BROOKSVILLE — He risked his life last year as an undercover detective to bust a major Brooksville drug ring after being exposed by a deputy clerk of court.
And Thursday he appeared unmasked before a Hernando circuit judge with a personal plea: Don't let Kijafa Brown walk free.
"The horror and fear that my family has been put through because of Ms. Brown's actions are still here today," the detective told Circuit Judge Jack Springstead.
Brown, 31, pleaded guilty last month to three felony charges of disclosing confidential information and left her punishment to the judge. She faced a maximum of five years in state prison, according to sentencing guidelines.
The detective's raw testimony bolstered prosecutors' request for county jail time and a felony conviction. Clerk of Court Karen Nicolai told the judge to send a message to restore public trust.
But Springstead shocked many in the courtroom when he gave Brown three years of probation and withheld adjudication.
After hearing the ruling, the detective stormed from the courtroom, and Nicolai just sat shaking her head. All parties declined to comment about the ruling.
Springstead has a reputation as a tough judge, but he abides by an unwritten policy of giving first-time offenders — Brown had no criminal record — a break. The probation sentence allowed Brown to remain free, and without adjudication she can legally deny being convicted.
A report completed by a state probation officer before sentencing recommended three years of probation and a suspended sentence.
"One of the cornerstones of our justice system is consistency," Springstead said in explanation. "I intend to treat Ms. Brown and her case as I would treat any other defendant — no less, no worse."
According to court documents, Brown acted as a lookout for criminal activity against Bobby Walter, who is described as a kingpin in a major Brooksville drug network.
The arrest of Brown and another deputy court clerk who was later cleared, left a huge stain on Nicolai's office.
In a victim impact statement, Nicolai said Brown, a relatively new employee, "perpetrated a major violation of the public trust" that "severely damaged the credibility and reputation of the entire clerk's office."
The detective then described the investigation and explained how Brown recognized him at the courthouse and later passed his identity to Walter through a friend. The Times is not identifying the detective because he continues to work as an undercover officer at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office.
The seven-year veteran told the judge how officer safety was a concern from the beginning because the alleged drug dealers were linked to Angelo Freeland, who shot and killed a Polk County deputy and police dog during a traffic stop in 2006.
The detective said he lived in a state of extreme emotional stress. His wife was provided an armed guard for approximately a year. He asked the judge to make Brown a convicted felon so she couldn't work in a position of trust again.
Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis later picked up on the argument.
"While she didn't attempt to pull the trigger or do anything of that nature … the consequences (for her actions) are grave," he said.
In a letter to the judge, Brown said she didn't realize the effect of her actions.
"I was just having a casual conversation and never intended to cause potential harm to anyone or assist anyone in any wrongdoing," she wrote.
Brown's attorney, Peyton Hyslop, said his client knew the detective and saw him in a public area.
None of the "actions she took compromised the investigation," he said. "No confidential information was given out by Ms. Brown."
Instead, Hyslop blamed Sheriff's Office procedures that allowed undercover deputies to give depositions and present search warrants in a public place.
"Hopefully some of the procedures will be modified to better help their employees," he said.
John Frank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352)