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Sheriff Ivey talks transparency on Edwards case but actions tell another story

Ivey did not want West Melbourne footage leaving police control

Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey speaking on Feb. 23 in Tallahassee at a law enforcement leaders workshop hosted by Gov. Rick Scott after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting.
Brevard County Sheriff Wayne Ivey speaking on Feb. 23 in Tallahassee at a law enforcement leaders workshop hosted by Gov. Rick Scott after the Parkland, Florida high school shooting. (Florida Channel)

BREVARD COUNTY, Fla. – On Wednesday, December 12, 2018, two days after Brevard County Jail inmate Gregory Lloyd Edwards died following an altercation with seven corrections deputies, Sheriff Wayne Ivey had a hard conversation with the West Melbourne Police Department, News 6 partner Florida Today reports.

West Melbourne had received a public records request for all police video of Edwards’ arrest by city police at a Walmart three days earlier, when the Iraq and Kosovo war vet assaulted a charity worker outside Walmart during what his wife called a post-traumatic stress disorder episode.

As a courtesy, the city alerted the sheriff about the request because deputies had already started a homicide investigation into the 38-year-old former combat medic’s death. Ivey was clear that he did not want the West Melbourne footage leaving police control. Both the sheriff and West Melbourne officials confirmed on Friday that Ivey had asked West Melbourne not to hand over any footage because of the active investigation.

But West Melbourne City Attorney Morris Richardson disagreed that the footage should be kept from the public, and told city police officials to tell Ivey that the exemption didn’t apply to West Melbourne’s records.

“I gave the opinion that although the exemption to the Public Records Act for active criminal investigative information did apply to the sheriff’s investigation, it did not apply to our agency’s records,” Richardson told FLORIDA TODAY. “Sheriff Ivey initially disagreed but within a day or two called back and said, basically, ‘Go ahead, release it.’ He wasn’t happy with my opinion, but he agreed.”

Now, a year and half later, all Edwards’ videos, as Sheriff Ivey himself pointed out this week, have been released, except for the only one directly controlled by his office: the one from the jail that shows what happened soon after Edwards arrived at the complex and a fight broke out between him a deputy, leading to a melee with as many as six other deputies.

That fight ended – according to the sheriff’s investigation — with Edwards punched and kneed, tased six times, pepper-sprayed, handcuffed and strapped into a restraint chair with chemicals still on his face and a spit hood over his head. Left alone in a cell without medical attention, Edwards was found by guards unresponsive nearly 16 minutes later and was pronounced dead the next day. One deputy was treated for a concussion.

In a news conference on Tuesday, Ivey reiterated his refusal to release the jail video but noted it was the exception to how he has treated such footage, especially since the State Attorney’s office ruled last year that the deputies were justified in their use of force against Edwards.

Margarita Bonilla (left), the mother-in-law of Gregory Edwards, holds a sign at a demonstration in Melbourne on Thursday night. (Photo: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)
Margarita Bonilla (left), the mother-in-law of Gregory Edwards, holds a sign at a demonstration in Melbourne on Thursday night. (Photo: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)

“The only video that has not been released is the jail security video. That's the only one. All the other videos — the videos of Mr. Edwards attacking the truck driver, the video of Mr. Edwards being transported to the jail, the video of the West Melbourne officer that encountered him at the Walmart — everything has been released,” Ivey said.

But contrary to Ivey’s assertion of transparency in the Edwards case, the BCSO has often acted to keep information and records about the event – as it did with the West Melbourne police videos – out of the public realm for as long as possible. Every effort to delay, conceal or restrict information from being released has been documented by FLORIDA TODAY from official emails, exchanges with lawyers, and text messages.

Over the 18 months since Edwards died, the BCSO has sought to slow down and even prevent the release of photos, videos and use of force reports from the case, even after the investigation was concluded. His office cites various statutory exemptions, ranging from security to federal laws on patient privacy.

In February this year, the Sheriff’s Office claimed that photographs taken by a BCSO crime scene investigator of Edwards after he had been taken from the jail to the Rockledge Regional Medical Center were medical records exempt from release.

The Florida Attorney General, however, had ruled in previous cases that medical records had to be made by a health care practitioner. The photographs were taken by a BCSO employee and maintained by the Sheriff’s Office. It took the threat of a lawsuit before the BCSO released the photos to FLORIDA TODAY showing a bruised, comatose Edwards handcuffed to a hospital bed.

Ivey has also personally lashed out at a state official who questioned the findings of the autopsy report by Brevard’s medical examiner that concluded Edwards’ manner of death was an accident, and that he died of “excited delirium,” a rare and controversial medical condition.

An ‘inappropriate’ phone call

Shortly before FLORIDA TODAY published two articles quoting Dr. Stephen J. Nelson, the chairman of the Florida Medical Examiners Commission, calling into question excited delirium as a cause of death statewide and specifically in the case of the Edwards autopsy, an angry Sheriff Ivey called Nelson to complain.

“He was upset,” Nelson said of the call that lasted about eight “unpleasant” minutes.

Nelson said Ivey questioned why Nelson would critique another medical examiner’s work. Nelson pointed out to Ivey that the investigation was closed, and the autopsy report is a public record.

FLORIDA TODAY called and emailed Brevard Medical Examiner Dr. Sajid S. Qaiser’s office several times to request an interview related to Edwards' autopsy and the cause and manner of death determinations. Qaiser initially agreed but then chose only to respond to emailed questions through his office.

Medical Examiner Sajid Qaiser speaking in court in 2014. (Photo: FLORIDA TODAY FILE)
Medical Examiner Sajid Qaiser speaking in court in 2014. (Photo: FLORIDA TODAY FILE)

Nelson’s comments on the Edwards case were relayed to Qaiser and the state attorney before publication. The State Attorney’s Office and the medical examiner’s office are independent from the Sheriff’s Office. The decision by the state attorney whether to prosecute can hinge on the findings of the medical examiner.

Nelson said Ivey asked him if he had spoken to the state attorney or medical examiner prior to speaking about the case.

“I said: Sheriff, let me explain something to you. I said these records are kept as public records … so anybody can come and look at them and draw their own conclusions.”

“I don't believe that this is excited delirium,” Nelson said he told Ivey of Edwards’ death, adding, “What it is: I'm not sure, but he's (Qaiser’s) not substantiated, to my mind, that it's excited delirium.”

Nelson said Ivey “continued to go on,” saying “I think it's very inappropriate for you to be reviewing somebody else's work, and, you know, you realize now this is civil litigation and now you're a witness in the civil litigation.”

“And at that point, I felt like saying: Sheriff, are you witness tampering now?”

Nelson didn’t but described the conversation as “inappropriate.”

Ivey confirmed the conversation with Nelson in a long statement to FLORIDA TODAY.

“The purpose of my call to Dr. Nelson was to determine if he had in fact reviewed the work of another Medical Examiner,” Ivey wrote. “I inquired from Dr. Nelson if he had actually reviewed all of the evidence in the Brevard case; if he had spoken to the investigators who worked the case; or if he had even spoken to Dr. Qaiser about his findings prior to arriving at his own conclusion or sharing his opinion… Dr. Nelson apprised me that he had not spoken to any of the involved investigators, nor Dr. Qaiser, nor had he reviewed any actual evidence in the case.”

“Prior to ending the call, I informed Dr. Nelson that while the case had been appropriately closed by the Office of the State Attorney -- 18th Judicial Circuit, with no criminal wrongdoing by law enforcement or corrections personnel, there could be future civil litigation on the matter Dr. Nelson was advised that since he engaged in the review of the case and offered a professional opinion thereafter, he would most certainly become a witness in any future civil proceedings.”

No mention of fight, Taser or restraint chair

Barely two days after Edwards' passing, with autopsy findings still pending, the Sheriff's Office put out a press release announcing Edwards' death.

No mention was made of a fight between Edwards and seven deputies. Nor was the use of a Taser or pepper spray or a restraint chair noted. Nothing was said about his veteran status. The headline simply read: "Brevard Inmate Dies After Suffering Medical Emergency at the Jail."

"A Brevard County Jail inmate has died after suffering an apparent medical event during his booking procedure on December 9, 2018," it said, adding: "The Brevard County Sheriff’s Office Homicide Unit is investigating the death. The investigation to date has identified a previous inhalant use/abuse as a possible cause of the medical event."

Sheriff's investigators seemed fixated on Edwards' possible "huffing" or use of inhalants to get high as a potential key factor in his death, and the theory was pursued throughout the medical examiner's case. BCSO lead criminal investigator in the case, Agent Jennifer Straight, sent several emails to the medical examiner’s office about the toxicology results.

Deputies went to a hardware store and photographed the list of ingredients on cans of the electronics cleaners like those found in the Edwards home and sent them to the medical examiner's office. Despite multiple tests, all Edwards' toxicology results repeatedly came back negative except for a therapeutic quantity of the active ingredient found in the antihistamine Benadryl.

Brevard County Sheriff's Office Lt. Bert Gamin, who drew national media attention this week for a Facebook post encouraging officers involved with violent incidents against protesters in Buffalo and Atlanta to come to Florida, has resigned from the agency. The announcement was made by Sheriff Wayne Ivey at a Friday morning press conference.  (Photo: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)
Brevard County Sheriff's Office Lt. Bert Gamin, who drew national media attention this week for a Facebook post encouraging officers involved with violent incidents against protesters in Buffalo and Atlanta to come to Florida, has resigned from the agency. The announcement was made by Sheriff Wayne Ivey at a Friday morning press conference. (Photo: MALCOLM DENEMARK/FLORIDA TODAY)

Ivey still insists Edwards was huffing and that it somehow contributed to his death but offers no evidence in support of it.

“The doc — medical examiner’s — diagnosis of cause of death, excited delirium, fits perfectly in place when you consider all of the facts, and the facts that drove this was him huffing aerosols for hours,​​​​" Ivey said on WMMB’s Bill Mick Live show in November, making no mention of the negative toxicology reports.

Use of force reports?

In interviews with Orlando TV station Fox35 in October and then again with Bill Mick in November last year, Ivey boasted that the Edwards investigations, both criminal and internal, were the most thorough he had seen in his law enforcement career. Yet, the Sheriff's Office has not been able to explain the public record evidence that suggests pieces of his internal affairs investigation are missing.

Use of force reports are part of the paperwork officers complete in police agencies across the country. Every time a police officer discharges a firearm, deploys a taser, swings a truncheon or unleashes a can of pepper spray, they are required to document the use of the weapon and why they used it. The documents are supposed to serve as a point of reference and backup memory.

Every agency has its own requirements. Use of force reports are not used in criminal proceedings — like the Edwards investigation — because of constitutional guarantees against self-incrimination, but they are critical to internal investigations to determine if officers should be disciplined and can be referred to in civil rights cases and lawsuits.

In the Edwards case, there are none because the BCSO says they were not required.

In August 2019, Alex Fischback, now a commander of the BCSO’s eastern precinct, was head of administrative services for the sheriff’s office. Fischback said at the time that because Edwards’ death triggered an immediate criminal investigation, there was no need for use of force reports, and he promised to get that in writing.

Six months later, on Feb. 13, Debra Holt, the Sheriff’s Office records manager, wrote: “In cases involving serious injury and/or death where a criminal investigation is in progress; any and all use of force is detailed in the investigative report comprising all sworn statements and evidence gathered during the investigation. Subject officers do not provide use of force reports because the US Constitution prevents compelled statements during a criminal investigation.”

But in an audio recording from the June 2019 BCSO Staff Services investigation — the agency's equivalent of an internal affairs probe — investigator Agent Joseph Bracey refers directly to a use of force report compiled on behalf of Deputy Alison Blazewicz. She is the deputy who deployed a Taser against Edwards. Blazewicz was not obligated to testify for BCSO’s criminal investigation, but she had to participate in the staff services inquiry.

The audio was provided to FLORIDA TODAY by the Sheriff’s Office after a protracted public records request. In it, the reference to Blazewicz’s use of force report is very straightforward and what emerges is that report, compiled by another deputy, does not mention use of a Taser at all.

Here is a partial transcript of that audio recording:

Bracey: Did you have to complete a use of force report due to the discharge of the taser? Or is that something that was documented by someone else in the use of force?

Blazewicz: That was something documented by somebody else.

Bracey: Did you review that use of force report after the fact?

Blazewicz: No.

Bracey: I don't know if the use of force report is in here or not. (Shuffles papers)…

Blazewicz: If it's what Cpl. Ellis typed up, then, yes, if that's what you're referring to.

Bracey: Yeah. You did review that?

Blazewicz: Yes.

Bracey: Okay. Is that accurate as to your involvement with the Taser?

Blazewicz: I don't recall her putting anything about the Taser in there.

(Pause as Bracey shuffles through more papers, mutters to himself).

Bracey: But OK, so the use of force report that Cpl. Ellis completed, you reviewed that?

Blazewicz: Yes.

Even after bringing this exchange to the attention of the BCSO, officials continued to deny that anything remotely resembling use of force reports exist and would not acknowledge any document drawn up by Cpl. Ellis.

On Feb. 27, BCSO spokesman Tod Goodyear said in an email:

“A complete overview of the entire investigative process to include all enclosures was conducted. In particular, I reviewed the interviews by Professional Standards and Major Crimes of the personnel mentioned by Florida Today. After that review it is quite clear that no Sheriff’s Office personnel completed a use of force report as is a customary practice when an investigation is authorized. The investigative report thoroughly detailed any use of force.

“As you are aware, the Brevard County Sheriff’s Office has completely complied with all public records requests subject to release by relevant state statute. Any and all records relating to this matter have been provided to your organization.”