9 Life sentences in child sexual abuse case

Bay County Sheriff’s Office deputies and bailiffs provided security during sentencing, which was attended by the victim and her family.

A Panama City man received 9 consecutive life sentences Wednesday after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl multiple times over a period of months and videotaping the attacks, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Phillip Lyvonne Stephens, 38, was ordered to spend the rest of his life in prison Wednesday morning by Circuit Court Judge Brantley Clark, who also presided over Stephens’ one-day bench trial and found him guilty as charged on all 10 counts.

Prosecutor Jennifer Lieb, right, questions Bay County Sheriff’s Office Cpl. Murray Williams. Left is co-counsel Josh James.

The defendant waived his right to a jury trial on 7 counts of Sexual Battery on a Child Under the Age of 12, 2 counts of Lewd and Lascivious Molestation, and 1 count of Lewd or Lascivious Exhibition.

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However, Judge Clark did not waive Stephens’ appearance for sentencing. With 8 Bay County Sheriff’s Office deputies and bailiffs – along with the victim and her family – in the courtroom, lead Prosecutor Jennifer Lieb asked Clark for the maximum sentence.

“He has refused to accept responsibility and has adamantly blamed everyone else, including the victim,” Lieb said in court. “He very carefully groomed this child to behave the way he wanted her to.”

Judge Clark said that based on the evidence before him, which included video the defendant recorded of the multiple sexual attacks, recordings of phone calls the defendant made from jail, and testimony from the victim, he was giving the defendant Life in prison on the first 9 charges and 15 years on the final charge. The defendant was also designated a Sexual Predator.

Lieb praised the victim, who was the State’s second witness, for her strength in testifying and being in court for sentencing.

“This child is incredibly brave to face the person that abused her multiple times,” Lieb said. “She wanted to testify against him to make sure he couldn’t do this to any other children. This defendant videotaped his abuse, creating a record of the abuse that would revictimize this child every time it was played.

“He will never harm another child in our area or anywhere else.”

The abuse came to light in June, 2020, when the defendant was arrested for domestic violence. The defendant called the victim’s mother from jail in an attempt to get her to destroy evidence. About the same time, the victim’s mother told a co-worker that she had found videotapes of the sexual abuse. The co-worker notified the Bay County Sheriff’s Office.

Detectives obtained a search warrant for the home where the crimes occurred and found both a camera mounted to the wall behind the bed and an electronic tablet. The memory card on the camera and the tablet both contained videos of the crimes with which the defendant was convicted.

The victim’s mother is serving a 20-year sentence for Neglect of a Child Causing Great Bodily Harm, Failure to Report Child Abuse, Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Possession of Methamphetamine, and Possession of Cocaine. She was charged with neglect and failure to report because evidence showed she was aware of the abuse and did nothing to protect the child.

Lieb thanked the Bay County Sheriff’s Office and Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center investigators for their work in discovering and investigating the crimes.

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

High-speed pursuit ends with 8 years in prison for PSJ man

PORT ST. JOE – A Gulf County jury Friday took less than 10 minutes to find a man guilty of leading police on a chase that included jumping train tracks from an access road, and the judge sentenced him to 8 years in prison, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Rasha Cummings, 30, of Port St. Joe, was sentenced by Circuit Court Judge Devin Collier following Friday’s verdict. He was also ordered to pay $1,008 in fines and court costs.

Rasha Cummings

Gulf County Chief Prosecutor Tracy Smith presented evidence and witnesses, including the officer who attempted the traffic stop on the defendant Oct. 4, 2021, to prove the State’s case. Fleeing to Elude a Law Enforcement Officer (Siren and Lights Activated with High Speed or Reckless Driving), is a second-degree felony.

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According to the evidence, Port St. Joe Police Lt. Russell Burch was on duty Oct. 4, 2021, when he spotted a truck approaching him at more than 45 mph in a 20 mph zone residential neighborhood. Burch said he attempted a traffic stop but the driver sped away when he activated his emergency lights.

Lt. Burch called for backup as the defendant continued through a residential area at speeds of up to 60 mph, running multiple stop signs before turning onto an access road that ran parallel to the railroad tracks.

The vehicle crossed the tracks several times as it approached State 71 before the passenger jumped out of the fleeing vehicle into a ditch. Lt. Burch and another officer wrestled with and detained the passenger.

The vehicle continued for about 100 more yards before encountering Gulf County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Chris Buchanan, who had positioned his vehicle on the access road. The defendant abandoned the truck, leaving it in gear, and fled into the woods.

Gulf County Sheriff Mike Harrison captured the defendant a short distance away.

Basford thanked Lt. Burch and Sheriff Harrison for their actions that day and noted how the two agencies worked together in a rapidly developing situation to apprehend the suspects.

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

2 guilty of attempted murder in after-party shooting that included high-speed chase

Lead Prosecutor Frank Sullivan makes a point with the jury.

A Bay County jury Friday convicted two men of attempting to kill three people who they shot at while chasing them across northwestern Bay County at speeds surpassing 100 mph, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

Jordan Cayne Hutchinson, 22, and Chase Sonny Chavez, 21, were found guilty of three counts each of Attempted Second Degree Murder. On each of those counts, the jury found Hutchinson “actually possessed and discharged a firearm” during the crime, while Chavez was found to have possessed a firearm at the time.

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The defendants were tried together with separate attorneys but one jury. Under Florida’s 10-20-Life Statute, Hutchinson faces a minimum-mandatory 20-year prison sentence on each of his Attempted Second Degree Murder charges, while Chavez faces a minimum-mandatory 10-year sentence on each of his.

Left to right, defendant Chase Chavez and his attorney. Defendant Jordan Hutchinson is on the far right with his attorney.

Additionally, both men were found guilty of Shooting into an Occupied Vehicle, and Hutchinson was also convicted of Aggravated Assault. Any sentences handed down on those charges would have to be served separately from the 10-20-Life sentences.

Prosecutors Frank Sullivan and Jae Hee Kim presented evidence and witnesses, including the three victims and investigators from the Bay County Sheriff’s Office, proving the state’s case. The jury took about 90 minutes to reach its verdict.

Sullivan told jurors they heard a lot of evidence from multiple witnesses about the shotgun blasts fired in a median along State 79 and then an ensuing chase and more shots on County 388 to the airport and back. A shotgun and a rifle were recovered from the defendants’ vehicle, along with spent shells.

“But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter which one of the defendants pulled the trigger each time and which was the driver,” Sullivan said. “They both participated and they both wanted this to happen. They are principals.”

Testimony elicited by Sullivan and Kim showed there had been a party late the night of July 3, 2019, that went past midnight. As it broke up, some went to a convenience store at State 79 and Hwy. 388 – including the defendants and the victims.

An argument began between one of the victims, who was a passenger in a truck, and one of the defendants who was in a Jeep. Words were exchanged but the victims left without incident.

One victim, who was a passenger in the truck, said they pulled onto State 79 and then into a cut in the median to make a U-turn south back into town when the Jeep, and the defendants, came “sliding” in behind them.

He testified he got out of the truck thinking there might be a fight, but Hutchinson jumped out of the Jeep holding and then cocking a shotgun. He said he ran behind his truck for cover, but Hutchinson fired a shot at him and came around the other side of the truck. “(Hutchinson) had that shotgun cocked right in my face,” he testified.

The victim said he grabbed the barrel of the shotgun, they wrestled over it, and it went off again before he was able to jump back in his truck – which had the other two victims in it – and flee east on County 388 trying to get away.

He told jurors he was going well over 100 mph but the defendants kept pace, and kept firing. One projectile pierced the rear window and rearview mirror before striking the windshield, narrowly missing one of the passengers.

Near the airport, he testified, he made a U-turn and sped back toward State 79 and then Panama City Beach. One of the victims was on the phone with 911 and another with his stepdad, at the time a Beach police officer, and they found that officer near the Panama City Beach Police Department.

“Let me tell you what, I was scared,” the victim said, recapping the night. “It still gives me … I don’t even like to think about it.”

Hutchinson and Chavez were located a short time later in the Jeep and the two weapons recovered.

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

 

 

 

JURY: Man guilty of sexually battering two teens

A Springfield man faces life in prison after being found guilty of forcing his way into a home, holding and assaulting three residents at knifepoint, and sexually battering two teens.

Jason Dowdell, 38, was found guilty of three counts of Sexual Battery, three counts of False Imprisonment, three counts of Tampering with a Witness or Victim, Burglary, Child Abuse, three counts of Aggravated Assault, and Battery.

Jason Dowdell

Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay set sentencing for Oct. 7 and ordered a Pre-Sentencing Investigation.

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Prosecutors Barbara Beasley and Jennifer Lieb presented evidence and testimony that the defendant, armed with a knife, forced his way into the home in May of 2021. Two of the victims were bound, evidence gathered by Springfield Police and Investigators showed, and all three were threatened. The defendant was found guilty of two counts of Sexual Battery against one of the victims.

Beasley and Lieb called 14 witnesses during the one-day trial, including the three victims, Florida Department of Law Enforcement experts and five Springfield police officers, including Chief Barry Roberts.

Altogether, 29 pieces of evidence including DNA findings and the knife used in the crime were shown to jurors.

The jury began deliberations around 5: 30 p.m. and returned with a verdict about 1 hour and 15 minutes later.

Basford thanked the Springfield Police Department for the case it put together and FDLE agents for their testimony.

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

Life without parole in Beach murder

Andre Devon Bivins will spend the rest of his life in prison for the 2019 shooting death of Edward Ross on Panama City Beach, State Attorney Larry Basford announced.

The defendant was found guilty last month of First Degree Felony Murder and Attempted Robbery in the death of Ross, who was shot multiple times inside the home he shared with his father.

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Circuit Court Judge Shonna Young Gay sentenced the defendant to life in prison without the possibility of parole under Florida’s 10-20-Life Statute on the murder conviction, and 15 years on the Attempted Robbery.

Andre Bivins looks toward the prosecutor as he is fingerprinted after sentencing.

Prosecutors Mark Graham and Frank Sullivan presented the case to jurors, who took about 25 minutes to deliver the verdict. Monday, Graham said the evidence in the case was clear: “The defendant led the other defendants (all armed) into the home in search of money and drugs.”

The evidence gathered by Bay County sheriff’s investigators showed that as the defendant and two others burst into the home with pistols and confronted the victim’s father, Kenneth Ross, the victim came walking down the hall to see what was happening. He had been taking a shower and had only a bath towel.

Evidence and testimony showed that Bivins fired the first shot and struck Ross, and the two other defendants then opened fire as well before fleeing.

Kenneth Ross, the victim’s father, witnessed it all.

The victim’s father walks by the defendant and his attorney at sentencing.

“I was told from the very beginning that the perpetrators would be caught and punished,”
Ross said during sentencing. “That promise was fulfilled.”

Addressing the defendant, Ross told him, “in some ways your attempted robbery was a success; you robbed me of a son.”

“I’ll have to live for the rest of my life with the image of my son lying on the floor bleeding out, gasping for air, and watching as the life light bled out of his eyes while I was on the phone with 911,” Ross said.

And despite that pain, Ross told the defendant, “I forgive you and will pray for your soul, because, sir, you are definitely going to need it.

Basford thanked the Bay County Sheriff’s Office for its thorough and lengthy investigation into the complicated case.

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

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.