Part 3: Sheriff Grady Judd Has Faced Controversies, Protected Children

The Ledger

Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd’s career has had its share of controversies that made him a sometimes polarizing figure. One sticking point with some residents has been his adamant opposition to equipping his deputies or their patrol cars with cameras, saying it’s an invasion of privacy, costs too much, and that most people in the general public have a camera on their phone to record law enforcement interactions.

Judd said the cost to outfit his deputies would be between $4 million to $6 million a year. He said he came to that figure from Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gaultieri, who spends about $5 million a year for the lease, storage and maintenance of footage and the labor to fulfill public records requests for an agency similar in size to Polk County.


LkldNow is looking at the career of Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who is celebrating 50 years at the Sheriff’s Office and his 50th wedding anniversary. This is Part 3 of a five-part series.


“As far as body cameras, it’s the same answer I’ve given you all along. Look through your old notes,” Judd said. “I never say never. It’s a privacy issue. The government does not have a right to put a camera on a law enforcement officer while you’re interacting with them. Everyone with a cell phone has a camera pointed at us and take all the video you want.”

In fact, Judd said investigators looking into a fatal motorcycle accident he rushed to late in the afternoon of July 6 involving undercover sheriff’s deputies, would be asking neighbors at the corner of Berkley Road and Oak Crossing Boulevard for any doorbell camera video of the accident.

Judd was briefed at the scene by Capt. Dina Russell of the Criminal Investigations Division. She told Judd that the motorcycle driver, later identified as 50-year-old Michael Hamilton of Lakeland, fled from undercover agents who had tried to pull him over at Old Dixie Highway and Berkley Road for a license tag registration that did not match the motorcycle.

Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd peers at two bodies in the back of a minivan on July 6.

When Hamilton turned onto Berkely Road and began speeding along the residential street at about 4 in the afternoon, the deputy turned off his lights and sirens and stopped the pursuit because it was too dangerous, Judd said.

“We disengaged — it’s a residential area,” Judd said. “They keep running because they think you’re coming. The experienced runners know you’re trying to put somebody in front of them to stop them. We’ll pull all the video – it’s a nice neighborhood. There will be doorbell cameras and it will confirm what our deputies and witnesses said.”


GRADY JUDD: 50 YEARS IN LAW ENFORCEMENT

  • Part 1: Early days — as a young child, he knew he wanted to be sheriff
  • Part 2: Closing adult businesses, assessing previous sheriffs, bolstering leadership
  • Part 3: Controversies: body cams, juvenile detention. Priority one: protect children
  • Part 4: Becoming a national figure; coping with deputy deaths
  • Part 5: Celebrating another anniversary: 50 years of marriage

PCSO officials later said Hamilton had been convicted twice of fleeing to elude law enforcement officers. His driver’s license was revoked and he had no motorcycle endorsement.

Witnesses said the motorcycle passed them at a high rate of speed, so fast that a 79-year-old woman trying to turn left onto Berkley Road didn’t see it coming. Hamilton slammed into the sliding side door of the woman’s minivan, crushing the door and launching Hamilton into the first row of back seats and his passenger, 46-year-old Jeana Wright of Auburndale, into the last row of back seats.  Both died instantly in the minivan, the crumpled motorcycle bouncing back at least 15 feet from the force of the impact.

Judd walked around the minivan, peering inside at the remains and talking to the deputies involved.

“They lost their lives for no reason – nothing he did would warrant them dying,” Judd said.

The Ledger Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd in the early 2000s.

Juvenile Detention

Another controversial chapter in Judd’s career was when he took over local juvenile inmates from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. 

Judd said the state was overcharging the county to house juvenile suspects and prisoners. He went to then-state Sen. J.D. Alexander and got him to slip in legislation that, for the first time in Florida history, allowed county jails to house juveniles. It passed in 2011.

“He put that legislation in at the 11th hour to keep the fight down for it to be successful. The governor called and said ‘Is this a good thing?’” Judd said. “I’ve saved local taxpayers over $12 million” total since 2011.

Before the juveniles were moved to a wing in the adult facility, the Southern Poverty Law Center threatened to sue, which it did in 2012 on behalf of eight juveniles. SPLC said a juvenile defendant was beaten unconscious during a hazing incident among other juveniles. SPLC said the juvenile inmates were treated cruelly by routinely being pepper-sprayed, were put in “cages” when on suicide watch, made to strip in front of other inmates to put on a suicide-prevention suit, and were not adequately protected from fights.

A judge acknowledged that most of the juveniles in custody were violent offenders, charged with the most serious crimes, including some charged with the use of firearms during felonies.

The case took three years to wind its way through the court system, with U.S. District Judge Steven D. Merryday eventually issuing a 182-page finding that not only exonerated the Sheriff’s Office, it took the SPLC to task for failing to prove any point of its case, saying these were not routine incidents and the Sheriff’s Office worked to prevent violence among the inmates and use of force by the detention deputies.

“During the approximately two years at issue in this action, no juvenile died; only two hospital cases occurred, each treated promptly; and no evidence exists of any serious harm to anyone or any substantial risk of serious harm to anyone owing to any policy or practice or any deliberate indifference to that policy or practice by the Sheriff or Corizon,” Merryday wrote, referring to the healthcare company that provides treatment for the juveniles. “The plaintiffs completely failed to prove that the mental health care at (Central County Jail) amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Neither these examples nor the balance of the record constitutes a recurrent and widespread pattern or practice of deliberate indifference to detainees’ serious medical needs.  No harm resulted and no substantial risk of serious harm occurred.”

Judd said he moved the juveniles from an aging facility to the Central County Jail, where his guards have 900 hours of training and the juveniles have access 24/7 to medical personnel. He described the DJJ facility as a wreck, where the guards were stealing from the juveniles and each other.

“I offered to hire 100% of these people — only half applied,” Judd said. “Three passed the background check.”

Not only did he prevail in that case, he sued SPLC for legal fees and won.

One of the people involved in that incident was Jail Maj. Kim Marcum. On July 6, the day a LkldNow reporter shadowed Judd, he stopped by her retirement celebration at the jail.  Dozens of Marcum’s employees and colleagues packed into a large meeting room to wish her well. She and Judd hugged as he made his way down a crowded hallway.  He presented her with a framed collection of all the badges, ribbons and medals she has earned in her 26-year career with the Sheriff’s Office. 

Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd presents Maj. Kim Marcum with a framed set of her badges, ribbons and awards at her retirement celebration on July 6, 2022.

“It’s a very bittersweet day for me. I started here at 22 years old. It’s all I know,” Marcum said, adding that she came up with a word to describe the day. “Legacy. It’s not the words on that plaque or the ribbons. It’s people. When you start thinking about all the people you are not going to see every day … I love this agency.”

Pedophile arrests and sex stings

Taking care of juveniles has become a hallmark for Judd. About three or four times a year, his undercover unit arrests multiple people for traveling to meet for sex with someone they thought was a minor, but were, in fact, undercover investigators.

Those sting operations have earned him the applause of Polk residents, both liberal and conservative.

Judd said he has worked thousands of cases, but when asked if one incident in particular stood out in his mind as to why he routinely targets pedophiles, he recalled the case of a girl who went missing in the late 1970s.

“There was a 14-year-old stepbrother to a little girl who was four or five,” Judd said, describing the teen as fully grown. “He raped her. After he raped her, he took her little bathing suit top and strangled her. He was helping us look for her. I still see that baby to this day. There are things in this career you can’t un-see. I have this burning passion to protect children. That’s just one of many cases. I think any of the cases where a child was victimized is horrific.”

Judd worked with then Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Kathryn Leroy to contract with PCSO for a sheriff’s captain to run the district’s school security program. Judd then created the Division of Safe Schools, which expanded the program to supervise all school resource officers and crossing guards, which then encompassed deputies, police officers, crossing guards and now guardians and sentinels. Judd also had a major in his office oversee security at Polk colleges and universities, in addition to the captain overseeing all primary and secondary schools.

“Protecting the children is my No. 1 top priority, period. They don’t have any choice over who they’re with, what food they eat, what clothes they wear, where they’re going,” Judd said. “That is a huge responsibility and I take that seriously.”

Judd was visibly upset and angry during a May news conference when talking about the starvation death of a Davenport girl about the age of two of his own grandchildren.  The girl was born in July 2019 weighing six pounds, 10 ounces. She weighed only nine pounds at 34 months old when she died. Judd said she should have weighed 32 pounds.

“Basically, it was just bones and skin,” Judd said. “I’ve got a two-year-old grandchild and a three-year-old grandchild that are thriving and happy and climbing all over us when they’re with us. And this child couldn’t talk, couldn’t walk, couldn’t communicate. If you don’t want your child, take it to a hospital, to a fire station, to anyone and say take my child in — I’m done.  Don’t starve the child.  It is unbelievable what we saw. The child suffered long-term starvation.”

The couple, 57-year-old Regis Johnson and 35-year-old Arhonda Tillman were initially charged on May 11 with negligent child abuse causing great harm. The charge allowed the sheriff to keep the pair in jail while detectives continued their investigation. Judd said they would be actively working to file the maximum charges allowable.  On May 27, Polk County Clerk of Courts records show, charges were upgraded to first-degree murder. Those records also show that the Florida Department of Children and Families has filed an objection to subpoenas requesting Tillman’s state financial benefits, medical records and Kidcare records, saying they are “confidential,” even though exceptions are made in criminal investigations.

R. Kelly arrest

As a colonel, Judd also went after Robert Sylvester Kelly, the “I Believe I Can Fly” singer known as R. Kelly. But he is one suspect who got away from Judd.

Sheriff’s Office detectives charged him with 12 counts of possession of child pornography in January 2003. A Ledger article shows detectives found 12 photographs of a nude girl and photos of Kelly engaged in sex with a girl younger than 18 years old on a digital camera in a home he and band members rented in Davenport. They searched the home after Kelly faced similar charges in Illinois.

The Ledger Judd explaining the child porn charges against R. Kelly in 2003.

But the next year, the State Attorney’s Office was forced to drop the charges after Judge Dennis Maloney ruled that the Polk County Sheriff’s Office obtained a warrant to search Kelly’s Davenport home for drugs, so the evidence — the photographs — would be inadmissible in court. Maloney agreed with Kelly’s lawyers that deputies had not presented enough evidence to get a second search warrant for child pornography.

“The judge ruled against us, thus eliminating the evidence, making it impossible for the case to move forward,” Judd said about the 2004 dismissal.

According to multiple law enforcement agencies and the BBC, there is a long list of issues with Kelly sexually pursuing and raping teenage girls, starting in 1991 when a woman said he began raping her when she was 15 and he was 24. She sued and settled out of court. In 1994 Kelly, then aged 27, wed 15-year-old singer Aaliyah at a secret ceremony in Chicago. Kelly wrote and produced Aaliyah’s debut album, which he titled “Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number.”

According to court documents, Kelly continued to rape girls after the charges were dropped in Polk County in 2004. Last September, Kelly was convicted in federal court of racketeering activity that included “sexual exploitation of children, forced labor and Mann Act violations involving the coercion and transportation of women and girls in interstate commerce to engage in illegal sexual activity.” In June, he was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.

Grateful arrestees

Occasionally, Judd runs into someone he or the agency has arrested and they tell him how they thankful they are.

On July 6, John Szydlowski, 65, and a colleague from his church met with Judd about how to help people who are addicted to sex and/or pornography and might have been convicted of crimes associated with that. Szydlowski told Judd he was one of them, arrested for soliciting an adult prostitute about a decade ago.

“My desire to talk to you is almost 10 years in the making,” Szydlowski said. “I was arrested in a sting operation and it took that to change me. I was deeply mired in addiction and it took you guys. When I got out, I went to church, got saved, married a good woman, got a job. It was only one night (in jail), but I had some very serious consequences for my life. I lost my job and lost my marriage.”

Judd told Szydlowski that it was meaningful for him to hear his story and receive his gratitude.

“We’re not trying to be mean and awful,” Judd said. “We’re trying to make sure people are safe and children are safe.”

Szydlowski told Judd about Samson Society International Ministry, an organization to help men recover, mainly from sexual addictions. He also asked Judd about the legal ramifications from allowing men in their church who had been convicted of sex crimes against children.

“I think you have to look at the individual and the seriousness and I think you have to look at the rules,” Judd said. “I think that the minister needs to know who these folks are. If there was an opportunity there, as a Sunday school teacher, and you know, then they’re back in an environment where they could relapse. But the church is for sinners. They need this. They need the right church with the right minister, but you cannot be naive. You’re never cured.”

Judd said he spends a lot of time worrying about and training his deputies to keep children safe.

“You don’t send your child to school to be hurt physically or emotionally. We divert a lot of childish behavior that stays in the school,” Judd said. “The students that come to school mean, are prolific, or totally out of control, we’re going to protect the rest of the students. The overwhelming majority of these teachers and staff go there every day to make a difference in these kids’ lives. I’m a product of this school system.”

And, he notes, his development of the sentinel program was long before the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

On Feb. 14, 2018, a 19-year-old gunman entered unimpeded into his former south Florida high school — Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland — and shot to death 14 students and three educators. 

It quickly became clear that there had been a massive failure on the part of federal, state and local law enforcement, along with social services, private mental health counselors, and the school system, to stop the gunman in the years before he returned to his campus or on that day when administrators spotted him heading to a multi-story building with a gun case.

Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson, the school’s resource officer, was widely criticized after he failed to enter the building to confront the gunman. He took cover outside for 45 minutes while the gunman fired round after round. The gunman then fled with students as they evacuated the campus.

Judd was tapped to serve on a commission to study what went wrong.

“One of the most meaningful assignments I’ve ever been allowed to do as a sheriff is to be on the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Commission, to investigate that shooting and to come up with systems and processes and recommendations with my colleagues, to do everything we can to reduce the probabilities of that ever happening again,” Judd said. “And despite all the horrific testimony, the very last school district to come in compliance with the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Law was Broward County. How could that be? How can that be?”

Judd studied the video of the students being systematically picked off in the hallway or stairwells. He also studied documentation of years of mental health counselor interaction with the gunman. That documentation, included in public grand jury reports, contains the fact that the gunman had exhibited violent behavior as early as 3 years old. By the time of the shooting, there were 69 documented incidents in which he threatened someone. The Broward Sheriff’s Office had 43 contacts with his family prior to February 2018 – of those 21 were for him alone. The gunman also had 55 discipline referrals at Broward County schools. 

Judd spent considerable time in Tallahassee following the shooting to lobby for what became the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Act. Part of it mirrors what Judd did in Polk County, with a dozen hours of training added to Judd’s Sentinel Program and made it the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program.” It also allows law enforcement officials to confiscate guns from people who are in a mental health crisis or who have made a credible threat to others.

Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd with his command staff during a morning meeting on July 6, 2022.

During a senior staff meeting on July 6th, Judd asked how active shooter drills were going at local schools, which are out for the summer.

“How long does it take them to run to their car and get their stuff?” Judd asked about deputies retrieving their tactical gear.

On July 6, Judd swore in a sentinel for a local charter school. After the brief ceremony, Judd shook his hand.

“You know what to do if a bad guy comes on campus? Run out there and shoot him a lot,” Judd said in all seriousness.

His comment came just a few weeks after Uvalde, Texas, police lingered in a hallway for about an hour as a gunman continued to kill 19 children and two teachers in two nearby classrooms at Robb Elementary School.


Next
Part 4: Grady Judd becomes a national figure


Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the rank of Maj. Kim Marcum.

Kimberly C. Moore is an award-winning reporter and a Lakeland native.  She can be reached at [email protected]