Where did FDLE go in NYT investigation of Florida sheriff?
There's much to unpack with the New York Times' investigation of St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar, but perhaps one of the most inexplicable elements is how the Florida Department of Law Enforcement is behaving.
Sunday's 1A blockbuster was actually the second part of a story that Walt Bogdanich, a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, wrote in 2013. That story, co-written with Glenn Silber, depicted the botched initial investigation of the 2010 shooting death of Michelle O'Connell, a 24-year-old mother of a 4-year-old girl. O'Connell died from a gunshot in the mouth. Found next to her was a semiautomatic pistol that belonged to her boyfriend, Jeremy Banks, a deputy sheriff for St. Johns County.
The initial sheriff's investigation ruled a suicide, despite evidence that didn't support that conclusion. Shoar asked for the FDLE to re-examine the case. It found significant questions remained and asked for a special inquest, prompting Shoar to push back, attacking the FDLE. The 2013 NYT story, which was meant to highlight the larger issue of how law enforcement investigated domestic violence when it involved one of their own, ended with the standoff between Shoar and the FDLE and the lingering doubts about the case.
Fast forward to last week, and Bogdanich digs deeper into the showdown between Shoar and FDLE agent Rusty Rodgers, a member of the agency's elite investigative unit. Written this time in the first person, Bogdanich recounts how Shoar tried to shut down any further inquiry, by Rodgers or the NYT.
"My record request was routine, but Sheriff Shoar didn't view it that way," Bogdanich wrote. "In his world, an out-of-town reporter 'poking around' a close case 'kind of stunk', he said, and he alerted prosecutors so they wouldn't be caught off guard. But when the sheriff learned that I had already asked Agent Rodgers's supervisors for an interview, and that he had not been notified, the sheriff erupted, suspecting, incorrectly, that the agency was behind my visit.
"'I realized I'm dealing with a whole different set of facts, quite truthfully malice and wickedness,' (Shoar) told state officials. 'I've been in this business for 33 years. I know how to deal with bullies.'
"His answer was a scathingly personal yearslong attack on Agent Rodgers - a campaign that put the outsize powers of a small-town sheriff on full display and ultimately swept up nearly everyone in its path.
"The sheriff commissioned his own investigation of the investigator, accusing him of serious crimes that, he said, had nearly caused an innocent man - his officer - to be charged with murder. He embedded his accusations in the public consciousness through a cascade of press releases, phone calls, letters, interviews and online posts. He send his findings to state law enforcement officials and the FBI. As a result, Agent Rodgers' own employer and later a special prosecutor began investigating him. He was placed on administrative leave, forced to surrender his badge and gun, barred by his agency from publicly defending himself."
Throughout this story, which has become "the stuff of Florida noir", (there's even a Netflix documentary on it), FDLE hasn't provided any statements. Not only has the agency refused to allow Rodgers to defend himself, but no one from the agency is defending him either.
This lack of a defense of its own work is odd, considering that Bogdanich found that Shoar "had tried to destroy the investigator with accusations that were often nothing more than innuendo and unverified rumors. Even so, they went unchallenged for years."
Furthermore, Bogdanich found that, while Rodgers's work wasn't flawless, "the most damaging accusations against him turned out to be demonstrably false, unsupported by existing evidence or contradicted by Sheriff Shoar's own sources. Lesser criticisms were either overblown or deemed mostly within the bounds of accepted investigative practices. What's more, records show that the sheriff and his officers made little or no effort to confirm their accusations, which were simply passed on to goverment agencies in hopes of provoking a criminal investigation."
Where was the FDLE? Why did higher-ups let Shoar damage Rodgers' reputation, as well as the agency's credibility? Is this the type of support it gives its agents? Is this the type of explanation it provides of its work when it's called into question?
Shoar, an ardent Donald Trump supporter, has made criticizing the FDLE a side project of his. He's been outspoken about the agency's difficulty in processing evidence. He's past president of the powerful Florida Sheriff's Association. A former FDLE supervisor, Steve Donaway, told Bogdanich that the FDLE "has always bent over backwards for sheriffs."
As his professional reputation was being attacked, Rodgers dealt with his mother's illness and spent tens of thousands of dollars on legal bills, according to Bogdanich.
"I was just so sick, so angry with my agency for not backing him up," said Donaway. "It's easy to win an argument when only one side is talking."
So then, FDLE, why is only one side talking?