Probe of scuffle urged

PCB Council, FDLE asked to investigate June 9 police actions at Fontainebleau

Article Courtesy of The Panama City News Herald

By Ed Offley

Published July 13, 2007


The Florida Department of Law Enforcement has been asked to investigate the Panama City Beach Police Department in the wake of a June 9 incident when two officers entered a private meeting of condo owners at the Fontainebleau Terrace condominium on Front Beach Road. The condo owners were organizing to vote out the incumbent board of directors.

The incident, captured on videotape by one of the owners, involved a brief melee in which the officers allegedly shoved to the floor three of the owners. One owner, Steven Bell, was arrested. Bell was standing at the doorway when Ray McDonald, the condo association manager employed by the incumbent directors, attempted to enter the meeting room.

When Bell resisted, a Beach police officer, identified in Bell’s arrest papers as Donnie Nichols, rushed past Bell, allegedly knocking over two women standing nearby, including the videographer, who continued shooting the incident. A second officer was at the scene but was not involved in the scuffle.

Lynda Grant Killingsworth, a local condo owner and area coordinator of Cyber Citizens for Justice, an advocacy group pushing for condo owners’ rights, appeared at the Panama City Beach City Council’s regular meeting Thursday night to ask the panel to conduct an investigation into the incident.

Killingsworth said her organization is pressing for both state and federal investigations into the incident. Plans are under way to ask the FBI to intervene to determine if the owners’ civil rights were violated, she said.

Separately, state Rep. Julio Robaino, R-South Miami, told The News Herald on Thursday that he had contacted FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey on Wednesday to personally ask for a formal investigation of the incident. Robaino, a five-year member of the state House, is active in consumer and legal issues affecting condominium owners.

“I got a copy of a video they sent me,” Robaino said. “The eyes tell all, and it looked like it needed an investigation.”

FDLE spokeswoman Heather Smith confirmed the department had received a request for an investigation but could not confirm if a probe was under way.

“The incident was just recently brought to FDLE’s attention,” Smith said. “We’re determining what agencies were involved and the scope of the incident.”

The incident

Bell said members of the dissident owner’s group had arranged for a private security guard at the 9 a.m. meeting to check for confirmation of each attendee’s ownership status so the group could organize an alternative slate of candidates for a board meeting scheduled for later that day. All but a handful of the 124-unit condo’s owners are out-of-towners, so the group wanted to ensure only legitimate people were participating in the session, Bell said.

In a brief telephone interview, McDonald confirmed that he had called Beach police to the building when Bell and the others refused to let a cleaning person enter the room.

“This guy, Steve Bell, wouldn’t let her in,” McDonald said of the cleaning person. “He’s not in charge; he’s just an owner. … That is a common room open to all.”

An arresting affidavit accuses Bell of “resisting a law enforcement officer without violence” and committing battery by “intentionally touching or striking” McDonald. The charges are still pending, he said.

Bell flatly denied the charges.

Council meeting

At Thursday’s City Council meeting, Killingsworth complained that the Beach Police Department has ignored the owners’ requests for an internal affairs investigation into the behavior of the two officers involved.

“Nothing has been done,” Killingsworth said. “Nobody (from the Beach Police Department) wanted to listen to them. As a result, this has escalated.”

Mayor Gayle Oberst said that under the city charter, the city manager — not the council itself — has the authority to investigate such incidents.

City Manager Richard Jackson said that shortly after the incident, he met with the owners involved and discussed the incident with Police Chief Robert Harding, but the two decided against an internal investigation on the premise the FDLE already was considering a probe. Harding was out of town and unavailable for comment Thursday.

Robaino said he clearly believed an outside probe is warranted.

“I’m not going to give an opinion, but several things I saw on that video were not correct,” Robaino said in a telephone interview.




Condo Owners Cry Police Brutality