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Highlands_news-sun
Deputies terminated after internal investigation
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SEBRING — A woman who alleged a deputy sheriff had sex with her without her consent waited almost three years to have anyone investigate the matter.

A Highlands County Sheriff’s Office criminal investigation this year into the 2018 incident could not confirm sexual assault. However, the criminal and subsequent internal investigations concluded that the married deputy did have sex with a married woman, he gave inconsistent stories about what happened, and that he and two deputies with him gave misleading names to the woman and her friends.

The investigations also concluded that another deputy who had opportunity to look into the sexual assault allegation apparently did nothing with that information for two years.

As a result, Sheriff Paul Blackman has fired Lt. Chris Gunter, Det. Adrian Gamez and Sgt. John Singha, and reprimanded Sgt. Cory Tomblin. Gamez resigned May 3, prior to the end of the internal investigation and prior to a formal recommendation for his termination.

Gunter, the one accused of alleged non-consensual sex, had been with the agency since Feb. 18, 2004; Singha, since Nov. 23, 2005, and Gamez, since Nov. 19, 2008.

Gunter appealed the decision on June 18. Blackman denied his appeal in a letter dated June 25. Singha also appealed the decision and was denied.

Disappointment“As the Sheriff, I am disappointed that we failed one of our citizens drastically,” Blackman wrote in his termination letter to Singha. “A potential victim, who we are sworn to protect, attempted to report a possible sexual battery that was said to have been committed by one of our members. The potential victim had to wait two years for an investigation to be completed. You failed to report the incident to your supervisor or anyone else in your chain of command.”

“Your lack of leadership and failure to take any responsible action led to potential evidence being lost, investigators losing the ability to obtain fresh and accurate witness statements, and a tarnished image of our organization,” Blackman wrote.

Singha’s supervisor, Lt. Christopher Smith was also investigated in this matter but the internal investigation did not find him at fault for the handling of the initial sexual assault allegation.

Of those found in the wrong, Blackman wrote in his reprimand that Tomblin, despite what consequences he might face, was “honest and forthright” when asked “damning questions” by investigators this year.

In his memorandum of the internal investigation, Undersheriff Col. Mike Brown wrote, “It is the one thing in this seedy affair that leads me to believe that Sgt. Tomblin can move past this incident and continue his career as a law enforcement officer.”

Tomblin will receive a written reprimand and a six-month corrective action probation, with monthly evaluations by his lieutenant, Blackman’s letter stated.

In his report on the investigation into Gamez, Brown wrote that, had Gamez not resigned, his recommendation would have been to terminate his employment.

“The unethical behavior and lack of personal integrity displayed by some members of our profession over the last few years has raised question and concern with the public,” Blackman wrote in his termination letter to Gunter. “There are merited occasions when a law enforcement officer’s lack of personal integrity and unethical acts are so egregious that cannot go unpunished. I believe this situation is one of those occasions.”

ExpectationIn his memorandum on the internal investigation, Law Enforcement Division Maj. Darin Hood noted that while the Sheriff’s Office does not “regulate the legal sexual activity of our members” it does have an expectation that deputies will not engage in immoral sexual activity that would reflect negatively on the agency.

Last Wednesday, Blackman said he didn’t have much to add to his written comments. He had informed those involved that reports would be made public and that they would need to prepare their loved ones.

Blackman said he was disappointed in Gunter, then a sergeant, that he let two subordinates behave the way they reportedly did, and that he also took part.

“That shows a lack of leadership,” Blackman said.

He also said he was disappointed in Singha, at the sergeant level, for letting such an allegation go uninvestigated.

“We followed up on it soon after we learned, at the administrative level,” Blackman said, referring to an anonymous letter to his agency on Feb. 17 alleging sexual assault by a deputy.

“It’s very embarrassing to our organization, and it looks like we were trying to cover it up,” Blackman said. “It hurt us a little in public trust.”

When asked, he said he believed how his office has handled the situation was the right thing to do, and it would help re-instill public trust.

Blackman, Hood and Brown all commented that the deputies should have been honest with the women that night, and that Gunter should have been completely honest with investigators, especially with regard to taking responsibility for his actions and about what specifically happened between him and the woman on April 17, 2018.

According to reports, Gamez did not recall during the criminal investigation the details of interaction with the women, but recalled those details during the internal investigation, stating to the internal investigator that he felt embarrassed to have to discuss adultery with a supervising officer.

ResponsibilityBlackman and HCSO administrators also concluded that Singha, when first told of the allegation in 2018, did not follow up on it, report it to his lieutenant, nor did he have a good reason as to why he didn’t follow procedure.

“It was agreeable between all parties involved ...,” Singha said in the internal investigation reports, “and they went about doing adult behavior that I didn’t look into. I mean, I don’t want to throw stones, but we’ve had a history here of not looking into stuff like that. So I let it be. So, no, I have no excuse as to why I didn’t.”

When asked about that alleged precedent, sheriff’s officials said that the existence of a criminal complaint from a member of the public is a factor in this case.

“Our policy is to investigate every complaint we receive,” read an emailed statement sent Monday from the Sheriff’s Office. “This (is) a situation where a criminal complaint alleging a sexual battery by one of our members was received and it wasn’t investigated as it should have been at the time. It wasn’t until two years later that it was investigated.”

The statement continues: “The only time one (of) our members’ personal lives would come into an investigation is when their off-duty behavior is part of an official complaint that is made, be it a criminal complaint or an alleged violation of agency policies.”

InvestigationInternal investigation reports stated that the Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous letter on Feb. 17 of this year that alleged both Gunter and Gamez sexually battered a woman in April 2018. It stated that the incident was reported to a deputy the next day, but no investigation ever took place. The Sheriff’s Office opened an investigation, and months later, the Highlands News-Sun learned of the investigation.

Reports from that investigation revealed that, according to the majority of witnesses, only Gunter had sex with the alleged victim.

Names of the women in this incident are not being used, both because one is an alleged victim and the other two are witnesses. The investigation found that Gunter, then a sergeant, and detectives Gamez and Tomblin all went to “Nickel Beer Night” at a local bar on April 17, 2018. Reports said that when they met the women, the men gave them the names of “Gene” (Gunter’s middle name), “Oscar” (Gamez) and “Cody” (Tomblin).

Allegedly, Gunter and Gamez did not tell the women they were married at that time, nor did the alleged victim say she was married, reports said. Reports also stated that Tomblin was single at the time, and Gunter was a direct supervisor to both Gamez and Tomblin.

According to reports, the group spent 45 minutes or more socializing at the bar, then they all went back to Gamez’s home. According to reports, nobody else was at the Gamez home. Reports also stated the home surveillance system was deactivated that night.

Reports stated that the men and women socialized on a screened-in pool patio, before separating in pairs.

According to reports, the woman with Gunter told investigators she was too intoxicated to have said yes to the encounter, but recalled having sex with “Gene.” Gunter denied having sex with her. His specific recollections of the encounter varied between the criminal investigation and two separate interviews during the internal investigation. The internal investigation concluded, based on “conflicting statements and lack of physical evidence,” that the criminal complaint was unfounded.

ExplanationAccording to reports, the reasons Gamez gave for having the surveillance system off differed between two internal investigation interviews. Reports state he initially said he had the cameras turned off because he planned on being home that night. Later, he told investigators he had shut the power off to do wiring work on the system in the attic, but being reluctant to risk electrocution, he didn’t do the work on it, but then forgot to turn the surveillance cameras back on.

As for Singha, internal investigation reports indicate that the chain of communication was not followed. A deputy who heard of the alleged assault from a friend, second-hand, reported that he told his lieutenant immediately. The lieutenant (Smith) said he didn’t get that information. Singha, reports state, claims that the deputy approached him, but the deputy said Singha later asked him about the alleged incident. Hood’s memorandum on the internal investigation found that Singha should have reported to his superiors about an allegation of sexual battery by a deputy on a citizen, but failed to do so.

Hood’s memorandum on the investigation states that Smith did not recall talking to the deputy, and had only heard from an unknown source about Gunter and Gamez having consensual sex with a woman. The deputy, reports said, had spoken with the friend and was told the victim “did not want to follow through with anything” because she was trying to put her marriage back together. When asked by Singha, the deputy told him that and thought it was being handled, reports said.

According to reports, Singha was under the impression that the alleged victim was going to “take responsibility for her behavior.” Smith, whom Singha should have informed of the allegations, reports stated, told investigators he had only heard about it “through the grapevine” this year, and not from Singha any time before that.


Highlands_news-sun
Gamez disputes punishments of investigation

SEBRING — Adrian Gamez, a Highlands County sheriff’s deputy since Nov. 19, 2008, left law enforcement on May 3, 2021, with no intention of returning.

He said he had already sought jobs in other fields, including doing an interview in December 2020 for a job he has now, long before the Sheriff’s Office launched investigations earlier this year into an incident of alleged misconduct by him and two other deputies.

It so happens, he said, that the human resources office of his new civilian sector employer – whom he declines to name for privacy reasons – called him with a hire date when the HCSO internal investigations started.

“When I provided a statement to “[Internal Affairs Lt. Sean] Casey, I left with the aspect of ‘it was a fun job, but I need to look out for myself and my family,’” he told the Highlands News-Sun on Friday morning.

He disputes the results of those investigations, including recommendations to terminate him and now former-lieutenant Chris Gunter, as well as former Sgt. John Singha, for allegedly failing to investigate the matter.

A fourth deputy, then Det. Cory Tomlinson, has been given a reprimand and probation.

On a night in early 2018, Gamez, Gunter and Tomlinson went out on an off-duty night to a local bar, where they met three women who socialized with them at the bar, then fraternized with them at Gamez’s home, according to investigation reports. [See “Deputies terminated after internal investigation”]

Gamez told the Highlands News-Sun he didn’t want to discuss that incident in detail, saying it was “beat up and down,” and that he’d “lived through it with his family.”

An anonymous letter sent this year to the Sheriff’s Office, alleged that Gunter had non-consensual sex with one woman that night in 2018. She was allegedly too drunk to consent. A criminal investigation concluded the allegations were unfounded, but the internal investigations found fault in Gamez, Gunter and Singha.

Gamez does not agree that he and Gunter violated policy, stating that they were “completely off duty.” As for what happened that night, he alleges that other deputies have committed worse violations, on duty, but received lesser punishments because the victim signed a waiver of prosecution or because the recommendation from administration was less severe.

When asked about that alleged precedent, sheriff’s officials said that the existence of a criminal complaint from a member of the public is a factor in this case.

“Our policy is to investigate every complaint we receive,” read an emailed statement sent Monday from the Sheriff’s Office. “This [is] a situation where a criminal complaint alleging a sexual battery by one of our members was received and it wasn’t investigated as it should have been at the time. It wasn’t until two years later that it was investigated.”

The statement continues: “The only time one (of) our members’ personal lives would come into an investigation is when their off-duty behavior is part of an official complaint that is made, be it a criminal complaint or an alleged violation of agency policies.”

Gamez said, “I don’t plan on returning to law enforcement. It’s not how it was when I first began.” He cited increased political pressure on law enforcement and a decreased interest by potential younger employees. “When I first started, everybody was putting in and wanted to take jobs.”

In the last couple of years, however, positions have opened up and agencies have not found people to fill them, Gamez said.


Highlands_news-sun
Monday wreck ends in fatality

SEBRING — A single vehicle wreck led to the death of an unknown driver early Monday morning. The Florida Highway Patrol did not provide many details as they were working on identifying the driver. While FHP preliminary reports do not give the names of those involved in crashes or even the make and models of the vehicles, they generally state the gender, age and city the motorist is from. At the time Monday’s crash report was written, the next of kin was not notified.

According to the report, just past 2 a.m., the driver was headed west on U.S. 98 nearing Johnson Lane when it failed to navigate a curve. The driver left the roadway, collided with a tree and caught on fire. The driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

This fatality is the 17th on Highlands County roads in 2021 per the unofficial records kept by the Highlands News-Sun. As of this same time last year, there had been 12 fatalities on county roads.


Highlands_news-sun
Gunters: Termination excessive, not explained

SEBRING — Both Chris Gunter and his wife, Catie, find his termination from the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office to be excessive.

They told the Highlands News-Sun on Friday that his was especially true in light of similar or worse violations of the Code of Conduct by other members of the agency, who were reprimanded, but are still employed there.

This investigation, they said, was out of scope of that precedent, especially since he had no previous violations on his record.

Chris Gunter was hired by the agency in February 2004, achieved the rank of sergeant in 2014 and lieutenant in June or July of 2018. It was in 2018, during his time as sergeant and after just being assigned to the drug enforcement unit, that he and Detectives Adrian Gamez and Cory Tomlinson, also assigned to that unit under Gunter, went out on an off-duty night to a local bar, according to investigation reports.

There they met three women who socialized with them at the bar, then at Gamez’s home where they allegedly fraternized. Gunter was accused this year via an anonymous letter sent to the Sheriff’s Office of having non-consensual sex that night with one woman, who was allegedly too drunk to consent. A criminal investigation concluded the allegations were unfounded, but an internal investigation resulted in the termination of Gunter and Sgt. John Singha for allegedly failing to investigate the matter.

Tomlinson was reprimanded and put on probation. Gamez resigned to take a new job prior to the end of the investigation. [See “Deputies terminated after internal investigation”].

Chris Gunter said the incident, more than three years ago now, was hard to recall in detail. Catie Gunter said she believes trying to answer specific questions about any incident that long ago is difficult, at best, and not a sign of untruthfulness.

Chris Gunter points to the fact that Lt. Chris Smith reportedly got a phone call from a deputy about the allegations about a week after the incident, allegedly immediately after the deputy learned of them, but Smith could not recall that phone call, according to Internal Affairs reports. Internal investigation reports stated that phone records verified the call did take place.

“Why is that lieutenant still working?” Catie Gunter asked.

As for what happened in 2018?

“That was poor judgment on my part,” Gunter said. “I accept responsibility.”

However, despite the allegations in the anonymous letter, Chris Gunter said transcripts from the alleged victim’s testimony show she never wanted to pursue charges.

Chris Gunter said he sent an appeal letter to Maj. Darin Hood, head of the Law Enforcement Division, outlining why he didn’t believe he had violated General Orders – the Sheriff’s Office code for conduct, policy and procedure. Among his defenses, Gunter wrote that:

- He was not on duty at the time of the incident;

- He was truthful with investigators to the best of his knowledge;

- He did not commit any crime, conflict of interest, or commit an egregious act worthy of dismissal;

- He was not aware until allegations were raised this year of any alleged behavior that might rise to the level of compromising the Sheriff’s Office.

- By his reckoning, public trust was not damaged, and he continued to serve in his capacity – not put on administrative leave – throughout investigations.

Gunter alleges that none of the communications he received regarding the internal investigation or his subsequent termination explained specifically what he had done wrong.

Also, Gunter pointed out that he, Gamez and Tomlinson worked on the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team prior to his promotion to sergeant and had had a close friendship that allowed them to separate roles at work from private life.

“People have friends outside of work and a life outside of work,” Catie Gunter said.

In a letter she wrote to the Sheriff’s Office administration, she stated, “Chris is not just my husband, but my best friend and the absolute best father and role model to our two young vibrant daughters.”

She also wrote of hope that “... you, as an imperfect person like us all, can see that a poor choice of any individual cannot and should not define a person, potentially ruin their hard earned and deserved career, or even put all of us through such emotional strain, irreputable harm, stress, and mental and physical anguish ....”

Of each other, she said, “We’re fine. We’re great. Other than [Chris not yet] finding employment.”

“Our bond has been the strongest it’s ever been,” Chris Gunter said. “She has been the rock in my corner. I told Catie, ‘I’m glad you’re here.’”


Highlands_news-sun
Singha: Procedures followed on assault allegation

SEBRING — John Singha recalls that a deputy under his command, as a road patrol sergeant, was the one who first told him about an alleged sexual assault by a deputy back in 2018.

The initial information, which Singha said he received in the summer of 2018, was that two members of the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office allegedly got one woman drunk, took her to an unknown location, and had sex with her.

When Singha asked where the deputy got this information, he was told it came from the alleged victim’s father. Singha states that he asked this deputy to request the father and victim come into the Sheriff’s Office to give a statement.

“I thought he was going to do that,” Singha told the Highlands News-Sun on Thursday.

A few days passed, Singha said, and when he spoke with the deputy again – who allegedly only spoke with the victim’s father – the message was that the woman had taken responsibility, called the encounter consensual, was married, did not want to endanger the marriage and didn’t want to pursue it at that point.

It was an issue of hearsay, legally, Singha said: “I’ve never spoken to the victim.”

“To my knowledge, she did not voluntarily come in to give a statement,” Singha said. “I learned about it again at the beginning of this year.”

That was when he was asked about it by Lt. Sean Casey with Internal Affairs.

According to internal investigation reports, the deputy who spoke to Singha also made a phone call to Lt. Chris Smith, Singha’s superior, to report the allegations. Singha said he had no interaction with Smith on this matter, and Smith, according to investigation reports, had no recollection of that phone call.

“All of those requirements, for which I was terminated, was his responsibility,” Singha said.

Smith was also investigated, but was found not to have violated any procedures, policies or rules in the matter, according to the reports. Internal investigation reports show that Smith did receive a phone call from the deputy in question on that day, within approximately 30 seconds from the deputy speaking with the alleged victim.

The deputy, according to investigation reports, said Singha asked him about it a year later, after hearing a rumor. Singha said he “absolutely” heard about it only from the deputy.

In February this year, the Sheriff’s Office received an anonymous letter making the same allegation, this time to Sheriff Paul Blackman. From the administrative level, an investigation was opened.

{p dir=”ltr”}Criminal investigation reports state that on a night in April 2018, then Sgt. Chris Gunter and Detectives Adrian Gamez and Cory Tomlinson went out on an off-duty night to a local bar, where they met three women who socialized with them at the bar, then fraternized with them at Gamez’s home. [See “Deputies terminated after internal investigation”]

{p dir=”ltr”}A criminal investigation found no cause for charges. Internal investigations, however, found fault with Gunter, Gamez and Tomlinson, as well as Singha, for allegedly not investigating the case thoroughly in 2018.

Singha had been with the agency since Nov. 23, 2005. When asked by Casey during the internal investigation why he didn’t look further into the matter, Singha said, “It was agreeable between all parties involved ... and they went about doing adult behavior that I didn’t look into. I mean, I don’t want to throw stones, but we’ve had a history here of not looking into stuff like that. So I let it be. So, no, I have no excuse as to why I didn’t.”

When asked about that alleged precedent, sheriff’s officials said that the existence of a criminal complaint from a member of the public is a factor in this case.

“Our policy is to investigate every complaint we receive,” read an emailed statement sent Monday from the Sheriff’s Office. “This [is] a situation where a criminal complaint alleging a sexual battery by one of our members was received and it wasn’t investigated as it should have been at the time. It wasn’t until two years later that it was investigated.”

The statement continues: “The only time one (of) our members’ personal lives would come into an investigation is when their off-duty behavior is part of an official complaint that is made, be it a criminal complaint or an alleged violation of agency policies.”

The complaint against Singha, according to him, was that he didn’t bring a criminal investigation and that he also didn’t bring a misconduct complaint. Without a statement directly from the victim, he couldn’t bring a criminal complaint, he said.

The Highlands News-Sun then asked if there is a responsibility for a deputy to look into the matter, with or without a victim making a formal complaint.

“I would answer to an extent, ‘yes,’ but you have to have a cooperating victim,” Singha said. “It’s that simple in law.”

Since the U.S. Constitution gives the right to face one’s accuser, he said, the victim needs to cooperate by giving a statement and providing probable cause for the crime, whether it’s an alleged sexual battery or an alleged residential burglary.

As for the misconduct complaint, he didn’t see where it was warranted.

Singha told the Highlands News-Sun that adult sheriff’s employees, in the past, have engaged in sexual encounters, including extra-marital affairs, either with other employees or with members of the public. Of those he knows of in current and past administrations, he said, those situations have not seen misconduct complaints brought forward.

“There has to be a level of equality across the board,” Singha said.

Singha has made an appeal of Blackman’s decision to fire him. It was denied. As for recourse beyond that, Singha said he is consulting with attorneys.


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