ASO Major to be demoted for failure to supervise
Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell plans to demote the man charged with supervising former Captain Keith Vermillion for failing to adequately do his job, according to an internal investigation to be released Thursday.
Former Major Mike Fellows—who has been with the sheriff’s office for more than 20 years—will now be a lieutenant if the sheriff follows the recommended punishment, according to ASO spokesman Art Forgey.
Forgey said the sheriff made the announcement at a command staff meeting Wednesday morning.
As a major, he was tasked with overseeing the Department of Operations in ASO, which includes the divisions that investigate crimes.
Prior to his resignation, Vermillion controlled the criminal investigation division. He’d served previously as head of the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates allegations of misconduct.
The internal investigation of Fellows is the first indication that the sheriff acknowledges that others in the chain of command were responsible for enabling Vermillion’s “toxic” workplace.
Fellows will have the opportunity to appeal his punishment at an informal hearing with the sheriff Tuesday. Forgey said Sheriff Darnell declined to comment until that time.
“The practice of the Sheriff is not to comment until after due process, which means the Loudermill Hearing process has been completed,” wrote Forgey in an email.
Supporting his Commander
If Major Fellows had had his way, Vermillion would still work at ASO, according to the investigations into Vermillion’s misbehavior.
As part of his supervisory duties, Fellows reviewed each of the investigations into Vermillion’s misconduct and recommended punishment for his actions. None of his recommendations included termination.
On two occasions, Fellows wrote extended arguments supporting his positions for lesser punishment of Vermillion.
For the investigation in which testimony from more than 50 witnesses found Vermillion engaged in “conduct unbecoming of a deputy,” Fellows wrote a three-page explanation to the sheriff detailing why he didn’t support termination for the former captain.
He indicated that because Vermillion did not testify in that investigation, the findings may have been overstated.
“There may have been some rebuttal on a few statements that might have justified some of his actions,” wrote Fellows in a memo to the sheriff.
Fellows had also conducted an informal inquiry into one of the criminal allegations against former Captain Vermillion years before the sheriff asked the St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office (SJSO) to investigate it.
Specifically, he had been asked to review why Vermillion called a former co-worker, Michael Crowley, to investigate the Hayes Jewelry Store burglary in early 2012.
According to the SJSO criminal investigation, Vermillion had called in Crowley without alerting the ASO detective he’d assigned to work the case. The investigation also states Crowley’s actions led a primary suspect to leave town before ASO could interview him.
Fellows said in testimony that after speaking with Vermillion, he was satisfied that the former captain had done nothing wrong—and so Vermillion never faced any punishment for it.
“I’m going to try to support my commander and I felt like he sounded reasonable and he was pissed when he found out this guy did what he did,” said Fellows in testimony.
Sheriff Darnell called on SJSO to investigate the Hayes Jewelry incident and four other criminal allegations in March after sergeant Tom Witherington expressed his concerns to Chief Deputy David Huckstep, Darnell’s second in command.
“A lot of these folks are so suspicious of this guy, and I want to say that I’m not sure it merits that,” said Fellows in testimony. “Now, I can’t wait to read the facts.”
The SJSO Detectives did not find any evidence of criminal conduct on the part of Vermillion involving the Hayes Jewelry incident, according to the case summary.
An investigation conducted by The New York Times and Frontline found that SJSO deputies may have protected their own officer from potential murder charges in 2010.
Silence of the Deputies
Current and former ASO deputies—speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal—said they couldn’t trust Major Fellows to protect them from Vermillion’s retaliation.
When it came to their complaints, the deputies said, Fellows was far more likely to trust Vermillion’s version of events than their own.
They also said Fellows desire to “support his commander” made it impossible for them to express their concerns about Vermillion without the former captain coming to know about it.
And if Vermillion knew you’d complained about him, the deputies said, then he would go after your job—usually with investigations conducted by the Office of Professional Standards.
“Fellows would tell Vermillion everything we’d say to him,” said a deputy. “If he knew you’d complained about him, you could count on a visit from OPS.”
Even Sergeant Witherington said in testimony he didn’t report the allegations earlier because the former captain had a reputation for “going after people’s careers with directive violations.”
“I don’t think anybody there wanted to take on a fight they didn’t think they could win,” said Witherington in testimony.
Vermillion served as head of OPS from 2007 to 2011. During that time, the deputies told TV20 they believe he stacked that department with people loyal to him—mainly then-inspector John Redmond.
When asked directly during testimony, Vermillion said he doesn’t believe he had that reputation.
“I’ve never retaliated against anybody,” said Vermillion in testimony.
“If They’re Breathing, They Done It”
When the sheriff promoted John Redmond to lead road patrol about a year ago, a few of his co-workers put up a corkboard outside his old cubicle in the Office of Professional Standards, calling it his “satellite office” since he was still conducting quite a few investigations.
ASO deputies sent TV20 a picture of the corkboard, which shows a few alleged Redmond quotes pinned to it. On it, his mission statement is, “If they’re breathing, they done it.”
There’s another quote of his above it: “If you haven’t heard from me, that means things are going well.”
These quotes represent the sort of environment Redmond fosters as an OPS inspector, said multiple ASO deputies speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The deputies each independently described to TV20 how Redmond carried out brutal investigations of people who had crossed Vermillion or another member of command staff.
The most recent example: Lt. Bella Blizzard. She had crossed Vermillion before in 2013 by refusing orders related to producing child pornography for training slides, according to an internal investigation into the matter.
After that, Redmond began keeping logs of Bella’s directive violations over a matter of weeks, attempting to go after her for all of them at once—in one complaint.
In response, Blizzard reached out to the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), which represented her in a grievance hearing and threatened to sue Redmond for fostering a hostile work environment unless something was done about his management style internally.
Major Fellows conducted that internal action, which was a set of emails containing notes from six interviews with lieutenants and a list of “corrective expectations.”
According to Fellows’ notes, “There is an overall impression that every lieutenant has their ‘time in the box,’ meaning it seems that every lieutenant gets focused on by Captain Redmond; looking for something they did wrong so he can discipline them.”
Fellows interviewed Blizzard and five other lieutenants about their issues with Redmond while he was sitting there in the room. None of the interviews were recorded.
In her July interview with TV20, Sheriff Darnell stated she had no problem with this.
“You mean for someone to be able to have a rational discussion about some interpersonal difficulty or misunderstandings? Oh, my gosh. Is that a problem?” she said.
Fellows completed his informal inquiry on May 20. The sheriff said in her July interview that Redmond has done “a magnificent job” improving since then.
“Give him credit for that,” she said. “Don’t try to take him down at the knees just because some people don’t like that they’re being held accountable.”
Ignored Fears of Reprisal
ASO deputies told TV20 that Vermillion’s behavior prompted the supervisors to seek help from the PBA a year prior to his investigations.
In March 2013, the PBA gave Sheriff Darnell letters containing deputies’ grievances—exactly one year before she placed Vermillion on administrative leave.
The deputies said they asked to use anonymous letters so that they wouldn’t open themselves up to retaliation from Vermillion and others named in the letters.
Upon receiving some of the letters, the sheriff called all the ASO supervisors into a room on March 6 last year with her command staff, including Fellows and Vermillion, present. She told the deputies that if they had complaints about her command staff to voice them then.
She then began to read one letter, obtained by TV20 through a public records request, out loud.
“Will you please ask the members of the Command Staff to leave the room? We do not feel comfortable with Captain John Redmond, Captain David Clark, Captain Keith Vermillion and Major Mike Fellows in the room. There WILL be retaliation as a result of these questions,” the letter starts.
Darnell didn’t read past the first question in the meeting, refusing to ask command staff to leave. She then folded up the letter and instructed the deputies to voice their problems directly to the command staff.
“She wouldn’t listen to any of our concerns, even the ones about why we couldn’t voice them,” said a deputy speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
In her interview with TV20 in July, Darnell said anonymous letters “are the chicken way to go.” She said she doesn’t put much credence behind those sorts of complaints.
“Anonymous information is put forth by people who don’t have the internal fortitude or the integrity to bring it to people who can have the authority and responsibility to make changes,” she said in that interview.
A Major Oversight
The last Major that Sheriff Darnell had extensively investigated was Robert Chapman, the former head of the Alachua County jail, in early 2007—a few months after she first took office.
The sheriff called in the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate criminal allegations that he had been pocketing travel reimbursement money and exchanging gifts with an inmate’s family for favorable treatment.
Darnell very publicly announced the criminal investigation and her decision to place Chapman on administrative leave in February 2007, granting TV20 an on-camera interview.
“It’s unsettling but again I think it shows I’m able to make a decision regarding what needs to happen,” said Darnell in 2007.
(She declined to give any on-camera comment upon suspending former Captain Vermillion in March.)
The FDLE investigation only found that Chapman failed to pay $300 sales tax on a car he purchased in 2005 from a neighbor whose son had burglarized his home. State attorney Bill Cervone wrote a letter declining to pursue that criminal charge.
Following an internal investigation, Darnell decided to terminate Chapman in May 2007 for that failure to pay sales tax as well as contradictions in his testimony and associating with the family of a known felon.
“The totality of the charges against him, including at least one criminal charge plus the number of violations at the administrative level, especially for someone of his rank and tenure here, I felt that it was necessary to end his employ with the Sheriff’s Office,” said Darnell at the time.
Then-captain Vermillion supervised the internal investigation. Darnell allowed Chapman to resign in lieu of termination and an FDLE panel allowed him to keep his law enforcement credentials.
“After reviewing all of the available evidence, I was convinced that no favoritism had existed or motivated any of his interactions with staff or inmates,” wrote Cervone in a letter to the FDLE.
But that’s not the way Darnell sees it. In a sworn deposition from a 2008 federal case, the sheriff claimed Chapman to be guilty of crimes the FDLE and State Attorney said he did not commit.
“He was having inappropriate relationships with an inmate. He was providing favoritism to the inmate. He committed grand theft by not paying sales tax on a car he purchased from the inmate, and he falsified his travel documentation,” said Darnell in sworn testimony.
In that same deposition, Darnell states she does not rely upon jury verdicts to represent the truth.
“Juries can go either way. I don’t put a lot of weight in jury findings,” said Darnell in sworn testimony.
Despite never having been charged with a crime, Chapman has been unable to get another job with a law enforcement agency.
Chapman has since taken to the web in order to clear his name, launching his website www.majorrobertechapman.com to explain his side of resigning.
According to ASO policy, a deputy’s promotion and punishment—when there’s a sustained claim of misconduct—is at the discretion of the sheriff.
ASO deputies, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, told TV20 they believe the sheriff affords preferential treatment to employees she believes are loyal to her, particularly when it comes to punishment.
One example of preferential treatment: In January 2013, the sheriff allowed her chief deputy, David Huckstep, to resign his position with the intention of being re-hired the next week so that he could access a retirement account without running afoul of the IRS.
“I have a personal and private need to access my investment fund in my ICMA 457 account. In order to meet IRS requirements I hereby tender my resignation from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office,” wrote Huckstep in a resignation letter dated Jan. 11, 2013.
“I do this with the understanding that you as Sheriff will rehire me back as Chief Deputy,” he wrote. “I have been informed that this action will not require notification or status change regarding the Florida Retirement System or my Health Insurance coverage.”
Knowledge of Huckstep’s weekend-long resignation is not widespread in ASO. When TV20 made a public records request for the letter, records supervisor Susan Formisano did not immediately know what we were talking about.
“Colonel David Huckstep has not been terminated from this agency,” Formisano wrote.
In order to resign from the agency, the sheriff has to terminate a deputy’s employment. TV20 requested that documentation from Formisano Tuesday.
Sheriff Darnell approved his weekend-long resignation the same day he sent it, according to the letter.
“There’s no way the sheriff would let me do that,” said an ASO deputy speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
The deputies also point to a 2011 investigation into missing items from the ASO evidence lockers. An inventory of the evidence locker found that more than $10,000 and a disk of child pornography went missing and never turned up again.
Diana Jacobs served as the Support Bureau Chief charged with overseeing the evidence division at the time. An internal investigation conducted by John Redmond did not find that she had failed to do her job as supervisor.
Sheriff Darnell did not formally punish her for any of the missing evidence.
Unlike Vermillion, the sheriff’s office did not put out a press release announcing Darnell’s intention to demote Fellows. Officials also did not provide copies of the internal investigation into Fellows upon the announcement.
Chip Skambis can be reached at 352-200-2447 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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