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16-month-old arrest warrant for Safety Harbor child rape suspect was served too late

LARGO — A 16-month-old warrant for the arrest of a Safety Harbor man with a history of violent crimes was in the possession of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office when he allegedly raped and impregnated his live-in girlfriend's 11-year-old daughter, court records show.

Gregory J. Johns, 42, was shot to death in a motel room in Treasure Island on Saturday morning by Pinellas sheriff's deputies as they tried to arrest him on a charge of sexual battery. They shot Johns when he threatened them with a knife, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Johns' case is over, except for a pending review of the deputies' decision to use deadly force. But the circumstances surrounding it are shaping up as a potential embarrassment for Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who in 2009 eliminated a team of 16 deputies whose primary responsibility was to find and arrest fugitives like Johns.

Gualtieri's opponent in the Nov. 6 general election for sheriff, Democrat Scott Swope of Palm Harbor, said Johns' ability to elude arrest shows the folly of that decision, part of sweeping budget cuts Gualtieri made because of declining tax revenues while he was chief deputy.

Swope said other criminals like Johns could lurk among the 56,000 outstanding arrest warrants backlogged in Pinellas County.

"I think it's a public safety issue when there are 56,000 active warrants in Pinellas County and the current sheriff has disbanded the fugitive section," Swope said. "I do not think it should have been disbanded."

Johns had served six prison sentences on charges including robbery with a deadly weapon and grand theft and was most recently released by the Florida Department of Corrections in July 2009.

In February 2011, a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of obtaining oxycodone by fraud, a felony. According to an arrest warrant affidavit obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, detectives with the Pinellas Sheriff's Office Narcotics Task Force suspected Johns of passing a phony prescription at a pharmacy in St. Petersburg.

Yet Johns was not arrested — not that month, not that year. It wasn't until July 2012 that he was finally taken into custody on the drug charge and then released on $7,500 bail. Meanwhile, in June, he allegedly raped his 11-year-old victim, who discovered in August that she was pregnant, according to the Sheriff's Office.

Gualtieri said it was "silly" to try to connect the slashing of the fugitive division with Johns' case. He said the job of making warrant arrests is now being done by patrol deputies, who learn of any fugitives on their beats through a countywide software system.

Johns escaped capture because his last known address was in St. Petersburg rather than his girlfriend's residence in Safety Harbor, where the reported rape took place, according to Gualtieri. Even if Johns had been arrested, he could still have posted bail and walked free pending his case's resolution, the sheriff said.

"Just because you get arrested on a drug charge doesn't mean you go to prison for life and can't commit any more crimes," Gualtieri said. "I'm very comfortable with what we did in eliminating that fugitive unit."

Yet the 2011 charge could well have resulted in another incarceration, even if a short one, said Tampa criminal defense lawyer Joe Caimano. A likely scenario is that Johns would have struck a plea deal or been sent to trial in less than six months, then been sent to either prison or county jail for a period of up to 18 months, he said.

"I think once you've got a guy who's been to prison as many times as this guy, and he gets picked up on a new felony warrant, he's looking at time," Caimano said.

Gualtieri, who last month won a bruising primary race against former Sheriff Everett Rice, is running in his first election. Last year he was appointed to finish the term of former Sheriff Jim Coats, who stepped down.

Political consultant Travis Horn of Tampa said the failure to arrest Johns before the rape in June could serve as potent campaign ammunition against the sheriff, depending on what further details emerge in the case and how Gualtieri responds.

"How much responsibility an incumbent sheriff would have remains to be seen," Horn said. "It's certainly a compelling set of facts."

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

16-month-old arrest warrant for Safety Harbor child rape suspect was served too late 09/04/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 4, 2012 11:22pm]
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