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COVER STORY | Vol. 11, No. 3, January 22, 2009
(The Rise And Fall Of The McNesby Empire)

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by Rick Outzen

On December 31, 2008, Sheriff Ron McNesby turned in his key to his office on Leonard Street. On the following Tuesday, his successor David Morgan became the new Escambia County Sheriff. The outgoing sheriff didn't attend the ceremony.

Eight years earlier, McNesby, a career law enforcement officer, had come into office with high hopes. He narrowly defeated the two-term incumbent Jim Lowman by 2,110 votes and was seen as the progressive choice.
He did bring technology to the Escambia County Sheriff's Office (ECSO). On his watch, the ECSO added a mobile command unit, computers and cameras in the patrol cars and three helicopters. He and his deputies are credited with performing admirably after Hurricane Ivan. And throughout his tenure, Sheriff McNesby had a flair for big drug busts and sting operations.

However, the former sheriff will also be remembered for trying to talk a strip club owner out of a credit card bill, hunting violations in Wisconsin, the deaths of mentally ill inmates in the Escambia County Jail and a series of lawsuits and firings over the excessive use of force by his deputies.

What began with such promise ended with Sheriff McNesby losing in the Republican primary to a challenger he had beaten by 10,993 votes in 2004 and with nearly $100,000 still in his campaign account.

How did this happen? The IN reviewed the media coverage of the past eight years to understand the rise and fall of the McNesby empire. There are some valuable lessons here for Sheriff Morgan and all elected officials.

Budget: $60.4 million
At his swearing-in ceremony at Olive Baptist Church, Sheriff Ron McNesby tells the audience that "the days of the John Wayne character have come and gone." There are high expectations for the first Republican sheriff since Reconstruction. McNesby promises to raise deputy salaries, increase law enforcement in north Escambia County, enhance training and improve relationships with the African-American community.

The day after he takes office, Sheriff McNesby dissolves the Street Crimes Unit, which was reportedly involved in many of the 14 fatal deputy-involved shootings under the Jim Lowman administration. Trainers from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute for Nonviolence in Miami come to Pensacola and train 502 sworn sheriff's officers, 242 officers from other area law enforcement agencies and 81 community leaders.

His first two attempts to increase pay for deputies are resisted by the Escambia County Commission, chaired by W.D. Childers. McNesby tries to get a $4,000 a year raise for his deputies, in addition to the 3 percent merit raise budgeted for all county employees. Commissioner Mike Bass points out that many deputies aren't underpaid and 19 sergeants earn more than $50,000 a year.

The increased presence in Century nets a big drug bust in June and 12 people are arrested. However, not all Century residents are pleased with the ECSO. In August, Sheriff McNesby listens to 50 people complain at a town hall meeting about what they describe as "indiscriminate physical and psychological intimidation." He transfers Deputy Andrew Carter out of the area and the complaints die down.

The year is marked by one other big arrest. In October, deputies arrest 25 people on charges connected to prostitution, drug dealing and racketeering in the Brownsville area.

Sheriff McNesby also shows during his first year his love for technology. His expenses include $225,000 for cameras in patrol cars, $125,000 to buy and repair a helicopter, $786,000 to upgrade both cruisers and office computers to support a Microsoft Windows version of SmartCop, and $280,000 for a Mobile Command Bus that he shows off at the Pensacola Interstate Fair.

Budget: $63.7 million
Sheriff McNesby's third attempt to get pay raises for his deputies is almost derailed when an audit reveals that he spent $1.92 million that could have been spent on incentive raises on office furniture and renovations, equipment, computer systems and new administrative positions. Overall administrative salaries jump from $1.68 million to $2.23 million.

The county commission finally approves a $1,000 mid-year raise, but Sheriff McNesby agrees to contribute $500,000 from his overtime budget to cover the $1 million price tag.

McNesby avoids getting tarnished by the late-night land purchases by the county that eventually force four county commissioners out of office: Childers, Bass, Willie Junior and Terry Smith. The commissioners had purchased the former Stalnaker Mazda/Jack Lee Buick property for $2.3 million with the understanding that it was to be used by the Sheriff's Office for vehicle maintenance. McNesby later denies that he had asked for the property.

In September, Clerk of the Court Ernie Lee Magaha questions the sheriff's sale of eight trailers for $3,100. The ECSO had listed the property on their books at $141,658. The trailers were sold to McNesby campaign supporter Don Livingston, whose company, Communications Engineering Services Inc., is an ECSO vendor. The state attorney's office eventually clears the ECSO of any criminal wrongdoing.

The publicized arrest event this year is the `Operation Street Sweep' drug sting that results in 49 arrests in Ensley, Warrington, Ebonwood, Englewood and Lincoln Park.

Annual budget: $65.8 million
Sheriff McNesby deals with two shootings. Relations with the Movement for Change fall apart after the shootings of Lathern Broughton and David Sean Lewandowski. Movement for Change president LeRoy Boyd, who had supported McNesby in 2000, pushes for an appointed sheriff rather than an elected one. A move to appoint a citizen panel review to the shootings fails to get county commission support.

The overcrowded Escambia County Jail becomes an issue when the ECSO transfers 49 inmates to Santa Rosa County Jail. New county administrator George Touart protests the costly move, but the jail population is 1,878 inmates, although capacity is set at 1,422. The irony is that only a week before McNesby had announced that the Sheriff's Detention Division successfully completed an accreditation audit conducted by the Florida Corrections Accreditation Commission.

A year ahead of his next election, McNesby holds a series of coffee chats with the public at various restaurants. He draws criticism when he tells WEAR-TV on camera that he is happy that the first meeting had drawn many women.

"That's a good group to reach, and they sometimes don't know. They don't watch the news and read the paper like men do."

The big sting operation of the year is Operation Sandshaker, which results in the arrest of 49 people for what state and federal authorities describe as a major trafficking operation that has brought cocaine from South Florida to the area over the past three years.

Budget: $67.9 million
Strip club owner Arety Sievers shocks the county commission when she appears at its public forum and charges that County Administrator Touart and Sheriff McNesby tried to pressure her into dropping $5,858 in credit card charges made by Touart's son Matthew at her club.

State Attorney Curtis Golden convenes a grand jury that reviews Sievers' charges, the 2002 trailer sale and a helicopter-vehicle swap done by the ECSO.

McNesby had arranged to obtain a helicopter from the Calhoun County Sheriff's Office in exchange for $75,000 and 13 surplus vehicles. WEAR-TV reported that in addition to paying $75,000 for the helicopter in 2001, McNesby had "a loose verbal agreement" with Calhoun County Sheriff David Tatum that he would give Tatum several vehicles a year during McNesby's term in office.

McNesby denies that there was any such deal and asserts all vehicles were surplus. The grand jury agrees with the sheriff. It also finds nothing wrong with the trailer sale. On the Sievers' allegations of misuse of power, the grand jury clears Touart and McNesby of any criminal wrongdoing but does agree that "by his direct involvement, the sheriff gave the impression that the county administrator was getting preferential treatment."

Sheriff McNesby deals with another shooting, the fourth death of his administration. In July, Joseph Golden is shot one time through the mouth and dies in the doorway of his apartment. Deputy Charles Griffith, Jr. is later cleared of wrongdoing in the shooting death.

McNesby is widely praised for the ECSO's efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Ivan. Government officials and media use his helicopters to provide spectacular views of the storm's destruction.

The incumbent has few problems with his re-election. He easily wins the Republican primary, garnering 18,877 votes to David Morgan's 7,884 votes and Doyle Thomas' 5,686 votes. In the general election, McNesby beats Democrat John Powell, 75,718 to 62,478.

In 2008, Powell would file suit in Circuit Court against McNesby, two of his officers, Larry Smith and Rex Blackburn, and McNesby's political consultants. The complaint details several dirty tricks by the McNesby campaign to hurt Powell's efforts, including sending investigators to his former places of employment to dig up dirt on Powell and sending flowers to Powell's home signed, "Love, Desiree."

Budget: $69.1 million
McNesby is sworn in by Florida Supreme Court Justice Kenneth Bell at Pensacola Christian College. He pledges to focus on domestic violence and declares war on drugs.

In April, McNesby is named in a lawsuit along with Pensacola Police Chief John Mathis and three law enforcement officers over the excessive use of Taser stun guns on Randy Koch while he was in the county detention center on Oct. 10, 2004. The IN had broken the story in February (Independent News, "Gotcha! Crimefighters' New Toy," Feb. 5, 2005). McNesby would later settle for $5,000, which is paid by his insurance carrier.

Crowded jail conditions make the news again in June when the sheriff reports to the county's public safety panel that the Escambia County Jail's inmate population has risen to 1,924. Three months later, Robert Boggan would be found dead in his cell in the jail's infirmary.

The Sheriff's Office issues a statement, saying that Boggon was the subject of "standard, nonlethal restraints" that had nothing to do with his death. Dr. Andrea Minyard, the local medical examiner, testifies at the coroner's inquest that Boggon died from heart disease and paranoid schizophrenia but lists confinement to a restraint chair and injections of Haloperidol, a major tranquilizer, as contributory causes. The ECSO would later settle a lawsuit with Boggan's family for an undisclosed amount.

In August, U.S. Attorney Greg Miller severs ties with the Escambia County Sheriff's Office after a series of disputes about the release of information to the public. Miller believes the ECSO may jeopardize the prosecution of cases and could possibly taint a prospective jury pool. Miller and McNesby patch things up two weeks later.

In November, Sheriff McNesby, Escambia County Commissioner Mike Whitehead and 16 other local residents are among 46 people charged with violating numerous hunting laws in Wisconsin when the sheriff had accompanied the commissioner and Touart on a hunting trip in 2004.

McNesby is charged with three misdemeanors: hunting deer during the closed season, hunting deer over bait and hunting deer without a license. Two years later, McNesby pleads no contest, pays a $2,500 fine and has his Wisconsin hunting license revoked for three years. The judge adjudicates McNesby guilty of two counts of illegal hunting/possession of game/birds and placing bait with nondegradable material.

In December, McNesby fires Kenneth Tolbirt and Phillip Ray Howell after WEAR-TV broadcasts a video of the two deputies kicking Jeffery Scott Springman and hitting him with a flashlight to subdue him. The pair would be given their jobs back a year later after an arbitration hearing.

The high profile drug bust of the year is a three-month investigation resulting in four cocaine-trafficking arrests along with the seizure of $750,000 in cocaine and $246,000 in cash in June.

Budget: $71.9 million
Gulf Breeze teenager Addison Salter sues Sheriff McNesby and two deputies after being severely bitten by an Escambia County sheriff's patrol dog during a brawl at the Las Javanas Valentine's dance in 2005. In September 2007, a jury would find deputies Tim Taylor and Jeremy Jarman, Sr. guilty of using excessive force.

Former deputy James Sullivan is charged with beating and stomping two handcuffed suspects. The ECSO is criticized for not notifying the State Attorney's office when the incidents occurred in late 2004 and early 2005.
Deputy Jeremy Jarman, Sr. is in the spotlight again when he is charged with battery against his wife after she reports an incident to law enforcement and investigators find probable cause.

Former Deputy Charles Dix is charged and pleads guilty to a federal civil rights charge of using excessive force against Martha Bledsoe. The ECSO paid $250,000 to Bledsoe in 2005 to settle a lawsuit.

The ECSO also reaches a $150,000 settlement with Chad Baxter, who was shot by Dix with a Taser stun gun four times as Baxter tried to comfort his pregnant wife after a minor traffic accident. The ECSO also pays a $62,500 settlement to Michael Montgomery, who was tasered by Deputy James Sullivan.

There is another death in the jail. Jerry Preyer, a mentally ill Escambia County Jail inmate, dies after being shot with a stun gun. Care of mentally ill prisoners draws the attention of the media and public. The Escambia County Commission agrees to fund the building of four padded cells to house mentally ill patients. McNesby mandates that all deputies attend a crash course on how to deal with the mentally ill.

There are two high profile busts this year. McNesby and State Attorney Bill Eddins announce the arrest of two principals in a multimillion-dollar Internet pornography business. Later in the year, the pair announces the arrests of 28 suspects on charges of trafficking in cocaine, marijuana, codeine and Ecstasy.

Budget: $76.4 million
The year begins with a bang with Operation Brownsville, the largest coordinated law enforcement operation during McNesby's tenure. Over thirty days, the ECSO and the county concentrate on reducing crime and cleaning up trash and run-down houses in the 45-block community.

In April, two deputies are fired and accused of using excessive force in separate cases. Norman Frye is suspected of using a Taser on a woman while she was handcuffed on Feb. 3. Christian Coad is caught on his patrol car's video camera slapping a man in the head as the man lay face down on the ground April 5. Frye is later cleared of any wrongdoing. Coad is tried and found not guilty.

Later that same month, Deputy Keith Snuffin resigns and faces a charge of grand theft for allegedly taking $650 from a car during a traffic stop.

In June, Flomaton Mayor Dewey Bondurant asks for a joint task force to stop the flow of crack cocaine and marijuana that he believes is coming from Century. Century officials admit to the IN that drug deals are a common occurrence on side roads.

In August, McNesby is named "Citizen of the Year" by the Pensacola Civitan Club.

There are two deaths in the Escambia County Jail. Leonard Black dies in July. He suffers from serious lung disease and a drug-resistant staph infection. Black's family, defense attorney and the Sheriff's Office had tried to get him out of jail because of his medical condition, but a circuit judge rejected a request to release Black pending a hearing on the violation charge. Reginald Holmes, a homeless man who was arrested for failure to pay child support, dies in September of natural causes.

In October, Tobias Hobbs files a lawsuit alleging excessive force by Deputy Tim Taylor, who he claims slammed him against a vehicle and then pressed his forearm against his throat during a DUI stop on July 21, 2005. Taylor was also involved in the Salter lawsuit.

Budget: $79.7 million
The plan to deputize county code enforcement officers blows up when citizens begin to complain about officers abusing their arrest powers and lawsuits are filed. In February, McNesby strips them of their officer status. They lose their guns and blue lights.

McNesby closes Precinct 3 in Warrington and Precinct 4 in Ensley, reportedly saving the county $2 million. However, the budget for the 2008-09 fiscal year only reflects a $981,255 reduction. Commissioner Mike Whitehead presses for a $2.5 million cut to the sheriff's budget, but the motion fails 3 to 2.

McNesby loses the bid for a third term in office. During his last three months, he spends $1.5 million of his Local Option Sales Tax (LOST) funds on new patrol cars and their equipment. The 46 vehicles are purchased from Orville Beckford Ford. In 2006, Orville Beckford contributed $1,500 to the Penny for Progress, the political action committee supporting the renewal of the LOST.

The ECSO purchases over $300,000 in copiers and printers. A staff panel finds that by updating equipment with more shared printers and common brands that the ECSO could save $818,369 over five years. The panel recommends awarding the contract to Florida Imaging & Network Systems. McNesby overrides the panel and gives half the contract to Copy Products Company. Copy Products donated $3,500 to Penny for Progress and $500 to McNesby's campaign.

Several maintenance contracts are prepaid for the year. Mediations Plus is paid $45,000 for the resolution victim program for the period of Oct. 1, 2008 through Sept. 30, 2009. Owner Carmela Porter and her family donated $2,500 to McNesby's campaign from 2004 to 2007.

Barnes Insurance is paid $24,000 in December 2008 for consulting services. Communications Engineering Services (CES) is paid $59,330 for equipment maintenance, and the company gives the ECSO a 1 percent discount for paying the entire year in advance. Both companies contributed $500 each to the McNesby campaign. The Livingston family, who owns CES, contributed $3,500 to the sheriff's campaign from 2003 to 2006.

Contract employees are terminated with the end of the McNesby administration. Ten contract employees are paid $289,657 in gross wages for their accrued personal leave, sick days and severance per their contracts. When FICA and retirement costs are included the total cost is $330,694.

In the end, Sheriff McNesby fulfilled his promise that "John Wayne" days had come and gone, but unfortunately not in the way that he had intended back in 2001. In the Westerns, John Wayne stood for law and order, for justice and for honor.

Under McNesby's leadership, the John Wayne cowboy image was replaced with Dirty Harry Callahan. Taser first, Taser last and ask questions later.

His last four years are tainted by lawsuits, arrests and firings over the excessive use of force by his deputies. The same deputies are mentioned in many of the lawsuits. The ECSO needed a John Wayne to clean house and restore order. There was none to be found.

Sheriff David Morgan is starting his tenure with many of the same hopes and aspirations of his predecessor. Time will tell if Morgan will do a better job of building trust in the community and maintaining order and discipline among his troops.

Let's hope we get back a little John Wayne in the Escambia County Sheriff's Office.