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Pinellas deputy fired for social media boast: 'Nothing like almost shooting someone'

LARGO — Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri fired a patrol deputy on Thursday after a photo surfaced that shows him boasting about almost shooting someone.

The photo, posted Sunday on the visual messaging app Snapchat, shows deputy Austen Callus, 23, with the caption: "Nothing like almost shooting someone to set your head right lol. God I gate people with knives." The word "gate" appears to be a misspelling of "hate."

Gualtieri said Thursday the photo raises doubts about Callus' mindset on the job.

"If you make that kind of a statement … you're not going to be employed here as a deputy sheriff because it calls into question your thoughts, your motives," Gualtieri said, "and certainly leaves the deputy and the agency in a very bad situation if something were to happen in the future."

The firing marked the second time this week that questionable behavior by a Pinellas deputy has come to light. On Tuesday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that Shawn Pappas, a former training division corporal, resigned from the agency in February after investigators found a trove of racist, sexist and pornographic images on his cellphone.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Pinellas sheriff's corporal had racist, sexist, pornographic content on his cellphone.

The incident Callus referred to in the photo occurred Sunday morning. According to a report, Callus responded to a domestic violence call at a home in Dunedin. The dispatcher notified him that a woman involved in the call had armed herself with a knife and was alone in the garage.

When Callus arrived, the 36-year-old man who called the Sheriff''s Office told him another man, 55, was fighting with his 26-year-old girlfriend because she had lost his keys and cellphone. On his way out of the house, the caller said he heard objects being thrown around the room and thought they were pushing each other.

Callus wrote in the report that he told the woman to come outside multiple times to no avail. A backup deputy arrived, and they found the woman at the garage door entrance. The deputies ordered her outside at gunpoint, then told her boyfriend to come out of the house.

The woman told deputies she never armed herself with a knife, and deputies didn't find weapons on either one. Callus didn't arrest anyone and closed out the call.

On the same day, he posted the Snapchat photo.

The Sheriff's Office first became aware of it on Tuesday when a high school friend of Callus reported that she was concerned about some Snapchat photos he'd posted of himself both in and out of uniform, according to the investigative file. She also told the agency that Callus and his girlfriend of 2½ years had broken up because she was cheating on him and that Callus was drinking heavily.

Around the same time, Florida Department of Law Enforcement analysts noticed the photo circulating on social media along with comments that had "anti-law enforcement sentiment," according to an email from FDLE to Tampa Bay area law enforcement agencies.

As the photo made the rounds, Gualtieri said Callus contacted Sheriff's Office lawyers to ask for legal advice on how to take action against the woman who reported him.

"Basically, he was in cover-yourself mode," the sheriff said.

He was placed Wednesday on administrative leave. Internal investigators spoke on several occasions with Callus, who confirmed what his friend said about his relationship but said he didn't drink to excess. They offered him help through the Employee Assistance Program, but he declined.

Callus could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Leading up to his hiring in November, Gualtieri said there was nothing of concern in his psychological exam, polygraph test or background check. He was still under what is typically a year-long probation, during which employees are not afforded the same disciplinary process as permanent employees.

But Gualtieri said he doesn't imagine that would have made much of a difference. Callus, who patrolled north Pinellas county, never said anything to mitigate Gualtieri's concern about the photo, which the sheriff said he interpreted as "if you shoot someone it's going to make you feel better."

The sheriff said there are other possible interpretations of the photo, but several factors went into his decision to terminate Callus: his lack of an explanation, the fact that he went to agency lawyers for a situation inappropriate for their help, and the "lol" in the caption, which signaled to Gualtieri that it wasn't a sobering revelation.

"It's not my role to provide people with plausible excuses for what appears to be very serious misconduct," he said, "and to give them a reason not to be held accountable for it."

Contact Kathryn Varn at (727) 893-8913 or kvarn@tampabay.com. Follow @kathrynvarn.

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