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By Jim Schoettler
A two-year FBI probe of Nassau County Sheriff Tommy Seagraves and his agency has branched into dual investigations of civil rights violations and corruption, including obstruction of cases, altered police reports and theft, a Times-Union investigation has found.
A key to the investigations is a Nassau narcotics detective turned FBI informant whom authorities asked to secretly tape more than a dozen meetings with Seagraves and others. Brandon Smith, 31, said he did so often with a recorder stuck in a front pants pocket, sometimes sitting only feet from Seagraves.
Smith, speaking publicly for the first time, told the Times-Union he has also given the FBI firsthand accounts, documents and video of what he says are crimes and other wrongdoing by deputies and misconduct by Seagraves and some staff.
Read part 2 of this Times-Union report
Authorities haven’t charged anyone and wouldn’t say when they expect the investigations to end. Seagraves denies doing anything wrong.
Smith described the most serious allegations as separate attacks on two handcuffed drug suspects by veteran cop William “Monty” Wettstein Jr. The two suspects, and co-defendants in one case, confirmed the incidents for the Times-Union. The St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office also documented the accounts in an independent investigation.
Wettstein, 43, declined to comment. Seagraves suspended him with pay this year after one incident. But the sheriff said he reinstated him as sergeant over the narcotics unit after he apologized, passed a fit-for-duty exam and got a written warning to watch his temper. He remains on the job.
Local FBI head Jim Casey said his agency, with Seagraves’ cooperation, is investigating potential civil rights violations by police in Nassau. Casey declined to elaborate. He wouldn’t acknowledge the existence of the corruption case.
Smith said he turned to the FBI because he had no confidence that Seagraves would act on his concerns. He described the sheriff as a power-hungry leader who played favorites among the employees and hindered investigations to avoid bad publicity for the county and Sheriff’s Office.
“I was to that point where I was just like something needs to be done because the sheriff obviously has too much control,” said Smith, who quit in September after 10 years on the force.
Seagraves said he has no thirst for power, treats everyone fairly and doesn’t shun bad news.
He blames the ongoing scrutiny largely on a political feud that has pitted him against State Attorney Angela Corey for his repeated criticism of chief Nassau prosecutor Wes White. Seagraves said he believes Smith is fueling the overall probe in cahoots with White and FBI agent Byron Thompson. He believes the group dislikes him and his management style.
White and Thompson, the lead investigator, declined to comment. Corey and Casey said none of their investigations are politically driven.
“Allegations that any FBI agent in Jacksonville is conducting an investigation based on anything other than facts is false,” Casey said Wednesday.
Seagraves said the tedious FBI probe, combined with the state attorney strife, played into his decision to forgo a third term and retire in January 2013 after 30 years.
“I was hoping to end my career not being shot. Now I’m being shot. It’s not being shot by bullets. It’s being shot at by the scrutiny of persons saying how they want it to end for me,” said Seagraves, 50. “I guarantee you there’s a lot more people who have a whole lot of better things to say about Tommy Seagraves.”
The sheriff said he has delayed any further investigation of Wettstein to avoid interfering with the FBI. Corey said she also is holding back on investigating any potential wrongdoing at Seagraves’ agency for the same reason.
The Federal Case
The FBI began investigating in late 2009 after receiving tips about corruption at the Sheriff’s Office, including allegations of misused funds. The probe intensified in late 2010 as the FBI subpoenaed records of Yulee businesses trying to determine whether Seagraves got any favors, including gifts and price breaks on hunting trips.
Seagraves expressed confidence in January that the FBI would find no wrongdoing. Newly hired Undersheriff Gordon Bass and other brass appeared before a federal grand jury two weeks later. Details of the secret session remain unknown. Agents collected 11 boxes of documents from Seagraves in February, including records on federal grant expenditures.
Smith already had been working for the FBI for nearly a year by that time. He said he first went to the FBI after he recorded another narcotics detective talking about steroid use. Smith told the FBI that he and co-workers suspected that detective was tipping off drug dealers to investigations and committing other crimes. Smith said he didn’t believe Seagraves would do anything if he told him because the detective and his father, a Callahan preacher, were favorites of the sheriff.
The FBI began its civil rights investigation after Smith’s tip that Wettstein attacked drug suspect Felder Youman in February. Seagraves said Smith also told him about the attack and other misconduct among fellow narcotics detectives, which included suspicions of theft.
Seagraves shuttered the unit in mid-March and asked St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar to help investigate. Florida police agencies periodically seek outside help in sensitive internal investigations to avoid any perception of conflict. It’s unclear why Seagraves asked Shoar, a peer and friend, and not the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Shoar said his investigators quickly found evidence of Youman’s abuse; theft of seized property, including car speakers; and altered police reports. One doctored report caused frustrated federal prosecutors to drop charges against two men caught with 10 pounds of cocaine.
Shoar said they also found secret recordings on Smith’s computer of the undersheriff and other superiors. Smith called the FBI when the St. Johns cops confronted him about the recordings. Shoar pulled his team out to avoid interfering with the federal probe. St. Johns turned its file over to state and federal prosecutors.
“When you have something like that, it’s really a one-agency show,” Shoar said.
Two drug suspects took center stage after Smith told the FBI about their abuse. The allegations have led to several high-level law enforcement meetings in Jacksonville, including visits by civil rights lawyers from the Justice Department.
Nassau narcotics detectives arrested Youman, his girlfriend and uncle in a Feb. 17 Fernandina Beach cocaine sting.
Police took the three to the Sheriff’s Office, where they sat around a table with their hands cuffed behind their backs. Youman, nicknamed Trouble, began jawing with Wettstein and another cop sitting at desks 15 feet away. The arguing boomed with obscenities, which could be heard in an audio recording provided to the Times-Union.
Youman said Wettstein’s eyes filled with rage as he suddenly rushed him, grabbed his throat and knocked him backward in the rolling chair. Wettstein straddled him, choked him, let go and choked again, Youman told the Times-Union.
“He just kept squeezing real hard … talking trash, spitting all in my face,” Youman said in October. “I was just looking at him like, ‘This can’t be.’ ”
Youman’s girlfriend and uncle said they also saw Wettstein choking him. Danielle Liverman’s cries for Wettstein to stop are on the same audio as his argument with Youman.
“I knew that wasn’t right. He was in handcuffs,” said Liverman, 23.
Smith said he jumped from his desk when he heard the ruckus. He and another detective said they saw Wettstein straddling Youman, but neither could tell if their sergeant was choking him.
Youman said the attack lasted less than 15 seconds. Wettstein led him to another room, where Wettstein is heard on the audio cursing and yelling for Youman to sit. A videotape shows Wettstein shove Youman into a chair.
“[filtered word]!” cries Youman.
Seagraves suspended the nine-year sheriff’s office veteran with pay the following month. Seagraves said reinstating Wettstein had nothing to do with their friendship, which includes occasional hunting trips.
Youman, while jailed for selling cocaine, said he complained to his public defenders about the abuse. He said they came to him three months later with an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Nassau’s chief prosecutor, working with Seagraves’ general counsel, arranged a plea deal that freed Youman with 92 days of time served and probation. In exchange, Youman agreed to waive his right to sue the Sheriff’s Office for any actions against him during his arrest. He said public defenders Tom Townsend and Brian Morrissey urged him to take the offer or face years in prison.
Related: Read the waiver signed by Youman
Circuit Judge Robert Foster accepted Youman’s plea May 19 without discussing the waiver. Youman pleaded guilty to selling cocaine and authorities released him hours later.
“I was ready to get out,” Youman said. “I didn’t care about what it said.”
Corey and Public Defender Matt Shirk said such waivers frequently were used in plea bargains years ago. The waivers were primarily designed to protect against defendants suing when the state sought to forfeit seized property. Corey pointed to only one other waiver used recently — in a non-civil rights case — while Shirk knew of none.
Corey and Shirk said they were unaware of Youman’s waiver, but both supported the offer. Shirk said his office always tries to keep its clients out of jail. Corey said Youman made the choice. She also repeatedly pointed out that taxpayers were spared the cost of possible litigation.
A 1987 U.S. Supreme Court case upheld such waivers, but law professors Kate Stith of Yale University and Mike Seigel of the University of Florida said they are problematic, especially without a judge’s oversight.
The professors, both former federal prosecutors, said the agreements create a perception that one government entity is protecting another financially without taking into account that a crime may have occurred.
They also said such a waiver failed to protect the public from a felon who arguably would be kept from committing more crimes if convicted and jailed. Police arrested Youman in November after his girlfriend, the same one who said she saw him choked, accused him of abuse. He remains in jail.
Youman said he felt obligated to honor the waiver. But he also demanded that someone punish Wettstein.
“I just want this guy to be held accountable,” he said.
So does Jessie Terrill.
Fear of Retaliation
Terrill and a half-dozen friends were smoking marijuana in their American Beach rental in April 2010 when Wettstein and his fellow narcotics detectives crashed the party.
Terrill said he was in the backyard when the cops dressed in tactical gear arrived with a search warrant, made possible by an earlier undercover drug deal at the home. Terrill heard a soft voice utter “warrant,” and he went inside. He said a cop ordered him to the floor, stuck his knee in his back, handcuffed him and wrapped an arm around his neck. Terrill said the same officer picked him up by his handcuffs, while still in a chokehold, and slammed his head into a wall. Terrill landed in a nearby recliner.
“He was enjoying himself,” Terrill, 29, told the Times-Union in November. “He was releasing aggression.”
Smith told the FBI Wettstein was the attacker. He said he saw Wettstein hold Terrill in a chokehold and slam his head into the wall. Two other detectives said they also saw Wettstein lift Terrill from the chair in a chokehold.
Terrill said he never complained, fearing the police would retaliate.
Seagraves said he’d never heard of Terrill and welcomed him to file a complaint. Terrill, who served a year in prison for selling pot, said he doesn’t expect anyone to be punished.
“They wear that badge and they think that’s a shield that protects them,” Terrill said.
Since the incident, Terrill said he’s wondered about the fate of his property seized that day, including a coin collection and a cane his mother made. He recalls one detective boasting about taking some of the goods to showcase in the narcotics office.
The Sheriff’s Office reviewed its inventory records last week after the Times-Union asked about Terrill’s property. Nothing had been forfeited. Seagraves’ general counsel sent Terrill a letter Thursday explaining the Sheriff’s Office “inadvertently” forgot to contact him about claiming what police took from him 20 months earlier.
Related: The property seizure letter sent to Terrill
She invited him to do so.
Test of Patience
Seagraves said he is trying to be patient with the pace of the federal case, but his anxiety periodically showed through in his recent Times-Union interview.
“If I’m going to be put in jail for doing something to one particular employee, I wish they’d tell me what I did or who I did it to,” he said.
Smith said he expects prosecutors to act, but he said no one has told him when that may happen or to whom.
“I know it’s just a matter of time,” Smith said.
Seagraves said he’s as determined as ever to protect his agency, his reputation and his future. He promised the day he retires, he’ll be no different from the proud rookie who joined the force 30 years earlier.
“I’m Tommy Seagraves,” he said, “and I’ll be Tommy Seagraves the day I walk out of here.”
Jim Schoettler: (904) 359-438