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Hillsborough state attorney recuses himself from Riggins shooting case, citing relationship with deputy's family

TAMPA — Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober recused himself Tuesday from reviewing the case of a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy who shot an unarmed black man this month, citing longtime social connections to the deputy's family.

In a letter to Gov. Rick Scott, Ober requested that another state attorney be appointed to review the Aug. 30 death of Levonia Riggins, who was shot by Deputy Caleb Johnson.

Johnson, 32, is the nephew of former Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections Buddy Johnson. The Johnsons are a prominent, politically connected Plant City family best known for operating BuddyFreddy's restaurants and several other businesses.

"I have known Deputy Johnson's mother, father, uncle and grandmother for a number of years," Ober wrote. "I have been to their house and visited with them socially, and I am a regular customer in their family-owned restaurants. We have attended many of the same social functions over the years. I consider my relationship with the Johnson family to be a close one, and I have always held the family in high regard."

Ober, who is in the midst of a contentious reelection bid, said he would not participate in a review of the shooting "to avoid any appearance of impropriety" and to enhance the community's trust in the fairness of the investigation.

Late Tuesday, Scott ordered Ed Brodsky, the state attorney for the 12th judicial circuit, which covers Manatee, Sarasota, and De Soto counties, to review the case to determine whether the shooting was lawful.

It was unclear why Ober did not recuse himself earlier. The shooting happened two weeks ago.

Rick Terrana, an attorney representing the Riggins estate, said it was his impression that Ober wanted to wait to announce his intentions until after he could personally meet with Riggins' family.

That happened Monday, Terrana said. Ober explained his personal conflict, and offered condolences.

"It was the honorable thing to do and the right thing to do," Terrana said.

It is customary whenever a law enforcement officer uses deadly force for the matter to be reviewed by the local state attorney's office. But such reviews typically only happen after an agency investigation has been completed. A Hillsborough sheriff's investigation of the Riggins case remains ongoing.

The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office has had no involvement in the investigation so far, Terrana said. Nor has Deputy Johnson had any contact with them.

Sheriff's officials previously detailed the chain of events that led to Johnson's shooting of Riggins.

In early August, Riggins, 22, twice sold marijuana to undercover deputies in his Clair-Mel neighborhood, offering to bring them back to his home if they wanted more, officials said. The sales led deputies to obtain a warrant to search Riggins' home. A previous call to Riggins' home led deputies to believe he might have guns, prompting them to order a SWAT unit to execute the warrant.

The team arrived about 8 a.m. and descended on the home at 1432 Longwood Loop. They made several announcements for the occupants to come out. Three adults and a child did, but Riggins was still inside.

Sheriff's officials said Riggins ignored repeated commands to exit the house before deputies broke his bedroom window. They could see him inside, wriggling under bedsheets. Deputy Johnson told him to show his hands, officials said. Riggins slipped between the bed and the wall before standing up and reaching for his waistband, officials said.

Johnson, fearing Riggins was reaching for a weapon, shot him, officials said. Only afterward did deputies find that Riggins was unarmed.

The shooting sparked protests in Tampa and some small disturbances in the Clair-Mel area.

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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