Arrest mars group's meeting

Leisure World Mobile Home Park  -- Clearwater, FL

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

Published December 3, 2005

A 71-year-old man is furious that he was ejected from a mobile home park residents meeting, handcuffed and arrested.

Neighborhood meetings can explode into shouting over the most pedestrian topics, from recycling to lawn care and proper pool etiquette.

But not many of them result in a 70-year-old retiree getting bruised, handcuffed and hauled off to the county jail.

That, however, is what happened at the Leisure World Mobile Home Park, and what started as an internal dispute has grown into something bigger.

"It's unreal," said Janice Beckham, 56, who has lived for more than 20 years at the resident-owned park at the northeast corner of Ulmerton Road and U.S. 19.

"There's always been conflict," she said, "but never like this."

Things started spiraling out of control last summer, several residents said. A faction decided to oust board president Leo Leavers, 53, delivering him a letter of charges. Among them: purchasing new curtains for the recreation hall without approval and causing dissension among residents.

"It was an inquisition," Leavers said this week.

A special meeting to vote on his removal was scheduled for July 7. A few residents, including Jennifer Capucille and her mother, Sherri Yates, wanted an off-duty Pinellas County sheriff's deputy to keep order. They asked the Sheriff's Office, which coordinates requests for off-duty work, for Matthew R. Williams, a deputy Capucille considered a friend. He got the assignment.

The trouble began when Ben Gibson, then 70 years old and with a failing heart, walked into the recreation hall and saw Capucille, neighbors and sheriff's reports said.

It wasn't the first time Gibson and Capucille had exchanged words, residents say. The two of them traded insults at a meeting in June. Gibson, who owned auto service stations, had used vulgar language, according to his attorney.

This time, Gibson insisted she leave because, according to the association's bylaws, one's name must be listed on the property deed to be a voting member. Capucille refused to go.

Accounts about what happened next vary.

Williams said Gibson pushed Capucille. Then the deputy, on Yates' command, began leading Gibson out of the room. Gibson resisted, shoving the deputy in the chest.

Leavers and several other residents, however, dispute that version, saying Gibson never touched Capucille or the deputy. The reason he was removed, they said, was his loud insistence Capucille had no right to attend the meeting.

Gibson was singled out because he wouldn't remain silent, Beckham and others said. Yates had warned everyone in the room moments earlier that people who spoke would be escorted out of the hall by Williams.

"But we didn't really keep quiet," Beckham said. "We cleared our throats and clapped."

The deputy took Gibson to the pool room, put him on the floor and handcuffed him, his report said. Gibson suffered some cuts to his arms, but refused medical attention. He was taken to the Pinellas County Jail on a felony charge of battery on a law enforcement officer.

Williams declined to speak to the Times about the case.

The meeting finally came to order and Yates read the charges against Leavers. One elderly man, who has difficulty hearing and apparently didn't understand Yates' order for silence, was escorted out, residents said.

People voted 44 to 33 to remove Leavers, he said. The association's bylaws, however, require a majority of all members or 135 votes.

Regardless, Yates became acting president, residents said. Yates and Capucille declined to comment on the dispute or Gibson's arrest.

Gibson, who has no criminal history, spent more than four hours in jail before he posted $5,000 bail. He has hired John Trevena, a high-profile defense attorney, to represent him. A pretrial court appearance is scheduled for Dec. 15.

"Essentially what we have is the framing of an innocent individual," Trevena said. "The motive is apparent. Ms. Capucille wanted revenge for his alleged use of profanity."

Trevena sent a letter to Sheriff Jim Coats this week. In it, he demands an internal investigation into Williams' conduct and an examination of policy governing deputies' off-duty assignments.

"What I find reprehensible is that you can ask for a specific deputy and have your own private police force extract revenge on your behalf," Trevena said.

According to Sheriff's Office policy, people hiring off-duty deputies cannot request them by name. The assignment is given out on a rotating basis.

It was unclear whether Williams violated policy by accepting the assignment at Leisure World, considering his history with Capucille.

"We are reviewing the matter," said Sgt. Jim Bordner, a sheriff's spokesman.

Joyce Weikel, 58, who moved into the park in 1979, said she finds the current dispute to be distressing. No one knows what is going to happen next, she said. Last month, all residents were locked out of the board meeting. Then the playground equipment - swings, monkey bars, a slide and a merry-go-round - disappeared without explanation.

"This is so silly," she said. "We're adults."