Corruption in the Clearwater Police Department
The afternoon sun streamed through a wide gap in the curtains, spilling its warmth across the neatly set table. There sat a crisp legal pad, a reliable pen, and a strategically placed quartz watch, its well-worn leather band dried and curling. It was a gift from Kyle, but I couldn’t recall whether it had been for Christmas, Mother’s Day, or my birthday. Only the memory of the special moment remained: a sweet, smiling, round-faced boy standing in front of me, his outstretched hands cradling the treasured gift.
I’d already started writing on the pad: The date, April 5th, 2007, topped the page. Below I’d penned a bulleted list of questions, well-spaced in anticipation of the answers to come.
The phone buzzed and vibrated atop the notebook. I was expecting the call. For the past three days, I’d been leaving messages for the Clearwater, Florida, police detective who was investigating Kyle’s death.Now, finally, he was returning my call.
Glancing at the scratched watch face, I eased into the age-worn Windsor chair. Pen in hand, I carefully jotted down the time, 1:17 p.m. It was standard procedure for an interview. I felt prepared, but as I reached for the phone, I realized I was filled with dread.
In the early days after my son’s death, we were puzzled as to why the police department hadn’t contacted us. Their silence was disturbing. In March of 2007, just weeks after Kyle died, his oldest brother was the first family member to call the Clearwater Police Department. This is when we learned that Detective Stephen Bohling had been assigned to the case. Bohling was a veteran, he’d spent most of his 16-year career with the Clearwater department. After speaking with him only twice, however, Kyle’s brother thought it best that someone else ask him our questions. He said the police detective had been glib and arrogant, even antagonistic.
That’s when I realized I needed to talk with Bohling myself. I desperately wanted to understand how, and why, my son had died. But my heart was shattered. My emotions at the time weren’t even perceptible; they’d consumed me, they’d become me. To get answers—not just for me, but for everyone who loved Kyle—I had to somehow will my psyche past the pain that was still very raw and overwhelming. Now I understood that I’d have to compartmentalize my anguish, file it away. I also knew I couldn’t let my guard down. Ever-present were the words of the Dominican priest: “They will take your grief,” he’d warned, “and use it as a weapon against you.”
There were so many troubling questions. After Kyle’s belongings were sent home, for example, we’d discovered that his computer had been accessed in the middle of the night, but a few hours after his death. Everything had been deleted. Tom Brennan, Kyle’s father, had changed his initial story about the night Kyle died. And the details changed weren’t minor; they were eyebrow-raising, red flag alterations: where he’d been, who he’d been with, and the time he’d arrive home.
Brennan’s first narrative placed him in his apartment, with Kyle, at the time of Kyle’s death. And evidently, Brennan wasn’t the only one there that fatal night. One of my biggest questions was the identity of “Gerry” the cold-voiced stranger who’d called our home that night to tell us Kyle was gone: not Brennan, not the police. Kyle’s brother had asked the detective this question. Bohling’s response had been “some Scientology guy.” We assumed he was a roommate. But that’s what happens when facts are murky—you make assumptions. I was determined to stitch together the facts about that evening.
I knew the basic questions a detective should ask when investigating a gunshot death. Was the victim left- or right-handed? What were the results of the gunshot residue test? Were the victim’s fingerprints on the weapon? Had the fired bullet been recovered? Was there a suicide note? If so, had it been compared to the victim’s handwriting?
Taking a deep breath, I picked up the phone.
“Good afternoon, Victoria Britton speaking.”
“Hello, Mrs. Britton, Detective Stephen Bohling from the Clearwater Police Department returning your call. I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner. I heard the messages, but I’ve been out of the office doing some training.”
“I have a son who’s about Kyle’s age,” he continued, “and I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.”
“You spoke with Kyle’s brother a few weeks back?” I asked.
“Yeah…yeah…I spoke with him,” the detective responded in a detached manner.
“This shouldn’t take up too much of your time,” I said calmly. “I’ve got some questions about the investigation. There’s information that’s come back to me that’s troubling, and I need some clarification.” I planned to let the detective do most of the talking by asking open-ended questions.
“So, what’s the status of my son’s case?”
“Well…,” he replied, “currently, it’s open.”
“Open?” I asked, mirroring his answer back to him. Then I waited, silently. Silence implies you expect more of an answer. And silent pauses often make people uncomfortable, goading them into filling the awkward void.
Now a gush of information poured from Detective Bohling. It was exactly what I’d hoped for.
“Yeah, I’m looking for Brennan’s roommate, Eddie Childers,” he said. “I need to ask him some questions about the room he was staying in at Brennan’s. I want to ask if he remembers seeing the gun inside a nightstand in that room.”
I hurriedly jotted down the information. Evidently, Childers bedroom was the same one Kyle had been using.
“Have you asked Brennan why he’d store a weapon in a guest bedroom?”
Leaving my question unanswered, Bohling shot back with one of his own: “Do you think your ex is capable of harming Kyle?”
“It would be hard for me to imagine any parent who would want to harm their child,” I quickly responded. Continuing the conversation, I knew, demanded that I tamp down my emotions. I needed to be deliberate, measured, methodical.
“I’m not understanding the logic behind Tom Brennan’s behavior,” I told him. “Why would he lock up Kyle’s medication but not the weapon? Shouldn’t it have been the other way around?”
“Yeah,” he said, “I’ve thought the same thing.” So far the detective seemed amiable, sympathetic.
“About the ammunition and the weapon,” I said. “I’m assuming you’ve asked Kyle’s father about this. When was the ammunition purchased for the weapon?”
“Brennan said the ammunition came with the gun.”
“That’s a lie,” I said sharply.
“There’s no law against buying ammunition in the State of Florida,” said the detective.
“That’s true,” I said firmly, “but I’d like to rule out that it was purchased when Kyle was staying in the apartment. Can you ask Brennan for me, for Kyle’s family, when he purchased the ammunition and where it was stored?”
Again, Bohling responded with a question: “Did you know that your ex has hired a lawyer?”
“Why would he need to do that?” I asked, tightly gripping the pen—and silently cursing to myself—as I scribbled it down. This was going to make it more difficult to get my questions answered.
“That’s what we’re asking down here, too!”
“Can we discuss the weapon that may have killed Kyle and the gunshot residue test?” I asked. “Were my son’s fingerprints found on the weapon?”
“We never processed the gun or the scene for fingerprints,” snapped the detective, obviously agitated.
With the conversation heating up—and my anger rising—I was thankful we were talking over the phone and not face-to-face. The pregnant pause that followed only made things worse. My mind was spinning.
Bohling broke the silence. “Do you know of any reason why your ex would want to kill Kyle?” This repeated query from the detective now had its own spot in the margin, emphasized with question-marks.
“There’s no reason why anyone would want to kill my son,” I replied. “He’s gentle and non-confrontational. What’s troubling me, detective, is the pieces are not fitting together. So, you never processed the weapon or the scene for fingerprints? What can you tell me about the gunshot residue test?”
“Not much,” Bohling responded coolly.
“Not much? … Kyle’s hands, were they tested?” I asked flatly, rhythmically tapping my pen on the legal pad.
“Never tested Kyle’s hands.”
“How about Tom Brennan’s hands? What were the results of his GSR test?”
His answer didn’t shock me. I was expecting it. Nonetheless, my stomach was knotted like a clenched fist. Something is always left behind at the scene of a crime or an unexpected death. Prints tell a story. I knew it, the detective knew it. Why hadn’t he tested the weapon? With no evidence of fingerprints—no loops, ridges, or whorls—how did he know it was a suicide? These are critical questions. His lack of testing meant that evidence was lost. I was struck with a sudden pang a fear. Perhaps I’d never know the truth.
As I quickly recorded his answers, I eyed the watch. We were only a few minutes into the conversation, but the detective’s flippant attitude, as well as the subpar nature of his careless investigation, were already totally apparent.
I questioned Bohling about Kyle’s stolen property. At the time of his death, he had a number of valuable gold and silver coins in his possession. Someone—we didn’t know who—rummaged through his belongings in a Dickensian manner and took them. Was it his father, an unnamed Scientologist, or a member of the Clearwater Police Department? Who would pick the pockets of the dead?
Bohling had no answer. What’s worse: he expressed no interest in obtaining one.
I was frustrated. Talking with the detective had only generated more questions. And aside from asking whether Brennan could’ve killed Kyle, he had no other questions. Why wasn’t he asking me whether Kyle was right- or left-handed? Why didn’t he want a sample of his handwriting? Why wasn’t he curious about what Brennan had told my family about that night? Basic investigative procedures weren’t being followed. Was this standard behavior at the Clearwater police department? Or, was there something about my son’s case that made it an exception? Bohling’s non-answers—and his antagonistic attitude—didn’t make sense.
“I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today, detective,” I said, winding things down. “Can we speak again soon? After you interview Brennan and Childers?”
“Yeah,” he responded halfheartedly. “When I locate him, I’ll ask him about the gun in the apartment.”
“Thanks for doing that…. I wasn’t there for Kyle in the last moments. This presses hard on my conscience. If we can get some answers, perhaps I’ll be able to sleep a little better at night. I know you understand, being a parent with a son of your own.”
“Do you have anything else for me?”
“I’ve one last question before I go: who’s Gerry?”
“Gentile is his name,” he said with a snicker. “Gerry Gentile.”
“I don’t know who this person is,” I said. “I’m confused…. Why was Gentile in the apartment before the police or EMTs arrived? Do you know what he was doing there with Kyle’s father?”
“I think, maybe some type of counseling.”
“Counseling before calling 911? Does that make sense to you? Because it doesn’t to me.”
“No, no it doesn’t,” he agreed. “I’m going to contact Gentile and bring him in for an interview.”
That sounded right. In the end, I hoped that detective Bohling would do what he’d promised. I wanted to believe that.
Detective Stephen Bohling never followed up with answers to my questions. As the weeks passed, we knew we needed a lawyer. Sixteen months would pass before he’d conduct a formal interview with Gerald Gentile. Five months after my interview with Bohling, I learned that Gentile is the brother-in-law of David Miscavige, the controversial leader of the Church of Scientology.
Bohling had lied to me over the phone. When the case closed, and we read his official police report—a concoction of misrepresentations, half-truths, and outright lies—we finally learned the extent of his deception and misconduct. Kyle’s hands and the weapon had been tested. Bohling himself had stopped the gunshot residue test from being further analyzed. The weapon, along with thirteen other items tested, came back negative for fingerprints or ridge detail.
A few years later, when Detective Bohling was deposed under oath, he committed perjury.
A falsified narrative of our conversation made its way into the newspapers, and spread like wildfire across the Internet. Kyle’s humanity was stripped away—his name trampled under the weight of misinformed social media commentary. Anonymous posters wagered that, because I’d exposed Clearwater Police Department wrongdoing, I’d end up as alligator-bait in the Florida Everglades.
Detective Stephen Bohling, on the other hand, received an award. Despite his lies, and despite his criminal mishandling of the investigation, American Legion Post #7 named him “Clearwater Law Enforcement Officer of the Year.” According to the press release, Bohling was recognized “for his dedication to the law enforcement profession, his commitment to serving the citizens of Clearwater and his support to surrounding law enforcement agencies and communities.”
After my phone conversation with Bohling, alone with my thoughts, I gazed out the bay window across the yard where Kyle once played. As I’d discovered while gardening, it’s a veritable minefield of buried marbles, lost dinosaurs, and forgotten soldiers—the bits and pieces of a youngster’s life. I thought of the little boy, and the teenager he once was . . . and the grown man he’d never become.
Crime Scene Information
Britton; deposition excerpts