A Central Florida town is reeling from the news that two police officers are no longer on the job because a confidential FBI report said they are members of a local Ku Klux Klan chapter. One officer was the deputy police chief of Fruitland Park.
The FBI report was provided to Police Chief Terry Isaacs by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). It said that Deputy Chief David Borst and Officer George Hunnewell were members of a “subversive organization,” Isaacs said, adding that he could not be more exact because he was not authorized to release that information, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
Isaacs was preparing an internal investigation into the two officers on Friday, based on the report, which cited only confidential FBI informants. He told WFTV that there was no documentation or proof that the men were involved outside of the sources. Based on that information, the police chief placed both men on administrative leave.
Borst, a 20-year veteran of law enforcement, resigned when Isaacs confronted him, though he denied any involvement in the group. An FBI informant said the deputy chief was involved with the Klan from 2005 to 2009, according to Click Orlando. Borst also resigned from his post as the Fruitland Park fire chief.
"It's a tough situation. He was my assistant," Isaacs told the Sentinel, adding he had not witnessed behavior by Borst that would substantiate the charge. "I'm not saying I believe him. I'm not saying I don't believe him. But I've read the report, and it's convincing."
Isaacs asked the Fruitland Park city manager for approval to fire Hunnewell based on a review of his record with the department. The officer had previously been demoted from corporal in 2013 and received five “letters of counseling” in the past year for conduct, attitude and performance. Three informants linked Hunnewell to the KKK from 2005 to 2009.
"I just had no faith in him," Isaacs said to the Sentinel, referring to Hunnewell. The police chief told the Daily Commercial that the former corporal was a marginal employee.
Isaacs sought counsel from Chief Deputy State Attorney Ric Ridgway before beginning the investigation into the two policemen.
While it is not illegal to be a member of the KKK, it is against department policy to belong to an anti-government organization, the Daily Commercial reported. Ridgway told the Sentinel that such membership can cause problems for state prosecutors in a case based on evidence provided by a KKK member or supporter.
"It's not a crime to be a member of the KKK, even if you are the deputy chief. It's not a crime to be stupid," Ridgway said. "It's not a crime to hate people. It may be despicable, it may be immoral, but it's not a crime."
This is not the first time that Fruitland Park police officers have been tied to the Klan. In 2009, pictures surfaced of Officer James Elkins wearing his police uniform, with a Ku Klux Klan robe and pointy hood over top, one hand resting casually on his gun and the other gripping his belt, the Sentinel reported. Elkins resigned when asked about the photographs and KKK documents promoting him to "District Kleagle." That information had been anonymously mailed to the Lake County Sheriff’s Office.
At the beginning of this year, Orlando’s ABC affiliate WFTV reported on the activities of the KKK’s Florida chapter, after “its members' activities have started heating up in central Florida.”
The station interviewed the grand dragon and a new member at the end of January about recruitment fliers and other actions by the group.
"What you've seen is just the tip of the iceberg right now," said the grand dragon who oversees the Florida chapter. "We have police officers, paramedics, judges. They're everywhere."
Isaacs expressed shock at the information unearthed in the FBI report. "The last thing I was expecting to hear in the year 2014 was for a professional law-enforcement officer to be a member of a subversive organization," he told the Sentinel.
Others in Florida expressed dismay as well.
“Yes, this is 2014, but even now Florida is near the top when it comes to being home to hate groups. Despite all our progress, we still have work to do,” Tampa Bay Times columnist Ernest Hooper wrote.
The FBI assured Isaacs that no other officers have been linked to the KKK, WFTV reported.
"We are here, we are in place, and I want the public to know this type of conduct will not even be remotely tolerated," Isaacs said to My News 13.