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Panhandle Tasering and rogue deputy hold lessons for current Pinellas Sheriff's Office troubles

Marks from Taser

Four nights after Hurricane Ivan barreled across the Florida Panhandle, flattening buildings and knocking out power, Dan and Cathy Thompson were trying to sleep. • With windows open to a muggy September night, they heard loud profanity, then a shotgun blast. Dan Thompson grabbed his .357 Magnum and rushed outside to find a neighbor holding a shotgun. • "What's happening?" Thompson asked the neighbor. "Looters'' came the reply.

Within a few confusing moments, Thompson, a 61-year-old retired New York City cop, was on the ground, kicked repeatedly, and struck in the abdomen with the stinging prongs of a Taser. A heart patient, he passed out.

Thompson's assailant was Pinellas County sheriff's Deputy Richard Farnham, up in Santa Rosa County on hurricane relief.

For his actions that night, the department would nominate Farnham for a bravery award.

A federal judge would send him to prison.

Nearly eight years have passed, but the Farnham saga still rumbles on in a lawsuit, lending fresh perspective to current woes at the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

Documents collected in the suit reveal that Farnham came to the department with a checkered past. He then generated a string of brutality complaints but escaped serious discipline until federal authorities intervened.

Current Sheriff Bob Gualtieri was not in charge when Farnham was there. But as general counsel to the Sheriff's Office in 2007, he defended the deputy against the federal charges.

Now Gualtieri faces a mess of his own.

He recently removed narcotics deputies from active duty amid accusations that they lied to gather evidence against marijuana growers. Prosecutors have since dropped charges in many of those cases.

In one instance, a Seminole man arrested for growing marijuana said his surveillance cameras recorded a detective vaulting his backyard fence to gather evidence. When deputies came in later with a search warrant, they seized the recorder and erased all the images.

An ensuing internal affairs investigation was so full of unexplored inconsistencies and leading questions that Gualtieri ordered a new one after the Tampa Bay Times inquired.

"It seemed like they were trying to help out the officers involved,'' said Wyndell Watkins, former deputy police chief for Washington, D.C., who reviewed investigation transcripts at the Times' request.

Gualtieri's challenge now is ensuring that his department vigorously pursues complaints against its own officers and roots out rogues.

That didn't happen over Farnham's seven-year career.

The Pinellas department never disciplined him for brutal tactics, despite numerous complaints. In each case, the officer's word trumped the citizen's account.

Gualtieri said last week that he never would have hired Farnham. But some of the same supervisors who failed to recognize the risk that Farnham posed are still key players on Gualtieri's team.

Warning signs

Pennsylvania native Richard Farnham, now 40, applied for a deputy job with Pinellas County in 2000. Then-Sheriff Everett Rice signed off on the hire.

Signs of trouble escaped the department's background check.

Farnham marked "no'' on his initial application when asked if he had committed any crimes. He switched stories on a later form, acknowledging that he went to jail for seven days in Pennsylvania for misdemeanor trespassing and for harassing an ex-employer.

He joined the Navy but was discharged nine months later for a "personality disorder."

Under pre-hiring polygraph questioning in Pinellas, he said he had driven under the influence of alcohol "not more than four times.''

When did he drive drunk? What went wrong in the Navy? How did he harass his ex-employer? In Pennsylvania, a harassment charge involves use of force, threats or intimidation.

Nothing in Farnham's personnel file indicates that anyone from the Pinellas Sheriff's Office checked out such questions.

In retrospect, "there's no doubt that this guy should not have been a cop,'' Rice said Friday. "Somehow he slipped through the system.''

But the hiring looked reasonable at the time, Rice said. The national crime database did not list the Pennsylvania arrests. The Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, where Farnham was a corrections officer, gave him good recommendations. And Farnham passed a psychological screening.

As for the Navy's "personality disorder,'' that was a common catchall that could "be almost anything,'' including homesickness, Rice said, noting that Farnham had an "honorable discharge.'' The military will not provide details of personality disorders, he said.

For nearly four years, Farnham's supervisors evaluated his performance as adequate.

Then a temporary assignment near Pensacola triggered the end of his law enforcement career.

Shotgun, then chaos

About 9 p.m. on Sept. 20, 2004, Barbara Knowling was walking her Labrador retriever through her middle-class neighborhood in the Pensacola suburb of Navarre. Residents fleeing Hurricane Ivan had left many homes vacant, and looting had been reported.

Knowling said she saw flashlight beams from the second story of a vacant house nearby. She pointed her own flashlight at the windows so whoever was there would know they had been spotted. Then she hurried home to tell her husband.

Ed Knowling, a retired Air Force colonel, told his wife to call 911. He ran outside with his 12-gauge shotgun and yelled at the suspected intruders to leave the vacant house. He was about 375 feet away.

The colonel was yelling at Farnham and Santa Rosa County Deputy Aaron Jasper, working in tandem on looter patrol. Muddy footprints would later suggest a door was kicked in, but both officers later denied ever being inside the house.

When Knowling began yelling, they testified, they identified themselves right away as sheriff's deputies.

But the Knowlings and other witnesses testified that all they heard then was profanity.

"They yelled "F--- you, f--- you,'' Barbara Knowling told a jury. "They were just yelling obscenities. Bad stuff. And I thought, 'We're going to die.' ''

Ed Knowling fired a warning shot into the ground.

Across the street, Dan Thompson grabbed his gun and joined Knowling outside. With sirens approaching, Jasper and Farnham ran toward Knowling and Thompson, yelling at them to get on the ground.

Now hearing them identify themselves as officers, Knowling set down the shotgun and let Jasper handcuff him.

Thompson said he didn't hear them identify themselves at first. He said one of the men shined a flashlight in his face and yelled for him to "get on the ground or I'll blow your f---ing head off.''

Thompson yelled back twice: "Identify yourself.''

With Farnham about 5 to 10 yards away, Thompson at last realized he was facing a cop. He went to his knees, slowly slid the gun away, then dropped on his stomach, spread-eagled.

Farnham appeared over him, kicked the gun farther away, kicked the side of his face, kicked him in the torso, backed off about 6 feet and ordered him to roll over, Thompson said.

"He said to me, 'You want to f---ing feel what it is like to be shot, a--hole?' and he shot me with the Taser," Thompson testified.

Thompson said he passed out and didn't regain consciousness until he was in an ambulance on his way to a hospital.

His wife was watching from several yards away.

"I started yelling as loud as I could at him, stop, you've got the wrong people … he's a retired police captain,'' Cathy Thompson later testified. "And the whole time (Farnham) is just kicking him and kicking him and cursing at him.''

When the Taser hit her husband, "his whole body arched up from the ground,'' she testified. "Then he started to shake all over. I thought he was dead."

The scene soon swarmed with deputies from both counties. Cathy Thompson ended up on the ground in handcuffs.

Jasper charged Knowling with attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and Thompson with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon on a law enforcement officer.

In a written statement that night, Cathy Thompson told Santa Rosa deputies that Farnham had kicked her husband. But Jasper made no mention of that in his report.

Pinellas Sgt. Glenn Luben arrived just after the Tasering. He said Cathy Thompson was upset about her husband's medical condition, but never mentioned any kicking.

Four months later Luben submitted a glowing nomination for an exceptional service award for Farnham.

The deputy had taken "two vigilantes into custody,'' Luben wrote, "so they could not injure or kill'' cops or citizens.

Calm under fire

Luben had talked briefly with Farnham right after the Tasering. He saw people on the ground in handcuffs and a spent shotgun shell. Farnham had remained "calm while under fire involving grave personal danger,'' Luben wrote in his award nomination. Sheriff Jim Coats signed off on it.

Though witness statements often accompany nominations, Luben never contacted Thompson, Knowling or their wives. The men had been charged with crimes, Luben noted, failing to mention that the charges were dropped a month before the nomination.

Luben declined to comment for this story. When questioned last year by Thompson's lawyer, Luben acknowledged that his nomination was based on multiple mistaken assumptions.

Could he have done anything a little better? the lawyer asked.

"No,'' Luben said.

Deputies "went home alive … and nobody was injured … and a firearm was fired,'' he said. "That was kind of the driving factor.''

This month, with troubles mounting in his narcotics unit, Gualtieri installed Luben as second-in-command of internal affairs. His job: Help guide investigations of deputies accused of wrongdoing.

Daniel Thompson was incredulous.

"If that's not the fox watching the henhouse. Luben in IA?'' he said.

As for Farnham's award, a ceremony scheduled for May 2005 never came off.

By then, the FBI was investigating.

Enter the feds

After the Tasering, Thompson complained multiple times to the Santa Rosa sheriff, with no result. In January 2005, Thompson confronted the sheriff in front of TV cameras at a public forum.

Santa Rosa then launched an internal affairs investigation — and reopened the aggravated assault case against Thompson.

"That's when I said, 'I've had it,' '' said Thompson, who contacted the Tampa Bay Times after reading articles about the Pinellas narcotics division.

"That's when I went to the FBI.''

Pinellas opened its own inquiry. Investigators said they found inconsistencies in the Thompsons' account and medical records. By then, the Thompsons and Knowlings were working exclusively with the FBI and refused to talk with Pinellas.

In August 2005, Pinellas internal affairs investigators cleared Farnham of wrongdoing. He remained on duty until November 2006, when the federal grand jury indicted him.

Pinellas investigators closed their case without learning what the FBI and Santa Rosa investigators were finding. In fact, Luben and four other Pinellas officers would not talk to the FBI until they were forced to by a subpoena.

Among the findings Pinellas didn't know: After Thompson stated publicly that he had been kicked, Farnham told Santa Rosa officials something previous reports did not mention: Thompson refused to release his gun, Farnham said, so he kicked it out of Thompson's hand.

He might have "heeled'' Thompson in the face, he said.

But a Santa Rosa deputy was an eyewitness. The gun was not in Thompson's hand when Farnham kicked it away, the deputy said. It was on the ground, at least 6 inches away — just as Thompson said.

Why did Pinellas wrap up its inquiry while the FBI was still digging?

Then-Sheriff Coats did not respond to a request for comment.

At trial, Farnham's own testimony damaged him the most.

The Tasering was necessary, Farnham said, because Thompson tried to get off the ground.

But an FBI demonstration showed prong marks on Thompson's body disproved Farnham's story.

And what about the boots Farnham wore that night, which could have been compared to muddy prints on the door of the vacant house?

He got rid of them for "medical reasons,'' Farnham testified.

In 2007, the federal jury convicted Farnham of violating Thompson's civil rights. Jurors threw out a more serious charge that the Tasering caused injury. The judge sentenced Farnham to the maximum — a year in prison. The conviction ended his career.

Dueling sheriffs

In 2008, the Thompsons filed a lawsuit against both counties seeking damages for police brutality. Two months ago, the judge dismissed Pinellas from the case, saying the Thompsons couldn't prove that the Sheriff's Office had enabled Farnham's behavior.

Gualtieri and Rice, who now are running against each other for sheriff, each faulted the other's actions regarding Farnham.

The Navy discharge, the Pennsylvania arrest, the drunken driving should have been major red flags before Farnham was hired, Gualtieri said. Farnham's first denial of ever being arrested was especially disturbing, he said.

"When someone's initial reaction is to deny and lie, that tells me something about their character,'' Gualtieri said.

Gualtieri said he has tightened hiring practices and would have sent investigators to Pennsylvania if necessary to check out such a harassment arrest.

"That would have never happened on my watch.''

Rice faulted Gualtieri for defending Farnham at trial. Tampa lawyer Ron Cacciatore was the primary defense lawyer, but Gualtieri presented and cross-examined witnesses.

"I would never let my general counsel defend someone in a criminal trial. That's playing both sides of the street,'' Rice said. "There's nothing wrong with a guy having a good defense, but it shouldn't be the sheriff's lawyer.''

Official records suggest that Richard Farnham is living in southwest Florida. He did not return telephone and Facebook messages for comment.

In the quirky world of social networking, Rice and Gualtieri were still Facebook "friends" with Farnham at last check.

But not with each other.

Times researchers Caryn Baird and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Stephen Nohlgren can be contacted at snohlgren@tampabay.com.

Panhandle Tasering and rogue deputy hold lessons for current Pinellas Sheriff's Office troubles 04/28/12 [Last modified: Sunday, April 29, 2012 1:04am]
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