The Palm Beach County State Attorney decided Wednesday to file charges against Ocean Ridge Vice Mayor Richard Lucibella.
Lucibella, 63, was arrested Oct. 22 after town police said he fired a gun, then violently resisted officers. He faced charges of battery on a law enforcement officer, resisting arrest with violence, using a firearm under the influence of alcohol and firing a weapon in residential or public property. The State Attorney is pursuing the first three charges, said Lucibella’s attorney, Marc Shiner.
The vice mayor, who was elected as commissioner and then appointed to his position by the commission, could not be reached for comment Thursday. Neither could Ocean Ridge Mayor Geoff Pugh.
Last month at a town commission meeting, which Lucibella did not attend, Pugh said residents have asked what the officials plan to do moving forward, however the town’s attorney said the commissioners have no authority to take action. Only Governor Rick Scott has the authority to remove an official from office. There is a high probability he would do so if charges are filed, the attorney said according to the clerk’s minutes.
Shiner on Thursday said Lucibella, whose three-year term ends in March, is still an active commissioner.
The elected officials have been advised not to talk about the case. But Commissioner James Bonfiglio did say body cameras would have come in handy during the arrest. He said if the officers were wearing them there wouldn’t be a “he said/she said situation.” Hutchins presented information about the cameras at Monday’s commission meeting, however the officials delayed a decision on whether to buy them.
Meanwhile, the police department has an open investigation into the arrest, and all who were involved, Police Chief Hal Hutchins said Thursday. That includes Lt. Steven Wohlfiel, who was with Lucibella the night of his arrest and was described as being “intoxicated.” Wohlfiel is one of two lieutenants in the department who report directly to the chief. Hutchins has since assigned Wohlfiel to unspecified “alternate duties.”
The officers who arrested Lucibella were not working because of minor injuries they received during the arrest, but have both since returned to work, Hutchins said.
Lucibella’s attorney has accused the arresting officer, Richard Ermeri, of “excessive force” that resulted in three broken ribs and a black eye for the vice mayor. Lucibella, the CEO and director of Accountable Care Options, a Boynton Beach-based group of physician-directed organizations, was knocked unconscious after he was “smashed face-first into the ground,” Shiner said.
Ocean Ridge Police said they were called to Lucibella’s home after reports of shots fired. They found him sitting on patio chairs with Wohlfiel. Officers saw Lucibella sit on top of the firearm, Lucibella’s arrest report says. He was told to stand up and was taken into custody. Officers found a Glock .40-caliber handgun, several spent shell-casings on the patio and a semi-automatic pistol that was in Lucibella’s back pocket.
Police said Lucibella and Wohlfiel were “obviously intoxicated based upon their demeanor and behavior,” and Lucibella became “belligerent and uncooperative.” He wanted to go inside his house and poked an officer in the chest several times. He became violent when an officer stopped him, the report said. During his arrest, Lucibella sustained an injury to his left eye but declined medical treatment.
Shiner previously said the arrest was illegal because the officer didn’t see Lucibella fire the gun, and improperly seized the man’s weapons.
The October arrest isn’t Lucibella’s first interaction with town police. A public battle two years ago between he and former Police Chief Chris Yannuzzi led to the chief’s resignation.
In 2014 Lucibella found a stolen credit card on his property. He declined to give the card to an officer, saying he’d turn it into the chief later.
Yannuzzi reported not hearing from the commissioner for three days and called him to follow up. The conversation became heated when he told the commissioner Florida statute required him to turn in the credit card, an assertion that Yannuzzi later said was wrong.
Yannuzzi also recorded the conversation without telling the commissioner, which is legal for a police officer to do if it is for investigative purposes. In the phone call, the commissioner told Yannuzzi he’d try every month to get the chief fired until it happened.
The chief went on to discuss the situation with the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office public integrity unit, Palm Beach County Ethics Commission and the inspector general. According to the police report, none of those offices chose to pursue the situation.
The problem between the two escalated and Town Manager Ken Schenck decided Yannuzzi should either resign or be fired.
Separately, some residents collected signatures with the hopes of having Lucibella removed from the commission. That failed.
Staff writer Jorge Milian contributed to this story.