ASO Captain Keith Vermillion terminated amidst agency turmoil
After months of investigation—both criminal and administrative—the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office has terminated Captain Keith Vermillion, their chief criminal investigator who was suspended in March.
Administrative investigations found Vermillion forced deputies to use images and audio of child sexual abuse and pornography for “shock value” during training in 2013 and created an atmosphere of distrust among deputies that was “toxic,” according to a press release.
ASO made the announcement in a press release Tuesday afternoon, two weeks after producing some—but not all—of the documents pertaining to the investigations to TV20 per a public records request.
Vermillion will have the opportunity to appeal his termination during an informal hearing with the Sheriff at an undisclosed date, according to the press release.
Vermillion’s attorney, John Stokes, said that he and Vermillion are still strategizing as to how to proceed at this point.
“We’re not going to try our case in the press, unlike the Sheriff,” said Stokes.
No Criminal Wrongdoing
The criminal investigation into five allegations against Vermillion details a culture of distrust among deputies, questionable respect for privacy and a botched burglary investigation—but found no evidence of any criminal wrongdoing.
At the direction of Sheriff Sadie Darnell, St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office Detectives investigated five claims of criminal activity conducted by Vermillion.
The five criminal allegations covered potential wrongdoing spanning from 2010 to the present and included interfering with criminal investigations, mishandling of and tampering with evidence, and surreptitiously recording deputies without their consent.
Darnell suspended Vermillion on March 6, but would not publically say why.
“I have been provided with credible information which causes me great concern and which needs to be thoroughly and properly investigated before I will make further comment,” said Darnell in a press release at the time.
According to her testimony, Darnell said that credible information came from ASO Sgt. Tom Witherington who told her he believed Vermillion was recording deputies without their consent.
On the same day, Darnell asked SJSO to conduct their criminal investigation, according to the case summary.
St. John’s County Sheriff David Shoar and Darnell both serve on the Florida Sheriffs Association executive board.
Shoar assigned SJSO detectives Lt. Howard Cole and Sgt. Kevin Cronin to the case.
At a meeting on March 10, ASO inspectors presented Cole and Cronin with the following five allegations:
- The Cooper Investigation: According to the provided case summary, Capt. Vermillion allegedly altered evidence by requesting ASO Forensic Examiner Curtis Clark to edit a DVD containing an OPS interview of Detention Officer Matthew Cooper and Fraternal Order of Police Representative Jeff McAdams, dated 10/28/10. The edited copy was later sent to the State Attorney’s Office to support a criminal complaint against McAdams for “Tampering with Evidence.” According to Clark, he didn’t “feel right” about editing the recording of the OPS interview.
- The Thigpen Investigation: According to the provided case summary, a search warrant was served at the residence of Wayne Thigpen in furtherance of a child pornography investigation. A computer forensic examination was conducted of the evidence seized during the search warrant. As the examination was being conducted, Capt. Vermillion frequently visited the Forensic Examiner Curtis Clark inquiring as to how many files of child pornography had been located thus far. During the examination, the forensic examiner located several files depicting Thigpen and his wife engaged in sexual activity in public places, including the United States Post Office. According to Clark, he informed the case agent and his supervisor of the finding. At some point during the investigation, Capt. Vermillion contacted Clark directly and requested copies of the files involving Thigpen and his wife and informed Clark that he (Vermillion) intended to provide the files to the United States Postmaster as Thigpen was retired from the US Postal Service. Clark did as he was told and gave the DVD to Capt. Vermillion. Capt. Vermillion provided the DVD to ASO Lt. Bella Blizzard and instructed her to deliver the DVD to a United States Postmaster. It was also alleged in the allegation that Wayne Thigpen and Capt. Vermillion were friends.
- The Undercover Watch Investigation (surreptitious recording): According to the provided case summary, ASO Forensic Examiner Curtis Clark recalls an incident where Capt. Vermillion showed Clark a new watch that was purchased for the Drug Task Force. Capt. Vermillion advised Clark that the watch was actually a recording device and could be utilized to capture audio and video footage for undercover operations. Clark observed Capt. Vermillion later that same day entering the cubicles of several different detectives and engaging them in conversation. Clark believed that Capt. Vermillion was utilizing the undercover watch to record his conversations with the detectives.
- The Hayes Jewelry Store Burglary Investigation: According to the provided case summary, ASO Detective Billy Beck was assigned to investigate a burglary that occurred at Hayes Jewelry on January 26, 2012. Early in the investigation, a private investigator by the name of “Crowley” contacted the jewelry store owner (Hayes) and represented himself as investigating the burglary case with Captain Vermillion of the ASO. As a result, the store owner provided Crowley with information that would normally be reserved for law enforcement. Detective Beck was “shocked” because he did not know that Capt. Vermillion requested assistance from an outside source (Crowley) regarding this case. Crowley allegedly interviewed a suspect (before law enforcement), causing him to “pack up” and leave the area before he could be interviewed formally by the ASO. Additionally, Crowley sent the store owner, Hayes a bill for his services which was not accepted or paid by Hayes.
- The ASO Supervisor’s Meeting Investigation (surreptitious recording): According to the provided case summary, Capt. Vermillion advised Sgt. Witherington (Acting Lieutenant) to gather the Criminal Investigation Division supervisors for a meeting (date unknown). Sgt. Witherington contacted Sergeants Paul Bernal, Dan Gerard, Vernell Brown and W.T. Crews and accompanied them to Capt. Vermillion’s office. When they arrived, Capt. Vermillion seemed surprised as he was expecting the meeting to be held in the CID Conference Room. Capt. Vermillion asked everyone to “wait a minute” at which point he closed his door for a brief moment before reopening it and inviting everyone to enter and have a seat. Approximately one and one-half hours into the meeting, a computerized female voice was heard originating from Capt. Vermillion’s cell phone, which was located on his left hip. The voice stated, “Warning. Recording time is about to expire.” Capt. Vermillion immediately rose to a half-standing position and grabbed the phone from his hip and stated, “Whitney’s calling me.” Sergeant Bernal laughed and replied, “So Whitney is recording us?” Capt. Vermillion did not reply, but did appear to press buttons or icons on the face of his phone before returning the phone to his hip.
Other than the case summary, no record—including an audio recording or a transcript—exists of the March 10 meeting between ASO inspectors and the SJSO detectives.
The SJSO detectives completed their criminal investigation in nine days and interviewed 24 witnesses. Twenty-two of those interviews occurred on March 12-13.
An SJSO forensic analyst examined Vermillion’s agency computer and cell phone, as well as a flash drive connected to the computer at the time Darnell suspended him.
At the end of his initial interview, Vermillion, through his attorney John Stokes, said that he believed the detectives would find no evidence on his computer.
But if the detectives did find any evidence, Stokes asked that the detectives entertain the thought that he had been framed by one of the employees originating a complaint—particularly those who “work in the forensic division.”
“I think we would absolutely give that strong consideration,” said detective Cronin.
The detectives found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
Falling on Deaf Ears
Though criminal investigation began on March 6 of this year, deputies had attempted to make Sheriff Sadie Darnell aware of the allegations exactly one year before at a meeting called by ASO supervisors, according to ASO deputies speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
“She called all the deputies into a room and told them to turn off their cell phones. She said no one was allowed to record the meeting in any way, shape or form,” said one deputy.
According to the deputies, Sheriff Darnell was presented with a letter containing some of the allegations of misconduct by Vermillion that became subject of the criminal investigation.
The first line—which Darnell read aloud, the deputies said—said, “Please ask your command staff to leave the room.” (Command staff includes captains like Vermillion.)
“She didn’t take that well,” said a deputy.
The deputies said the sheriff folded up the letter after reading the first line and didn’t read it any further. They said she refused to ask her command staff to leave the room.
Deputies could neither confirm nor deny whether Darnell ever read that letter after the meeting.
ASO Public Information Officer Becky Butscher confirmed the meeting occurred and that she attended it. She also confirmed that the Sheriff was presented with that letter and read the first line and wouldn't read any further, refusing to ask her command staff to leave.
Butscher did not know what allegations were contained in that letter.
An Apparent Interest in Child Pornography
ASO deputies—speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal—told TV20 Vermillion demonstrated an apparent proclivity for child pornography on top of what turned up in the released administrative investigations.
The deputies said Vermillion showed an “unusual” and “creepy” interest in active child pornography investigations.
“He’s a total sick-o,” said one deputy.
The deputies noted other proclivities. They said he’d ask multiple times a day how many images and videos of child pornography had been recovered on confiscated computers of alleged child pornographers.
According to the deputies, he also wanted to present child pornography at an Alachua County Commission meeting as part of a presentation to procure funding for the agency’s Child Sexual Predator unit, which is separate from the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force.
Detective Bella Blizzard alluded to Vermillion’s desire to present child pornography at a meeting in testimony given to St. John’s County Sheriff’s Office (SJSO) detectives investigating criminal allegations against Vermillion—but the detectives said they didn’t care about it unless it concerned criminal activity.
“Did you get a complaint about a County Commission slideshow?” she asked the SJSO detectives in testimony. “I’ll tell you something else real quick. I don’t know if this something you guys would care about.”
“If it’s something that’s more internal or administrative, I would refer you to your internal affairs or OPS,” said SJSO detective Cronin.
ASO did not include the County Commission slideshow investigation in any of the documents provided to TV20 or in their press release.
A Desperate Man Doing Desperate Things
When Sheriff Sadie Darnell first suspended Capt. Keith Vermillion on March 6, he wasn’t aware that the allegations against him were criminal as well as administrative.
He signed an administrative order on that date swearing he wouldn’t discuss the investigation with anyone until it became a matter of public record.
But after he found out the investigation was criminal when St. John’s County Detectives interviewed him a week later, he said he felt as though he’d “been kicked to the curb.”
“I was worried I was going to be arrested at that point,” said Vermillion in testimony taken on March 26. “Nobody was advocating for me here.”
This appears to contradict the testimony of his attorney, John Stokes, at the end of that same interview with St. John’s County Detectives. Stokes said the allegations were “flimsy” at best and likely false toward the end of the interview.
Despite this, Vermillion wrote in a letter, “the thought of me being arrested loomed over me every day and night for me as I was aware of the alleged criminal allegations and that according to the first press release there was credible information.”
“I have not been sleeping, two or three hours a night, since this happened and, uh, I’m done. I don’t know how I can recover from this,” he said in his sworn testimony.
ASO deputies who reviewed the case evidence at TV20’s request found that statement odd.
“Why would the captain of the [Criminal Investigation Division] fear arrest or lose sleep for things that he said he doesn’t know anything about?” asked a deputy who requested to remain unnamed for fear of reprisal.
Two days after the interview, Vermillion called Kelly Amerson, a potential witness he named to St. John’s County detectives, to give her a heads up that they might wish to speak with her about The Undercover Watch Investigation.
“When you’re a desperate person you do desperate things, and I probably should not have called Kelly, but uh, I felt I needed to find witnesses to defend me, because I don’t know anybody’s doing that,” he said.
The deputies told TV20 that he should have known not to make that phone call—and so did the sheriff, according to the case file.
“It was clear that he knew not to talk about it,” said Darnell in testimony.
St. John’s County Detectives never requested testimony from Amerson. According to the case file, she served no part in their criminal investigation.
Vermillion served as the chief inspector of the Office of Professional Standards, which investigates potential violations of administrative policy, for four years.
Inspectors who Vermillion used to supervise punished him for communicating confidential information by docking two of his vacation days.
Internal investigations of Vermillion substantiated one claim of sexual harassment, which upon appeal was changed to a finding of “improper conduct.”
The incident occurred during a pickup softball game some ASO detectives were playing in September 2013 when Vermillion remarked that he’d like to play catcher when a certain female deputy was up to bat.
He said this after another deputy remarked that the oversized shirt the female deputy was wearing made it look like she wasn’t wearing shorts. Investigator Scott Anderson found that the remark made everyone involved in the conversation “uncomfortable.”
Vermillion said he “distinctly does not recall that conversation, um, um, word for word.”
According to the investigation summary, multiple deputies urged the female deputy to report the incident, but she didn’t “because she was afraid that if Captain Vermillion came back either as a captain or any other position within the agency that there could be retaliation.”
“I felt like he was untouchable, that it didn’t matter what I went down and said—it wouldn’t matter, wouldn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t want to put a target on my back with him,” she said.
A fellow detective, not the victim, initiated the investigation in March.
The Office of Professional Standards found that he demonstrated conduct unbecoming of a deputy and docked him two vacation days.
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