Organized corruption and the ever expendable Florida female
by Timothy Charles Holmseth
When I received a telephone call that about the detective that once led the search for HaLeigh Cummings, and was alerted he was being terminated from the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office (PCSO) my mind immediately imagined the details.
Hot cup of coffee in hand, I was ready to sit down and read about the final dirty deal of Detective John Merchant.
Merchant’s name came up often during interviews I conducted over the years with witnesses in the HaLeigh Cummings case. Many of my interviews were with drug addicts and dealers; Merchant was invariably connected to the narcotics trade.
One commonly held assertion on the streets of Palatka, Florida is that Merchant is a dirty cop that took bribes and kept evidence he seized. I was told he once received ‘desk-duty’ after cocaine was found in the trunk of his car. Another source told me an expensive boat, which he had seized from a drug dealer, was found on his property.
As I began to read the press release issued by the Sheriff’s Office, I was prepared for the big news.
Stalking … text messages …
He was under investigation for stalking? This was about a temporary injunction obtained by his ex-girlfriend due to un-wanted text messages?
Was this a joke?
I guess when it comes to the Sheriff’s Office in Putnam County – some things never change.
The press release gave the details.
Sheriff Hardy opened his investigation after Merchant’s girlfriend obtained a temporary injunction against him. The Sheriff’s internal affairs investigation found probable cause for a criminal complaint to be filed against Merchant for stalking his ex-girlfriend using text messages.
I’ve seen enough bogus ‘stalking claims’ and ‘Injunction scams’ to last me a lifetime. The Florida family court division is notorious for involving itself in non-family issues and personal vendettas. In some instances it has been used to lay groundwork to escape business contracts and protect criminal enterprises.
I was forced to accept I knew absolutely nothing about why Merchant was fired.
As a central figure in law enforcement’s investigation into the disappearance of HaLeigh Cummings, Merchant is not alone in his grim fate.
In early 2009, Detective Peggy Cone, missing persons division, PCSO, was assigned to the HaLeigh Task Force – alongside Merchant.
The two detectives co-investigated the matter under the oversight of the major crimes chief, Captain Dominic Piscitello. In early 2011 Cone exited the sheriff’s office.
Cone was discharged quietly with no press coverage. The PCSO brass never announced the reason for her abrupt departure, but the first clue surfaced when HaLeigh’s cancelled Amber Alert was suddenly reinstated.
Although the two lead detectives that were originally assigned to investigate HaLeigh’s disappearance had now been shown to the door, there is no indication either dismissal included any assistance by an outside investigation or external mechanism.
Meaning – the terminations appear to be more consistent with internal damage control than a healthy function of good leadership.
In February of 2009, Dominick Pape, special agent in charge, directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s (FDLE) regional operations center in Jacksonville, Florida.
Pape was overseeing the HaLeigh Cummings investigation at the State level.
Despite what is now public knowledge regarding problems with the investigators on the case (Merchant and Cone) – no concerns regarding the PCSO were ever raised by the FDLE.
Apparently – what happens in Putnam County stays in Putnam County.
But 2010 was a busy year, nonetheless.
While Merchant and Cone were busy with the HaLeigh Cummings case, a less reported issue had investigators in neighboring St. John’s County buzzing about – and things were about to heat up.
Pape and the FDLE believed a deputy sheriff may have committed cold blooded murder.
The alleged facts and circumstances are disturbing.
On September 2, 2010 Michelle O’Connell, 24, was involved with Jeremy Banks, a deputy at the St. John’s Count Sheriff’s Office (SJSO).
The couple was at home, alone, and, at some point, O’Connell was shot and killed with Banks’ service firearm.
The SJSO investigation into O’Connell’s death resulted in a finding of suicide. The determination was criticized and vigorously challenged by O’Connell’s family.
The family remained dedicated and vigilant in their quest for further investigation. Likewise, Pape and another FDLE agent, Rusty Rogers, did not support the suicide conclusion, and spoke to some extent with the family of O’Connell.
The diligent efforts of O’Connell’s family soon paid off when a medical examiner revised his original conclusion, changing his finding from ‘suicide’ to ‘shot by another person’.
The death of O’Connell rapidly evolved into a suspicion-driven story that caught the attention of the media and public.
Despite what appeared to be a grocery list of problems with the suicide finding, St. John’s County Sheriff David Shoar adamantly asserts he is entirely confident O’Connell’s death was a suicide.
Pape and Rogers contend the young mother’s death, was a homicide; that the evidence, facts, and circumstances surrounding the shooting of O’Connell show she could not have shot herself.
Shoar, incensed with Pape and Rogers, asserts the two FDLE agents improperly influenced O’Connell’s family to make them believe things that were not true, and in doing so, behaved so un-ethically that, should they ever work in law enforcement again, he would not allow them into the secure section of his sheriff’s office.
Shoar’s criticism was sharp, alleging Rodgers falsified information for search warrants, improperly influenced medical authorities, coached witnesses, and acted as an advocate to the O’Connell family, rather than an objective investigator.
Shoar also criticized Pape for supporting Rodgers and accused both men of lacking credibility.
In March of 2013 Shoar submitted a 152-page report to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey regarding the matter.
The war of words appeared to be primarily one sided, with Shoar the angry aggressor, leveling many accusations against Pape and Rogers.
In April of 2013 Pape announced he was retiring to accept a job offer in the private sector, while Rogers was asked to turn in his gun and badge until an investigation could be completed.
Shoar states one of the reasons he requested an investigation, which will bring scrutiny onto his own department, is because a New York Times investigative reporter was working the story.
Shoar’s mention of the New York Times reporter is significant, because when this happens, officials find themselves forced to contend with an entity that does not answer to their localized power structure.
While Commissioner Bailey investigates Shoar’s allegations against Pape and Rogers, and a New York Times reporter investigates the O’Connell death, a Minnesota journalist has a renewed interest in Pape’s days with Putnam County detectives during the search for HaLeigh Cummings.
The final fate of Merchant, Cone, and ultimately, Pape, has stimulated conversations about the all-around integrity of the Cummings investigation.
If Pape’s professional observations regarding the integrity of the O’Connell case are true, then the twenty-five year veteran of law enforcement appears to be an instinctive and dedicated investigator.
However, if Pape is an instinctive and dedicated investigator, his complete lack of concern or interest in the (now terminated) detectives on the Cummings case seems oddly out of character.
Indeed, the suspicious details surrounding the death of O’Connell are compelling and many. For instance, it is alleged witnesses heard a woman cry for help, just before O’Connell was shot. Body positioning, blood splatter, and various subtle details seem to point away from the girl’s death being a suicide.
But the suspicious nature of the evidence found at the scene of O’Connell’s death, which involved a sheriff’ deputy, pales in comparison to what was going on inside the investigation into the disappearance of HaLeigh Cummings.
Answers to the lingering questions require a close look at the timeline of events in the Cummings case, with a focus on the spring of 2010.
In April of 2010 the Satsuma kindergartner had been missing for over a year. Pape and the FDLE were active on the case when Sheriff Hardy in Putnam County made a major move.
Based upon information investigators received from prisoners being held in his jail, Hardy decided a massive river search was in order. The search would focus on a body of water near a pier on the St. John’s River.
Although valuable information sometimes pops up in a county jail, the facts and circumstances surrounding Hardy’s big break in the case include a Paul Harvey version of the story.
Sheriff Hardy certainly knew that James Werter, the attorney representing one of Hardy’s river search sources, Tommy Croslin, filed a motion to the court alleging PCSO officers locked Croslin in a jail cell with defective plumbing, where he was forced to breathe feces and gasses with no relief.
However – Croslin was allowed to breathe fresh air when taken out for questioning.
Boats, helicopters, and scuba divers were mobilized, in what appeared on television to be a major breakthrough for investigators in their search for HaLeigh.
But – impressions soon changed.
The event did not render any evidence whatsoever, and appeared to have only been useful to the infotainment industry that had been selling the HaLeigh Cummings mystery like over-priced caramel apples at a county fair.
While news cameras shot footage of law enforcement amidst their search for something believed to be in the river, cameras zoomed in to show detectives had removed Tommy Croslin’s little sister, Misty Croslin, from her jail cell and brought her to the scene, where she stood in handcuffs on the pier.
Misty Croslin is one of two people that made calls to police to report HaLeigh missing on February 10, 2009. While the PCSO has never revealed to the public the identity of the person that made the first call to police, Misty Croslin had long since become the star of the show.
Standing on the end of a pier, in handcuffs and a jail uniform, Misty Croslin was showcased talking to detectives.
Child-exploitation-based cable programs such as Nancy Grace scrolled words across the bottom of the television screen that indicated HaLeigh was dead, even going as far as showing a graphic that indicated the program was now honoring HaLeigh’s ‘memory’.
Grace continuously talked about ‘HaLeigh’s bones’ being found.
Hardy promptly announced to the media that new information led them to believe HaLeigh Cummings was likely dead. He said the case was now a homicide investigation.
Major Gary Bowling, director of law enforcement, PCSO, told reporters the development would result in the active Amber Alert for HaLeigh being taken down.
However, the hoopla of the media blitz and river search soon faded, and news reports came out that the police had found animal bones in the water, placed them on the dock, and told Croslin the bone’s were “HaLeigh”.
In reality – nothing of value was found. The tip had come from desperate prisoners.
Misty Croslin, in a later interview from jail, explained investigators told her the bones on the dock were HaLeigh’s bones. In a rather compelling show of dignified anger and sadness, the eighteen year-old girl lamented that she’d had nightmares because of what the detectives told her, and chastised their irresponsible actions saying ‘you don’t do that somebody!’
The elaborate and expensive production of a river search is now believed by informed researchers to have been little more than an elaborate hoax, deployed to create the subconscious impression that HaLeigh Cummings is dead and Misty Croslin knows what happened to her.
In time, Misty Croslin, a surviving rape and abuse victim that had been raised by (intermittently) homeless drug addicted parents, having no prior criminal record, was convicted on drug trafficking charges, and nobody even blinked when the little girl standing in handcuffs by “HaLeigh bones” was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But – as the disturbing case of Michelle O’Connell has shown, things are often not as they seem – and an independent investigator or journalist can bring about significant shifts in public perception based upon truth and reality.
And that is what happened.
In the fall of 2010 I (Timothy Charles Holmseth) made a public records request to the PCSO. I contacted Major John Greenwood and asked for a copy of a police report that documented an event that occurred in Satsuma, Florida on April 26-27, which I had been told about during journalistic interviews.
The reality of the event I was inquiring about was established in the mainstream media when it was mentioned by WSKY in Gainesville.
With the mystery surrounding HaLeigh’s bizarre disappearance becoming a national phenomenon, even surpassing the search that ultimately located the body of little Caylee Anthony in Orlando, I found myself competing with other reporters for unique information and leads in a highly competitive industry.
But this time, armed with recorded interviews from high profile players, I had the exclusive of a lifetime.
I had just requested a document that would bring a dead child back to life.
My insight into the dates of April 26-27, 2009 would soon show that not only do reporters make a difference, but sometimes, they cause seasoned gamblers to blink.
John Greenwood told me the report I was seeking did not exist. He said his officers were not at any such scene. He insulted me, and threw his weight around in a way that would have probably caused me to back down if I had not been an experienced government reporter.
The knee-jerk reaction by Greenwood and Hardy’s department was to circle the wagons and keep out an interloper, resembling the behavior of Sheriff Shoar, when a New York Times reporter became involved in his world, and his department’s suicide finding was challenged regarding Michelle O’Connell’s death.
It appears these county sheriffs’s in Florida are not real excited about journalists analyzing their performance.
I sent Greenwood quotes from interviews I conducted with members of Crystal Sheffield’s staff that were present at the incident recorded in the Police Report I was seeking. The quotes from my interviews proved staff members claimed to have personally spoken to police and paramedics at the scene.
The license and title of the source I quoted created a problem for the PCSO – I had the goods. I then involved the Jacksonville FBI because Greenwood was hiding something – and presto – the records were magically found and turned over – excuses abound.
As the records were turned over, Cone (quietly) exited the Sheriff’s Office, but more importantly, the cancelled Amber Alert for HaLeigh Cummings was (quietly) reinstated.
HaLeigh Cummings had been brought back to life by a police report that was not supposed to exist.
Strangely – the re-issued Amber Alert received very little press coverage, as if it was hush-hush. What should have been wonderful news, in an ever-growing mystery that had just received a strong dose of hope, was kept quiet.
Strange – because the purpose of an Amber Alert is ask the public to watch for a specific missing child.
There are questions created by that deafening silence.
Why did Sheriff Hardy hold a massive search for ‘HaLeigh’s bones’ but hide under his desk when the child’s cancelled Amber Alert was reinstated?
The answer to the questions involves the hidden police report and the extended events of April 26-27, 2009.
Multiple law enforcement agencies received a sighting report from Teresa and Mark Knight, Grovetown, Georgia. The couple reported that on April 26, 2009 at approximately 6:30 p.m. they saw the administrator of the HaLeigh Bug Center, Jeremiah Regan, accompanied by a woman, with HaLeigh Cummings, at a gas station in Brunson, South Carolina.
The car exited the parking lot and headed in the direction of Florida. The Knight’s actually saw the man (Jeremiah Regan) make HaLeigh lay down on the floor-boards of the car when he realized people were staring at her.
Approximately six hours after the Brunson sighting, all hell broke loose at a building called the HaLeigh Bug Center in Satsuma, Florida. Interestingly, Jeremiah Regan’s name was not in the police report I acquired, although everybody I interviewed that was present said he was at the scene.
The event, according to the staff working for Crystal Sheffield, was a bloody chaotic scene, and several children were whisked away in automobiles, as sirens approached in the distance.
The police report I obtained from Greenwood did not mention the police or paramedics seeing, interviewing, or interacting with the members of Sheffield’s staff that claimed to be present at the scene.
The emerging facts created tough questions for Hardy’s investigators because there are only three possible explanations. (1) The police officer failed to log the names of all witnesses in his Report, or (2) the Report was altered (re-written or sanitized) before being turned over to me, or (3) the people that claimed to be present at the scene actually fled (with a child) before the police arrived.
One of the children spirited away in a car was HaLeigh Cummings. She had just arrived from a long car ride with Regan that passed through Brunson, South Carolina. HaLeigh had just arrived at the HaLeigh Bug Center where her mother was waiting for her, when everything went sideways due to conflict within family about returning HaLeigh.
Cone exited the PCSO almost immediately after the police report was turned over to me, causing many to wonder what connection Cone had to that Report and her knowledge of HaLeigh being in Satsuma on April 27, 2009.
There is no indication that Pape over at the FDLE, or R.J. Larizza at the State’s Attorney’s Office ever investigated the incident.
The question is – why?
The events that transpired on April 26-27, 2009 at the HaLeigh Bug Center were so significant they resulted in a lead investigator being dismissed, and HaLeigh’s cancelled Amber Alert being reinstated.
Nonetheless, the press stayed quiet and there was no investigation by the FDLE.
In its own Via Dolrosa, the state of Florida and its law enforcement appears condemned by the worst within it.
While Cone was shown to the proverbial door – Merchant was still in the game and would be until 2013.
Merchant’s publicized departure from the PCSO due to the big ‘text message’ scandal is not impressing anyone with real information. Merchant has worked on many task forces with federal authorities, and his grubby little fingers have been in many pies.
While the FDLE is not known to have taken any interest in the PCSO during the HaLeigh Cummings investigation, the PCSO itself did seem to recognize itself in the mirror.
In 2012, the PCSO sent their Cummings case files to Washington D.C. to have their performance reviewed by the feds. The similarities between Hardy’s submissions of files to the feds for a review of his performance, bears an un-canny resemblance to Sheriff Shoar’s requests for a probe of his Office by the FDLE.
In each case, several years had passed before either Sheriff decided to ask an outside agency to become involved. Nontheless, in August of 2012, Hardy’s press agent issued a media release stating the PCSO had been given a glowing report card by the feds.
Matt Ramer, candidate for Putnam County Sheriff in 2012, said there was simply no way the feds conducted a complete ‘investigation’ of an ‘investigation’ and it was a publicity stunt by Hardy in advance of the election.
Indeed – it’s difficult imagining the feds in Washington D.C. allocating agents to sift through an entire missing person case file, and then walking away so utterly impressed, that they pat a Sheriff on the back and tell him what a great job he and his men have done in not locating the missing child.
Although unsolved and under investigation, the Michelle O’Connell case serves as a very good example of how persistence can bring exposure and wider understanding to a case that is fading into obscurity.
While evidence at the scene was telling Pape that Michelle O’Connell’s death was not a suicide, and a St. John’s County deputy needed to be investigated, the FDLE was strangely reluctant to apply the same standards to the sheriff’s office and investigators in Putnam County where actual terminations were occurring.
Investigative reporters in both the Michelle O’Connell and HaLeigh Cummings case have shown that information is available to those who seek it.
Wayanne Kruger, author and child sex victim’s advocate, performed contract services for Crystal Sheffield when her daughter HaLeigh disappeared.
Kruger says her job as Sheffield’s advocate was to gather incriminating information about HaLeigh’s father, Ronald Cummings.
According to Kruger, Detective John Merchant was working with Ronald Cummings and a street dealer named Orlando Traylor in a Florida drug trafficking operation at the time HaLeigh vanished.
Kruger said Merchant and his trafficking brood had big plans that may have crumbled under the weight of the search for HaLeigh. Her assertions and observations appeared to be spot on. In April of 2009, First Coast News reported $24 Million worth of drugs were seized in Putnam County.
Kruger said Misty Croslin was little more than a bit player in a larger operation, and the teen’s arrest was trumped up to influence the public’s perception of HaLeigh’s welfare status.
William (a.k.a. Cobra) Staubs is a self-described bounty hunter and licensed bail bondman from Broward County. He is also a licensed private detective and was in Putnam County in 2009 assisting Kruger and Sheffield.
Staubs was nearly capable of telling me what time John Merchant went to the bathroom. He claimed to have handwritten investigation notes of Detective Peggy Cone. He claimed to possess confidential Internal Affairs file of PCSO officers that was useful for blackmail.
The list could go on and on and on.
Staubs told me Merchant was cheating on his wife and could be blackmailed. He said Merchant and Ronald Cummings were ‘boys’ and Ronald Cummings was being protected by the Sheriff’s Office.
But even more interesting, was Staubs’ man-crush with the county sheriff – Jeff Hardy. Staubs never passed on a chance to tell me how far back he and Hardy went. He said they were real tight in Southern Florida, long before Hardy moved up to Putnam County and ran for Sheriff. He said Hardy had been falsely accused of being corrupt before he moved to Northern Florida.
In fact, Staubs said he mobilized groups and local citizens in the area to help Hardy get elected Sheriff of Putnam County. Staubs claimed associations with everyone from the Putnam County Sheriff to the South Florida Mafia; from the Florida licensing board to the Ku Klux Klan.
When Staubs was charged with felony false imprisonment by the States Attorneys Office, he said Hardy was supposed to write a “letter” on his behalf but didn’t; which pissed him off.
If the career-ending shenanigans of Merchant and Cone were not enough to wet Pape’s investigative whistle, the same way Sheriff Shoar and Deputy Banks did, this would have been a great time for the FDLE to take a look at Sheriff Jeff Hardy.
I will explain why, and then leave the reader to absorb it all.
Donald Knop, a staff member for Crystal Sheffield, said a business associate of Staubs, told him Staubs was once a member of a group called the “Navarro Eight”.
Here is what the “Navarro Eight” was.
The “Navarro Eight” was a group of quasi mercenaries named after former Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro. It was a secret team that would wear masks and tactical vests, appearing to be with the Sheriff’s Office. They would conduct huge drug raids, seize narcotics and money, but fail to turn it into evidence.
In 2009, a mercenary bounty hunter was hanging around Putnam County with people like Ronald Cummings, John Merchant, and Sheriff Jeff Hardy.
Think about it.
How many little girls have to die, or disappear, or go to prison for 25 years before these career criminals are stopped?