PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — An ongoing investigation into a Bay County Sheriff’s deputy is already being felt in the court system.
On Tuesday morning three defendants were brought before Judge Shonna Gay and given the option to vacate either their convictions or their plea deals.
The unusual situation began with an investigation by local defense attorneys Rusty Shepard and Bill Gunter into a Bay County Sheriff’s deputy. The pair uncovered that a deputy allegedly lied on the stand about the status of a confidential informant. He also allegedly lied on a search warrant.
“Under Florida statute, there’s a vetting process. They’re required to have some very specific rules when they intend to use citizens as a tool of law enforcement,” Shepard said. “There are some very specific things that they have to do to ensure the safety of the informant as well as the truth and credibility of what they’re saying.”
10 cases, including some with major drug trafficking charges, were connected to Bay County Deputy Erin Williams.
Florida’s laws over confidential informants have been strict for more than a decade. The law is named after Rachel Hoffman a college student and Tallahassee police informant who was killed in a botched drug sting. It is meant to protect police informants. But it is also meant to protect the public from unreasonable searches by law enforcement.
“Your home is your castle,” Shepard said, adding that officers are not supposed to search a home without proper probable cause
Another issue raised by a separate defense attorney in this matter was whether or not the State Attorney’s Office moved forward with at least one trial even though information about William’s alleged conduct had already come to light.
State Attorney Larry Basford said in a statement to News 13 that did not happen.
“At the time of trial, our office was unaware that this deputy failed to disclose the use of an unregistered confidential informant,” Basford wrote. “On August 18, we learned this informant was used in 10 cases. As a result, we reviewed all cases involving this informant and filed motions to vacate sentences in six cases. Three other cases have already been dismissed. One case is pending and continues to be under review.”
The investigation into Williams turned up even more issues. In December of 2022, he was suspended for 40 hours, placed on disciplinary probation, and removed from the Special Investigations Division, the SWAT team, and the US Marshals Task Force.
Williams, who worked in drug investigations, had drug evidence at his desk and had not submitted it properly into evidentiary storage, according to documents obtained by News 13.
Other local defense attorneys connected to these cases say the internal investigation raises questions about Williams’s handling of evidence. The concern now, is whether evidence found on defendants arrested by Williams can be trusted.
Research into the cases shows that Jessie Patrick and Kenneth Taylor took plea deals on trafficking in amphetamine charges. Those plea deals are now vacated. Drug trafficking charges against Ellery Dobbins, Mark Elking, Kristopher Swan, Amber Fry, and Terandell Coleman were dropped.
Steven Stottlemyer had been sentenced to 25 years in prison after being found guilty at trial for 18 felony counts of trafficking, possession of a firearm, and possession of meth. But his trial and sentence were vacated Tuesday morning. His case was returned to the court system and his fate is not yet decided.
Though the Stottlemyer case has not yet been dismissed it is unclear how the State Attorney’s Office will move forward if the investigation is now tainted.
It also remains unclear if any other cases will be impacted by the investigation into Williams.
Bay County Sheriff’s officials said Tuesday that Williams is on administrative leave and under an internal investigation. They added that Florida law, specifically the section known as the Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights, prevents the agency from talking about Williams until the internal investigation is concluded.