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Duty and honor shrouded in doubt: Brooksville detective's reputation follows him

He resigned from the Hernando County Sheriff's Office in a cloud of controversy. Then as a Brooksville police officer, he denied in a sworn statement that he had threatened a witness at a traffic stop. A videotape of the incident proved him wrong, and prosecutors considered charging him with perjury. Months later, his reputation apparently led a jury to discredit his testimony in an unrelated case and deliver a not guilty verdict.

In his 10-year career, Shawn Terry's record is stained with 30 complaints and investigations and eight reprimands. A number of the complaints involved excessive force during arrests and untruthfulness in sworn statements; most were ultimately dismissed.

His name is notorious in Hernando County law enforcement circles. Prosecutors say they handle his cases with extra caution. Some defense attorneys have questioned his integrity in open court. His complaint record is the worst at the Brooksville Police Department.

In the eyes of many, his credibility is shot.

"His reputation is for not being totally truthful in his statements, either blatantly fabricating or not being forthcoming," said Peyton Hyslop, a former county judge who now practices law.

Despite all this, Terry, 32, remains a Brooksville cop. In October, Chief George Turner promoted him to detective, calling him a "fine officer."

Turner declined to comment on Terry's record. But he highlighted a recent commendation Terry received for his work on a murder case in which the suspect confessed.

The chief wouldn't let Terry answer questions. (Turner has a department policy that forbids officers from talking to the press.) A certified letter with questions sent to Terry's home went unanswered and so did a letter hand-delivered to his home last week.

With dubious credibility, at what point does a law enforcement officer become a liability?

"You need to have credibility (as an officer), and once you lose it, it's very, very difficult to get it back," said Don Barbee, the top assistant state attorney in Brooksville, who acknowledged he has heard concerns from some of his prosecutors about Terry.

"You make one transgression in that area — in a deposition, in a court hearing, in a police report — your reputation can be forever tarnished. For some people, to the point of no return."

'Most likely to succeed'

Terry's reputation stands in contrast to what many saw as great potential.

A native son, he graduated from Central High School in Hernando in 1995. He worked as a security manager at Target while attending Withlacoochee Technical Institute's Criminal Justice Academy in Citrus County. Upon graduation in 1998, he earned a class leader award, and peers named him "most likely to succeed."

"I can think of no better job in the world than safeguarding life and property, and no other job that provides daily rewards other than your salary," he wrote in an application essay for a law enforcement job.

Those who know him suggest his personality contradicts his record. On the job, he is aggressive and does what it takes to make an arrest. But off duty, he is generally polite, respectful and disciplined.

Terry is a martial arts instructor and former state champion. He lifts weights religiously and prides himself on his physique. He is married to a Weeki Wachee mermaid and has a daughter.

He began his career at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office in May 1999, but left less than a year later, in good standing, to take an identical position at the Hernando Sheriff's Office. It didn't take him long to find trouble.

Resisting arrest and battery

On the evening of Dec. 5, 2000, he stopped a car driven by Rodni Battle on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in Brooksville for driving too slowly. Tensions escalated, and Terry forcibly removed passenger Phadrae Hicks, 18, from the car. A witness said Terry "body-slammed her" as he made the arrest.

Hicks and Battle, who are black, suggested race was a factor in the stop. The witness filed a complaint alleging Terry, who is white, used excessive force.

Less than 10 months after he started work in Hernando, Terry found himself under investigation.

An internal affairs inquiry determined Terry's actions fell within his discretion as an officer. But supervisors grew concerned. Chief Deputy Michael Hensley reviewed Terry's reports and discovered he arrested more than twice as many people for resisting arrest and battery on a law enforcement officer than his colleagues, including deputies with far more arrests, according to internal agency documents.

In looking at the individual cases, Hensley concluded that Terry didn't need to use physical force as often as he did. He ordered Terry to attend counseling with an agency psychologist.

Just two months after the August 2001 review, however, Terry allegedly used disputable force to arrest two more people who filed complaints, which were later dismissed. And in the next two years, Terry was investigated for six more alleged policy violations, ranging from failing to return messages to making threatening statements to a suspect, and received two reprimands.

In one of those investigations, Terry was rebuked for making profanity-laced comments during an arrest, such as, "I have a badge, I can do anything damn well that I need to do." Terry denied he made the statements, but internal investigators determined he didn't tell the truth after he failed a stress test.

Sheriff Richard Nugent told Terry he was "concerned with the number of past citizen complaints that have been directed at you."

But the complaints didn't stop the agency from promoting him to detective in the major crimes unit nine months later in 2004. In this role, Terry handled the most serious and most sensitive cases. One of those cases greatly damaged his reputation.

Vengeance and money

In August 2005, Natalie Shelton brought her daughter to the Sheriff's Office. The 6-year-old girl accused her father — Shelton's ex-husband, Ron — of molesting her.

From the start, it was not a typical investigation. Shelton, a former Mons Venus stripper with a drug problem, had a motive: vengeance and money, her ex-husband said. Terry arrested him for sexual battery.

The detective called Natalie Shelton incessantly, records show. When the girl made new allegations against others, a state caseworker said Terry declined to investigate because he thought it would jeopardize the case against the ex-husband.

Late one night, someone saw Terry's unmarked police car in Shelton's driveway, records show. People noticed they acted strangely. And it eventually prompted questions in April 2006 from one of the little girl's caseworkers.

When asked about the relationship by one caseworker, Shelton appeared concerned that another caseworker knew something: "Do you think she knows I slept with him?"

She said she performed oral sex on Terry twice and they had intercourse once. She said she thought it would get her case more attention.

The Sheriff's Office began an investigation. Terry denied he had sex with Shelton. He denied ignoring the new abuse allegations. He refused to take a stress test.

The Sheriff's Office also began exploring other allegations of policy violations against Terry. Amid the investigations, he resigned on July 19, 2006, after more than six years with the agency.

A week after he quit, he took a job at the smaller Brooksville Police Department under then-Chief Ed Tincher. Terry felt "the atmosphere there will be a more pleasant one," he wrote in his resignation letter.

When the Shelton review concluded in July 2006, sheriff's investigators didn't believe her testimony and cleared Terry in his dealings with her. A subsequent investigation by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement did the same.

But the Sheriff's Office determined Terry violated agency policies by discussing an open internal affairs investigation and missing multiple court appearances. The sheriff didn't take action because Terry had left the agency. The next month, the State Attorney's Office decided to drop the case against Shelton's ex-husband, citing "insufficient evidence."

The ex-husband, who spent 10 months in jail, has a lawsuit pending in federal court in Tampa seeking $30 million. The defendants include the Florida Department of Children and Families and the Sheriff's Office.

A brick of cocaine

At the Brooksville Police Department, it took Terry seven months to receive his first citizen complaint. By the end of 2007, six more were filed.

All were quickly dismissed. But then came a traffic stop the night of Oct. 2, 2007. A sheriff's deputy pulled over a car on Dr. M.L. King Jr. Boulevard in Brooksville for failing to use a turn signal. Terry stopped to assist.

The deputy said Terry immediately recognized the passenger, Lorenzo Townsend. Nine months earlier, Terry and Townsend had fought violently when Townsend resisted arrest.

Terry ordered Townsend to step out; the deputy made the driver, Jeffrey Stephens, do the same. The deputy later found a brick of cocaine under the passenger seat. Jeffrey Stephens, the driver, and Townsend denied knowing about the drugs.

As Stephens sat in the deputy's patrol car, Terry approached the bewildered 19-year-old culinary student, who said his uncle had told him to give Townsend a ride that night. Terry told Stephens what to write to save himself and incriminate Townsend.

"That's what I need, basically showing you saw him do everything. OK?," Terry told Stephens.

"You lie to me, I'm coming after you, filing charges," Terry said. "I'm trying to help you out, but you hook me up. OK?"

When Stephens finished, Terry told him to rewrite it. "If you're sitting here … trying not to dime out your cousin, you are going to give yourself 30 years (in prison)," he threatened.

Townsend went to jail; Stephens received a traffic citation.

Two months later, in a sworn deposition, Terry denied immediately recognizing Townsend. He denied ever reviewing Stephens' statement. He denied telling him what to write. And he denied threatening him.

"It would be improper, wouldn't it?" Townsend's attorney asked.

"Yes," Terry answered.

"And why is it improper?"

"Because you're coercing them to make a false statement," Terry said.

Terry didn't realize — or didn't remember — that a video camera in the deputy's car had taped the entire interaction. Terry was caught falsifying events under oath. Prosecutors soon dropped the case against Townsend because of problems with the initial stop.

The defense attorney, Chip Mander, brought it to the attention of the State Attorney's Office, suggesting Terry might have committed perjury, a third-degree felony punishable by a maximum five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Barbee, the supervising prosecutor in Hernando, investigated but declined to file charges. He referred it to the Police Department.

"The charge of perjury is one of the hardest things to prove," he said. "You need to prove he knew he wasn't telling the truth."

Terry told his supervisor he "simply forgot a small part of what occurred."

Chief Turner gave Terry a written reprimand for failing to prepare for a deposition. "Your failure to prepare for this court case brought doubt upon your integrity as a police officer as well as the professionalism of the agency," the review concluded.

The review didn't address what Terry was caught on tape saying to the witness at the stop.

A question of credibility

The investigation plagued Terry two months later in April 2008 when he served as the main witness in a sting that nabbed a Pasco County teacher for allegedly exposing himself in a park bathroom in Brooksville.

Terry acted as the undercover decoy. The case relied upon his testimony because the audio recording device malfunctioned.

But before Terry took the witness stand, defendant Antonio Vasquez's attorney questioned Lt. Rick Hankins, the Police Department's second-in-command, about Terry's record.

"Now you have received complaints in the past in regards to Officer Terry for his recollection of an event or events (that) is not the same as what actually occurred?" defense attorney Sean Kelley asked Hankins.

"Yes," Hankins answered.

Hankins tried to defend Terry. The prosecutor objected to the questions, but the judge overruled the prosecutor.

The jury didn't take long to return a not guilty verdict against the teacher.

"Obviously," Assistant State Attorney Erin Corcoran Daly said afterward, "they didn't believe the police officer."

This is not the only case prosecutors can cite where Terry's history contributed to charges being dropped or a not guilty verdict. And it's not hard to imagine defense attorneys raising similar questions about his credibility in future cases.

'A walking liability'

The police badge represents honesty and integrity. These are vital qualities for officers — the foundation of the justice system.

When an officer's credibility is questioned, said Dr. Lorie Fridell, a criminology researcher at the University of South Florida, it hurts the community's trust in law enforcement and the ability to punish criminals.

"If someone has something in their record that indicates lack of truthfulness, it is going to jeopardize what is otherwise a solid criminal case," Fridell said.

Melvin Tucker trains law enforcement officers, drawing on his 25 years as a police chief at numerous agencies. He always emphasizes credibility.

"There is zero tolerance in the law enforcement profession for untruthfulness," said Tucker, a consultant based in North Carolina.

An officer's record also reflects on the department, law enforcement experts said, and ultimately on the credibility of the chief.

Turner declined to comment on Terry's record on the Brooksville force, and Sheriff Nugent wouldn't talk about Terry's tenure at his agency. "This is old history for us," Nugent said.

But local attorneys, residents and experts question Terry's continued employment.

"With such a damaged reputation, the person should probably be put on administrative functions, instead of investigating cases," said Robert Whittel, a Spring Hill attorney.

Staci White, a former Brooksville property manager who filed a complaint against Terry that arose from an eviction case in 2007, is more direct.

"I want to see this man not on the force," Lewis said. "He shouldn't be dealing with the community."

Some criticized the sheriff for not doing more to address the obvious warning signs earlier in Terry's career and expressed concern that Brooksville had offered him a job, given his history.

"I was amazed that the Hernando County Sheriff's Office kept him as long as they did, and I'm shocked Brooksville hired him," said Mander, the attorney who handled the Townsend case.

Briefed on Terry's record, Tucker was surprised to learn of Terry's recent promotion.

"He's still working?" Tucker asked.

"I would probably not let him (work outside the office)," he said. "You are talking about this guy being a walking liability for the agency."

John Frank can be reached at jfrank@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

About this story

This story is written from hundreds of pages of Hernando County court records, trial transcripts, depositions, police reports and video and audio tapes concerning a half-dozen cases handled by Shawn Terry as a sheriff's deputy and police officer. The Times also built a database of Terry's disciplinary history using personnel records from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, Hernando County Sheriff's Office and Brooksville Police Department, obtained through public records requests. The reporting included interviews with about 20 prosecutors and local attorneys, a number of local residents who filed complaints and experts on law enforcement ethics.



Reprimands dot law enforcer's record


In his 10-year career at the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and the Brooksville Police Department, Shawn Terry has been the subject of 30 citizen complaints and internal investigations.
In 10 of those cases, investigators found that he violated department policies:

Dec. 5, 2001: Received written reprimand from Sheriff's Office for failing to return messages from prosecutors.

March 27, 2003: Received written reprimand from Sheriff's Office and ordered to attend training for using inappropriate language in dealing with a suspect.

May 16, 2005: Received verbal reprimand from Sheriff's Office for not filing timely reports.

July 24, 2006: Missed court appearances as a deputy; no reprimand because he had left Sheriff's Office.

July 27, 2006: Disobeyed agency policy by discussing open internal investigation; no reprimand because he had left Sheriff's Office.

June 17, 2007: Received written reprimand from Police Department for traffic accident.

Sept. 20, 2007: Received written reprimand from Police Department for traffic accident.

Dec. 20, 2007: Received written reprimand from Police Department for traffic accident.

Feb. 1, 2008: Received written reprimand from Police Department for not preparing for a deposition.

March 18, 2008: Received written reprimand from Police Department for using excessive sick time.

Duty and honor shrouded in doubt: Brooksville detective's reputation follows him 11/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, November 21, 2009 5:32pm]
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