Exclusive: Newly emerged expert report alleges ‘cover-up’ in 2014 fatal Tampa police drug raid

TPD raided Jason Westcott's house in 2014 and killed him, only to find .02 grams of weed.

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click to enlarge Photo of Jason Westcott with his mother, Patti Silliman in 2003. - Patti Silliman
Patti Silliman
Photo of Jason Westcott with his mother, Patti Silliman in 2003.

Five years ago, former DEA agent Michael Levine, an internationally recognized policing expert and investigative author, submitted an expert report that fully condemned Tampa Police Department (TPD) for its controversial 2014 SWAT raid that ended in the death of Jason Westcott.

Westcott was 29 years old when the TPD SWAT team brought a military-style vehicle and tactical response trailer to his home on W Knollwood Street near Lowry Park Zoo, where he lived with his boyfriend. Armored police pulled into Westcott’s neighborhood at night and broke into his home to search for drugs. Moments later, Westcott was shot to death by police. According to TPD records within Levine's report, after Westcott was killed, the police found .02 grams of marijuana in his house.

Westcott’s mother Patti Silliman says her son loved his family very much. He was a motorcycle mechanic and spent a lot of his time working on his friends' bikes and cars for free. “He was the type of person who would give the shirt off of his back,” Silliman says. “He was the man of the family.”

She’s been heartbroken and searching for answers ever since, but a lawsuit she filed against TPD in 2014 has yet to go to trial. It wasn’t until recently that Silliman saw the entirety of Levine’s 195-page expert report on her son’s death. Seven years after Westcott’s death, the report sheds new light on what happened to her son that day.

Levine’s report contains a scathing takedown of TPD’s operation leading up to and including the moment when TPD broke into Westcott’s house and killed him.

Expert reports are usually commissioned by either the defense or prosecution in a case and used to inform the court on matters outside its expertise; Levine’s report was requested by Silliman’s lawyer at the time, TJ Grimaldi. Silliman submitted Levine's report to The Florida Bar in connection with a complaint against Grimaldi.

The actions of the officers involved in Westcott’s death constitute what Levine calls a, “craven and reckless disregard to public safety.” And more than that, Levine’s report alleges that what TPD did after was to try and cover-up their behavior.

“In view of the totality of findings herein, I must consider this evidence indicative of corruption and cover-up,” Levine wrote after reviewing all the evidence he obtained from TPD about the case. “In fact, the totality of findings herein indicates that the violence is precisely what DEFENDANTS [TPD] were trying to achieve.” 

The report was shared with Creative Loafing Tampa Bay by Silliman—who is still suing TPD over the death with a new attorney, John McGuire—after she looked over the report for her ongoing case. According to McGuire, a trial date is finally in the works. In the meantime, Levine’s report supports Silliman’s suspicions of foul play surrounding her son’s death. 

A confidential informant (CI) who TPD used to build the case against Westcott by having the CI buy small amounts of marijuana from Westcott publicly admitted that he lied about Westcott’s drug activity. And according to Levine’s report, in interviews after Westcott’s death, the CI said that he was coached by the police to say that he saw a pound of marijuana in his house when he did not. TPD said they shot Westcott because he pointed a gun at them when they came into the house, but Levine contradicts this in his report, alleging, “At no time did he point his gun at any defendant [TPD].”

Citing this and other damning evidence, Levine’s report referred to TPD’s drug sting that led to Westcott’s death as “homicide” and “murder”.

click to enlarge Photo of TPD's response vehicles the night Westcott was killed. - Screenshot from Michael Levine Report
Screenshot from Michael Levine Report
Photo of TPD's response vehicles the night Westcott was killed.

Standing by his word

Although five years have passed since the report, Levine still agrees with the content of it.

“I stand by everything in that report from 2016, and no new information has come to my attention that would make me think anything other than what I wrote,” Levine told CL this month before declining to comment further.

The report starts with a long list of Levine’s extensive credentials and experience in training and examining police activity during his career, which spans more than five decades. Law enforcement agencies and justice organizations around the world have contacted Levine for analysis and education.

He’s exposed corruption within the DEA and CIA through novel-length investigative reporting and conducted thousands of drug operations—none of which went as wrong as TPD’s, he says in the report.

According to TPD disciplinary records obtained by Levine, Cpl. Ben Brown—the officer who oversaw the fatal raid—had previously sustained charges for interfering with the judicial process and other violations during his time on the force. Brown also refused to properly document the killing of Westcott, Levine alleges.

“The defendant in charge of the operation CPL. Brown filed no official reports that describe his actions as well as his reasoning thereto prior and during the actions that would result in the homicide of Mr. Westcott,” Levine wrote. “In the past 25 years I have reviewed in excess of 200 police involved shootings; this is the first one I have ever reviewed in which the supervisory officer filed no reports.” 

In 2015, the year after the Westcott shooting, Ben Brown was selected as an officer of the month at TPD

Levine wrote that Brown’s behavior was a reflection of TPD’s overall character at the time. He said the “hands-off look the other way attitude” of TPD management in the situation typifies what the global study on corruption and abuse of power has found to be enabling, if not encouraging police abuse of power. 

“I had some sad and well documented experiences with dysfunctional law enforcement agencies, giving officers whom had been caught violating felony laws a ‘break’ by only charging them administratively,” Levine added.

TPD confirmed that Brown is still an employee of the department, but did not give specifics about his current position. TPD has yet to respond to queries about whether or not Brown was reprimanded for the Westcott incident and if there was a response to Levine’s condemnation of the SWAT operation. This post will be updated if any response comes in.

A screenshot of Levine's report highlighting Brown's violations. - Screenshot from Michael Levine Report
Screenshot from Michael Levine Report
A screenshot of Levine's report highlighting Brown's violations.

In 2016, just over two weeks after receiving Levine's report, TJ Grimaldi, Silliman’s former lawyer, accepted the defense’s motion to dismiss Cpl. Brown, along with Jane Castor—who was chief of police at the time of Westcott’s killing— from the case.

“The Motion is granted without prejudice, based on the concession of Plaintiff’s Counsel in the Response to the Motion to Dismiss, as to Defendants Ben Brown and Jane Castor,” Judge William P. Levens wrote in a November 2016 court document.

For those not versed in legal terms, this essentially means that Silliman’s attorney, Grimaldi, conceded to release Brown and Castor from the case.

Silliman fired Grimaldi in 2019. Included in Grimaldi’s transfer of files related to their lawsuit, was the full 195-page report, which she says she had yet to see in its entirety. Seeing the full report leaves Silliman wondering why then-police chief Castor and Brown were dismissed from the case, after her attorney had received Levine’s report.

A month after Castor and Brown were dismissed from the case, Haydee Oropesa, a local attorney and Florida Bar member who knew Grimaldi, confronted him, questioning him about connections with Castor and her partner Ana Cruz.

In a December 2016 email shared with CL by Silliman, Oropesa said she was left unsettled by a recent conversation she had with Grimaldi. 

“When you indicated that Janet Cruz and Ana Cruz (Jane Castor's significant other) were in your network of friends and I inquired what your client (Jason Westcott's mother) thought of that and you responded that you had not disclosed it because you did not think it was necessary, I was stunned,” Oropesa wrote in the email.

Oropesa went on to say that as a Florida Bar member, she urged Grimaldi to disclose the information to Silliman to allow her to make the call about the connection, and if she’d want Grimaldi to still represent her.

“I think that is the appropriate ethical/moral action to take,” Oropesa wrote. “If you have any doubts/disagreements, you should make use of the Florida Bar confidential ethics hotline.” 

Grimaldi replied that he was not friends with Castor, although they had met several times and he did admit he was friends with her significant other’s family. 

“While I appreciate your concern I will try and explain again,” Grimaldi wrote back to Oropesa. “Jane Castor is not my friend. I have met her three times. She would not be able to pick me out of a crowd, trust me. Secondly, Janet, her girlfriend is a friend that I have seen 2 times in the last maybe 1 to 2.5 years. I am not suing Ana. Additionally, I am closer with Janet [Sen Janet Cruz (D)], the mother of Ana and I have only seen her 3 times in the last year.”

[Editor's note: Grimaldi is mixing up Janet and Ana Cruz in these emails; Janet Cruz, now a State Senator, is the mother of Ana Cruz, who is now Mayor Castor's partner.]

Oropesa went on to explain that Grimaldi told her he was at a party with Ana and Janet Cruz on Halloween of 2016, the day Levine submitted his report. Sixteen days after that Halloween party, Castor and Brown were dismissed from the case, with Grimaldi’s consent. 

Grimaldi told Oropesa she was “way off base” and wrote, “I get your opinion, but I will ask for it when I need it.”

Silliman later fired Grimaldi, and filed a complaint against Grimaldi with The Florida Bar. In the grievance, she said that Grimaldi did not properly disclose this alleged conflict of interest to her, among other accusations.

Silliman also submitted Levine’s report to the Bar in October of this year. 

The Florida Bar confirmed to CL that the grievance is now closed. Silliman says that she questioned their decision making in closing the grievance, and that she was told the Bar was reviewing the information. The Bar did not confirm anything beyond the case being closed in conversation with CL. 

CL reached out to TJ Grimaldi to get his input about the situation.

Grimaldi said that he disagreed with most if not all of the claims made by Silliman and Oropesa, especially about why Brown and Castor were dismissed from the case. 

Many of the statements/concerns that you typed below are either false or inaccurate and not complete,” Grimaldi wrote in an email in response to CL’s inquiry. “However, based on the fact that this is an on-going case AND due to concerns that I have over attorney-client privilege, as you are asking about things that pertain to when I did in fact represent Patti Silliman, I am afraid that I can’t discuss any specifics with you at this time. I strongly suggest that you do your own legal research to figure out why your statements and conclusions you reached are inaccurate, false and incomplete before you just take someone’s word for it.”

When CL asked Grimaldi for input on what specific legal research he would recommend, he pointed to Florida Statute 768.28. Inside the law, there is a section that discusses protection for individuals from civil suits in certain cases.

“An officer, employee, or agent of the state or of any of its subdivisions may not be held personally liable in tort or named as a party defendant in any action for any injury or damage suffered as a result of any act, event, or omission of action in the scope of her or his employment or function, unless such officer, employee, or agent acted in bad faith or with malicious purpose or in a manner exhibiting wanton and willful disregard of human rights, safety, or property.”

Essentially, this means that Brown and Castor would be protected from a legal suit, unless there was bad faith or malicious, unsafe behavior on their part.

Grimaldi confirmed to CL that this aspect of the law offers a clearer picture of why things occurred the way they did in 2016.

Levine’s report over and over again references TPD’s behavior that day as malicious, and a reckless disregard for public safety, which the law states as the exception for qualified immunity.

In Levine's eyes, the corruption went so far that an outside investigation was warranted. 

A call for a federal investigation, to no avail

Inside his report, Levine called for a full independent investigation into TPD over the Westcott shooting. 

“The failure to address these failures by TAMPA PD management provides probable cause of a level of abuse of power that, in my opinion, merits referral to the appropriate federal authority for criminal investigation,” he wrote. 

Levine—who still stands by the call to have the shooting be reviewed through an outside investigation—told CL that he never heard back after submitting his report.

Westcott’s mother, Silliman, has also been calling for a federal investigation into her son’s killing for seven years now. She’s still seeking answers for the grim scenario that upended her and her family’s lives.

When she talks about what she sees as a conspiracy to cover-up what the TPD did to her son, which Levine’s report supports, she still has to say multiple times while explaining it, “I’m not crazy,” because the lack of answers and absence of what she sees as needed justice makes her feel so isolated. 

She claims that what they did was murder, and still seeks justice in her son’s name. 

“Nothing can make what they did right,” Silliman says. “But TPD needs to admit what happened to my son, and there needs to be justice here.”

click to enlarge Patti Silliman stands outside of TPD Headquarters holding a protest sign in 2014. - Patti Silliman via a family member
Patti Silliman via a family member
Patti Silliman stands outside of TPD Headquarters holding a protest sign in 2014.

UPDATED 11/05/21 3:30 p.m. Updated to make note that Grimaldi briefly mixed up Janet and Ana Cruz in his emails to another attorney.

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About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia has written for The Nation, Investigative Reporters & Editors Journal, the USA Today Network and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

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