Critiques of sheriff uninformed and absurd

Published June 21, 2005

The sheriff was back in town after a brief getaway. He needed a break to catch his breath after almost a year of back-to-back crises, including hurricanes and child slayings; and a family trip to far-away Peru seemed to have revived his spirits.

Sheriff Jeff Dawsy was relaxed Friday as he spoke of spending the previous evening cruising the county's streets with his deputies working the overnight shift. He chuckled as he recalled the reaction of a young man he was handcuffing when the fellow recognized Dawsy. "It's an honor to be arrested by you," the man said.

A few minutes later, the conversation turned to the ongoing events surrounding the abduction and slaying of Jessica Lunsford, and all of the bonhomie evaporated.

In his first lengthy interview since his agency arrested John Couey in Jessica's slaying, Dawsy addressed a number of lingering questions with his typical directness and candor.

Yes, after the arrest he was concerned that outraged local citizens might consider some sort of vigilante action against Couey or his housemates. For that reason, he sent a heavily armed SWAT officer to Georgia to help escort the suspect back to Citrus County. They traveled at night to avoid any contact with the public.

Dawsy's concerns over a community backlash even extended to the annual county fair, which took place during the height of the furor over the killing and Couey's arrest.

Sheriff's officials told the itinerant carnival workers not to even think about flirting with local girls at the midway. The community's nerves are so raw that the girls' fathers and brothers will come looking for you, he told them, and we will not be able to protect you.

He said he was surprised that the trailer Couey lived in did not burn to the ground after his arrest. "It's a credit to this community," Dawsy said, adding that he was startled when he drove by the house recently and saw that someone else was living in the place. Couey's housemates are living elsewhere in the county, but Dawsy said law enforcement knows their location.

The mention of these family members ratcheted up the blood pressure in the room.

When State Attorney Brad King chose not to press obstruction of justice charges against the three people who were living in the trailer with Couey, the decision released a torrent of outrage across America.

Interestingly, one voice that was not heard was that of Dawsy, the person most connected to the investigation, the man whose agency made the arrests. Dawsy said that he, too, was angry but that he understood King's decision. He went further and lauded the chief prosecutor's character.

"Brad King is an ethically and morally sound man," Dawsy said. Referring to their shared experiences as deputies early in their careers, he noted, "Brad is a street cop. If he says he can't progress with these charges, I believe him."

In the eyes of a handful of out-of-touch critics on the national scene, this stalwart defense is in line with their cockamamie conspiracy theory that has the sheriff, the state attorney and, amazingly, this newspaper all in league to cover up a botched investigation.

In recent weeks, Fox television's minister of misinformation Bill O'Reilly has attacked these law enforcement agencies and the St. Petersburg Times for their actions. "They're covering up something there," he has blustered, while offering not a shred of proof to back up this absurd conclusion.

Comments like this are to be expected from someone who masquerades as a journalist and uses outrage, rather than real reporting, to drum up lucrative ratings. No one with any sense takes O'Reilly seriously.

But when a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, someone who should know better and who is expected to adhere to a higher standard of conduct, joins him in the mud, the situation changes - for the worse.

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite was a guest on the June 8 broadcast; and in between inaccurate statements about the case, she managed to insult the integrity of local law enforcement and the media.

Brown-Waite said the state cannot prosecute the housemates now because the statute of limitations has expired (it has not; the limit is two years). She also overstated that federal authorities are actively investigating the case, which came as a surprise to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"From the very beginning, the FBI has been involved," spokesman Steve Cole told the Times . "So, naturally, should there be a need for any kind of federal prosecution, our office would be involved." Guess that means O'Reilly and his cohorts will now include the FBI and the U.S. Attorney in their conspiracy suspicions.

Brown-Waite sat nodding enthusiastically while O'Reilly called our local law enforcement officials "corrupt and inept." She didn't disagree when a talk radio host said: "Dawsy's office has been run by Barney Fife. This whole investigation has been bungled from the get-go."

For his part, Dawsy had nothing but disgust for the rumormongers and the pandering congresswoman. "It is totally irresponsible," he said of Brown-Waite's comments. "She has zero knowledge" about the depth of the investigation.

Dawsy cited examples of the actions the various agencies took immediately after Jessica was reported missing. He talked about the painstaking, and frustrating, search for physical evidence at the scene; about the lengthy interrogations; and even his theories about why the many teams of search dogs came up empty.

Much of this detail is contained in the 1,700-plus pages of investigative documents that already have been made public by authorities. No doubt, O'Reilly and Brown-Waite carefully read each page before reaching their conclusions. (For the record, I have read them all, as have several other Times reporters. It is a requirement to be part of the conspiracy, you understand.)

Dawsy clearly has no use for these uninformed mudslingers. "I don't worry about Brown-Waite," he said, adding that "when Bill O'Reilly puts his (slang for testicles) on the line," then he can criticize. "He thinks he's more important than he is."

This disgusting sideshow, of course, does nothing but distract the law enforcement agencies from their main mission: bringing Jessica's killer to justice. On that front, Dawsy is adamant that his office has the goods on Couey, no matter what those outside the loop may say.

And that, after all, is all that really matters.