Similar name, different person: Mixed-up Pasco deputies sent wrong people to jail

It happened to at least three people in 2019. Twice, the Sheriff’s Office waited months to investigate the deputies' errors. One deputy was promoted to corporal.
Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos stands in front of his law office. Theophilopoulos represents Jesse Gibbons, of Land O' Lakes, who is one of three people wrongfully arrested last year because of errors made by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Theophilopoulos plans to file lawsuits on behalf of his client in state and federal courts next month.
Tarpon Springs attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos stands in front of his law office. Theophilopoulos represents Jesse Gibbons, of Land O' Lakes, who is one of three people wrongfully arrested last year because of errors made by the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. Theophilopoulos plans to file lawsuits on behalf of his client in state and federal courts next month. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 1, 2020|Updated Oct. 2, 2020

Jesse Gibbons told it to the deputies who arrested him, to the woman who took his fingerprints, to the guards at the jail:

“You have the wrong guy.”

It was the night of Oct. 21, 2019. Hours earlier, Gibbons, 28, had been putting his kids to bed when deputies pounded on the door of his Land O' Lakes home. Now, he was in the Pasco County jail, wondering what just happened.

Did someone set him up? Was there some vendetta against him? Would he go to prison?

There was, in fact, a Jesse Gibbons whom a witness had pointed to in a grand theft case. But that Jesse Gibbons was a year older, 5 inches shorter and 80 pounds lighter. He lived 45 minutes away. That Jesse Gibbons had already talked to a deputy and given his correct address, a defense attorney said.

Yet that same deputy got a judge to sign an arrest warrant for the 28-year-old, 6-foot, 220-pound Jesse Gibbons who lived in Land O' Lakes.

“There’s no room for these types of mistakes at the Sheriff’s (Office),” said attorney Jerry Theophilopoulos, whom Gibbons hired to sue the agency. “Had they done their job correctly and honestly and completely, this would have never happened.”

But it has happened before: Errors by the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office resulted in the wrong person being arrested at least three times in 2019 by confusing similar names, according to records obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

All three were jailed, and all needed legal help to clear their names.

The wrongfully arrested Gibbons faced up to five years in prison. The charges were finally dropped Nov. 21.

Four months later, the deputy whose errors resulted in that arrest was promoted to corporal.

• • •

The Times asked the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office how many times in the past year it has arrested the wrong person after mixing up their names with the actual suspect. Neither the Sheriff’s Office nor the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office said they log such cases.

The Times asked sheriff’s offices in Hillsborough and Pinellas and the St. Petersburg and Tampa police departments if they track wrongful arrests. Hillsborough logs wrongful arrests and jail bookings based on cases of mistaken identity, a spokeswoman said, but it doesn’t keep that data all in one place and could not provide it before this story published. The other agencies don’t keep track.

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It’s not a common phenomenon, but it’s hard to figure out how often it happens. There doesn’t appear to be a comprehensive database or organization dedicated to the issue. The Innocence Project, which works to free those wrongfully convicted of crimes, said it does not track wrongful arrests nor does it know of any group that does.

But these arrests do happen, and they cost taxpayers money. In 2017, for example, a Central Florida man was arrested on a domestic battery charge because he had the same hyphenated last name as the actual suspect. For spending three nights in jail, he received an $80,000 settlement from the insurer for the Osceola County Sheriff’s Office, according to WKMG-TV.

There are also systemic failures. A 2011 Los Angeles Times investigation found that in five years, nearly 1,500 people were wrongfully booked into Los Angeles County jails as a result of mistaken identity — some had names similar to actual suspects, while others' identities were stolen by people who allegedly committed crimes under those names. In 2012, the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado said Denver authorities made hundreds of wrongful warrant arrests over a decade, some due to authorities confusing similar names. (The ACLU of Colorado did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.)

The Tampa Bay Times uncovered the three Pasco cases by reviewing sheriff’s internal affairs investigations completed since the beginning of 2020.

In two of the cases, the Sheriff’s Office didn’t start internal investigations until months after the charges were dropped — and after attorneys representing those wrongfully arrested contacted the agency.

All three investigations confirmed that deputies made basic errors. The harshest punishment meted out was a two-day suspension without pay. Another deputy was suspended without pay for one day.

The deputy who jailed the wrong Jesse Gibbons wasn’t disciplined, or even reprimanded, according to sheriff’s records.

The Sheriff’s Office declined to answer most questions from the Times about these cases, including whether it had apologized to victims of wrongful arrests; what procedures or policies, if any, have been put in place to reduce wrongful arrests; and why it waited several months to investigate the deputies' actions.

In an email, sheriff’s spokeswoman Amanda Hunter said the wrongful arrests were “regrettable” and the agency took them seriously. But she emphasized that those three arrests constituted a tiny percentage of the more than 15,000 arrests the agency made last year.

“We sincerely hope your story provides this factual information, so your readers have context regarding how small of a percentage these incidents really are,” Hunter said, “rather than seeking to promote a narrative that continually paints law enforcement in a negative light by inciting outrage through inflammatory reporting.”

She said the deputies involved were “provided remedial training,” though she did not specify what kind.

Hunter said the Sheriff’s Office expunges wrongful arrests from criminal records. Two of the arrests no longer appear in the Pasco jail’s online records, which are maintained by the Sheriff’s Office. But one of the arrests took place in Pinellas County, and that record remains public. A Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said Pasco officials have not requested that they expunge it.

In all three cases, however, the arrest reports and other court records for the wrongfully accused people were still publicly available as of Friday via the Pasco County Clerk of the Court’s Office.

The State Attorney’s Office reviews arrests to determine the appropriate charges to pursue. Prosecutors rely on law enforcement officers to give them the correct information, said Assistant State Attorney Bryan Sarabia, the supervising prosecutor for west Pasco County.

In two of the cases, he said, “We charged the person that they brought us to charge and indicated they had probable cause for the arrest.” The third case began with a traffic citation, which isn’t reviewed by prosecutors.

Judges who sign warrants also assume that what officers tell them is accurate and in good faith, said circuit court spokesman Stephen Thompson, adding that those officers must “swear under oath that the contents of the affidavit are true.”

In reviewing the Pasco cases, John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Walter Signorelli, an attorney and veteran New York Police Department officer, said it appears the deputies relied on technology and databases to do their jobs for them.

“If a computer identifies someone, you still have to do it like a good old-fashioned investigation — get a look at a person, interview a person,” he said. “The computer should just be to give you a lead: This is a possible suspect. You can’t act on that alone.”

• • •

Jesse Gibbons of Land O' Lakes was wrongfully charged with grand theft of less than $5,000, a third-degree felony. Deputies accused him of stealing thousands of dollars worth of watches and a checkbook from a New Port Richey man’s home.

They also said he spent a June night there with the man’s daughter while the father was out of town. The daughter told deputies the thief’s name was Jesse Gibbons and gave them his phone number.

After his arrest in October 2019, the arrested Gibbons hired defense attorney Randall Grantham. He said he quickly saw the holes in the case. Gibbons hadn’t been in New Port Richey that night; his wife provided an alibi. The phone number the daughter gave to deputies didn’t match his client’s number.

So Grantham called the phone number. The other Jesse Gibbons, the one actually identified by the daughter, picked up. He told Grantham that he’d already talked to Pasco County Deputy Jeremy Hixson, who investigated the theft.

That Gibbons even corrected Hixson when the deputy asked if he lived at an address in Land O' Lakes, said Grantham, who reviewed a recording of the call. Records later showed that Gibbons lived in Palm Harbor.

Hixson called the Palm Harbor Gibbons after running his name through the state’s driver’s license database, according to the internal investigation. The information for the Land O' Lakes Gibbons came up in that search.

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Months after the charge was dropped, he hired Theophilopoulos to sue the Sheriff’s Office, prompting the agency to open an internal investigation.

Records show Hixson doubled-down on his detective work: “During my interview with the suspect, I asked the suspect if he lived at the address which was documented … and he confirmed the address,” he wrote in a supplemental report included in the internal investigation.

The Sheriff’s Office’s review examined a recording of the phone call and determined the Palm Harbor Gibbons' answer about his address was inaudible.

“Before he ended the phone conversation, Hixson obtained Gibbons' place of employment,” the detective conducting the internal investigation wrote. “Hixson did not ask any additional questions that could have assisted in positively identifying the suspect.”

Grantham, a defense attorney for nearly 40 years, said: "It still amazes me. It was just an easily avoidable mistake that traumatizes somebody’s life like that.

“It wasn’t even a matter of not fully investigating. It was ignoring information that was given to you.”

The Palm Harbor Gibbons has never been arrested or charged in connection with the watch theft. He could not be reached for comment.

The Sheriff’s Office said an investigation in the theft case is ongoing.

• • •

Another false arrest in 2019 stemmed from errors that began years earlier.

In 2016, according to a sheriff’s internal investigation, Sgt. O’Rayne Samuels was working undercover to investigate a suspected methamphetamine dealer. That April, Samuels arranged a drug purchase. But instead of the man he’d targeted, a woman showed up.

An informant later verbally identified her by first and last name, according to the investigation, but didn’t tell Samuels how to spell her name. The last name was the same as that of the suspected meth dealer.

The sergeant ran the name through the state driver’s license database, according to the internal investigation, and found Kaylee Stewart, a 17-year-old Hernando County girl with no criminal record. She was several years younger than the woman that Samuels met. But they were both young and white with similar hairstyles, and her name sounded like the one the informant had given.

Samuels identified Kaylee as his suspect — because that’s how he spelled her name when searching the state driver’s license database, according to the internal investigation.

The sergeant didn’t try “Kalie” Stewart — the actual name of the woman who deputies believe showed up to the 2016 drug buy, according to records from an internal investigation.

If he had, according to the internal investigation and court records, Samuels would have learned Kalie was 22 and shared an address with the man he was targeting. The sergeant later told investigators he didn’t consider that the dealer and the woman who showed up to the drug buy might be related.

Samuels did not arrest the suspected dealer. But more than two years later, while wrapping up the investigation, the sergeant convinced a judge to sign an arrest warrant for Kaylee Stewart on felony drug charges.

In February 2019, records show, Kaylee Stewart was pulled over in Hernando County on a traffic infraction. The deputy found the warrant and arrested her. She was released later that day, but it took nearly four months for prosecutors to realize what went wrong and drop the charges.

She declined to be interviewed for this story through an attorney. Her lawyer, Bobbi Madonna of the Mander Law Group, said she was shocked when she learned what happened to her client. A public defender represented her until the criminal charges were dropped, and Madonna signed on afterward.

Still, Kaylee Stewart decided not to sue the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.

Madonna, who used to work for the Innocence Project of Florida, said she’d seen wrongful arrests made because of misidentification, such as a witness picking the wrong photo out of a lineup.

But she was taken aback by the Sheriff’s Office’s “bold mistake.”

“If you can be wrongly arrested, you can be wrongly convicted,” Madonna said. “It could easily happen to someone like you.”

The Kalie Stewart named in the internal investigation has never been arrested or charged in this case, Pasco records show. She could not be reached for comment.

The Sheriff’s Office said an investigation is ongoing in the 2016 case.

• • •

In March 2018, Pasco sheriff’s Deputy Russell Pennell stopped a car on State Road 54 in New Port Richey. The driver, Jeremy Gimple, had a suspended license. Pennell issued a citation.

Using his vehicle’s computer, Pennell looked up Gimple in a database to print the citation. According to public records, a sheriff’s investigation later found that the database gave him a choice of multiple names. The deputy clicked the wrong one.

When the citation was printed, it had the name and personal information of a different man — Jeremy Gamble.

The Times was unsuccessful in reaching Gamble via phone calls and Facebook messages.

Pennell handed the citation to Gimple, who noticed the address was wrong. The deputy fixed it and reprinted it, according to the investigation. But Gimple didn’t realize the citation had the wrong name until later, he told investigators.

He and his girlfriend said they tried several times to call the Pasco clerk’s office to fix the name. But they said the office wouldn’t give them any information on the citation, and eventually they gave up. Gimple didn’t pay the fine nor did he attend the court date, according to the internal investigation.

Pasco clerk’s spokesman Tom Jackson said he could not confirm Gimple’s efforts, because neither his phone number nor his girlfriend’s appear in the office’s records. In general, he said, a caller would be told that they need to contact the agency that issued the citation to correct any errors. The clerk’s office has seen six such situations in the past two years, Jackson said.

An arrest warrant on a charge of failing to appear in court was issued for the wrong man, Jeremy Gamble, who was arrested in Pinellas County more than a year later, on July 29, 2019.

He was freed after posting bail the same day. But it took nearly six months for prosecutors to drop the case. His mugshot remains on the Pinellas jail website.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office said it won’t re-issue the citation to Gimple. The case is closed.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Pennell later told a sheriff’s investigator. “Somehow I clicked on the wrong button. I mean, I feel bad for the guy and that he went to jail for something he didn’t do.”

• • •

Pennell already had a lengthy record of infractions: He had mocked colleagues, caused several minor car crashes, repeatedly swore at civilians and failed to turn on his body camera, according to disciplinary records.

When prosecutors dropped the case against the wrongly arrested Jeremy Gamble in the 2018 ticket case, they told the Sheriff’s Office, which launched an internal investigation the following day.

The investigation found Pennell violated agency policy. He was suspended for two days without pay. In March, he resigned during another internal investigation, this one for repeatedly violating sheriff’s policy.

Pennell is now a New Port Richey Police Department officer. Deputy police Chief Lauren Letona said Pennell went through a background check before he was hired, and the agency knew about several of his infractions — but it did not know about the wrongful arrest.

The Sheriff’s Office opened its internal investigation against Samuels in October 2019, more than four months after charges against Kaylee Stewart were dropped.

The internal investigation was launched after her attorney wrote to the agency. The investigation doesn’t say whether the State Attorney’s Office had already notified the Sheriff’s Office about the wrongful arrest, but Samuels knew he’d erred months before the investigation started: Sarabia, the prosecutor, said his office talked to the sergeant when they considered dropping the case. Samuels was suspended for one day without pay.

The Sheriff’s Office knew that it had arrested the wrong Jesse Gibbons months before it opened an internal investigation. Prosecutors met with Hixson on Nov. 19 and told the deputy he arrested the wrong man, according to that internal investigation. He told a supervisor two days later, the same day prosecutors dropped the case.

But it took six months for the Sheriff’s Office to investigate Hixson. It only did so after the deputy received a summons notifying him that he and the Sheriff’s Office would be named in the upcoming lawsuit Theophilopoulos, Gibbons' attorney, plans to file.

The investigation found that Hixson, like the other two deputies, had violated the agency’s “taking suitable action” policy, a broad order that mandates deputies not fail at their jobs. But Hixson wasn’t punished.

Agency policy says a deputy must be issued a notice of suspension, demotion or firing within 180 days of the agency being notified of the misconduct. In Hixson’s case, that window was over before the investigation began.

On Nov. 21, the same day that prosecutors dropped the case against Gibbons and Hixson told his supervisor about the errors, the Sheriff’s Office started taking applications for a job opening: a corporal who would oversee an Explorer post. Police Explorer programs offer law enforcement training to teens and young adults.

Four people applied. Hixson got the job. His promotion took effect in March.

“All that does is reaffirm that Sheriff (Chris) Nocco and his department is a good old boys' club,” Theophilopoulos said. “How do you promote somebody who caused the arrest of a purely innocent individual like Jesse Gibbons? That’s incomprehensible.”

The attorney expects to file lawsuits this month, he said, in both state and federal courts.

Gibbons declined to talk to the Times but gave Theophilopoulos permission to discuss details of the case.

The attorney said life didn’t return to normal for his client’s family. His children watched him be arrested and led to a sheriff’s vehicle.

Then there’s the detail about Palm Harbor Gibbons spending the night with the daughter of the man he was accused of robbing, according to the internal investigation. Theophilopoulos said one of the arresting deputies insinuated that the Land O' Lakes Gibbons was having an affair.

His wife did not believe the accusation. Gibbons managed to keep his family and his job working at a heating-and-air-conditioning company. But Theophilopoulos said the wrongful arrest haunts him.

“Every morning he wakes up, takes a shower, he looks in the mirror, he thinks about this arrest,” the attorney said. “It’s never going to go away.”

Clarification: A previous version of this story misidentified the source of defense attorney Randall Grantham’s information about a phone call between deputy Jeremy Hixson and a suspect. Grantham’s information came from listening to a recording of the phone call, he said.