Above, a screenshot from the trailer for "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965).
By Susan Katz Keating, RealClearInvestigations
August 6, 2019
It’s high season in Dewey Beach, Delaware, a strip of land between the Atlantic Ocean and Rehoboth Bay, where tourist literature promises visitors “sunny fun” with a wide range of activities including “boating, parasailing, wake boarding, water skiing, windsurfing, or even dolphin watching.”
What boosters don't mention is how or why the tiny town (year-round population: 341) got an arsenal of more than $2.8 million in surplus gear from the Pentagon – over 2,000 items including Humvees, rifles, pistols, all-terrain vehicles, a grenade launcher, and 10 sets of pajamas.
By all accounts, the town’s eight full-time police officers weren’t having any trouble maintaining public order with parking tickets and the like -- never mind facing an enemy storming of the beaches. Which only deepens the mystery behind all that hardware.
Answers emerged only through years of controversy marked by investigations, resignations, an arrest, a lawsuit and a stolen gun belt. One possible explanation: This is the kind of convoluted teapot tempest as common to small coastal towns as fried clams.
“It's a big mess," said Dewey Beach Police Lt. William Hocker.
"The whole thing is absurd," said former Mayor Diane Hanson.
Its origins are found not just in Dewey Beach but Washington, D.C., where Pentagon officials wrestled with large stocks of surplus equipment. Their solution: make it available – for free -- to local police forces around the country. Since 1997, when the current version of the program began, the Law Enforcement Support Office (LESO) has sent nearly $7 billion worth of items to more than 8,000 agencies that made requests from a long list of goodies posted online.
Despite its popularity, the program has gotten blowback from critics who say it has encouraged the militarization of police forces. Although Dewey Beach did, indeed, request and receive a grenade launcher, that wasn’t the issue. Instead of trying to ramp up its enforcement powers, Dewey Beach’s police department seemed to view the free program as a cash cow and a slush fund to be operated under the radar without general official knowledge or consent.
"A lot of towns do this," said Jeffrey Smith, who leads Dewey Citizens for Accountability, a watchdog group. "In those towns, the citizens decide whether to use the LESO program. Town officials give their permission."
But something was amiss in Dewey Beach, which lies just south of better-known Rehoboth Beach.
"I first had an inkling something was going on when the town bookkeeper asked me to sign off on a $100,000 purchase order on two police cars," is how former town manager Marc Appelbaum recalls it. The date was April 18, 2016.
"The cars came with all the bells and whistles," he added. But the town knew nothing about the purchase, Appelbaum said, and couldn't afford the vehicles.
Yet the police department had already figured out a way to buy them, Appelbaum told RealClearInvestigations: "They told me they couldn't send the cars back, because they had custom upgrades. They obtained the money themselves, by selling two pieces of equipment."
After consulting the town lawyer, Appelbaum signed a check for the two cars, believing the incident was a bizarre one-off.
Things were quiet for almost a year. Then a Dewey Beach police officer left his utility belt -- with its Taser, handcuffs, baton, loaded magazines, pepper spray, and police-issued pistol -- inside his unlocked patrol car overnight outside his girlfriend's house. During the wee hours, someone made off with the utility belt, pistol and all.
Contrary to Appelbaum's wishes, the department soon issued the officer, Sgt. Cliff Dempsey, a replacement handgun, in part so that he could defend himself in case an escaped prisoner from Maryland returned to Dewey Beach to attack him.
Appelbaum, remembering the purchase order and other incidents, believed this was a good time to examine the local constabulary. The town council agreed.
"We voted to bring in an outside consultant to look into the police department," ex-Mayor Hanson said. "Ten days later, a hailstorm broke loose."
That is, all hail broke loose on June 14, 2017, when a sensational communique arrived in the hands of town officials and local media. Signed by numerous complainants, the document charged Appelbaum with a litany of offenses, including bullying, telling dirty jokes, randomly shouting the word "fornication," wearing pajamas to work without underwear, and, lastly, messing with the police department.
The town swiftly brought in a team to investigate the charges. Max B. Walton, Esq., swept in from out of town, along with three assistants.
In the course of the inquiry, which exonerated Appelbaum of everything but occasional rudeness, Walton concluded that the letter was a work of retaliation. His team found something else: the LESO program.
"For an unknown period of time, the police department has received, stored, and sold federal surplus equipment," Walton wrote on page 11 of his 112-page report dated Sept. 20, 2017.
During his investigation, Walton resolved a longstanding mystery: Where, exactly, was all this equipment?
"No one seemed to know where it was," Hanson said. "Or if they knew, they weren't saying."
A number of trucks, it turned out, were held inside a gated enclosure in nearby Lewes, Delaware. At least some of the equipment was stored at an employee's farm, and some at a nearby auto body shop, Walton wrote. The police department holds the equipment for a required period of time, Walton noted, and then sells it and keeps the proceeds.
"Sale proceeds are not distributed to the Town, and the money is used at the department's discretion," Walton wrote.
The department sold some items at auction. A rotary sweeper went for $7,000. A motorized cart sold for $2,650. A forklift, $5,000. The proceeds went toward police cars.
Not everyone views this askance.
"Some people think it's bad for the police department to be self-sufficient," Lt. Hocker told RealClearInvestigations. In a small, cash-strapped town that sees a huge annual summer influx of beachgoers, the police need to be on their game with good equipment, Hocker indicated. And yet, he said: "Some people in the community want us to ride around in cars that have 200,000 miles on 'em, two flat tires, and windows that don't roll up."
The department used other equipment for barter. A wrecker valued at $168,960 was given to Coastal Towing in exchange for unspecified "services." So, too, was an all-terrain vehicle valued at $11,507. A forklift valued at $72,370 went to Dirt Works, also in exchange for "services."
The department kept some items for its officers, including bed frames and mattresses, combat tents, sleeping bags, a coffee maker, microwave, extreme weather trousers, and more.
The department spread some of its largesse to local children's organizations. It gave nine combat tents to local Cub Scouts, and a washer, dryer, tents, and an all-terrain vehicle to the Little League.
The core issue, critics say, is a lack of accountability.
"What do we have? Where is it? And how much money has come in?" said Smith, who has filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests regarding these and other civic-related questions.
Complete answers may not be available. In Walton's report, the investigator wrote that an anonymous police employee, "John Doe 4," said that the sale of surplus equipment subsidized a police "slush fund."
Which is why, in the aftermath of the Walton report and Appelbaum's departure from town with a six-figure settlement, Dewey Beach brought in another investigator.
In December 2017, the TGM Group -- public accountants from Salisbury, Maryland -- commenced examining various town departments, with an eye toward finding out if any of them generated and kept their own revenue.
In March 2018, TGM issued a preliminary report stating, among other things, that the police department had used some of its LESO property to conduct various off-books barter transactions. Additionally, TGM found, the department sold some of the LESO equipment, and stored some of the proceeds in cash inside an office safe.
Neither the police chief, Sam Mackert, nor the current mayor, T.J. Redefer, responded to repeated requests from RealClearInvestigations to explain the situation. Hocker, though, offered context.
"We didn't get anything intending to sell it," the police lieutenant said. It simply worked out that way, in part because some of the equipment was in such poor condition.
"Some of it's garbage," Hocker said. "It's broke, irreparable. When we were new to the program, we would show up with a hauler to get our equipment. Say, if it had no axle, they said, 'You put in for it, you gotta take it.' If I don't take what I put in for, I get looked at funny."
He explained: "Rather than get on the bad side of people involved, we just took it."
Thus spawned some of the sales, barters, and scrapping efforts, Hocker said.
Amid the public inquiries, meanwhile, the local press caught wind that something was astir involving surplus military equipment in Dewey Beach.
With media on hand, and a second report pending from TGM, the town Audit Committee held a meeting on Aug. 3, 2018. Citizen-watchdog Jeffrey Smith was among those attending. There, he and others concur, Smith and some journalists were given draft copies of the pending TGM report.
There ensued a dustup in which, Smith says, the committee chairman tried to yank the report from Smith's hands. As the episode progressed, Smith later wrote in court documents, the official attempted to rip the license plate from Smith's vehicle. Police were summoned, and Sgt. Dempsey -- the same officer whose handgun was stolen -- swore out a warrant for Smith's arrest for stealing the document, and for “violent, tumultuous or threatening behavior.”
Smith turned himself in. The charges ultimately were dropped. Smith filed a civil rights lawsuit against Dewey Beach and three individuals including the sergeant.
Fast-forward to today. "We are in the process of trying to understand how we got to be where we are," Dewey Beach Commissioner Gary Persinger said.
The local newspaper, the Cape Gazette, finds the affair rooted in the early 1980s, when Dewey Beach first incorporated. At the time, residents voted to incorporate without a property tax. This set the stage for future problems, an unsigned April 12 editorial says -- such as how to fund the police department.
Despite all the controversy, everything really was conducted above board, Hocker insists.
"We've passed all of our requirements with LESO, if that tells you anything," he said. "We're still in good graces with the program."
The Pentagon agrees.
"The Dewey Beach police department is an active participant in the program and is in good standing," the Defense Logistics Agency's Michelle McCaskill wrote in a June 26 email to RealClearInvestigations. So evidently the only documented illegal weapon transfer was when Sgt. Dempsey’s gun was stolen.
The town council, nevertheless, has voted to jettison its LESO equipment. A number of items, including two pistols, one rifle, and two reconnaissance cameras, have been returned to the program this year, McCaskill affirmed.
Others have not.
"They've extended the deadlines a couple times for getting rid of everything," Hanson said. "They still haven't done it."
And with the seasonal influx of sunbathers underway, bringing bar brawls and other law-enforcement challenges to Dewey Beach, legal perils lurk like a Great White beneath the summer waves.
Jeffrey Smith's lawsuit is slated for trial in September 2020.