It started with a kiss and ended with an undercover police officer disgraced and fired.
Winter Park Police Department Detective Carlos Calderon was terminated Feb. 16 after a four-month internal investigation. Calderon was spearheading an investigation into Club Harem, which led to three suspected drug dealers and two former employees being charged.
Club Harem attorney Steve Mason accused Calderon of having a romantic relationship with Michelle Merry, one of the dancers — and the police department agreed.
"While the exact extent of the relationship is not known, there is clear evidence that you and she (Merry) established a personal relationship of a romantic nature, which could have interfered with the performance of the important duties to which you were assigned," wrote Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey in the letter firing Calderon.
The police department has declined to go on record about the incident until after Calderon's appeal is heard by the Winter Park Civil Service Board, a date that has yet to be set. Attempts to reach the police union and Calderon were also unsuccessful, and calls to Mason's office weren't returned before deadline.
Calderon posed as Luis Lopez, a construction worker, during his undercover investigation into Club Harem, where he met Merry. The police department couldn't find Merry to interview her as part of the investigation — the last reports were that she was working for in Casselberry, but the police department's attempts to reach her were unsuccessful.
Club Harem has publicly called foul against the whole investigation in the press, saying that Winter Park simply wants the only strip club in city limits to close down. The club property is once again up for lease, as the most recent tenant was forced to close down. Police investigations had indirectly led to clubs at the site being forced to close in the past, under multiple owners.
Winter Park Mayor Ken Bradley defended the police department's current investigation.
"As it relates to other kinds of crimes, if you're a business in this community and you feel like you're being harassed, you may need to consider what you're doing," Bradley said. "We don't harass. We enforce."
When Mason filed the complaint, he filed Merry's deposition, in which she said that she was attracted to Calderon and they talked on the phone and sent text messages. But the night with which police were most concerned was Merry's birthday.
On that night, she met friends for drinks at McRaney's Tavern in Winter Park and opened her gifts. She got a text from Calderon wishing her a happy birthday and wishing he was there.
So Merry had her friend drop her off downtown. They had pizza, held hands and Calderon took her home — where they kissed, according to reports. In repeated interviews with the department, Calderon denied the night happened, even when he was told he likely wouldn't be fired.
"During the investigation, instead of being forthright with Lt. (Earl) Barber (the officer who conducted the investigation), admitting your mistakes and being repentant, you were evasive as well as untruthful," Railey wrote in Calderon's termination letter.
While police couldn't find Merry, they did find the friend who dropped her off downtown; he was able to pick Calderon out of a lineup, as well as recall that Calderon wore his hair in corn rows. Calderon had a police-issued phone as well as a prepaid phone he used during the investigation.
Call records showed more than 100 phone calls were made between Merry and Calderon — including a 20-minute phone call on Merry's birthday. Calderon told investigators he couldn't remember what they talked about, but that it was business.
But Calderon never mentioned Merry in any of his reports, and she wasn't considered a source in the investigation. During the deposition, they asked Merry if Calderon ever touched her inappropriately.
Merry vigorously defended Calderon.
"It is improbable that Ms. Merry would defend Detective Calderon on these allegations and then make up a story about meeting with Detective Calderon on her birthday, eating pizza and French kissing him," Barber wrote in the internal affairs report.
Calderon was fired for nonfeasance (intentionally leaving out a truth), conduct unbecoming a police officer and immoral, unlawful, indecent or improper conduct that would affect his reputation in the community.