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What happened to the rest of the 164 people Hillsborough freed from jail?

One man is accused of murder. Fourteen others are back in trouble, jail records show. Critics question the wisdom of the releases. But it’s not that simple.

A month ago, Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister stood outside the Orient Road Jail and said he was releasing 164 inmates charged with low-level crimes.

As the nation shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus, the sheriff spoke of protecting the health of deputies and inmates. He said these were people sitting in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, and that they would still have to answer to their charges.

And he gave what sounded like a warning to those about to get out: “No one should mistake this emergency action as a time to do harm in our community.”

Four weeks later, one of the people let out of jail that day was accused of second-degree murder.

Chronister, who made the mass release under the authority of the chief judge, came under sharp criticism from those who opposed the release.

Amid the controversy came another question:

What about the rest who got out?

Of the 164 people released, 15 were re-arrested on new charges as of Thursday, a Tampa Bay Times analysis of arrest data found.

While the majority of those who walked away from the Orient Road Jail March 19 remain free, the few that have been locked up again are accused of mostly minor crimes.

According to the data, more than half of all of those who were released were listed as homeless, “at large” or living in a facility that provides homeless services. Many were unemployed.

Arrest histories of the released inmates varied. Some had few or no prior arrests. Others, including the man now accused of murder, had local arrests that stretch back years.

They were accused of stealing cars, getting caught with drugs and trespassing. Substance abuse was a common theme — marijuana, cocaine, heroin, synthetic cannabis. Less common, but still prevalent, was mental illness.

Since his release four weeks ago, Monti Williams, 61, has been re-arrested five times. Like many repeat low-level defendants, he is often listed in booking records as homeless and accused of wandering into places where he’s not welcome.

When the sheriff authorized his release March 19, Williams had been sitting in jail for more than three months on a misdemeanor trespassing charge. Court records indicate the case was held up because of concerns about Williams’ mental competence.

Less than a week after being let out, he was back in jail, accused of wandering around a gas station after he had been told to leave. He was let out of jail but brought back the next day, accused of hanging around a different gas station and refusing to leave. The state declined to prosecute. But again and again, Williams was brought back to jail.

“The defendant is a prolific trespasser and returns to several places he is trespassed from every few days,” an officer wrote in an April 3 arrest report.

Missy Neely had a similar story. Court records indicate she was evicted from a Plant City home in early March, but refused to leave. She was jailed on a trespassing charge but released to a mental health program. Days later, a sheriff’s deputy spotted her back at the home. Jailed again, she became one of the 164 selected for release March 19. A week later, a deputy noticed a light on at her old house and found her sleeping inside, according to an arrest report.

“Just take me to jail,” she told him.

Hillsborough’s mass release wasn’t unprecedented. Officials have taken similar measures to reduce the jail population in advance of approaching hurricanes.

Nationwide, jail and prison facilities have taken steps to reduce their inmate populations to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

As cities throughout the nation have reported a drop in crime during the pandemic, local police are arresting fewer people. In normal times, daily arrests totals in Hillsborough range between 120 to 150 people. In recent weeks, daily jail bookings are sometimes as low as 30 or 40.

Many new inmates have been released on their own recognizance, meaning they agreed to show up in court and did not have to pay bail.

The State Attorney’s Office is quickly dropping charges for some lower-level offenses. Other detainees have been freed after resolving their court cases through plea deals.

All this has kept the jail population relatively low.

Pinellas and Pasco counties did not release inmates, but courts there moved to speedily resolve many cases, resulting in a reduction in the jail population.

Among the 15 who were re-arrested in Hillsborough, two were accused of violent crimes.

Mario Ramos-Montoya had been locked up for 22 days on a drug possession charge when he was let out. Less than 24 hours later, he got in an argument with a man in a University-area apartment complex, pulled a knife and threatened to stab him, according to an arrest report. Lawyers have expressed concerns for his mental health and got a judge to order a competency exam, records show.

Then there is Joseph Williams, who made headlines this week. The 26-year-old had been held for six days on a heroin possession charge. With bail set at $2,500, a deposit of just $250 would have secured a bond and set him free. Evidently, the amount was too much.

When he did walk out as one of the 164, he spoke with the media.

“I feel wonderful,” he told a reporter from Spectrum Bay News 9.

The next night, a crowd of more than a dozen gathered on Ash Avenue in Progress Village. Amid the flagrant affront to social distancing guidelines, gunfire erupted. Christopher Striker, 28, was mortally wounded.

A four-week investigation culminated in Williams’ re-arrest Wednesday. This time, the charge was second-degree murder, no bail.

As nationwide headlines proclaimed a jail inmate released because of COVID-19 had gone on to commit murder, Chronister endured a wave of criticism.

Among the critics was Ron McMullen, the retired Tampa police major who is challenging the Republican sheriff in the next election.

“The poor judgement exhibited by Sheriff Chronister, quite simply, got someone killed,” McMullen wrote in a Facebook post. He said the sheriff should have considered Williams’ lengthy criminal history before authorizing his release.

Speaking with a Times reporter this week, the sheriff noted the difficulty in predicting future criminal behavior. But he said in the future, he would consider individual criminal histories in determining who gets released.

Chronister also emphasized the relative ease with which Williams could have gotten out of jail regardless of the mass release.

“He was eligible for a bond,” Chronister said. “If he would have had the financial ability to bond out, he would have bonded out and I think the results would have been the same.”

“Releasing 164 people that were only in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, that was the right thing to do," said Gretchen Cothron, interim president of the Tampa Bay chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Most people, she said, stay out of trouble once released.

“Talking with judges the past few days, pretty much everyone knows this is an anomaly,” she said.

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