Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

A totally devastating long read: A Mother’s Death, a Botched Inquiry and a Sheriff at War

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How representative of the United States are the events described in detail in Walt Bogdanich’s report in the NY Times? Much too representative, I fear, and we see repeated instances of how police can shoot people with no accountability at all. The report begins:

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. — Rusty Rodgers did not fit everyone’s image of a law enforcement officer, particularly in deeply conservative northeast Florida. One police chief, well ensconced in the local power structure, expressed irritation over what he called the officer’s “Jimmy Buffett look” — long hair, beard, loafers and no socks.

No one, however, questioned Agent Rodgers’s tenacity as an investigator.

Working for the Jacksonville sheriff, he doggedly pursued a rapist who preyed on poor women and prostitutes. “They deserve justice just as much as someone who lives on the Southside,” he told the local paper, referring to the wealthier part of town. The rapist got 45 years.

Later, Agent Rodgers joined the state’s elite investigative unit, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, where he quickly earned agent-of-the-year honors — and a meeting with the governor — for helping dismantle a terrorist financing network that stretched from Florida to the Middle East. For the governor, he made a concession: He cut his hair.

Then, in January 2011, came the call that would upend his life.

Go to St. Augustine, he was told, to reinvestigate the death of 24-year-old Michelle O’Connell, shot while packing to leave her deputy sheriff boyfriend, Jeremy Banks. The fatal bullet came from his service weapon.

Agent Rodgers had been summoned here twice before to answer questions about cases involving the St. Johns County sheriff, David B. Shoar — examining whether his officers had drawn their guns and used pepper spray to break up a peaceful graduation party in an African-American neighborhood (they had), and whether a political supporter of the sheriff had engaged in improper conduct with minors (he hadn’t).

This time, the stakes were higher. There was a dead body — a single mother of a 4-year-old girl — and the sheriff’s office had chosen to investigate its own deputy, poorly as it turned out. Because detectives quickly concluded that Ms. O’Connell had taken her own life, they had done little investigating.

Now, with crucial evidence missing or unexamined, Agent Rodgers had to make sense of the mess. And that meant possibly antagonizing one of Florida’s most powerful sheriffs. A mercurial leader, unctuous one moment, bitingly critical the next, Sheriff Shoar didn’t countenance challenges to his authority. He had resisted the O’Connell family’s demands for an outside review of the case for nearly five months.

When the sheriff finally agreed, his office had one requirement — that Agent Rodgers, and only Agent Rodgers, conduct the investigation, according to Steve Donaway, a former supervisor with the state investigative agency. (The sheriff disputes that.)

It took the agent only two weeks to find evidence that fundamentally changed the complexion of the case. Two neighbors told him that they had heard cries for help on the night of the shooting, prompting the medical examiner to change his ruling from suicide to “shot by another.” As the investigation moved toward homicide, the local state attorney suddenly recused himself, prompting the governor to appoint a special prosecutor.

But the medical examiner changed his mind yet again, and the special prosecutor, citing insufficient evidence, closed the case without bringing charges. And for a year, that’s where the case stood — closed if not forgotten.

Then, in 2013, I flew to St. Augustine and asked the sheriff for files related to the shooting. I came to write about the O’Connell case as part of an examination, in collaboration with the PBS public affairs program “Frontline,” of how the police investigate domestic violence allegations in their ranks.

My record request was routine, but Sheriff Shoar didn’t view it that way. In his world, an out-of-town reporter “poking around” a closed case “kind of stunk,” he said, and he alerted prosecutors so they wouldn’t be caught off guard. But when the sheriff learned that I had already asked Agent Rodgers’s supervisor for an interview, and that he had not been notified, the sheriff erupted, suspecting, incorrectly, that the agency was behind my visit.

“I realized I’m dealing with a whole different set of facts, quite truthfully malice and wickedness,” he told state officials. “I’ve been in this business for 33 years. I know how to deal with bullies.”

His answer was a scathingly personal yearslong attack on Agent Rodgers — a campaign that put the outsize powers of a small-town sheriff on full display and ultimately swept up nearly everyone in its path.

The sheriff commissioned his own investigation of the investigator, accusing him of serious crimes that, he said, had nearly caused an innocent man — his officer — to be charged with murder. He embedded his accusations in the public consciousness through a cascade of press releases, phone calls, letters, interviews and online posts. He sent his findings to state law enforcement officials and the F.B.I. As a result, Agent Rodgers’s own employer and later a special prosecutor began investigating him. He was placed on administrative leave, forced to surrender his badge and gun, barred by his agency from publicly defending himself.

In April, I returned to St. Augustine to report on this second act of a drama that, over seven years now, has sown deep scars in this community by the sea. It has divided the law enforcement establishment, not to mention the family of Michelle O’Connell. It has been reviewed by one state attorney, three special prosecutors and four medical examiners, and is debated still in the local press, on the beaches and in the bars. It has, in short, become the stuff of Florida noir, featured in a documentary on Netflix, in People magazine and on television shows like “Dr. Phil.” “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Dr. Frederick Hobin, who performed the original autopsy.

On this trip, I approached several of the central players who had declined to be interviewed before. I had new questions, based on my review of thousands of documents not available when I first reported on the case.

Sheriff Shoar had promised to spend the rest of his career holding Agent Rodgers accountable. But what I came to learn was that the sheriff had tried to destroy the investigator with accusations that were often nothing more than innuendo and unverified rumors. Even so, they went virtually unchallenged for years.

In the end, the sheriff did not achieve his goal of seeing Agent Rodgers sent to prison, charged with a crime or even fired from his job. But he did accomplish something else: He diverted attention away from his office’s own botched investigation, the spawning ground for so much of the anger and conflict that followed.

SEAT OF POWER

It is an hour’s drive down Interstate 95 from the Jacksonville airport to St. Augustine, which promotes itself as America’s oldest city, where Ponce de León mythically searched for the Fountain of Youth.

St. Augustine forms the core of a very red county that in 2016 voted overwhelmingly for Donald J. Trump and for Sheriff Shoar, re-electing him to a fourth term with 85 percent of the vote.

The sheriff’s persona plays well on this political stage. Speaking to a Christian prayer group in 2015, he railed against gun control, separation of church and state and especially Washington. America’s problems began, he said, when the government “tried to outlaw our faith.” He blamed the media for “burning down Ferguson” and spreading the “false narrative” that police officers are bad people who must be watched with body cameras. Along the way, he sprinkled in a little Shakespeare on the brevity of life.

Sheriff Shoar, who declined to speak for this article, draws support from an important Florida constituency: law enforcement and the military. He is a former member of the Florida National Guard and a past president of the Florida Sheriffs Association, where he recently welcomed his newly elected brethren with an ethics lecture titled “Keeping the Tarnish Off the Badge.”

The state enforcement agency, known locally as F.D.L.E., “has always bent over backwards for sheriffs,” said Mr. Donaway, who supervised Agent Rodgers and his investigative colleagues in 13 counties. “The sheriffs association is politically very powerful.”

Sheriff Shoar began his rise to power as a patrolman for the St. Augustine police, eventually becoming chief. His personnel file from that era includes extensive praise, but also a hint of problems.

“One area he could improve is to slow down and get all the facts prior to making decisions,” his supervisor wrote in October 1999. In an earlier personnel review, the supervisor had written that “too many projects at once cause a loss of focus.”

The sheriff does not suffer from a lack of self-regard. He once told law enforcement officers that they might want an “8-by-10 photograph” of him after reading his “beautiful” letter to The New York Times — he copied 31 public figures and members of the media — saying the paper’s reporting on the shooting lacked objectivity. The Times was still eight months away from publishing its first article on the case.

His power is nourished by his gift for extemporaneous, often humorous, oratory, not to mention his position as one of the county’s largest employers. He has the means to reward people he favors. One month after his agency’s flawed investigation of the O’Connell shooting, he surprised employees by handing out $1,000 bonuses. He later promoted the officers who investigated Agent Rodgers — “my brightest guys,” he called them.

And he hired as a deputy the 20-year-old son of the special prosecutor who had declined to charge Deputy Banks. The prosecutor, Brad King, listed the sheriff as his first character reference in an unsuccessful attempt last year to join the Florida Supreme Court. (Mr. King said that he did not know the sheriff during the O’Connell case and that his son was highly qualified for the job.) . . .

Continue reading. There’s a lot more, and it is damning.

If law enforcement wants respect, they need to clean up their act by taking action against such overt corruption, misconduct, and abuse of power. But law enforcement seems all too often to work as described in this report: covering up corruption, mosconduct, and abuse of power and—even worse—rewarding it.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 June 2017 at 1:04 pm

Posted in Law, Law Enforcement

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