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Florida Law Enforcement Officials on the Wrong Side of the Law
“We’re a law-respecting, law-abiding community. ... We teach our children to respect and look up to men and women who wear badges, and that’s the way it oughta be,” said Florida state senator Don Gaetz. But the way it “oughta be” and the way things are do not always coincide.
Numerous incidents in Florida indicate that just because someone wears a law enforcement badge does not mean they are deserving of respect. In fact, corrections and sheriff’s officials involved in recent scandals are in some cases headed to prison or jail themselves, or have joined the ranks of the unemployed.
Senator Gaetz’s comment came after Okaloosa County Sheriff Charlie W. Morris and his director of administration, Teresa Adams, were arrested by federal marshals. At the time of their arrests in February 2009, Morris was president of the Florida Sheriffs Association.
Morris and Adams “created fictitious bonuses to sheriff’s department employees,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice. “[T]he employees were directed to return all or a portion of the bonuses in the form of cash or cashier’s checks under the pretense that these returned funds were to be used for charitable purposes,” but the money was actually misappropriated.
While Adams turned herself into authorities, Morris was arrested by federal agents in Las Vegas. The charges against him included theft or bribery involving programs receiving federal funds, wire fraud, deprivation of rights to honest ser-vices, engaging in monetary transactions in property derived from specified unlawful activity, and conspiracy to commit these offenses. Following Morris’ arrest, Governor Charlie Crist suspended him as sheriff of Okaloosa County.
On August 11, 2009, Morris was sentenced to 71 months in federal prison and three years supervised release after pleading guilty to six charges; he also was ordered to pay $212,537.53 in restitution and forfeit $194,002 in property. Adams received a 3-year sentence with three years supervised release, plus the same amount in restitution and forfeiture. See: United States v. Morris, U.S.D.C. (N.D. Fla.), Case No. 3:09-cr-00046-LC.
PLN previously reported that Prison Health Services (PHS) had filed suit against the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), alleging that former sheriff Bill Balkwill had awarded a three-year, $9 million contract to Armor Correctional Health Services after receiving gifts from the company, including expensive dinners and a fishing trip. PHS, which was providing medical care at the Sarasota County jail at the time, contends that Balkwill gave the contract to Armor without competitive bidding. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.36; March 2008, p.44].
In late January 2009, a sheriff’s official went to Balkwill’s home with a court order for his personal computer. Balkwill said he had a laptop that he would relinquish after he had saved some personal photographs. It was later learned that the laptop was bought by the SCSO in 2006 for $2,600; before leaving office, Balkwill and IT Director Jeff Feathers signed paperwork stating the laptop was “obsolete,” worth only $10 and should be recycled. Instead, Balkwill took it home with him.
Investigators determined that Balkwill had deleted 11,000 files from the laptop; he claimed he had removed the files because they contained confidential anti-terrorism information. A computer obtained from former Armor CEO Doyle Moore also had files that were deleted (Moore previously had been convicted in Massachusetts of felony tax evasion). Balkwill denied any wrongdoing, but prosecutors are now considering criminal charges for theft and destruction of public records. Feathers has since resigned from the sheriff’s office.
When the electricity went out at the Florida State Prison on April 8, 2009, prison guards decided to impose some good ol’ boy punishment on 53-year-old prisoner Darrell Stanberry. Believing that the video cameras were not working due to the power outage, six guards pulled Stanberry out of his solitary confinement cell and beat him.
The cameras, however, were on a backup battery, and another guard’s tip led prison officials to check the video foot-age. As a result, guard Charles Reames resigned before he could be fired. Another five guards were terminated, including Lt. William Hinson, Sgt. Anthony Reed, Sgt. James Coleman, Sgt. Richard Kross and CO Raymond Williams. Five more prison employees were placed on administrative leave.
“I want to be crystal clear about this: I will never tolerate inmate abuse. I will take swift action, decisive action anytime it occurs,” said Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) Secretary Walter McNeil. “My goal is to rid the Florida prison system of the handful of employees with this mindset.”
On June 15, 2009, Kross was charged with battery on an inmate and submitting inaccurate, incomplete or untruthful information to investigators. He was booked into the Bradford County jail, pleaded non-guilty and was released on his own recognizance. The State Attorney’s office said charges against the other guards were being considered.
One Putnam County jail guard was fired and disciplinary action was taken against 8 others in June 2009, due to negligence in failing to perform their job duties. Further, the jail’s director of corrections, Major Paula Carter, resigned. These actions resulted after two prisoners escaped in April 2009 and went on a crime spree that included a murder.
Prisoners Doni Ray Brown and Timothy Wayne Fletcher absconded by using a vehicle jack from a jail transport van to rip out a combination toilet and sink in their cell, which opened a hole that they used to escape. The jack and handle were brought into the facility from two different transport trips, and went undiscovered for almost two weeks because guards had failed to conduct searches as required by policy. The Sheriff’s Office said there had been a “significant failure in the supervision of personnel in the jail,” and that “many of the jail operating procedures have been overlooked or ignored for quite some time – some for several years.” Brown and Fletcher were captured three days after their escape and now face murder charges.
Lee County jail guard William J. Edwards, 23, and another suspect were arrested at a car dealership on January 25, 2009 and charged with burglary, possession of burglary tools and petty theft. “While disappointing to say the least ... the events of this weekend involving a ... Lee County corrections officer being arrested proves the resolve of local law enforcement that nobody is above the law,” said Sheriff Mike Scott.
In Gregg County, jail guard Paul Lynn Smith, 36, was charged with official oppression for assaulting prisoner Decorian Maurice Allen on March 29, 2009. Smith, who allegedly struck Allen in the face while moving him to another area in the jail, was released on $2,500 bond.
On April 2, 2009, a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) guard at the company’s Bay Correctional Facility was arrested and charged with smuggling contraband into the prison. Sonja Ann Powell, 35, is accused of giving a cell phone to prisoners Francis Marshall and Frank Gomez. Both prisoners also face charges.
Leon County jail guard Charles Johnson, 24, was arrested on April 8, 2009 and charged with unlawful compensation during official duties. He was reportedly charging prisoners’ family and friends $5.00 for an extra 15 minutes of visitation time at the jail. He made $40 before authorities put a stop to his entrepreneurial scheme.
On May 14, 2009, Hillsborough County jailer Joshua Spencer was arrested on charges of assaulting a teenage pris-oner who had spat on him. Spencer was charged with battery and official misconduct for repeatedly striking Sean Walker, 16, on the back of the head and then lying about the incident. Spencer was released on $2,500 bond and has been suspended. The Hillsborough County Jail made national headlines last year when a guard was videotaped dumping a quadriplegic prisoner in a wheelchair onto the floor. [See: PLN, Jan. 2009, p.21].
Wakulla County jail guard Donald Barber, 61, was arrested in June 2009 and charged with offering crack cocaine to a confidential informant in exchange for sex. Barber was busted after he bought $40 worth of crack from an undercover officer.
On June 22, 2009, Osceola County jail prisoner Angel Santiago tried to escape using a 9mm Sig Sauer that had been smuggled into the facility. He took guard Gerson Roche hostage and forced him to change clothes, in an apparent attempt to walk out of the facility in disguise. The escape was thwarted when another guard tackled Santiago. Roche resigned in August under threat of being fired; he was accused of violating jail policy by not having backup and not using proper re-straints when he removed Santiago, a maximum-security prisoner serving two life sentences, from his cell to make a phone call.
Osceola County jailer Michelle Hung, who had a personal relationship with Santiago, is accused of giving him the gun and two cell phones to facilitate the escape. Hung was arrested and charged with multiple felonies. [See: PLN, August 2009, p.50]. Previously, in January, another guard, Eric Sosa, 30, was arrested on charges of smuggling drugs into the Osceola County jail.
On June 22, 2009, FDOC prison guard Deborah Frisina, 51, attempted to buy prescription drugs from an undercover officer. She purchased Diazepam and also tried to buy Oxycodone, which she said was for her personal use to manage pain. Frisina was booked into the Polk County jail on multiple drug-related charges.
State prison guard Shamel Watson, 30, was arrested by sheriff’s deputies on July 1, 2009 after he picked up a large quantity of marijuana and cocaine that he was going to smuggle into the Everglades Correctional Institution. Shamel obtained the drugs from an undercover deputy; he was charged with felony possession with intent to deliver, drug trafficking and receiving a bribe.
On July 6, 2009, former Florida State Prison guard Paul G. Tillis, 44, was sentenced to three years in federal prison and two years supervised release on a civil rights charge for pouring scalding water on prisoner Jerry Williams, causing second degree burns. Tillis had resigned prior to being convicted in January. [See: PLN, July 2009, p.17; Jan. 2009, p.50].
In July 2009, the Florida Dept. of Corrections announced that three CCA guards employed at the Gadsden Correctional Facility had been fired following an investigation. CCA guard Eric Conrad was suspected of having sex with a female prisoner five times, and a photo of the woman was found on his cell phone. William Wood had a photo of a different female prisoner, while the third guard, Anthony Curinton, was suspected of writing a personal letter to another prisoner. Although no charges were filed, the former guards may lose their law enforcement certifications.
Another incident, at the Union Correctional Institution, occurred in August 2009 when an unnamed prisoner was beaten by state prison guards. Four nurses, including one employed with the FDOC and three contract workers, were fired for not reporting the brutal attack; seven guards were placed on leave pending an investigation. The prisoner was reportedly hospitalized with “serious” injuries.
“I intend to bring the full resources of this agency to bear on the individuals responsible for this violent assault, including prosecution, termination and decertification, so they can never work in a correctional environment again,” said FDOC Secretary McNeil. “There is no place in our profession for this depraved mindset.”
McNeil also called for an investigation by the FBI into the beating. Previously, four guards at the Union Correctional Institution had been fired for assaulting another unidentified prisoner in April.
On September 8, 2009, Marion County sheriff’s deputy Anthony Votta, 31, resigned after being charged the previous month with felony battery for assaulting his pregnant wife during a domestic dispute. Earlier this year, Votta was the subject of a child abuse investigation.
The above-described shameful incidents have a common thread: They all involved law enforcement or detention officials who took an oath to uphold the law. Instead they used their positions for personal gain or to fulfill their own selfish or sadistic desires, thereby breeding disrespect for the law and for those who enforce it. After all, who can you trust when sheriffs, jailers and prison guards end up behind bars themselves? For additional examples of abuse and corruption involving Florida law enforcement officials, see: PLN, Oct. 2009, p.17; July 2009, p.47; and Jan. 2009, p.12.
Sources: News Herald, Orlando Sentinel, WCTV, WUFT, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, http://correctionofficersgoingwrong.wordpress.com, Tampa Bay Online, www.wesh.com, www.naplesnews.com, www.wjhg.com, St. Petersburg Times, Ocala Star-Banner, Associated Press, www.postonpolitics.com
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