It’s another tawdry tale of politicians behaving badly. And Clay County knows from tawdry. For the last century, morally bankrupt Clay County politicians have mortified the masses in this picturesque stretch of land on the banks of the St. Johns River. The latest scoundrel is married 54-year-old Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels. A constant counsel to area religious groups—indeed, a man whose claim to worthiness was his degree in religion—Daniels has been carrying on an affair with one of his employees for six years. She is 25 years his junior and worked for him at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office before he went to Clay County. It gets worse. Recently, after his wife found out, Daniels had deputies arrest his young mistress for stalking him.
The Jacksonville television media have done an excellent job chronicling the latest breaking news. Nonetheless, Daniels’ sexcapades cannot be told completely in bites. Folio Weekly was enmeshed in the chain of events that led to the unraveling of Daniels’ deception. Here follows a comprehensive timeline of events, filling in key missing pieces as of this writing. This story was assembled using law enforcement documents, tapes and interviews.
The sheriff’s girlfriend, 27-year-old Cierra Lewis Smith, initially agreed to give Folio Weekly the first shot at her story, but changed her mind. Hence, her statements are quoted from incident reports, investigative materials and her media debut. Some of the incidents contained in the reports are not included in order to protect the innocents, of which there are few.
BEGINNING IN THE MIDDLE
On May 6, Cierra Smith was arrested by deputies of the Clay County Sheriff’s Office. CCSO insiders began talking about the unusual event, which involved the sheriff and his wife, the following day. Folio Weekly attempted, unsuccessfully, to obtain the incident report on May 8. It wasn’t until May 10 that inside sources helped Folio Weekly obtain the records.
Faced with inevitable daylight, Daniels decided to have his office release the information in an attempt to control the spin. Daniels himself was on his way out of town to attend National Police Week in Washington, D.C., where fallen Clay County Officer Ben Zirbel was to be honored, with his family in attendance.
In Daniels’ absence, the CCSO incident report went public. Unfortunately for him, the report led the media to another document: a Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Internal Affairs investigation filled with salacious details of Daniels’ affair. For months, Folio Weekly had been attempting to verify sources’ contention that JSO was investigating a corrections officer and had inadvertently (and regretfully) snared Sheriff Daniels, a long-time comrade of Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams, in the investigation. The stories were true. That’s when all hell broke loose.
In the CCSO incident report, Cierra Smith wrote that Sheriff Daniels was concerned the media may eventually get the IA report from JSO and find out about their relationship. Smith said Daniels came to her home on April 28, and told her he was going to have to tell his wife, Denise, about their relationship. Still, he promised he would not “abandon” Smith. On April 29, Daniels called Smith and told her that he was getting ready to tell his wife. He later texted, “It’s not good.” He told his lover the make and model of his wife’s car and to “be on the lookout” for it. Smith wrote that he encouraged her to protect herself “by any means.” He then requested that she meet him at their favorite meeting spot the next day. Smith couldn’t; she was taken to the hospital for two days. The reason for the hospital visit allegedly pertains to the 800-pound elephant in this story: Cierra Lewis Smith is visibly pregnant.
According to Smith, after her discharge from hospital, she called Daniels and his wife answered. Denise Daniels, a mental health professional, warned Smith that if she did not leave her husband alone, she would send her back to the hospital. Smith said Denise Daniels sent repeated texts, some calling her a “c**t” and a “Northside ho’. ” Cierra Smith then texted Denise a statement that proved eerily prophetic: “Stand next to your husband when this story airs on News4Jax.”
The next day, fearing for her safety, Smith filed a complaint with the JSO against Denise Daniels. Folio Weekly obtained a copy of the complaint.
Daniels and Smith were set to rendezvous on May 6. Smith claimed that she began following the sheriff to their “spot” in a parking lot, with her seven-year-old child in her car, when the sheriff abruptly pulled away. That was when Smith noticed Daniels’ wife following in another car. Cierra tried to exit the lot, but Denise Daniels blocked her as CCSO deputies moved in.
In his written statement, Sheriff Darryl Daniels claims he was driving home from a board meeting and noticed a black Jeep following him. He recognized the driver as Cierra Smith and notified CCSO to send an on-duty deputy “for my safety.” He wrote that Smith “both willfully and intentionally followed me in a manner that caused me great concern that if I stopped to engage Smith that I would be exposed to imminent danger.”
An officer checked Cierra’s car and found a loaded gun in her glove compartment. Cierra was placed under arrest for simple stalking. Smith’s father was called to pick up her vehicle and her child. As the officer questioned Smith, she told him, in vivid detail, about the ongoing affair, dating back to 2013.
The incident immediately became a hot potato, being tossed from members of the CCSO to the State Attorney’s Office. Nobody wanted to touch it. Officers said although Daniels used the right words to instigate an arrest, there was no “probable cause.” Finally, Cierra Smith was told she was not under arrest. She was released and taken home. That’s when law enforcement officers initiated the necessary paperwork to cover everybody’s assets.
The JSO IA report, however, was beyond CCSO’s control, as were Smith’s public statements. As planned, the news broke while Daniels was in Washington, D.C. Those in attendance there said the sheriff spent his time “hiding out in his hotel room with his wife,” avoiding the Northeast Florida media that were present to cover the commemoration. Ben Zirbel and his family were relegated to a footnote in the Sheriff’s affair.
Back home, Cierra Smith gave numerous interviews, complete with smutty details, pictures and text messages to prove she was not a stalker but an object of the sheriff’s affection. Within two days, Smith’s face became as familiar locally as Monica Lewinsky’s face had once been nationally. Smith publically claimed her lover had given her approximately $30,000 in gifts. But through it all, she would not name her child’s father.
The IA investigation provided additional details. There was evidence pointing to at least one video of the sheriff and his lover in flagrante delicto while on duty and in JSO uniform.
Daniels denied involvement despite mounting evidence of a years-long relationship with Smith. Finally, on May 17, the sheriff issued an “I have sinned” letter à la Jimmy Swaggart. In it, Daniels admitted he had made bad decisions and “deeply” apologized. He asked for privacy (for his family’s sake, of course). He promised Clay County citizens that he would keep them safe and continue to battle crime.
News4Jax reporter Scott Johnson waylaid Daniels and his wife as they arrived home from our nation’s capital. Daniels, sporting a white hat, held his wife’s hand and said he wouldn’t address the issue. Then he addressed the issue, eager to portray himself as the victim. He said his stalker had been Baker-acted, a claim that turned out to be false. Smith had visited the hospital because she was pregnant and stressed out. Still, Cierra Smith’s prediction had been realized. Denise Daniels stood next to her cheating husband on television.
The media hubbub has begun to die down, but one important aspect of this has never been addressed: the story of the person who actually brought the sheriff and his lover to their proverbial knees, or at least proved they had been there. That person was Cierra Smith’s estranged husband, U.S. Army Lt. Larry Smith. He shared his story exclusively with Folio Weekly.
Larry Smith met Cierra Lewis at Edward H. White High School. They continued dating long distance while Smith attended college in California. Upon returning to Florida in 2012, he found out Cierra had had a baby while he was away. She said the baby’s father had “died.” He loved Cierra and forgave her.
In January 2013, at age 21, Cierra was hired as a JSO corrections officer. That’s when she met 48-year-old Officer Darryl Daniels. Larry Smith recalled that his girlfriend was constantly talking with Daniels on the phone. She said Daniels was her mentor. As soon as she completed her training, Cierra was placed on the seven-to-three shift, the most sought-after gig at the jail.
According to Larry Smith, Daniels ingratiated himself into every aspect of Cierra’s life. He became ‘Uncle D’ to Cierra’s child and visited her family. He offered Larry “spiritual” and relationship advice. Since Uncle D was so much older than Cierra, Larry never thought anything inappropriate was happening.
In April 2015, Cierra got into a “fight” at the annual JSO Guns ’N’ Hoses Charity Boxing event and was arrested. A JSO investigation was initiated, and the couple and their mothers were concerned. It was then, Larry Smith said, that Cierra began to pressure him to get married. They were wed in a quiet civil ceremony before relocating to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where Larry Smith—who’d joined the U.S. Army in college and received his commission after graduation in May 2015—was to be stationed.
“I felt like life was perfect,” Larry remembered. “I adopted [Cierra’s daughter] because I loved her, and we were a family. I was the only father she knew. And I gave the two of them everything I could possibly afford to give.”
Smith said he was concerned about the JSO investigation, but by mid-summer, his wife told him it was “over” and that she wanted to have a real wedding. They held a ceremony and reception in September. Larry chose his brother to give the groom’s toast. Cierra chose Darryl Daniels to give the bride’s toast. Uncle D attended without his wife. In fact, Larry Smith does not recall meeting the sheriff’s wife. Ever.
In the CCSO incident report, Cierra said she attempted to break off her affair with Daniels after the wedding. Larry said Uncle D still loomed large in their life.
Meanwhile, in 2015 and 2016, Darryl Daniels ran for Clay County sheriff against three other candidates. Daniels relied heavily on his religion degree, regularly campaigning from the pulpits of Clay County’s Christian community. The Smiths contributed money to the campaign, and Cierra shuttled between North Carolina and Florida to volunteer in person. Daniels won a narrow victory in the crowded election. The soldier’s wife was there for the win ... and the celebration.
In December 2016, the couple came home for the holidays. Clay County’s new sheriff was to be sworn in, and Smith’s wife planned to attend. While Cierra was “out with friends,” Larry stayed in with their daughter. She had been playing games on the family iPad.
Smith said he picked up the device to check for work messages. He tapped the mail icon and the last email message popped up. It was from Darryl Daniels. He began to scroll through.
“I was devastated,” said Lt. Smith. “There were I-love-yous from Darryl and sexual pictures of the two of them.” There were long conversations about their song, Nicki Minaj’s “Truffle Butter,” complete with sexually explicit references. They used pet names like “moch-moch.”
The messages that broke the soldier’s heart contained videos of Daniels and Cierra engaged in sexual activities. The first appeared to be shot in an office. Daniels was half-dressed in JSO garb, Cierra was in her JSO corrections officer uniform. The second video seemed more recent, appearing to be in a hotel room. As the second video began to play, the soldier wailed in emotional anguish. His mother came running into the room and caught a glimpse of the video.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” she kept repeating.
Smith said Cierra and Daniels talked about the video in the emails, and Daniels said he couldn’t wait to do it again.
Smith sent the messages to his wife, who promptly began deleting the evidence. He was able to capture the videos and some of the messages. Cierra went to her mother’s home and Larry stayed with his mother.
Hurt and angry, Larry Smith made a three-way call to Cierra and the newly sworn-in sheriff of Clay County. A recording of the call is part of the JSO IA file. “Did you have sex with my wife?” Smith asked repeatedly. Cierra can be heard acknowledging that her husband had already seen the videos. The sheriff finally admitted the tryst, but indicated that it was in the past.
The Smiths’ marriage was over. Cierra wrapped up her associate’s degree in North Carolina and moved back to Jacksonville with her daughter in May 2017, claiming that Daniels was going to “get her job at JSO back for her.” Lt. Smith agreed to temporarily give his estranged wife $1,000 a month. He knew they were finished, but he wanted to maintain a relationship with his daughter and make sure she was taken care of. The two parted amicably and planned to get a divorce.
When Smith visited, he noted Cierra’s luxurious lifestyle. “It was clear she lived well beyond her means as a corrections officer,” he observed. “A new apartment, trips, jewelry, nice clothes.”
When Smith attempted to curtail his payments to Cierra, she lashed out, telling his command that the Lieutenant had abused her. Though he fought the charge, Smith believed the damage had been done.
“I love the Army,” he said, “but a person in my command told me the die had been cast and I would never have a chance to advance” because of the accusation.
On July 20, 2018, after a lot of soul-searching, Lt. Smith contacted JSO and filed multiple complaints against his estranged wife. An internal investigation was opened on July 27, 2018. In August 2018, Cierra Lewis Smith was placed on restricted duty with restricted access to the JSO.
The extensive JSO IA documents detail the volatile relationship and charges. The report provides a list of allegations that Lt. Larry Smith filed against Cierra Lewis Smith. Some of the charges include filing a false domestic-abuse report against her husband, providing false information to her husband’s chain-of-command in reference to spousal support, using her husband’s credit card to charge $1,000 worth of jewelry, breaking into her husband’s apartment and stealing numerous household items and all of her husband’s military awards and documents, and committing aggravated assault against his present girlfriend.
The reason the new sheriff of Clay County became caught up in the investigation was that the soldier claimed Cierra Lewis Smith had performed a sex act on Daniels while both were in JSO uniform and, allegedly, in a JSO office. He also reported that the two carried on a long-term relationship that started when Daniels was Cierra’s supervisor. He included pictures and sexually explicit emails between Darryl Daniels and Cierra Smith.
While the investigation proved that Cierra Smith visited Daniels’ JSO office regularly, she maintained that they did not have sex there. Sheriff Daniels simply refused to be interviewed. As a result, the claims of an improper relationship between the corrections officer and the sheriff were deemed “Not Sustained.” Three other charges were Not Sustained, but five charges were Sustained. Cierra Lewis Smith was placed on leave in April 2019.
In a Notice of Disciplinary Hearing to Smith, Jacksonville Sheriff Mike Williams wrote: “I have reviewed those charges and it is my opinion that the charged conduct shall warrant Termination from the Office of the Sheriff, if found to be true.”
Cierra Lewis Smith’s Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office hearing is scheduled for May 31, 2019.
According to inside sources, agents of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) have been seen meeting with CCSO officers in locations away from the sheriff’s office. These sources believe the FDLE may launch an investigation into allegations of impropriety by Daniels, who directed Clay County deputies to arrest Smith without probable cause and possibly planned the arrest with his wife. They also say he may possibly be investigated for sexual fraternization with his employee, providing special assignments and privileges for Smith, and for clearing Cierra Lewis’ 2015 arrest.
Historically, however, the FDLE has been lenient to law enforcement officials who act badly. Another fact that may save Daniels: He vigorously supported Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and appeared to publicly mock the governor’s opponent, Andrew Gillum, during the campaign.
This isn’t the first scandal Darryl Daniels has faced. He has been criticized for extravagant spending, which reminded some folks of a disgraced former sheriff. He purchased a new company car, a mammoth black Ford F-150. He blew up the budget to add his trademark custom-fitted white cowboy hat to his force’s uniform. As a result, CCSO photo ops look like rodeo conventions.
Sources said Daniels had an incident report involving an elected official rewritten to cause less trouble. Folio Weekly has a copy of both versions of the report.
To make matters worse for Daniels, more women are now coming forward, suggesting that his affair with Cierra Smith was not an isolated incident.
The sheriff has been frank about his plans for the future. First, he will serve two terms as sheriff, then he will run for Congress. Recent events put that trajectory in doubt. Several questions have been raised.
• Where did the hush money come from? Denise Daniels said she had no idea her husband was giving his girlfriend upwards of $30,000 and taking her on expensive vacations. • Did the funds come from the Clay County taxpayer? • How did Darryl Daniels remain unscathed in not one but two JSO investigations, both of which had his fingerprints all over them? • Did Daniels’ former bosses know he acted illicitly and criminally with a 21-year-old rookie under his command? • Did the Blue Wall of Silence protect him? • Can Daniels keep his job and the respect of his men after exhibiting such poor judgment? • Will the governor save him? • Will Denise Daniels continue to stand by her man? Now that the Christian community knows the sheriff’s counsel is suspect, will Darryl Daniels still be welcome to offer guidance to the flock?
Lt. Larry Smith has an answer for these questions: accountability. “When a person leads his people into battle,” Smith said, “his moral and ethical duty is to put the safety and welfare of his people first. Darryl Daniels put his own corrupt and deviant desires before those of anyone. He needs to go or be removed.”