Deputy to avoid jail, criminal record in road rage case, attorney says

Evan Rees was injured in the scuffle that took place after his car was rear-ended on I-4.
Evan Rees was injured in the scuffle that took place after his car was rear-ended on I-4.
Published Apr. 30, 2014

TAMPA — A former Hillsborough County sheriff's detective who pulled a gun on a schoolteacher during a road rage incident is poised to avoid jail time or a criminal record through a deal offered by prosecutors, the deputy's attorney said.

Thomas Pettis, 55, has been approved by the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office for its misdemeanor intervention program, according to his attorney, Norman Cannella Sr. of Tampa. As a result, a misdemeanor battery charge against him will be dropped if he completes community service with the Salvation Army, Cannella said.

The resolution is a mild one for Pettis, who initially faced potential charges of battery and aggravated assault with a firearm, the latter offense a felony punishable by at least three years in prison. It likely will stoke further questions about whether Pettis, a veteran homicide detective and state witness on dozens of pending cases, has received unusually favorable treatment.

"Everyone is entitled to their opinion. However, the state attorney is the one whose opinion counts," Cannella said. "Seasoned assistant state attorneys obviously have greater insight than the average citizen, who's not steeped or learned in the criminal justice system."

Mark Cox, spokesman for Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober, declined to comment on what he said were ongoing plea negotiations in Pettis' case. Pettis was scheduled to be arraigned Monday in Hillsborough Circuit Court, but it was delayed until May 15, court officials said.

Evan Rees, the victim in the case, said he was stunned by the deal. Rees, a 44-year-old biology teacher from Sebring, said he has never been contacted by Hillsborough prosecutors and did not give his blessing to it. He said he learned of it from a Tampa Bay Times reporter.

"I wouldn't consent to that. Not for one second. This is mind-blowing," Rees said. "That doesn't seem fair. I wouldn't get that if the roles were reversed. This is just crazy."

Rees said he plans to ask the Florida Attorney General's Office to appoint a special prosecutor to review Pettis' case, asserting that Ober's office has a conflict of interest. Pettis is a state witness in 28 pending cases, including upcoming murder trials that have received heavy publicity.

On Feb. 15, Pettis' car rear-ended Rees' car on Interstate 4 in Seffner. Rees and his wife, sister and niece had been at the Florida State Fair. During a subsequent shouting match outside their cars, Pettis and Rees grappled with each other and tumbled to the ground.

After they had been pulled apart by bystanders, Pettis drew a handgun from his ankle holster and pointed it at Rees. Several witnesses said the detective threatened to kill Rees, an accusation Pettis later denied.

After reholstering his gun, Pettis moved through the crowd that had gathered along the highway and punched Rees in the head.

After reviewing the incident, the State Attorney's Office decided to charge Pettis only with misdemeanor battery, asserting that the evidence did not rebut Pettis' claim that he aimed the gun at Rees in self-defense.

On Tuesday, responding to a public records request from the Times, the State Attorney's Office released a cellphone video shot from inside a car at the crime scene by a teenage girl whose father helped break up the fight.

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The video corroborates the events first reported Sunday in the Times, after the newspaper obtained previously undisclosed investigative records of the incident. Pettis can be seen pointing a Glock pistol at Rees after the teacher is pulled off him, then holding the gun at his side for about 30 seconds. He can also be seen speaking angrily to Rees, though his words were not captured in the video.

"Oh, my God, he has a gun," one of the young witnesses in the car can be heard saying. "Tell dad to get in the car." Another says, "Call the cops!"

Pettis resigned from the Sheriff's Office shortly afterward.

Under state law, pretrial intervention for misdemeanor and low-level felony cases requires consent of the victim. However, Hillsborough County's misdemeanor intervention program is not bound by those statutory rules and requires only the approval of the state attorney, Cox said.

Bryant Camareno, a Tampa criminal defense lawyer and former prosecutor, said crime victims ordinarily are consulted before a defendant is allowed to enter misdemeanor intervention, although the final decision rests with prosecutors.

"I think in theory the victim should have a say in whether it's an intervention program. It's ultimately the state's decision," Camareno said. "At a minimum they should confer."