by Arnaud and Naja Girard…….
It’s 4:45 p.m. in New Town, Key West. A silver Honda has just crashed into the car of two rangers from Dry Tortugas National Park. The Honda driver, reeking of alcohol, is stumbling away from the scene toward Duck Avenue. He is Robert Bethel, the 34-year-old son of Harry Bethel, a former City Commissioner.
During the next hour police officers responding to the scene will patiently deal with Robert, as if he’s a political time bomb. Over the past three years none of the multiple car crashes he’s been involved in have resulted in prosecution. His father you see, had a lot to do with getting Catherine Vogel, the State Attorney, elected.
Our investigation reveals the frustration of some police officers with local politics.
On that afternoon, October 18, 2016, the first on scene was officer Kouri. He found Mike Wydysh and Brandan Crabill slightly injured, their car ‘totaled’ and Robert Bethel… gone.
Paramedics, also responding to the scene, would catch up with Robert a couple of blocks away. And that’s when the [not so funny] comedy began. And every actor on that stage had delivered the same lines many time before.
Robert Bethel: Take me to the hospital. I’m diabetic! I’m delirious!
Police Officer: Which type are you?
Bethel: I’m type everything.
Police Officer: Type everything, Sir? The medics just checked you. Your blood sugar is O.K. So that means it’s not a factor at this point.
Robert Bethel: Take me to the hospital! Hospital! Hospitaaaal ! I’m not gonna go in there for the night [the jail] – fuck that. I’m sick. My heart hurts.
Police Officer: How does your heart hurt? [incredulous]
Robert Bethel: It’s beating… rapidly. I need checks… checks and balances, man.
KWPD officers have heard Robert’s story many times over: He’s not drunk. He just looks drunk because he’s a diabetic. And in a minute or tomorrow his daddy will prove it to you.
On February 25th 2015 Robert Bethel was driving his SUV down Flagler Avenue. He ran a red light and almost crashed into a police car. “I swerved to the right as the vehicle ran the light and entered the intersection, almost crashing into me,” wrote Officer Wanciak in her report, “Bethel appeared to have a difficult time understanding my requests.” He refused to take the DUI sobriety tests, the breath test. Bethel would not get out of the car. “I had to pry his fingers off the wheel,” wrote Officer Wanciak. Then Harry Bethel, Sr. arrived on scene with the diabetic explanation. The prosecutor’s notes, obtained by The Blue Paper, describe Bethel senior as “combative”. He had to be told by an officer to stop interfering; stop talking to his son.
Those notes also revealed that On December 15, 2014 Robert Bethel had hit a pedestrian. He was described as sweaty and lethargic by officers. That time he was reported as having high blood sugar. He apparently also sideswiped another car.
Yet the State Attorney systematically failed to prosecute the charges brought by police. Could old Harry really be that intimidating? The facts speak for themselves. When the previous State Attorney, Denis Ward, prosecuted another one of Harry’s sons for lobster trap poaching, the father declared war. Harry Bethel, Jr. was out on bond for arson at the time. He was sentenced to three years in prison. Dennis Ward lost his job.
“Karma always wins and payback is a bitch,” wrote Harry Bethel in a diatribe published in the Key West Citizen at the time. He had championed Catherine Vogel’s 2012 campaign against Ward: “I worked as hard as I worked in my own campaigns just for the satisfaction of being a part of your DEFEAT,” he wrote in the email to Ward, “I hope that you and your family have as much misery in your life [as] you have put in my famil[y’s] life.” The email was signed, “A loving father.”
There is no doubt that Mr. Bethel is a devoted father. The problem is that his son has now injured and could have killed people in multiple car accidents and that the criminal justice system has failed to protect the public. Many equally loving fathers send their sons and daughters to school on their Christmas bicycles with the reasonable assumption that “sweaty, drowsy, lethargic” people are not allowed to drive a car.
We have reviewed over two hours of video showing Robert Bethel’s interactions with police. The officers’ frustration is palpable. Some of the officers, like Vasquez and Pettee, have responded again and again to the same situation. On one video Officer Pettee is heard predicting how the arrest is going to go down: “When he gets to the jail he’s more than likely gonna ask to go to the hospital. That’s what we dealt with last time.” Another officer agreed: “That is a stall tactic.”
Yet the officers remain remarkably patient. At the scene of the October 18, 2016 car crash Bethel kept walking away. Only after the officers had dragged him back for the third time did they decide to handcuff him. “Is there anything I could say or do to gain your compliance, Sir?” Inside the police cruiser he tried to kick out the window.
In the DUI room he is reported as “extremely violent and threatening.” At one point, in an August 2016 incident, Officer Vasquez warns: “If it was two different other police officers that don’t have patience, you would have been thrown on the ground and tased.” (The fact that he is his father’s son may also have something to do with it.)
But on October 18th he caused an estimated $10,000 of property damage and injured two persons. On scene, Officer Vasquez clearly indicates he is out of patience. He warned Bethel: “No, we are not going to do the same thing we did last time.”
So, is Robert Bethel just a victim of diabetic hyperglycemia or is he drunk driving? In his notes, Assistant State Attorney, Nick Travatto, wrote, the officer “is virtually certain that [Bethel] was under the influence of alcohol and drugs on this day.” These officers all insist that they have years of experience and that they aren’t fooled.
During the State Attorney’s investigation of the February 25, 2015 incident, Travatto had drafted the enrollment document for the ‘Back on Track’ program, an alcohol rehabilitation intervention program, but the offer of help was set aside when it was decided not to bring any DUI charges.
In fact, on August 16th of this year Robert’s brother himself called the police to have Robert removed from their father’s house. Robert appeared intoxicated. His brother is seen on the police video saying, “He’s got an alcohol problem. He’s gonna hurt himself or he’s gonna hurt somebody.” When questioned by the officers about drinking Robert himself admitted he has “slip ups.”
Under Florida Statute refusing to submit to a breath test results in a one-year suspension of driving privileges- the first time. The second and subsequent refusals result in an 18–month suspension as well as prosecution as a first degree misdemeanor.
Before Robert Bethel crashed into Michael Wydysh’s car, KWPD officers had brought the State Attorney, Catherine Vogel, charges of DUI and resisting arrest. She declined to prosecute. Arguably, if Catherine Vogel had wanted Bethel to be riding a bicycle she probably could have achieved it.