Two years ago on Sept. 15, Robert Emanuel, a 60-year-old resident of the Palm Terrace subdivision in Bunnell, was severely beaten at his home and taken to what was then Florida Hospital Flagler with head injuries. The Bunnell Police Department investigated the attack as an assault and battery. Two months later, on Nov. 16., Emanuel died, and it became a murder investigation.
This afternoon in circuit court, Johnnie Spydale Thomas Jr., 26, of 118 Espanola Road in Bunnell, pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a weapon in Emanuel’s death. The plea agreement downgraded his initial charge from second degree murder. But the plea was still to a first-degree felony that exposes him to 15 top 25 years in prison when he is sentenced before Circuit Judge Terence Perkins on Dec. 13. The sentencing will be delayed until then to give attorneys time for a pre-sentence investigation, which may mitigate the severity of the sentence.
Thomas has been at the county jail for almost two years, since his arrest in Palm Coast on Dec. 3, 2017 by Flagler County Sheriff’s deputies on a different charge: he’d had a warrant out for his arrest for failing to appear on charges of fleeing and eluding and driving on a suspended license. He also faced federal charges of possession and sale of cocaine and felony possession of a firearm. Deputies and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agents found Thomas hiding in a closet and arrested him.
Assistant State Attorney Mark Johnson, who is prosecuting the case involving the death of Emanuel, said Thomas was convicted on the federal charges and sentenced to several years in prison, which he may serve concurrently to whatever sentence he gets on Dec. 13., He will get a minimum of 15 years, according to sentencing guidelines. But it’s an open plea, meaning that Perkins could sentence him to anywhere between 15 and 25 years.
The murder case was initially fumbled by Bunnell police, which released barely any information or overly censored what documents it did release. The sheriff’s office provided what help Bunnell police requested, but it requested little. In January 28, Bunnell police claimed it had charged Thomas with murder, but it provided no supporting documentation, no arrest report, no charging affidavit. The charge was premature: the State Attorney’s Office said it had no knowledge of it, and Thomas was not served with the additional charge at the jail.
It was only in August 2018 that a grand jury indicted Thomas on a second degree murder charge, which carried a life term. The presentment said Thomas had struck Emanuel in the head. Johnson today said Thomas and Emanuel were conducting a drug transaction outside Emanuel’s house. Thomas claimed that Emanuel had dropped some drugs and ordered him to get on his knees and search for it, though Emanuel said he had not dropped anything. Once Emanuel started looking for the drugs, Thomas struck him in the head, wielding the tree limb “like a Louisville slugger,” Johnson said, referring to the famed baseball bat.
Thomas, who was represented by attorney Maria Rogers, spoke little today, only answering the judge–“yes, sir,” “no, sir”–as the judge went through the formalities of accepting his plea and ensuring that it had not been coerced. He has served a brief state prison stint before, between 2015 and 2016, on convictions for fleeing and eluding and discharging a firearm from a vehicle. In 2013, when he was 19, he was the victim of a shooting during a party in Palm Coast’s P Section, suffering a wound to the chin.
Emanuel’s sister and his girlfriend are expected to be at Thomas’s sentencing, which takes place at 8:30 a.m. before Perkins.