Six months after four men were accused of charges ranging from kidnapping to gang-raping a woman they had met in Flagler Beach and taken to a hunting camp at the western end of the county, and 13 months after the alleged incident, the State Attorney’s Office has dropped the charges on three of the four men for lack of evidence. Charles Cowart and brothers Daniel and Frank Goggans will not be prosecuted.
“This is by no means a happy day. We are not in a celebratory mood,” Marc Dwyer, Daniel Goggans’s attorney, said Tuesday morning in a brief news conference at Dwyer’s office. He was flanked by both Goggans brothers and by George Pappas, the attorney representing Frank Goggans.
“I lost my job, my house, and all my family except my immediate family, behind lies,” Frank Goggans said. “And we brought the truth to them, and they drug us through nine circles of hell. For what?” He added later: ““We’re the victims here, drug out for a year, falsely prosecuted.”
“I didn’t lose anything I can’t get back but my time,” Daniel Goggans said.
“There’s no high-fiving or hand-grabbing,” Dwyer continued. “This thing has all around been a very tragic situation. We have witnessed what I deem to be a demonstration of the worst example of the abuse of public trust and what our original prosecutors did with this case. But to give credit where credit is due, the new prosecutors that came in and objectively handled this situation are a demonstration of the best use of the public trust, and so we do want to give credit where it’s due. We also wanted to just let the public know that we are ready to move on, and while at this point there are no concrete plans for a civil suit, neither has it been ruled out.”
The reversal followed an unusual progression at the State Attorney’s Office, where the case had initially been investigated by prosecutors Ben Fox and Scott Westbrook, based on interviews and investigations conducted by the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office. As first reported by the News-Journal’s Tony Holt on Monday, State Attorney R.J. Larizza removed Westbrok and Fox from the case, appointing Melissa Clark and Christina Opsahl instead. When Clark and Opsahl were done analyzing the case, they concluded that while the woman and the men had met that night at Finn’s, and that while she engaged in sexual acts with some of them, no rape had taken place.
One of the Goggans brothers had shared images from his cell phone showing the woman horseback riding with the men the morning after the alleged incident. Lab reports showed that the woman had not, contrary to claims she had made, been drugged. The woman herself told investigators that she could not remember large segments of time the night of the incident and was confused about her whereabouts the morning after, but not in fear for her welfare. Last week Mike Lmabert, Cowart’s attorney, filed a motion to dismiss all charges of sexual battery, kidnapping or false imprisonment. Larizza agreed. Lambert also asked a circuit judge to sanction the two original prosecutors on the case. Westbrook has since been transferred to Putnam County. Fox has retired.
The fourth man accused in the case, Kurt Benjamin, 26, had agreed to a plea, which reduced his charges to false imprisonment and reduced what might have been a lengthy prison term, had he been found guilty, to mere probation. Dwyer could not explain the plea on Tuesday but said it was illustrative of the coercive tactics the prosecution used, as well as “the lies that were used to coerce Mr. Benjamin to give certain testimony.” Benjamin has a court hearing in mid-May where he’s expected to withdraw his plea. “We expect from what we’ve seen that he will have an opportunity to withdraw that and to benefit from the decisions that have been made correcting the previous mistakes that were made by the state attorney’s office,” Dwyer said. (Neither Benjamin nor Cowart were at Dwyer’s office on Tuesday.)
Dwyer then went further, suggesting that Benjamin’s testimony ended up unraveling the prosecution’s case, not helping it. It was as a result of the plea, and that he could more freely speak during his depositions, that Benjamin provided information that buttressed the version of events presented by the Goggans brothers. “That was a revelation that helped the new prosecutors to understand that all the facts that were corroborated by all the witnesses pointed to what they knew was the case from the beginning, and that no crime was committed that night, and I think it helped toward that end,” Dwyer said.
Pappas, Frank Goggans’s attorney, said the deal was neither surprising nor unusual, given the way the system works. The outcome, however, turned out to have effects contrary to those the original prosecutors had hoped for.
“That is what was so troubling,” Dwyer said, “and that is how little evidence there was in the beginning, and the fact that the state examined this case for seven months and no new evidence came in from the date of this incident until the arrests, they took seven months to tell you all that you need to know about the strength of the evidence from the beginning.”
The case raised questions from the start—not just about the way investigators went about gathering evidence and in the subsequent delays before they acted on it, but in the many conflicting testimonies they had gathered from the men and the woman, as well as others who had been around Finn’s or a beach-side house the men had visited the night of the alleged incident. Just as odd: while the men had been extensively interviewed by Flagler County Sheriff’s investigators, they initially thought the matter was over after the interviews and went about their lives, only to realize months later that they were the subject of a manhunt. The defense attorneys on Tuesday virtually sneered at the alleged manhunt, as the men, who had neither fled nor sought to flee after they’d been interviewed, turned themselves in soon after they learned that warrants had been issued for their arrests.
As soon as the men were under arrest, Dwyer cast doubt on the strength of the evidence against them.
The alleged incident took place the evening and night of March 20 and the morning of March 21, 2013, starting with Cowart going with the Goggans brothers and Benjamin to Flagler Beach and meeting the woman at Finn’s. The woman, Benjamin and Daniel Goggans then went to the beach and allegedly engaged in some sexual activities there. Daniel, according to the investigators’ reports, never denied having sex with the woman, but said it was consensual. At no point were allegations made that the acts on the beach were forceful. The woman ended up appearing naked at the beach house where the group had gathered earlier, and where Flagler Beach police knocked at the door in a follow-up to a disturbance report. That led the group to drive to the Cowart family ranch in western Flagler, where the woman remembers only waking up the next morning. The men were smoking pot, throwing hunting knives and talking about horseback riding—which they subsequently did, with the woman tagging along, until the five drove back toward Palm Coast, dropping Cowart off at the Beer House in Bunnell, then Benjamin in the P Section and then the woman at her own home.
Tuesday, Dwyer declined to characterize the role of the sheriff’s office in the investigation. As far as the state attorney’s office is concerned, “the matter is closed, and we see no reason not to take them at their word,” Dwyer said. “We assumed that everyone in law enforcement was trying to do their jobs.”