TAMPA — They arrested Audie Grogg one night in January, for no good reason, and one bad thing led to another. Jail is expensive. He was in his motor home, out of gas by the side of the road. He had a Coke and a Hershey bar. He had a flare gun beside him, painted black, in case of robbers. That was the first felony charge.
A few things to know about Grogg: He's a Georgia boy, 52 years old, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots. He welded for a living till his eyesight deteriorated, and then a car crash wrecked his left knee, and now he gets by on disability checks. Meekness is not his chief virtue. He distrusts the police.
This is why, when he saw the Hillsborough sheriff's deputies approaching, he tried to capture the incident on audiotape. So he says, anyway. Proof comes and goes.
What is certain is that the deputies found him at about 11:30 p.m. on Jan. 8, in a part of town called Clair-Mel, and that they saw the flare gun, and that flare guns are firearms under state law, and that, despite his colorful protests, they arrested him on a charge of carrying a concealed firearm.
State prosecutors dropped the case later that month, on the grounds that the charge was logically impossible. State Attorney's spokeswoman Pam Bondi said the flare gun could not have been concealed because, as Detective Troy Davis' own report said, "a firearm was observed in plain view."
None of this made any immediate difference to Grogg. By then his charges had multiplied.
Grogg was booked at the Orient Road jail early in the morning of Jan. 9. Though he was locked up for nearly two years in Georgia in the '90s for theft, this was his first arrest in Florida.
He and a guard had a quarrel. The guard told Grogg to take the hood off his head, but Grogg resisted because he was cold. The guard responded by confiscating his hooded sweat shirt and giving him a T-shirt in exchange. Grogg didn't like the way the guard pressed the T-shirt into his chest.
"The devil's gonna like you," he remembers saying.
Charges pile up
Grogg was still on crutches because of the crash that ruined his knee. As he referred the guard to the devil, he raised a crutch to emphasize his point.
The guard, Deputy David Seward, said the crutch hit him in the back of the right thigh. Hence the second felony: battery on a law enforcement officer.
The incident was caught on surveillance cameras, and the St. Petersburg Times reviewed the video. It shows Grogg extending a crutch. Seward is out of the frame so it's impossible to tell if the crutch hits him. It also shows the deputy pushing Grogg against a water fountain, grabbing him by the arm and dragging him along the floor.
In any case, prosecutors threw out this charge, too. "Any contact was slight," said Pam Bondi, a spokeswoman for the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, "and there were no injuries."
Still, Grogg spent most of January and part of February in jail. Bondsmen didn't want to risk posting $4,000 bail for someone who lived in a motor home. For a man used to fried corn bread and triple-chocolate cake, jail was a place of constant hunger.
"I am enemic and have lost 25 or mor LBS in 2 weeks," he wrote Jan. 23 in a request for a medical interview. "Have very fast matabolism. The Dr. has told me I could get Ensure from the nurse and a sack snack at night but he lies."
Grogg finally got out Feb. 8, after a judge reduced his bail to $1,000 and his brother-in-law paid it with money from one of Grogg's disability checks. (He said he gets about $1,150 a month.) Then he went searching for his motor home, which had been impounded.
He found it at Stepp's Towing Service on U.S. 92. The bill was $120 for towing, $90 for labor, $30 per day for storage, more than $1,000 in all. When he said he couldn't pay, they said he couldn't have it. As per policy for vehicles left longer than 45 days, it would be sold at auction later that month.
The company did, however, let him look inside the motor home. He says he found it in disarray, with several of his possessions missing. Jim Stepp, the company owner, said the impound lot is monitored by surveillance cameras and there is no chance the motor home was burgled while in Stepp's custody.
Without the motor home, Grogg was homeless. He slept on the ground outside a church. About March 7, he called the St. Petersburg Times and told the story of his arrest.
On March 20, sheriff's spokesman J.D. Callaway said the agency had no record of Grogg's vehicle being impounded.
On March 24, Callaway called again to say the Sheriff's Office had, in fact, impounded the motor home, and it was still at the impound lot. It had not been auctioned off, but fees were due.
"But I don't think we're going to require Mr. Grogg to pay that," he said. "We're going to do the right thing and get him returned to his motor home."
Sure enough, the Sheriff's Office agreed to pay $2,000 to have the motor home released. On Wednesday morning, Grogg went to pick it up.
The motor home is a 1987 Holiday Rambler Presidential with less than 20,000 miles on the odometer. Grogg said he bought it for $11,000 last year with saved-up disability benefits. It was parked in Stepp's gravel lot off Shadowlawn Avenue. Grogg carried a gas can and jumper cables. He had traded the crutches for a brace on his left knee. He limped to the rear door.
"Look at this right here," he told a reporter.
Trash covered the floor. Cushions had been pulled from the couch. The cabinet floors had been pried up, as if someone had been searching for something.
Grogg said he had an $800 flat-screen TV. Only a rabbit-ears antenna remained. He said he had a change purse with $700 in cash. Now he did not. He said he had an audio tape recorder with which he had recorded the conversation during his arrest.
No tape recorder was in sight. The motor home did, however, contain an audio tape. It was in the sink, and the magnetic tape itself had been yanked from the plastic casing and left in a shiny brown pile.
It was unclear how the tape got there. But Grogg says it would have helped explain his arrest.
Detective Davis has been with the Sheriff's Office for nearly 17 years. His performance evaluations have been generally positive. He has 59 pages' worth of commendations in his personnel file, including one for a call in which he risked his own safety to disarm a woman who was threatening to kill her stepfather with a .22-caliber rifle.
The Sheriff's Office would not allow Davis to be interviewed.
"Troy Davis is a veteran," Callaway said, "and he would only arrest someone based on probable cause. I can assure you of that."
Callaway said Davis remembered Grogg from a previous encounter. Grogg said he wasn't sure when or where they met, but he did recall doing some cursing.
And on the night of the arrest, Grogg said, this is how Davis greeted him:
"Mr. Grogg. You were an a------ the last time I saw you. I'm going to find something to arrest you for before the night is over."
Grogg could not prove this. He had no evidence. But he did have his motor home, with a broken window, two dead batteries and a license tag that expired two weeks ago.
A helicopter cut through the Wednesday morning sky.
"They're gonna try to arrest me when I leave here," Grogg said, looking up with suspicion. "That's the fourth time they've flown over."
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Thomas Lake can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3416.