Ocala, Florida — Former Marion County Sheriff’s Deputy and SWAT Team member Cody Hoppel, 31, pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday for the beating of a Marion Oaks man. Then, Hoppel dropped a bombshell and also pleaded guilty to the beating of a Williston man in an unrelated case.
Hoppel is the fourth of five deputies to plead guilty to the August 7, 2014, beating of Derrick Price, 44, of Marion Oaks.
Former Deputies Trevor Wade Fitzgerald, 32, James Louis Amidei, 32, and Adam Crawford, 31, pleaded guilty in July of 2015.
The fifth deputy, Jesse Terrell, refused to plead guilty and had to be fired from the agency, unlike his colleagues who resigned from the MCSO. Terrell has refused to take a plea deal because he does not feel as though he has done anything wrong.
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the arrest was recorded on surveillance video at two local businesses located on Marion Oaks Boulevard. The video has been the key evidence in this case.
That video tells a different story than what the five deputies wrote in their reports.
Price, along with his attorney, has stated numerous times that if the businesses had not captured the beating, the deputies probably would have gone unpunished since they were not wearing body cameras.
The court documents read as follows, where Cody Hoppel, Adam Crawford, and Jesse Terrell are respectively referred to in court documents as deputies 1, 2, and 3.
“The video footage depicts the unnecessary and unreasonable use of force by three deputies who beat, kicked, and kneed a fully compliant Price while Amidei and Fitzgerald failed to intervene to protect the arrestee, despite having the opportunity to do so. Deputy 2 kneeled down at the right side of Price’s head and shoulder, Deputy 3 positioned himself immediately above Price’s head, Deputy 1 took a position at Price’s left side, and Fitzgerald straddled the back of Price’s legs as Deputy Amidei hovered above the deputies directly behind Deputy 1. At no time did Price resist the deputies or pose a threat in any fashion. After Deputy 2 initially grabbed Price’s left arm from Price’s right side, pinning Price’s right arm to the ground, Deputies 1, 2, and 3 began beating Price as [he] lay on the ground.”
On June 1, 2014, Hoppel participated in a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team operation, located at 17161 Northwest 162nd Terrace, Williston, Florida.
The suspect, Dustin Heathman, 36, had an outstanding arrest warrant for violation of probation for driving on a suspended driver’s license in Levy County. Sources say that the charges in Levy County were dropped.
According to reports, Heathman had barricaded himself inside the residence.
MCSO deputies and SWAT responded to the scene. The SWAT Team utilized a military vehicle known as a Lenco BearCat Armored Personnel Carrier (APC), or Light Armored Vehicle (LAV).
MCSO stated SWAT was dispatched because Heathman’s father had told them that Heathman had weapons in his possession.
The arrest affidavit alleges that, after several hours of negotiations, Heathman fired at the SWAT Team at which time they returned fire.
Heathman eventually surrendered.
According to the plea agreement, Heathman exited his residence and was given verbal commands by a member of the SWAT Team to walk to the rear of the BearCat, which was parked in front of the residence. At one point, Heathman was ordered to stop, remove his shirt, and drop his shorts down to his ankles. Heathman complied with all of the orders.
The U.S Attorney’s Office stated that Heathman was fully compliant and continued to obey verbal commands and walked slowly with his hands up to the rear of the BearCat. At no time did Heathman pose a threat to anyone at the scene.
The court documents state, “As soon as Heathman made it to the rear of the vehicle, and before he was given any verbal commands, he was grabbed from behind by Hoppel in a bear hug and slammed to the ground face-first for the sole purpose of inflicting injury to [Heathman].”
The report states that this was done despite the fact that force was not was necessary to subdue Heathman.
Hoppel testified that while he was punching Heathman in the face, two other SWAT Team members were standing next to him. Hoppel stated that at least one of the two SWAT members participated in the beating. At that time, Heathman was fully compliant and subdued, and did not pose a threat to the SWAT Team.
Not one of the SWAT Team members came forward to report the incident. Moreover, the arrest affidavit makes no mention of Heathman engaging in a physical altercation, resisting arrest, or how Heathman’s face sustained injury, other than to say his ear was hit by “flying” glass.
However, Heathman’s booking photo tells a different story, which was not immediately available after his arrest.
In a statement released to Ocala Post, Sheriff Chris Blair said, “The news of former Marion County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) employee Cody Hoppel pleading guilty to use of excessive force and civil rights violations against Dustin Heathman came to light during Hoppel’s plea hearing on Tuesday in federal court. After the shooting incident occurred between MCSO’s SWAT Team and Heathman on June 1, 2014, an extensive agency shooting review was immediately conducted by the MCSO. All Sheriff’s Office employees involved, including Hoppel, were sworn in to give their testimony of the events. At no time during his sworn testimony to the MCSO detective did Hoppel give any indication, or make any claim, of wrongdoing or violation of any law related to the Heathman arrest. To that end, his statements to federal authorities on Tuesday are in direct conflict with the statement he gave under oath to the MCSO detective during the agency review of this incident. As an agency, we will continue to be transparent to best serve the citizens of Marion County. This type of behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and we will not condone this type of activity.”
According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, not one law enforcement officer or SWAT Team member was wearing a body camera, nor were there any dash cam recordings at the time of the incident.
Since the day of his arrest, Heathman has stated that he was beaten and mistreated by MCSO staff. His family has been very open about the incident on social media and has stated numerous times that the arrest affidavit provided to the media was fabricated.
Questions have also been raised as to how Sheriff Blair did not know that Heathman had been beaten since Blair delivered a video statement from the scene on the day of the incident.
Heathman supporter Jenny Brown wrote, “Dustin is innocent. He never tried to kill anyone. No cops were injured, yet while he was in handcuffs, they beat him so severely he got a concussion, fractured eye socket, and a damaged ear. Real honorable, huh? Just like Soviets. They were the aggressors. They showed up with guns out right from the start for something which the Supreme Court itself says isn’t even a crime.”
Assistant Public Defender Peter Sziklai said that MCSO relied on old information, did not get the address correct on Heathman’s arrest warrant, and should not have been on his property in the first place.
Heathman has been held at the MCSO jail since his arrest. He was charged with 10 counts of Attempted Murder on a Law Enforcement Officer.
The deputies were charged with one count each of Deprivation of Rights under Color of Law, specifically, failure to intervene to stop the assault, resulting in bodily injury to Price.
The felony charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, a term of supervised release of not more than three years, and a special assessment of $100 per felony count.
Hoppel would face an additional charge of Deprivation of Rights under Color of Law for the beating of Heathman. This, too, would carry a maximum sentence of 10 years imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, a term of supervised release of not more than three years, and a special assessment of $100 per felony count.
The deputies could also be forced to pay restitution to both Heathman and Price.
You can read the details in Price’s case at http://bit.ly/1M0HsJY.