The room squints at the Cervantes Street sunlight sneaking in the doorway on a Friday afternoon. Up at the bar and lining the walls, patrons order another drink to speed them along on their journey toward the weekend.
Tom Ann Buddy’s is a dimly-lit, hopping hole in the wall of a place. Music throbs from the building, its rhythm setting the tone for bursts of conversation and explosions of laughter. In the back, there’s a couple of card games and a man getting his hair trimmed. Nobody’s up for speaking about what happened here a week ago. They shake off questions like impolite table conversation, or a nightmare they’ve already muscled out of their mind.
“No one wants to talk,” confirms a man outside. “They’re scared.”
Leaning against the wall with a friend, the man identifies himself only as Lee—“there ain’t no last names”—and says everyone inside the bar is too afraid of the police to talk about what happened in the parking lot on Dec. 23. He says he’s not scared.
“You’re talking to a man that’s been shot six time,” Lee says, lifting up his shirt to reveal a long scar.
Lee says he knows Robert Donson, says they’re good friends— “Robert D.,” the other guy adds—and says he was standing right beside him when the 25-year-old man was shot by a Pensacola police officer.
“I didn’t understand they were police,” Lee recounts. “No one knew they were police.”
IS THAT A GUN IN YOUR POCKET?
Robert Donson spent Christmas day in the hospital with a bullet still lodged inside of him. Pensacola Police Officer Shawn Thompson had put it there a couple of days earlier.
According to the police report, a group of several officers arrived at Tom Ann Buddy’s around 5:45 p.m. on Dec. 23. They drove an unmarked vehicle and wore “department issued flashlights, radios, badges, masks, and vests.” The report states that the vests were labeled with the word ‘POLICE’ on the front and back.
Once in the parking lot, the report states, officers activated the vehicle’s lights and heard people yelling “Police!” as they got out. Sgt. John Austin, who wrote the report, apparently approached Donson.
“I walked up to the person closest to me, a black male, later identified as Robert Donson, who was standing by the east side entrance,” Austin wrote in the report.
Austin then reports Donson consented to a search, during which the officer felt what he believed to be a gun in the man’s coat pocket. He called out to Thompson, who was on his way into the bar to follow up on fellow officers.
“I told Detective Thompson to ‘hold up’ and said ‘10-15’ which is a ten code for under arrest,” Austin wrote, adding that Thompson then tried to cuff Donson when the man began “violently thrashing about. Myself and Detective Thompson attempted to take Donson to the ground with negative results.”
This account varies from initial media reports. Both the Pensacola News Journal and WEAR 3 reported that an officer, not in uniform, had gone into the establishment and brought Donson outside where the scuffle and shooting ensued. These accounts were attributed to officers on the scene.
A week after the incident, Lee said he didn’t hear the police identify themselves. He later noticed that ‘POLICE’ was printed on the men’s backs, but didn’t see anything up front.
“On the back of ‘em,” Lee said of the identifying labels. “They had masks on the front.”
The man said he thinks Donson probably thought he was about to get robbed.
“He’s trying to shake loose thinking he’s gonna rob him,” Lee said, adding that he too believed this to be the case initially.
Both Lee and his friend also contested the fact that Donson had a gun.
“They didn’t find no gun that night,” Lee said, explaining that he never saw officers remove a firearm from Donson. “ —damn right, I think they planted it on him.”
Pensacola Police Chief Chip Simmons deferred to his officer’s report.
“That’s what happened,” Simmons said. “That is how it took place.”
The report states that the officers—members of a vice and narcotics unit—were conducting operations in an area known to be used for selling illegal drugs. Simmons said the police have received complaints regarding the area—during a Christmas day brawl in 2003, police used a Taser on several patrons at the Cervantes bar.
“We receive complaints about a number of locations, that location being one of them,” he said.
In the report, Sgt. Austin described how he and Thompson struggled with Donson. He noted that he saw Donson “tearing and pulling at his jacket pocket” and that he yelled out ‘He’s got a gun on him,’ several times. Thompson also apparently lost his footing and fell out of the scuffle at one point, according to the report.
After Austin and Donson had slammed up against a parked car, they continued to struggle. The report states that Thompson then approached with his gun.
“Detective Thompson placed the muzzle of his duty pistol on Donson’s torso and fired one round,” Austin wrote. “Donson immediately stopped fighting with me.”
Thompson then reportedly placed handcuffs on Donson, and Austin retrieved the gun from the wounded man’s coat. According to the report, the gun was “later found to be fully loaded with a round in the chamber.”
“Many bar patrons began to converge around us. Myself and Detective Thompson then began to yell at them to stay back,” the report states. “As other officers arrived on scene, Detective Thompson and I attempted to determine where Donson had been shot and began to render first aid. Donson continued to say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’”
As is the standard practice when an officer shoots someone in the line of duty, Thompson has been put on paid leave and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating the incident.
“While it’s under investigation, we can’t divulge much,” said Gretl Plessinger, with FDLE. “It can be months.”
This isn’t the first time Thompson has used his weapon on the job. The 31-year-old officer was cleared in a 2009 shooting, after he and a fellow officer fired on a man that was attempting to run them down in the parking lot of a local gentleman’s club. In 2006, the officer and his K-9 were honored after subduing a suspect. Thompson also tackled a man he suspected of an open container violation in 2003, and then attempted to shoot him—after the man hit the officer with the department-issued flashlight—but his gun jammed.
LAID UP AND LOCKED DOWN
Donson was shot and taken to Baptist Hospital on Dec. 23. Police did not allow the man any visitors, including an attorney, until Dec. 27—hours before he was charged with weapons offenses, resisting arrest and assault on a police officer.
“The night-of, we were all there,” said the man’s sister, Towonia Donson, recalling how family members gathered at the hospital.
Towonia said that the family was initially told by hospital staff that they could see her brother. But that changed when he was brought out of surgery.
“Once he was moved the story changed,” Towonia Donson said. “Then the story changed in a matter of minutes.”
A police officer apparently came up to speak with the family members. By then, the story had made the nightly news. The officer spoke with the family in the hospital waiting room.
“At that moment, he spit off all five charges he was being charged with,” Towonia said. “Then he goes on to say, ‘we know everything that happened, but we’re not going to tell you everything.’”
Over the next few days the family received only “very vague” reports on Robert Donson’s condition. Towonia Donson went to the hospital with an attorney, but still had a rough go seeing her brother.
Gene Mitchell, who is now representing Donson, said that “the weirdest exercise was just getting to him.”
Chief Simmons said that Donson’s medical needs were the cause of both the attorney and delayed-arrest issues.
“I don’t know exactly what took place,” Simmons said. “But I know he required medical attention for some time and then there’s the Christmas holidays that compound all that.”
Sgt. Doug Baldwin is the police officer who eventually allowed Mitchell and Donson’s sister into the hospital room. He said that the man had never asked for legal representation.
“It wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to see an attorney,” Baldwin explained. “He never had an attorney.”
Baldwin said that Donson had medical needs and the issue of having an attorney had yet to arise — “if a person is incapacitated, how can they invoke their attorney-client privilege?”
Once allowed to see her brother, Towonia Donson had him sign over his power-of-attorney to her.
“When I finally saw him on the fourth day, he was chained,” she said, referring to her brother’s cuffs anchoring him to the hospital bed.
Baldwin remained in the room for the visit. According to Mitchell, during his client’s first arraignment hearing the judge stipulated that Donson be allowed private visits with his attorney.
“It was not until today that the judge granted a private visit,” Towonia Donson said after the Dec. 29 hearing.
Baldwin said that a private meeting had not been allowed because the police were treating the situation as if Donson was in jail.
“Prior to that,” Baldwin said, “because he was actually in our custody, we weren’t allowing any visitors.”
Simmons said that the matter wasn’t an issue, as Donson had been medically preoccupied and law enforcement was not interviewing him.
“We never interviewed him, we never discussed the case,” Simmons said.
Exactly what type of custody Donson was in prior to his arrest is somewhat unclear. While he was shot and taken to the hospital on Dec. 23, he wasn’t charged until four days later.
“I don’t want to get into the particulars of the terminology,” Baldwin said the day of the Donson’s court appearance. “Naturally, yes, he was in our custody, I can tell you that.”
Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney for the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the four day detainment prior to arrest concerned him.
“In my mind it raises some questions,” Stevenson said. “That seems highly, highly unusual. A majority of cases are a matter of hours, if not minutes.”
Simmons said that Donson’s medical needs were the reason he was not charged and arrested until four days after his initial detainment.
“It wasn’t until Tuesday that we felt he was in the condition to be charged,” the Chief said. “As you can imagine, he had some serious injuries.”
Mitchell said he didn’t want to comment on the charges Donson faces. Mainly because the attorney had yet to have that private meeting with his client.
While he does have a long list of priors—mostly drug convictions, with a burglary and some resisting arrests—Donson’s criminal record doesn’t appear to involve guns. The police did note on the arrest report, however, that they consider him a “documented gang member.”
On Dec. 29, a county judge set Donson’s bail at $250,000 ($50,000 per count) and sent the recovering shooting victim to the Escambia County Jail to await a Jan. 12 court date.
Towonia Donson is looking to the system for answers. She’s just not sure she trusts that system.
“I want justice,” she said. “Right now, I feel like our justice system—I don’t have a lot of faith in them.”