Talking Tall

Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels is running a campaign shop out of his Public Information Unit. It's working.

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Clay County Sheriff Darryl Daniels has starred in so many local videos that some folks call them “The Sheriff’s Reality Show.”  Daniels is running for re-election, so his intended audience for the voluminous videos is typically Clay County residents and the 6 and 11 0’clock news.   But on Tuesday, June 30th he stepped up his game. In a videoed press-release to the entire nation, the sheriff appeared to be channeling Walking Tall tough-talking cowboy, Tennessee lawman Buford Pusser.

In his 3-minute video, Daniels, much shorter than Pusser, stood in a parking lot on a hot Florida day with his round body trussed up tight in a long-sleeved green uniform shirt, heavy with badges, bars, stripes, patches and emblems from his neck to his wrists. The sheriff wore his trademark tax-payer-purchased white cowboy hat and is flanked by 18 male deputies in short sleeves.  At a time when some law enforcement officers have been condemned for excessive force, Daniels vowed some excessive force of his own. As the perfectly choreographed music swelled, he promised the nation that should Clay County have an onslaught of protesters, rioters and god-less troublemakers, he would deputize gun-toting county residents to wage war against the desperadoes…if his deputies got outmanned or outgunned.

“If you come to Clay County and you think for one second, we’ll bend our backs for you,” strongly asserted Daniels,  “you’re sadly mistaken.”

Daniels was hailed a hero by numerous national news sources. Small and large affiliates gave him resounding atta-boys. On Twitter, Ann Coulter called him “Sainted Sheriff Daniels.” He was interviewed and saluted by Fox News’ Lou Dobbs.  The sheriff had the interview, along with accolades from other news sources, immediately posted on campaign and social media sites.

Perplexed, commenters on numerous county social media sites began virally scratching their head at the sheriff’s display. Clay County’s beautiful sleepy little community has cat-napped without any incidence of discord or racial disharmony that afflicted other communities. Residents were quick to point out that their county had elected a black sheriff. Yet, it appeared to some residents that the sheriff had issued a challenge to insurgents throughout the nation to come on down to Clay County for a shoot-out and a butt-whooping.

“This wannabe cowboy is overreacting to a problem that does not exist,” said Clay County resident Martin Borum.  “Now he may have just created a bigger problem.”

Less than 24-hours after Daniels national debut, North Florida news media released some disturbing news about the sheriff, which made his video performance appear an attempt to head-off-at-the-pass the trouble he knew was brewing.

The news was that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE)  had concluded their 13-month investigation into alleged illegal actions by the sheriff which happened on May 6, 2019.   The FDLE said they were turning over their investigation to Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit State Attorney Melissa Nelson.  Nelson immediately bounced it back to Governor Ron DeSantis’s Office for reassignment. Nelson said her office had reviewed the FDLE’s investigation and Clay County assistant state attorneys may become witnesses in the case against Sheriff’s Darryl Daniels.

Daniels’ legal troubles traced back to a 2018 investigation by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JS0).  The JSO was investigating crimes possibly committed by one of their young corrections officers, Cierra Lewis Smith. During the investigation, they accidentally discovered that Smith had been working directly under chief jailer, Darryl Daniels…apparently, in more ways than one. The investigation evidenced that Smith and Daniels, who was 27-years Smith’s senior, were involved in a long-term affair. By the time they got around to interviewing Daniels in the Smith investigation, he had been elected as Clay County’s top cop and just said “naw” to a request for an interview. Smith lost her job.

According to Clay County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) investigative notes, Cierra Smith said Daniels told her news sources had obtained the JSO investigation and the affair was going to be released. He told Smith he was going to tell his wife about the affair and told his girlfriend he would “stand by her.”

The sheriff did tell his wife. However, he left out a few details others might consider important.  He was still involved in a six-year affair with Smith and she was pregnant.

 Daniels set up a meeting with his pregnant girlfriend. When he saw his lover approaching their “usual” place, he phoned his deputies and said he was “in fear for his life” from a stalker.  Deputies arrested Smith.

Officers took Smith’s statement, which described the relationship in detail. A flail began.  After six hours, someone in Daniels’ command staff finally tossed the arrest to the State Attorney’s Office, who ordered Smith’s immediate release.  The SA’s office turned the investigation over to the FDLE.

Daniels’ wife filed for divorce. Nevertheless, the sheriff called a “Town Hall Meeting” and said his wife had forgiven him, they were once again together and the rest was nobody business. (The divorce remains open in the Duval County Clerk’s office.)  His girlfriend had a son, but would not name the father. Court records show the father had the records sealed so his name would not appear on the child’s birth certificate.

After the media hoopla about the sheriff’s affair and the arrest of his girlfriend died down, the sheriff’s video productions company was born.  Within his Public Information Unit (PIU), the sheriff created a veritable marking department, complete with high-tech equipment. The goods to be marketed was Darryl Daniels. 

The sheriff hired a new workforce, including Laura Shassberger, former Bureau Chief of Northeast Alabama at WHNT News 19.  One of Shassberger’s skills was as a videographer.  Daniels “rebranded” the sheriff’s office into his own image with new logos on new vehicles and uniforms, while he sound-proofed a new office…all at a tremendous expense to the taxpayers.

Daniels new Public Information Officers earned their salaries. In the sheriff’s videos, dudes with doobies were often transformed into major drugs busts on North Florida’s evening news. When the cameras were cold, the tokers went home with little or no charges.

In January 2020, six months into his new video series, Sheriff Daniels announced he would seek re-election. He began his campaign with little money in his coffers.  Most of the donations were from people within the CCSO.  Command Staff officers said they were told they and their wives should make $1500 donations each.  Disgusted, some officers retired and some said they sucked it up and wrote checks, according to officers who spoke on the basis of anonymity with Folio. 

In fact, Clay’s sheriff didn’t really need the campaign funds; the taxpayers were already financing Daniels’ own private campaign in the office of his PIU.  His videos, neighborhood walks and public appearances ramped up even more, culminating in his June 30 Cowboy Cop video to the nation.

After the FDLE and SA’s announcement on July 2, things weren’t going so well for the sheriff in his neck of the woods. While still being lauded nationally, most of his six campaign opponents were quick to point out in the news media the numerous flaws in his plans. Legally, they said, he could not deputize citizens. Opponents said other law enforcement agencies, along with the national guard would be the first and second line of defense for any issues that happened in Clay County and labeled his proposal a call for “vigilantism.”

“If I was under criminal investigation by FDLE, I’d want to change the subject too,” said opponent Michelle Cook.

The same day, Ben Frazier, Northeast Florida civil rights activist based in Jacksonville and president of Jacksonville’s Northside Coalition, demanded an apology from the sheriff. 

“His comments are incendiary and fan the flames of potential conflict, and unrest, in our area,” said Frazier. On Friday, July 3, Ken Jefferson, a respected black retired JSO officer and the News4Jax Crime Officer, said he believed the video was an example of a free political ad.           

“I think that’s a bluff more than anything,” Jefferson said. “It sounds good on the surface. You can’t have chaos among citizens. Citizens already have the right to defend themselves.”

In his video, Daniels  said “God was absent from…Black Lives Matter.”  By Friday afternoon, Black Lives Matters (BLM) was no longer absent from Clay County. Local prophesies came true.  A white man-bunned protester showed up on the busier streets in Clay County waving a BLM banner.

Over the weekend, Daniels released a “just kidding” statement in a much less public venue to locals saying he actually couldn’t deputize citizens.

“That would be a violation or dereliction of my duties as the sheriff,” he said. “That would also be a violation of state statute.”

Still out on county streets on Tuesday, July 7th, the flag waver was identified as BLM-Clay County leader Kevin Conner.  The waver is a soft-spoken polite young father in his early 40’s.  He prefaces questions and answers with “sir,”  “ma’am,” and “please.” Conner holds a degree from the Appalachian State University in North Carolina, and built a successful online marketing and sales company in the US and Canada.  He sold the US branch last year. 

The protester told Folio that his group came together to protest in Clay County because of the sheriff’s video.  “He was essentially saying the First Amendment is not welcome in Clay,” Conner declared, “He has clearly shown himself to be a serious threat to the very thing he swore to uphold, the Constitution.”

 Conner created the Black Lives Matter-Clay County Facebook the same day.  “I think Clay County is ready for BLM,”  he pronounced.

By Wednesday the numbers on the BLM-FB had grown with people joining from Clay County, Jacksonville and numerous states across the nation.  Conner posted that he had been in Clay County and had been treated with kindness and respect from Clay County officers.

But the peace would not last.

Thursday afternoon, Kevin Conner, along with two protesters and a woman who videoed the event, were at an entrance to a local Wal-Mart in Fleming Island.  A video was taken of Conner asking a white officer where the three could wave BLM flags.  The officer is cordial and helpful and shows Conner where the trio could safely and legally stand.  The video shows the three standing in the exact place the first officer had directed, when three CCSO vehicles pull up. A large black officer exits a truck. The Officer is Emmett Matthews.

It was odd that Matthews was there, remarked several Clay County Deputies, because the retired JSO officer works for the sheriff as a Community Affairs Officer.  Matthews doesn’t typically work the streets but always accompanies the sheriff in public appearances and is often seen at lunch with the sheriff and campaigning for and with him. Deputies refer to the big man as the sheriff’s “bodyguard.”

Matthews did not appear happy.  “You know you owe me lunch, don’t you?” he calls loudly as he exits his truck.  “I got called from MY lunch, ‘cause he in the road.” 

“We haven’t done anything wrong, right?” Conner asks as Matthews approaches.

“If the first thing you say, if you say you haven’t done anything, you probably have.” calls the officer. “There are a certain set of rules, you are either going listen or else I’m going to dismiss you.”

“Yes sir.  Sir, I’m listening.  I’m listening.”  assures Conner in his typical polite manner.

“If you want to talk to me like a man, we good.” warns the officer.

“Yes Sir.  Yes Sir.” answers Conner.

Motorists wave and honk, Kevin Conner waves back.  The video shows Matthews is clearly agitated at the loss of attention as more conversation ensues. Matthews tells Conner he can stand across the sidewalk on another grassy area, but Conner said the other officer told him it was private property.

The women step back as Matthews steps closer. After more conversation, surprisingly, Officer Matthews orders Connor to put his flags on the ground, pads his pockets and orders him to give his phone to another protester.  One of the women begins to cry as it become clear the officer is arresting Conner. 

“Yes sir, yes sir.” Conner complies.  “Why are you arresting me?”

Matthews does not reply.

“Why are you arresting me? What crime have I committed? I need you, please sir, to name the crime I’ve committed.” begs Conner.

Matthews orders him to put his hands behind his back.

“I will co-operate and put my hands behind my back.” promises Kevin Conner.

“You’re gonna do that anyway.” assures Matthews. “I’m gonna ask you one more time, then it’s resisting.”

Kevin Conner backs up and puts his hands behind his back and looks around as Matthews strapped a pair of soft-cuffs on his wrists.

“Do we know what crime has been committed…anybody, anybody?” Conner beseeches as he looks around. 

According to the video, Conner was arrested at about 12:34 p.m.  He said he was handcuffed and placed in the back of a CCSO vehicle driven by Deputy V. Terry.  Conner said the car was hot as the air-conditioner was on a very low setting.  He asked for water, but none was provided. The protester said Matthews stood laughing and talking to the two other officers and to people who stopped.  Then, Matthews was out of view for a while, possibly seeking the lunch he missed. 

Finally, after several hours in the back of the Terry’s hot county SUV, Conner said Terry got into the car and cranked up the air-conditioner as Matthews lead the two deputies to the parking lot in an office building off Hwy. 17.  Conner said the officers talked for about 30 minutes, while he sat handcuffed in the car, then the three headed for the CCSO, where he was finally booked and placed in a cell.

Officer Emmett Matthews arrested Kevin Ray Conner for resisting arrest, but his arrest report does not resemble the exchange in the video. Matthews noted the time of the arrest as 1:30, an hour after the time the video recorded it. The video showed he complied with every command and request from the officer and never approached the roadside. Yet, Matthews wrote in the short arrest report the “offender” refused to obey the officer’s commands. “The offender was asked multiple times to stay out of the roadway and to discontinue to obstruct the view of the turning motorist.  Again, the offender refused and continue to walk where he was told not to walk.”

The video began to appear on news media and social media sites throughout the area.   A go-fund-me page was started to get Conner out of jail.

It appeared Sheriff Daniels may have overplayed his hand.  Just after sunrise on Friday morning, renown barrister Civil Rights Attorney John Phillips rode across the Buckman Bridge to promptly spring Conner. Phillips was stymied at the arrest:

“He wasn’t arrested for walking out into a street or an illegal protest. He was arrested for resisting an officer without violence.” Phillips explained.  “In the video, you can hear the officer say clear as day, ‘If you don’t comply, I am going to arrest you.’ He immediately puts his hands behind his back.”

By Friday afternoon, a full-fledged BLM “Silent March” had been organized in protest of Conner’s arrest and slatted for Saturday morning at 10 a.m. on the corner of a busy intersection in Clay County.  On Facebook, Conner provided a video with detailed instructions to ensure the protest remained peaceful. 

The sheriff appeared to be marshalling his forces for the march.   Photos of Daniels’ SWAT vehicles, marked cars, unmarked cars and transports lined up ready for action were posted on local social media and on the BLM Facebook. Commenters on the BLM Facebook hoped and planned for peace, however after the arrest and the police brigade waiting, they doubted peace would reign.

Gawkers, perplexed and surprised by the strange activity in their small community, watched from a distance.  A small group of “Blue Lives Matter” stood across the street. About 100 marchers came to Clay County from local burbs, Jacksonville and points beyond.  Strangely absent was a police presence.  One marked car and several unmarked vehicles were scattered throughout several parking lots around the location.

The protesters were greeted by cheers and jeers from motorists, as some registered their feelings according to their choice of finger.  The protesters marched mostly silent carrying signs of protest, many of which were aimed at the sheriff,  along  their three-mile trek.  An  airplane pulled a large banner unobscured in the blue skies over Clay.  “Make #CCSO Clean Again-Dump Daniels!”

Despite the local blow-back from his video and the arrest of Kevin Ray Conner, Daniels seems intent to fulfill his plans to become the sheriff for one more term, then mosey on up to a congressional seat in Washington. Some or all of that may happened.

His boot-scoot into the nation-wide spotlight was a brilliant piece of public relations by his PIU.  It gave him a 10-point bump in the polls.  He is now 11-points ahead of Michelle Cook, his closest competitor. Although approximately 67% of the county is against Daniels, with seven candidates in the race, it may be hard for Cook to reach the sheriff’s percentages.  Nevertheless, none of the six candidates have expressed any desire to withdraw from the race. The sheriff can win the election on August 18 with only one vote.

Still, there are several burrs in the sheriff’s saddle bag of plans. Law enforcement officers from CCSO and the JSO say the sheriff calculatingly broke the law when he conspired to have his girlfriend arrested, then facilitated the arrest.  Officers say if a deputy under the sheriff’s command acted as the sheriff did, he would already be fired and arrested. Additionally, Kevin Conner said he is working with John Phillips on a civil suit against the Clay County Sheriff’s Department, as well as Daniels and Matthews personally.

Legal experts believe with COVID-19 there is little chance a State Attorney will convene a grand-jury trial for the sheriff’s misdeeds before the August 18th election. Nonetheless, if he is elected yet found guilty of a crime, he could be arrested and/or removed.  This would trigger another election, which will be a huge financial burden for a small county in the midst of pandemic.

Although some commenters on the BLM-Facebook have called for less-than-peaceful protests in Clay County,  Kevin Conner labors for peaceful resolutions.

“I believe any significant social change requires the movement to be both sustained and peaceful.” He insists. 

Clearly, Sheriff Darryl Daniels invited social unrest into Clay County, Florida with his coast-to-coast video. BLM videos have been produced and distributed across the US, with the sheriff’s provocative remarks as a lead-in as he plays a prominent role throughout.    Marches are taking place in the county and more are coming.  No one can predict what will happen in the once tranquil hamlet in North Florida.  But one thing is certain.  Despite his tall-talking promise, Sheriff Darryl Daniels will not be deputizing the gun-owners of Clay County, Florida.

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