Friday, December 15, 2017
Public safety

Deputy to avoid jail, criminal record in road rage case, attorney says

TAMPA — A former Hillsborough County sheriff's detective who pulled a gun on a schoolteacher during a road rage incident is poised to avoid jail time or a criminal record through a deal offered by prosecutors, the deputy's attorney said.

Thomas Pettis, 55, has been approved by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office for its misdemeanor intervention program, according to his attorney, Norman Cannella Sr. of Tampa. As a result, a misdemeanor battery charge against him will be dropped if he completes community service with the Salvation Army, Cannella said.

The resolution is a mild one for Pettis, who initially faced potential charges of battery and aggravated assault with a firearm, the latter offense a felony punishable by at least three years in prison. It likely will stoke further questions about whether Pettis, a veteran homicide detective and state witness on dozens of pending cases, has received unusually favorable treatment.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, the state attorney is the one whose opinion counts," Cannella said. "Seasoned assistant state attorneys obviously have greater insight than the average citizen, who's not steeped or learned in the criminal justice system."

Mark Cox, spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, declined to comment on what he said were ongoing plea negotiations in Pettis' case. Pettis was scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, but it was delayed until May 15, court officials said.

Evan Rees, the victim in the case, said he was stunned by the deal. Rees, a 44-year-old biology teacher from Sebring, said he has never been contacted by Hillsborough prosecutors and did not give his blessing to it. He said he learned of it from a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

"I wouldn't consent to that. Not for one second. This is mind-blowing," Rees said. "That doesn't seem fair. I wouldn't get that if the roles were reversed. This is just crazy."

Rees said he plans to ask the Florida Attorney General's Office to appoint a special prosecutor to review Pettis' case, asserting that Ober's office has a conflict of interest. Pettis is a state witness in 28 pending cases, including upcoming murder trials that have received heavy publicity.

On Feb. 15, Pettis' car rear-ended Rees' car on Interstate 4 in Seffner. Rees and his wife, sister and niece had been at the Florida State Fair. During a subsequent shouting match outside their cars, Pettis and Rees grappled with each other and tumbled to the ground.

After they had been pulled apart by bystanders, Pettis drew a handgun from his ankle holster and pointed it at Rees. Several witnesses said the detective threatened to kill Rees, an accusation Pettis later denied.

After reholstering his gun, Pettis moved through the crowd that had gathered along the highway and punched Rees in the head.

After reviewing the incident, the State Attorney's Office decided to charge Pettis only with misdemeanor battery, asserting that the evidence did not rebut Pettis' claim that he aimed the gun at Rees in self-defense.

On Tuesday, responding to a public records request from the Times, the State Attorney's Office released a cellphone video shot from inside a car at the crime scene by a teenage girl whose father helped break up the fight.

The video corroborates the events first reported Sunday in the Times, after the newspaper obtained previously undisclosed investigative records of the incident. Pettis can be seen pointing a Glock pistol at Rees after the teacher is pulled off him, then holding the gun at his side for about 30 seconds. He can also be seen speaking angrily to Rees, though his words were not captured in the video.

"Oh, my God, he has a gun," one of the young witnesses in the car can be heard saying. "Tell dad to get in the car." Another says, "Call the cops!"

Pettis resigned from the Sheriff's Office shortly afterward.

Under state law, pretrial intervention for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases requires consent of the victim. However, Hillsborough County's misdemeanor intervention program is not bound by those statutory rules and requires only the approval of the state attorney, Cox said.

Bryant Camareno, a Tampa criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said crime victims ordinarily are consulted before a defendant is allowed to enter misdemeanor intervention, although the final decision rests with prosecutors.

"I think in theory the victim should have a say in whether it's an intervention program. It's ultimately the state's decision," Camareno said. "At a minimum they should confer."

Comments
Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, later found in swamp

Deputies: Plant City men fled in stolen car, later found in swamp

DOVER — Two Plant City men, with several outstanding warrants, face additional charges after Hillsborough County deputies said they were driving a stolen car when they fled an attempted traffic stop on Thursday afternoon.The men ran away from deputie...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Arrest made as former gay bathhouse in Ybor City is hit by arson a third time

Arrest made as former gay bathhouse in Ybor City is hit by arson a third time

TAMPA — Tampa police arrested a man Friday on charges he set fire to a vacant Ybor City bathhouse hit by at least two earlier arsons this year.Police said Carroll DeMoss, 46, was found early Friday inside the building at 1512 E 8th Ave. after patrols...
Updated: 3 hours ago

Missing Child Alert canceled for Port St. Lucie girl, 17

A Florida Missing Child Alert has been canceled for a 17-year-old Port St. Lucie girl who was last seen on Thursday.The case involving Heaven Flores has been resolved, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Updated: 5 hours ago

Hudson pedestrian killed while crossing U.S. 19

HUDSON — A Hudson man was killed Thursday night while crossing U.S. 19.According to the Florida Highway Patrol, 59-year-old Gerald Berube was crossing the northbound lanes of U.S. 19 north of Stahl Drive around 6:40 p.m. when he walked into the path ...
Updated: 7 hours ago

Bicyclist killed in Seminole Heights crash; portion of E Hillsborough Avenue closed

TAMPA — A bicyclist was killed early Friday morning in a crash in Seminole Heights.Tampa Police say the bicyclist was struck by a car just after 12:15 a.m.Eastbound E Hillsborough Avenue is closed from N Florida Avenue to N Central Avenue while polic...
Updated: 7 hours ago
Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

Tampa police seek ‘person of interest’ in Dec. 3 homicide

TAMPA — Police are seeking a "person of interest" who they believe has information about a Dec. 3 drive-by shooting that killed a 22-year-old man.Police are searching for Anan Motilal, 25. He stands about 5-foot-10 and weighs 180 pounds. He may have ...
Published: 12/14/17

Pinellas Park officer stuns middle school student with Taser

PINELLAS PARK — A school resource officer stunned a middle school student with a Taser while trying to break up a fight between her and another female student on Thursday, police said.Neither the Pinellas Park officer nor the students involved in the...
Published: 12/14/17
Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

Bob’s Carpet and Flooring heir was source of family strife before arrest

An heir to a local flooring company charged with failing to report the death of a young woman last year has a troubled criminal history and was a source of strife in his family business, according to court records.Robert Butler III, 52, was arrested ...
Published: 12/14/17
Horrified friends watch screaming woman driven to her death in Plant City

Horrified friends watch screaming woman driven to her death in Plant City

PLANT CITY — Jonathon Adams heard a scream, "like a dog getting run over by a car," then saw a minivan come tearing around the corner with a woman he knew dangling out of the passenger side.It was the start of a deadly sequence of events Dec. 8 that ...
Published: 12/14/17
Dade City man turns himself in on warrants for Polk armed robbery

Dade City man turns himself in on warrants for Polk armed robbery

DADE CITY — A 25-year-old man wanted in connection with the attempted robbery of a taxi driver in Lakeland turned himself in late Wednesday night after being prompted by his mother, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.Edner Dely of Dade Ci...
Published: 12/14/17