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Broward sheriff defends ’93 shooting he kept secret

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony killed a man when he was 14 in Philadelphia. It wasn’t until this weekend that it became known publicly after the online outlet Florida Bulldog published a story.

Broward Sheriff Gregory Tony killed a man with his father’s revolver at his home in Philadelphia when he was 14. But he said Sunday that he kept the shooting secret and didn’t disclose it when applying to the Coral Springs Police Department — or when he was appointed sheriff last year by Florida’s governor — because he was exonerated in juvenile court.

Now, exactly 27 years to the day it happened, the old killing has come back to haunt Tony after the online outlet Florida Bulldog published a story Saturday detailing the May 3, 1993 shooting and raising questions about what happened.

Revealed little more than four months before an election, the incident — which Tony says was a “clear self-defense case” — is the latest bomb to drop in a nasty campaign with roots in the 2018 shooting in Parkland, one of the most traumatic events in Broward County history. And it’s dredging up accusations of lies, violence and racism.

“It was chaos. It was frightening. The most horrific thing I ever experienced,” Tony told the Miami Herald Sunday in a phone interview, during which he blamed the revelation on political opponents he would not name. “For this to be used by a political opponent to turn me into a 14-year-old black kid with a gun, we’re on a dangerous precedent here.”

Though Tony was acquitted long ago, news of the old shooting comes at a precarious time for Broward County’s top cop.

Tony was appointed sheriff by Gov. Ron DeSantis in January 2019 to replace elected Sheriff Scott Israel, whom DeSantis removed from office over BSO’s response to the shooting at Parkland. Tony, a retired Coral Springs police sergeant, was seen as an unusual but inspired pick given his friendship with some of the Parkland families and his private security contracting business specializing in mass casualty responses.

Tony, 41, said Sunday that he still has the trust of DeSantis, whose office told the Miami Herald Sunday that the Republican governor was unaware of the shooting at the time Tony was appointed. Tony said DeSantis is “encouraging me to stay the course and get the job done for this community.”

But Tony’s appointment set up an awkward election, in which he’s running against fellow Democrat Israel, the man whom Broward County last elected to the position. And his tenure has been dogged by conflict with BSO’s largest union, which is now arguing that he broke the law when he failed to disclose his legal woes in Philadelphia on his application to become a Coral Springs police officer.

“To take somebody’s life, whether justified or not, you’re still under investigation for a criminal charge. You can’t get around saying I was never arrested,” said Broward Sheriff’s Deputies Association President Jeff Bell, who was recently suspended by Tony.

Before this weekend, Tony’s hardscrabble boyhood in the North Philadelphia neighborhood of Fairhill — referred to locally as The Badlands — was known in South Florida. DeSantis’ office was also aware at the time of Tony’s appointment that he’d been cited in 2003 in Leon County on allegations that that he cut a bad check worth less than $150. Court records show prosecutors decided against filing formal charges.

But Tony had never publicly spoken about the late-afternoon shooting at the row house where he lived on 2828 N. Hutchinson Dr.

Records of the shooting were sealed following Tony’s exoneration, according to Florida Bulldog, which obtained a copy of the May 3, 1993, police report. But according to Tony, the shooting began as an argument between him, his brother, and Hector Rodriguez, an 18-year-old man with a 5-month-old baby and a reported criminal history.

Tony says Rodriguez was a drug dealer who often carried a gun. He said the three were in his front yard in a heated discussion just before 4 p.m. when the argument escalated and Rodriguez “exploded” and pulled out a gun. Tony said he and his brother ran into his house, and he ran and grabbed his father’s revolver.

“He ran into our home armed with a gun,” Tony told the Miami Herald. “He was in the home. I shot him in the house and fortunately he didn’t shoot me and my brother.”

Tony said he and his brother left his home, afraid that “gang members” would come after them. Tony surrendered the following day at the Philadelphia Police Administrative Building. Two days later, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer both reported that Tony was charged initially with homicide as an adult and held without bond, but ultimately adjudicated as a juvenile, according to Florida Bulldog.

But news accounts of the shooting conflict with Tony’s memory.

The Daily News and Inquirer reported that Tony and Rodriguez were friends, or at least friendly. Citing Rodriguez’s mother, the Daily News said an off-color joke about Tony’s family may have sparked the shooting. The paper also quoted Tony’s father, identified as William Scott, saying he’d seen the boys laughing and talking and didn’t learn until an hour later that his son had pulled the trigger.

“I saw the two of them together 20 minutes earlier,” Scott was quoted as telling the paper. “They was laughing and talking ... Next thing I know, I hear shots and see this kid lying in the street.”

Both reports — which identified the 14-year-old sheriff as Gregory Scott-Toney — also stated that Rodriguez was driven to the hospital by his family after the shooting happened outside on the curb. They stated that Rodriguez was shot multiples times in the body and in the head. A follow-up story in the Daily News on May 13 reported that Tony was ordered to stand trial as an adult, but his attorney indicated he’d move to have the case transferred to juvenile court.

Rodriguez’s girlfriend at the time questions Tony’s claim of self-defense, according to Florida Bulldog, which interviewed Martiza Carrasquillo. She said witnesses at the time told her Rodriguez was unarmed.

But Rodriguez was described by the Daily News as a high school dropout with a criminal history and the father of a 5-month-old. Family members told the Daily News that at first, when police showed up in the neighborhood, they thought Rodriguez had been arrested on a bench warrant related to a drug-related incident in which Rodriguez was in possession of a gun.

Tony, who says he wasn’t aware that newspapers had written about the shooting until his campaign was contacted by Florida Bulldog, doesn’t quibble with the description of Rodriguez’s criminal history in the Daily News. But he disputed aspects of both the Daily News and Inquirer reports, saying he was not friendly with Rodriguez and that the shooting took inside his house after Rodriguez chase him indoors.

“Friends? No we’re not. The quotes out there [in the Daily News] are speculation,” he said. “Look, at the end of the day no one was there to witness this horrific event take place or any accurate accounts. I wish there was some type of record.”

Tony’s attorney at the time of his surrender, Marc Neff, told the Miami Herald Sunday that he searched his files for any documents after Tony contacted him Saturday to find out if he had any records of the case.

“I have no files after almost 30 years. We’ve looked and there’s nothing here,” Neff said.

Tony said he doesn’t remember any court proceedings, but he said the case didn’t keep him from attending high school. He graduated from Olney High School in Philadelphia in 1997 and by the following year had left Pennsylvania for Florida, where he enrolled in Tallahassee Community College, according to his resume.

Tony went on to attend Florida State University, where he played football. He graduated with a degree in criminology.

In 2005, he applied as a police officer in Coral Springs. Before Tony was hired, he filled out a lengthy 34-page questionnaire, in which several times he said he had never been arrested or charged with a crime. One question asked if the sheriff had ever been arrested, received a notice to appear, been charged, convicted, pleaded nolo contendere, or pleaded guilty to any criminal violation. He check-marked the box that said “no.”

Another question asked him if he’d ever been legally charged. Again he checked off the “no” box. And finally he was asked if he was ever arrested, charged, received a notice or summons to appear for any criminal violation as a juvenile. Again, Tony check off “no.”

“I just remember at some point this whole thing was cleared. There was no crime,” said Tony, who said his memory of the shooting and case are vague nearly three decades later. “I don’t regret not disclosing [the shooting] I’ve never been arrested. Under Pennsylvania law, they looked at this thing and found no just cause for any type of crime.”

Nor do some of Tony’s supporters regret backing him for the sheriff’s job.

Andrew Pollack, a conservative Parkland father who helped introduce Tony to DeSantis, said he couldn’t remember if he knew of the shooting during the window when Tony was being considered for the job. But Pollack, whose daughter, Meadow, was killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, said it doesn’t matter to him.

“It was justified. Thank God he was there to be able to protect his family. And thank God for the second amendment,” Pollack said in an interview Sunday. “This is what these people do. They’ll do anything to try and win an election.”

Pollack said he believes Israel’s campaign pushed out news of Tony’s childhood shooting. Israel did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Tony told the Herald Sunday that the shooting was just one incident in a childhood surrounded by violence that motivated him to get into law enforcement. He said he saw his best friend killed “right in front of me.”

“This incident will never impact my ability to do this job. If nothing else it’s inspired me,” Tony said.

Don Russell, the journalist who wrote the 1993 article about the shooting at Tony’s house, told the Miami Herald Sunday that he didn’t remember the shooting. Russell, now a beer columnist who goes by the moniker Joe Sixpack, said his job at the time was covering youth violence in a city full of it. He said he wrote about a shooting about every other day, and probably attended two funerals a month.

“It’s amazing this kid grew up to be county sheriff. He damn near was killed. The neighborhood this happened was not a good neighborhood,” Russell said. “It’s amazing he’s got his life together to be sheriff.”