FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. >> A Florida sheriff’s deputy copied a videotape of a mass shooting at Fort Lauderdale’s airport last January that killed five people and leaked it to the website TMZ, according to a warrant that led to his arrest today.
Deputy Michael Dingman, 47, leaked surveillance video of Esteban Santiago opening fire last Jan. 6 inside a baggage claim area at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to the Los Angeles-based news and celebrity gossip website, investigators said.
TMZ posted the 22-second video two days after the shooting. It shows Santiago pulling a handgun from his waistband and firing three shots as panicked passengers scrambled. He then runs off the screen.
Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel said Dingman’s actions “took away from the amazing performance” done by his deputies and other law enforcement officers after the shooting.
“At the end of the day, this is about one deputy who chose to tarnish the badge,” Israel said. He said the leak did not hinder the shooting investigation. He also said that while TMZ is known to pay large sums for videos, the investigation found no evidence Dingman had been paid.
Deputy Jeff Bell, president of the Broward Sheriff’s Office Deputies Association, the union that represents the county’s deputies, said Dingman will fight the charges.
“We feel very confident that his defense will address every single issue,” Bell said.
Michael Finesilver, Dingman’s attorney, declined comment. TMZ did not return a call and email seeking comment.
Dingman, who has been suspended without pay, was released today shortly after he surrendered on $2,000 bail on charges of violating Florida public records laws, surreptitiously making the video and tampering with evidence by deleting files from his cellphone then tossing it in his pool.
Under Florida law, criminal evidence such as the shooting video usually only becomes a public record when the investigation is complete.
According to Dingman’s arrest warrant filed by Detective Joshua Webb, investigators noticed that the TMZ video was taken by a cellphone recording it from a computer screen. The reflection showed a sergeant was sitting in front of the screen and that the video had been recorded in the sheriff’s office’s airport station.
Sgt. Scott Yurchuck told investigators he had brought Dingman and two other deputies assigned to the airport into his office early Jan. 8 to show them the video for training purposes, playing it several times. Yurchuck said he remembered Dingman standing behind him in the spot the video appeared to be recorded from and that the deputy was holding his cellphone.
Investigators then searched the websites Dingman visited using his sheriff’s office computer and found he visited TMZ’s website shortly after he left Yurchuck’s office. They say his cellphone records show Dingman’s phone called TMZ and several local news outlets that morning using a system that blocks the user’s identity.
They say Dingman’s phone had four calls that morning with a phone number belonging to TMZ founder, Harvey Levin, less than an hour before the video appeared on the website.
On Jan. 10, a Broward captain, lieutenant, sergeant and Webb went to Dingman’s house to confront him and confiscate his sheriff’s computer and patrol car. Webb said Dingman told them he knew why they were there.
Webb said Dingman told him he had “made a huge mistake” and that his “credibility” was gone, without specifically referencing TMZ.
Webb said Dingman, on advice of his attorney, refused to surrender his cellphone without a warrant. After Webb obtained one, Dingman allegedly gave him a different one than the one he’d had at the airport Jan. 8.
As Webb was leaving, he says Dingman told him, “Do you guys think I made money on this thing? Because if so, I didn’t.”
After the alleged phone deception was discovered, Webb got a search warrant for Dingman’s home on Jan. 13. Dingman pointed him to a phone sitting in a plastic container filled with rice — a common attempted fix for cellphones that have gotten wet.
Dingman told Webb he had dropped it into the pool on the day the video had been recorded, but “It’s not what you think.”
Webb wrote that a subsequent investigation found that the cellphone had been erased before being submerged in water. Also, all of Dingman’s sheriff’s office emails from that period had been erased, which can only be done by someone with Dingman’s password.
Santiago’s trial for the shooting is scheduled for next year. The FBI says Santiago admitted committing the shootings in recorded interviews with agents.