Video brings fire on deputy

The Hillsborough sheriff apologizes for the wheelchair dumping incident.

By Rodney Thrash, Casey Cora and Abbie VanSickle, Times Staff Writers
Published February 14, 2008

TAMPA - As outrage spread nationwide over a Hillsborough County jail inmate being tossed from his wheelchair onto the floor, the detention deputy at the center of the controversy has been getting nonstop phone calls, many racist in nature.

"It's not even just in Florida," said Beverly Crecy, the roommate of suspended Deputy Charlette Marshall-Jones.

"These calls are from out of state," she said, with tears in her eyes. "People calling her 'n---' and 'fat' and all kinds of stuff. Seven o'clock in the morning and all through the night."

Wednesday, three days after video of the wheelchair incident began blasting across news Web sites and YouTube, quadriplegic Brian Sterner made the national TV rounds with his Largo attorney; the Hillsborough State Attorney's Office joined the Sheriff's Office review; and one of the four suspended deputies went on the defense.

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Sterner started the morning on the Today show. He told host Meredith Vieira he wanted a criminal investigation, action from Gov. Charlie Crist's office and possibly a response from the federal government.

"It's not about one deputy," said Sterner, 32, who flew to New York for the show. He said he wanted more attention paid to the "ridiculous down-pressing of people across the world.

"It's not about race. It's not about a wheelchair," he said. "It can happen to anybody, anytime."

Sterner also said he wanted a personal apology from Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee for the way he was treated at the jail. By midafternoon, Gee issued one.

In a written statement, Gee said he was personally embarrassed by the "horrific treatment" Sterner received.

"As sheriff, I want to assure Mr. Sterner, as well as the citizens of Hillsborough County, that this incident will be investigated to the fullest," said Gee, who was in Jacksonville at a Florida Sheriff's Association meeting. "I cannot and will not even try to offer an explanation for what is seen on the video, other than to say, that once it was brought to my attention, I immediately initiated an internal investigation."

Back on the set of Today, Sterner sat next to attorney John Trevena. He said neither he nor his doctor have seen any X-rays since the Jan. 29 fall. Sterner, who is paralyzed from the chest down, said his right side has felt "strange" since the fall.

"I very well could've broken something and I wouldn't even know it," he said.

Jail officials said X-rays taken at a jail medical facility two days after Sterner's fall showed no broken ribs. Today host Vieira said the Sheriff's Office declined to be interviewed for the show.

"Having something like this captured on videotape really sends the message home that we really need to take a close look at what's going in our jails and prisons," Trevena said. "I think these types of things happen fairly routinely and it's only when you have unequivocal evidence like this that something can be done about it."

At the end of the interview, Sterner said he was going to the national stage as a platform for change.

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The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office announced it would review the Oct. 25 arrest for fleeing an officer during a traffic stop. Sterner was being booked for that incident at the Orient Road Jail in January, when the incident occurred.

The Sheriff's Office is also consulting with prosecutors during its investigation of the four suspended deputies, Assistant State Attorney Pam Bondi said.

"We don't just see something on TV and go out and make an arrest," she said. "We let the Sheriff's Office complete their internal affairs investigation first. That's how it's done in every case."

Trevena said he's optimistic the Sheriff's Office will try to settle the matter out of court.

Late Wednesday, the leader of the Florida Civil Rights Association, a statewide advocacy group with more than 1,500 members, filed a complaint with U.S. Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey. In a release, president J Willie David III said the organization's action was necessary to "assure the public, especially people with disabilities, their civil rights will be protected by federal officials at the highest level."

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Three other deputies were placed on paid administrative leave pending an investigation. One, Steve Dickey, 45, who has served as president of the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office detention chapter of the West Central Florida Police Benevolent Association, said he didn't see what happened to Sterner.

"All I can tell you is that I was not there when the incident took place. I wasn't in the area. I wasn't there. I wasn't in that part of the jail," he said. "If you've seen the full video, then you see that."

A thick-framed man with a crew cut, Dickey comes into view in the video as deputies put Sterner back into the wheelchair.

Dickey, who just started his 27th year with the Hillsborough Sheriff's Office, said he couldn't go into more detail.

"I am not trying to be difficult with this at all, but you have to remember that this is an investigation," he said. "You have to remember that I have a job I have to keep."

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Outside Marshall-Jones' home, Crecy defended her roommate. Until this week, she said people would come up to Marshall-Jones in local grocery stores and offer food, gifts, praise.

"She does her job, and she's passionate about her job, and for them to sully her name the way that they're doing is not right," Crecy said. "And I'm not going to give you or anybody else anything that is going to further hurt her. She doesn't deserve this."

Times staff writer Colleen Jenkins contributed to this report. Rodney Thrash can be reached at rthrash@sptimes.com or 813 269-5303. Casey Cora can be reached at ccora@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3386.