Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, October 3, 2012
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Sheriff asks judge to throw out ex-deputy's suit

The Monroe County Sheriff's Office has asked a judge to rule meritless a year-old lawsuit in which an ex-deputy alleges he was battered by superior officers and then fired after reporting the matter to state investigators.

Gerald Fletcher Jr., who was fired from the Sheriff's Office in March 2011, says Capt. Don Hiller of the internal affairs unit and Lt. Donnie Elomina, a former internal affairs investigator, held him against his will after an interview gone bad in November 2010.

Also named in the suit are Sheriff Bob Peryam and Undersheriff Rick Ramsay, who Fletcher says violated the federal whistleblower statute by retaliating against him after he brought his complaints against the internal affairs officers to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

No criminal charges have been filed against Hiller or Elomina. And in May, U.S. District Court Judge Jose Martinez threw out four other civil and policeman's rights counts brought by Fletcher in his lawsuit.

If the judge grants the Sheriff's Office's request for what is known legally as a summary judgment, the whistleblower act, battery and false imprisonment counts would be closed ahead of a full trial.

Neither Fletcher attorney Michael Davey nor Sheriff's Office attorney Luke Savage returned Free Press calls for this article. But court filings, depositions and investigative records lay out the positions of both parties.

The dispute arose from a Nov. 24 meeting, when Hiller and Elomina questioned Fletcher about his failure to produce a recording for an internal affairs investigation on which he had agreed to assist.

All parties acknowledge that the interview grew contentious, and eventually Fletcher stood up from his chair. That's where the accounts diverge.

In Fletcher's version, Hiller responded by cursing at him and ordering him to sit down.

"Fletcher attempted to leave the room, but was physically accosted," his lawsuit alleges. "During the struggle, plaintiff Fletcher was struck severely on the face, causing bruising around the eye."

Subsequently, Fletcher says, he left the room, but Elomina then took him by the arm into an interview room. Elomina stripped Fletcher of his duty belt, including his radio and phone, Fletcher said, and ordered him to stay there while Hiller went to speak with Ramsay. Fletcher says he was forced to remain in the room for approximately 30 minutes.

Placing Fletcher in the room under threat not to leave amounted to confinement without due process, Davey wrote in support of the false imprisonment count he brought in the suit.

Hiller and Elomina, however, say that when Fletcher stood up during his meeting with them, he moved toward Hiller in a threatening manner. In response, Hiller put his hands on Fletcher's shoulder and ordered him to sit, but Fletcher persisted in his direction.

"He was actually resisting and he came forward again, and I pushed again and I actually kind of pushed away," Hiller said in a Sept. 5 deposition in which he offered no recollection of striking Fletcher on the face.

Elomina said in his deposition that he led Fletcher by the arm into the interview room and took the deputy's duty belt. But he said he didn't take Fletcher's phone, which the deputy had already left in the meeting room.

Fletcher was in the interview room for only five minutes before Hiller returned and told him to go back to his work station at the Stock Island Detention Center, according to Hiller and Elomina.

On his way to the jailhouse, Fletcher encountered Ramsay and told him what had happened, but Ramsay responded that the Sheriff's Office did not have a mechanism to deal in-house with a complaint against the head of internal affairs, Ramsay said in his deposition.

Fletcher instead took his complaint to the FDLE, then headed locally by Vince Weiner.

The FDLE conducted its investigation over the course of a month, then took the finding to Assistant State Attorney Manny Madruga, who decided not to bring charges. Madruga did not respond to phone calls last week for an explanation of his decision.

In the suit, Fletcher's attorney made a point of calling Weiner, who resigned from the FDLE in May after pleading guilty to a petit theft charge, a friend of Ramsay.

The Sheriff's Office sparked controversy when it hired Weiner as a road deputy soon after his guilty plea and resignation from the state police.

"I think he is remorseful for his actions and has stepped up to the plate to take responsibility for it," Ramsay said at the time.

While the FDLE was conducting its investigation into Hiller and Elomina, the Sheriff's Office began its own internal affairs review of Fletcher's actions during the events in question.

The office also opened three other internal affairs investigations into Fletcher between December 2010 and February 2011. It ultimately sustained all 12 charges in the four cases, including charges of insubordination, perjury and lack of compliance with a superior's lawful order.

Peryam fired Fletcher on March 7, 2011.

In the lawsuit, Davey contends that the real reason Fletcher was fired was because he filed a complaint with the FDLE.

"In terminating plaintiff Fletcher, defendants MCSO and Sheriff Peryam violated the Whiste-blowers's Act," the suit says.

Sheriff's Office attorney Savage disagrees.

"The decision to terminate plaintiff's employment was made for entirely legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons," he wrote in last month's motion for summary judgment.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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