that Tyndall's drug use never "impacted in any way upon his public work."

But there never was any investigation.

"There weren't any street signs to say _ look here," State Attorney Bernie McCabe told the Times. "It would have been a fishing expedition."

The Monday after Tyndall's Friday night arrest, his secretary refused to let television camera crews inside his County Commission office. Within two weeks, she had cleaned out the office, giving some files to Tyndall's successor, while destroying others.

Ken Wilkinson, a supervisor with Florida's Department of State, said all the records kept by an outgoing commissioner should be turned over to the incoming commissioner. Wilkinson said laws govern how and when public records can be destroyed. Calendars, for example, must be kept for at least a year before they can be destroyed.

The Times attempted to obtain Tyndall's written calendars to determine how he spent his days as a commissioner. His secretary, Wanda Kimsey, said she had thrown them out.

Only a computerized appointment calendar, retrieved by the county's management information service, survived.

That calendar had many weeks where little else was scheduled but the Tuesday commission meeting.

"When he came into the commission chambers he was very serious," Commission Chairman Stewart said. "I just figured he was an all-business kind of guy. And I think that's the way he wanted people to see him."

Yet Tyndall was sometimes remarkably cavalier about where he partied.

The Carltons told police that two weeks before their arrest in December 1996 they partied with Tyndall at the Holiday Inn Select on Ulmerton Road. Two years earlier, Tyndall had a campaign fund-raiser at the same hotel, raising $37,000.

And the night he was arrested, Bruce Tyndall walked through the lobby of the Sheraton Sand Key with a six-pack of beer in a plastic grocery bag and cocaine in his pants pocket. The hotel is a favorite site for Republican Party events, including election night celebrations.

Who's who in Tyndall case


Described as "a real partier," he befriended Tyndall around 1990.


Allegedly head of a burglary ring, he met Tyndall through Ferro.


After his arrest, he described a long relationship with Tyndall.


She said Tyndall got "so messed up on cocaine" he stayed until 8 a.m.


As prostitute, she had Tyndall's name in her client file.


Arrested in the burglary ring, he was the first to mention Tyndall.


A convicted drug dealer, Tyndall identified him as his steady drug source.