Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

Light punishment for deputy who pulled gun during off-duty road-rage incident

TAMPA — The crash shattered the rear windshield of Evan Rees' Honda sedan. Sitting in the back seat, Rees, a 44-year-old teacher from Sebring, gaped through the empty window frame at the truck that had rear-ended his family on Interstate 4 east of Tampa.

He didn't have long to stare, as a man jumped from the truck's driver-side door and stormed toward the Honda. Rees, who had spent the afternoon at the Florida State Fair with his wife, sister and niece, stepped out to meet him. As a shouting match erupted, the man grabbed him, and the pair tumbled to the ground.

Bystanders pulled them apart. But as Rees rose to his knees, he found himself staring down the barrel of a Glock pistol. His assailant had drawn a gun and aimed it at him. According to the accounts of multiple witnesses, he threatened to kill Rees before lowering his gun.

"I thought I was going to die," Rees later told an investigator.

What the man pulled out next was equally shocking: a badge. The 55-year-old who had attacked and pulled a gun on Rees on the side of I-4 was Thomas Pettis, an off-duty Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office homicide detective.

The surprises weren't over. As Rees waited for the police to arrive, Pettis moved through the crowd that had gathered and punched Rees in the head.

In the wake of his actions that Feb. 15, Pettis was criminally charged and retired from the Sheriff's Office. But two months later, questions linger about law enforcement's handling of the episode.

Pettis' brandishing of a handgun could meet the statutory definition of aggravated assault with a firearm, a felony punishable by a prison sentence of at least three years and up to five. Yet he is only being prosecuted for misdemeanor battery, a charge that qualifies him for pretrial intervention programs and the avoidance of criminal penalties.

Prosecutors, following what some say is a tenuous line of legal reasoning, asserted that Pettis pointed the gun at Rees in self-defense, even though the detective initiated the conflict and the fight was already broken up when he drew his weapon.

The conduct of the Sheriff's Office also raises questions.

Despite being the only suspect in a felony criminal investigation, Pettis was never booked into the county jail, sparing him the humiliating ritual in which ordinary citizens see their mug shots land on the Internet.

And a video of the confrontation captured by a teenager on her cellphone was collected by a sheriff's deputy, who then urged the girl's parents to delete their copy of the footage before leaving the crime scene, according to the girl's father, a bystander with no connection to Pettis or Rees.

Rees and some legal professionals familiar with the case wonder whether Pettis received favorable treatment because of his status as a veteran sheriff's deputy — and, perhaps more significantly, his importance to dozens of open homicide cases.

Pettis had a hand in the investigation of 28 pending cases, according to the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office, including several closely watched murder trials.

"I feel I was assaulted with a deadly weapon," Rees, an Army veteran who teaches biology at Sebring High School, said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times. "I think the charges that are brought against him right now, they don't seem very fair. It doesn't seem like anybody else would have gotten the same charges for the same actions."

Rees has no criminal record, and investigators determined he did not commit any criminal acts during his encounter with Pettis, although the detective said Rees bit his thumb and put a finger in his eye while they were wrestling. (Rees likewise said Pettis tried to gouge his eyes when they were on the ground.)

Pettis' alleged attack on Rees was never made public. The Times learned of the incident through interviews with eyewitnesses and a 250-page Sheriff's Office incident report that has not previously been disclosed.

Pettis, who is scheduled to be arraigned on the battery charge Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, declined to comment because his case is pending.

'I'm going to kill you'

Jeff Krumm, a 38-year-old Naples resident, was driving his girlfriend and three children to Disney World on Feb. 15 when he came upon an accident scene on I-4 near the Kingsway Road overpass in Seffner. Two men were standing by their cars, arguing. Krumm pulled over and got out to help.

As he approached, Krumm said in a statement to authorities, one of the men — later identified as Pettis — grabbed Rees by the collar. The pair locked up and went to the ground. Krumm and another bystander managed to yank them apart.

Krumm said he was standing next to Pettis when the deputy pulled a handgun from an ankle holster.

In his statement to investigators, Krumm said he heard Pettis tell Rees, "I'll shoot your a--" or "something to that effect," according to Sheriff's Office records. Krumm's girlfriend, Alissa Mitchell, told investigators that she heard Pettis say, "I'm going to kill you!"

Krumm, thinking of his children waiting in the car, began to carefully back away from Pettis. He was surprised when Pettis flashed his badge. "He never acted like a police officer, in my view of what a police officer should have done," Krumm said in an interview with the Times.

"I don't think he should have pulled the gun," Krumm said. "There was no threat going on. If anything, he was the initial aggressor. He had no control."

The accounts of Krumm and Mitchell largely corroborate those of Rees and his family. Rees, a wrestling coach, said he grappled with Pettis to defend himself when he was grabbed by the throat.

Cindy Vervuurt, Rees' wife and a teacher at Lake Placid Middle School south of Sebring, and his sister, Marcella Haupt, whose daughter was driving the car during the accident, both told investigators they heard Pettis say, "I'm going to f------ kill you."

It was only after making this threat, they said, that Pettis lowered his gun and showed his badge, identifying himself as law enforcement.

In his own interview with investigators, Pettis denied threatening Rees. He said he pulled his gun because he feared for his safety and was unsure whether the bystanders breaking up the fight were friends of Rees.

"I do know I did point my gun at him and I said … I don't even know what I said, but I'm sure I said something to the effect of get back or I'm trying to show him and tell him at the same time I'm a cop or I'm a law enforcement officer," Pettis told an investigator.

He acknowledged that he grabbed Rees but said it was by the shirt, not the throat. He said the punch he threw at the end of the confrontation was a response to Rees calling Pettis' 29-year-old daughter — who according to witnesses was arguing with Rees' sister — a "bitch" and taking "a couple of steps" toward her.

Pettis' daughter and son-in-law, who was also present, did not respond to requests for comment. Prosecutors' documentation of the case indicates Pettis' relatives were interviewed, but no records of their statements are in the Sheriff's Office report on the incident.

While two of the three independent eyewitnesses interviewed by investigators contradicted Pettis' version of events, the third gave an account more favorable to the detective.

Charles Smith, a 46-year-old construction worker from Lakeland who along with Krumm broke up the fight, told investigators that Rees was the more aggressive of the two and that Pettis never threatened to kill him, but instead yelled, "I'm a cop! I have a gun."

In an interview with the Times, Smith said he questioned Pettis' use of a firearm during the confrontation, but assumed he was trained to handle such situations.

"It was two hotheads going on at one time, you know?" Smith said. "I don't think he really needed to pull it out. But he's a police officer, so he knows when to, I'm sure."

Video erased

The latter portion of the fight, including Pettis' drawing of his gun, was captured in a cell-phone video by Krumm's 13-year-old daughter.

The video has not yet been made public, and was not among the investigative records obtained by the Times. The Sheriff's Office referred a request for the footage to the State Attorney's Office, which had not provided the video by the end of last week.

In a written summary of the recording, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office Detective Charles Hollis, the lead investigator of the incident, said Pettis can be seen drawing his gun and pointing it in Rees' direction "for approximately one second" while sitting on the ground. Pettis then stands up and lowers the gun, according to Hollis' report.

It is unclear whether the video captured sound from the confrontation. Hollis made no mention of Pettis' alleged threats being recorded.

Krumm said that after his family gave the video footage to Hillsborough sheriff's deputies on the scene, the deputies asked that the family delete their copy of it, saying they didn't "want it to get out through social websites." A deputy asked to watch them delete it before they got back in their car and left, Krumm said.

"They were really big on the whole deleting of the video," he said.

Robert Pusins, a former assistant chief at the Fort Lauderdale Police Department who is now executive director of the Department of Community Services for the Broward County Sheriff's Office, said it would be inappropriate for a law enforcement official to ask a private citizen to destroy video evidence of a crime, even if the same footage had already been copied for investigative purposes.

"What was the intent? Was the intent to try to prevent the video being displayed in public? That's not law enforcement's job to do that," Pusins said. "And that just opens the door to criticism."

Krumm would need to file a formal complaint before the agency looked into whether the request to delete the video was appropriate, said Detective Larry McKinnon, Hillsborough Sheriff's Office spokesman. But he dismissed suggestions that Pettis had received favorable treatment from investigators.

"This should show the public that not only do we hold our people to the same standards as the public, but we hold them to a higher standard," McKinnon said. "We're the ones who investigated it and recommended that he be charged."

Pettis retired from the agency at the end of last month. On his Facebook page, which is peppered with inflammatory posts denouncing President Barack Obama, he lists his occupation as "Former Detective SVU-Stupid Victims Unit, Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office."

McKinnon said Pettis' resignation came before an internal affairs investigation could be launched in addition to the criminal inquiry.

Charges of battery and aggravated assault with a firearm were forwarded for consideration to the State Attorney's Office, which ultimately opted only to pursue the less serious charge.

In a March 18 letter to the Sheriff's Office, State Attorney Mark Ober wrote that "the evidence does not refute" Pettis' claim that he acted in self-defense when he drew his gun.

"The manner in which he displayed the gun, the brief duration that it was pointed at Rees, the display of his badge, and the re-holstering of his weapon when it was clear that he was not under threat of imminent harm are all actions consistent with his claim of self-defense," the letter stated.

By contrast, the evidence did not support Pettis' claim that he punched Rees in defense of his daughter after putting the gun away, Ober found, leading to the misdemeanor battery charge. Ober's office also determined that Pettis "appears to have been at fault" for the car accident that set off the altercation, since he failed to slow down in time.

State Attorney's Office spokesman Mark Cox declined to comment on the charging decision, citing Pettis' pending case.

Clearwater criminal defense lawyer Steve Romine, who frequently represents defendants charged as the result of violent confrontations, said he saw a few problems with Pettis' self-defense claim. He said that perhaps foremost is that Pettis escalated the argument to a physical fight by placing his hands on Rees.

"If you were the initial aggressor, that's a problem," Romine said. Under Florida law an aggressor can still claim self defense, but only if he has "exhausted every reasonable means to escape" danger before using force.

It is still unclear how Pettis' legal trouble could affect the investigations in which he was involved. Late last month, prosecutors notified defense attorneys of the battery charge against the detective.

Pettis is a potential state's witness in heavily publicized murder cases, such as the upcoming trials of Richard McTear, accused of throwing a baby from a moving car, and Edward Covington, charged with killing his girlfriend and dismembering her two children.

Tampa criminal defense lawyer Lyann Goudie, who represents clients in two of the cases in which Pettis was scheduled to be a witness, said she questioned the decision not to charge the detective with aggravated assault in light of the evidence against him.

"At the end of the day, you've got two independent witnesses corroborating what the victim and his family say," Goudie said. "Would your average Joe only be charged with a battery, or would he be charged with an aggravated assault with a firearm? Would the average citizen get the same treatment?"

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

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