Thursday evening, the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office sent out notice that a sexual predator had moved to town. The sheriff’s office is required by law to make those notices public. The notices do not apply to sexual offenders, a lower designation of individuals convicted of sex crimes. Predators are usually associated with violent sexual crimes such as rape.
The individual the sheriff’s office was identifying Thursday is Dorian Buzz Coppedge, who has also previously identified himself as Dorian Johnson, and is known by his street name, Diamond. Sheriff’s notices about sexual predators are routine, if rare. There are not that many predators in Flagler.
But four things stand out about Coppedge, 37: First, he didn’t just move to town. Coppedge “is now residing in Flagler County,” the sheriff’s notice stated, implying that he just had. In fact, Coppedge has been residing in Flagler County for almost five years, since his release from prison in January 2012, at his parents’ house in Palm Coast.
Second, while sex crimes he committed in 1999 and 2011 had resulted in convictions, he was not branded a predator, but an offender, all those years. He was branded a predator only nine weeks ago, long after leaving prison and without facing any additional charges since, other than for failing to register as an offender, a charge he’s faced several times since 1999. Previous such charges have been dropped. Not this time.
Third, Coppedge is now listed as homeless. At least that’s how the sheriff’s office identifies his residence in the release the office issued Thursday. His jail booking still lists 41 Louisiana Drive in Palm Coast, his parents’ address and also the home of his 6-year-old daughter.
Fourth, the Coppedge case shows to what extent the sheriff’s office goes to build a case against individuals—including individuals who have served their sentence and are not on probation, though in Coppedge’s case, reporting requirements do not stop regardless. The sheriff’s office installed a surveillance camera on a pole across the street from Coppedge’s parents´ home and kept them, too, under surveillance, even though they have been neither accused, convicted or suspected of crimes.
The Coppedge case, in sum, illustrates the vagaries that can frame the case of a sexual offender—or, now, predator—long after he’s been released from prison, and how those vagaries, compounded with restrictions on where sex offenders may live and what strict reporting requirements they must live by, can eventually have the opposite effect of the state’s intended surveillance. That surveillance (and the living restrictions, which forbid offenders from living within proximity of schools, churches, parks and other such places) is intended to ensure better control of a individuals considered potentially dangerous whether they’ve served their sentence or not. Instead, the restrictions at times result in the individuals being forced out of their normal family or work settings. Like Coppedge, they end up homeless, where controls or surveillance is more difficult, as is a more productive reintegration into society for those individuals.
Palm Coast, Ormond Beach, Deltona and Daytona Beach, among others locally, all enacted 2,500-foot restrictions in the late 2000s. They did so, as reported in these pages in May, “despite studies that show the laws can make more offenders homeless, or make it more likely they will falsely report or not disclose where they are living. And though the laws are meant to protect children from being victimized by repeat offenders, they do not reduce the likelihood that sex offenders will be convicted again for sexual offenses, according to multiple studies, including one from the U.S. Department of Justice.”
In fact, Coppedge’s only conviction since his release from prison was the result of just such a case of failure to properly register—the conviction imposed on Wednesday by Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman, following the sheriff’s office’s investigation. Coppedge was sentenced to two years’ probation.
The sheriff’s office began that case against Coppedge last November. At the time, Coppege was registering his parents’ address as his own, including on his driver’s license. A cop verified him to have been at the address in January 2015, where Coppedge parked his 1987 Volvo.
It’s not clear why, after his residence at his parents’ address was verified, the sheriff’s office decided to launch a fuller investigation: a subsequent investigative report suggests that detectives thought Coppedge was not living with his parents. The investigation started on November 23, 2015, when, according to an investigative summary of the case, a deputy installed a motion-activated infrared-equipped surveillance camera opposite the house at 41 Louisiana Drive. The camera was set to take two pictures every time it was activated. Over the next eight days, it took 5258 images. Thanksgiving, the report noted, was “the only date that [Coppedge’s] 1987 Volvo is seen.” Only two images, the report claims, show Coppedge himself. Coppedge’s parents are routinely captured on camera, which was reinstalled in front of the house in mid-December.
Around the same time, deputies interviewed Coppedge’s parents and learned that Coppedge had been providing the sheriff’s office a phone number that was off by one digit. They also learned that he spent his nights elsewhere, according to his parents. Detectives sought out and got a warrant to search Coppedge’s cell phone records, confirming that Coppedge had routinely provided a number that belonged to someone else. When detectives checked the number Coppedge’s father provided, the address returned to a woman in Bunnell at 302 North Anderson Street, with Coppedge’s email address listed in the subscriber’s information. Detectives subsequently found Coppedge’s car on Chapel Street and started conducting surveillance of it and of Coppedge himself as he rode his bike in Bunnell, finally getting a warrant for his arrest on a charge of violating the registration requirement.
Coppedge’s lawyer argued to the court that the surveillance method the sheriff used was flawed, starting with the distance between the camera and the property under surveillance: the camera was installed 21 feet beyond its effective range, if the property was its target. “Therefore the inability of the camera to accurately capture all of the comings and goings of the persons entering and leaving 41 Louisiana Drive is apparent simply because the camera was placed too far away to do what it was intended to do,” William Bookhammer, the lawyer, argued in his memo to the court.
He also noted at least 20 instances of camera malfunction, documented by the sheriff’s office, with evidence that despite the arrival and departure of vehicles—despite motion—the motion-activated camera had not taken pictures, as intended. So it could not reliably prove that all comings and goings were documented. On the other hand, thousands of photographs—87 percent—were taken without any apparent motion triggering the shutter. “Where there is no doubt that [Coppedge] was at 41 Louisiana Drive,” the memo state, referring to documented evidence of his presence there, “there are no photographs showing him exiting his car, going into the house, exiting the home” at the documented time “or leaving the home.”
Bookhammer raised numerous other issues to underscore the flawed surveillance and the eventual arrest—which took place at the Louisiana Drive house, not in Bunnell, where cops had initially gone to serve the warrant, because Coppedge lived with his parents, not with the women—whom he visited—in Bunnell. Cops, Bookhammer said, never actually verified that Coppedge was at the South Chapel house they said he was sleeping in. They merely assumed. Fpor that and many other reasons his attorney listed, the attorney said it wa sin Coppedge’s best interest to accept an open plea to the charge of failing to register, and take his chances with the court’s decision.
“It is important to note that at no time did [Coppedge] ‘vanish,’ or ‘go off the grid,” or go into hiding,” Bookhammer said—though the result of the investigation and conviction amount to just that, now that Coppedge is homeless. “He was in Flagler County at all times as shown by his cell phone records and the interviews of the witnesses as well as the photographs of his clothing and other belongings at 41 Louisiana Drive.”
The lawyer’s arguments were not in vain: Coppedge had faced up to 6 years in prison on the state’s scoresheet. He got two years’ probation instead, and one charge against him was dropped, but he was nevertheless rebranded a predator along the way, and rendered homeless.
He served two relatively brief prisons sentences for the sex crimes, and one longer prison sentence—of nearly four years—for child abuse and neglect. He last got out of prison on the second sex offense in 2012. The State Attorney’s Office, however, filed to have him designated a sexual predator only in March.
His first sex crime conviction dates back to 1999, when he was 20, for what the sheriff’s notification refers to as “lewd assault/sex battery on a victim less than 16.” The Flagler conviction could not be verified: it does not appear on the court clerk’s docket, at least not under any of the names Coppedge has gone by.
His second conviction was the result of a July 2 incident at Holland Park, when he invited an underage girl and two girls staying with her for the night to sneak out and meet him and a friend whom she knew from school, which they did. The five went to Holland Park, where the girl and Coppedge’s friend then went off in the area of the tennis courts and had sex. Coppedge himself, according to his arrest report, watched them, masturbated, then moved his friend out of the way and penetrated the girl twice. The girl later told authorities that sex with her friend had been consensual. Sex with Coppedge was not—which amounts to rape. He also attempted to force her to perform oral sex but failed.
He was found guilty of “unlawful sexual activity with a minor,” and sentenced to a year and a half in prison, concurrently with another conviction in a separate case for aggravated battery and false imprisonment.