Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

Missed clues left fugitive free until after girl was raped

SAFETY HARBOR — Pinellas County sheriff's deputies missed or ignored evidence of the whereabouts of a Safety Harbor fugitive who allegedly raped and impregnated an 11-year-old girl during the 17 months he eluded capture, according to interviews with officials and records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Gregory J. Johns, 42, was shot to death by sheriff's deputies this month as they tried to arrest him on suspicion of raping his girlfriend's daughter. The Times reported last week that an earlier arrest warrant for Johns on a felony drug charge was issued last year, but not served until two months ago, after the rape allegedly took place.

The delay has become a rallying point for critics of Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri's decision, while chief deputy in 2009, to cut spending by eliminating a team of detectives whose primary job was to track down fugitives.

Gualtieri has defended his agency's handling of Johns, asserting that Johns changed residences while he had an outstanding warrant and that his most recent address, in Safety Harbor, was unknown to law enforcement.

"There's no place to go check for this guy," Gualtieri said last week. "You would need a crystal ball, because there's nothing tying him to that place."

Yet records reviewed by the Times show that Johns' address was updated in the county court system in early May — before the alleged rape — to reflect his move to Safety Harbor, where he lived with his girlfriend and her daughter.

And in an interview this week, Gualtieri acknowledged that deputies had in fact never tried to arrest Johns at any address — not even the St. Petersburg location originally listed on his 2011 arrest warrant.

"I don't show that they tried to serve it," Gualtieri said after reviewing internal agency records. "For whatever reason, nobody tried to."

Deputies did review the warrant for Johns, he said, and likely put off arresting him because it was for a drug charge, which would be considered a lower priority than a violent crime.

While Johns had a substantial rap sheet — including six prison sentences for crimes such as robbery with a deadly weapon and battery on a law enforcement officer — his background would not have been apparent from his warrant information, Gualtieri said.

"There's nothing there that's telling them about what this guy's history is," he said. He added, "Just because somebody did something horrific in the past doesn't mean they're still violent."

After 17 months, Johns was finally arrested on the drug charge in July, then released on $7,500 bail to await trial. In August, the 11-year-old learned she was pregnant. She reported the rape to her mother, who informed the Sheriff's Office.

Johns was killed on Sept. 1 when he tried to rush deputies in a Treasure Island motel room, according to the Sheriff's Office.

The victim has not been identified by law enforcement because she is a child victim of sexual abuse. Her mother declined to speak with a reporter who visited her home this week.

Pinellas County has about 56,000 outstanding arrest warrants on file, including 14,000 felony warrants. Gualtieri's challenger in the Nov. 6 general election, Democrat Scott Swope of Palm Harbor, has begun using the warrants issue as fodder for political attacks.

He said the Johns case shows that eliminating the 16-deputy fugitive division of the Sheriff's Office created a threat to public safety. A dedicated squad of detectives would have pursued Johns more aggressively, Swope said.

"Had there been a fugitive section, and had they been prioritizing warrants, Johns would have been a target, because he was a very bad guy," Swope said. "Even though the warrant itself was relatively innocuous, he should have been a target."

At law enforcement agencies that still employ full-time fugitive tracking teams, the work of serving arrest warrants can be complex.

Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, said his agency has a fugitive unit of eight detectives, who are supervised by a sergeant and assisted by five clerks. Information in the initial arrest warrants can be a "starting point" for locating someone, Doll said, but often leads to further investigation of various government files and interviews with a suspect's acquaintances.

"It's talking to friends, neighbors, other people who might know where they're at," Doll said.

Gualtieri argues that the old Pinellas fugitive section, cut amid downsizing forced by declining county tax revenue, would not have prevented the unfortunate results of the Johns case.

The drug charge would still have been considered a low priority, he said, and detectives would not have noticed the address change, which happened more than a year after the warrant was issued.

He said the work of the defunct fugitive section is now performed by all patrol deputies, who use an in-house database to see whether any suspects with active arrest warrants are on their beats. If fugitive detectives were still on staff, he said, they "would be assigned to do what the patrol deputies do now."

Yet Johns' case points to vulnerabilities in the current system.

Johns' home address was updated in the county court system in May, but that change was not reflected in the database sheriff's deputies use to view active arrest warrants.

Ron Stuart, spokesman for the Pinellas-Pasco judicial circuit, said the address change in the county system would have happened because new information became available to court clerks or law enforcement about Johns' residence. Stuart said he could not determine what prompted the update, but county records offer a hint.

On May 2, a complaint about a worthless check was filed with the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office. The $76 check to Publix had a Safety Harbor address printed on it under Johns' name. The State Attorney's Office did not respond to requests for comment.

Gualtieri said the fugitive database scanned by deputies is not connected to the county's records. That means fugitives can come in contact with law enforcement for some other reason but their most current information would still not be updated in the warrant database.

The court system is implementing a new software system. Gualtieri said the overhauled system, unlike the current one, will be linked to the sheriff's warrant database and automatically update fugitive locations.

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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