Many longtime residents of Clay County consider Rick Beseler the best sheriff the county has had for decades. Some wonder, however, if the race to become the next sheriff will taint Beseler’s record, specifically his endorsement and support of controversial sheriff candidate Craig Aldrich.
Some within the department are alleging that the Clay County Sheriff’s Office has essentially turned a blind eye to the illegal methamphetamine trafficking and growing gang activity to make the county appear safer than it actually is, in order to help Aldrich’s campaign.
When Beseler became sheriff in 2004, an article in the Florida Times-Union reported that Beseler promised to put “safeguards in place to avoid similar problems” with allegations of corruption, embezzlement and other nefarious activities within the office, and said that “those safeguards were put in place to stop what [former Sheriff Scott Lancaster] was doing, it was all for him. He sacrificed the Sheriff’s Office’s integrity.”
What became of those safeguards is unclear. But now, as it was pre-2004, numerous individuals from within CCSO are saying that certain members of the command staff are making questionable decisions and intimidating those who go against them.
Speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, several officers and CCSO employees told Folio Weekly Magazine that when Beseler’s wife became ill approximately four years ago, he began trusting then-Undersheriff Aldrich with more and more responsibility. These sources say that Aldrich had neither the law enforcement expertise nor the easy-going temperament that were among Beseler’s strengths and that department morale has plummeted under Aldrich, who retired on June 30.
Since 2013, three of the seven officers in the command staff have retired. A CCSO spreadsheet also shows that from July 1, 2013 to June 15, 2016, 220 workers have retired, quit, or were fired. CCSO currently has a total of 609 employees.
Sources within CCSO said that around the beginning of the year, officers were directed to treat certain crimes reactively, rather than proactively, specifically crimes involving methamphetamines. This, they believe, is intended to promote a narrative that Aldrich has made Clay County a safer place.
At a June 12 forum at Foxmeadow Homeowners Association, sheriff candidate James Jett said that if elected, he would focus on the county’s drug and gang problems, which he indicated were serious. At the forum, which Aldrich did not attend, his second-in-command David Senters, whom many believe is in lockstep with Aldrich, said that the county had no problems with gangs or drugs.
Statistics indicate otherwise.
Information provided to FWM by the White House Office of National Drug Control shows Clay County, Florida, with a rate of more than 15 drug poisoning deaths per capita, had one of the highest rates in the state from 2010 to 2014, the most recent years for which data is available. The federal government also provides CCSO with grant money to combat drugs in the county. One source from within CCSO questioned how these funds were being appropriated now that departmental top brass says there is no local drug problem.
And although CCSO Detective David White lost his life in 2012 during a raid on a meth house, and many officers believe that the manufacture, sale and use of the drug is rampant in Clay County, CCSO sources said the number of officers trained to investigate meth activity has been reduced from 20 to six.
One officer said there are so many meth houses in the county, CCSO could conduct two or three meth investigations every week —but now meth labs are investigated only when the evidence is “dropped in [the department’s] lap.”
The question of how and whether gang activity is being classified and investigated also weighs heavily on the minds of some within the department. One officer said that, in recent months, Aldrich also directed the reclassification of gang members.
The officer said that a civilian CCSO employee is now in charge of determining whether individuals formerly associated with gangs are still affiliated. This individual, the officer says, is neither a police officer nor is trained to investigate gang activity. To decide if someone is still involved with gang activity, the officer says, the employee, who has been with the department approximately two months, has been merely checking social media profiles.
“Based on Facebook posts, she is to determine whether they are an active gang member and based on that, they are eliminating them,” the officer said.
A 2013 Annual Report of Criminal Gang Presence from the Attorney General’s Office reported that between 11 and 34 active gangs were in Clay County. One officer said the count was recently believed to be as high as 120, but has been reduced to eight, essentially overnight. The southern part of the county is also believed to be home to one of the largest, most dangerous motorcycle gangs in the state: Black Pistons Motorcycle Club, a sub-gang of the Outlaws Motorcycle Club, which reportedly has a clubhouse in Middleburg.
“There is gang activity in Clay County and it’s not getting better,” one officer said.
As of press time, Aldrich had not responded to FWM’s requests for an interview. A spokesperson for CCSO responded to FWM’s request for an interview with Beseler, in an email:
While we understand you are investigating complaints that are made by unnamed sources making allegations against CCSO members, we must operate in compliance with Florida law regarding such complaints. We received your request for an interview concerning allegations related to our agency and/or its members. However, Florida Statutes Chapter 112 establishes the method through which complaints against law enforcement officers are received and investigated. As such, an interview conducted in advance of this process would circumvent Florida law, so we respectfully decline.
FWM asked one officer why they were willing to talk to the press. “I’m tired. I’m tired of it. I’m tired of the lies. I’m tired of my neighbors being lied to. I’m tired of my family being lied to,” the officer said.
Meanwhile, rumors have been spreading across the county like wildfire, whispers of stolen copies of the issue of FWM that contained a story about Aldrich and Senters using a department vehicle to go to a strip club, an anonymous person hearing of the stolen issues and taking it upon themselves to send 5,000 copies of the story to households in Clay, police cars sitting outside witnesses’ homes and intimidating individuals perceived to be potential sources of information about CCSO.
One of FWM’s sources said, “On several occasions, marked cars would drive really slow and stare at me while I was in the driveway. This has never happened before, which leads me to believe they are trying to intimidate me from talking.”
As the clock ticks down to the Aug. 30 primary, the battle for Clay’s highest law enforcement position promises to get more sporting and contentious. Meanwhile, a Facebook page called Saving Clay County from Craig Aldrich has 246 likes and posts nearly daily about the candidate.
One person said, “As a resident of Clay County for over 30 years, this is the worst I have seen it. Between the attempted intimidation and the allegations going around in regard to the Clay County Sheriff’s Office, all I can say is, we deserve better. When is it going to stop?”