Broward County sheriff defends keeping childhood shooting a secret

The Florida sheriff appointed by the governor after the 2018 Parkland high school massacre is defending himself over allegations that he should have disclosed he fatally shot another teenager when he was 14 in Philadelphia.

Broward County Sheriff Gregory Tony told reporters over the weekend that he didn’t see the need to disclose the 1993 killing to Gov. Ron DeSantis or on other applications during his law enforcement career because he was a juvenile and he was cleared because it was self-defense.

The shooting came to light Saturday in an article published by the Florida Bulldog website and further roiled the August Democratic primary race between Tony and the fired sheriff he replaced, Scott Israel.

DeSantis, days after he took office, fired Israel in January 2019 because of the sheriff’s office’s mishandling of the Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre that left 17 dead and replaced him with the little-known Tony. The former Coral Springs sergeant had quit that department in 2016 to operate a consulting firm that specialized in active shooter training. The two former Republicans are the leading candidates in the primary that will likely decide the race in the heavily Democratic county.

“It was chaos. It was frightening. The most horrific thing I ever experienced,” Tony told the Miami Herald about the shooting. “For this to be used by a political opponent to turn me into a 14-year-old black kid with a gun, we’re on a dangerous precedent here.”

The shooting happened at the Tony family home in the Badlands neighborhood of Philadelphia, an area known for its violence and open air drug dealing.

Tony told reporters over the weekend that the shooting happened after an argument he and his brother had with 18-year-old Hector Rodriguez, a drug dealer with a criminal record.

Newspaper accounts from that time say the shooting happened on the street, but Tony told reporters Rodriguez pulled a gun and chased him and his brother into the house. Tony said he retrieved his father’s handgun and shot Rodriguez several times in self-defense.

“Fortunately he didn’t shoot me and my brother,” Tony told the Herald. He said he couldn’t explain discrepancies between his version and contemporary newspaper accounts, but told the Herald, ”at the end of the day no one was there to witness this horrific event take place or any accurate accounts. I wish there was some type of record.”

After Tony’s exoneration, the juvenile court records were sealed and his then-attorney said he didn’t have files from 27 years ago.

Tony left Philadelphia after high school for Florida, eventually playing football at Florida State University, where he graduated with a degree in criminology. He was then hired by Coral Springs police in 2005.

Tony defended his decision not to inform DeSantis or Coral Springs about the shooting. The Coral Springs employment questionnaire asked several times if he had ever been arrested, charged with a crime or received a notice to appear. Tony answered no.

“There’s nothing that I had ever done that was a crime,” Tony told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “Do you walk into an interview and express being a 14-year-old victim or do you go in and speak on the 27 years of professionalism that you’ve established?”

The shooting’s disclosure came weeks after the union representing Broward street deputies voted “no confidence” in Tony after he suspended its president. Jeff Bell had written a newspaper column criticizing the sheriff’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak after the death of a deputy from the disease.

Bell told the Herald that Tony should have disclosed the shooting to Coral Springs and DeSantis.

“To take somebody’s life, whether justified or not, you’re still under investigation for a criminal charge. You can’t get around saying I was never arrested,” Bell said.

When questioned about Tony during a news conference Monday evening, DeSantis said that his office performed a background check on Tony before his appointment, but nothing showed up because the shooting was ruled self-defense and Tony was never charged.

DeSantis said he didn’t know Tony personally when he made the appointment but liked Tony’s background and law enforcement experience. DeSantis said the feedback he’s heard about Tony from Broward County residents has been mostly positive and pointed out that voters will have a chance to keep or replace Tony in this year’s election.

“That’s ultimately a decision that the people in Broward can make,” DeSantis said. “It’s not going to be anything I’m going to be getting involved in.”