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Prosecutors decline to file charges against sheriff's sergeant

BROOKSVILLE — A Hernando County sheriff's sergeant will not face criminal charges after being accused of battering a former girlfriend, according to documents the Sheriff's Office released Tuesday.

The agency is still conducting an internal investigation into the conduct of Sgt. Donnie Smith in an incident that occurred at the end of May.

Smith did not receive preferential treatment, said Assistant State Attorney Richard Buxman, adding that there was not enough evidence to prosecute the 10-year veteran.

According to sheriff's reports, the former girlfriend, who used to work as a Sheriff's Office communications employee, said that Smith hit her in her mouth, pulled out a clump of her hair and broke her cell phone sometime late in the evening on May 31 or early morning June 1.

The Times is withholding the name of the former girlfriend because of the nature of the allegations. The reports said that the woman made the allegations weeks later, on June 18, after she had been questioned by authorities because Smith called deputies to complain that she had trespassed on his property.

According to reports, the woman said she, Smith and two off-duty sheriff's deputies went to Jersey's Hometown Tavern, a bar at 4598 Commercial Way in Spring Hill.

She became upset when she saw Smith "placing his hands on and groping" a female officer, according to the report.

The accuser slammed down her beer, stormed out of the bar, hopped into Smith's vehicle and drove to the parking lot of Weichert Realty, just north of the bar, according to the reports.

A few minutes later, she called Smith from her cell phone and told him where to find her.

He left the bar and the two met outside Smith's truck.

There were no witnesses to what happened next, and Smith and the woman offer conflicting accounts.

According to the woman, Smith grabbed her hair when he found her outside his truck, ripping out a handful from the top of her scalp. She told investigators he broke her cell phone and threw the keypad onto the roof of Weichert Realty. She said she slapped Smith in the face as they drove off, and he retaliated by hitting her across her mouth, causing her to bleed.

Smith denied those allegations, or that he had ever hit the woman during their relationship, which started in August 2007. He told investigators that when he found her in his truck, he insisted they switch seats because she had been drinking too much.

As they drove away, Smith said, she twice tried to get out of his truck — he said he grabbed her both times to try to keep her inside. He said he also slammed on his brakes, which might have caused her to hit her head on the dashboard, causing her to bleed.

Sheriff's Deputy Steven George, who was in the area investigating a drunken-driving call, had been tailing Smith's truck when Smith pulled into a CVS parking lot.

George approached Smith's truck and found the woman in the passenger's seat, bleeding and crying hysterically. Smith and the woman told the deputy that the former girlfriend had been in a confrontation with another woman at Jersey's.

The former girlfriend later told investigators that Smith told her to tell the story to cover up for the injuries, but Smith maintained she did get into a confrontation with a woman at the bar, though it was not physical.

After George told Sgt. Clayton Miller about the incident, Miller told George to stop the car again so he could talk to Smith.

In a report, Miller said George told him he noticed blood on the woman's shirt, but Miller wrote he did not see any. He also wrote it appeared that the woman was intoxicated. Smith and the woman told Miller the same story they gave to George, so Miller let them go.

After the former girlfriend's accusations and an investigation by the Hernando Sheriff's Office, the case was forwarded to the state attorney's office in Citrus County, which Buxman, the assistant state attorney, said was done to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

Smith was suspended by the Sheriff's Office on June 19, according to an incident report.

As of July 8, Smith was directed to report for "restricted duty'' pending the outcome of the criminal and the internal investigations.

On July 9, the State Attorney's Office informed the Sheriff's Office that no criminal charges would be filed in the case.

The internal investigation is still ongoing, said Sgt. Donna Black, spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office.

Buxman said no charges were filed because the case lacked physical evidence and witnesses. Also, a letter from Buxman to the woman noted that the alleged victim had asked prosecutors not to pursue charges against Smith, but that Smith obtain alcohol and anger management treatment or counseling.

"The whole case relied on the testimony of the victim," Buxman said Tuesday, and because the woman had told one story to responding officers and a different one to deputies nearly three weeks later, her credibility would have been questioned by a defense attorney.

"I don't think we would have won this case if we would have gone to a jury," he said.

Michael Sanserino can be reached at msanserino@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1430.

Prosecutors decline to file charges against sheriff's sergeant 07/22/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 2:58pm]
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