Two young Black men were allegedly shot by deputies in the early morning hours of May 17 as authorities responded to gunfire at a block party in rural South Florida days before George Floyd’s death shook the country and catalyzed calls for police reform.
Tyrone Reed was shot in his stomach, then three more times as he lay in his front yard while Hendry County Sheriff’s deputies sprayed about 30 bullets around the property, according to witnesses and a report completed by his attorney’s investigator. La’Travis Williams was shot in the leg while he was “running away from the chaos in the other direction,” said another witness, Marcellus Mitchell of LaBelle, who said deputies “pointed a gun at me too.”
No one has been charged with a crime. Reed “was in the wrong place at the wrong time, except he was in his own yard,” said Destane Duncan, Reed’s cousin.
Deputy says he is going to make up a police report after uttering racist slur
Lt. Mike Favara was caught on video uttering a racial slur and saying he was going to make up a police report.
Fort Myers News-Press
Hendry Sheriff Steve Whidden disputed accounts of his deputies firing into crowds and at unarmed people.
“Due to the fact that this is an active and ongoing investigation, I cannot say a lot about the evidence or details of the shooting,” Whidden wrote in a Facebook post. “However, I will say, do not believe everything you see and hear on Facebook or on the news. People will lie. Body cameras do not.”
The body camera footage Whidden referenced has not been released as the state attorney’s office reviews the shooting.
Sgt. Nestor Echevarria, the deputy who witnesses said shot the two men, had been fired from the Department of Corrections in 2007 and found to have used excessive force.
Sheriff Steve Whidden hired him anyway, a pattern during his three terms as sheriff.
In a dozen years, Whidden has brought in at least 51 deputies with histories of personal and professional misconduct, including racism, lying, fraud, misuse of position and paying for sex.
The Hendry agency is one of Florida’s worst sheriff’s offices for hiring deputies who have been fired or resigned when accused of misconduct elsewhere for actions that were later proved, according to a USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida analysis of law enforcement employment records.
Whidden is now running for a fourth term, and the agency is facing the threat of two lawsuits that connect Echevarria’s past misconduct and the excessive force allegations from the night of the shootings, according to the notice of claims — the documents required to be filed six months before a lawsuit — submitted by Reed’s and Williams’ lawyers.
“They would be negligent even if they said they didn’t know about his past,” Scot Goldberg, Reed’s attorney, said in reference to Echevarria’s employment history. “This never should have happened.”
As the nation shines a critical spotlight on law enforcement, Hendry County and Whidden’s hiring practices raise questions about how easy it is for tarnished officers to gain employment at taxpayers’ expense — employment that comes with a gun and a badge and has less restrictive character requirements than many licensed professions such as morticians and mold assessors.
“They take bad cops as a matter of custom,” said Goldberg, who said he has spoken with former members of the sheriff’s office about its hiring practices and reviewed the personnel files of the three deputies involved in the May 17 shooting as part of the lawsuit preparation.
Of the 51 deputies Whidden hired since 2009 with a history of personal or professional misconduct, records show 24 had been fired or resigned when accused of misconduct elsewhere for actions that were later proved. And 27 others had previously committed offenses that would have been classified as a moral character violation — offenses that could result in suspension or revocation of their certification — if the act had occurred while employed as an officer.
The offenses involving those 27 deputies range from DUI, theft, possession of drugs, falsifying records, making false statements and prostitution, as well as non-criminal violations including subverting testing processes, misuse of position and discriminatory conduct. The deputies either were found guilty or personnel records, including job applications and pre-employment disclosures, show they admitted engaging in the misconduct.
Thirty-two deputies with tainted pasts remain on the agency’s roster, which listed 112 full-time law enforcement or corrections deputies as of June.
Seventeen of those current deputies, or 15% of the full-time roster, were fired or resigned when accused of misconduct elsewhere for actions that were later proved. That’s more than seven times the employment average rate for all Florida law enforcement agencies, according to a paper on law enforcement hiring practices published in April in the Yale Law Journal.
Hendry’s rate is also far higher than the 10 other sheriff’s offices closest in agency size in the state, the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida analysis showed. The next closest was at the Glades County Sheriff’s Office, just to the north of Hendry, where 8.8% of officers had been fired elsewhere or resigned when facing misconduct.
The analysis used a database maintained by the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission to search for past discharges of current employees at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and sheriff’s offices of similar size.
In comparison to sheriff’s offices in counties that serve a similar population, Hendry County’s rate is still high but not the worst.
The Gadsden County Sheriff’s Office has 40% fewer deputies and serves 5,000 more residents than Hendry County. Nearly a third — 32.9% — of its deputies were previously fired or resigned when facing misconduct elsewhere.
A dozen deputies hired by Whidden have also been accused of moral character violations since they joined the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office.
Only one other agency among the 16 sheriff’s offices closest in agency size or population served compared to Hendry’s — Holmes County — has had as many new hires accused of such violations since 2009 when Whidden became sheriff, the USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA analysis found.
Three of those 12 Hendry deputies had a history of personal or professional misconduct before they were hired at the agency, court and personnel records show.
David Thomas, associate professor of forensic studies at Florida Gulf Coast University and a former Gainesville police officer, said “there’s no excuse for” hiring officers previously fired for misconduct because it raises questions about their credibility and tarnishes the image of the agency.
“The reality is that the person is ineffective and incapable of doing their job,” said Thomas, who is also a research fellow with the National Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that works to improve policing. “As a community member, I wouldn’t want that. I would want quality service, quality employees and people I can trust.”
These hiring decisions by Whidden have led directly to the failure to prosecute at least a dozen cases, false arrest claims by residents and impending lawsuits, court records show.
Data show Florida officers fired for misconduct are nearly twice as likely to be fired for misconduct again and 75% more likely to be accused of an offense that could lead to their decertification, making their hires a riskier proposition, according to Professors Ben Grunwald and John Rappaport in the Yale Law Journal paper.
Grunwald and Rappaport stated that agencies can be found liable for negligence if they knew or should have known about past misconduct and if there is a close connection to misdeeds.
A recent example they gave was in the town of Cottageville, South Carolina, where the town was forced to pay $10 million through its insurance carrier after an officer who had been fired four times at other agencies shot and killed the former mayor following an argument.
Both parties reached the $10 million settlement five years ago after a jury initially awarded nearly $97 million in damages.
Before Whidden took office in 2009 and the threats of litigation tied to his negligence in hiring, he and his supporters accused his predecessor, Sheriff Ronnie Lee, of incompetence after Lee was found liable for his negligence in hiring an informant who later killed a woman.
USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida provided a summary of its investigation and detailed questions to Whidden and the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office on multiple occasions. In a phone conversation with a reporter and in a now-deleted Facebook post containing personal attacks, Whidden declined to answer the questions. He added that he would consider providing a statement only if USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida would guarantee to print his statement in its entirety.
“I absolutely will not respond (to) this request due to the fact that whatever I say will be misconstrued and misprinted not in my favor. Can we say ‘Russian Dossier’???” Whidden wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post.
None of the deputies or former employees cited in this investigation responded to requests for comment.
Hendry County and its 40,000-some residents embody the small-town feel.
Family, a sense of community and a blue-collar work ethic are spread across 1,190 square miles of vast farmland and wetlands, bordered by the Caloosahatchee River and the south shores of Lake Okeechobee. There are few tall buildings in the county, where agriculture and farming dominate the local economy.
The county’s population has remained relatively stagnant despite a boom in nearby Lehigh Acres, which has ranked among the fastest growing areas in the nation in the last few years.
At the helm of the Sheriff’s Office is Whidden, a 5-foot 6-inch, stocky Naples High School graduate. Whidden, 48, has spent all but two of his 20-plus years in law enforcement at agencies within Hendry County.
After two years at the Albany Police Department in Georgia, Whidden worked six years as a deputy at the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and four years as a police officer at the Clewiston Police Department before running for sheriff, according to personnel records.
Whidden trounced his Republican challenger, Pete Hedrick, in the August primary, setting the stage for a three-way race among him, Democrat Johnny Jackson and Ricky Garcia, who is running with no party affiliation.
Whidden said at a Clewiston Chamber of Commerce candidate forum that his track record makes him the best candidate, noting he’s reduced crime by 47% since taking office despite raising the budget by only 1.9% when subtracting mandatory increases. He also said he’s responsible for the Sheriff’s Office being one of the few agencies in Southwest Florida to use body cameras.
“These candidates can tell you whatever you want to hear,” Whidden said during the July forum. “They can’t argue with those numbers.”
Hedrick, a captain at the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, called for more professionalism in Hendry and greater scrutiny of the agency’s hiring process.
He recalled a conversation he had four years ago that influenced his decision to run for office. At a barrel race in LaBelle, a lifelong county resident recounted her negative experiences with Hendry County law enforcement and her lack of trust in the profession.
“That night I found it hard to shake the idea that this sweet older lady didn’t trust a profession that I had dedicated my life to, and that if she needed help, she might not be as quick as she should to reach out for assistance,” Hedrick said.
Despite his calls for a more professional agency, Hedrick lost the primary, taking 609 votes to Whidden’s 2,398. Four years ago, Whidden narrowly escaped a primary defeat in the Democratic primary to Jackson by 67 votes.
Whidden switched his affiliation from Democrat to Republican in 2018.
Deputies with a history of personal and professional misconduct run the gamut from low-level deputies to detectives to the upper rungs of the Hendry agency.
One deputy Whidden hired with past disciplinary issues cost taxpayers $80,000 in a legal settlement for his actions at his previous agency. Darrin McNeil was fired from two agencies, both for misconduct. Whidden hired him in 2018.
McNeil was a paramedic with Hendry County Public Safety when he was fired in 2009 for falsifying records, insubordination and providing poor patient care, according to agency complaint and investigation records. He later was dismissed from Moore Haven Correctional Institution in 2013 for hurling a racial epithet at a Black prisoner, according to Department of Corrections records.
The city of Clewiston had to pay $80,000 to settle a complaint after McNeil and another police officer improperly seized 60 dogs, an internal investigation showed. The investigation completed by the department found multiple discrepancies in the officers’ statements, insufficient cause to enter property and the owners were not afforded due process. The state attorney’s office declined to prosecute McNeil after the Clewiston Police Department requested it review the case, records show.
Another of Whidden’s hires was fired from the Department of Children and Families for trying to influence a child custody case of a family friend — who also is Whidden’s chief deputy.
Allison Bennett was seeking a job at the Hendry Sheriff’s office when she attempted to investigate unfounded allegations of child abuse against Chief Deputy Kevin Nelson’s former son-in-law. A few weeks after she was placed under investigation which resulted in her termination at DCF, Whidden hired her in 2013, then fired her five months later when she failed field training.
Other officers escaped losing their certifications due to their admissions of guilt being inadmissible but were hired by Whidden anyway.
Herman Blendsoe was hired in Hendry in 2016. Two decades earlier, he lied about paying a narcotics informant for sex while he was employed at the DeSoto County Sheriff’s Office, internal affairs records show. Transcripts quote Blendsoe as admitting during an internal affairs interview there that “there was more than one time.”
Blendsoe later appealed his case, and an administrative law judge dismissed the violation, allowing him to retain his certification, after it was discovered that DeSoto investigators improperly questioned him, making the evidence inadmissable, court records show.
Capt. Donald Weathers was fired three years ago at the Fort Myers Police Department but is now the third-highest-ranked officer at Hendry.
He is also one of two deputies hired by Whidden in the last three years even though they appear on Brady lists, which are tools prosecutors use to track and disqualify officers with credibility issues and whose testimony could be impeached if called as a witness. The Brady moniker comes from the 1963 case Brady v. Maryland, in which the Supreme Court ruled that prosecutors must turn over all exculpatory evidence to the defense.
Weathers holds high rank even though he was fired in 2017 from the Fort Myers Police Department after it found that he lied in a deposition and failed to deactivate an informant who performed a sex act on the target of a drug-buy, personnel records show.
“There is legitimate concern as to Detective Donald Weathers’ judgment and truthfulness,” 20th Judicial Circuit assistant state attorney Anthony Kunasek wrote in a memo regarding perjury in that case, which resulted in Weathers being added to its Brady list. “This concern significantly impacts the confidence of the State Attorney’s Office and its ability to utilize him as a witness in current and future cases.”
While Weathers’ dishonesty occurred at the Fort Myers Police Department, the state attorney’s office’s position applied to all future cases locally, regardless of where he was employed.
Weathers’ lying and continued use of the informant forced the court to vacate the five-year prison sentence of a heroin dealer from whom the informant had bought drugs once Weathers’ credibility issues came to light.
Weathers, whose Fort Myers and Hendry County personnel files show a sexual relationship with an associate of the Latin Kings gang and convictions for battery and possession of marijuana, escaped criminal charges and losing his certification because he prefaced false statements he made in sworn interviews with “I think,” according to records from the state attorney’s office and the Criminal Justice Standards and Training Commission.
The commission is the state body in charge of the certification and decertification of officers.
Craig Trocino, a University of Miami Law School professor who reviewed Weathers’ records at this news organization’s request, said he believes prosecutors erred in not charging Weathers for perjury because he knowingly omitted damning information about the informant to bolster her credibility.
Trocino, who also directs the university’s Innocence Clinic, added that there was nothing written into law about prefacing statements with “I think” and that it does not necessarily indicate a lack of intent to mislead.
Thomas, with the National Police Foundation, said that promoting tarnished officers to supervisory positions can taint the agency, set a bad example for subordinates and cause others to question each decision made by the supervisor.
“You want to be accountable to the public, but how do you do that when ‘who I am’ is always in question,” Thomas said.
At least nine current supervisors hired or promoted by Whidden have personal or professional misconduct histories, court and personnel records show.
Three, including Weathers, were fired from other agencies. One had resigned during an investigation. Another was hired even though his former boss testified in court that he wasn’t credible.
“He didn’t hire them just to be cops,” said former Hendry County deputy Joe Lee, who retired from the agency in 2018 after 30-plus years in law enforcement. “He hired them to be supervisors. For these younger deputies, that’s what they have to look up to. The morality of some of these guys is just unbelievable.”
Lt. Mike Favara was fired one year before Whidden took office from the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office for taking a flashlight used in a murder, personnel records show. Whidden rehired him in 2009. He promoted him to a supervisory role as lieutenant one year after he was caught on video in 2016 uttering a racial epithet and threatening to make up a police report. A Hendry County deputy also accused Favara in 2010 of ripping up citations, for which he was never investigated. Email records show the deputy also later sent the allegations to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and then-Gov. Rick Scott’s office.
Lt. Ben Rowe’s past also did not hinder his hiring or advancement at the agency.
Internal affairs records show Rowe resigned from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office more than a decade ago while under investigation for forging the signature of his ex-girlfriend’s father on a Medicaid benefits application and misusing a government database to run her name.
Investigators say Rowe admitted to forging the signature but said he had permission. His actions resulted in $2,308 in food stamp benefits being conferred illegally to his ex-girlfriend, investigators wrote in their report.
Echoing Lee’s comments, Hedrick, Whidden’s opponent in August’s primary, said it’s difficult to preach being held to a higher standard when hiring and promoting people who have not.
“The legitimacy of a supervisor should not only come from their rank, but also from their integrity and proven track record,” Hedrick said. “Law enforcement leadership cannot be, ‘Do as I say, not as I do.’ We have to lead by example.”
Among the impacts of Whidden’s decisions are the threat of lawsuits, the failure to prosecute at least a dozen cases and false arrest claims by residents.
In one case that was dropped, the state could not prosecute felony charges against a career criminal because Echevarria, the deputy accused of shooting the two Black men in May, was caught on video improperly questioning the person he arrested.
Court records show a Hendry County judge granted a motion to suppress evidence last year in a drug case where Echevarria was caught on body camera footage coercing a confession from a suspect after the person requested an attorney. Before the case was dropped, the state had intended to charge the suspect as a habitual offender, meaning a judge would have imposed a lengthy prison sentence with a guilty verdict.
The state also could not move forward in another felony case after a detective was put under investigation.
In that case, the state attorney’s office was unable to prosecute arrests made during a raid on an auto shop suspected of selling stolen car parts because the sheriff’s office put detective Vernon Speak, whose previous indiscretions included trespassing in Collier County, under investigation for lying about another deputy tipping off the suspects. The sheriff’s office later fired Speak, who was hired during Whidden’s tenure.
In at least four Hendry County cases dropped by the state attorney’s office for a lack of probable cause, residents also claimed wrongful arrest.
Chris Self, a former firefighter and current water master for the Big Cypress Indian Reservation’s Environmental Resource Management Department, filed suit in December against the sheriff’s office and one of Whidden’s hires for wrongful arrest and negligence in supervision and training after he was accused of attending a cockfight.
Self was arrested even though he wasn’t at the cockfight, Self said in an interview. He was raising more than 80 chickens in a rented section of the property where the cockfight happened. But Self’s land was physically separated by a gate from where the fight took place. Along with lumping Self in with the illegal activity, the Sheriff’s Office killed all of his birds, court records state.
Named in the counts for wrongful arrest and malicious prosecution is Capt. Susan Harrelle, whose former trucking company illegally received resources from the city of Belle Glade while her husband and the company’s registered agent was city manager and before Whidden hired her.
Although Harrelle was not charged, her husband, Lomax Harrelle, pleaded guilty to the charge of official misconduct for using public resources for personal gain. Department of State records show Susan Harrelle was listed as president of the trucking company and at one point was also a member of the city’s now-defunct police department.
Hiring officers with a history of misconduct can also expose an agency to litigation — and taxpayers to big payouts — when misdeeds are connected to past misconduct.
This is at the heart of the case against the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office and Echevarria, Goldberg said. Employment records show Echevarria used excessive force in 2007 at another agency. He’s now accused by two men of using excessive force after the May 17 shooting at the block party, which was held in place of the annual LaBelle Black Heritage Festival that had been canceled because of the pandemic.
Echevarria was fired by the Department of Corrections in 2007 after an inmate said Echevarria slammed him against a wall three times, according to employment records. A surveillance camera captured Echevarria grabbing the inmate’s arm and pinning him against the wall, investigation records show.
“Excessive force” and “negligence” caused Williams’ injuries the night of May 17, according to court papers filed by Joe North, Williams’ attorney. Like Reed, Williams, 21, remains hobbled and is haunted by nightmares.
Reed, a 23-year-old former local star football and basketball player, has undergone four surgeries, lost part of his intestines and still has a bullet lodged in his shoulder, Goldberg said. He decided he needed to leave LaBelle after the physical and emotional trauma from the shooting.
The spray of 26 to 30 bullets witnesses said were fired by three deputies that night struck trees and cars and showed a reckless disregard for where deputies were aiming and firing their weapons, according to a report completed by Goldberg’s investigators on behalf of Reed, who was shot in the stomach and hit three more times after he fell to the ground with his hands up, Goldberg said.
The state attorney’s office is reviewing that report as well as FDLE’s investigation to determine if charges are warranted. They’re also reviewing body camera footage, which has not yet been released.
“One could reasonably conclude that the deputies involved in the shooting of Reed acted with unreasonable and reckless care as to not strike innocent people,” investigator Thomas Kontinos wrote.
While Reed and Williams were the only ones shot that night, hundreds of people attended the block party and were nearby when the shooting started.
“It could have been me,” said Mitchell of LaBelle, who said he saw deputies shoot Williams as he ran from the chaos. “They pointed a gun at me too. It didn’t really make the news, and that’s crazy with George Floyd and everything going on right now.”
Reporter David Dorsey contributed to this report.
Connect with reporter Devan Patel: @DevanJPatel (Twitter) or email@example.com