Who Ya Gonna Call?

Graphic by John Aloszka

Online, bi-textual and awaiting trial—Clay County’s wayward former Sheriff Darryl Daniels continues to evade the truth and his day in court.

Most of the folks in Clay County had never heard of Darryl Daniels until 2015, when he began his race for Clay County Sheriff. Daniels, newly retired from his job as a chief at the Duval County jail, was a short stout man oozing with self-confidence. 

Daniels’ strength was in the people who surrounded him. His race pace for sheriff was more of a lollygag, while those around him sprinted. The candidate did what he did best: He got “up close and personal” with the voters. 

By 2016, there were six candidates competing for sheriff, and the opinions of those within the Clay County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) was crucial. To swing employees his way, Daniels pledged to appoint Chris Coldiron, a respected CCSO SWAT team leader and road deputy, as his undersheriff. Daniels’ people pulled out a close victory in the crowded race, and the people of Clay County elected their first Black sheriff.

Like many sheriffs before him, Daniels promoted supporters within the CCSO and brought in loyalists who worked in his campaign. Daniels also recruited officers from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office (JSO). Surprisingly, he immediately reneged on his pledge to appoint Coldiron as undersheriff, pulling him from the road and assigning him to the jail. Instead, he put Ray Walden, a retired JSO officer, in the undersheriff spot. 

Daniels was sworn in as sheriff at the beginning of 2017 and made it clear he planned to stay a while … or at least until he was elected to Congress. It seemed he began to boost his name recognition from the start. JSO, almost three times the size of CCSO, had two public information officers (PIO). Daniels hired three—with several other officers unofficially providing support. One hire was a young woman who served as bureau chief at an Alabama news station and had extensive experience as a videographer. He then purchased expensive cameras and other video equipment. 

The PIOs regularly made mountains-out-of-molehills videos and transformed the arrests of dope-smoking teenagers into the sheriff’s daring apprehensions of international drug czars. 

Daniels even had his own blend of beans at a local coffee shop. It was called the “Sheriff’s Blend,” and he reveled in its description: “full-bodied and smooth.” 

 Behind the hype, things weren’t going so well for the sheriff. Former supporters and others within CCSO began to quickly disappear. Despite the undercurrents of unrest, Daniels appeared to be happy with his new status as top cop. That is, until he mucked it up. It was the “up close and personal” that did him in. 

Anyone who keeps up with local news is likely familiar with Sheriff Darryl Daniels’ blundering illegalities. The narrative is too long to be short, but the shortish version, according to public records, is this: In 2013 when Daniels worked for JSO, he and Cierra Smith, a corrections officer under his command, began an affair. Smith was barely 21 years old and 25 years Daniels’ junior. The relationship was ongoing and was, reportedly, sometimes enthusiastically going on during work hours in Daniels’ JSO office. 

When Daniels became Clay’s sheriff, he took Smith on some of his out-of-town trips. She had been seen driving one of Daniels’ prized Dodge Chargers from the CCSO, and he was giving her a boatload of money. 

Folio Weekly had received evidence revealing the sheriff’s professional and personal peccadillos. Consequently, Daniels decided to come (halfway) clean to his wife. He told her he had an affair with Smith and said she was now stalking him. He did not tell her he was still involved with Smith. He did not tell her Cierra was pregnant. 

On May 5, 2019, Sheriff Daniels phoned Smith and set up a rendezvous for the next day. On May 6, he contacted his deputies and told them Smith had been stalking him. He said he feared for his life, gave them Smith’s location and asked officers to arrest her. They did.

After her arrest, Smith told officers, in detail, the whole story. Perplexed, officers sought advice from the State Attorney’s Office (SAO) in Clay County, and the SAO advised that Smith be released—immediately. 

In early June 2019, State Attorney Melissa Nelson asked the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to open an investigation into the arrest. 

For a while, the sheriff’s transgressions, recorded vividly in public records, provided the media with enough material for an X-rated mini-series. Then, the frenzy died down, and Daniels seemed to be starting a new chapter. And his PIOs made sure he was everywhere. 

Five people hoped to unseat Clay’s badly behaved sheriff. The PIOs organized a town hall meeting for the sheriff at a local church. The sheriff opened the meeting by saying he had violated his wife’s trust but not that of the citizens of Clay. He said his wife had forgiven him, they were still together and his personal life was nobody’s business.

Daniels continued to make appearances in the media insisting he had done nothing wrong, and the FDLE was simply doing a cursory investigation. The sheriff said publicly he had been told—confidently—that no charges would be filed against him and the matter would soon be dropped. 

Little notice was paid to the fact that Cierra Smith gave birth to a son in November 2019. The father’s name was left off the baby’s birth certificate.

In May 2020, nationwide social unrest was at a peak but hadn’t yet touched quiet Clay County. In June 2020, the PIOs high-fived their own brilliance with their next move. They created a video, which went viral nationally on June 30, then internationally. In the video, Sheriff Daniels promised to deputize all lawful gun-owners in the county and turn them loose on any protesters who showed up in his county. Actually, the sheriff could not legally deputize gun-owners, but that seemed a moot point for Daniels and his PIOs. He became a coast-to-coast sensation, appeared on national news programs and got a 10-point bump in the polls … for a moment. 

Events on July 2, 2020 offered a hint the sheriff had either gotten bad info about the FDLE’s investigation or that he might have been a tad economical with the truth. State Attorney Melissa Nelson said she had received the FDLE’s preliminary report. After reviewing it, she asked Governor Ron DeSantis to recuse her office and appoint another state attorney to prosecute the case. Nelson said if charges were rendered against Daniels, her office could be called as witnesses.

The governor did recuse Nelson and appointed Brad King, then-state attorney for Florida’s 5thJudicial Circuit in Ocala, to take Nelson’s place … another bad omen for Clay’s sheriff. King had facilitated the removal and/or arrest of numerous law enforcement officers throughout Florida—among them was Marion County Sheriff Chris Blair who was arrested for perjury and official misconduct. 

With the Aug. 18, 2020 election day looming, the FDLE released a 50-page executive summary to the media on Aug. 13. It was a stunner. Indeed, so much so, that some of the media outlets who had links to the summary issued a warning that advised discretion: “Document contains material some may find graphic.” 

The summary stated the FDLE was charging Daniels with a felony and three misdemeanors. The felony—for attempting to destroy and hide evidence before and after the investigation began—carried a five-year prison sentence and $5,000 fine. The report stated Daniels had asked CCSO IT personnel to “wipe out” all information on his phone, then destroy it. The reason he gave was that it was “running slow.” The sheriff then got a new phone. The IT specialist did not remove anything from the old phone, nor did he destroy it. Instead, it was eventually turned over to the FDLE. Evidence on the phone proved Daniels had set Smith up to be arrested. Up until the day Smith was arrested, the couple logged about 1,600 exchanges a month, “including consensual exchange of sexually explicit messages videos and images.” “Graphic” was a gross understatement. 

Surprisingly, the report also revealed the sheriff was bi-textual. He illegally used law enforcement databases to obtain information and phone numbers of other women besides Smith, and he began texting explicit messages to them as well. The sheriff erased 112 missives from his new phone, 111 after the FDLE began their investigation. Also noted in the summary, Daniels gave Smith over $60,000. 

The misdemeanors were imposed for convincing his officers to illegally arrest Smith and for lying under oath to federal investigators throughout the investigation. Each misdemeanor was punishable by a year in prison and a $1,000 fine. 

Sheriff Daniels was notified his arrest was imminent; he was allowed to retain an attorney and to turn himself in. The sheriff was arrested in his own jail the evening of August 14, 2020, then released on his own recognizance.

But he did not go quietly. Either before or after the arrest, his PIOs wrote, directed, produced and edited a bizarre video starring the sheriff. In it, Daniels wore his trademark white cowboy hat and stood between the American flag and state flag of Florida. He accused King of playing “dirty politics” by arresting him just five days before the election. The sheriff said King was trying to bully him and had “ulterior motives” to disrupt the race for sheriff. He also told his audience he was given the choice to resign from his position as sheriff and drop out of the race or be arrested. Daniels maintained his innocence and said he would continue to be sheriff and run for re-election. He called for the people in Clay to rally around him. 

“How long do we have to tolerate dirty politics in our county? How long? When does it stop?” he earnestly entreated. “It stops when the citizens of this county stand up for what’s right and say, ‘You know what? No more dirty politics and certainly not with our sheriff.’” 

The video was sent to numerous print and TV media sources, posted on CCSO websites and, reportedly, anywhere Clay citizens might tune in. 

Usually a calm, restrained man, King swiftly and publicly fired back. The state attorney said Daniels’ claim that he was told to resign and withdraw his bid for re-election or be arrested were patently false. King assured citizens there was never any deal made in which Daniels would not be arrested. The SA said Daniels was offered a deferred prosecution agreement, which would take affect only AFTER Daniels’ arrest. King said he knew none of the candidates in the sheriff’s race and, for that matter, very few in Clay County overall.

A deferred prosecution is usually offered to individuals who have no prior criminal history. The terms of the agreement were that, after the arrest, Sheriff Daniels would immediately resign from office, withdraw from the sheriff’s race, forfeit his law enforcement certificate and never run for sheriff in any county in the 4th Judicial Circuit (which includes Clay and Duval counties). He would also have to pay investigative fees.

Individuals in law enforcement and legal circles said the deal offered by King was a gift, since the evidence of Daniels’ wrongdoing was comprehensive. If Daniels agreed to the deal, he would most likely keep his large pension and would not be prosecuted. 

The governor suspended Daniels immediately after his arrest and appointed Matt Walsh, a 17-year veteran with the FDLE, as interim sheriff. One of Walsh’s first tasks was to scrub Daniels’ farewell video from all media outlets. 

Undersheriff Ray Walden was quickly and quietly invited to leave the building. Over at the jail, employees said Chris Coldiron, who still had a job, a paycheck and a career in law enforcement, seemed to be smiling … a lot. 

Cierra Smith’s attorney announced that Smith would be suing CCSO for false arrest. One of the women Daniels stalked online also said she would sue. 

Daniels now had plenty of time to campaign. He was out on street corners grinning and waving at passersby like a beauty queen on a float. Early voting had come and gone after his national video and before the FDLE report, which lead to his arrest. He bragged that his polls showed he’d win with the early voters and with his loyalists on Election Day. After he won, he assured, the governor would be forced reinstate him. 

Events on Aug. 18, 2020, probably came as a big surprise to Daniels. Even in the crowded race, former Atlantic Beach Police Chief Michelle Cook beat Daniels by 8 percentage points. Cook came in at 37% to Daniels’ 29%. The other candidates were in the low teens and single digits. 

Despite his defeat, Daniels still could not let go. He, or someone in his quickly dissolving band of supporters who apparently had never heard of commas, immediately issued a press release. 

“These politically motivated charges that have been made against Sheriff Daniels and announced right before the election combined with dirty politics from other campaigns by closing the election through recruiting a write-in candidate resulted in more than 10,000 Clay County voters not casting a vote in the race for Sheriff. This resulted in the electing of a St. Johns County resident to now serve as the likely sheriff. Sheriff Daniels appreciates the support from the voters of Clay County and is calling for a review of this travesty that was committed on Clay County voters.”

The statement was a conundrum: Exactly who was Daniels calling on to execute a review? The governor? The FDLE? Brad King? Melissa Nelson? Area 51? 

On Aug. 26, one of Daniels’ attorneys, Camille Sheppard appeared via Zoom before Circuit Judge Michael Sharritt and entered a “not guilty” plea for the former sheriff. 

On Sept. 1, DeSantis gave Michelle Cook a head start on her tenure as Clay County sheriff. He recalled acting-Sheriff Walsh and appointed Cook to finish Daniels’ term. 

Court documents disclosed that on Oct. 12, Daniels’ legal counsel filed a motion to dismiss. It was not granted. Also on Oct. 12, Judge Sharritt asked to be removed from the case. On Oct. 13, all Clay County Circuit Court Judges did the same. The trial was moved to St. Johns County. Pretrial dates were set then cancelled. The October date dragged on into November, then December, then January, then March, then May and—as of publication time—is set for July 28, 2021. 

In December 2020, new evidence was submitted to bolster the FDLE’s charges pending against Daniels. In January 2021, additional evidence was submitted, reinforcing the charges, as was a supplementary list of additional witnesses. 

Meanwhile, CCSO insiders said Daniels’ loyal PIOs turned on him like a bunch of rabid raccoons. Sources say Sheriff Cook has decently kept most all CCSO employees, including the PIOs. 

Employees say a new financial officer has been hired to join a resolute search to “follow the money.” During his tenure, Sheriff Darryl Daniels asked for and received more money than any sheriff in the history of the county. Yet, his deputies were some of the lowest paid in the state. When sworn and non-sworn employees left CCSO, Daniels replaced few of them. The result? Embarrassingly high response times—which could have tragic consequences. The jail was nearing capacity and needed employees as well as an expansion, which had yet to begin.

The former sheriff spent an excessive amount of county funds to expand his public information unit and purchase equipment. He used $4.4 million to purchase new cars, some with fancy paint schemes. He spent $20,000 for a Disney World boondoggle, almost $20,000 for white cowboy hats, thousands on a junket for an actress-turned-yoga-instructor … and a lot more. However, employees say given Daniels’ hefty budget, there still should have been funds to allow Sheriff Cook to begin to restore safety in the county by hiring more deputies and dispatchers. 

After 32 years as state attorney for the 5th Judicial Circuit, Brad King decided not to seek re-election. He retired from political life to raise his grandson (who he and his wife have since adopted) … and maybe do a lot of fishing. King supported William “Bill” Gladson, SAO executive director, for state attorney. Gladson was unopposed.

Darryl Daniels’ plummet from grace left people inside and outside the county pondering. What will happen in July, and will the trial again be postponed? Will State Attorney Gladson use the significant evidence gathered by the FDLE to send Daniels to prison? Will Daniels be offered another deal to change his plea to “guilty” and keep his pension? If he is, will he take it? Will Cierra Smith actually sue CCSO and/or Daniels? Will Sheriff Michelle Cook find a stash of cash to pay her people a decent wage, fill the vacancies at CCSO and keep her prisoner population safely housed? Will Officer Chris Coldiron ever stop smiling?

And finally, will Daniels ever provide the answer to the question … who you gonna call? 

About Susan Armstrong