For years, cracks in the justice system have opened wide for Tyrone "Nugget" Rodgers

TAMPA — Justice walks a narrow path, to the right of anarchy, to the left of martial law. On one side a pizza thief gets life in prison. On the other side stands Nugget.

Nugget is a short man with a flawless smile, a gunshot scar on his left leg and a misogynistic slur tattooed on his chest. You can read the full text in one of his arrest reports. There are nearly 40.

The latest came last month, when Nugget, real name Tyrone Rodgers, real age 38, was accused of snatching a 12-year-old girl from her bus stop. (She got away a few minutes later.) Now he's in jail, awaiting trial on charges of battery and armed kidnapping.

A conviction could send him to prison for life, but these things are never certain. Nugget has a way of tumbling through the cracks.

Consider this. On April 29, 1990, fresh out of prison after serving two months of a 13-month sentence, he was charged with kidnapping and sexual battery. A Tampa police report said he punched a woman in the head, dragged her to a bedroom and raped her under threats of further violence. But these charges evaporated (it's not clear why because the court file has been destroyed), and Nugget pleaded no contest to battery.

He got 90 days in jail and six months' probation, which he violated by snatching a woman's purse and driving down 20th Street with her arm rolled up inside the car window and her feet pattering on the pavement. He got more probation, which he violated, thereby earning about three years in prison.

Nugget got out on May 11, 1994, and he made it six months before his next felony. A police report said he broke into an apartment, chased its residents outside, hurled a glass bottle at one woman, struck a second with a large plastic toy, and then went back inside and trashed the place. Back to prison for 16 months.

Court records suggest the next few years were relatively quiet, other than his 11th, 12th, 13th and 14th arrests, all involving driving infractions. Then, on March 8, 2000, according to a police report, he choked his girlfriend until she passed out. He pleaded to a misdemeanor and got 60 days in jail.

• • •

The cycle continued.

July 5, 2000. Caught in a stolen Ford Escort. Claims he borrowed it. State finds explanation reasonable. Charge dropped.

May 28, 2001. Charged with slapping sister. Prosecution declined because sister fails to appear for court.

March 8, 2004. Accused of lurking in a home on North 11th St. Judge dismisses burglary charges because victims miss scheduled depositions.

July 4, 2004. Bumps a security guard. Thirty days in jail.

May 19, 2005. Woman files for domestic violence injunction, saying he hit her, choked her and left her unconscious. She fails to appear in court. Case dismissed.

May 23, 2005. Woman dragged by hair, beaten, choked into unconsciousness. She later waives prosecution.

Nov. 28, 2006. Accused of asking his girlfriend's 14-year-old daughter to watch pornography with him, and pointing a gun at her when she wouldn't. Victim won't help with prosecution. State drops charge.

July 7, 2007. Man chased with sword or machete. Nugget implicated. Victim uncooperative. Charge goes away.

• • •

Florida does have some tough mandatory sentencing laws for violent offenders, but it appears they have never applied to Nugget. Despite approximately 37 arrests, the St. Petersburg Times could find record of only one violent felony conviction: attempted robbery in 1991.

Two other forces have helped him avoid a long sentence. The first is geography: in some states, three felonies of any kind can mean life in prison.

"In most, however," said University of Florida law professor Christopher Slobogin, "prosecutors, judges and parole boards have tremendous discretion in deciding whether and how much to charge, and how long imprisonment will last. A certain amount of discretion is good, because not all people who commit assault or theft should be treated exactly the same. But the record of this man suggests the system should have taken a harder line."

The second is even more important. Convictions require witnesses, and the witnesses in Nugget's cases tend to disappear. This kind of thing happens a lot with domestic violence.

"Unfortunately," said Nina Zollo, vice president of legal and policy for the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "what stands out about this criminal history is the fact that it is so typical."

Nov. 6, 2007. Nugget is charged with domestic battery. The case goes nowhere. The victim cannot be found.

April 23, 2008. Sligh Avenue outside the Cedar Pointe apartments. A 12-year-old girl is waiting for the school bus when a man drives up in a gray sedan and offers her a ride. She says no but he has a gun.

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

For years, cracks in the justice system have opened wide for Tyrone "Nugget" Rodgers 05/17/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 20, 2008 9:46am]

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