This is the sort of story that police states like East Germany were known for: the slander and ensnaring of a man’s good name because of a sloppy error, and because bureaucracies are stronger than reason or justice.
In this case, it’s taking place in Flagler County. And it’s not over.
Dakota Ward is a 19-year-old Bunnell resident. He works the graveyard shift full time at a Bunnell manufacturing plant and is paying his way through school. He’s well-spoken, respectful of authority and has never been in trouble. He lives with his parents. Last week he went fishing with his father, Glenn, in St. Augustine. They were on the water when they got a call from Dakota’s mother. Cops had been at the house. They wanted Dakota to sign some papers, and wanted to know when he’d be home. He called them when he was on his way.
When he arrived home, they handcuffed him, arrested him and hauled him off to jail. The charge: failure to appear in court over a battery charge.
It was all news to Dakota and his parents, who were beside themselves with anxiety and frustration.
“We kept telling the officer, you’ve got the wrong Dakota, you’ve got the wrong Dakota,” his father, Glenn, said. “They insisted on arresting him.”
None of them saw an arrest warrant. Dakota was booked and sat in a holding cell until his father had time to withdraw the necessary $1,000 to bond him out.
Only then he started navigating the labyrinth his arrest had thrown him into.
His name had been confused with that of another Ward, one whose first name sounds the same, but is spelled differently: De’Cota. Same last name, same middle initial. The two had spent several years at Flagler Palm Coast High School. Dakota was regularly getting the other guy’s referrals sent to his home, requiring his mother to go to school time after time to clear his name. One time Dakota was even wrongfully assigned to Pathways, at the time the alternative school, where the other De’Cota had been assigned. His parents had to clear that one up.
But the mistaken identity had never risen to the point of a criminal arrest.
The case dates back to a December incident at 65 Forrester Lane in Palm Coast—keeping in mind that Dakota had nothing to do with that incident he said.
It was late at night. Chad Cox, a 25-year-old resident at the Forrester address, had called cops to report an assault. He’d had a verbal altercation with his girlfriend. His girlfriend wanted him to leave. He refused. She texted her ex-boyfriend, listed in the arrest report as “Dakota” Ward, and asked him to come over and get Cox out of the house. That Ward and Steven Dockins showed up, and eventually got into a physical altercation with Cox, who said he did not fight back because he was on probation. An arrest warrant was issued on a battery charge for Ward and Dockins.
The warrant was ostensibly served, according to court papers, but Ward never showed up in court, leading to the arrest of Dakota Ward after his fishing trip.
Dakota Ward doesn’t know Chad Cox, nor does he know Cox’s girlfriend, nor does he know Dockins. Never met them, never known them. He only knows De’Cota Ward because of his unfortunate history of mistaken identity at FPC.
Josh Davis, the Palm Coast attorney, took the case, and quickly got Cox to disavow that Dakota Ward was his assailant. Cox signed an affidavit stating that “I Chad Cox am 100% sure this is the wrong guy,” he wrote at the bottom of Dakota Ward’s Flagler jail booking image.
His mother, who witnessed the incident in December, said as much in an interview today. “I don’t even know who he is, I have no clue who he is,” Donna Cox said of Dakota Ward. Her son’s assailant had an entirely different physical appearance, she said: strawberry blond hair and light eyes compared to Dakota’s brown hair and dark brown eyes, among other differences. “I’m shocked,” Cox said. “I feel bad for the one that got arrested. To go through all that must be completely frustrating for him and his family.”
She would not blame police. “I have a great respect for law enforcement and the law enforcement community,” she said. “I don’t want to put the blame on any law enforcement because I don’t know exactly where the mistake came on that. It could have been a typo by a secretary for all I know. I have great respect for law enforcement, they put their life on the line for us. But I do feel sorry for the one arrested though.”
But for the Ward family, the visits by cops did not stop.
“By Monday they all knew they had the wrong Dakota, then they tried to serve us again,” Glenn Ward said, “and all the information from the other Dakota is now my Dakota’s information. Now it all comes to my son, because they changed the spelling of his name, his address, his hair color, his eye color, everything. We got served yesterday for court, April 26.” Cops have been at the Ward house almost every day since Saturday.
As Davis put it, “He’s charged, and there’s a court case against him. He’s been arrested, on top of that we had the civil service come by, mom came by so civil service could serve her after they’ve already arrested the kid. I’ve reached out to every detective I know and I’ve gotten no response.”
He said he had the whole matter solved in a matter of hours, but can’t understand why it’s dragging through the system. Davis stresses, too, that he hopes the deputy who processed the matter doesn’t take the fall for the problem, because, Davis said, a single person wasn’t responsible.
“It’s a county fuck-up, it’s not a one-officer deal,” Davis said. “This is not one young deputy that messed up. This is the entire system that screwed us here.”
In fact, the deputy who made the arrest—James Gore, who has been with the sheriff’s office since October 2011, was placed on administrative leave with pay today and is the subject of an internal affairs investigation, according to Sheriff’s spokesman Jim Troiano.
“We also are looking at the case, and if we are able to determine—again, our investigation just started this morning—that there was a misidentification or a false arrest that was made, we will quickly take action to resolve that problem,” Troiano said, so the information is not perpetuated through county, state and federal databases, while the sheriff’s office seeks the person or persons responsible for the actual crimes.
“We haven’t looked at the whole case yet,” Troiano said. “We don’t know. But we are taking it very seriously, we have put the right resources in place, and people are actively working this investigation. We are not delaying or dragging our feet. We take this very seriously.” He added: “You start taking the liberty of someone away, you’d better have your facts together.”
Those facts, of course, were not together.
The sheriff’s office has not actually determined that it was a false arrest, but it is certainly approaching the case with the realization that it may well have been.
Davis was unaware of those developments as late as Friday afternoon until a reporter informed him of it. “Why I haven’t been contacted with this information, I don’t know. My phone number is on every piece of information that I’ve submitted in the system.”
For Dakota Ward, the error has already rippled into unceasing anxiety for him and his parents, into costly bills, and into coming difficulties to clear his record. He wanted to be a wildlife officer: a record of the sort could be a major obstacle. And the humiliation he says he went through with his arrest can’t be scrubbed, nor the pains his parents have gone through. His father, a construction foreman, says he doesn’t cry much. He’s cried four times since Saturday.
For Dakota, it’s the latest chapter in an old story: the other Ward’s name and troubled legacy has stalked him for years through mis-identifications and referrals.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times my mom had to go up to the school and fight with them and say no, this is not my son,” Dakota says. “I used to get home from school, go fishing, then get a phone call from my mon, you need to get home, you got a referral. I’d get home and look at the paper, it wasn’t me. There was at least one incident every year I went to school with him, at least, and most of the time it was more than one incident. I mean, it wasn’t 14 referrals in one year, but even one is too many. Now I’m getting court papers and stuff. Getting served with court papers for somebody else is way too much, much less getting arrested and booked and having my mugshot all over the internet. That’s humiliating. Trying to do something good with my life and trying to get through college, now I have to deal with this.”