A tale of redemption for America’s “dirtiest town”
Once a notorious speed trap, a tiny Florida town is trying to shake off demons of the past
Even now, no one knows what happened to all the money.
“I don’t know where it went,” Bradford County Sheriff Gordon Smith said. “They’re still trying to figure it out. The records disappeared. Files disappeared. Got lost in the swamp. It’s still under investigation as we speak.”
The sheriff is talking about the scandal that shook the little town of Hampton, where police snagged at least $616,959.99 in traffic fines from unsuspecting motorists along U.S. Highway 301 in Florida from 2010 to 2012.
“I’m still amazed when I look back,” Smith said. “They were doing some things you would never dream of. If you tried to write that in a book, people would say there’s no way that all happened. But it did.”
Citizen outrage over Hampton’s notorious speed trap triggered a state audit. It uncovered mismanagement, questionable expenses and such a troubling lack of accountability that lawmakers in February 2014 demanded that the one-square-mile town be stripped of its city charter.
In 2014, the New York Times, Washington Post and other national news outlets descended on Hampton, 40 miles south of the Georgia state line, to report on the story.
A CNN headline declared: “Speed trap is dirtiest little town in America.” CBS News said: “Florida city could be wiped off map for being deemed “most corrupt town in America.”
Worsening matters, Barry Moore, then the mayor of Hampton, was jailed on charges of selling oxycodone, a painkiller made from the opium poppy.
But residents of Hampton fought back, electing a new city council and disbanding the police department. State lawmakers gave them a reprieve in March 2014. Hampton’s elected leaders, who called themselves The Replacements, are now trying to learn how a city ought to be run.
“We’re in survival mode to turn this thing around,” said Gene Brannock, the mayor. “None of us here is politicians. We are flying by the seat of our pants.”
Sheriff Smith, a lifelong resident of the county, boasting “the sweetest strawberries this side of heaven,” said he’s impressed.
“They’re doing more than I’ve seen in my 48 years right now. Let me tell you something. They’re proud. They stand back up after they get knocked down and they’re making a difference.”
“It takes a few brave souls, a few people with a little bit of grit in their gut, to stand up and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to make a difference,’” the sheriff said.
The youngest member of the Hampton City Council is Crystal Turner, 27.
“Public service, you just do it because you want to better your community,” she said. “I’m actually a paramedic, as well, and we don’t go into this because we want to get rich. It’s kind of a thankless job.
“I think every council member and the mayor have good intentions, which is a really good change from what it was.”
Even before the scandal erupted, Hampton police stirred controversy. Hampton — along with nearby Lawtey and Waldo — operated the only AAA-designated speed traps in the nation, the New York Times reported on Sept. 30, 1995.
“It really is something we don’t see much anymore,” AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske told the Times. “Traffic traps, or speed traps, were really much more common in the 40's and 50's, prior to the establishment of the Interstate highway system, when small towns had a captive audience going through and used it to raise revenue.”
Hampton cops in the ‘90s gave out speeding tickets “as fast as Santa Claus gives Christmas presents,” NPR reported.
The ticketing frenzy hit a high in 2011 when Hampton officers reported handing out 26 infractions per day.
Jeff Gray, creator of a YouTube channel called Honor Your Oath, uploaded a video in August 2011 showing Hampton police hiding near a gas station before chasing and ticketing motorists.
“Where the Hampton police like to hide is over here on the right…there’s two dumpsters up here. You can’t see them,” said the narrator, as he drove up to a gas station near Hampton’s only stop light along Highway 301.
“Two police officers, tag teaming traffic moving through here, hitting ‘em one after the other.”
State auditors later found that Hampton had issued 12,698 traffic tickets in 2011 and 2012. Only two other cities of comparable size — the Lawtey and Waldo speed traps — gave out more tickets.
Other small towns — such as Altha, Briny Breezes, Paxton, Sea Ranch Lakes, Coleman and Welaka — issued less than 100 infractions each during the same period.
Police in Hampton slapped motorists with nearly four times as many tickets as Bradford sheriff’s deputies who cover nearly 300 times the territory.
Hampton residents nicknamed one officer Rambo because he wore an AR-15 assault rifle across his chest while ticketing motorists.
Motorists traveling from Florida’s Gulf Coast to the Georgia state line were not amused. One complained to a website called Speedtrap.org:
“AAA warns you about Waldo being a speed trap, but this sleazy little Podunk intersection sneaks up on you just BEFORE Waldo. This is my first speeding ticket in 41 years of driving!”
Another motorist wrote:
“This is entrapment. Got ticket for 66 in sudden 55 zone. Was rolling in traffic and the majority of people don’t know about the sudden speed drop and so they can just pick up car after car. And they will push your ticket up so it’s at least 10 mph over. That’s a ticket of $191. The whole thing is a scam to create revenue and should be illegal. If you get a ticket here, fight it and complain to your legislators.”
Citizens did just that, prompting a furious letter from State Rep. Charles Van Zant, who got a ticket himself in Hampton in 2011. On March 21, 2013, he wrote:
“After several years of increasing citizen’s complaints regarding the law enforcement tactics of the Hampton Police Department plus alleged misuse of public money, I hereby request the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee to conduct an in-depth audit of the City of Hampton in Bradford County, Florida.
“…for the more than $600,000 that this city has received during 2010, 2011, and 2012, from only citations, plus all other city revenue, there is no visible evidence that constituent services, infrastructure, or capital improvements of any city property have occurred in this very ‘tiny’ city.
“I believe an intense accounting of these monies from January 2010 through December of 2012 is warranted… The serious question needs to be answered: Where did all this money disappear to?”
In February 2014, auditors released a scathing report, finding 31 violations of state law, tax requirements and city charter.
City officials misused credit cards, cell phones and government vehicles, the audit found. Some hired their own family members. And they did a lousy job tracking money going in and out of city coffers (summary of findings).
Audit leader Anita Marlowe had examined cities and towns before, but said Hampton was “by far the worst situation” she’d seen. Not only was there mismanagement, but “suspicions of fraudulent activity” that led to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation, which is ongoing.
The audit questioned, for instance, $132,000 in city purchases from a local gas station. Former City Clerk Jane Hall told CNN the money went for gas for 10 vehicles, including police cars.
Another $27,000 on the city’s credit card paid for a fall festival, flowers, gifts, Christmas parties and other events — all legitimate expenses, she explained.
Hall told CNN she’s a “law-abiding citizen.”
Calling her a “criminal mastermind,” she said, “would be like saying Snoopy is Cujo’s twin brother.”
Hall did not respond to requests for comment, and a man outside her home warned reporters to stay away from the property. “She has fucking PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) from all the shit they did to her,” he said.
Hall wasn’t the only resident who was reluctant to speak to reporters. Asked where the mayor lived, an employee at a BP gas station in town said: “Nuh-uh, nope. I’m not talking to you. No, no. If you are doing a story on Hampton, I have no interest in talking to you or doing an interview.”
Layne Stone, a former member of the City Council, smiled and shook her head when asked if she would comment on Hampton’s troubles. Residents who sat with her outside her home wouldn’t talk, either.
Former Police Chief John Hodges didn’t respond to a message left on his Facebook page. He told the Gainesville Sun the audit was a “witch hunt,” though he admitted he hadn’t read it.
“I’m disturbed about what’s really going on here,” Hodges was quoted as saying. “What the public is being led to believe is that there’s corruption here and there is none. I’ve been here for 31 years and if I’ve seen any sign of corruption, I’d be taking action.”
Lawmakers who read the audit sharply disagreed and moved to revoke Hampton’s city charter. The Orlando Sentinel quoted Republican state Sen. Rob Bradley as saying:
“I want this town dissolved … with whatever haste is necessary.”
At a meeting on Feb. 27, 2014, residents urged lawmakers to spare Hampton. Then-Acting Mayor Myrtice McCullough presented a petition signed by 119 residents who opposed the city’s dissolution. She called Hampton a “loving community.”
“I was employed at a bank at the time,” Dan Williams said, “and as the people got up and spoke I kind of got the sense of everything they’re saying is sincere, but I don’t think they’re getting through.”
His cousin, Aaron, co-pastor at a nearby church, was also at the meeting.
“It just so happened that both of us were fellas that had moved away, but we had our roots here. Aaron’s family’s roots go back probably as far as mine do. Mine go back to about 1918, 1917 when my father’s family moved here from Alabama.”
Williams said while he and Aaron spoke, he noticed that the two lawmakers — Van Zant and Bradley — were whispering to each other.
“They were listening to Aaron, and he definitely made an impact, but something I said just clicked,” Williams said.
“When that was over they said, ‘You know, the problems are serious. You’ve indicated that you’ll get back involved in your city and take it back. We’re going to hold you to that promise. We’re going to give you 30 days to turn things around, and here are eight things that we would like for you to do.’”
Some of the items on the to-do list included:
- Forcing the resignation of every elected official, including the police chief.
- Disbanding the police force.
- Accounting for questionable credit card expenses.
- Tracking city water meters.
- Drafting a law to de-annex the stretch along U.S. Highway 301 where the police set up their speed trap.
- Holding regular City Council meetings.
Neither Van Zant nor Bradley returned phone or email messages. The state plans to follow up on the audit this summer, said Michael Gomez, a supervisor at the Florida Auditor General.
Williams was appointed to the five-member council in early March 2014.
“It became apparent that they were really just ringing their hands over what to do with the police department,” Williams said. “So I was just sitting there and I thought, OK, this is where we have to start making decisions, so I made a motion, first motion out of the starting gate, that we disband the Hampton Police Department. Bingo. And so they did. They jumped on it.”
The shake-up has been good for the city, said John Cooper, who was named Hampton city attorney after lawmakers threatened to yank the charter.
“Honestly, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to Hampton because if nothing else it woke them up and said ‘We gotta change things,’” Cooper said. “I just wanted to help out.”
“I know a lot of people that live in Hampton and they’re really good people. Like most small towns, they have a government but 95 percent of the community is not involved in that at all, and unfortunately when you don’t have the involvement of the community sometimes things go awry.”
“From my perspective, we got back on track to doing what a town council is supposed to do,” Cooper said. “Our meetings are open and public, and we have agendas and they’re advertised like they’re supposed to be.
“We’ve got a good city council. They’re working hard… they’re good people and they care about their town.
“They’ve gotten rid of the police department. We’re now focusing on taking care of our streets, taking care of our water system, doing the things that a town is supposed to be doing. No doubt in my mind at all that they are on the right track and at the end of the day they’re going to be a bright star.”
Cooper doesn’t make excuses for the former Hampton officials, but said it was unfair when CNN and other news outlets called Hampton the “most corrupt” town in America.
“I got a little bit put out with some of the press coverage,” he said. “When I think of corruption, I think of Chicago and I think of New York and some of the things that are on such a larger scale, and at the end of the day, I don’t think the word corruption was proper.
“There may be somebody that put some money in their pocket or took some city equipment home or something like that, but the coverage was just amazing to me.”
“It surprised me it even made the news, much less the national news… It really painted the town in a light that just wasn’t fair.”
“A city is nothing more than the people that live there, and the people that live in Hampton are good people, and it was unfair to them.”
June Haddock said the corruption scandal doesn’t define the town or its residents.
“Hampton has some problems, but I can’t find anything too disturbing about it,” said Haddock, who lives just down the block from City Hall. “It was just a beautiful little town when I was a young girl growing up and everybody seemed to get along real good.”
Hampton was founded in 1870 and reincorporated in 1925.
Haddock said she’s left town a few times, but always returns because Hampton is home.
Church is a big part of her life and she said it was God’s plan for her to end up in the town.
Some residents are forced to leave Hampton to find work. Others stay behind to be close to their families.
“Some come back, but some move on,” said Claudette Frees, a first-grade teacher at Hampton Elementary School.
“Most of the time the children we have taught here have returned with their children,” said Frees, who has worked at Hampton Elementary for 37 years. “It is hard to believe how many students have classmates who they say are also their cousins.”
Donna Hartley is impressed with Hampton’s elementary school, calling it the city’s “shining star.”
“I never put any kids through there but I took my grandchildren to a Christmas event and you could just tell it was real small and everybody knew everybody and they were asking about everyone’s families. That kind of closeness is important in a school,” said Hartley, a guidance counselor at Bradford County High School.
Not everyone has praise for Hampton schools.
Aimee Kennedy said her family moved to Hampton when she was 13. Two years later, she became pregnant with her first child.
“The school just gave up on me,” said Kennedy, who later attended Santa Fe College in Gainesville before settling in Hampton.
“Our drop out rate is pretty high,” said another parent, Melissa Manning, whose son attends Hampton Elementary. “I think it’s due to a lot of peer pressure — hanging out with the wrong crowd.”
Parent involvement sometimes dwindles during students’ high school years, said Jennifer Farnsworth, assistant principle at Bradford County High School.
“Only a few of the same parents show up to PTA meetings,” she said. “Ten percent of the parents do 90 percent of the work.”
Farnsworth said the lack of parental involvement is common in towns on the low end of the socioeconomic scale.
Nearly a quarter of the households in Hampton earn less than $10,000 per year, census figures show.
In 2013, the city had an estimated population of 484, down from 500 in 2010.
According to the 2010 census, the city had:
- 435 whites
- 47 blacks
- 7 listed as “other”
- 2 who claimed two or more races
There were 192 households, including 60 with children under 18.
Hampton resident Ted Curtis said he moved away from Hampton when he was in his 20s. But later he returned.
“My family is here. There is something about this little town. Everyone who has left has come back.”
“Despite everything, this is home,” Hampton resident Janice Lott said.
Cooper, the city attorney, described residents of Hampton as “really good people.”
“They’re hard-working people,” he said. “They are middle-class people. Maybe one or two bad apples. Maybe writing too many tickets on 301. But the retired school teacher who lives in Hampton had nothing to do with that.”
Cooper said the media painted Hampton residents “in an unfair light.”
Turner, the council member, doesn’t fault the press.
“I wouldn’t say that media has been unjust to Hampton because there was a lot of corruption happening and I don’t want to say that all of it was reported correctly because I don’t know. I was not here at that time,” said Turner, who grew up in nearby Melrose.
“There is bad people everywhere you go and the bad people make for a much better story, but if you look inside of Hampton there are good people that want us to have a good reputation and were working on it.”
Turner and her boyfriend moved to Hampton in 2014 and bought a house for $12,000.
“Within the first month, I got a letter in the mail that said we’re kicking out all our old government and we need people to run for city council and the mayor and here is a list were going to be voting on,” she said.
“First thing I thought was that would look really good on a resume, so I decided to pay my $75 and run. There were six people running. There were five seats available, so my odds were pretty good and I ran and I won.”
Turner said the city’s accounting practices have improved.
“We’ve already taken the first step which is getting everybody on the board who has good intentions for the city. We don’t have too look behind our shoulders because council member No. 4 is shady.”
Now that the police department is gone, the city’s main function is to provide water to residents.
“There was a lot of problems before because the government was allegedly embezzling money, so the water system was not kept up at all. It was not maintained, so a lot of the water meters were broken or there were leaks,” Turner said.
“We’re in the process of replacing all of the water meters and getting new billing systems put in. It’s a costly process especially when all of our assets and all of our funds were completely liquidated because of the corruption.
“It’s like we’re starting from less than zero. We’re in the hole trying to replace all of these meters, but were doing good. We’ve almost replaced all of them and they’re accurate.”
Auditors had also criticized the city because it couldn’t account for all the water it collected. Said Williams: “They said we had had like a 43 percent loss of water.”
Workers discovered that the city’s 68,000-gallon water tank had a faulty valve. In other spots, water lines were broken and meters were damaged.
City officials don’t want to rely too much on water for their revenue.
Hampton had been using both the water and police departments as their main revenue stream. Williams, who begins each council meeting with a prayer, said he doesn’t want to continue that practice.
“We are not going finance Hampton’s government on the back of the water customers,” he said.
At the same time, the city can’t provide water for free. Said Brannock: “We have habitual non-payers.”
To be sure, there have been a few rough spots along Hampton’s path to redemption.
In March 2014, the City Council voted to fire City Clerk Amy Davis.
“Amy was a hard working person,” Williams said. “She’s got a great knowledge of a lot of things, but the city clerk is the face of Hampton. No matter how hard you work, no matter how much you know, if you are a public servant, and you don’t have people skills, you’re doomed.”
“Her conflict resolution skills were lacking to say the least. It’s not good when citizens don’t want to come into City Hall to pay their water bill because they want to avoid the city clerk. Not good business.”
“She was smart. She knew what she was doing when it comes to administrative affairs, especially in municipal government, but she was not a good worker at all.”
Said Mike Armes, another council member:
“I think we definitely needed to get rid of her. She’s too opinionative. She wants to have confrontations with the public and other council members. She needed to go. She just does not know how to do her job in a polite and correct manner.”
Davis said she thinks she was fired because she accused the mayor of sexual harassment.
She said she complained on Jan. 7. Just eight days later, she said she was asked to sign a personnel policy manual that addresses sexual harassment. Then in February, she said the mayor suspended her for supposed “outbursts.”
Davis said in an interview, “It is not an outburst. It is passion. I am emotional and I will never deny that.”
She said the only “hollering” she ever did in the workplace was calling someone’s name from her office.
In March, Mark Crawford of the Bradford County Telegraph reported that Davis was fired after complaining that the mayor had purportedly asked her “to make sexual advances in exchange for positive media coverage of the city.”
The Telegraph said Brannock said during an after-hours meeting between him, his fiancé Faye Mullins and Davis, the city clerk had wondered aloud what she had to do to get some positive media coverage for Hampton.
Brannock told the newspaper that for $20 he could buy a half load of mulch. “…but if his fiancé took that $20 and ‘oils up her ta-tas,’ she could get a full load,” the newspaper said.
In an interview, Brannock said the newspaper didn’t get it right. He said they had been talking about breast cancer survivors — “You know, breast this, breast that” — and Crawford took their comments out of context.
The mayor said the city clerk told Crawford that “Brannock told me to shake my titties” in front of the journalist so he’d write a good story.
Brannock said he never suggested that Davis “show her ta-tas” in exchange for a positive article. He said all he did was jokingly mention that his fiancé could “oil up her ta-tas and get a full load of mulch.”
And that was not sexual harassment, the mayor said.
Davis “made a big hoopla” over the alleged harassment, Brannock said, but was fired because she was disrespectful to customers.
“When she was challenged with anything she would get in a defensive mood,” he said.
In an interview, Davis accused the city council of having “complete disregard for rules and regulations on how you run a town.”
She said she took her job seriously and tried to help residents in any way she could, as long as it was legal.
“When you are in a small place with a limited budget, you figure it out,” she said.
As city clerk, her job was to manage water bills and sign off on meter readings. She started as city clerk on March 10, 2014, and she was fired on March 3. Since she didn’t work a full year, she wasn’t eligible for vacation pay, Council Member Frank Bryant said.
“She only had a part time job, 20 hours a week,” he said.
Bryant said he didn’t know if anyone sexual harassed Davis. He said he assumed they would “discuss it at the appropriate time, when it came.”
But when the time came, and a meeting about the matter began, Bryant said Davis’ side of the story “got blown aside and that was the end of it.”
He voted against firing Davis.
“The mayor had run-in’s with her, and others had run-in’s with her. My only thing was, I didn’t know what the run-in’s were,” he said.
Brannock said Davis didn’t show up when the council met to discuss her performance.
“I did not want to bash Amy,” the mayor said, “and I did the minimum needed to terminate her because she was not there to defend herself.”
Davis said stress from her ordeal had taken a toll on her mental and physical health. She said she had heart trouble after her unexpected firing.
“The city clerk is in a vulnerable position,” she said. “You end up being a one-day obituary, three-day talk session, and yesterday’s news.”
In March, the city began searching for Davis’ replacement.
“We are working with a temp service out of Gainesville to find a new city clerk,” the mayor said. “It takes time.”
The clerk is “pretty much our only employee and they’re responsible for a lot of the day to day,” Cooper said.
Smith said a few missteps are to be expected.
“You can have some stumbles along the way as any city does. Hampton’s just got everybody watching now, so when they stumble it’s like they almost fell.
“It may take them a little longer than most because what they have to work with. They don’t have a lot of money. They got a lot of people that haven’t been involved with government and don’t understand how it works. But they’re learning. They’re educating themselves. They’re trusting some good people that know how to get things done and they’re moving forward.”
The city’s finances are healthy, Cooper said.
“I think our total budget for the year is $150,000 or $140,000 a year. It’s not a lot of money as far as governments go, but it’s more than adequate to do what we need to do there.”
Strangely, the city’s finances suffered during the heyday of ticket-writing.
“That’s the ridiculous part of this whole crisis,” Williams said.
“The revenue that was coming in was disappearing because the police department was spending money like a drunken sailor.”
“They had up-to-date weapons, assault rifles. The city really never got the benefit of the revenue. It went to the police department.”
Cooper said the city was writing $250,000 to $300,000 in traffic tickets per year.
“When I first went in and looked at their budgets and what they were actually spending, we were in the hole about 40 grand a year,” he said.
“It cost us more to maintain that police department than to write all those citations.”
But what if the police department was underreporting revenue?
In 2010 and 2011, for instance, Hampton police reported receiving $419,712.80 in revenue from 12,698 DUIs and traffic fines. That’s just $33.05 per infraction. But many motorists complained of speeding tickets of $191 and higher.
What if the average fine were closer to $100? That would have meant Hampton police in 2010 and 2011 may have actually produced more than $1.2 million, not $419,712.
“You can’t ever tell a police officer, ‘Don’t write somebody a speeding ticket if they are speeding.’ But I’ve always maintained that if the motive for that law enforcement activity is profit, then you are treading on dangerous ground.”
But he doesn’t believe anyone in Hampton was stealing large amounts of money. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is investigating.
“Nobody knows what FDLE is doing right now,” he said. “I know they have a bunch of our records, but I would be really surprised to learn at the end of the day that there is this huge sum of money that somebody took and put in their pocket.
“The word ‘corruption’ was used a lot, and I will tell you in my mind I think it was wrongfully used.”
There may have been “some mismanagement of funds,” but nobody “was padding their pocketbooks or taking a whole bunch of cash home. We were generating a lot of money in traffic citation revenue, but we were spending that money on our police department.”
Barry Moore, the former mayor, received a five-year prison sentence for selling a 30-milligram pill to a sheriff’s informant for $20. He is at the Berrydale Forest Camp, a minimum-security facility in Jay, Fla., just south of the Alabama state line.
Moore told CNN, “They made it sound as if I was running some kind of pill mill right out of my house, which is not the case at all.”
“If I was some kind of drug dealer, I would at least have a car. I ride a bicycle around town. I’m a good guy that got caught up in a bunch of nonsense that was bigger than me.”
In November 2013, WUFT-News at the University of Central Florida reported that someone left a letter claiming to be from the former mayor on the lawn of Curtis Recycling in Hampton.to “all my loyal subjects.”
The letter, addressed to “all my loyal subjects” and described by WUFT as a spoof, said Moore was “a self-taught genuis.”
“I never received much formal education but my skills and abilities stun even me,” the letter stated. “I can of course play the guitar and sing which I believe everyone knows, but also I paint and write poetry.
“…I have heard the derogatory nick names for me like Crack Head Barry or Mayor McCheese, and worst of all Bipolar Barry, well I don’t like them. I prefer Captain Rock or Bongwater Barry either of those are more dignified and have a nice ring to them.”
Moore’s brother, Monte Moore, told WUFT he was “upset that somebody would write that about a member of my family.”
The letter “said some things I wouldn’t write about my worst enemy,” said Moore, adding that his parents raised him and his brother in a Christian home.
Turning the city around has not been easy, Mayor Brannock said.
“Trying to get stuff done for the city is the hardest job I’ve ever had,” he said. “I want to go from the 19th century to the 21st century.”
Sheriff Smith credits the people of Hampton — city officials included — for snatching their town from the brink of disintegration.
“Hampton’s a working class community. Most people there work, come home and try and raise their families. They take pride in their community. The majority of the people are good, hard-working people.”
“They fought City Hall. They fought their big government, the people that were going to wipe the little city off the map and take their charter.”
“They had pride in saying, ‘You know what? You’re not going to take that. We can do better… we’re going to make a difference.’ And they’ve proven it. They’ve really turned things around.”
Speaking out in a big city like Miami or Tampa is easier, the sheriff said.
“I go to City Hall and I can say all those things I want and raise a fit. Majority of the time, I’m never going to see those people again.”
But in Hampton, “you’re going to see those same people at the school, the post office, when you go to the grocery store. You got to look at those same people.”
In some ways, the sheriff said, Hampton reminded him of the 1980s-era Dukes of Hazzard TV show, featuring a corrupt county administrator nicknamed Boss Hogg and a clumsy sheriff.
“Hampton made them look like a bunch of Sunday school teachers. They really did.”
Many residents feared speaking out against the city because workers might turn their water off. Or they’d suddenly get billed for water after coasting along for years without getting a single water bill.
“I had people calling leaving me messages… People begging for help, but couldn’t be outspoken about it because they were in fear of retaliation,” Smith said.
“That’s the reason we went to the auditing committee in Tallahassee to get the audit. We knew if we could get the audit, the money would lead us to where we needed to go.”
The audit found that some Hampton police officers were certified and others weren’t.
“It was a mess,” Smith said. “They were writing tickets outside their jurisdiction. They were doing things that was just beyond belief. It shocked the conscience of the average person.”
Hampton had 19 police officers — one for every 26 residents.
The sheriff said when he asked for the names of the officers, Hodges, the police chief, gave him a hand-written piece of paper identifying only four of them. Hodges refused to name the others, saying they were undercover or had special assignments.
“You had people out there writing tickets that were not certified police officers,” Smith said. “They may have completed the academy, but their paperwork wasn’t finished. They didn’t have the correct training, didn’t have radar certification.”
Smith said he eventually blocked Hampton officers’ access to National Criminal Information Center records because he worried that uncertified officers had access to unauthorized information.
“I said you have no access to the system…You can’t have access to that system unless you are a sworn law enforcement officer meeting all the requirements of the state of Florida.”
Smith said as he figures it, Hodges was “outright raping the public” using “his own personal army.”
“You can’t rape the public,” the sheriff said. “I don’t know what his justification was. I’ve yet to understand that and never really understood it. I’ve tried to ask him. He really just trampled on the rights of the citizens in Hampton. …I’ll never understand that… I can’t put it into words.”
Investigators hauled away boxes of papers from the tin-roofed Hampton City Hall in 2014, but some of the evidence was already gone. As one story goes, documents were lost after an employee — the son of former City Clerk Jane Hall — had a car accident.
The documents were purportedly on the front seat when his vehicle was “t-boned” into a swamp. As one former employee described it, both Hall and her son were dismissed after the episode because the City Council suspected they may have destroyed the documents on purpose.
Investigators had to remove the door from the former police chief’s office to get inside. What they found is not yet know.
Hodges isn’t talking about the matter.
An opinion piece posted on his Facebook page provided an intriguing possible clue about his thinking. It argued that the speed trap in the neighboring town of Waldo was an attempt to “calm” traffic and preserve the quality of life.
Gainesville Sun columnist Ron Cunningham wrote:
“A speed trap — i.e. ticketing too many people who drive too fast — is a bad thing because it is ‘cash register justice.’ And Waldo has now been duly punished for its bad behavior by having to surrender its police department.
“And lest any other city be tempted to follow Waldo’s bad example, the Florida Legislature is getting ready to outlaw speed traps.
“By putting a quota on ticket quotas.”
“Oh, communities will still be free to ticket speeders, but only up to a certain point. That point being when ticket revenues exceed one-third of a police department’s budget.
“Then a city is no longer enforcing the law and saving lives. It’s engaging in cash register justice.”
Cunningham also wrote that it was no coincidence that Waldo was a poor community. He said the once-thriving railroad town was virtually destroyed by the construction of U.S. Highway 301, which made it unnecessary for travelers to stop in Waldo, killing its downtown business district.
The same railroad runs through Hampton, which during better days was the Bradford County seat.
But Sheriff Smith said neither history nor economic need justified the Hampton speed trap.
He said the police chief claimed he stopped speeders along Highway 301 to boost traffic safety, yet “the only two wrecks on that 300- or 400-foot stretch of highway involved his patrol cars…it wasn’t anybody else.”
“He felt he could do whatever he wanted to and didn’t have to be held accountable to the people.”
Smith declined to speculate on whether Hodges may be charged with a crime.
“I can neither deny nor confirm along those lines. It’s still under investigation so I’m really not allowed to speculate in regards to it.
“All I can say is each person makes choices in life and we have to live with the choices that we make and everyone must be accountable to the people that they serve and one day he’s going to be held accountable.
“If he did wrong, he’ll have to pay the price or answer to a jury of his peers.
“With that being said, I only wish him the best I’m glad that the problem has been able to be resolved and Hampton’s much better off without him.”
About this report
Flagler College journalism students Michael Gaither, Murphy Stidham, Montana Samuels, Taylor Long, Memory Camero and Susan Boswell produced this project during the spring semester of 2015. Will Sandman also contributed photos.
The students describe their experiences in the video below.
(See longer 10-minute version of video here).
Gaither interviewed Sheriff Gordon Smith, City Attorney John Cooper and City Council members Crystal Turner and Mike Armes. He also produced a news package, below.
Stidham interviewed Mayor Gene Brannock, former City Clerk Amy Davis and City Council Member Frank Bryant.
Montana Samuels interviewed Council Member Dan Williams, audit supervisor Michael Gomez and audit team leader Anita Marlowe.
Taylor Long, Memory Camero and Susan Boswell spoke to parents, teachers and school officials.
Flagler College journalism professor Tracey Eaton edited the project.
Accuracy is important to us. Please send any comments, corrections or clarifications to firstname.lastname@example.org.