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 Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office is investigating how the home addresses of thousands of officers, prosecutors, judges and others were released online over the weekend.
The addresses are redacted from the county Property Appraiser’s website at the request of police and prosecutors, but friends of a former sheriff’s deputy with a grudge against the agency obtained the information and posted it online.
It includes nearly 3,600 names and addresses of local and federal judges and prosecutors, FBI agents and officers from many local police departments. It also lists addresses of facilities that house victims of domestic violence.
The Palm Beach Post is not naming the site or linking to it because of the sensitive nature of the records.
How the information ended up online is a mystery. Pat Poston, the property appraiser’s director of exemption services, which handles requests by police to redact their home addresses, said county information technology specialists said no one had hacked the property appraiser’s database.
“We’ve been contacted by the sheriff’s office,” Poston said. “They are beginning an investigation.”
A spokeswoman from PBSO hasn’t responded to a request for comment.
The site that posted the information is linked to former deputy Mark Dougan, a longtime thorn in the side of Sheriff Ric Bradshaw and his second-in-command, Chief Deputy Michael Gauger, who has filed a civil suit against Dougan.
Dougan denied responsibility for the release. He said friends in Russia were responsible, but said he knew “a long time ago” that the hackers had the information.
Dougan said the release was retribution against the sheriff’s office, which he claimed had hacked into his personal Facebook and email accounts without a warrant.
“It sucks, but if the government doesn’t want their privacy breached, then they can’t go around breaching the privacy of citizens without a warrant,” he said. “Yes, 4,000 people were not involved in hacking my stuff, but those 4,000 people didn’t do anything to stop it.”
Although state law allows many types of public employees to request their home addresses be redacted from property appraiser websites, many don’t. Those who were not redacted are not exposed on the new posting. The 3,600 all had taken advantage of the state law to keep people from knowing where they live.
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.”
Russell Brinson, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s deputy accused last year of roughing up a man who had called police for help, was cleared of any wrongdoing in the case.
In May 2014, Augusto Garcia had called police to report two suspicious people milling around his car. Brinson responded and, believing Garcia was a suspect, grabbed his arm, twisted it behind his back and took him to the ground, records show. He put a knee in Garcia’s back while handcuffing the man.
Brinson said Garcia refused to obey commands to take his hands out of his pockets. Garcia said he never had a chance to explain before Brinson swept his legs out from under him. He had to be hospitalized for back pain.
The deputy, who had 18 uses of force, including a shooting, in one 20-month span, was cleared in December.
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.
Palm Beach County Sheriff Ric Bradshaw shared his harshest comments over recent criticism about his agency’s shootings with officers gathered at a recent Police Benevolent Association gala.
In a video for the event, Bradshaw blasted elected officials, the media and police chiefs across the country who bow to public pressure over deadly police encounters.
“As long as I’m in this office, and I hope to be there a little bit longer, I’m not backing up, and Channel 5 and The Post can take their best shot, because it’s not going to work,” he said.
Bradshaw was referring to The Palm Beach Post and WPTV NewsChannel 5’s joint investigation “Line of Fire,” which documented all of the department’s 123 shootings since 2000 and found one in four people shot at were unarmed. The investigation also found the department’s internal investigations into shootings often lacked basic information, such as how many rounds the deputy fired.
The video was recorded for the PBA’s 8th Annual Police Officer’s Ball at Eau Palm Beach on June 13, and uploaded to the Dade County PBA’s Facebook page on July 9. Since Bradshaw couldn’t attend, he was asked to make a video addressing the troops, PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera said.
One of the people Bradshaw didn’t criticize in the video was Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg, who has been criticized as recently as Monday for not filing charges against officers who shoot.
“First of all, to my good friend Dave Aronberg, thank you for being one of those people that have stood up lately and been the person that’s been counted upon to do the right thing,” Bradshaw said.
No officer has been charged in a shooting in Palm Beach County since 1993. Aronberg took office in 2013. Among the officers he declined to indict was Adams Lin, who shot and paralyzed an unarmed man later that year, sparking national outrage.
In the video, Bradshaw said his political advisers have urged him “to find some common ground” with critics, since he’s running for re-election next year.
“For me, there is no common ground here,” he said. “I can be like some of the elected officials, I can be like some of the police officials, and tuck my tail between my legs and say, ‘Yeah, you know what, maybe we need to talk about this.’
“No. that’s not it. And I’m not going to back up. Because we have not done anything wrong. We have taken action when we need to take action.”
PBSO spokeswoman Teri Barbera said the message was meant to rally the officers in attendance. They gave it a standing ovation.
“Each speaker, including the sheriff, shared a motivating message with the troops,” she said in an email. “ALL received standing ovations, by the troops.”
“I want everybody that’s in law enforcement to hold their head up high,” Bradshaw told them. “As far as I’m concerned, law enforcement in this county is as good as you can get.”
He described shootings as deputies simply responding to the actions of suspects.
“This is a simple equation,” he said. “If you don’t try to shoot us, if you don’t try to stab us, you don’t try to run over us with a car, and you don’t try to beat us up, then everything’s going to be fine.”
He added, “So why should we be apologetic? Why should we kowtow down? Why should we succumb to pressure from the outside, which is uncalled for, just because they think it’s wrong, when it’s not?”
In reaction to The Post and Channel 5’s investigation, Bradshaw started tracking how often deputies pull their guns on people. He’s also paying $100,000 for an outside group to review how the agency investigates itself.
In the video, Bradshaw urged the “silent majority” of officers and citizens who support police to “be unsilent.”
“They need to put their big boy pants on and be as vocal as the other people that say, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot,’ which is not even remotely the truth,” he said.
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.