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Sheriff and Bunnell Police Team Up With ATF In Illegal-Guns Sting: Half a Dozen Arrested

| September 29, 2017

Sheriff Rick Staly, second from left, speaking with News-Journal reporter Matt Bruce after this morning's press conference. Behind him were State Attorney R.J. Larizza, immediately to Staly's left, Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster, and federal officials. (© FlaglerLive)

Sheriff Rick Staly, second from left, speaking with News-Journal reporter Matt Bruce after this morning’s press conference. Behind him were State Attorney R.J. Larizza, immediately to Staly’s left, Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster, and state and federal officials. Inexplicably, Federal authorities would not let the sheriff display images of suspects arrested or sought on federal charges. The images appear below. (© FlaglerLive)

All but one of the nine names on a sheriff’s poster displaying men sought or arrested Thursday for running drugs, guns or both are familiar faces at the Flagler County jail, where most have numerous arrests and convictions. In all, the men have faced a combined 342 charges and 92 convictions between them over the past 35 years.


At least seven have been re-arrested, three of them on state charges of cocaine sale, four of them on federal charges of selling cocaine and illegally possessing firearms, and seven weapons have been seized–two rifles, including an assault-style AR-15, and five pistols–in the culmination of a four-month joint sting operation between the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, the Bunnell Police Department, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the State Attorney’s Office and other agencies.

Sheriff Rick Staly and State Attorney R.J. Larizza announced the results of the sting and arrests this morning in a press conference at the Sheriff’s Office, where the two were flanked by Bunnell Police Chief Tom Foster and federal law enforcement officials.

Travis Johnson.

Travis Johnson.

Larizza is a veteran of these staged press conferences, though there hadn’t been any for a few years, and this one was different from those in previous years: the focus was not just on rounding up the usual drug suspects, most of whom would be returned to the streets before day’s end anyway, but on targeting illegal guns, and doing so with federal authorities in order to charge the suspects with federal crimes, which would more likely result in tougher penalties, lesser chances of bonding out, and no chance of getting out of prison early upon conviction, as in the state system.

Johnnie Spydale.

Johnnie Spydale.

By enumerating the hundreds of charges the individuals have faced in their lives, and the fact that they still had to be rounded up–some have yet to be–Staly all but explicitly acknowledged that re-arresting them the same old way was not sufficient. That’s why he said he “reached out” to federal authorities to bring them in on a sting they dubbed “Operation Heat Seeker.”

Serome Bell.

Serome Bell.

Staly said there is usually a nexus between guns and drugs, and drive-by shootings are usually drug-related. Federal cases would make it easier to send the individuals to prison for longer, Staly said. “We’re trying to target folks that we believe will not change.”

Jason Dixon.

Jason Dixon.

“We recognized this being a problem in the county, we’ve had drive-by shootings,” Staly said, referring to two such drive-by shootings in particular, one of which targeted one of his deputies. That shooting, however, allegedly carried out by Phillip J. Haire, and against his own house and his own parents, in May, does not appear to have been a drug-related shooting. (The case is pending.) In April, there was a shooting on Plainview Drive in Palm Coast that resulted in a couple of houses getting shot up. That case remains unsolved, and today’s arrests were not connected to that drive-by.

Prince R. Small Jr.

Prince R. Small Jr.

The majority of cases centered on Bunnell. Foster, the Bunnell Police Chief, rejected the notion that Bunnell is a refuge for gun- and drug-runners. But asked why the majority of cases presented today centered on Bunnell, he said: “I don’t know.” But this much is clear: Bunnell, and South Bunnell especially, has the county’s highest proportion of poverty and unemployment, and it has often been a drug boutique for Palm Coast residents.

Gerald E. Smith.

Gerald E. Smith.

“Drugs and guns are a lethal combination, in fact we prosecute several homicides a year that involve drug deals going bad,” Larizza said. “So the drug activity itself breeds a lethality that’s troublesome and certainly counterproductive and dangerous for our community.”

Startlingly, every single one of the individuals arrested or sought is black (with the possible exception of Jason White, whose image could not be located and was not provided). Blacks, of course, are not the only ones running drugs or possessing illegal guns in Flagler County.

Staly was asked about the discrepancy, and whether the operation targeted blacks.

“No, absolutely it did not, it targeted violent felons,” Staly said. “Doesn’t matter to us what color they are. They’re all going to get arrested and go to jail, and if you look in my jail, the majority of inmates are white. Absolutely not, we don’t target people, we target criminals, and South Bunnell has been a hot spot for criminal activity for ever.” South Bunnell is predominantly black. “We’re an equal opportunity arrester, we’re going to arrest you if you violate the law. In this particular case it was very coincidental, they just happened to all be African American males, but we didn’t ask them to do a life of crime, either.”

arthur mobley

Arthur Mobley

Three individuals were in custody on local charges—Prince Small Jr., Arthur Mobley Sr. and Terence Bennett (who was just released from state prison in January after serving a year on cocaine possession charges), all on cocaine sale charges. Gerald Smith is still being sought. All of them have been arrested several time before locally. Two more are in custody on federal charges either of selling cocaine or possession of a firearm as felons, which is illegal, or both: Travis Johnson and Jason White. Johnnie S. Thomas Jr., Serome Bell, Jason Dixon, and one more individual whose name has not been released, as he or she is yet to be indicted, are being sought, though Frank Talbot, chief assistant to the U.S. Attorney in Jacksonville, said two of those were arrested this morning. He did not specify the names. Johnson and Dixon have previously faced homicide charges.

Terence J. Bennett.

Terence J. Bennett.

Federal officials constrained the Sheriff’s Office from releasing much information: they did not agree to having the images of federal suspects included on the poster presented at the news conference, for example, even though the images of every one of the individuals could have been pasted from the Flagler jail’s booking database. They did not agree to the display of the firearms seized, not even in picture form, so the Sheriff’s Office was reduced to finding stock images of the sort of weapons seized. They kept the sheriff from going into any sort of detail about the sting operation, and they declined to say who initiated the operation despite repeated questioning. Only after the press conference did Staly reveal that he, in fact, had “reached out” to federal authorities to bring them in.

One of the two packages of cocaine that washed up on Flagler's shore this week. (FCSO)

One of the two packages of cocaine that washed up on Flagler’s shore this week. (FCSO)

“This county has never seen an operation like this, with federal and state partners and people facing serious jail time,” Staly said. Bunnell had tried to get the federal agencies involved two years ago, but was not successful, Staly said. “It takes time to get them involved, but we have good relations with federal agencies and state agencies, and I know a lot of these people personally, and relationships frankly help.”

There were a couple of questions at today’s conference regarding more than two pounds of cocaine that washed up on shore on Sept. 23. The package was turned into the Sheriff’s Office by the 68-year-old Palm Coast man who found it. There’s no clue as to the cocaine’s origin, Staly said, though he noted that another package of equal weight washed up since. He surmised that the recent hurricanes may have stirred up the package from wherever they’d been lost, and pushed them to shore. The cocaine is to be destroyed by the Sheriff’s Office.

WNZF’s video of this morning’s press conference is below.

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14 Responses for “Sheriff and Bunnell Police Team Up With ATF In Illegal-Guns Sting: Half a Dozen Arrested”

  1. Coyote says:

    “In all, the men have faced a combined 342 charges and 92 convictions between them over the past 35 years.” ….

    “rounding up the usual drug suspects, most of whom would be returned to the streets before day’s end anyway”….

    Anyone else find these statement rather disconcerting, to say the least?

  2. Ink Spot says:

    Staly – ” absolutely not we don’t target blacks our jails are full of white people! We just use black mugshots as the face crime.” Out of sight out of mind. Manfre used to do the same thing, round up some black people put them on the news and call it a day. No one is fooled this is whats called a bait and switch. If they did a straight drug bust 75% of Flagler counties population would get snagged because of all the pill abuse. So labeling it a gun operation allows the slave patrol a way out by cherry picking their would be criminals.

  3. Kathy says:

    Lock them up and throw away the key. We don’t need these useless men in our community. I moved here to get away from violence and crime. I’d like to retire in peace and quiet and it’s only becoming worse. This was a good start just please rid Flagler County of these criminals.

  4. Truth says:

    No jobs + middle class affluent area is historically the recipe for drug sale proliferation maybe this will get people to focus on creating jobs and education for this impovershed community

  5. Whatever says:

    Great job by FCSO. We need more sting operations like this one. Glad to see the new sheriff proactive and cleaning up the streets. As far as this being a black and white issue as the sheriff said we arrest criminals not by color. And all these people were criminals and deserve to be behind bars .

  6. Lacker says:

    Truth
    Why is the community responsible for educating the impoverished? How about parents being responsible for educating their children that they bring into this world. Have a father and mother stay and raise children together and be responsible for them. Poor or not, people need to be responsible for themselves and the children they bring into this world. Teach them consequences and discipline when they are young, and maybe they wont have any contact with law enforcement when they get older!!!!

    Why is that not obvious to everyone else????

  7. Palm Coast says:

    “Blacks, of course, are not the only ones running drugs or possessing illegal guns in Flagler County. ”
    Blacks? can we be a little more politically correct in this statement SMH

  8. Tired of it says:

    The weak judges now need to step up and get these people off our streets for ever. Not just a year in prison for cocaine possession like one of the thugs that just got rearested for the same crime. No please deals just hard time.

  9. Sw says:

    What I see that I like are the Fed. Charges resulting in some serious time by repeat,rinse, repeat criminals who wont be able to play the cat n mouse game anymore. Bye bye have a nice stay

  10. Sw says:

    @ ink spot The slave patrol LMAO 342 charges 92 convictions in over 35 years. I am thinking its the dumb ass criminal patrol.

  11. MartyBarrett says:

    And not even a dent in the gun or drug trade is made. Nice photo-op though

  12. Not4nthn says:

    Poor bunnell Chief didn’t have an answer .. he’s a nice guy but he doesn’t not have a handle of the discrepancies and lack of in touch tact with the community he supervises .. a fault of lack of technology tools and manpower to do the job which also includes acknowledging he has a diversity issue because southern Bunnell is predominantly minorities and lower income . But at least the chief Is honest in his answer so I can respect that. This video was every because the second guy who was a fed got up to speak and was moved to the back by staly … so was everyone else it should have been just a staly video because he of course can’t have anyone’s saying more talking points comments than him. Using the false narrative about two drive by shootings to spook people when the actual crimes didn’t have anything to do with this operation.where are the programs for the youth and community and lesser fortunate ? Where’s the outreach ? The joint plan with all communities regardless of color or creed in this county to fight this issue ..

  13. mike says:

    Toob bad they cant lock up the clown’s that voted to put up a Palm coast sign over the I 95 overpass and wasting tax payers money

  14. Anonymous says:

    Let these fifth generation immigrants be deported. Where is Trump when you need him?

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