Burglar who attacked car sentenced to prison

A Panama City man convicted last month of breaking into another man’s garage and smashing the windshield of a car with a hammer has been sentenced to prison, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Circuit Court Judge Brandon Young sentenced Lee Daniels, 36, to 10 years in prison for Burglary of an Occupied Dwelling and 5 years in prison for Criminal Mischief ($1,000 or greater). Judge Young ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, and they will be followed by 5 years’ probation.

Prosecutors Dustin Miller and Nicole Reed presented evidence and two witnesses – the victim and Panama City Police Detective Matthew Kelly – proving that the defendant committed a burglary when he entered the victim’s garage to vandalize his car with a hammer.

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Miller told jurors during his closing argument that, by law, an attached garage is part of a home and has the same protections.

After the trial, Miller explained that an open garage door is no more an invitation to enter than is the open front door of a home.

“Just because you open your garage door, it does not make your house or garage open to the public,” Miller said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense. Your garage door being open doesn’t change the nature of your home, it’s still your dwelling.”

Basford thanked Kelly, the Panama City Police Department, and other witnesses and neighbors who were prepared to testify if needed.

For additional information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

 

Walton man guilty of soliciting minor for sex via social media

BONIFAY – A Walton County man found guilty of soliciting what he thought was a 15-year-old girl for sex via social media has been designated a Sexual Offender and now faces sentencing Sept. 7, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Samuel Carl Lepone, 33, was found guilty as charged by a Holmes County jury last week of Soliciting a Minor or a Person believed by the Defendant to be a Minor for Unlawful Sexual Conduct, and Transmission of Harmful Material to a Minor. Both charges are third degree felonies, meaning the defendant faces up to 10 years in prison and $10,000 in fines.

Prosecutors Benjamin A. Keown and Jennifer Lieb presented evidence at trial that Lepone believed he was communicating with a 15-year-old girl when he sent a sexually graphic video and solicited the person for sex. In fact, the defendant was talking to Holmes County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Bill Pate, who was using a covert Facebook account.

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The case began in September, 2020, evidence and testimony showed, when the defendant sent an unsolicited nude photograph of himself to a young adult resident of Holmes County. The resident and her parents reported it to the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office, which initiated a proactive investigation into the defendant’s activities.

Lt. Pate, using a covert Facebook account, traded messages online with the defendant, who sent a pornographic video of himself engaged in sex. Later, he solicited sex from what he believed to be a teenaged girl.

Lt. Pate confirmed the defendant’s identity and the arrest was made.

Basford would like to thank Investigator Pate and the Holmes County Sheriff’s Office for the hard work, professionalism, and diligent investigation of this case. Basford also thanked the Holmes County citizens who quickly reported the defendant’s unwanted sexual photos to law enforcement for investigation.

For additional information, please contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or 850-381-7454.

 

 

Man guilty of opening fire on deputies

A man who opened fire on two deputies responding to reports of a man shooting a gun has been found guilty of two counts of Aggravated Assault on a Law Enforcement Officer and one count of Possession of a Bulletproof Vest during the crimes, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

A Bay County jury took 30 minutes to return the verdict against William Kiefer Bradley Egan, 30, of Callaway, on Wednesday. Circuit Judge Timothy Register set sentencing for Aug. 12. Egan faces up to 35 years in prison, with a minimum-mandatory of 3 years on the first two charges.

Assistant State Attorney Barbara Beasley called eight witnesses, including the two deputies who were fired upon and neighbors who saw the defendant holding and firing the gun.

According to the evidence and witnesses Beasley presented, the defendant had a dispute with a family member at home the morning of Feb. 2, 2019. He went to his safe and got out a semi-automatic Beretta 9mm pistol, 2 extra clips, a box of ammunition, a bulletproof vest, and a large hunting knife.

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The family member called law enforcement and the defendant left the home, with his first shots being fired at the family member’s car, which was struck three times.

Neighbors said they also saw the defendant shooting randomly as he walked through the neighborhood.

BCSO Cpl. Jacob McGowin and Sgt. J. Ferrell responded to the call and arrived at the same time, with witnesses pointing out the defendant’s location. The deputies testified that when the defendant saw them, he fired twice at each deputy.

McGowin and Ferrell took cover behind McGowin’s SUV to gear up while keeping an eye on the defendant, who reloaded and began firing again before fleeing.

McGowin contacted SWAT Team Lt. Billy Byrd, who was having lunch with his family nearby, and he responded along with Deputy Jared Walker. Byrd and Walker spotted the defendant, who surrendered a short time later.

Basford thanked the Sheriff’s Office both for its handling of a volatile and potentially deadly situation as well as the case deputies and investigators put together.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

Bivins guilty of Felony Murder in 2019 attempted robbery, slaying

Prosecutor Mark Graham points toward the defendant during closing arguments.

A Bay County jury took about 25 minutes Wednesday to find Andre Devon Bivins guilty as charged in the 2019 attempted robbery and shooting death of Edward Ross on Panama City Beach, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

The guilty verdict followed a two-day trial for the defendant, who was convicted of First-Degree Felony Murder With a Firearm, and Attempted Robbery with a Firearm. Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay set sentencing for Aug. 9. The defendant, now 32, faces life in prison without the possibility of parole pursuant to Florida’s 10-20-Life Statute.

MORE: VIDEO AS VERDICT IS PUBLISHED

Bay County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Matthew Cutcher, left, testifies about bullets and shell casings recovered at the scene. The defendant, at right, with his attorney.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prosecutors Mark Graham and Frank Sullivan presented evidence and witnesses proving that the defendant was one of the three men who burst into Ross’ Sunset Avenue home Dec. 29, 2019, for a planned robbery that turned into a homicide when all three men began shooting. Testimony showed that the defendant was the first in the door and the first to shoot the victim.

“The defendant was one of three shooters and he was actually the one who shot first,” Graham told jurors. “He knew what was going to happen and he was an active participant.”

The State called 13 witnesses ranging from the victim’s father and two co-defendants, to Bay County Sheriff’s Office investigators who interviewed Bivins and an analyst who showed Bivins’ phone was in use near the crime scene after the shooting.

The victim’s father testified a man knocked on their door that night asking for his son, and by the time he told his son – who was in the shower – three men ran into the house armed with pistols. He testified his son, still in his bath towel, only had time to ask what was going on before the shooting started.

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Evidence and testimony showed the defendant fired first, striking Ross in the abdomen, and about 9 more shots were fired almost immediately by the three suspects. Medical Examiner Dr. Jay Radtke testified the victim was struck multiple times. Evidence and testimony showed bullets from all three guns struck the victim.

The victim’s father testified it was over in less than a minute and the men fled. “I saw Edward take his last breath,” he told jurors. Sheriff’s investigators canvassed the area for video and found that just minutes before the shooting, five men in two cars were meeting at a nearby convenience store. The cars left and returned minutes later, then left again toward the victim’s home.

Video from the store showed one of those men going inside and a still shot from that led to Bivins being identified. As the case unfolded, four other co-defendants were located. Three of them admitted to their involvement in statements to investigators and two of those testified at trial.

Basford thanked the Bay County Sheriff’s Office for its work on a complicated case involving five defendants living at times in three different counties.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov

Meth trafficker caught with 6 pounds sentenced to 20 years

A man convicted last month of transporting about 6 pounds of methamphetamine into Bay County last year has been sentenced to 20 years in prison, State Attorney Larry Basford announced Friday.

Jerry Ray Walker, of Carrollton, Ga., was found guilty of Trafficking Amphetamine (200 grams or more) June 29 and sentenced Friday by Circuit Court Judge Timothy Register. The first 15 years of the sentence are minimum/mandatory.

Prosecutor Frank Sullivan, left, checks his notes during Walker’s sentencing Friday before Circuit Court Judge Timothy Register.

“We are dealing with a significant amount of meth,” Judge Register said before announcing his sentence. “My recall is that it was about 6 pounds.”

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Sullivan showed that Sheriff’s investigators got a tip about the incoming methamphetamine in March, 2021, and proved the defendant knew he was transporting a duffle bag full of methamphetamine to Florida along with a co-defendant.

Walker, who was driving, and the co-defendant were stopped by investigators around 1:30 a.m. March 9. A drug-detecting K9 alerted on the vehicle, which led to the discovery of the drugs in a duffle bag.

Basford thanked the Sheriff’s Office for its proactive approach that prevented many thousands of doses of meth from hitting the streets, as well as the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for its analysis of the seized drugs.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

2 Life sentences in child sex case

Rene Elmer Rivas, left, with his attorney during Friday’s sentencing.

A man found guilty last month of sexually battering a young girl was given two life sentences Friday, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Rene Elmer Rivas, 53, was sentenced by Circuit Court Judge Timothy Register for Sexual Battery on a Person Less Than 12 Years of Age, and Lewd or Lascivious Molestation.

Prosecutor Frank Sullivan presented the case to jurors June 28 and it took them less than an hour to find the defendant guilty.

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At trial, Sullivan presented evidence and witnesses including the victim, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center proving that the victim was sexually assaulted by the defendant when she was about 7 years old, and that it happened more than once in 2013-14.

During trial, BCSO Lt. Christian Williams, the case agent, said he watched as the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center conduct a forensic interview with the victim. The victim disclosed the abuse and a physical examination confirmed the abuse.

Basford thanked the GCCAC and Bay County Sheriff’s Office for its work on the case.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

Guilty verdict for man arrested with 2,700 grams of Meth

Sentencing is set for July 15 for a man found guilty Thursday of transporting nearly 3,000 grams of methamphetamine from Georgia to Bay County, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Jerry Ray Walker, of Carrollton, Ga., was found guilty as charged of Trafficking in Amphetamine (200 grams or more) after about an hour of deliberation by a Bay County Jury. Circuit Judge Timothy Register presided over the case and ordered a pre-sentencing investigation.

Prosecutor Frank Sullivan placed the approximately 2,700 grams of methamphetamine before jurors for a closer look during closing arguments.

Under Florida trafficking Statutes, the defendant faces a minimum-mandatory sentence of 15 years, and a maximum sentence of  30 years.

Prosecutor Frank Sullivan presented evidence and witnesses, including the Bay County Sheriff’s Office investigators who got the tip about the shipment and made the arrests, proving that the defendant knew he was transporting a duffle bag full of methamphetamine to Florida in March, 2021.

Evidence and witness testimony showed the defendant drove a friend to a location near their Georgia homes on March 8, 2021, and a relative of the defendant walked out and handed a duffel bag to the passenger and told him to call when “it was done.”

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The defendant claimed his friend had a broken windshield and asked him to drive them that night to Panama City and back in exchange for giving him meth to smoke on the trip. The defendant testified he knew his relative dealt drugs, but claimed he thought the duffel bag was filled with money, not 6 pounds of methamphetamine.

Prosecutor Sullivan said the story was highly improbable, and contrary to the evidence and common sense.

“Inside that blue duffel bag there were three 1-gallon bags full of methamphetamine, and there is no doubt the defendant brought 6 pounds of meth into the State of Florida,” Sullivan told jurors. “You have to decide if he thought that was money or if he knew that was drugs. Use your common sense, your life knowledge.”

Sheriff’s Office investigators Doug Cumming and Steven Cook said they received a tip that a large amount of methamphetamine was coming into Bay County that night and had information about the vehicle but not about who would be in it.

The vehicle was spotted around 1:30 a.m. March 9 and an investigative stop was made. Cumming said he deployed his drug-detecting K9 and it alerted on the vehicle, which led to the discovery of the drugs.

Cumming testified that the defendant claimed he thought the bag was filled with money, but “ultimately he admitted he knew it was a drug transaction.”

Basford thanked the Sheriff’s Office for its proactive approach that prevented many thousands of doses of meth from hitting the streets here, Cumming and Cook for their work on the case, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s Jeremiah Bortle, who tested the seized drugs and testified.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

Man guilty of Sexual Battery of a child

A Bay County jury took less than an hour Tuesday to find a man guilty of Sexual Battery on a Person Less Than 12 Years of Age, and Lewd or Lascivious Molestation, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Rene Elmer Rivas, 53, is scheduled for sentencing before Circuit Court Judge Timothy Register on July 15. He faces life in prison.

Prosecutor Frank Sullivan presented evidence and witnesses including the victim, the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center proving that the victim was sexually assaulted by the defendant when she was about 7 years old, and that it happened more than once in 2013-14.

The defendant testifies, right, with the help of an interpreter, left, while Prosecutor Frank Sullivan takes notes.

The victim testified she did not immediately report the sexual battery out of fear, embarrassment, and the uncertainty of what to do, and instead tried to “act like everything was normal.”

“I was scared,” she told jurors. “I was a little girl, I didn’t know what was going on.”

Another witness testified she was in church with the victim several years later when something “triggered” the victim and she began crying uncontrollably.

She said the victim told her what had happened, and she urged her to tell her mother, which she did that night. The victim said that was the first time she had ever talked about it to anyone. The mother said she initially could not believe it had happened but did ultimately contact the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

BCSO Lt. Christian Williams, the case agent, said he watched as the GCCAC conducted a forensic interview with the victim. The interviews are conducted by people trained in dealing with juvenile victims of abuse, and the victim disclosed the abuse. A physical examination confirmed the abuse.

Williams testified that he then interviewed the defendant, who denied committing the acts but also refused to say the victim was lying. Williams said he took the defendant into custody based on the evidence gathered.

In his closing arguments, Sullivan asked jurors to look at the evidence presented by the state and the defense and decide which made more sense. He submitted the state’s case simply made more sense.

“I submit to you he had an opportunity today again when he took the stand he was asked, ‘Was she lying?’” Sullivan continued. “What was his response? ‘I don’t think so.’ I want you to ask yourself, does that make sense?”

Basford thanked the GCCAC and Bay County Sheriff’s Office for its work on the case and the evidence they gathered for trial, as well as the witnesses who testified.

For more information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@14sa.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.

 

Kody Bidwell joins SAO as investigator

Kody Bidwell has served in law enforcement here and as a teacher in his hometown of Wewahitchka, where his family’s history is intertwined with Gulf County’s educational system.

But it was one place he did not serve, and his drive to give back to the community in the best way possible, that led to Bidwell becoming the newest investigator at the 14th Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office.

State Attorney Larry Basford, right, welcomed the office’s newest investigator, Kody Bidwell, on his first day of work Monday.

“I had a conversation with my wife about my long-term career goals between education and law enforcement,” Bidwell said. “My only regret was not serving in the military. So in that conversation, that was the driving force for me. This was the form in which I was going to serve.”

Bidwell started his law enforcement career with the Panama City Police Department as a patrolman in 2018 and was part of the Criminal Investigations Division before leaving in 2021. Career discussions continued with his wife, they have 3 children, and in January he was asked to take a position at Gulf County Schools for the remainder of the school year.

“I decided it was a great opportunity to try it, to see if I enjoyed it as much as I did law enforcement,” Bidwell said. “It was a great time, the kids were great, it was my alma mater.”

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With a decision to be made on his future career path, and having had a chance to try both, Bidwell said the major factor came down to how to best serve others.

The school year ended in May, Bidwell’s first day as a State Attorney’s Office investigator was Monday, June 13.

Bidwell completed his Basic Law Enforcement Standards at Gulf Coast State College and his Bachelor’s Degree in Law Enforcement Intelligence at FSU-Panama City.

At his Gulf Coast graduation, Bidwell received the Kevin Kight Memorial Scholarship, the Abbot Academic Excellence Award, the Top Gun Award, and a perfect attendance award.

“If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it 100 percent,” he said. “We didn’t have much growing up, so I was raised that you have to work hard for it.”

For additional information contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov.

14-minute burglary verdict reinforces that open door is not an open invitation

A jury took 14 minutes Tuesday to return a guilty-as-charged verdict against a man who entered another man’s garage and smashed his car’s windshield with a hammer, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Lee Daniels, 36, was found guilty of Burglary of an Occupied Dwelling and Criminal Mischief ($1,000 or greater) after a one-day trial. Circuit Judge Brandon Young set sentencing for Aug. 2.

Prosecutor Dustin Miller in court during an earlier trial.

Lead Prosecutor Dustin Miller told jurors during closing statements that, by law, an attached garage is part of a home and has the same protections.

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He asked jurors to use their “God-given common sense” and reject the defendant’s argument that he was only trespassing on Dec. 3, 2019, the day of his arrest.

After the trial, Prosecutor Miller explained that an open garage door is no more an invitation to enter than is the open front door of a home.

“Just because you open your garage door, it does not make your house or garage open to the public,” Miller said. “It’s not rocket science, it’s common sense. Your garage door being open doesn’t change the nature of your home, it’s still your dwelling.”

Miller and Prosecutor Nicole Reed presented evidence and two witnesses – the victim and

Panama City Police Detective Matthew Kelly – proving that the defendant committed a burglary when he entered the victim’s garage to vandalize his car with a hammer.

The defendant was upset with the victim when he walked into his garage after seeing the door open and used a hammer to hit the windshield of the victim’s car at least three times, the State proved.

The victim, who knew the defendant from the neighborhood, heard the noise, walked to the garage to investigate and the two saw each other. The defendant then fled, but was captured a short time later.

At sentencing, the defendant faces up to 15 years for Burglary of a Dwelling and up to 5 years for Criminal Mischief.

Basford thanked Kelly, the Panama City Police Department, and other witnesses and neighbors who were prepared to testify if needed.

For additional information, contact Mike Cazalas at mike.cazalas@sa14.fl.gov, or call 850-381-7454.