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A Bunnell Man Is Falsely Arrested Over Name Error, and Case Proceeds Despite Corrections

| April 1, 2016

dakota ward

Dakota Ward as he would rather be known: a fisherman, a hard worker, a law-abiding citizen. Instead, his mug shot appears at the Flagler County jail’s website and in other domains, attached to a false arrest under his name. (Ward family)

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.

“You start taking the liberty of someone away, you’d better have your facts together.” But they didn’t.

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.”

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38 Responses for “A Bunnell Man Is Falsely Arrested Over Name Error, and Case Proceeds Despite Corrections”

  1. Jennifer Ray says:

    Great article. what has happened to my nephew and family over this is absurd. It’s hard enough to get ahead in life, you take a great kid with his head on straight, trying to better himself and now his “mug shot” is all over the internet. It takes a lot to get that off…this could scar him for life, and ruin his future, as soon as it begins. Hoping justice will be served.

  2. Pam Ray Johnson Sloan says:

    I was totally shocked what I heard about Dakota’s arrest and the details related. Being certain that you have arrested the right person in a situation like this should be Law Enforcement officer training 101! I certainly hope and pray this gets resolved and comes to an end for my family quickly… Dakota is my nephew…

  3. Outsider says:

    One thing I will say is that some of the folks at the sheriff’s department, particularly in booking need to learn to spell properly. I’ve seen so many mugshots on their website with cities of birth wildly misspelled. If they are doing that with cities, then they could easily be doing it with names, and this is the result.

  4. Mark says:

    So what happened to the real criminal?

  5. Kendall says:

    This is unacceptable. Can’t they look at a mug shot of the original perp and see that the young man being arrested is not the same person that was originally arrested? And how in the hell can it take almost a week to straighten this out?

  6. Anna Ray says:

    I’m Anna Ray and Dakota Ward is my grandson. What the sheriff’s department has done to him is totally absurd. They have ruined my grandson’s good name and he(my grandson) will have trouble all his life if this isn’t taken care of. I understand the sheriffs department changed all the paper work so that it now states my grandson’s address, etc. This is so wrong. They’re still trying to serve Dakota papers. This is the worst thing any parent can go through in my eyes. I hope and pray that this is resolved soon and that the sheriffs department can arrest the right Ward and clear my grandson’s name.

  7. graspingforair says:

    Our country has totally gone to shit.
    I feel so bad for this family.
    Heads need to roll on this one, and will probably be heads from the administrative end. Just my guess.

  8. Derrick R says:

    ChhhaaaaChing! I see a big pay day for the lawyer and some change for the kid. All at the taxpayers expense. Further an investigation should be demanding and those directly responsible terminated. Normally I go with the benefit of doubt , unlike the booking officer who never thought to look at the original on line mug shot for at least a clue who he was supposed to be arresting.

  9. Bc. says:

    Why don’t the sheriff dept. issue him a letter that states exactly who he is so if this happens again he can produce it to any officer who try’s to arrest him. Also get a lawyer and sue manfre and the department. Then vote the sheriff out I don’t think we need a lawyer as a top cop we need a experience law officer who has come up through the ranks and knows what it’s like to be out on patrol. Not some pencil pushing ex New York prosecutor. Just maybe this kind of stuff won’t happen

  10. just saying says:

    Deputy, if you haven’t seen the underside of a bus before, take a good look now.

    Maybe the warrant should be produced, it sounds like a judge issued a bench warrant for Dakota Ward. A deputy found Dakota Ward and arrested same. Its not like criminals will miss-spell their names, or have people screaming that they are arresting an innocent person.

  11. Robert Lewis says:

    What an embarrassment for our community. This is not the fault of 1 deputy, but the fault of the Sheriff. Perhaps if Jim Manfre were not too busy trying to figure out how to save his own ass after being found guilty of ethics violations, or being too busy trying to be a television celebrity for Medical Marijuana, this issues would not have happened.

    Perhaps if top senior employees with years of knowledge and experience were not terminated because of Mafre’s political ego; perhaps years of institutional knowledge flushed away because of temper, this would not have happened.

    I am terribly sorry for the Dakota and his family have to experience this ordeal.

    Jim Manfre has been a terrible sheriff and should resign.

  12. nunya says:

    Bunnell and Flagler county police are a joke. Rookies who think they are big and bad because of a badge a gun

  13. Geezer says:

    You’d think that the courts would fast-track this situation to a resolution….
    I think that the young man and his family are going to be relieved of a lot of money.
    The mugshot has already been snapped up by many websites who will charge
    hundreds of dollars each for their removal. Still the photos will circulate around the
    internet for years to come. As the days go by–this problem just grows exponentially.
    It’s like a fire that’s spreading….

    Who can this family sue? If they could sue–would they win in a FL court?

    We’re talking about millions of dollars in damages calculating the young man’s
    future earnings, and loss thereof because of this unfortunate, and stupid error.

    “I’m innocent” is the world’s most disregarded statement even when you are clean as can be.
    FCSO soiled this good kid. “By Monday they all knew they had the wrong Dakota, then
    they tried to serve us again,”

    I hope that the sun shines on Dakota and his family real soon.

    “The system works.”

  14. Joey says:

    If I ever get arrested I hope it’s because they got my name mixed up with someone else’s. That way I can get paid, I still feel for this kid cause his chances of getting a security clearance just got squashed. Cops are like any other agency, they follow orders and ask questions later. And it will be a cold day in hell if I ever ask the fuzz for help cause they are quick to burn you.

  15. Wishful thinking says:

    Scary Damn scary… Could happen to any of us. Scary

  16. confidential says:

    To me this is a court system error not a Sheriff error, maybe at the Clerk of Court office with a misspell?
    Retribution needed. Sorry for Dakota and his family.

  17. Kids shouldn't have guns says:

    This is what happens when we have a Sheriff that hires a force of kids! who more than likely graduated from Flagler county who can’t read and write. Regardless, Manfre is responsible!!

  18. Alison says:

    Sounds like a bunch of morons under the direction of King Moron. Ihave never been in trouble with the law and don’t know anyone personally that has, however, I am very aware of the crooked system that exists in this county. All to cover their own a$$es. Drawing out a long “investigative process” for the sole purpose of trying to figure out how to successfully cover themselves from a PR perspective…. at the expense of an innocent, respectable citizen!

    I think the entire department needs to be re-schooled and re-tested… including Manfre, secretaries, etc. Weed out the weak links and hold them accountable. This entire episode is ridiculous and they know it!

  19. Squeeky says:

    That is great old Flagler County for you, don’t deal with anyone in this county they are all messed up, call Channel 6 News, let them handle it they will get to the bottom of it, and if you get a lawyer make sure they are from out of county also,

  20. Dave says:

    Once this hits the national news, Flagler County will yet again look like a bunch of back woods buffoons running around clueless.

  21. Madlock says:

    This is what happens when you have a liberal sheriff and liberal judges. The system is “rigged” to screw you and your family out of every dollar, home, vehicle,boat it can get their grubbing criminal hands on. Its NO WONDER society does not trust police or the courts anymore.

  22. I don't blame him says:

    Once again FCSO got it wrong! But wait ! It was the victim’s fault too, right??? They justify their wrong actions all the time and clean it up and make the victim look like the criminal! After they embarrassed the hell out of you!

  23. RT says:

    Someone commented a concern on a story a while back about Manfre firing senior deputies out of revenge for not supporting him last time he was Sheriff. And another story had a comment about the newly hired young deputies and the lack of experience compared to those Manfre had fired. I’m sure this deputy is a good kid and that he’s probably beside himself over this. To me he is less to blame than the Sheriff who instead of retaining experienced deputies for the benefit of the agency, fired them and replaced them with people who had no experience….that’s just how I see it.

  24. Hola says:

    Dave isnt that who they are

  25. Concerned says:

    This may be a surprise to many, but this happens all over the place. I have even known of people who gave a fake name and went to prison under that name. When the real person found out, it was nearly impossible to get the criminal history changed.

    This young man and his parents need to go straight to the State Attorney’s Office in Bunnell, ask to speak to the person in charge and have them correct all these errors. Then they need a letter signed by the judge to carry in his wallet so this never happens again. If you don’t get the right help, call your senator or congressman’s office, I have seen them move mountains to help people. Good luck….sorry you had to deal with all this.

  26. lori says:

    keystone cops at it aggain

  27. PJ says:

    nunya says

    What does this have to do with Bunnell PD?

  28. Hammock says:

    I am impressed by the parents not slamming law enforcement with a broad brush over a mistake that the root cause has not been determined.

  29. Geezer says:

    In response to Concerned:

    You make good points and dispense sensible advice.
    Hats off to you.

  30. Dean Carpenter says:

    I guess I was wrong. It is time for a new sheriff.

    This is an old sheriff’s tactic when they make a false arrest on an average Joe. They double down then make a deal with the the victim. The deal is either drop this, smile and shake hands for the newpaper photo and say we all make mistakes or else we have ways to make your life a living hell as long as you live in this county.

  31. Gkimp says:

    This type of mistake is unacceptable, a officer making a warrant arrest has the obligation to make sure he or she is arresting the right person. It’s not uncommon for the arrestee to tell an officer they have the wrong person, but it’s the duty of the officer to prove they have the right person, not the arestee’s obligation to prove mistaken idenity. There are several steps that could have been taken, compare date of birth and other identifiers to the orginal report. Better yet, compare fingerprints, hopefully the Sheriff’s Office didn’t lose these records earlier in the year with the computer crash. If a positive ID can’t be made, release them, better to release the right guy, then to arrest the wrong guy.

  32. Concerned says:

    Thanks Geezer. I had extensive work in that area. I hope someone who knows them, will give them this advise.

  33. David S says:

    Hope that the family can obtain a great attorney.

  34. bob says:

    to the entire family i am saddened by your expierence.I think before you arrest someone you should not only be obliged to get the right person it should be an absolute requirement.Ido not understand when it becomes apparent that a mistake is made why the game plays on.You seriously need a lawyer.Ihope they pay big wishes to you .

  35. Gotta get better cops says:

    What else is new with our police

  36. Garrett says:

    This miscarriage of justice should result in at least a $60-$100K award or settlement for Mr. Dakota Ward.Sadly, the Flagler taxpayer will ultimately foot the bill.

  37. Garrett says:

    My guess is that once the facts in this case become known, the State Attorney for the 7th Judicial Circuit, the Honorable R.J. Larizza, will choose to drop the case. Legal information available to everyone on the internet would indicate that Mr. Ward has a legitimate case against Bunnell and/or the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office for false arrest and malicious prosecution for proceeding against him after any reasonable person would have known that this Dakota Ward was the wrong person. The silver lining is that Mr. Ward could recieve a nice college fund-sized award as damages.

  38. anonymous says:

    I think it is a gross mistaken case of identity. This poor innocent guy with no record gets arrested for this? Are u kidding me? Man, i need to move the hell out of here. Law enforcement officials have no experience as they are mostly young 20s rookies.
    They wouldn’t make in Broward county for an hour.

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