A former Riviera Beach police commander and radio host is announcing today that he’s joining the race to become sheriff.
Rick Sessa said he’s filing paperwork on Monday, but said he’s announcing the news on his radio show “The Beat: Real Cop Talk” on 900 AM at 4 p.m. today.
“I feel an obligation to run. I can’t sit back and let this sheriff go unopposed for another four years,” Sessa said. “I grew up here, I policed here, and we need to do something.”
For years, Sessa has been critical of Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, who is seeking his fourth term. He’s been outspoken about the number of shootings by sheriff’s deputies and blames the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office for ending a previous incarnation of his radio program by pressuring the show’s sponsors. His show resumed last year after nearly two years off the air.
If elected, “We’re going to reopen some of these shooting cases, and if we find misconduct or coverup or malicious attempts at prosecution, people will be held accountable,” Sessa said.
Sessa, who was with Riviera Beach police from 1986 to 2006, will join retired Riviera Beach police Maj. Alex Freeman and Samuel L. Thompson in challenging Bradshaw.
The Seth Adams family lawsuit against the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will be allowed to go to trial, a federal judge ruled today.
U.S. District Judge Daniel Hurley denied Sgt. Michael Custer’s motion to toss the suit, but threw out some of the family’s more minor claims.
Overall, the decision was a victory for Adams’ family, who filed the suit after Adams, 24, was shot and killed by an undercover deputy in 2012. Adams was unarmed and on his own property, a nursery in Loxahatchee Groves.
Custer claimed that Adams fought him and grabbed him around the neck, prompting the deputy to shoot and kill Adams.
The incident is one of the most controversial shootings in the department’s history.
Investigators looking into the death of Corey Jones are focusing on officer Nouman Raja’s decision to shoot the 31-year-old drummer while he was running away, The Palm Beach Post has learned.
Evidence indicates Jones may have dropped his weapon when the Palm Beach Gardens officer fired the fatal shot, according to interviews with Jones’ family, their lawyers and a source with knowledge of last week’s incident, which has captured national attention.
At its heart: Why was Jones’ gun found so far away from his body?
When Raja pulled up to the scene at about 3:15 a.m. Oct. 18, in plainclothes and an unmarked white van, Jones was on the phone with AT&T roadside assistance, his cellphone call log indicates. But Jones got out of the vehicle with his legally purchased gun, police and lawyer statements show.
In all, Raja fired six shots, three of which hit. When and where Jones was struck is crucial.
One of the bullets shattered his left arm. Jones was left-handed, so he likely would have been carrying the gun in that hand. That bullet could have forced him to drop it immediately.
Another bullet struck Jones’ right arm, near the shoulder. That wound wouldn’t have been fatal.
A third bullet struck Jones in his right torso, tearing his aorta, which carries blood from the heart. That bullet would have killed him — and, with his aorta shattered, likely forced him to drop immediately to the ground.
If he were still armed when the fatal shot struck, the gun would have been near his body. But it wasn’t. It was about halfway between Jones and his car, family lawyer Skinner Louis said — about 40 to 50 feet from his body. Louis was briefed on the investigation by the State Attorney’s Office.
Another critical question is where Raja was standing when he fired both volleys.
During his walk-through statement to investigators, he couldn’t clearly say where he was when he fired, according to Louis and one other source.
“Where Raja was placed is very important,” Louis said Tuesday, since it could indicate the angle at which he fired, revealing whether Jones had turned toward the officer.
Raja told investigators at the scene that he fired the second set of shots because he saw a “flickering sliver of a laser,” an unidentified source told WPBF-Channel 25 last week. So even if Jones had dropped his weapon as he fled, the officer may have believed Jones was still armed and continued to fear for his life, causing him to unleash the second volley of shots.
Jones’ death has triggered an extraordinary investigative effort for an officer-involved shooting in Palm Beach County, involving four agencies, including the FBI.
The State Attorney’s Office, for example, usually relies heavily on the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office investigation in shootings. But it has investigators going to extraordinary lengths to find witnesses, reaching out to everyone who stayed at a wing of the Doubletree Hotel near the shooting scene that night, The Post has learned.
The State Attorney’s Office and PBSO have refused to comment on details of the investigation.
On Tuesday, Raja met with police union lawyers while PBSO investigators removed evidence from his personal vehicle, according to WPTV NewsChannel 5.
The family’s focus on Tuesday, Louis said, was to get answers from AT&T, which Jones called six times to summon a tow truck to the Interstate 95 off-ramp at PGA Boulevard. The phone records show Jones made his final phone call at 3:10 a.m., five minutes before he was shot and killed. That call, which records show lasted 53 minutes, might have been recorded.
AT&T officials on Monday confirmed to The Post that they are cooperating with law enforcement but declined to comment further.
Family attorneys also expected Tuesday to speak with Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. They initially met with him last week, and prosecutors provided them details of the shooting. Based on that conversation, they believe Raja wasn’t using his department-issued weapon when he shot Jones.
A Rally for Transparency is scheduled outside the State Attorney’s Office at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Louis said the phone logs belie Raja’s account, and that Jones was laid-back, and calm even as he tried over and over again to reach a tow truck operator. He refused an offer of help from his brother, C.J., in a call that started at 2:52 a.m.
“He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t agitated. He just thought maybe he was calling the wrong number,” Louis said of Jones’ long wait to speak to someone from roadside assistance.
The family has many questions about the case, Louis said, but “Some questions may never be answered.”
Records of Corey Jones’ last calls prove a Palm Beach Gardens police officer was “likely the aggressor” in an encounter where the officer shot and killed him last week, his family’s attorneys said Tuesday.
The last call, at 3:10 a.m., was 53 minutes, which indicates the line was still open when Palm Beach Gardens officer Nouman Raja said he was forced to shoot Jones because Jones charged at him with a gun.
Jones family attorney Skinner Louis says the records belie Raja’s account, and that Jones was laid-back, calm, and refused an offer from his brother, C.J., to pick him up from the southbound exit ramp of Interstate 95 at PGA Boulevard just before he was killed.
“He wasn’t angry, he wasn’t agitated. He just thought maybe he was calling the wrong number,” Louis said of Jones’ long wait to speak to someone from roadside assistance. “So his brother sent him another number to call.”
Louis says he and Jones’ family members believe that Jones, who was left-handed, likely had his phone to his ear when Raja parked an unmarked police van perpendicular to his car and got out.
Jones had purchased a gun three days earlier and had a license to carry it, Louis said, but he said Jones never fired it.
“At the time Raja parked… (Corey) probably put his phone down and reached for the gun with his left hand,” Louis said.
Louis was a high school friend of Jones’ and is now part of the family’s legal team, which includes famed civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. Louis said on Tuesday that the attorneys’ focus on Tuesday was to get answers from AT&T.
AT&T officials on Monday confirmed to The Post that they are cooperating with law enforcement on the case but declined to comment further.
The family attorneys also expected Tuesday to speak with Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg. They initially met with him last week, and prosecutors provided the family with details of the shooting. Based on that conversation, they believe Raja wasn’t using his department-issued weapon when he shot Jones.
Louis says the most important parts of the investigation at this point remains the sequence of shots Raja fired and where he was standing when he fired them.
Jones, he said, was struck by three bullets – including one that shattered his left elbow and fractured his arm.
“That would have separated him from his gun if he had it in his hand,” Louis said.
Prosecutors told the family last week that the gun was found in the grass between Jones’ body and his car, an 80- to 100-foot distance.
Corey Jones was on the phone with AT&T’s roadside assistance — and possibly recorded — when a Palm Beach Gardens officer confronted him on an Interstate 95 off-ramp last week, triggering the events that led to his death.
A copy of Jones’ phone records obtained by The Palm Beach Post show that at 3:10 a.m., Jones called #HELP, the phone company’s recorded line to request assistance.
Since AT&T alerts callers that the line might be recorded, it could have captured audio of the moments before, during and after his death, making it a critical piece of evidence in a shooting in which no video recordings apparently exist.
It’s unclear, however, whether the line was recorded, or whether investigators have obtained any recordings. Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office spokesman Mike Edmondson on Monday declined to comment on whether the prosecutors’ office had obtained the phone records. Jones’ phone was, however, recovered at the scene and had not been returned to family members as of Monday.
An AT&T official said late Monday she could not comment.
Clarence Ellington, Jones’ best friend, said Jones’ family has seen the records and were meeting late Monday with the family’s legal team.
“The consensus is the same, and that’s that we’re angry,” Ellington said.
Jones used a cellphone belonging to his employer, the Delray Beach Housing Authority. Call logs for the government agency were provided to The Post under the state’s open records law.
The call to roadside assistance was one of many Jones made early that morning, after the drummer’s sport utility vehicle broke down while driving back from a gig in Jupiter.
The first indication of car trouble came at 1:35 a.m., when he called band mate Mathew Huntsberger for help.
Nine minutes later, he called *FHP, the Florida Highway Patrol’s main line. The records indicate that the call lasted four minutes, but an FHP spokesman wasn’t able to obtain the content of the call late Monday.
Starting at 2:09 a.m., Jones called the AT&T #HELP four times, spending about 36 minutes trying to get help.
Those calls were probably fruitless, however, since he called #HELP again, at 2:45 a.m., a call that the log says lasted 32 minutes, even though he dialed three other numbers after that call began.
The final call went to the help line at 3:10 a.m. and records show it wouldn’t have ended until 4:03 a.m., long after the 3:15 a.m. shooting.
It was the last call Jones would make.
Four agencies, including the FBI, are investigating what happened next.
Jones, a Delray Beach housing inspector with no history of violence, was sitting in his car on the off-ramp at PGA Boulevard when Raja pulled up and parked perpendicular to him, blocking multiple lanes of traffic.
Raja, who was on a burglary surveillance detail, had stopped for an abandoned vehicle, Palm Beach Gardens police said. He wasn’t in uniform and didn’t have his badge when he stepped out of an unmarked white Ford van, according to Jones’ family lawyers, who were briefed by State Attorney Dave Aronberg.
Police said Raja spotted Jones’ gun and fired, killing him. Lawyers said Raja fired six times, including while Jones was running away. Jones’ body was found 80 to 100 feet away from his vehicle.
His gun, which he had bought legally and for which he had a concealed carry permit, was found an unspecified distance between his body and his vehicle.
The incident has captured national attention, the latest example of a young black man killed by police under questionable circumstances. Experts and the public have questioned Raja’s decision to confront Jones, who might not have known Raja was an officer.
The phone records provide some insight — and confusion — into Jones’ final hours.
He left his Jupiter gig and had just gotten on the highway when at 1:21 a.m. he called Manoucheka Sinmelus. She told The Post that Jones was on his way to pick her up from her home in Delray Beach. He didn’t mention car trouble. The call lasted about seven minutes. She has not spoken to authorities because they haven’t contacted her, she said.
The phone records have some discrepancies that aren’t easily explained, however.
Two phone calls seem to overlap with other calls. At 2:29 a.m., the logs show he spent 16 minutes with #HELP, but he called another phone number just eight minutes later.
Then, at 2:45 a.m., the logs show he spent 32 minutes on the line with #HELP, yet he called his brother just seven minutes later.
Edward J. Imwinkelried, an expert in scientific evidence and law professor at The University of California-Davis, said investigators should focus on the overlapping calls.
“If I was the investigator on the case, I would want to see how that is possible,” Imwinkelried said.
The most plausible explanation would be that Jones made the other calls while he was on hold with roadside assistance, Imwinkelried said. The first thing investigators would need to do, he said, is speak with everyone on Jones’ call log, including his brother, and obtain their phone records as well.
Then, he said, investigators would need to go to AT&T and have them explain the call log, and ask them if any recording of Jones’ calls exist.
The Washington-based think tank hired by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office started its investigation into the department late last month.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw is spending $100,000 for the Police Executive Research Forum to examine his department’s internal affairs unit and the unit’s investigations after The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 found the unit cleared all but one fatal shooting by a deputy in 16 years.
The team from PERF started July 28, and their six-member team could spend up to four months interviewing PBSO staff, comparing the department’s policies with “best practices” and hosting six focus groups to get public input. Their findings will be released in a public report.
Their first visit lasted four days. The dates for the focus groups have not been announced.
Police internal affairs units are tasked with investigating whether officers violate department policy, and their findings can lead to officers being disciplined or fired. They do not handle criminal investigations.
The Post-WPTV investigation found that some of the unit’s investigators would skew or ignore evidence that would appear unfavorable to deputies who shoot.
After deputy Jason Franqui shot 16-year-old Jeremy Hutton, who suffers from Down syndrome, in 2010, for example, investigators said video confirmed Franqui’s statement that he shot as Hutton was driving toward him in a minivan.
But the video actually shows the opposite: Franqui fired all six rounds while Hutton was driving away from him.
The investigators’ reports also often left out critical information. In Hutton’s case, the report didn’t mention that Franqui’s rounds went into the back of the minivan, or that two of the rounds went into a passing motorist’s vehicle.
Although PBSO has a strict policy against shooting into moving vehicles, investigators found nothing to fault in the shooting.
Bradshaw agreed that some of the unit’s reports were inadequate, and he said future reports into shootings will be more thorough.
But he said better reports wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the investigations.
Since 2000, the department has cleared all but 12 shootings, a 90 percent clearance rate, The Post found. Since 2010, the rate is 100 percent.
But since then, the actions of police and prosecutors have led Stephens’ lawyers to believe that the charges are being used to retaliate against him.
“I absolutely believe this is a vindictive prosecution, that they’re only doing this … to justify what the officer did,” said Stephens’ criminal defense lawyer, Ian Goldstein. “It’s a disturbing case. This is probably the worst I’ve ever seen.”
Stephens was shot Sept. 13, four seconds after he was stopped by Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office deputy Adams Lin. (Lin has since been promoted to sergeant.) Lin said Stephens disobeyed multiple orders to raise his hands, prompting him to shoot.
Stephens, who was immediately paralyzed by the gunfire, had a cell phone in his hand.
Police quickly found reasons to suspect Stephens of drug possession, according to records and a deposition of the case’s lead detective.
Paramedics at the scene cut off his clothes before taking him to St. Mary’s Medical Center. When PBSO investigators looked beneath the clothing, they found a vial of crack cocaine on the ground.
At St. Mary’s, a nurse found a small baggie of marijuana on the floor of the emergency room and handed it to a deputy.
Prosecutors decided to charge Stephens with possession of the cocaine vial, a third-degree misdemeanor punishable by up to five years in prison.
But according to Det. Kenny Smith, the lead detective in the case, there was no real evidence, beyond circumstance, that the cocaine belonged to Stephens.
“It was underneath his clothing at the scene,” Smith said in a deposition for Stephens’ civil lawsuit last year. “So there’s a possibility that it’s not his.”
To try to bolster the department’s case against Stephens, Smith did something unusual: he sent the vial to PBSO’s lab to see if it contained Stephens’ DNA.
Smith told Stephens’ lawyers that it was the first time in his 14 years at PBSO that he’d sent a vial to the lab to test for DNA. DNA tests are expensive and time-consuming, with results often taking months.
According to Stephens’ lawyers, PBSO’s lab refused to test the vial since the charge was so minor. Instead, the lab sent it to a third party for testing.
It came back negative for Stephens’ DNA, and prosecutors dropped the charge.
But they didn’t give up on pinning a drug charge on Stephens. At that point, more than a year after the incident, the State Attorney’s Office decided to add a charge of marijuana possession, a misdemeanor.
But that charge seems even more flimsy.
Smith said in last year’s deposition that he didn’t try to charge Stephens with marijuana possession because he didn’t believe there was probable cause indicating it belonged to Stephens. He didn’t even bother sending it for DNA testing since a St. Mary’s nurse handed it over to a deputy.
Goldstein said the marijuana possession charge was absurd, especially since Stephens’ clothes had been cut off him at the scene, making it difficult for him to hide marijuana until he got to the hospital.
Stephens has pleaded not guilty to all charges and will not accept a plea deal, Goldstein said.
“He did not do anything wrong,” Goldstein said.
A request for comment from the State Attorney’s Office was not returned Thursday.
Goldstein and Jack Scarola, Stephens’ attorney in his federal civil case, believe the office’s aggressive prosecution is a sign that the case is personal for police and prosecutors.
“Those circumstances clearly reflect retaliatory action by the sheriff’s office against Dontrell,” Scarola said.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office has paid out precious little to people who have been shot by police over the years – just $1.7 million, as The Palm Beach Post documented last week.
There are a variety of reasons why: unfriendly courts and judges, unsympathetic victims and a state law that limits many payouts to just $200,000.
As a result, the most PBSO has ever paid out for a shooting since 2000 is just $300,000, to the family of a Guatemalan man who was shot and killed by a deputy who planted evidence at the scene.
But the department has paid out far bigger sums over the same period, mostly for accidents and deputy misconduct cases.
Here are the department’s top non-shooting-related settlements in the last 16 years, according to figures provided by PBSO:
$1.5 million: To Jennifer Graham, who was sitting on a park bench when a PBSO deputy lost control of his cruiser while going to a call in 2003. The deputy struck Graham, seriously injuring the then-29-year-old woman.
$641,000: To Lawrence Femminella, a PBSO jail deputy who was falsely accused in 2003 of supplying cocaine to an inmate. The inmate said five deputies were supplying cocaine, and each were placed on paid leave. They were later cleared, with an apology from then-Sheriff Ed Bieluch: “These are good employees, good people and good citizens. There was no wrongdoing on the part of any of them.”
$600,000: To Doug Miller and his son Shawn, who claimed they were falsely arrested by a deputy in 2001. The incident apparently started with the senior Miller reporting a speeding driver to police, leading to both Millers being arrested on multiple felony charges, including assault with a deadly weapon, according to the Sun Sentinel. Prosecutors never charged them.
$376,817: To former PBSO deputy Keith Burns, who was fired before being acquitted in 2007 of beating a teen with his baton. He later sued, claiming the entire incident was a “ridiculous witch hunt” and that he had a deal with the previous sheriff, Bieluch, that he wouldn’t be fired before the trial ended.
$350,000: To Michael Mueller, the 19-year-old who was allegedly beaten by deputy Keith Burns, after running away from the deputy during a late-night traffic stop in 2003. Mueller said Burns hit him in the head, arms, thighs and back, requiring metal staples to close a wound on his head and a metal plate in his arm to piece the bone back together. Burns denied hitting him, and a jury acquitted him.
$250,000: To two men who, as children, were molested by deputy Gervasio Torres while they were members of the department’s Explorers program. The allegations were first made in 1992, but the department didn’t launch an investigation until 2003. Torres was convicted of two counts of capital sexual battery and is spending life in prison.
Stephens went to a physical rehabilitation center near Orlando after his release from the hospital. Since he left rehab, he’s been living in an extended stay hotel in West Palm Beach, Karen Stephens said.
His lawyer, Jack Scarola, confirmed Dontrell Stephens’ situation. He said that Stephens was supposed move into an apartment with his mother but his mother never got an apartment.
Although Stephens and Scarola are suing PBSO in federal court, Scarola said legal ethics forbid him from paying his client’s rent.
“We are not in a position to provide him the kind of help he needs, and I wish we could,” Scarola said. “He is one of those people who has most definitely fallen through the cracks.”
Karen Stephens said her cousin has not yet been able to find a job but is receiving a small amount of money for his disability from the Social Security Administration. It’s not enough for him to live on, she and Scarola said.
She’s collecting just $5,000 to cover a few months of rent for Dontrell, she said. Other family members are trying to help as they can.
“No one can do everything all the time (for him),” she said. “People try to help as they can. It’s just a handful of us in the family that are able to do it.”
Stephens’ stint in rehab cost “a few hundred thousand dollars,” Scarola said, but he hasn’t had to pay for it yet.
“They agreed to provide rehab services for Dontrell, with the understanding they would be paid out of the litigation,” he said of the facility.
Despite his situation, Scarola said Stephens is doing well, thanks to the support of his family.
The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office will pay $100,000 for a police think tank to review its internal affairs department and its investigations into shootings.
As part of the deal, six experts with the Police Executive Research Forum will spend months interviewing PBSO staff, comparing the department’s policies to “best practices” and hosting six focus groups to get the public’s input.
At the end of their study, estimated to take about 4 1/2 months, the group will release its findings and recommendations for improvement, according to the contract, signed in May. The PERF team is expected to start late this month, according to a PBSO spokeswoman.
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw asked PERF for help after a joint investigation by The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5 revealed in April that the agency’s investigations into shootings were often inadequate.
The investigation found that PBSO’s internal investigators skew or ignore evidence that could be critical of the shooting deputy and often don’t question a deputy’s statement, even when facts show the deputy didn’t tell the truth. Their reports were also found to leave out basic information, such as how many shots the deputy fired and whether the suspect lived.
Over the agency’s 123 shootings by deputies since 2000, it found only 12 went against department policy.
Bradshaw didn’t dispute the investigation’s findings but said that even if internal investigators’ reports were more thorough, the shootings still would have been found justified.
PERF is a respected think-tank in the world of policing, and the U.S. Department of Justice often contracts with them to help reform police departments.
The group will be looking into many aspects of the county’s largest police department, according to the contract, including:
How the agency handles complaints by civilians.
How it reviews uses of force by deputies.
The department’s policies.
How its internal investigators are trained.
PERF will hold six community focus groups “to determine community expectations about PBSO internal administrative investigations,” the contract states.
The dates for those groups have not been announced. The Post will publish them as soon as they’re released.